Wednesday, October 20, 2021

#Review - The Ice Coven (Jessica Niemi #2) by Max Seeck #Mysery #Suspense

Series: Jessica Niemi # 1
Format: Paperback, 464 pages
Release Date: September 28, 2021
Publisher: Berkley Books
Source: Publisher
Genre: Mystery / Occult & Supernatural

Investigator Jessica Niemi is in a race against time to find the link between a body with strange markings that has washed up on a frigid shore in Finland and two baffling disappearances in this terrifying new novel from the New York Times bestselling author of The Witch Hunter

Six months have passed since Jessica’s encounter with the mysterious serial-killing coven of witches and the death of her mentor. Her nightmares about her mother and the witchcraft that undid her have only gotten worse, but she’s doing what she can to stay focused. Her homicide squad, now under new leadership, has been given a murder case and a new series of disappearances to investigate. A young woman’s corpse has washed up on an icy beach, and two famous Instagram influencers have gone missing at the same time.

The missing influencers and the murdered woman all have ties to a sinister cult. Jessica finds an eerie painting—of a lighthouse on a remote island—as she investigates, and under the picture is a gruesome poem detailing a murder. The nightmares about her mother suddenly seem all too real, making Jessica wonder if the dead woman might be trying to tell her something about the killings. And as Jessica works frantically to solve her latest case, her horrific past comes roaring back and threatens to destroy her.

The Ice Coven, by author Max Seeck, is the second installment in author Jessica Niemi's series. Six months have passed since Jessica's encounter with the mysterious serial-killing coven of witches and the death of her mentor Erne who knew about Jessica's dark past. With her nightmares about her long dead mother and the witchcraft that undid her getting worse, she's trying hard to do what she can to stay focused. Her homicide squad, now under new leadership of Helena Lappi, who, I dare say hates Jessica, has been given a murder case and a new series of disappearances to investigate. 
A young woman's corpse has washed up on an icy beach, and two famous Instagram influencers have gone missing at the same time. The missing influencers and the murdered woman all have ties to a sinister cult. Jessica finds an eerie painting--of a lighthouse on a frigid island--as she investigates and under the picture is a gruesome poem detailing a murder. The nightmares about her dead mother have intensified and seem all too real, making Jessica wonder if the woman might be trying to tell her something about the killings. 
And as Jessica works frantically to solve her latest case with help from Yusuf, Rasmus, Nina, and new guy Jami Harjula, her horrific past comes roaring back and threatens to destroy her. Even though Jessica is on top of her game as an investigator, she still has to do the walk of shame for something she did with a co-worker who turned out to be part of the witch coven. So, while Jessica and her partner Yussef are running down answer to questions, she has to also deal with a Jami who is not only liked by Helena, but wants to prove that he's capable to handle the caseload and maybe get a promotion in the process. 
Jessica and her boss are constantly at odds, which makes some of Jessica's choices in the ending understandable. Helena even goes as far as to dig into parts of Jessica's past that was covered up and hidden by her former boss. The most curious part of Jessica's story is the warnings she's given that is likely to happen around Christmas. Jessica is also dealing with a body that will never be normal. Not after being the only survivor of a brutal car crash which shattered her spine and left her barely able to walk.
This book ends on a cliffhanger ending, and I have to wonder how much Jessica's sanity can remain in check with everything that's happening to her. What makes me coming back to this series is the unique setting of Finland, mostly Helsinki. It's nice to actually remove yourself from the same old same old, and read about something new and different. There's plenty of intrigue, mystery and a plethora of twists and turns with a wild and chilling plot and all of this never fails to keep you engaged and captivated throughout.



Lisa Yamamoto waits for the chrome doors to close, then releases the air trapped in her chest in a single prolonged breath. She slides her black Prada sunglasses off and eyes herself in the mirror on the rear wall. The concealer hides the stress and exhaustion, but it cannot summon joy to her eyes. There’s not a hint of the over-the-top exuberance an invitation to a drop party for Finland’s hottest rap artist-or any artist, for that matter-would have sparked a year or two ago. Now the predominant emotion is one of unpleasant suspense, and she regrets not having done something before leaving the house to boost her confidence-something stronger than champagne. But no doubt one of her fellow invitees will make sure her needs are attended to. Shoot the right person the right look, and she’d be strolling into the ladies’ with a bump that would guarantee a nice pick-me-up.


Lisa scans her body, sheathed in a beige Hervé Léger bandage dress: fit and just the right amount of curvy. At least her look is on point. Not that things aren’t fine or that she doesn’t have it all under control. The sole item on tonight’s agenda is getting a couple of good selfies with the man of the moment and maybe shooting a few video stories with other celebs. Considering whose release party it is, Helsinki’s most famous faces are sure to be out in force.


Lisa hears her phone vibrate in the side pocket of her purse. Probably Jason again. He’s already tried three times. Get a life. She shifts her gaze from the mirror to the digital number panel above. A red four. Five. Six.


A short melody plays, and a moment later the doors open. The elevator is flooded with pounding bass and loud chatter, accentuated by shouts and sporadic bursts of laughter.


Lisa looks down the red carpet toward the coat check, which is mobbed by guests bearing bouquets and bottles. Nobodies, nevers. Lucky I don’t have to introduce myself to them.


The bouncer, a guy named Sahib whom Lisa has known for years, gives her a discreet nod as she steps out of the elevator.


Lisa passes the floor-to-ceiling windows giving onto a panoramic view. Helsinki’s rooftops are slick from days of rainfall. The strikingly lit Torni Hotel rises in the distance, a miniature Empire State Building that dominates the city’s low-slung silhouette. The light from the streetlamps and windows sets the dark scene glistening. The city has yet to be brightened by a first snow.


“Hey, Lisa, nice to see you,” the black-blazered, white-T-shirted Sahib says as he helps her out of her dripping overcoat-artificial leather trimmed in fake fur. The couple in front of Lisa has stopped a few feet away to whisper, by all signs about her. There was a time she got off on the looks, the attention of complete strangers. Now they just make her uncomfortable. What the hell are they staring at?


“How’s it going?” Lisa asks the bald, muscle-bound Sahib as she lowers her purse and shoe bag to the counter. She steadies herself with one hand as she deftly slips off her black, white-striped Superstars with the other and slides her toes into a pair of patent beige heels that came equipped with an extra four inches.


“Party’s already bumping,” Sahib replies smoothly, carries Lisa’s coat and bagged sneakers over to the rack, and hands her a numbered tag creased by the sweaty fists of thousands of partyers.


Lisa feels her phone vibrate again along with the thump of the bass. Maybe it’s been ringing this whole time. She pulls it from her purse, glances at the screen, and silences the device. Shit.


“Thanks,” she says, flashing Sahib a quick smile.


“Be careful out there-a lot of bad boys on the loose tonight,” Sahib says with a wink. And although she can’t stand the bouncer’s patronizing flirtation, Lisa smiles and winks back.


The highway created by the red carpet cuts through the dark drapes and into the glare of the photographers’ flashes. The air is permeated by that distinctive nightclub odor-stale cologne, spilled alcohol, and cigarette smoke absorbed by the floor, carpets, and curtains over the years-a reek even a series of remodels hasn’t managed to eradicate. A female bouncer Lisa doesn’t recognize cracks the curtains, and Lisa steps into the club proper, a tall space packed with partyers showing off the latest trends. Hair dyed in flaming tints, off-the-wall makeup, plumped lips, custom-made suits and sport coats accentuating trained bodies, ironic hipster mustaches, trimmed beards. Lisa pauses to take in the photo wall, the size of a soccer goal, and the guests being brusquely manhandled toward it as if it were a medieval gallows.


“Yamamoto!” a female voice squeals. Lisa’s eyes strike on an overweight reporter with glasses whose name she can’t remember, despite having been interviewed by the other woman at some point.


Lisa gives the reporter a practiced smile that shows her white teeth. “Hi!”


“We’d love to do a little piece on you….”


Lisa glances at the photographer standing behind the reporter; he has a tabloid press card hanging around his neck. Probably legit, and good advertising for her blog.


“Let me go over and take my picture first.”


“Sure. We’ll be right here.”


“OK, great,” Lisa says as she leans in to hug a young English-speaking man she doesn’t remember ever meeting. Hi! Good to see you. Sure, talk to you soon!


After extricating herself from the stranger’s excessively eager and overpowering aftershave-drenched embrace, Lisa drifts to the photo wall, joins the short queue snaking up to it.


She scans the room bathed in low lighting, the sea of bodies surging there. Some faces are familiar, others aren’t; the majority are somewhere in between. Faded memories, distant flashes of Helsinki nightlife. CDKF. Chat, dance, kiss, fuck. Typically in that order, although Lisa remembers a few nights she skipped directly from the chatting to the fucking. And maybe one or two when she arrived at the same outcome without so much as a chat.


Over at the back, Lisa spies a knot of revelers corralled off from the main herd, camera flashes, men and women taking turns rubbing shoulders for the paparazzi. And at the eye of this storm, the top-hatted, sequin-tuxedoed guest of honor himself, Kex Mace, aka Tim Taussi, the twenty-six-year-old rap artist whose pop-influenced hip-hop album made Spotify history last year: it rose to the top of the streaming lists not only in Finland, but in the other Nordic countries and Germany too.


“You’re up, Lisa,” calls the woman with the telephoto lens. Purse in hand, Lisa steps up to the backdrop: an album cover illustrated with a huge spider. Kex Mace’s Spider’s Web. The flashes click briefly, annoyingly so. The photographers haven’t always let Lisa off the hook so easily. Just last year, she would see camera flashes in her sleep. Thanks! She is free to go. Great seeing you, Lisa! Have fun tonight! The smiles feel almost genuine, the words almost sincere, but the underlying chill does not go unnoticed by Lisa. She has an eye for social cues that has been honed by dozens of such events. No one is really interested in who you are, only what you look like and what you represent. Some people are interested solely in whether you’ll be available for an after-party blow job at five a.m., once the bottles have been emptied and the Ziploc bags vacuumed of every last gram.


The next item on the agenda is a glass of champagne; a server in a black shirt and yellow bow tie is conveniently carrying a tray of them in his gloved hand.


A promo girl in a tastelessly short skirt and a breast-baring top hands Lisa a program, winks, and says: “Don’t get tangled in the web.”


Don’t get tangled in the web. So damned pretentious and overproduced. Lisa has been inside for only a few minutes, but she already has the urge to spin right back around and get the hell out of here. She’s more desperate for a shot of courage than she realized. Snow White. Marching powder. Her gaze seeks out anyone who could offer relief. Teme, Sakke, Taleeb…Her usual guys are presumably present but obscured by the hundreds of faces.


And then Lisa feels her heart skip a beat. There he is again: standing, hands in his pockets, at the windows overlooking the city. His gaze, vaguely accusatory and penetrating, is exactly the same as last time. Lisa turns on her heels and heads for the bar.


But she knows the man won’t let her out of his sight.


Wednesday, November 27




The song blasting through the earbuds-En Vogue’s “Free Your Mind”-pauses as the running app provides its audio feedback. Despite being friendly and female, the voice exudes the stark soullessness of any recorded announcement: Distance five kilometers, average speed ten point two kilometers an hour. The music returns, and Jessica Niemi inhales the fresh air through her nostrils. It smells of morning after the first freeze of the year: of the frost on the leaves being swept away by the sun’s early rays; of melting puddles, their film of ice giving under the flexible soles of sneakers.


Jessica feels like she’s flying; her step is light. A few months ago, she started running to work again after a prolonged hiatus. It’s a form of exercise she has dropped more than once due to agonized protests from her broken body. Aching joints, nerve pain boring into her knees, shooting down her legs to her toes, and all of it immune to normal pain medications. But now her legs are moving, and the pain hasn’t returned. It will, of course; it always does. But until then, Jessica means to relish every footfall, every spurt that ends in a flood of endorphins. In retrospect, her taking up running again on a whim feels miraculous. After the funeral of her former boss Erne Mikson, Jessica spent weeks in a daze, sat at home brooding over everything that had happened. Until one day she pulled on her running shoes and lunged out into the mild spring air. Like Forrest Gump, her colleague Yusuf later joked.


The distance from her Tššlšnkatu flat to police headquarters in Pasila is about three and a half kilometers. The route hugs the bay, skirts the Winter Garden, then continues past the Stadium hill to Helsinki’s Central Park. In order to double the distance, Jessica frequently turns west-as she did today-at the Laakso equestrian center and crisscrosses the park’s rocky, spruce-sheltered paths all the way to the allotment gardens at Ruskeasuo.


Jessica passes the riding school and Helsinki’s mounted police just to the northeast. The sandy path is poorly lit along this stretch of track. The lampposts among the tall trees are few and far between, and the bright lights of the arena plunge instantly into forested gloom. A large bird prowls the treetops.


Hey! Did you hear me?


Jessica glances backward, but the path is deserted. It’s hard to say whether she truly heard the shout over the music blasting in her earbuds. Sometimes she hears things when she’s running: random words and cries. The voices have followed her for so long she doesn’t always pay attention to them.




This time the voice is too real. Jessica pulls the earbud from one ear and glances over her shoulder just in time to catch a glimpse of a male figure with outsized hands scrabbling at her windbreaker. The assailant throws his full weight against her, knocks her to the ground. Jessica can feel his mass on her back as her cheek digs into icy mud and damp leaves.


“Listen…,” the voice says.


Jessica reels from the stench of boozy breath. Thighs wrap around her glutes, the attacker planted on her lower back. Bare fingers reach around her neck as the mouth growls in her ears. The breath smells of salt-licorice schnapps. Then Jessica’s attacker flips her over, and she sees his face: a stranger’s. Alcohol-flushed, angular cheeks, heavy mustache. An unkempt, ethanol-rotted forty-year-old. Jessica remembers passing a bench at the side of the sawdust path a few minutes back; a creepy guy in a leather jacket sat there, swigging rotgut from a plastic bottle.


“Christmas Eve.” The voice isn’t much more than a whisper. “Christmas Eve.”


Jessica stares at him, bewildered. The guy is clearly out of it; Christmas Eve is a month away. The fingers of one hand squeeze her jaw as his other hand holds her left wrist down.


Jessica exerts every ounce of strength she can muster and knees him in the crotch, but her legs are locked under the asshole’s weight, and he must be too drunk to feel his balls.


Jessica hears her pulse pounding in her ears. She takes a deep breath. Rough gravel scrapes her cheek; she sees icy sand and decomposing leaves in her peripheral vision. She could scream for help, but she doesn’t remember seeing anyone else nearby. In the distance, someone calls after a barking dog.


“Christmas Eve.” Now the man is foaming at the mouth, teeth bared. “Christmas Eve.”


Jessica’s fingertips graze the tiny canister at the bottom of her pocket. It’s classified as a firearm under Finnish law, and these days she always carries it with her. A second later, the man takes a long squirt of pepper spray to the eyes. An instant of disbelief, and then his drunken ranting turns into screams of anguish. With her free hand, Jessica slams her attacker in the face over and over. The upper teeth break; blood spurts from the mouth to the sallow skin. He loses his grip. And then, with surprising agility, he hauls himself off Jessica and bolts into the woods.


Jessica gasps for breath and lurches laboriously to her feet.


The knuckles on her right hand are bleeding.


Jessica hears branches snapping in the underbrush, but there’s no sign of the man anymore.


She doesn’t lower her hand; she brandishes the pepper spray, vigilant against a repeat attack. She waits and listens to the noises carrying from the woods. But the man doesn’t return.


Jessica grabs her phone and dials the station switchboard. After giving a description of the attacker, she starts jogging in the direction she came from, this time on high alert.


Distance six kilometers, average speed nine point one kilometers an hour.




Jessica steps across the threshold and leans her hip against the doorjamb. The after-sweat brought on by the hot shower she took in the locker room has glued her dark blue dress shirt to her back, and she discreetly tugs it out from under her belt. Her right hand, the one she used to whale on her attacker’s jaw, hurts like hell; she should probably let occupational health x-ray it.

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