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By Gregg Olsen
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Format:Trade Paperback $13.99 $18.99 CAD
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From a #1 New York Times bestselling author comes a gripping story where Detective Megan Carpenter must put a stop to a dangerous killer—but not before discovering the secrets of her own dark past.
Footprints were scattered about like fallen leaves. She looked down into the ravine, and once more her lungs filled with fear. A body lay silent and unmoving in the bushes.
When Ruth Turner walks into the Sheriff’s office in Jefferson County’s Port Townsend claiming her sister Ida Wheaton has been missing for over a month, Detective Megan Carpenter’s instincts tell her that she needs to do more than just file a report.
Racing over to Ida’s secluded farmhouse in the hills above Snow Creek, Megan finds Ida’s teenage children alone and frightened. She can’t help but notice there’s no TV. No video games. Nothing of the outside world. Something about the Wheaton family doesn’t add up and triggers a painful childhood memory for Megan – when one day, in a flash, both her parents were gone.
Then the body of a woman is discovered in an abandoned pickup truck close to the Wheatons’ home and Megan’s convinced the cases are connected.
If she has any chance of catching the killer, Megan must first unravel the secrets of the isolated Snow Creek community. But Megan has dark secrets of her own…
Hidden in the back of her closet is a box of tapes containing every single recording of her therapy sessions over thirteen years ago. Can she finally confront the past she’s spent years trying to block out? And will reliving her own painful story help her solve the complex case unravelling in the hills above Snow Creek before another innocent life is lost?
I know it is only tomato soup left at the bottom of the cup from yesterday's rushed attempt at lunch. I know that. I know blood. And yet it's like a little trick to me, maybe tic is a better word. Something, among many, that I can't shake. I have seen so much blood. In my life. At my job, of course. As I sit at my desk at Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, with posters of the magnificent Olympic Range looming over me, I think of the things that spark a memory of blood. A child's finger painting pasted proudly in the window of her classroom. The smear of brick red lipstick on the collar of Sheriff's starched, white shirt. The explosion of juice left by falling cherries on the sidewalk in front of my home in Port Townsend, Washington.
Sometimes I wish I had been born colorblind.
Or I came from a place where the color red was meaningless. Innocuous. Just another color. Like the blue of the Pacific or the green of the firs and spruce trees that stumble down the snowy Olympic Mountains to the foothills, and finally, the meadows below.
Blood oxidizes and dries to a nice coppery brown. That's good. Dry blood doesn't cause me to catch my breath. Just fresh blood. Only cherry. Only scarlet.
The light on my desk phone flashes.
I pick up.
"Detective Carpenter," I answer.
"My sister is missing," a woman says, pausing as if that should be enough information to catch my interest. In fact, it is. My cases of late have been property crimes, burglary mostly, and a missing dog.
That's right. A dog.
The woman's voice is hesitant, and I can immediately tell that it took courage to call. Not because she's afraid of dialing the number, but because in doing so she's fearful of what she'll find.
What I might find.
"I'll need to know more," I say. "Ms.?"
Her words begin to tumble through the phone. "Turner. Ruth Turner. My sister Ida—Ida Wheaton—hasn't responded to anyone in the family for weeks, maybe a month. It isn't like her. Not at all."
I wonder how close Ruth could be to her sister if she's not sure when anyone has heard from her.
"I'll need more details," I tell her.
Hesitancy fills the line. "Of course," she finally answers. "I'm outside in your parking lot. Can I come in and talk to you?"
"I'll meet you at the front desk."
I hang up and catch my reflection on the surface of my now very cold coffee. My hair is dark and clipped back at the nape of my neck. I wear no makeup other than a single application of mascara and a touch of blush. My lip color is courtesy of Chapstick, owing more to the breezy weather off the water than a need for lip coloring. I know I could do more with myself, but doing more only attracts more attention from men. I don't want that right now. I doubt I ever will. I get up, bumping my desk, and the reflection disappears into a succession of ripples. My mother used to say I was beautiful. And even though that was a long time ago, and her word means very little, I know I'm many things. That might even be one of them.
I'm a little flummoxed as I make my way to reception. Outside in the parking lot? Who does that? And why didn't she just come inside?
Ruth Turner stands awkwardly next to the desk. She's lean, tall, gangly and hunches over to sign her name on the register. Not more than mid-fifties, her hair is gray and white and long, swirling into a bun that resembles the wasp nest that hangs over my garage. She's wearing a long dark dress over a white cotton blouse. Her shoes are black Oxfords, shiny on top yet scuffed in the places where her foot rested as she drove from wherever she came from. She wears no makeup, save for a light touch of mascara on her lashes. Despite her austere appearance, when she turns to greet me her eyes are warm and full of emotion. They radiate a combination of hope and worry.
I reach to take her hand. I feel a slight tremble in my gentle grasp.
"Detective Carpenter," she says, her eyes now puddling, "thank you for seeing me."
I don't like tears. My own or anyone's. I give her a reassuring smile and move quickly to defuse her emotion. Tears get in the way of truth sometimes. I know that from personal experience.
"Come back here with me, Ms. Turner," I say. "Let's see what we can do."
"Call me Ruth."
I nod and lead her to a room that we use mostly to interview children. The furniture is colorful, and its walls are adorned with pleasant posters of breeching orcas and lighthouses at sunset. It's a far cry from the foreboding space of the interview room next door. That one is all white and gray with a decidedly claustrophobic milieu, which is in line with its purpose.
Make the subject uncomfortable.
Help them focus.
Make them want to get the hell out of there.
In other words, get them to spill their guts.
I sit across from Ruth and I take in everything I can about her. Her body language. Her ability to look me in the eyes. Her tics; if she has any. She does. She blinks harder than necessary after each gasp of her story. I can't tell if she's trying to wring out more tears or if that's just how she is.
She tells me Ida, and her husband, Merritt Wheaton, live in the hills above Snow Creek.
It's an area with a bit of a reputation.
"Off the grid?" I ask.
"Right," she answers. "It's something that Merritt wanted to do. Ida didn't mind. We come from kind of a conservative background. Raised in Utah and Idaho. Dad hand-picked Merritt for Ida."
I bristle inside at "hand-picked," but I don't let on.
"You said on the phone that you weren't sure when the last time was that anyone had heard from your sister. Yet now you are concerned about her welfare? Did something happen?"
Ruth looks away and blinks hard. "No. Not really."
"Not really," I repeat.
"I don't know. Maybe. Last time I talked to her she was a little off."
She hesitates before answering. "She disrespected her husband for the way he disciplined the kids."
Up till then, Ruth hadn't mentioned any children. She sees the look on my face before I even ask her about them.
"Sarah is almost seventeen and Joshua is nineteen. You know teenagers can be a handful no matter how you raise them. It takes a firm hand to make sure they stay on the straight and narrow."
I asked for a definition of "firm hand."
She suddenly seems wary and pulls her arms tightly against her body. A defensive move.
"You probably wouldn't approve," she tells me, "but from where we come from, Detective, it has served us well. Our children are taught that there are consequences for misbehavior. Rules provide the structure for a holy life."
"What kind of discipline?"
"The usual," she says. "Spankings when small. That kind of thing. Withholding privileges when older. Extra chores." Ruth fidgets with her wallet. I notice that she carries no purse. She takes in more air and considers what to say. I give her the space, the time to continue. "We are Christian. Good people. We're not a part of some fundamentalist group that lives in a commune."
"I didn't mean anything by that," I say, though I did. "I was just thinking about the children. Wondering if you knew what school they attended. It might be the best place to start. We can do that with a phone call."
She looks at me right in the eye. "There is no school, except what Ida teaches. Her kids, like mine, and like my sister and me before them, are homeschooled."
"All right," I tell her, getting up, "I'll drive out to Snow Creek for a welfare check. See what I can find."
"I'm going with you."
"Not a good idea," I tell her.
"You couldn't find it on your own. I've been there. Trust me. You need me to come along."
I don't really trust anyone.
"I'm pretty good with GPS," I say.
"That won't help you. It's my sister. I have to go."
I give in. "Fine. You'll stay in the car the whole time. All right?"
I still don't trust her.
After letting the dispatcher know I'm headed out on a welfare check-up in Snow Creek, I poke my head into Sheriff Gray's office to tell him what's up, and he mutters something that sounds like approval from the online game he's playing on his phone.
"You want me to ride along?" he asks, looking up, over his glasses.
"No need. I can see you're busy."
He smiles at my jab.
In some ways, though I would never tell him, he's like family to me. He and his wife have me to dinner occasionally. We exchange not-too-personal gifts for the holidays. Candy. A windsock. A book.
I met him at the academy. He was teaching a class on the intricacies of small-town law enforcement—which it turns out isn't so intricate after all. The cases I'm assigned here are mostly domestic violence and property crimes. The domestics are easy. The property crimes almost never get solved. Meth-heads are brazen, though lucky too.
Maybe Sheriff Gray reminded me of someone. Maybe it was the way he talked to me that made me feel his interest wasn't rote, wasn't sexual, but of the kind that indicates a true connection. I told him some things about my past, how I'd erased as much of my background as I could.
"You won't tell on me?" I'd asked.
He'd shaken his head. "Hell no. We're all running from something or someone."
It was like that. He found a few things about me on the police database and deleted them. He told me that when I graduated, he'd have a job for me.
"You are right for this job," he said on my first day. "Uniquely right."
He reminds me daily—even when he says nothing—that good can come from evil.
My ancient tan Taurus, windows rolled up, suddenly smells of wintergreen. I lean slightly toward Ruth and sniff. Yes, it's her. It's not unpleasant, but a little curious. She's not chewing gum. Eating candy. As we drive from town, up toward the hills behind Snow Creek, she seems to notice that I'm breathing her in.
Not in a weird way, just a curious one.
"Deodorant," she announces. "I make my own for traveling. Otherwise I don't wear it. Hope it isn't too strong."
"No," I say. "It's nice."
I don't tell her that it smells a bit like a truck stop urinal cake. Naturally, I think, she makes her own deodorant. Soap too, I bet. Butchers hogs. Has a loom. Ruth is a pioneer woman living in the modern world and she's making everything herself. She was Etsy before there was such a thing.
"Look for the white-painted post of a mailbox," she says. "No box. Just the post," she tells me as I round a curve up a hill. "It's the first marker to get there."
The pavement recedes from cracked and tarred asphalt to compacted gravel. I follow the road up an incline and pass a dilapidated cabin draped in a patchwork quilt of brown and blue tarps. Then another with the same leaky roof issue. It rains a lot here in the Pacific Northwest. Some newcomers can't take the constant dousing from a soft sprinkle to a hard driving deluge.
We call them Californians.
A quarter mile or so further, we pass two mobile homes stacked on top of each other. I do a double take. Ruth does too.
"That's one way of getting a two-story," I say.
Ruth, in all her wintergreen glory, smiles. "Some people," she says.
A young doe appears at the edge of the road. I tap the brake.
"Ida made me a pair of deerskin moccasins when we were kids. Too small for me now, but I still have them. Our father said she was the best hunter of the ten of us."
"Ten," I repeat. "That's a houseful."
She nods. "Eight boys and two girls. Momma was a glutton for punishment, that's for sure. She had us girls last and always said she wished we'd been first out of the gate. Would have made things a lot easier for her."
My mom told me a hundred times that having me before my brother Hayden was a godsend: Now, I have a built-in babysitter.
The clouds start to thicken, and a light rain pelts the windshield. Ruth directs me up another incline and we pass another house; this time, smoke curls from a chimney.
"How much further?" I ask.
"I'm not sure in miles," she replies. "Maybe twenty minutes."
I look at my phone. No service. No GPS.
"You're right," I say. "I doubt I would have found your sister's place on my own."
Ruth stares out the passenger window as the green of fir, spruce and feathery hemlock envelops us.
"That's the way she and Merritt wanted it. They didn't want the world to find them because they didn't want anything to do with its ugly and irredeemable influence."
"How is it that you could call them?" I ask her. "I don't have any reception. I expect where we are going it isn't going to be any better. There isn't a cell tower for fifty miles."
"Satellite," she says. "They're off the grid though they have internet and phone through satellite hookup. We have the same set-up back home."
"You called me from the parking lot."
"I borrowed a friend's phone."
"Oh," I say, thinking that Ruth comes from a lot of rules, yet doesn't always follow them.
"Get ready to turn up this driveway," she says, abruptly.
I follow the trajectory of her stare.
I see nothing but a wall of green.
"What driveway?" I ask.
"Slow down. It's right… here."
I stop the car. I still don't see any driveway.
"Right there," she says, pointing. "See those two firs?"
I do. They have low-hanging branches that sweep against the gravel of the roadway.
"Drive between them."
Between what? I think.
"There isn't a road," I say.
"Yes, Detective. There is. Once you push through, you'll be on it."
I'm glad my car is old. I'd get out and check out the wisdom of plowing through, but the rain keeps me inside where it is warm, dry, and very wintergreen.
I turn on my headlights, though it doesn't help much, and tentatively move toward the trees. As I nudge the hood of my car closer, the branches move. It is almost like Dutch doors, opening to swallow us whole. In a second, we're through. The road beyond the firs is barely rutted, a faint wagon wheel driveway. It snakes along a creek and then opens to a clearing. Surprising, fenced. Beyond that, a farmhouse. It's lovely. Picturesque. Kind of like one of those calendar paintings of a whitewashed farmhouse with the cheerful, amber glow of a candle or kerosene lamp in the window.
I had half-expected a trio of mobile homes stacked together with a pilgrim-style stock out front ever-ready to punish the kids whenever they didn't toe the line. It was far from that. Pretty. Bucolic even. Doomsday preppers or whatever they were aside, the Wheatons had somehow managed to carve out a world of their own.
"Remember, you're to stay put," I remind Ruth.
She agrees. "You'll come and get me. You'll let me know what you find."
"No promises," I say. "Hang tight."
I get out and I hear a voice.
"Mom? Dad? Is that you?"
It's a girl's voice.
Next, I hear another.
This time a male voice.
"Sarah, be careful. It isn't them!"
"I'm Detective Carpenter," I say. "I'm with Jefferson County Sheriff's Office. I'm here for a welfare check on you and your parents." I motion to Ruth by rotating my shoulder in her direction. "Your Aunt Ruth is worried about you… I'm here to help…"
"Sarah! Joshua! It's me!" Ruth calls out from the car.
Sarah Wheaton is lovely, as young people almost always are. Her skin is pale, freckled a little. Her hair is wet, blond and long, hanging nearly to her waist in a twisted braid. She wears jeans and a T-shirt.
Joshua is lanky and tall with long dark hair parted neatly in the middle. His features are angular and his eyes a piercing blue. His chin is shadowed by a light stubble, and he wears blue jeans, a jean jacket over a Miller High Life Graphic T. I think back to my days being homeschooled, and neither he nor his sister appear clueless about young people's fashion. They are wholesome, yes. But normal-looking. Not the wholesome that sends creepy, geeky vibes.
"Sorry," he says. "We are just scared, I guess. Don't know if something has happened to our parents. Or who you are."
"I'm your family," Ruth says, pausing to take them in before rushing to embrace them. "I was worried sick about you. You've gotten so big. I barely recognize you." Her faint smile of recognition fades. "I'm very concerned about your folks. It's not like your mother to not reach out when I send her a message."
I step back a little, allowing for the teenagers and their aunt to process their reunion before moving to reason why we are here.
Ruth beats me to it.
"Where are they?" she asks, pulling back to get a better look at their faces.
Sarah answers. "They went on a trip three weeks ago. Going down the coast. Taking their time. Then ending up at an orphanage we support in Tijuana."
Ruth's reaction, an exhale, reveals a level of comfort in the news. "That's wonderful. Our whole family did that when we were kids. It was a grand time. Working together to help those children. It was a gift from God. How come you two didn't go?"
"Dad wanted me to take care of the livestock," Joshua replies. "Sarah has her schoolwork."
The clouds open up and the soft rain becomes a deluge.
"It's too wet out here. Can we go inside and talk?" I ask.
Joshua leads the three of us into the house. It's cozy, though on the minimalist side. Lots of wood and only a portrait of the kids, much younger, adorns a wall. There is no TV. No video games. Nothing of the outside world.
Only Joshua's graphic T.
Ruth asks for a cup of tea. Sarah goes into the kitchen and turns on the kettle.
"My dad made all this furniture in his shop," Joshua tells me, noticing my eyes on a massive dining table. It's made of cherry with a beautiful matchbooked top. It resembles a tiger trapped inside an encasement of wood.
"Does he sell his furniture?" I ask, running my fingers over the glossy surface.
Ruth puts her hand on my shoulder.
"Merritt would never sell anything to the outside world," she says, nearly beaming.
A source of pride, I think. Tied to their beliefs and their need to unspool their lives from even the most casual encounter.
Joshua offers his aunt some taffy that Sarah made, but she declines.
"Mom's favorite," he says.
I decline too. Last time I had taffy it pulled a filling out, and it took me a month of pain and embarrassment before I could get into the dentist. The kids have nice teeth, I think, just then. I wonder how they manage that without the benefit of a dentist.
"When were your parents due back?" I ask.
"We thought they'd be back by now," Sarah says, entering the room with a tray of mugs and some sugar. "No lemon," she adds with a touch of disappointment. "We've never been able to get citrus to fruit in the greenhouse."
I nod not because I understand the self-sufficient family's setback with the lemons, but because I didn't come for a social visit. I came because a woman freaked out back in my office that something terrible had happened.
I give Joshua a card with my phone number.
"Will you please call me when your parents get back?"
"Will do," he says, looking at the card, "Detective Carpenter."
Ruth is suddenly very quiet. I assume she's still processing the trauma and worry of wondering where her sister and brother-in-law are. Considering the chilly rain outside, Mexico should be a relief, even the source of a little sisterly envy. That is, if envy wasn't a sin—which it was in any Bible I'd read in a hotel room.
I face her. "Are you going to stay with your niece and nephew?"
"No," she says, snapping herself out of her stupor. "As I said back at your office, I have to head back to Idaho for the church caucus."
"Right," I say, though I know she'd told me no such thing.
I turn to Joshua and Sarah.
Ruth tugs at me.
"Let's go now, Detective."
Ruth doesn't utter a word until we are back on the gravel road. Her jaw is clenched, and I watch her grasp her hands and press them between her knees. I crack the window. Her wintergreen deodorant is working overtime.
"I'm sorry you came out all this way," I say. "The kids should have called you or something."
"Something's wrong," she says. "I know it."
I try to calm her. "The fact that their parents left them alone is wrong in my book, but Joshua is old enough to look after his sister."
I don't tell her that my own parents were far, far worse. I survived.
"Something was missing," she says. "It doesn't make sense."
I take my eyes off the road and glance at her for a split second.
"I haven't been out here for several years. Maybe six. My sister always had her wedding portrait hanging in the front room. Next to the kids' latest photographs."
"Okay," I say.
"It was gone. I think that's weird, don't you?"
"I wouldn't know," I say. "Maybe."
I don't tell her what I thought was out of place.
Maybe it was something Joshua had hidden and wore it only when his parents were away. Miller High Life didn't fit the Wheaton family at all.
"I'll check with the orphanage in Mexico," I tell her. "Name?"
"All right," I say. "If it checks out, we're good. If they aren't there—though I'm sure they are—then we'll fill out the paperwork and report them missing."
"My sister never said they were going there," she says. "She would have told me."
"Do you share everything?"
I look at her eyes.
"Does she know you wear mascara?"
- I was simply blown away by this… I couldn't look away…even when I wanted to. The story took me by my throat making me gasp every few chapters."—Shalini’s Books and Reviews
- On Sale
- Aug 17, 2021
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Grand Central Publishing