The Wolf Wants In

A Novel

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In a small town ravaged by the opioid crisis, a woman confronts a dark secret about her brother’s shocking death—a gripping novel of suspense for fans of Sharp Objects and S-Town.

“A perfect thriller . . . a thoughtful commentary on America’s opioid crisis and an utterly satisfying mystery.”—Janelle Brown, New York Times bestselling author of Watch Me Disappear

Sadie Keller is determined to find out how her brother died, even if no one else thinks it’s worth investigating. Untimely deaths are all too common in rural Blackwater, Kansas, where crime and overdoses are on the rise, and the small-town police force is consumed with the recent discovery of a child’s skull in the woods. Sadie is on her own, delving into the dark corners of a life her brother kept hidden and unearthing more questions than answers.

Eighteen-year-old Henley Pettit knows more than she’d like to about the seedy side of Blackwater, and she’s desperate to escape before she’s irreparably entangled in her family’s crimes. She dreams of disappearing and leaving her old life behind, but shedding the past is never easy, and getting out of town will be far more dangerous than she ever imagined.

As more bones are found in the woods, time is running out for Sadie to uncover the truth and for Henley to make her escape. Both women are torn between family loyalties and the weight of the secrets they carry, knowing full well that while some secrets are hard to live with, others will get you killed.

Like Laura McHugh’s previous award-winning thrillers, The Weight of Blood and Arrowood, The Wolf Wants In is an atmospheric, beautifully told novel that barrels toward a twisting, chilling end and keeps us turning the page to find out how these small-town secrets will unravel—and who will survive.

Advance praise for The Wolf Wants In

The Wolf Wants In perfectly balances gripping suspense with stunning, lyrical prose—a rare combination, but one that seems to be McHugh’s signature gift. Atmospheric and chilling, this novel takes place in the twisted, destructive wake of the opioid crisis as one woman struggles for justice and another for redemption. A truly thrilling read.”—Jill Orr, author of the Riley Ellison mysteries

“McHugh’s latest is a raw, uncompromising tale with writing that’s both gritty and poetic. The Wolf Wants In delivers a powerful, deeply felt mystery that tugs at the heartstrings.”—Mary Kubica, New York Times bestselling author of The Good Girl

Under the Cover

An excerpt from The Wolf Wants In

Chapter 1

Sadie

November

A bitter wind sheared through the darkness, biting into my exposed flesh and lashing my hair across my face. I’d stupidly worn flip-flops to take the dog out one last time before bed, and my feet were half numb as I stumbled along the path at the edge of the woods. Gravy had been lured out for a walk fairly easily with a heel of bread but predictably turned sluggish when I tried to maneuver him up the sloping field back toward the house. I couldn’t blame him; my place didn’t feel like home to him yet, the wood floors too slippery, the stairs too steep for his stubby legs, the furniture not yet sufficiently covered with his fur. I wiggled the leash, begging him to hurry up and pee, knowing full well how futile it was, that the elderly dog would wet himself in his sleep no matter how many times I took him out. The wind receded without warning, pulling me off balance, and in the merciful lull the night was eerily silent, as though all the creatures in the blind depths of the cedars were holding still, waiting out the storm.

My phone buzzed and I nearly dropped it, my frozen fingers skittering across the glowing screen. When I saw that it was Becca, I didn’t want to answer, because my sister only called this late if she’d seen something awful on the ten o’clock news or if someone we knew had died. Less than a month ago, she’d called about Shane.

“Do you have the news on?” she asked. She was whispering, as she always did when Jerry and the boys were asleep, and I could barely hear her.

“No, what happened?” I stamped my feet, trying to revive feeling in them. Gravy’s pace had slowed from maddeningly snail-like to standstill. He watched the tree line, his tail low, a pale specter in the darkness.

“Hunters found a human skull in the woods outside Blackwater. They’re not saying too much, but the lady said it was small . . . like a child’s. Maybe Macey Calhoun’s.”

My gut hollowed out and I bent over, feeling like I might vomit. Macey’s absence had mostly faded from my thoughts, the way other people’s tragedies tend to do in the face of our own problems. I had brought a chocolate pie over to Hannah Calhoun after her husband had disappeared with their daughter, not knowing how else to help an old friend I’d barely spoken to in years. It had gone as uncomfortably as I expected it would, Hannah accepting my offering and shutting the door without saying a word, consumed by her loss and uninterested in my sympathy.

Macey and Lily had attended preschool together in the basement of Shade Tree Methodist from the time they were babies until Lily left for kindergarten. Hannah and I had been close then, bound by our daughters and the common struggles of new marriage and motherhood. Hannah had recognized my ineptitude in styling Lily’s hair and took pity, teaching me to French-braid and making enormous bows for Lil to match the ones Macey wore every day. Macey would be nine now, almost ten, more than a year behind Lil, who only vaguely remembered their preschool friendship when the Amber Alert shrieked out of my phone this past spring and I told her that Macey was missing.

The bitterness of the Calhouns’ divorce and ensuing custody battle was public knowledge, but I’d assured Lily that Macey was safe with her father, who disappeared with her during a weekend visitation, and I’d believed it. I had lost touch with Hannah before our marriages fell apart, hadn’t been there for her in any way until the awkward pie, and I didn’t know what to do for her now. I ached for her, what she must be going through, waiting to hear if the skull belonged to her child.

“You still there?” Becca asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “I hope it’s not her.”

“They could be wrong.” Becca always held out hope for happy endings long after most people gave up, her optimistic gene a fluke in a family of cynics. “Maybe the skull’s not even human.”

“Maybe,” I said, turning my back to the wind, my ears stinging.

“Kendrick might have to cancel your meeting tomorrow.”

“Yeah. I’ll let you know.” So far, Detective Kendrick hadn’t been terribly helpful in our effort to make sense of all the unanswered questions surrounding Shane’s death. When I first asked to meet with her, she’d told me she had real work to do, as if the sudden passing of a thirty-six-year-old didn’t warrant even the briefest examination. True, it wasn’t unusual for someone to die young in Cutler County—there had been so many overdoses in recent years that an article in The Kansas City Star bemoaned the decimation of the next generation of farmers—but our brother wasn’t an addict. Kendrick had only agreed to meet with me on the condition that I would stop calling, and now she had every reason to blow me off. As much as I wanted to know what had happened to Shane, I couldn’t blame her if the sheriff’s department focused its limited resources on the discovery in the woods.

“I’ve got to get inside,” I said. “I’m freezing. I’ll drop Gravy off in the morning.”

Gravy showed no sign that he heard his name, his attention focused on divining scents in the night air. I bent to pick him up, the one thing guaranteed to rile him, and as he squirmed away from me, I was able to shepherd him back up the hill.

It was a relief to get out of the wind, even if it wasn’t exactly toasty in the drafty farmhouse. I wedged a few sticks and a thick block of wood into the stove and prodded a ball of newspaper into the embers, my cheeks burning as the radiating heat began to thaw them. Ribbons of flame curled up the kindling, persuading the split edge of the log to ignite.

Shane was the one who had taught me how to make a fire, back when we were kids. We had run away once, when I was six and he was nine, scared that Dad would whip us when he discovered we’d knocked Grandma Keller’s angel figurine off the living room shelf and broken its wing. It was cold that day, too, and we only made it as far as the field behind the barn. Shane showed me how to build a fire with dead leaves and a rotten branch and the matches he’d been clever enough to bring along, and when it turned dark, he sang Christmas songs to keep me from crying, promising to take all the lashes himself if Dad caught us, though I knew it was never that easy. Becca came to find us for supper and led us back to the house, where she unearthed an old tube of superglue and reattached the angel’s wing before Dad got home.

We had our roles, even then. Becca, duty bound, quietly fixing things; Shane, both troublemaker and protector. I was the baby, desperate to grow up and get out, though in the end, I hadn’t gotten much farther than when Shane and I had run away—the other side of Shade Tree from the house we grew up in.

I was on the road by daybreak to meet Detective Kendrick before work, dropping Gravy at Becca’s house with a bag of pee pads he refused to lie on and a basket of toys that he hadn’t touched since he’d come to stay with me. Becca and her boys liked having him over to visit—having Shane’s dog there made it feel like he was still around—but I was secretly grateful Becca’s husband was allergic, so I could keep Gravy most of the time. He’d been a welcome addition, the house too empty now that Lily was staying with her dad during the week to attend the suburban middle school that he’d insisted was better than the one in Shade Tree.

As I started down the highway toward Blackwater, I tuned in to the local talk-radio program, hoping to hear more about the skull in the woods, but there was no new information.

The leaden sky lightened a few shades as the sun climbed above the dead fields, the towering silos of Sullivan Grain, where my dad had worked until the day he died, rising in the distance. The highway used to run straight through town, but a new spur bypassed it altogether, crossing the river while the old road wound north through Main Street. Blackwater was the county seat and the anchor of our small constellation of Kansas farming towns beyond the Kansas City suburbs, communities connected through high school sports rivalries and livestock auctions and the shared Walmart out on the highway.

There were no stoplights downtown, only four-way intersections where manners dictated that two drivers arriving at the same time would insist, through a series of patient hand gestures, that the other person go first. Main Street had shriveled as the suburbs expanded their reach and their offerings, but thanks to the grain elevator and the jobs it provided, many local businesses were still thriving, including the Blackwater Diner, the Feed & Supply, and Why Not Donuts, beloved for its old-fashioned cream horns. There were two gas stations on Main, though Casey’s was the only one where you’d dare use the bathroom—it wasn’t unheard-of to find someone passed out on the toilet with a needle jammed in a vein at the Conoco—and you couldn’t turn your head without seeing a church. It was downright bustling compared to Shade Tree’s lifeless town square. If I turned off on a gravel road north of Casey’s and followed it past Pettit Brothers Auto Body & Salvage, I would end up at Shane’s house, where he had died. Instead, I parked in front of the Cutler County courthouse and headed into the police station to meet Detective Kendrick.

- About the author -

Laura McHugh is the internationally bestselling author of The Weight of Blood, winner of an International Thriller Writers Award and a Silver Falchion Award for best first novel, and Arrowood, an International Thriller Writers Award finalist for best novel. McHugh lives in Missouri with her husband and daughters.

More from Laura McHugh

The Wolf Wants In

A Novel

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The Wolf Wants In

— Published by Spiegel & Grau —