Novel Excerpt


   by Mary Maddox

[Darkroom, a novel of suspense, begins with the brutal murders of Kelly Durrell’s family by an ex-boyfriend from her high school days.  Blinded by guilt and grief, Kelly becomes inextricably drawn to a charming drug dealer and sexual sadist and struggles to break the fatal pattern before it destroys her.  The novel’s prologue relates the murders from the perspective of the killer.--M.M.]


“If you get us lost, Troy, I’m gonna kick your butt.”  Murdoch’s threat came growling through the carburetor flutter of the beat-up Buick Century and the crunch of rock beneath its tires. 

“I been cruising these roads all my life,” Troy said.  “Just keep driving.” 

The car’s headlights spread over the narrow county road cutting between fields of high tasseled corn making their freaky rustle as the wind stirred through them.  Off east, the sky was tinged pink and silver, the first sliver of dawn.  But that was okay.  Five more minutes and they’d be at Jack Durrell’s.

Marla belched out smoke in the backseat.  “Why are we sneaking back through here anyway?  What you scared of, chickenshit?”

Dumb bitch.  Trying to build herself up by trashing him.  Old Durrell had probably forgot about the money he owed Troy.  He’d need reminding and Troy couldn’t deal with people when he was tweaking.  Knee jittering up and down.  Stomach flip-flopping.  Riding the crystal he’d shot a couple hours ago.  He ought to be able to control it better than that.  “Gimme the pipe.”       “I ain’t done.”

“Yes you are.”  He pulled the handle releasing his seat back, and as it lurched down, twisted and lunged at Marla before she knew what was happening.  He grabbed her hand that was holding the pipe and crushed it until she squealed.

“You burned me!  Asshole!”

It was the hot metal pipe that burned her, not him.  Teach her to do what she was told, Troy thought, snapping his seat upright again.  He tamped more weed into the bowl.  His knee was behaving itself now, his hands steady at their task with the lighter.

“It’s gonna blister,” she whined.

“Shut your mouth,” Murdoch said wearily.  He accepted the pipe from Troy and eased up on the gas while he took the hit.  The Buick slowed to a crawl.

“Keep going.  It’s almost light out.  I wanna talk to Durrell before his old lady wakes up.”

Leaning back hard against the headrest, Murdoch exhaled.  “So how much is he into you for?”

“Three bills.”

“You give him credit?  All the way out here?”

“It’s my hometown, Murdoch.”   It was too complicated explaining Jack Durrell wasn’t a customer, just a farmer Troy used to work for doing odd jobs.  The last time, repainting a pole barn, Troy had blown off work three days in a row and been too embarrassed to go back and ask the old man for his final paycheck.  Now he needed the money.   He owed some bad people.

Murdoch braked when they came to the blacktop.  ”Which way we going?”

“Left.”  The blacktop was a quicker route to Durrell’s place from Decatur, but it would be safer if Troy wasn’t seen around there.  Half a mile down the highway he pointed Murdoch onto another back road.  “See the gray house off to the right?  That’s the one.  Just stop there in front, don’t turn in the driveway.”  He stooped over and grabbed the knife off the car floor, a ten-inch carving knife like you’d use on the turkey at Thanksgiving.  He’d borrowed it from a drawer in Marla’s kitchen, just in case things went bad.  A rush of fear and excitement supercharged with Methedrine rolled down his spine and buzzed his toes and fingertips.  His mouth felt like dry leather.  He was getting worked up over nothing.  Durrell was a reasonable old dude.

He hid the knife inside his jacket.  He had to keep hold of it.  The blade was too long and nasty to be stuck in the waistband of his jeans or underneath the pant leg.  Troy guessed he looked normal, like he was hugging himself to stay warm.  He jogged through the dewy cropped grass.  The homemade swing where Durrell’s daughters used to play was still hanging from the giant burr oak near the porch.  The older daughter, Kelly, was his age.  They’d dated a couple times in high school.  Daddy’s little girl.  She got her rocks off slumming with the likes of him, but when Troy wanted a little something back, the bitch shut him down.  She wasn’t about to gamble her ticket on the gravy train.  Come graduation, he’d gone on to scrounge the temp agencies for factory work while she was living the sweet life at the University of Illinois.  The last he heard, she’d moved out west. 

The porch looked fresh painted.  It used to be gray like the house, but now it was white with marine blue trim.  Troy felt sorry for whoever Durrell had hired to paint the porch.  A brush wasn’t squeaky clean or a drop of trim paint splattered on the siding, the persnickety old bastard made you do it over.

He knocked softly rather than ring the bell and risk waking up the old lady.  She never had liked him.  He could tell by the way her gaze snagged in a frown whenever she happened to look in his direction.  No one answered the knock.  He wondered if Durrell slept late now he was retired, or maybe no one was home.  But two cars and a pickup were parked outside the big detached garage.  His knee had started jittering again, his foot tap-tapping on the wood planks like a musician keeping time to a tune.  But there was no music in his head.  Just the creak of a loose piece of gutter the painter forgot to nail down.  How could Durrell let that go? 

As he thought about breaking a window Troy heard footsteps behind the door.  Then it opened and Durrell stared out in shock.  He took several seconds to recognize the stranger on his porch.  “Troy Elder?  What’s wrong, son?”  There was no accusation in his question.  Just deep concern.  Troy knew right then it was useless to mention the paycheck, he wouldn’t get any money by looking wasted.

A coffee and bacon smell drifted all the way from the kitchen.  Or from Durrell’s body.  He needed to say something, words to cancel out the bad impression he’d somehow made.  Then Durrell whispered, “Oh my God.”  He stared at the big steel blade pointing at him.  Troy was just as shocked.  He hadn’t meant to show the knife.

There was a faint click as light shifted in the old man’s eyes.  He already had hold of the door, and he was about to slam it shut.

Troy slammed against him first and drove the blade into his pouchy stomach.  A knife through butter, like Grandma used to say.  He giggled as the bald head lolled against his shoulder.  He gripped the knife with both hands and cranked it a good ninety degrees before the handle got too slippery with blood.  Durrell slumped against him, bleating in his ear like a stuck pig.  He caught the old man by the armpits and eased him down to the floor, onto his back, one leg straight and the other bent outward at a cockeyed angle.  Blood pulsed in dark sheets from his cored-out stomach.  From his crotch to his chest was one gory mess.  Breath stuttered from his hanging mouth.  His eyes bulged from their sockets.  

“You owe me three hundred bucks.”  Since the old dude was conscious, Troy wanted him to understand.  You wasn’t meaning to kill anybody, but then he went and seen the knife.  Shit luck for everyone involved.  Checking through his pockets like a retard.  Like he’d be carrying his wallet first thing in the morning.  That wallet was probably upstairs in the bedroom, two inches from where the old lady was sleeping.

His hands slick with blood, Troy used his shirttail to grip the knife handle while he pulled it out.  Blood gushed from the wound, but not that much.  It was practically bled out.  Sewer gas from Durrell’s guts, or maybe just the sudden change of position made him dizzy.  He braced himself against the floor until he felt like he could stand up.  Durrell began to gurgle like a drain clearing out.  Life draining out of him, just like that.  You never meant for it to happen.

He guessed the carpet on the stairs muffled his footsteps.  With his own hound-dog panting exploding against the insides of his skull, he couldn’t be sure.  He halted on the next to top stair and peered into the dim upstairs hall.  He saw five doors.  One to the bathroom, open.  Another so narrow it had to be a closet.  Three bedroom doors, all shut.  Guiding himself along a wall that crawled with shadowy flower patterns, he moved left to the nearest door, turned the knob nice and slow, gave the door a push and let it creep open.  He squeezed inside.  Mrs. Durrell was lumped in the bed, snoring away.

Troy realized he was clenching his teeth so hard his jaw ached.  His whole body was trembling, not just muscles but every layer from bone to skin vibrating at different frequencies.  The aftershock of killing Durrell, just now hitting.  You got to get through this.  Be strong.  He unlocked his lungs and let his breath come streaming out.  He padded to her bedside and looked at the knife in his shaky hand, the blade covered with Durrell’s blood.  Cut her throat before she wakes up and sees.  Curled on her side, facing the other way, she wasn’t giving him a clean slice of her throat.  Troy squinted at the stiff old-lady curls, dented where she’d slept on them.

Grab her by the hair.

He wrenched her head around, torquing her neck and stretching her throat for the blade.  Her eyes popped open in surprise.  They glistened like pools of mucus in her wrinkled face.  He brought the knife down hard, chopping, then sawing back and forth like cutting off a slice of roast.  A geyser of blood sprayed his face.  He was blinded by her blood.  He tasted its salt on his lips and felt a stab of panic.  He tried wiping his eyes on her sheets, but it didn’t do much good.  The sheets were also soaked with blood.  He groped the bed until he found a dry spot, a ruffle at the bottom, and knuckled the cloth into his gluey eyes.  He glanced at the head lolling on the pillow, attached to the body by a few pathetic threads of muscle and skin.  He couldn’t let himself think.

Grab the wallet and get out.  

It was on the dresser, just like Troy figured.  His hands were shaking so he could hardly stick his finger in the wallet’s flap to see how much money was there.  A fifty-dollar bill and a few ones.  It was something, anyway.  He stuck the wallet in his jeans pocket.  He decided the best plan would be to toss the knife in Lake Decatur, but he knew Murdoch wouldn’t drive there.  Murdoch would be pissed off.  Instead Troy used the bed ruffle to wipe the knife clean of fingerprints and left it there on the carpet, in plain sight.  Fuck it, why not

He stumbled to the bedroom door and froze.  A girl stood in the doorway opposite.  Beth Durrell, the younger daughter.  What’s she doing here?  Her expression like nothing he’d ever seen, mouth and eyes yawning like her face was screaming “OOOOO!” without a sound.  Like the echo of her mother’s face when her eyes opened just before he cut her throat.

He lunged across the hall and brought her down.  He put all his strength behind the tackle and was amazed how her body yielded to his shoulder.  As she squirmed beneath him, shrieking and hollering and kicking her heels against the floor, he felt powerful and empty of regret.  It was like a hundred-pound weight lifted off his chest.  He reared up and slugged her in the mouth.  His knuckles were bleeding.  His own blood this time.  From the bitch’s teeth.  He slugged her again, then swung his arm up and around and slugged her again in the face.  Again and again.  Somewhere along the line, she quit her screaming and squirming around.  Eyes squeezed shut, he tuned out everything but the thudding of his fist as he pounded her face out of existence.

Daddy’s little girl, too good to make it with me.  What you think about me now, bitch? 

His fist was throbbing.  Worried that bones could be broken, he finally stopped.  He straddled the daughter while his lungs heaved air.  He tried not to see her pulped face, but somehow it kept seeping into his vision.  Her own fault.  The bitch wasn’t supposed to be here.  He shoved himself to the bed, grabbed a quilt by the edge and dragged it across her body.

His legs felt rubbery going downstairs.  But it was over and done.  He was out the door.  Another hour and they’d be back in Decatur and he’d be taking a shower at Marla’s.  Better make it a bath and clean under your nails.  And burn these clothes.  He was sure he’d seen a burning barrel in her backyard.  He detoured around Durrell’s body to reach the front door, which was partway open, and stepped out on the porch.  The sun was coming up.  Its brightness scratched his eyes, and he closed his stiff eyelids a second.  The Buick’s engine turned over and the out-of-tune carburetor sputtered into a coarse hum.  Murdoch was always in a hurry. 

Troy trotted across the lawn.  He couldn’t run any faster on the wet grass.  Halfway to the car he heard a shrill, fuzzy noise.  Marla screaming at him.  He paid no attention.  Yanked open the passenger door and flopped down on the seat.  Murdoch was shouting too as he lunged across him and pulled the door shut.  Can’t understand a fucking word they’re saying.  He was giggling like a maniac as they swerved into the driveway and backed out pointed toward Decatur.


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