By Chuck Hogan
Read by Brittany Pressley
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From the authors who brought you The Strain Trilogy comes a strange, terrifying, and darkly wondrous world of suspense, mystery, and literary horror. The Hollow Ones is a chilling, spell-binding tale, a hauntingly original new fable from Academy Award-winning director Guillermo del Toro and bestselling author Chuck Hogan featuring their most fascinating character yet.
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Astute readers may recognize in our main character’s name a tribute to one of our most admired authors and the originator of the “occult detective” subgenre, Algernon Blackwood. While some religious rites detailed herein have been embellished for dramatic effect, any errors of fact are unintentional. We would like to note, however, that grave robbing in New Jersey, for occult purposes, is not at all fiction or a thing of the past. It’s happening. Right now.
PRELUDE: The Box
Wedged between two buildings in the Financial District of Manhattan—namely 13 and 15 Stone Street—exists a sliver of a property that officially stands as 13½ Stone Street.
Roughly four feet wide and composed of a colonial stone running the space between the buildings, capped off at thirty feet above the ground, this property serves no apparent purpose but to hold an unremarkable cast-iron Edwardian mailbox.
The Box has no ornaments, no distinguishing characteristics other than a large envelope slot, and there is no door or key to retrieve the mail once it is deposited.
Behind The Box, a solid wedge of stone and mortar.
The deed on this minuscule urban mystery dates back to Dutch colonial times, and the taxes on it have been punctually paid by the firm of Lusk and Jarndyce since 1822. Before that time, its property records exist only in reference, but all are in perfect legal standing.
The oldest recorded mention of The Box goes back indeed to a pamphlet published in what was then named New Amsterdam. The most complete narrative of the vicissitudes of Jan Katadreuffe and his Final, Virtuous Elevation to the Kingdom of Our Lord.
In said pamphlet—published by Long and Blackwood, 1763, Folio, four pages—a wealthy spice merchant makes a deal with a demon in order to secure the arrival of his ships and cargo.
The ships are delivered, but henceforth a foul spirit runs amok and tortures the merchant—every nightfall—biting him savagely, scratching his back, and riding his body like a jockey while the wretched soul screams in abject misery and commits sinful acts of great violence.
In the drama, a layman, trying to help, tells a learned priest of a possible solution:
“…The iron box on High street, your woes is there to greet. Sealed letter bears the Blackwood name. And in a forthnight thee shall meet…”
The priest praises the Lord and the sacraments as the only solution to pursue. Katadreuffe pays for a litany of masses and is liberated from his torment only hours before passing away, purified.
A small, unassuming gravestone memorializes the passing of Katadreuffe. On the Rector Street side of Trinity Church, the tombstone reads:
HERE LIES THE BODY OF JAN KATADREUFFE, LATE MERCHANT OF SPICE AND WOODS WHO DEPARTED THIS LIFE THE 16TH DAY OF OCTOBER 1709—AGED 42 YEARS. BEHOLD AND SEE THEE PASS BY. AS THEE ARE NOW, SO ONCE WAS ME, AS I AM, YOU SOON WILL BE. PREPARE FOR DEATH AND FOLLOW ME…
Over the centuries, 13½ Stone Street has withstood many a litigation: zoning, corporate, and otherwise. Every one of these legal battles has been won at great expense. And so The Box stands: a mystery standing in plain sight. Most people pass by without even giving it another glance.
A decade ago, a large insurance company across the street installed three security cameras. A dedicated observer could attest that, even though a few letters arrive to The Box—approximately one every three weeks or so—no one ever picks them up, nor does the mailbox ever overflow.
Of this small mystery, one thing has been corroborated time and again over the decades: Every letter that arrives at The Box is a letter of urgent need—a desperate call for help—and every single envelope carries the same name:
Hugo Blackwood, Esq.
2019. Newark, New Jersey.
Odessa set down her menu and looked around the Soup Spoon Café for a list of specials. She found it, a whiteboard near the hostess station, written in block lettering with a red marker. Something about the handwriting triggered a long-forgotten memory of her days at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.
A Behavioral Sciences lecturer drew up homicide definitions with a squeaky red dry erase marker on the big board in the front of the auditorium.
The differentiation, the lecturer explained, had nothing to do with the homicides themselves—severity, method, or manner—but rather the cooling-off period in between.
The Serial Killer’s hallmark is their cycle. Weeks, months, or even years may pass between homicides.
The Mass Murderer kills in one setting, within a fixed time frame, totaling a minimum of four homicides committed in close succession with little or no downtime in between.
The Spree Killer murders in multiple settings, usually over a brief period of time, the duration lasting anywhere from one hour to several days or weeks. Related: a Rampage Killer, a single person who murders multiple persons in a single homicidal event.
The last two classifications allowed room for overlap. One case that was difficult to properly classify—and was generally considered to be the first rampage killing in the United States—had occurred just seventy-five miles south of the café in which she now sat.
On September 6, 1949, Howard Unruh, a twenty-eight-year-old World War II veteran, departed his mother’s house in Camden, New Jersey, dressed in his best suit and a striped bow tie. He had argued with his mother over breakfast, prompting her to flee to a neighbor’s home, frantically telling them she feared something terrible was about to happen.
Unruh walked into town armed with a German Luger pistol, carrying thirty 9-millimeter rounds. In a twelve-minute span he shot and killed thirteen people, wounding three more. Locations included a pharmacy, a barbershop, and a tailor. While the desire to murder was proven to be premeditated—Unruh was later found to have kept a list of enemies in a diary—his victims were a mix of preferred targets and people unfortunate enough to cross his path on that clear Tuesday morning. Victims and eyewitnesses alike described the look in Howard’s eye that morning as trance-like, dazed.
To anyone other than a law enforcement professional, the classification of the crime matters little. The only truly important fact of the matter was that, for more than sixty years, Unruh’s shooting spree stood as the worst rampage killing in New Jersey.
That is, until the night Walt Leppo ordered meat loaf.
“Is it cooked fresh?” Walt asked the young server after his return from the men’s room.
“Oh, absolutely,” she answered.
“Would you do me a favor, then?” he said. “Could you look and see if there’s maybe a slice or two left over from the lunch rush? Preferably set under a heat lamp for a few hours? Really dry with toasted edges?”
The server held his gaze for a few moments, as if unsure whether or not she was being put on. She was a student probably, likely at one of the nearby law schools. Odessa had put herself through her third year of law school in Boston waiting tables, and she acutely remembered the uneasy feeling she got when certain male customers made vaguely creepy, borderline fetishistic food requests—usually loners, men who she suspected wished that they could order women off menus, not just food.
The server glanced at Odessa sitting across from Leppo. Odessa offered an encouraging smile, hoping to set the fellow young woman at ease.
“Just let me check,” she said.
“Thank you,” he said, closing his menu and handing it to her. “By the way, I prefer the end pieces.”
She left with their orders. Walt added to Odessa, “We used to call the end pieces the heels.”
Odessa nodded as though fascinated. She said, pleasantly, “Serial killer.”
Walt shrugged. “Because I like my meat loaf the way my mother used to make it?”
“Oh God. Add one oral fixation.”
“You know what, Dessa? I got news for you: Everything can be sexualized. Everything. Even meat loaf, apparently.”
“I bet you like your toast burnt, too.”
“Like a slice of charcoal. But didn’t you get the regulation about rookies not being allowed to profile veteran agents?”
Both their heads turned when the first drops of rain began tapping at the other side of the picture window at the front of the Soup Spoon Café.
Leppo said, “Oh great.”
Odessa checked her phone. The weather app radar showed a mass of precipitation in shades of jade and mint approaching Newark like a cloud of toxic gas. She turned it around so that Leppo could see. Her umbrella happened to be locked next to the Remington 870 twelve-gauge shotgun inside the trunk of their car, parked half a block up the street.
“Jersey rain,” said Leppo, unfolding his napkin. “Like hosing down a dog. Everything gets wet, nothing gets clean.”
Odessa smiled at yet another “Leppo-ism,” looking outside as more drops strafed the window. The few people outside moved more quickly now, with a blurry sense of urgency.
Things speeding up.
At the very same moment Leppo was asking about meat loaf (as later chronologies would bear out), a dozen miles north of Newark, Evan Aronson was on hold with his health insurance provider, listening to soft 1970s rock while waiting to question a surcharge for a recent emergency room visit. At his ten-year Rutgers reunion a few weeks before, Evan had torn his left biceps during a re-creation of his Greek brothers’ traditional late-night porta-potty leap, as he attempted to catch his former fraternity house roommate, Brad “Boomer” Bordonsky, despite Boomer having packed on a solid thirty pounds since graduation.
While enduring another one of Styx’s greatest hits, Evan looked up from his desk in the Charter Airliners office at Teterboro Airport and watched as a late-model Beechcraft Baron G58 taxied out of the nearby private aviation hangar. The pilot, tall and in his fifties, climbed out of the cockpit of the million-dollar twin-engine piston aircraft. The man wore gray track pants, a long-sleeved pullover, and sandals. He disappeared back inside the hangar, leaving the aircraft engines running outside. A hangar attendant exchanged a few words with him and then moved away.
Moments later, the pilot returned holding a very large wrench.
Pilots, but especially owner-pilots, do not perform their own aircraft repairs. Not with the plane’s twin three-hundred-horsepower engines still on, propellers rotating faster than the eye can track. Evan stood out of his chair to get a better look at the pilot, standing there with his left arm in a sling, his right arm holding the telephone receiver, connected by a cord to the base on his desk due to airport radio frequency regulations.
Under the whine of the turbine, Evan heard a loud pop—and a simultaneous crunch.
He heard it again, struggling now to see the pilot, who was apparently working behind the Beechcraft’s fuselage. The tall man came around to the near wing, and Evan watched as he swung the large wrench at the running lamp—popping the seal on impact, crunching the red plastic casing, pieces of which fell to the tarmac as the lightbulb went dark.
Evan gasped audibly, so obscene was this act of violence against an aircraft worth millions of dollars. Evan stretched the phone cord to full length, the soft ballad “Lady” providing a weird counterpoint to the sight of a plane owner vandalizing his own property.
These high-end private jets were both babied like pampered pets and rigorously maintained like race cars. What this man was doing was tantamount to putting out the eyes of a champion racehorse with a screwdriver.
This couldn’t be an owner at all, Evan decided. Someone was causing thousands of dollars of damage to this aircraft…and perhaps stealing it.
“Mr. Aronson, I have your file in front of me…” came the insurance representative’s voice—but Evan had to drop the receiver, letting it clatter against the floor, its cord recoiling to the desk. He rushed out the office door straight into the needle-sharp drops of cold rain, looking left and right, hoping someone else was seeing this and could help him.
The tall man finished with the last lightbulb, the aircraft now cloaked in darkness. A small emergency light backlit the scene.
“HEY!” yelled Evan, waving his one good arm. He jogged a few steps toward the scene, yelling “HEY!” a few more times, both at the tall man and in either direction, hoping to rouse somebody with two working arms.
A hangar attendant approached the pilot, trying to stop him. Three downward wrench blows caved in the right side of the attendant’s head—the attack lasting only seconds. The attendant collapsed on the ground, rattled by death spasms.
The pilot crouched and went to work on the rest of the skull, like a caveman finishing his kill.
Evan froze. His mind could not process such violent terror.
The pilot tossed the wrench to the side with a great clanking and walked perilously close to the left propeller, rounding it, climbing up onto the wing, settling inside the glass cockpit.
The aircraft jerked forward and started rolling.
The only light in the plane was that of the cockpit avionics, a cool green-blue LCD Garmin G1000 display. Evan thought it lit the pilot’s face like an alien’s.
He was transfixed by the dead look in the man’s eyes.
Mechanically, the man reached for something in the cockpit beneath Evan’s line of sight. Suddenly there was an explosion of sound and flame, shattering the right-side window. Rounds from the AK-47 semiautomatic rifle ripped into Evan’s body like hot nails, buckling his knees, his body collapsing, his head smacking the tarmac, knocking him instantly unconscious.
As the darkened Beechcraft turned toward the taxiway, Evan bled to death peacefully.
Odessa had the steak salad. No onions, because she didn’t want the taste in her mouth all night. She ordered coffee because it was the middle of their shift and that is what FBI agents drink.
“Did you know,” Leppo said after the server left, “there is more trace amount of human feces on menus than anywhere else inside a restaurant?”
Odessa brought a tiny tube of hand sanitizer out of her bag, setting it upon the table as though she were attacking on a chessboard.
Leppo liked her, she could tell. He had a grown daughter of his own, so he projected and understood. He liked taking her under his wing. There were no assigned partners in the FBI. He wanted to show her the ropes, teach her “the right way” to do things. And she wanted to learn.
“My pop sold kitchen supplies everywhere in the five boroughs for thirty years until his pump gave out,” he said. “And he always said—and this might be the most important lesson I can teach you as a third-year agent—that the hallmark of a clean restaurant is its bathroom. If the bathroom is hygienic, orderly, and well maintained, you can be assured the food prep area is safe, too. Know why?”
She had a guess, but it was better to let him pontificate.
“Because the same underpaid Chilean or Salvadoran immigrant who cleans the restrooms also cleans the kitchen. The entire food service industry—and you could make an argument for civilization itself—hinges on the performance of these frontline workers.”
Odessa said, “Immigrants, they get the job done.”
“Heroes,” said Leppo, proposing a toast with his coffee mug. “Now if only they could do a better job cleaning menus.”
Odessa smiled, then tasted onion in her salad and made a disappointed face.
The first emergency call came from Teterboro, saying a private jet had taken off without tower authorization. The aircraft had banked due east, over Moonachie and across Interstate 95 toward the Hudson River. The aircraft was assumed stolen and flying in an erratic pattern, rising and falling a few thousand feet in altitude, occasionally disappearing below the range of the radar.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey issued an emergency alert. Teterboro was shut down in accordance with FAA regulations, suspending all pending flights and redirecting inbound air traffic to Linden Municipal Airport, a small airfield in southern New Jersey used primarily for sightseeing tours and helicopters.
The first citizen 911 call came from the operator of a tugboat in the Hudson River, less than a mile south of the George Washington Bridge. He claimed that an airplane with no lights had flown very low between the tug and the bridge, making “popping noises” in the rain. The operator said it sounded like the pilot was throwing firecrackers at his boat, and feared it was the start of “another Nine Eleven.”
The second 911 call came from a fashion executive driving home to Fort Lee on the George Washington Bridge who reported seeing “a large drone” headed toward the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
There followed a flood of emergency calls from Manhattan residents, claiming that an aircraft had buzzed their apartment building or place of employment. The airplane was spotted over Central Park, heading due south along Fifth Avenue, but difficult to eyeball as it was flying dark. The pattern of the calls traced a flight path cutting diagonally across Lower Manhattan over Greenwich Village, then back toward the Hudson.
The Staten Island Ferry was cruising within sight of the Statue of Liberty when the Beechcraft swooped down on its stern. The only lights were the bursts of flame from the muzzle of the automatic rifle firing out the right side of the cockpit. Rounds picked at the orange hull of the MV Andrew J. Barberi, some cracking through the windows of the passenger space. Two commuters were directly injured by gunfire, neither gravely. Seventeen passengers were more seriously injured in the ensuing panic, causing the ferry to turn around and return to the Lower Manhattan terminal.
Three bullet holes were later found in the copper exterior of the crown and torch of the Statue of Liberty, but no injuries were reported there.
The Beechcraft made a hard turn west, back into New Jersey airspace. It was spotted over Elizabeth on a course heading toward Newark, New Jersey’s most populous city, knifing through the evening rain.
Newark Liberty International Airport was closed, and air traffic diverted.
Reports followed of a second aircraft over southern New Jersey, but these were later confirmed as sightings of the same aircraft.
The aircraft’s altitude dipped as low as one hundred feet at times. An eagle-eyed bus passenger on a bright section of the Jersey Turnpike noted the N number on the plane’s fuselage and texted it to the state police.
Twin F-15 fighter jets were dispatched from Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod, flying toward Manhattan at supersonic speed.
Police sirens pierced the night all across the metro Newark area as cruisers raced toward airplane sightings, but ground municipal deployment was completely ineffective. Within minutes the aircraft was sighted over the Pulaski Skyway, then Weequahic, then Newark Bay, then the MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands.
“How’s the meat loaf?” Odessa asked.
He responded with his mouth full of it, “Best I ever had.”
Odessa shook her head, then caught the server’s attention with a shake of her empty coffee mug. She was going to need the caffeine. They were working on the Cary Peters corruption case, the former deputy chief of staff to the governor of New Jersey ensnared in a widening scandal. Peters had resigned three months ago in what now looked like an attempt to squelch the investigation and keep it from moving inside the governor’s office. The active part of the case had only recently died down. The ensuing scandal had rocked Peters’s personal life, as well as his professional life. (Reimbursing oneself $1,700 for a night at Scores gentlemen’s club from your boss’s campaign fund will do that.) Taking a bullet for the governor had come at a great cost. Television news and tabloid reporters swarmed all over his and his wife’s and family’s lives as they were going through a white-hot breakup. It got so bad that the city of Montclair, where they lived, established NO PARKING zones outside his house on the advice of the police department, in order to keep the zealous press away. Peters had since gone into a tailspin that included being booked for a DWI earlier in the month. One online news site maintained a counter on its homepage estimating the number of days before Peters cracked and cut a deal with prosecutors to save his own skin, turning on the governor in this rapidly widening scandal.
For the FBI, and specifically for Leppo and Odessa, the investigation had entered the paperwork stage. The FBI headquarters at Claremont Tower was working around the clock thanks to recently released documents from the statehouse and the governor’s campaign committee. Odessa and Leppo had spent each of the previous four nights reading through emails, employee contract agreements, and expense reports. Most investigative work in the modern digital age involves forensic computer analysis and decoding the voluminous digital footprints and fingerprints we all leave behind.
This is why the FBI likes to hire lawyers.
This dinner in this iffy diner in a blighted section of one of the most dangerous cities in America was Odessa’s only respite from the nightly document slog. With that in mind, she could have listened to Leppo talking with his mouth full all night.
Their phones, both screen-down on the table, simultaneously began to vibrate. They quickly checked them, knowing that it was never good news when their phones bugged out at the same time.
Surprisingly, it was not a text about work. It was a news alert from the New York Times. An airplane hijacked out of Teterboro had buzzed Manhattan with unconfirmed reports of automatic gunfire coming from the cockpit. Live updates scrolled below the headline report. The aircraft had apparently crossed the Hudson River. Its most recent sighting was near Newark.
“Shit,” said Leppo. He forked a huge chunk of meat loaf into his mouth while plucking his napkin from his lap. Odessa knew that her coffee would have to wait. It was always better to get moving first, rather than being called upon to respond. Odessa quickly visited the ladies’ room, as experience had taught her, while Leppo went to the front cashier with his credit card.
Leppo was already outside in the rain with a free real estate circular tented over his head when Odessa hit the door. At a break in the headlights, they crossed the street under the cold rain, skirting a gutter puddle and striding north toward their unmarked silver Chevy Impala.
With the falling rain and the automobile tires whisking along the wet asphalt beside them, Odessa did not hear the airplane’s twin engines until they were almost immediately over her head. The dark plane knifed through the stringy rain, wings pitched slightly to one side, the underbelly of the fuselage passing not two hundred feet above them.
It was there, and then it was gone. Unreal.
“Jesus,” said Leppo.
Odessa stopped so fast, Leppo bumped into her from behind.
Sirens replaced the fading roar of the plane’s engines. A cruiser went screaming past them into the cross street as Odessa slid into the driver’s seat of the Impala.
Leppo was already on his phone, talking to somebody at Claremont. The top six floors of the Claremont Tower overlooked Newark from the shore of the narrow brown Passaic River.
“Where to?” Odessa asked him, watching more blue lights plow through the spit.
“Don’t bother trying to follow it,” said Leppo, pointing her left at the intersection. Back to Claremont, then.
Leppo punched the phone audio through the Bluetooth of the automobile dash. “Davey, we were on dinner, we just saw it, what’s the word?”
PRAISE FOR THE HOLLOW ONES:"The central aesthetic decision -- merging the classical horrors of Algernon Blackwood with a distinctly contemporary narrative -- is both surprising and ultimately successful. The Hollow Ones is a swift, thoroughly imagined entertainment that looks back at the genre's past while hinting, in the final pages, of future installments to come. The possibilities are limitless."—Washington Post
- "Fans of Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toro -- the co-writer with Chuck Hogan -- will appreciate the focus on the monsters at the center of the tale. . . The book is a quick read, with propulsive action and just enough explication to keep readers interested. . . del Toro and Hogan ground the story in just enough reality to keep you turning the pages."—Associated Press
- "A transporting, pageturning thriller that rips open a brand new universe, filling it with suspense. Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan have a dark vision to share -- and they've created quite a duo in Hugo Blackwood and Odessa Hardwicke, a Sherlockian partnership for the ages."—Brad Meltzer, #1 NYT bestselling author of The Escape Artist
- "If one could combine the world-conjuring magic of C. S. Lewis with the dark energy of Thomas Harris, one would be at least part of the way to understanding what makes THE HOLLOW ONES so special. Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan have yet another twisted masterpiece on their hands. An enduring new series combining horror, suspense, and fable."—Stephen Chbosky, NYT bestselling author of The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Imaginary Friend
- "A welcome gift to disciples of Lovecraft-ian fiction. Odessa Hardewick is cast in the mold of Clarice Starling. . . Inventive and macabre."—Kirkus
- "Fans of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child's Pendergast books will be enthralled."—Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Aug 11, 2020
- Hachette Audio