A Map of the Dark


By Karen Ellis

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A race-against-time thriller for fans of Tana French and Megan Abbott: To save a missing girl, FBI Agent Elsa Myers may have to lose herself.

Even as her father lies dying in a hospital north of New York City, FBI Agent Elsa Myers can’t ignore a call for help. A teenage girl has disappeared from Forest Hills, Queens, and during the critical first hours of the case, a series of false leads obscures the fact that she did not go willingly.

As the hours tick by, the hunt for the girl deepens into a search for a man who may have been killing for years. Elsa’s carefully compartmentalized world begins to collapse around her. She can find missing people, but she knows too well how it feels to be lost.

Everything she has buried — her fraught relationship with her sister and niece, her self-destructive past, her mother’s death — threatens to resurface, with devastating consequences. Can our most painful childhood secrets be forgotten? Or will they always find their way back into our adult lives? These questions lie at the heart of A Map of the Dark, a riveting portrait of a woman haunted by her family legacy, and a race-against-time thriller.



She likes the feel of the ground underfoot and so she toes off her sneakers and carries them, swinging loosely from her fingertips. But after a couple of minutes she steps on something sharp and changes her mind. She drops her book bag in a pool of shifting shadows. Sits on it. Ties her left sneaker, then plants that foot on the ground and cantilevers over a bent knee to tie the other one. She feels tired. Tired from all the things on her agenda this week. All the schoolwork piling up. Yawning, she stands and continues walking slowly, vaguely, in the direction of her high school.

The whoosh of a car coming. And she remembers: The biology test. She prepared, so why is she nervous about it?

What is a quark? The smallest unit of matter; makes up protons.

What are molecules? Two or more atoms held together by chemical bonds.

What is an organelle? Part of a cell that has a specific function.

What are five types of organelles? Nucleus, mitochondrion, endoplasmic something, something, Golgi body.

Order from smallest to largest: Cell, tissue, organ, organ system, organism.

Again, what are five types of organelles?: Nucleus, mitochondrion, endoplasmic reticulum, something, something.

The third type comes to her but the fifth slips away, though she had it just a moment ago. The fourth one, she can't summon at all. She needs to do well on this test, but, honestly, why is it so important to know every detail about your body when it works just fine all on its very own?

Walking, slowing down, wondering where her life will lead her once she's free of school. Fanning open her fingers, she lets air circulate between her skin and today's rings: the purple glass one she bought at a flea market last year, and the brass braided one that always leaves behind a green circle. Several bracelets jangle on her left wrist. A clutch of necklaces hoop over the little tattoos that climb from shoulder to ear. Four earrings ladder from her right lobe; a long white feather swings from the left. The weight and movement of her jewelry reminds her of who she is. Who she really is, besides school and family and home and town and country and planet and universe.

A shadow moves and she's inspired to draw something on the sunlit patch of asphalt just ahead. She digs into her pocket for the nub of blue chalk she carries just in case. But then she hesitates.

A man is walking toward her. Tall. Brown hair swept back off his forehead, and a crooked nose that seems to get bigger as the distance between them shrinks. He nods at her. Her stomach gurgles. She keeps walking. No cars on the road at the moment. She wishes she'd managed to catch the bus.

"Excuse me." His voice is smooth, intent.

She pauses. "Yes?"

"Do you have the time?"

People always ask her that, maybe because, seeing so much jewelry, they assume she also wears a watch, which she doesn't. Why wear a watch when you can get the time off your phone? (Which is out of battery since, as usual, she forgot to charge it last night.)

Something in the man's eyes strikes her mute.

An impulse to run fires her nerves.

And then he shows her a gun.



Roy's eyes are cloudy. He blinks and suddenly they're hazel again, like they used to be: green-streaked riverbeds of timeworn memory. Elsa gently squeezes his hand, hoping he'll say something, anything, as unexpectedly as his eyes gained color. He hasn't spoken all morning. He lies there, his short salty hair poking in every direction, staring at the charcoal screen of the turned-off television, taking in the latest news of his diagnosis. She feels the movement of an internal shadow, a pull toward grief, but resists it. Not yet. She's just about to lean in so she can feel the soft warmth of his breath and remind herself how he used to flutter his eyelashes against her cheek when she was a little girl—butterfly kisses—when her pocket vibrates with a call.

She releases his hand and it floats a moment before coming to rest on the crisp white hospital sheet.

Marco Coutts flashes on her screen. Her jaw clenches reflexively as she answers. Before she can speak, her boss says, "Yeah, Elsa, I'm really sorry to bother you on your day off."

Her whisper comes out like a hiss of steam. "You know I'm with my father."

"How's he doing?"

"Why are you calling?"

"A lot of red flags waving in Queens. A girl's missing, a teenager—"

A drumbeat forms in her chest: Another one; here we go; please not today. "What precinct?"

"Forest Hills. Some new guy caught the case."

Shitting his pants? is what she wants to ask, but her father is right there, eyes fixed open in his morphine fog of semiconsciousness, possibly listening. So she says, "Marco, I'm all the way up here in Sleepy Hollow. Can't you put Gonzales on it?"

"He's already out in the Bronx today. Anyway, Elsa, I like you better for this one. You have a special feel for the teenagers, always have."

The praise irks her. She says, "We really need more agents on-site," but her comment falls flat between them, a toneless reprise of an unsolvable problem. The Bureau doesn't have the budget to delegate more agents for the Child Abduction Rapid Deployment unit, which makes it tough to deploy rapidly in a city the size of New York, which is crazy, because these are kids. Kids. And each and every time one of them vanishes, an absence echoes through Elsa.

Marco breathes into a pocket of silence, hot, jagged, the way he does when he doesn't want to hear something. She can picture him in his neat office in DC, from which he remotely oversees far-flung CARD teams along the East Coast: Shelves behind his desk, framed photos of his wife and their new baby girl. Good people. But then she corrects the image; he wouldn't be in his office today, he'd be at home, because it's Sunday. As always, doing his best at a difficult job.

Elsa stands up and takes the call across the room to the window. Early-summer flowering trees border the hospital parking lot. A blue station wagon enters lazily and slots itself between white lines; the driver's door pops open but no one steps out. Elsa turns her back to the window, gaze landing on her father—his broken-doll fragility under the sheets, his sallow skin, his wheezing breath—and does a quick calculation. Phelps Memorial Hospital, where the ambulance had transferred him from the assisted-living facility to which he'd moved last winter, is an hour from the city. Her sister, Tara, is on the way from Manhattan and should be here soon. All the doctors and nurses agree that, though the cancer is moving faster now, he's still got time—"Two months," the oncologist said, then on second thought, "maybe three"—enough to be stabilized and released from the hospital to finish out his life, or his death, depending on how you saw it. Elsa could slip away and not miss anything and be back by tonight. Do everything, please everyone. Fail no one, ever again. Plus, if she returned to the city, it would offer an opportunity to get to the family house in Queens for a final visit.

It was strange, prescient almost, the way Roy decided to sell the house where he raised his family so soon before his diagnosis, as if his body were telling him, Hurry, do this now, while you still have time and energy. She hadn't believed he'd go through with it, but he did, just two days ago on Friday, with Tara as his proxy. It's really done. And he's really dying. Seeing him as weakened as he is today, she can no longer deny these facts. The shock of this, along with the loss of the house, has the effect of awakening her from a stupor of wishful thinking. She has to go back, even if she doesn't want to. When you grow up in the same house your whole life, it becomes a monolithic presence you can't escape fast enough, a shadow you need to outrun—and a shell that holds your secrets.

As she understands it, the new owners, in their hubris, intend to build a pool in the modest backyard immediately, wasting as little of the summer as possible. They plan to take possession of the house tomorrow, Monday, which leaves her with only today for an errand that suddenly feels important. A ribbon of sorrow twists around her. Yes, she'll be a good employee and run to the job her boss is assigning her; she'll be a good daughter and be back here tonight; and in between, she'll take a detour into her past.

Reaching down to scratch her thigh, hard, through the tough fabric of her jeans, she says to Marco, "Tell me about the girl—what makes you think she's been abducted?"

"You're a saint."

"You know I'm not."

"Her name's Ruby Haverstock. She's seventeen, almost eighteen, and her parents haven't heard from her since Friday night. She went to her job at a local café, left work on time, and that was that. The detective on the case—"

"You said he was new," she interrupts. "How new?"

"First day at the precinct was yesterday."

"Shh…oot"—transitioning the expletive into something nicer, for her father's sake. She glances over at him and he's looking at her now, drinking in the sight of her. She smiles at him, forcing back incipient tears. His dry lips open, just a little, and close again.

"My understanding is he transferred in from somewhere else in the city, not sure where," Marco says. "Alexei Cole, goes by Lex."

"First, second, or third? Because if he's a third-grade detective, Marco, you know as well as I do that this will take twice the time it should."

"First, I think. At least second. He isn't new-new. He's not panicking about the girl, not yet, but he could use some guidance. Let's reach out, Elsa, help him however we can."

"So what makes him so sure she didn't run away? Eighteen years old—"

"Almost eighteen. And I know what you mean, but I talked it over with Detective Cole, and, Elsa, I share his concern. He's done his due diligence. This is a good kid, never stepped out of line, never any real problems, college-bound. Something feels wrong here."

Roy's lips part again. Elsa's pulse jolts. If there's something he wants to say, she needs to hear it.

"Okay, Marco. Text me his info. I'll get right on it."

As soon as she slides her phone into her pocket, it pings with Marco's incoming text. She sits on the edge of her father's bed and leans in close. "What is it, Daddy?"

His lined, bony face contorts on a wave of complex emotion. "Daddy," he echoes. It's true, she hasn't called him that in years. It just slipped out, and she's glad it did if it makes him happy.

"How are you feeling?"

He manages a twitch of his eyebrows, a familiar gesture she reads instantly: Don't ask the question unless you want the answer.

"Are you thirsty?" Honing her inquiry to specifics. "Want some water?" She takes hold of his glass, straw bent at the ready, but he shakes his head.

"Your mother's almond…" His memory fades at the final word.

"Butterballs?" Her mother, Deb, has been dead twenty-four years. "You mean the cookies you love—the ones Tara makes sometimes?"

"I was thinking about them just before."

Elsa nods. Their mother called them almond butterballs, her cinnamon-laced version of Mexican wedding cookies or Russian tea cakes, depending on where you came from, rich nutty orbs doused in powdered sugar. Elsa can still picture Deb all those years ago, standing over a mixing bowl in her flour-dusted apron, struggling to tame the dense dough with a wooden spoon before giving up and plunging in her bare hands. The way the long muscles in her forearms would tweak with effort, her power resonating into the dough.

Roy says, "I'm trying to remember how they…" His words ease into a coughing fit. Taste, he wants to say. She's sure of it. Such a simple wish.

"I'd ask Tara to bring some, Dad, but she's already on the road. She's almost here. Mel too."

She waits for him to tell her that it's okay, he can do without the cookies. But he doesn't. His eyes go cloudy again, blank, and his gaze drifts to the ceiling.


He struggles to refocus his attention on her face. Smiles. "Elsa. My Elsa."

"I'm heading to the city, for work, but I'll be back later, promise."


"While I'm there I'm going to swing by the house."

"They probably already changed the locks."

"I can slip in through a window."

The lines on his forehead compress. "Why? There's nothing left for us there. It's over."

But it isn't; not for her. Still, she gives him one of her acquiescent smiles, an old habit from their days of collusion when his passivity ruled. She's old enough now to see him with as much clarity as love, and she does love him, but she also recognizes that he let her down when she was a child, when his judgment might have counted.

He closes his eyes and retreats into silence. She waits. Leans close enough for him to feel the heat of her breath on his face, to remember what she remembers of their shared past. But his eyes don't open. After five minutes, ten, fifteen—she isn't sure, the way time has seemed to both race and blur from the moment she walked into the hospital this morning—she gathers herself. Standing at the door, she blows him a kiss, but he's sleeping, and it sails right past him.


A text message chirps for Elsa's attention: Where r u?

Tara. At the hospital. Tugging at her big sister for support. She texts back:

Had to head back to the city for a few hours. Work.

Dad's not good.

I know. Won't be gone long—back asap.



Elsa's hand shakes as she puts away her phone. She thinks of her father, weakening, and a spot on her shoulder that she hasn't heard from in a while sizzles awake. She slips a finger under her shirt and rubs calm her skin. Closing her eyes a moment, she transitions into professional mode, her better skin without all the hypersensitivity. Ready now, or ready enough, she turns off the ignition of her little red Beetle.

She looks over at the Forest Hills precinct across Austin Street: a once modernist, now dated pale green building with lots of small windows, some flapped open, some humming with air conditioners. Her gaze climbs to the fourth floor. She wonders which window contains Detective Lex Cole and if he really needs her or if this is a false alarm. He'd told her on the phone that she'd find him in the detectives' unit, room 403. Once she gets the meeting over with, she'll head to the house.

She steps out of her car into a bright morning sun, lugging the striped canvas shoulder bag that goes everywhere with her. Crossing the street, something knocks against her shoe: a baseball bounces back and hits the curb. A girl of nine or ten, wearing cutoffs and a navy Yankees T-shirt, comes running for the ball, ponytail flying. Elsa scoops it up and makes eye contact; pale blue irises around pinpoint pupils stare back.

"Never chase a ball into the street."

The girl slams to a halt, hair horsewhipping around her face.

Elsa tosses her the ball. "Here you go, kiddo."

"Thanks, ma'am." She runs in the opposite direction, throwing the ball in a high arc to someone Elsa can't see.

Ma'am. The honorific ripples through her uncomfortably. She sometimes can't fathom that she actually grew up, or understand how or even why. Or that in a matter of months she's going to be a forty-one-year-old orphan.

The elevator doors whine open and discharge her into the musty fourth-floor hallway, a series of closed doors concealing what sounds like raucous ghosts: unseen voices, electronic bleeps and hums, the crisp slap of something shutting. The door marked 403 with an old white-on-black imprinted Formica sign swings open onto a Sunday morning that could just as well be a Monday or Tuesday or Any-Day morning of law enforcement in the city that never sleeps. A dozen or so investigators work at their desks, alone or in pairs, competing to be heard over a familiar incessant din. Elsa immediately feels at home.

Across the room, at a desk bare except for a chipped black mug and an outdated desktop computer with a flickering screen, a youngish man in scuffed cowboy boots unfurls himself from his chair and waves her over. His russet hair cropped at the jaw strikes her as uncoplike verging on adolescent, but she decides on the spot, as she crosses the room, that anyone who veers from the norms in a profession defined by them must have confidence for a reason. He reminds her of a famous actor, she can't think of which one; not classically handsome but a good smile and charm enough to mask whatever might be lacking.

She extends her hand and he clasps it with both of his. His skin is dry, soothing.

"Special Agent Myers, I'm really grateful you came." His two front teeth have a noticeable gap, and he has an accent she didn't register over the phone. Eastern European, maybe Russian. Probably a subtlety in how his mouth forms words, the kind of visual cue that makes it so important to meet a person face-to-face. He hasn't shaved since at least yesterday.

"Elsa." She pulls away her hand, sloughs the heavy bag off her shoulder, and sets it on a chair.

"Lex. Can I get you some coffee? Tea?"

"Coffee would be great. Milk, no sugar. I'll get unloaded so we can go right to work."

By the time he returns with another chipped black mug—evidently the signature matched set of the Forest Hills precinct—her laptop is open and ready, tapped into the FBI's secure network she can access anywhere she goes.

"Wow, that's dedication." He sets her coffee on the desk and pulls up his chair.

"We can't afford to waste time, not when it's a kid."

"No, I mean that you bring your own laptop," he clarifies.

"Actually, it's not mine, personally. We're mobile units so they deck us out—we've got to be able to work anywhere. Only thing that doesn't travel in my bag is—" She crosses her legs and swings out an ankle to flash her Glock 22 pistol. "This never leaves my body."

A half smile lifts the right side of Lex's mouth as he slides a hand to his hip and pushes back his sports jacket to reveal his weapon.

Elsa grins. "No one, but no one, knows how to strike up a friendship like a pair of cops."

His laugh escapes in a loud bubble of sound that causes others to stop and look. He ignores the attention and sits down beside her.

"So"—she clicks a New Case tab and a screen segmented with blank fields pops open—"let's get all the details sorted out first."

"You know the basics," he says. "Ruby Haverstock, seventeen, eleventh grade. Public high school, academically solid, socially active but not a queen bee or anything like that."

"Home life?"

"Stable, from what I can tell. She's an only child. I spent a bit of time with her parents yesterday, Peter and Ginnie Haverstock, and they're worried out of their minds. Told me everything they know, even gave me Ruby's journal and laptop. No red flags—"

"That they know of."

He tilts his head. "Cynical, are we?"

"Experienced. Go on."

"She works at a café called Queens Beans, has the after-school-to-evening shift three times a week. Worked her full shift on Friday, then zippo. But"—he pulls his chair so close that she picks up a scent of astringent soap, the no-nonsense kind that cleans fast and doesn't cost much—"just before her shift ended, two things happened that concern me. One, she turns off the security camera. Two, she buzzes someone in."


"That's the thing—no one I've talked to can figure it out. And once her shift ends? A few minutes after she buzzes whoever in? Her phone, her credit card…she stops using them…no activity of any kind since eight twenty-three p.m. on Friday. Her CDR suddenly goes flat."

"That's worrisome," Elsa agrees, "but with teenagers, you never know." It used to be that you could count on call-detail records to be at least somewhat revealing, but lately, ever since new apps started offering ways for people to fly under the radar, Elsa has sometimes encountered a surprising void. "I have a teenage niece and all her friends are big users of self-destruct messaging apps—they send each other texts and photos that go away, poof, once they're opened."

"My warrant list had some—Snapchat, Kik, maybe another one." He turns to his computer and looks. "Yik Yak. Nothing back from any of them yet."

"Not surprised. Some of them are privacy evangelists; they don't care as much about predators using their apps as a hunting ground as they do about their users' confidentiality."

"I get that. It's a mixed bag—but what good are secrets if you're dead?"

"Exactly." Elsa picks up her phone to text Marco. "I'll ask my supervisor to add a few more apps to the list and kick them all up the ladder. Sometimes we can get a warrant expedited when it's a—"

"Kid," Lex jumps in. Good, she thinks, this one learns fast. She might not have to babysit him all day.

Marco replies: I'm on it.

Elsa notices the time on her phone: almost noon. She'd hoped to get back to Sleepy Hollow by late afternoon, evening at the latest. "Show me the security footage from Queens Beans."

Lex leans back to dig into his front pocket—his jeans, she notices, are on the tight side and look worn at the knees—and pulls out a thumb drive. He's about to plug it into his desktop when she stops him.

"Mine, please. So I can download it."

"Sure." He slots the drive into the side of Elsa's laptop and scrolls down a week's worth of files. "It's a small shop with a drive-through window, about half a block off Queens Boulevard, at the back of a lot where there isn't much visibility." He clicks open the file for Friday night.

There is Ruby, wearing a backward-turned baseball cap over her long dark hair, moving gracefully around the small area, making coffee drinks, smiling at customers, rolling her eyes into the camera when a woman takes a long time fishing money out of her wallet. Ruby is pretty without being cute. No makeup. A stack of bracelets that jangle every time she moves. Whenever the café is quiet, she consults her phone, scrolling expertly with her thumb, holding it with both hands when she texts, and smiling from time to time at messages she receives. The second she hears the bell, she slides her phone into her pocket and turns to the customer. Then someone speaks to her from off to the side, perhaps someone who's arrived on foot. Her expression fogs with something hard to read: irritation, alarm. She reaches under the counter and the tape suddenly stops. Panic curls through Elsa's stomach: That's it, the moment something happened that shouldn't have happened. The moment Ruby slipped, or was taken, out of sight.

Elsa asks, "Where's the exterior footage? Maybe we can see who it was."

"No cameras outside," Lex says.


"Guess they were more worried about employees stealing from the till than about who might drive up."

"Huh." Elsa doesn't like it.

"I've gone over and over the timeline with the parents," Lex says. "I talked to all four teachers she had classes with on Friday. I talked to the guy, Steve, who she relieved at Queens Beans at the start of her shift. I'd really like to talk to her best friend, Allie—kid's not calling me back."

"You tried texting her? My niece only responds to texts."

"Yes, but here's the thing—the Haverstocks said they've talked to Allie and she hasn't seen or spoken to or heard from Ruby at all since Friday, when she stopped into the café for a quick visit."

"Did you try showing up at her house?"

"Should I?"

"Definitely. Other friends?"

"I called about seven kids her parents identified, and no one saw her after school on Friday. Still trying to reach her former boyfriend, Charlie, but he hasn't returned my calls either. Or my texts."

"How long did they date?"

"Five, six months."

"Ended when?"


  • "[A] thrilling launch of a new series . . . Works well as a solid police procedural and also an in-depth character study . . . Elsa maps out the darkness of a predator that preys on teenagers while navigating her own dark place."—Oline Cogdill, Associated Press
  • "One of the most compelling psychological thrillers I've read in a long time, A Map of the Dark grabs you from the very first page and does not loosen its grip. I read this book in a day---I simply could not put it down---but I will be thinking about it for much longer."—Alison Gaylin, USA Today bestselling author of What Remains of Me
  • "A Map of the Dark is a taut, tense, exciting read with a sharp and very human protagonist."—Reed Farrel Coleman, New York Times bestselling author of What You Break
  • "A terrific novel, wonderfully written, richly populated, and utterly gripping from start to finish"—Chris Pavone, New York Times bestselling author of The Travelers
  • "[A] riveting series launch . . . The tight plotting will keep readers turning the pages."—Publishers Weekly
  • "[A] satisfying debut . . . Ellis writes with a lyrical economy. . . . Readers will savor getting to know this singular heroine."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "Elegant, haunting . . . a far-from-ordinary FBI novel."—Literary Hub, "15 Books You Should Read This January"
  • "Tight prose, strong characters, and deft storytelling... A riveting tale that begs to be read in one sitting. Readers who enjoy police procedurals and Karin Slaughter's thrillers will delight in discovering a new voice."—Library Journal
  • "A tense tale . . . Compelling . . . A solid choice for readers who enjoy Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series."—Booklist
  • "A beautifully rendered portrait of familial grief, loss, and decades-old demons wrapped inside a terrific race-against-time thriller starring a believably flawed heroine. I hope we haven't seen the last of FBI agent Elsa Myers, whose choices, past and present, will haunt me for a very long time."—Sarah Weinman, editor of Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & '50s and Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives
  • "Deftly plotted and packed with blind curves, A Map of the Dark careens into dangerous territory, where Karen Ellis entwines complex storylines with breakneck precision. A must-read for fans of taut, unpredictable psychological suspense."—Wendy Corsi Staub, bestselling author of Blue Moon
  • "A riveting, breathless novel, equal parts police procedural and emotional personal journey. Karen Ellis's twisty plot, dark storytelling, and nail-biting action kept me reading far too late into the night. A triumph!"—Karen Dionne, author of The Marsh King's Daughter

On Sale
Nov 20, 2018
Page Count
320 pages
Mulholland Books

Karen Ellis

About the Author

Novelist Karen Ellis lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her family. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America and International Thriller Writers.

Learn more about this author