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Within These Walls
Table of Contents
About The Book
In her all-new supernatural thriller, bestselling indie horror author Ania Ahlborn asks: How far would you go for success? What would you be capable of if the promise of forever was real?
With his marriage on the rocks and his life in shambles, washed-up true-crime writer Lucas Graham is desperate for a comeback, one more shot at the bestselling success he once enjoyed. His chance comes when he’s promised exclusive access to death row inmate Jeffrey Halcomb, the notorious cult leader and mass murderer who’s ready to break his silence after thirty years, and who contacted Lucas personally from his maximum-security cell. With nothing left to lose, Lucas leaves New York to live and work from the scene of the crime: a split-level farmhouse on a gray-sanded beach in Washington State whose foundation is steeped in the blood of Halcomb’s diviners—runaways who were drawn to his message of family, unity, and unconditional love. There, Lucas sets out to capture the real story of the departed faithful. Except that he’s not alone. For Jeffrey Halcomb promised his devout eternal life…and within these walls, they’re far from dead.
YOU’VE GOT TO be kidding.”
Caroline Graham pivoted on the soles of her feet, coffeepot in hand, and for the briefest of moments, Lucas saw his wife’s intentions reflected in the blue of her eyes. He imagined her arm pistoning away from her, freshly brewed coffee splashing out of the carafe in a caramel-colored wave. Delicate ripples of steam would dance ghostlike through the air before spraying across his face and neck, scalding him, because Caroline had no more words. This was it. He had pushed her too far.
“No,” she said, calm as she set the coffeepot on the kitchen counter, but it was nothing more than a momentary suppression of outrage. Caroline was the master of the slow burn, and no matter how hard she tried to hide it, he knew he’d just lit her fuse. He saw it in the way her fresh manicure gripped the edge of the sink. She stood with her back to him, and while he couldn’t see her face, he was sure of her expression—lips tight, teeth clamped, the space between her eyebrows puckered into an angry ridge. It was Caroline’s go-to face when it came to fury and outrage. Lately, it felt as though it was the only expression she wore.
“No, this is crazy, just crazy. Goddammit. Of all the times, Lou . . .”
It was a wonder she still called him by his nickname. Lucas was keeping a mental tally of his full name in ratio to the shortened one, and the scales had definitely tipped toward the formal Lucas rather than the more affectionate Lou. When they had first met, Caroline had a penchant for calling him Louie, but that was a name that had altogether disappeared, and from the look of it, it was only a matter of time before Lou suffered the same fate. How she referred to him was his measuring stick, some quantifiable way of determining the health of their unhealthy relationship. For years, disenchantment and marital grievances had plagued their once-happy union. Now, that thing they called a marriage was on life support and Caroline’s hand seemed to be constantly itching to pull the plug. Less of a nihilist than his wife, Lucas was awaiting a miraculous recovery. He was holding his breath, his fingers crossed that he’d get the chance to rediscover the dark-humored girl he’d fallen for nearly twenty years before.
“So, you just want to uproot us?” Caroline turned and fixed her eyes on his. “Uproot Jeanie? Force her to give up all of her friends, her school?”
The loser of his wife’s staring contest, Lucas looked away first, peered down at his hands, swallowed. The hard wood of the kitchen bar stool was making his butt numb. The overhead lights struck him as too bright, spontaneously blazing hot like dying stars. Suddenly, all he wanted to do was walk out of the kitchen and forget he ever made the suggestion, but it was too late to pretend he could make things better by wishful thinking alone. Couldn’t Caroline see that? He was trying to fix things, not just for himself, but for the three of them as a whole. As a family. As something they used to be. Something he hoped they could be again.
“And what about me, huh?” He could hear the glare in her tone. What about her? He could still remember her as the once-upon-a-time girl who had stolen his heart, the girl who no longer dyed her hair black. They had once had things in common—a lifestyle of clubs and candles and incense smoke curling through dimly lit rooms. Now, pressed to compare the Caroline of before to the Caroline of now, he’d hardly recognize her at all. Blond. Proper. The owner of more than a couple of business suits and over a dozen pairs of high heels. And then there was her most severe transgression, the one he never had the balls to mention. “What about my job?” she asked, snapping his attention back to her. “It doesn’t matter that I’ve busted my ass to get to where I am?”
Lucas considered cutting her off, contemplated finally laying it all out and bringing up the always-dashing-and-never-ordinary Kurt Murphy. Oh really? Busting your ass? he thought. Or climbing up the ladder while lying on your back? No, he didn’t dare.
“Of course it matters.” He kept his head bowed and his eyes averted. Making eye contact with Caroline while she was in the throes of aggravation never made things better. That, and he didn’t want her to see it in his face—the fact that he knew about Kurt, that he’d known for a long time.
The last few weeks had made him certain; the way she came home late, always blaming the trains when a quick online confirmation proved they were running just fine. The way she avoided being in the same room as him for longer than a few seconds, as though afraid that occupying the same space would force them to interact with one another, would possibly coerce them into conversation or, God forbid, some sort of truce. The smell of a cologne he didn’t own, most likely too expensive for him to afford.
“Well, it obviously doesn’t matter much,” she countered. He peeked up at her, caught her narrowing her eyes at the granite counter. She shook her head as if suddenly overcome by a fresh bout of frustration. “You have some nerve.” Her eyes flashed, imploring him to give her one good reason, one good excuse as to why he’d throw them into such turmoil. “It’s always about you, isn’t it? It’s always about you.”
“It’s about us. About getting back to where we once were.” It was as close as he could come to saying what he meant.
Caroline went silent. Her expression became an odd mix of vulnerability and indignation. She shifted her weight from one bare foot to the other. The overhead light cast shadows that veiled her eyes. For a flash of a second, she looked like that once-upon-a-time girl, the one he so desperately missed. The floodlights caught the strawberry hue of her blond hair, the faint smattering of freckles God had sprinkled across her cheeks like cosmic constellations. He couldn’t maintain eye contact, not when she was glowering at him like that. Lucas turned his attention away.
“What does that mean?” she asked.
It meant everything; where they used to be financially before things went belly-up, and also as a couple, loving and laughing and happy rather than the way they were now—stray cats hissing and swatting at each other if one got too close. And then there was Kurt. But the way Caroline was standing right then, her arms crossed over her chest, peering down her nose, it made Lucas wonder if what used to be could ever be again. Sometimes people change, she’d once told him. There’s no going back. They’re different forever, a doppelgänger of their former self.
“I talked to John about it,” he said. “He thinks it’s a good idea.” Except that was a lie. Lucas’s literary agent, John Cormick, had stared out at him from across a manuscript-cluttered desk with a blank expression on his face. When Lucas opened his messenger bag and dug out the letter he’d received from Washington State’s maximum-security prison, John’s blank stare bloomed into disbelief. He’d snatched the letter out of Lucas’s hand and read it once, twice, three times for good measure while Lucas looked on with crushing anticipation. He could already see his agent’s reaction in his head; John would look up with eyes blazing, his face awash with a stunning sense of revelation. My God! he’d say. It’s like you’ve won the lottery, Lou. It’s like someone found Willy Wonka’s golden ticket and dropped it into your lap. But all John responded with was trepidation. Because the notorious Jeffrey Halcomb didn’t talk to reporters. And he certainly didn’t talk to two-bit crime writers who hadn’t had a hit in over a decade.
“Yeah, sure. John thinks everything is a good idea,” Caroline said. Her words were clipped, impatient. “You could tell him you’re thinking about writing a book on suicide, tell him you’re going to jump off a cliff for research, and John Cormick will say, ‘Wow, Lucas, that’s a great idea! Why don’t you do that and we’ll set up a call for next week, see how it all pans out.’ ”
“You could at least lend a little support,” he muttered.
Caroline’s blue eyes blazed. Her freckles faded beneath the flush of her cheeks. She shoved piecey strands of hair behind her ears and gave him an incredulous stare. “Really?” She exhaled a harsh laugh, the kind that made the hair on the back of his neck bristle, assuring him he had said the most unacceptably offensive thing. “Because I haven’t backed you up for long enough, right, Lucas?” Lucas, not Lou. “I haven’t spent the last decade telling you that everything will work out? Or maybe I haven’t killed myself with overtime; I couldn’t even spend last Thanksgiving with my parents because I had to haul myself back into the office to meet a deadline.”
A deadline? Maybe. A holiday screw against a high-rise office window? Most likely.
“Which part of that was me not lending a little support? Because I guess I’m just too damn stupid to figure it out.”
She was a liar. An adulteress. A provocateur. For a flash of a second, he wanted to slam his hands against the counter and scream every ugly accusation to let her know he wasn’t that stupid. He knew. He’d known all along. And yet, he still loved her despite her betrayal, still wanted things to go back to the way they had once been despite her false heart.
The last ten years had been tough on them both. He and John would have the same conversation every six months: It isn’t you, bud, it’s the genre. We’re in a slump, but things will pick up. True crime didn’t sell the way it used to—certainly not the way it had the year Virginia was born, when Lucas was so busy juggling a new baby girl and a state-by-state book tour that he had to gasp for breath between radio interviews and morning talk shows.
Good Morning America.
Good Day LA.
Now Jeanie was pushing thirteen, Caroline was barely keeping them afloat as a joint venture broker, and Lucas was still a writer. The difference was that he was no longer sitting on the New York Times bestseller list and he was afraid to look at his royalty statements. He blindly deleted them from his inbox, because staring at numbers with a sense of dread and disappointment didn’t make them grow. He’d learned that the hard way, while packing up boxes and selling the house in Port Washington to move to Queens.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured. “You’re right. One hundred percent. You’ve been my biggest advocate, my rock.”
She flicked her gaze up at him, giving him a cut the bullshit look. “So what, then? I should just roll over again, right? Give in, tell you that this is all okay, that you suggesting we up and move clear across the country and leave everything behind is a fair request because I’m your rock.” Another bitter, eye-rolling laugh.
“You know I feel like shit about this, right?” He peered at his hands while his stomach churned beneath the drawstring band of his pajama pants, as if trying to digest his unpalatable apprehension. “The overtime, the holidays . . .” The other man. “It makes me feel like a grade-A loser, like I had this amazing opportunity and I . . .” He hesitated, searched for the right word. “. . . I squandered it.”
She kept quiet, grabbed the abandoned coffeepot by its handle, and splashed fresh brew into two mugs—black for her, half-skim for him. Marriage did strange things to people. It could have been World War III in that kitchen, but if there was coffee, two mugs would always be served.
He waited for her to tell him that he hadn’t squandered anything, that he wasn’t psychic and couldn’t have possibly known what was going to sell and what was going to bomb. He hoped that, perhaps, she’d admit that with all the cuts and layoffs at her own firm, she wasn’t making as much as she used to either. He wanted to hear that it wasn’t completely his fault, but all he got was: “You should have fired John when I told you to.”
Lucas bit his tongue. Slow sales or not, John’s belief in his work had been steadfast. At his worst, most desperate moments, Lucas could pick up the phone and John would be there, telling him to take it easy, telling him to put his head down and keep working, Keep working. Fuck the reviews, screw the numbers, just keep working. Except year after year, things got steadily worse. Lucas knew this was his last shot, but Caroline was fed up with empty optimism. She’d crossed her fingers for so long they had fused together like the branches of a tree.
Caroline closed her eyes and exhaled. She held her mug aloft, the steam coiling around her features like tendrils of smoke. Lucas decided to wait it out, praying that she’d give him this one last try at turning things around. She never liked their house in Briarwood, never took to the neighborhood after living on Long Island for so long. The house in Port Washington had been her dream, the kind you’d see on holiday cards and Good Housekeeping spreads, every window dressed up in garlands and sparkling lights during the holidays, straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Watching her pack up their things because they couldn’t afford to stay had taken something out of him. It had been his fault. His slump. His failure. His work.
Caroline searched his face for some sort of answer. Lucas tried to stare back at her with a semblance of confidence, because this was the Big Idea, the book that would get him back in the game, the very thing he needed to redeem himself, to feel like a man who hadn’t let his family down, who hadn’t lost his wife to some Ivy League townie turned corporate sheep.
“I can’t leave my job,” she said. “I’ve got that conference. They’ve already booked my flight.”
Rome. They had visited a few years before Jeanie was born and had left unimpressed. It was crowded and dirty. The monuments looked as though they were part of some weird Roman theme park. The cafés wouldn’t let them sit without an exorbitant table service charge—the price of an espresso tripled if you wanted to pull up a chair. They had expected one of the most romantic cities in all the world, but what they got was a bad taste in their mouths. Back then, it had been nothing short of disappointing. Now, Lucas could see the irony of the metaphor. The life they had expected wasn’t the one they got.
And yet, the moment Caroline learned her company was flying her to Rome to broker a deal, she was giddy with excitement, as though she’d forgotten all about that unfulfilling vacation. Then again, Kurt Murphy was also going; the other man, who resembled a young, Interview with the Vampire Brad Pitt. The moment Caroline had announced her trip, Lucas pictured Kurt screwing her against a pillar of the Pantheon. He imagined them riding around the Colosseum on a fucking Vespa. He saw sundae dishes holding melted gelato, empty wine bottles, and half-eaten plates of pasta littering the kind of Roman hotel room he’d never be able to afford. Kurt was the brokerage’s key player. Over the years, dozens of people had lost their jobs so that Kurt Murphy could continue to buy overpriced champagne.
Fuck Kurt Murphy, he thought, only to have his follow-up thought assure him that, Oh, don’t worry, pal, she intends to.
“Why can’t you just write it here?”
Because that wasn’t the deal.
“Because I have to do interviews.”
“So fly out there and do them.”
“It isn’t that easy. We’re talking about a supermax. I can only get in there once a week, maybe for two hours a pop, and that’s if I’m lucky. Flying back and forth will cost us money we don’t have.”
Caroline was unimpressed.
“That, and I just need to be there,” he reminded her. “You know that.”
Before Jeanie was born, Lucas had spent nearly six months in and around Los Angeles while Caroline stayed home in New York, but back then they had the cash. He flew to the East Coast every two or three weeks between researching the Night Stalker and the Black Dahlia cases. He could have done the research from anywhere, but there was something about being where the crimes had been committed, something about standing in the very spot a person had died. Wandering through the rooms of a house haunted by death. Seeing the details. Touching the wallpaper. Smelling the air. It ignited Lucas’s work like nothing else. Bloodthirsty Times: The Story of a Stalked L.A. had put him on the map. Lucas lent its success to having walked Richard Ramirez’s steps, to having seen the people, the places, the things Ramirez had experienced.
“Right,” Caroline said. “Research.” Ire peppered her tone.
“We can’t afford to pay the mortgage on this place and rent another. It’ll drain our savings.”
She rolled her eyes at the reminder. “I know that.”
“There’s always New Jersey,” he said quietly, deathly afraid of the response to suggesting she move back in with her parents.
Caroline openly scoffed. “Sell the house and shack up with Mom and Dad? Good idea.”
“There’s Trisha,” who yes, was a bitch, but that didn’t change the fact that she was Caroline’s sister and had a loft in Greenwich Village.
“Oh, sure, I’m supposed to impose on Trish. Me and a twelve-year-old in her tiny apartment? Not only do you want to uproot our lives, but other people’s lives, too?”
“Uproot her life how?” Lucas asked. “She owns a dog, for Christ’s sake.”
“A dog,” he insisted. “A stupid little Chihuahua she dresses up in idiotic sweaters and treats like a baby because she has shit-all to do with herself. Having a houseguest would do her some good; it might even bring her back down to planet Earth.”
Caroline stared at him, as if stunned by his outburst.
“She’s crazy,” he said. “You know she’s crazy.”
“She’s my big sister,” Caroline snapped. “Just because you don’t like her . . .”
“Um, she’s the one who has it out for me.”
“Oh, please.” She waved a hand at him, dismissing the entire argument.
“She’d be thrilled to have you, Carrie. Just tell her you’ve finally decided to take her advice and leave me.”
The air left the room.
His own words made him go numb.
Caroline went silent again. The anger that had been nesting in the corners of her eyes was now replaced with sadness, with a pale shade of guilt.
Time to fess up.
“Look . . . I already found a house.” Or, Jeff Halcomb had. “I knew it would be stressful, so I just . . . I looked around and I found a place.” Liar. “It’s not expensive, and it’s right on the coast. Jeanie is going to love it.” As long as she didn’t find out what had happened there. He tried to keep the uncertainty out of his voice, but he was nervous, terrified that Caroline would say no. “I know you’re going on your trip and it’s really bad timing, I know all that. But I have to do this. I have a really good feeling about this project.” He may as well have had a guarantee. “Please, if this doesn’t work out, you have my word . . . I’ll go get a job at a newspaper.”
Caroline laughed outright. “Because business is booming at the New York Times. Right this way, Mr. Graham; we’ve all been waiting for you.”
“Okay, then I’ll go back to freelancing,” he insisted. “Hell, I don’t care. I’ll do whatever. But I have to take this shot. I can’t let this one go.” He’d already called Lambert Correctional Facility.
“Because John has convinced you this is The One,” she said flatly.
Because he’d already said yes.
“I know this is The One.” Even if John wasn’t a hundred percent behind him, Lucas was sure, more sure than he’d been about any other project in the past ten years. Writers had been trying to get Jeffrey Halcomb to talk for a generation about what had really happened in March 1983. A handful of shoddy biographies had been published on Halcomb, a couple on Audra Snow. None of them had been taken seriously because none of them could get any information out of Jeff. If Lucas just held up his end of the deal, he couldn’t lose . . . right?
But that was up to Caroline, who was going to derail everything, call the whole thing off—the Big Idea. Lucas folded his hands over his mouth, watching her the way an observer witnesses a particularly dangerous acrobatic act. It was a big jump, and neither of them had a safety net.
Finally, she squared her shoulders and breathed out a quiet sigh. “I think you should go,” she said. “Take Jeanie for the summer. It’ll be good for her to see someplace new.”
He furrowed his brow at her response, not grasping what she was saying.
“I’ll send for her a few weeks before school starts.”
“Carrie . . .”
She lifted a hand to quiet him. Stop, it said. Don’t talk.
“I love you, Lucas.”
His stomach dropped to his feet.
“But this . . .” She motioned around, as if to point out the imperfections of the kitchen. “We’ve been trying for a long time. Sometimes . . . enough is enough.”
Sometimes, people change.
His mouth went dry and he swayed where he sat.
There’s no going back.
The earth shuddered beneath him with pent-up grief.
His mind reeled as he tried to think of something to say, some perfect sentence that would stop Caroline in her tracks, make her reconsider. He’d apologize a million times, promise her the moon. The lyrics to the song he used to sing to her unspooled inside his head. He would say he’s sorry if he thought that it would change her mind. The Cure. He and Caroline so much younger. The Rocky Horror Picture Show every Friday followed by terrible Mexican food. A closet full of all-black clothes dappled by a splash of Caroline’s blues and grays. Combat boots that reached for his knees; twenty eyelets Caroline would walk her fingers up laced tight across his calves. He’d made love to her with his boots on so many times, all because they had taken too damn long to pull off his feet. And then they had grown up, become adults. Those boots were now exiled to the back of the closet, and every time Caroline caught a glimpse of them, she wondered aloud why he didn’t put them up for sale on eBay. Forget the past. All of that was behind them. But he wouldn’t sell them. They reminded him of the way she’d dance in the passenger seat of his shitty hatchback every time “Enjoy the Silence” came on the radio; he’d never part with them because they encompassed the essence of his own sullen, subdued spirit. Regardless of what she’d become, his once-upon-a-time girl was tangled up in those endlessly long bootlaces.
But these days, he didn’t need those boots to remind him of his brooding, reckless youth. He saw it every time he looked at his kid. Jeanie was already teetering on the edge of teenage angst. If he and Caroline split up, what would become of his little girl? Lucas shook his head as if to reject his wife’s words. He’d pretend she’d never said them, forget she’d ever suggested going to Washington on his own. But all he could manage was a nearly inaudible “no,” so soundless that it failed to register with her at all.
“Use the savings, get the place. If you use more than half your share, pay me back after you get a deal.”
Her image went wavy, like the horizon shivering with heat.
“I’ll talk to Jeanie,” Caroline said. “Explain what’s going on.”
She turned to leave the kitchen, her mug cupped in her hands. She paused just before stepping into the hall, and for a second Lucas was sure she had changed her mind. They had been together for too long. They had a daughter, a life. A history far too precious to throw away. But rather than retracting her words, Caroline shook her head and stepped out of sight.
Lucas white-knuckled the edge of the counter. It was all he could do to keep himself from screaming.
- Publisher: Gallery Books (April 21, 2015)
- Length: 464 pages
- ISBN13: 9781476783741
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Raves and Reviews
"Terrifyingly sad….Within These Walls creeps under your skin, and stays there. It’s insidious….The book’s atmosphere is distinctly damp, clammy, overcast, and it isn’t all the Washington weather: its characters’ souls are gray, dimmed by failure. Ahlborn is awfully good on the insecurities that plague both aging writers…and oversensitive young girls…which leave them vulnerable to those who…know how to get into their heads. So grim.”
– The New York Times Book Review
"Cruel, bone-chilling, and destined to become a classic, Within These Walls is worth the sleep it will cost you. Some of the most promising horror I've encountered in years."
– Seanan McGuire, New York Times bestselling author
“A monstrous Russian nesting doll of a book, holding secrets within secrets; the plot barrels headlong towards one of the most shocking climaxes you’re ever likely to read. This one’s going to wreck you."
– Nick Cutter, national bestselling author of The Troop and The Deep
“Ania Ahlborn is a great storyteller who spins an atmosphere of dread literally from the first page, increasing the mental pressure all the way through to the terrifying, chilling ending.”
– Jeff Somers, acclaimed author of The Electric Church and We Are Not Good People
"Ever-mounting terror and a foreboding setting make for pure storytelling alchemy....Ania Ahlborn goes for the gut with surprise twists that will stay with you for days. Not a book, or an author, that you'll soon forget."
– Vicki Pettersson, New York Times bestselling author
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