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NATIONAL BESTSELLER • Two sensational unsolved crimes—one in the past, another in the present—are linked by one man’s memory and self-deception in this chilling novel of literary suspense from National Book Award finalist Dan Chaon.
“We are always telling a story to ourselves, about ourselves.” This is one of the little mantras Dustin Tillman likes to share with his patients, and it’s meant to be reassuring. But what if that story is a lie?
A psychologist in suburban Cleveland, Dustin is drifting through his forties when he hears the news: His adopted brother, Rusty, is being released from prison. Thirty years ago, Rusty received a life sentence for the massacre of Dustin’s parents, aunt, and uncle. The trial came to epitomize the 1980s hysteria over Satanic cults; despite the lack of physical evidence, the jury believed the outlandish accusations Dustin and his cousin made against Rusty. Now, after DNA analysis has overturned the conviction, Dustin braces for a reckoning.
Meanwhile, one of Dustin’s patients has been plying him with stories of the drowning deaths of a string of drunk college boys. At first Dustin dismisses his patient's suggestions that a serial killer is at work as paranoid thinking, but as the two embark on an amateur investigation, Dustin starts to believe that there’s more to the deaths than coincidence. Soon he becomes obsessed, crossing all professional boundaries—and putting his own family in harm’s way.
From one of today’s most renowned practitioners of literary suspense, Ill Will is an intimate thriller about the failures of memory and the perils of self-deception. In Dan Chaon’s nimble, chilling prose, the past looms over the present, turning each into a haunted place.
Praise for Ill Will
“In his haunting, strikingly original new novel, [Dan] Chaon takes formidable risks, dismantling his timeline like a film editor.”—The New York Times Book Review “The scariest novel of the year . . . ingenious . . . Chaon’s novel walks along a garrote stretched taut between Edgar Allan Poe and Alfred Hitchcock.”—The Washington Post “Powerful . . . Chaon is one of America’s best and most dependable writers, and in the end, Ill Will is a ruthlessly ‘realistic’ piece of fiction about the unrealistic beliefs people entertain about their world.”—Los Angeles Times “This intriguing novel about a tightly wired criminal psychologist with a murky past has the tension of a thriller plus the emotional release of justice finally served.”—O: The Oprah Magazine “Powerfully unsettling . . . There’s a lot going on under the surface of Ill Will—more than one reading will reveal. Going back and reading this oddly compelling book again will only provide more pleasure.”—Chicago Tribune
“Terrifically eerie . . . Too few writers prize atmosphere as much as narrative tautness. With Ill Will, Chaon succeeds at delivering both.”—The Dallas Morning News
“Outstanding . . . Chaon’s writing is cool and precise, but his story is thrillingly unstable. It also boasts, at the end, a traditional horror-novel payoff I didn’t see coming—Stephen King couldn’t have done it better.”—The Wall Street Journal
“One of the best thrillers I’ve encountered in a very, very long time.”—Newsweek
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Ill Will
Sometime in the first days of November the body of the young man who had disappeared sank to the bottom of the river. Facedown, bumping lightly against the muddy bed below the flowing water, the body was probably carried for several miles—frowning with gentle surprise, arms held a little away from his sides, legs stiff. The underwater plants ran their fronds along the feathered headdress the boy was wearing, across the boy’s forehead and war-paint stripes and lips, down across the fringed buckskin shirt and wolf-tooth necklace, across loincloth and deerskin leggings, tracing the feet in their moccasins. The fish and other scavengers were mostly asleep during this period. The body bumped against rocks and branches, scraped along gravel, but it was mostly preserved. In April, when the two freshman college girls saw the boy’s face under the thin layer of ice among the reeds and cattails at the edge of the old skating pond, they at first imagined the corpse was a discarded mannequin or a plastic Halloween mask. They were collecting pond-water specimens for their biology course, and both of them were feeling scientific rather than superstitious, and one of the girls reached down and touched the face’s cheek with the eraser tip of her pencil.
During this same period of months, November through April, Dustin Tillman had been drifting along his own trajectory. He was forty-one years old, married with two teenage sons, a psychologist with a small practice and formerly, he sometimes told people, some occasional forays into forensics. His life, he thought, was a collection of the usual stuff: driving to and from work, listening to the radio, checking and answering his steadily accumulating email, shopping at the supermarket, and watching select highly regarded shows on television and reading a few books that had been well reviewed and helping the boys with their homework, details that were—he was increasingly aware—units of measurement by which he was parceling out his life.
When his cousin Kate called him, later that week after the body was found, he was already feeling a lot of vague anxiety. He was having a hard time about his upcoming birthday, which, he realized, seemed like a very bourgeois and mundane thing to worry about. He had recently quit smoking, so there was that, too. Without nicotine, his brain seemed murky with circling, unfocused dread, and the world itself appeared somehow more unfriendly—emanating, he couldn’t help but think, a soft glow of ill will.
A few days after the body was discovered, Dustin picked up the phone and it was his cousin Kate calling from Los Angeles.
“Listen,” she said. “I have some very weird news.”
Dustin said: “Kate?” They spoke regularly enough, once every few months or so, but it was usually on birthdays or holidays or around the edges of holidays.
“It’s about Russell,” she said.
“Russell, my brother Russell?” He was sitting at the desk in his office, his “study,” as he liked to call it, on the third floor of the house, and he stopped typing on the computer and glanced over at his ashtray, which was now full of little sugar-free hard candies, lozenges wrapped in cellophane. “Don’t tell me,” Dustin said. “He’s escaped.”
“Just listen,” Kate said.
Dustin hadn’t spoken to Russell, his adopted older brother, since Russell had been sent to prison. He had not written to him or even kept tabs on him, really, and the thoughts that he had of him were of the most cursory sort. For example, he’d see a movie or a TV show that took place in a prison and he’d think: I wonder what Russell is doing right now?
He had a general idea of what prison would be like. This included things like homosexual rape and “shanks” carved out of toothbrushes or spoons. Sometimes he would picture men in the prison library, studying legal books, or in cafeterias, eating the terrible casseroles, or lying moodily, fully dressed, on metal bunk beds, glaring at the ceiling.
Various images of this sort had come to Dustin over the years.
But mostly he’d imagine Russell as he had been when they were growing up together—Russell, six years his elder, who had shot him once with a BB gun in the back while he was running away, Russell, listening to death-metal music and carving a pentagram into his forearm with the sharp end of a drafting compass, Russell, who had used improvised kung fu moves to destroy a magnificent snowman that Dustin had built, Russell, who was delighted by Dustin’s fear of the dark and would wait until Dustin was comfortably alone in a room and then sneak by and turn off the light and pull the door closed and Dustin, trapped in darkness, would let out a scream.
On the night that their parents were going to be murdered, Dustin Tillman and his cousins Kate and Wave were sitting at the kitchen table in the camper, which was parked for the moment in the driveway of Dustin’s family’s house in western Nebraska. It was the beginning of June, 1983.
Their two families were planning to leave the next morning to go on vacation together.
They would travel through Wyoming and up to Yellowstone, and they would stay at various campgrounds along the way.
But that night, the camper was like their own little private apartment that they were living in. The three of them were playing cards. A transistor radio emitted songs from a distant Denver rock-and-roll station. A heavy beetle-bodied June bug beat its wings and ticked thickly against the light fixture on the ceiling.
The girls were only seventeen, but they were splitting a light beer, which they had taken from the refrigerator in the camper. They had poured it—half and half—into two glass tumblers. The night was warm, and the girls were wearing their bikini tops and cutoff shorts. They had used a curling iron to make flips in their shoulder-length blond hair, but the flips had grown a little limp. They were twins, not identical but almost. Dustin was thirteen, and he sat there, his cards fanned out, and the girls said:
“Dust-Tin! It’s your turn!”
And Kate reached down and without thinking scratched a bug bite on her bare ankle and Dustin was looking surreptitiously, the way her fingernail made a white mark on the reddish tanned skin, the fingernail which had some polish on it that was flaking off.
In retrospect, Dustin couldn’t remember much that was significant about that particular morning when they discovered the body. The day was clear and cold and sunny, and he woke up and felt fairly happy—happy in that bland, daily way that doesn’t even recognize itself as happiness, waking into a day that shouldn’t expect anything more than a series of rote actions: showering and pouring coffee into a cup and dressing and turning a key in the ignition and driving down streets that are so familiar that you don’t even recall making certain turns and stops; though the mind must have consciously carried out the procedure of braking at the corner and rolling the steering wheel beneath your palms and making a left onto the highway, there is no memory at all of these actions.
You were not even present, were you?
In retrospect: another day, late in the morning, early in the century. Another long Midwestern interstate corridor in Ohio. This particular road connected a whole series of fertile little towns to the cities, though lately what was once farmland was being developed, and rows of identical houses rose out of the muddy fields instead of crops. The backyards of these new communities were punctuated with aboveground pools and swing sets, and many featured little gray manmade ponds, which at this moment in spring looked like parking lots made of water instead of asphalt. Once they were landscaped, maybe they would look more appealing.
There was a lot of roadkill these days, as well. The highways now cut the countryside into narrow parcels, and the displaced woodland animals were often caught moving from one section to the next—raccoons, opossums, deer, foxes, their bodies tossed onto the berm in the positions of restless sleepers, mouths open, eyes closed, almost peaceful-looking.
People, too, seemed to meet their end more frequently on the roads, and Dustin had noticed the way that mourners seemed more and more to erect small roadside shrines to those who perished in accidents, crosses fashioned out of picket wood, often surrounded by a pile of brightly colored objects: usually plastic flowers—pink roses, yellow daffodils, white lilies—but sometimes green Christmas wreaths or plastic holly or ribbons; very frequently clusters of stuffed animals, bunnies and teddy bears and duckies; and sometimes items of clothing such as shirts or baseball caps, which gave the crosses a certain scarecrow-like quality. There was probably a good essay in this, Dustin thought.
Coming up to the exit, he saw the flashing of the police cars gathered together, their blue and red lights dappling in the mild spring rain. Some orange road cones had been set out, and a policeman in a reflector-striped raincoat stood there waving the cars past with a plastic Day-Glo baton.
Dustin slowed and turned down the radio and steered into the detour around the roadblock that the policeman indicated with an elegant sweep of his wand. There was a clutch of cops gathered at the edge of the bridge, grim and damp from drizzle and drinking coffee out of Styrofoam cups, and Dustin observed them with interest. He enjoyed watching police-procedural dramas on television, and he had loved it, back in the day, when he would sometimes be called to testify as a court-approved expert. Remembering this gave him a wistful twinge.
He guessed that whatever was going on must be fairly serious.
There was a famous photo of Dustin and Kate and Wave—the picture that had been in the newspapers, which had been nominated for the Pulitzer; it didn’t win but it was recognizable. A remarkable and memorable crime photo.
Here were the children—the beautiful blond twins, and the skinny freckled boy between them—and the police are leading them, hurrying them from the house. In the photo, Wave is weeping openly, her mouth contorted, screaming maybe, and Kate is looking off to the side, fearfully, as if someone is going to attack her, and Dustin is staring straight ahead and you can see that there is blood on the front of his shirt, a Jackson Pollock of blood, and he is stricken, glazed with camera-flash light, stumbling away from the crime scene, and there behind the children and the police is the body of Dustin’s mom, Colleen—you can see her corpse, perfectly framed in the background, her limbs thrown out in a posture that is clearly one of death, violent death, and a broad stain of blood beneath her.
& the imprint of her blood on Dustin’s T-shirt where he had held her, his mom, for a moment when he found her body on the front stoop beneath the porch light.
The other bodies—not in the photograph—are Dustin’s father, Dave, who is in the living room with a gunshot wound to his chest, and his aunt Vicki, who is dead beneath the kitchen table, where she tried to hide from the gunman, and his uncle Lucky by the sink, the corpse slumped against the bottom cabinets, his head thrown back, arms open as if falling backward. Shot in the mouth.
These bodies weren’t the kind that you could show in the newspaper, but the picture of the three children was just enough to convey a vivid sense of massacre—
By the time Dustin reached his office, the news of the discovery had already begun to circulate. Most people assumed—correctly, as it would later turn out—that the body was that of Peter Allingham, a college sophomore and lacrosse player who had gone missing in the wee hours of November 1, after an evening of barhopping and Halloween parties, dressed in a cartoonish, racially insensitive Native American costume: feathers, buckskin, et cetera. Seen by large numbers of people and then gone—very improbably vanishing, people said, on his way to the bathroom at the Daily Tavern, and he never came back to join his friends.
Aqil Ozorowski was sitting in the waiting room of Dustin’s office, wearing earbud headphones and gazing at his smartphone, texting vigorously. His dark, shaggy hair hung down like blinders on either side of his eyes, and Dustin stood there in the doorway with his briefcase, waiting to be noticed. He felt a bit nonplussed. They didn’t have an appointment, but Aqil had the habit of simply appearing.
He was an odd case. He had ostensibly come to Dustin for smoking cessation hypnotherapy, but his susceptibility to hypnosis was very low. Instead, their sessions had devolved into loose, vaguely intimate discussions, with no clear goal in mind. They’d talk about some conspiracy theory that Aqil had read about on the Internet, or they’d talk about Aqil’s insomnia or about his resentful feelings toward the pop star Kanye West—but after the first few appointments they had all but ceased to mention smoking. “I just don’t think I’m ready yet,” Aqil said. “But I do think you’re helping me, Doctor. You’re a good listener.”
Actually, Dustin wasn’t sure that was true. In fact, he had learned very little about Aqil in the months that they’d been meeting. Aqil was about thirty years old, Dustin guessed, and based on his name Dustin thought he might be biracial, but he wasn’t sure. Aqil had dark, deer-like brown eyes, and his long straight hair was either black or a dark auburn, depending on the light. His complexion could indicate any number of races. He gave no indication of his family background, even when Dustin asked direct questions. “Honestly,” Aqil said, “I’m not really interested in that stuff. These shrinks always want you to tell stories about your childhood and your past, like that’s supposed to explain something. I don’t really do that.”
The one thing that Dustin did know was that Aqil had been a policeman and that he was now on medical leave from the Cleveland Police Department, though that situation, too, had never been clearly explained. Some kind of psychological difficulty, Dustin assumed. PTSD?
Paranoia? There were no medical records that Dustin had been able to access, and even when he’d undertaken a surreptitious Google search it had yielded few results. Aqil was listed as a graduate of the Cleveland Police Academy. There was a grainy photo of him on his high school football team, where he’d been a running back. He had a defunct LinkedIn page. Whatever he’d done to get himself on psychological leave from the police department, it hadn’t made the news.
Still, there was apparently something he needed. He glanced up at last and gave Dustin a grin. He politely pulled the plastic cowrie shell of earbud from his ear, as if Dustin’s waiting room were his own private space and he was surprised to be interrupted.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” Dustin said. “I didn’t realize we had an . . .” and Aqil blinked a couple of times.
“Did you hear the news about the dead kid?” Aqil said. Dustin turned on the light and set his briefcase on a chair and Aqil stood up and stretched.
Dan Chaon is the acclaimed author of Among the Missing, which was a finalist for the National Book Award; You Remind Me of Me, which was named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications; Await Your Reply, which was a New York Times Notable Book and appeared on more than a dozen best-of-the-year lists; Stay Awake; and Ill Will. Chaon has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award in Fiction, and he was the recipient of the 2006 Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio, and teaches at Oberlin College, where he is the Pauline M. Delaney Professor of Creative Writing.