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A novel of psychological suspense about an idyllic community rocked by a serial killer—and a dark secret.
Detective Ben Wade has returned to his hometown of Rancho Santa Elena in search of a quieter life and to try to save his marriage. Suddenly the community, with its peaceful streets and excellent public schools, finds itself at the mercy of a serial killer who slips through windows and screen doors at night, shattering illusions of safety. As Ben and forensic specialist Natasha Betencourt struggle to stay one step ahead of the killer—and deal with painful episodes in the past—Ben’s own world is rocked again by violence. He must decide how far he is willing to go, and Natasha how much she is willing to risk, to protect their friendship and themselves to rescue the town from a psychotic murderer and a long-buried secret.
With fine, chilling prose, acclaimed author Alan Drew weaves richly imagined characters into the first of several thrilling novels of suspense featuring the California world of Ben Wade and Natasha Betencourt. Shadow Man reveals the treacherous underbelly of suburban life, as a man, a woman, a family, and a community are confronted with the heart of human darkness.
Praise for Shadow Man
“Excellent, atmospheric . . . [a] superb police procedural . . . [Ben Wade] is but one of many sharply etched characters who help make Shadow Man a stellar achievement, a book that unspools like a dark-toned movie in the reader’s mind.”—The Wall Street Journal
“The crime part of this novel is superbly done: Wade, along with forensic expert Natasha Betencourt, are both indelible characters, and the passages from the criminal’s perspective are chilling. Yet there is also a lot of complex emotion—a lot of novel, if you will—going on here, especially in the excavation of Wade’s past and in the tension between the remaining wildness and the parcels of civilization carved out of the valley.”—Literary Hub
“[Alan] Drew’s debut psychological thriller succeeds admirably. There are three hearts of human darkness within, and it is for the reader to decide which character is the true ‘shadow man’ . . . The Steinbeck-like passages about the vanishing cowboy landscape contribute to the novel’s power.”—Booklist (starred review)
“Drew’s engrossing novel works equally well as psychological study and cop thriller, literary novel and genre piece.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Shadow Man
Emma was already up in the saddle. She sidestepped Gus across the gravel driveway, the horse’s hooves kicking up dust that blew across the yard.
“C’mon, Dad,” Emma said. “It’s getting late.”
Detective Benjamin Wade was hammering the latch back onto the barn door. When they came up the driveway in his cruiser fifteen minutes earlier, the door was slung wide open, the latch ripped out of the wood by the gusting Santa Ana winds. The winds had burst into the coastal basin midmorning, dry gusts billowing off the desert in the east that electrified the air. The morning had been heavy with gritty smog, the taste of leaded gas on the tongue. By early afternoon, though, the basin was cleared out, the smog pushed out over the Pacific. A brown haze camouflaged Catalina Island, but here the sky was topaz, the needle grass in the hills undulating green from early-fall storms.
“I’ll meet you up there,” Emma said, spinning Gus around and cantering him up the trail.
“Hold on,” Ben said. But she was already gone. He dropped the hammer, the latch swinging loose on a single nail. He pulled himself up onto Tin Man, raced the horse after her, and finally caught up to her on Bommer Ridge.
“You’re getting slow, old man,” Emma said, turning to smile at him.
“You’re getting impatient.”
“You want to be here as much as I do,” she said.
That was true. This was exactly where he wanted to be—in the hills, riding a horse, with his daughter. They rode side by side now, Emma rocking back and forth on Gus’s swayback. Tin Man snorted a protest, shaking his head to rattle the reins; the horse was getting too old for that kind of running, his cattle-rustling days well behind him. Gus and Tin Man were the last of the cutters. Four years ago, in 1982, when the cattle ranch officially shuttered the Hereford operations, they were set to be shipped off as dog-food canners. Ben wasn’t having any of that, so he bought them for the price of their meat and taught his daughter to ride.
The horses guided themselves along the fading cow path past the old cowboy camp, hooves flushing jackrabbits out of sagebrush clumps. He smiled and watched Emma, her thin back and wiry legs in perfect control of Gus. He wished his father could have met her; she was a natural on a horse, a cowboy in a place that didn’t need them anymore. They rode through a tangle of manzanita, the branches scratching their calves, and sidled through the shade of gasoline trees until they were in the open again, trailing the backbone of Quail Hill. A slope of poppies spread beneath them, blossoming orange into El Moro Canyon and down to the blue crescent of Crystal Cove.
One of the advantages of being a detective was the flexible hours, and when things were slow, as they mostly were in Rancho Santa Elena, Ben could pick up his daughter from school. He had done this for four years now, a reliable pleasure that continued even after the divorce was finalized a year and six days ago and he and his wife—his “ex-wife”—negotiated joint custody. Picking up was not a part of the settlement, but Rachel had stacks of papers to grade and when he proposed it to her she was thankful for the extra time. The added benefit of the gesture, too, was that sometimes Rachel gave him an extra night with Emma or let him take their daughter for horseback rides on weekday afternoons that weren’t supposed to be his. He savored every moment with Emma; he figured he had another year or two of these afternoons together, and then it would be all boys and cruising South Coast Plaza mall with her girlfriends.
“How was the algebra test?” he said, taking advantage of the moment.
“Shoot anyone today?” she said.
“Was in a gunfight over at Alta Plaza shopping center,” he said. “You didn’t hear about it?”
“I missed the breaking news.”
It was her daily joke; in the four years since Ben had left the LAPD and moved south to join the Rancho Santa Elena police force, he hadn’t discharged his weapon, except into the hearts of paper bad guys on the firing range out by the Marine base.
“How are you and Mrs. Ross getting along?” he said, hoping Emma hadn’t gotten in another argument with her ninth-grade English teacher.
“Equitably,” she said, another witty evasion. “Arrest anyone today?”
“Nope,” he said. “But there’s always tomorrow.” He’d driven down to the Wedge in Newport Beach at sunrise, bodysurfed a few windblown waves, and rolled back into town by 8:00 a.m. for his shift. He’d awoken a man sleeping in his car on a new construction site in El Cazador, checked his tags, given the man his fresh coffee, and sent him on his way. He’d run IDs on a psychologist he suspected of selling psychotropics on the side. He’d been called to a skateboard shop off Via Rancho Parkway to hunt down two eleven-year-old boys who’d absconded with new Santa Cruz boards. “Just borrowing them, dude,” one of the kids said, when he found them kick-flipping the boards at the local skate park. In master-planned Rancho Santa Elena, he was mostly a glorified security guard, paid to make residents feel safer in a place already numbingly safe—and both he and Emma knew it.
“How’s your mother?” he asked, hoping for a tidbit.
And there she went, standing in the stirrups, cantering Gus down the hill ahead of him. Rachel said it was normal, this pulling away from them—she was fourteen, after all—and he guessed it was, but it didn’t make him feel any better about it.
“Take it easy,” Ben called out to her. “It’s steep here.”
“Geez, Mr. Overprotective,” she said, reining the horse in and plopping back in the saddle.
He could feel her rolling her eyes at him, a condition that had worsened in the last year.
Emma kept her distance now, trotting Gus along the ridgeline, the two of them disappearing behind an escarpment of rock before coming back into view. Down into Laguna Canyon, Ben could see the stitching of pink surveying flags waving in the wind—the “cut here” line for the new toll road, if the environmentalists couldn’t fend it off. The flags followed an old cattle trail that led to the beach. On full moons, Ben and his father would ride the trail together in the shadows of the canyon, the hillsides rising milky white above them. This was the 1960s, before the developers had started bulldozing the hills, and the land was silently alive with owl and raccoon, with the illuminated eyes of bobcat. It was so wild back then that when a grizzly bear escaped a local wild-animal park, it took game wardens two weeks to hunt the animal down and shoot it in the darkness of a limestone cave. For thirteen days it was the last wild grizzly in California, making an honest symbol out of the state’s flag.
After two hours of riding one moonlit night, Ben and his father had reached Route 1, recently renamed the Pacific Coast Highway, a four-lane expressway zipping cars up and down the coast. They had to sit perched on their horses for five minutes, waiting for the blur of headlights to pass. “In ten years,” his father had said, bitterness in his voice, “everything will be goddamned concrete.” His father had lived out here since the Dust Bowl days, he and his family escaping a bone-dry Kansas in ’34, stepping off a coast-to-coast Greyhound into irrigated fields of orange groves. When he was ten, this was ranchland all the way down to the frothing surf, and he had spent his life watching it be slowly devoured. When there was finally a break in traffic, Ben and his father had nudged the horses across the cement until sand silenced the clipping hooves. They tied the horses to a gnarl of cactus and sat watching the bioluminescent waves crash the beach. It was the red tide, his father said—blooms of algae that sucked the oxygen from the water and flopped dead fish onto the beach. During the day the ocean was stained rust with it, but at night the foam of crashing waves glowed phosphorescent blue, swelling and ebbing bursts of light arcing down the coastline.
Ben and Emma reached the top of the hill now, the fledgling city of Rancho Santa Elena spreading beneath them in a patchwork of unfinished grids. Even when Ben was a kid, the basin had been mostly empty—a dusty street with a single Esso gas station, the crisscrossing runways of the Marine air base, a brand-new housing tract out by the new university, a few outlying buildings for ranchers and strawberry pickers. Now Rancho Santa Elena spread in an irregular geometry from the ocean to the base of the eastern hills of the Santa Ana Mountains, where newly paved roads cut swaths through orange groves. The center of town, the part of the master plan that was finished, looked vaguely Spanish—peaks of red-tiled rooftops organized in neat rows, man-made lakes with imported ducks, greenbelts cutting pathways for joggers and bicyclists. It was like watching a virus consume the soft tissue of land, spreading to join Los Angeles to the north.
A sudden screech, and an F-4 fighter jet roared above Emma’s head. Tin Man leapt backward, and Gus startled and bucked, losing his purchase on the rocky trail.
“Heels in,” he called out to Emma, as one of her hands lost grip on the reins.
Ben dug his boot heels into Tin Man’s flanks and the horse steadied, but Gus stumbled down the hill and Emma flipped backward, thumping solidly on her back in the dirt. Ben was off Tin Man, rushing to her, and by the time he was there she was already sitting up, cursing the plane and its pilot.
“Asshole,” she said, slapping dust from her jeans.
“You all right?” Ben said, his hand on her back.
“No.” She slapped the ground, her brown eyes lit with fury. “I want to kill that guy.”
“No,” she said, standing now. “Where’s Gus?”
“Don’t worry about the horse.” She had fallen before, of course, but his panic never changed about it. “Just sit. Make sure your ribs are in the right place.”
He touched the side of her back, pressed a little. She elbowed his hands away.
“I’m fine, Dad.”
She went to Gus, who was shaking in a clump of cactus, a few thorns stabbing his flank. She hugged the horse’s chest as Ben yanked the thorns out, points of blood bubbling out of the skin. The jet swerved around the eastern hills, dropped its landing gear, and glided to the tarmac.
“Asshole,” Ben said.
“Yeah,” Emma said, smiling. “Took the words right out of my mouth.”
It was nearly dark when they got back to the house, the western sky a propane blue. Emma walked the horses past his unmarked police cruiser and into the barn, and Ben retrieved a Ziploc bag of ice from the house and tried to hold it to Emma’s back.
“Thanks, Dad,” she said, hoisting the saddle off Gus, “but I’m fine.”
He let her be and they worked their tacks alone, the rushing sound of the 405 Freeway in the distance.
Ben’s house was in the flats on the edge of the city, down a dirt road that ended at a cattle fence that closed off Laguna Canyon and the coastal hills, a patch of wilderness, and the last of the old ranch. The place was a low-slung adobe, set in a carved-out square of orange grove—his father’s house, a cowboy’s joint, the house Ben had lived in until he was eleven. Emma had dubbed it “Casa de la Wade” three years before and the name stuck; they’d even fashioned a sign out of acetylene-torched wood and nailed it above the front door. When he and Rachel had moved back here from L.A. four years ago, they spent the first year in a rented apartment near the new university. He would drive out every once in a while to look in on the old place—the windows boarded up, the barn roof sagging. He had asked around at the corporate offices of the new “Rancho,” out by John Wayne Airport. Some of the suits remembered his dad from back when it was a working ranch, not a corporation with valuable real estate to sell, and out of respect to his father’s memory they let him have it for a moderately inflated price. The house and its acre of land hadn’t then been part of the town’s master plan; it was in the flight path of the military jets, and the Marines had wanted at least a quarter-mile perimeter of open land surrounding the runways in case an F-4 bit it on approach. The feds, though, had recently decided to close the base, and suddenly the Rancho Santa Elena Corporation zeroed in on the surrounding land. Letters from the Rancho’s lawyers had already offered him 10 percent over market value for the place. He had written back and simply said, Not interested, though he knew they wouldn’t give up so easily. The Rancho had already declared eminent domain to bulldoze artist cottages in Laguna Canyon. It had its sights set on the old cowboy camp at Bommer Canyon, too, just up the hill from Ben’s place.
It took a year of evenings and weekends, one hammered broken finger, and a nail through the arch of his right foot to get the place in shape, though mostly it remained a cowboy flophouse, stinking of leather and coffee grounds, and he liked it that way.
Ben forked hay into the barn stalls now, while Emma cotton-balled Betadine onto the cactus cuts on Gus’s flanks.
“You ready for softball?” he asked.
“I’m not going to play this year.”
“You love softball.” She had an arm; she could whip it around in a blur and pop the ball into the catcher’s mitt.
“You love softball,” she said.
“You look at those girls in high school and they’re all, I don’t know, manly.”
“Manly?” he said. His tomboy little girl had a sudden need to be “pretty.” She’d started spending hours in the bathroom, rimming her eyes with eyeliner, thickening her lips with lipstick. “There’s nothing wrong with those girls.”
“I just don’t wanna play anymore, all right?”
“I gotta talk with your mother about that,” he said, glancing at her. Her face was tanned, her dark hair sun streaked. “And, by the way, you’re perfect, if you ask me.”
“Yeah, well, you’re my dad, so it counts like forty-five percent.”
Emma finished with the Betadine and closed Gus up in his stall. They had a big dinner planned—carne asada tacos, fresh avocado from the farmers’ market, corn tortillas he’d picked up that morning from the tortilleria in Costa Mesa. Back to the Future had just come out on VHS, and he’d already slipped the cassette into the VCR.
The Motorola rang in the cruiser. He stepped over to the car and leaned through the open window to grab the receiver. “Yeah, it’s Wade.”
“Been trying to get you on the horn.” It was Stephanie Martin, the evening dispatch.
“It’s my night off.”
“Hope you enjoyed it,” she said. “Got a call from a Jonas Rafferty down in Mission Viejo. They got a DB down there that’s still warm. He’s asking for you.”
A dead body. It had been a long time since he’d been on a murder scene.
“Gotta get you to your mother,” Ben said to Emma.
“What about Fiesta Night?”
“Friday,” he said, latching up the barn door. “We’ll do it Friday. I’m sorry.”
Alan Drew is the author of the critically acclaimed debut novel Gardens of Water. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. An associate professor of English at Villanova University, where he directs the creative writing program, he lives near Philadelphia with his wife and two children.