In Emily Littlejohn's follow-up to her acclaimed debut Inherit the Bones, a twisted killer stalks his prey in the dead of winter.
On a cold dark night in February, as a blizzard shrieks through Cedar Valley, police officer and new mother Gemma Monroe responds to an anonymous report of a prowler at the local private high school, The Valley Academy. In her idyllic Colorado small town, Gemma expects the call was just a prank by a bored teenager.
But there in the snow lies the savaged body of a man whose presence in town was meant to be a secret. And a disturbing message left by his killer promises more death to come.
This is only the beginning . . .
Nothing is as it seems in Cedar Valley and stories, both fact and fiction, ensnare Gemma as her investigation moves from the halls of an elite academy to the forests that surround Cedar Valley.
Against a backdrop of bleak winter weather, stymied by those who would lie to protect what is dearest to them, Gemma hunts a ruthless killer before he strikes again in A Season to Lie.
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I stepped into the central squad room of the Cedar Valley Police Department and then stood still a moment, taking in the familiar sights and smells. In contrast to the freezing, frenetic energy of the blizzard outside, the room was warm and calm.
Christmas had come and gone more than a month ago, yet tinsel and evergreen boughs were still draped high on the walls. I have been inside enough law enforcement centers around the state to know how common that is; holiday cleanup always seems to take a backseat to crime.
The room smelled as I remembered: fresh coffee, burnt microwave dinners, and paper, so much paper. There were folders and files stacked high on the desks. Post-it notes in every shade of the rainbow were tacked to the edges of computer monitors, on the handsets of the telephones at each desk, and across the bulletin board that ran the length of the back wall. Much of our day-to-day business had gone electronic, but old habits are hard to break.
Photographs of haunted, hunted men and women stared out from that same bulletin board. At one time, their stories may have been unique, but the moment their picture hit that board, they became one and the same: criminal, thug, wanted.
In front of me, a doll from the popular holiday game Elf on the Shelf hung from the ceiling in a noose fashioned from a dirty shoelace, her small arms twisted up to grip the sides of her head as though in shock at her fate. I gave her foot a gentle push and she swung in the air, her coy smirk unchanging even in death.
In the corner, the radio was tuned to an oldies station. Elvis Presley sang softly about a boy, born in a snowstorm, to a mother all too aware that his was to be a hard life, short-lived in the ghettos of Chicago. The song breaks my heart every time I hear it.
"'Well, the world turns,'" a deep voice crooned along with the King. I turned to see Finn Nowlin, mostly a decent cop and generally a pain in the ass, strike a classic Elvis pose. He shimmied his hips and then swung his arm up and held the move.
I rolled my eyes and turned away before he could see me smile.
I was home.
Grinning, I went to my desk, expecting a bare surface. Before I had gone on maternity leave in November, I'd cleaned house. Stained mugs and a few long-forgotten spoons went home with me to be deep cleaned. Files were returned to the records room, outstanding cases were handed over to my colleagues, and pens went into hibernation in my desk drawers.
To my surprise, though, a stack of file folders sat in a tidy pile waiting for me. A purple note on the top folder read "Ask Finn." They were coded for local, recent misdemeanors; they belonged in the records room, not on my desk.
The rest of the space was still clean, and I dropped my bag and pulled off my heavy parka.
"It's warm in here, isn't it?"
Finn shrugged. He rubbed his hands together. "Feels good to me. The thermostat was busted all week. They finally sent someone to fix it yesterday. We've been freezing our balls off."
I snorted. "Don't you first have to have them, before they can freeze off?"
Finn grinned. "You know you missed us, Gem. Your baby is pretty cute but you're not exactly June Cleaver. Tell me you haven't been getting antsy."
"Yeah, I missed you guys like I miss dysentery." I tapped the files on my desk. "What's happening? I hope I didn't get dolled up to watch you channel Elvis the Pelvis and read week-old files."
"Chavez wants you to get up to speed on all the work the rest of us have been doing while you've been sitting around playing Betty Crocker," Finn said with another flash of his wolfish grin. The smile faded as he snatched up the top file folder and flipped through it.
"What is it?"
He scowled. "Ever heard of Black Hound Construction?"
Thinking hard, I shook my head slowly. "I don't think so. Should I know them? Are they local?"
"No. They're new in town. They arrived a few months ago, from New York. Alistair Campbell and his seven dwarfs. More like seven assholes. They're a hotshot construction crew. Campbell's got a thing for ex-convicts, most of his crew have records. I've been keeping an eye on the group."
"Why? We have other people in town with records, probably more than we know. Most of them are harmless."
Finn said, "I don't know, call it a hunch. There's something off about them. They travel together like a pack of wolves; you see one, there's another one around the corner. Anyway, it's been par for the course the last few months. A couple of robberies, hotel rooms ransacked. It's mostly tourists getting hit. Armstrong and Moriarty believe it's a gang of employees, from the different hotels, working together. They'll catch them eventually. Christmas was quiet, New Year's Eve was a disaster as usual. Drunks all over town, on the road, in the bars. Some clown decided it was a good idea to climb the old water tower after drinking a bottle of champagne. He made it to the top and then panicked. The fire department had to climb up after him. They brought him down, and his date, some hot little ski bunny in town from Denver, finished her night with the deputy fire chief."
"Sounds exciting. What else did I miss?"
Finn shrugged. "Like I said, the usual. We do have our own little Banksy up at the Valley Academy. Someone's spray-painting graffiti on the campus after hours. So far, no one's been able to catch him. Or her. The little goon is spraying the Grim Reaper. He's actually very talented, whoever it is. Hey, did you hear the one about the priest, the rabbi, and the Grim Reaper in Las Vegas? So they walk into a bar ..."
I tuned out the rest of Finn's joke and stared down at my desk, running a hand across the surface of it, feeling the coolness of the old wood, the pits and scars where countless other officers had scratched the surface with their pens and paper clips. I could smell the citrus furniture polish the custodial service used.
It was good to be back.
Before Grace was born, I worked a day shift that often had me chasing leads into the evening and on the weekends. There were long hours and too many nights spent far from home, far from Brody. That kind of time away, especially the evenings that dragged into early mornings, has a way of changing the dynamics of your life and your relationships. Like the tide on a sand castle, it ebbs away the very things that make up the foundation of what's important.
I was back on a part-time basis but I've been a cop long enough to know that sooner or later part-time turns into full-time, and then into overtime, and suddenly you realize it's been days since you thought about anything but the case at hand. Tonight's shift was only a few hours — seven to midnight. Not quite the graveyard shift but close enough.
There's a certain kind of tension that lives in those hours, an anticipation of one day's ending and another's beginning. I didn't mind it, though. The last few months had seen me up at all sorts of strange hours. If I wasn't nursing Grace, then I was lying in bed, worrying about things beyond my control. Would she grow up good, and strong, and kind? Would my baby find her way in this world, this world that will beat you down, chew you up, and spit you out faster than you can say "pretty please"?
I sat back as a Tina Turner song ended and a commercial began. It was quiet, especially for a Friday night. The bone-chilling blizzard might have one saving grace, if it kept folks home and off the roads. I should have known better than to even think the words quiet night, for in the next minute, one of our dispatchers poked her head in the room.
Chloe Parker waved. "Welcome back, Gemma. Guys, I got a call about a suspicious man, a prowler, at Valley Academy. The caller wouldn't leave a name and the number came through with a New York area code. You two want to check it out? Twenty bucks says it's a prankster. I can radio patrol if you'd rather stay here. It's terrible weather."
I looked at Finn and stood, then began shrugging back into my heavy parka. "No, save patrol for the roads. There will be at least a few accidents for them to respond to before tonight is over. Maybe it's your Reaper artist, Finn."
Chloe added, "I'll call campus security and have someone meet you at the school. They'll need to open that front gate if you want to get on the property."
Across the aisle, Finn stood, too, and reached for his jacket. On the radio, the commercial for acne cream ended and the Temptations came on, wishing for rain. Finn danced along with an imaginary partner. Chloe giggled and retreated back into the tiny room that was the dispatch call center.
"Oh, but I wish it would stop snowing," Finn muttered along to the song.
I joined in, "'But everyone knows that a man ain't supposed to cry.'" Finn rolled his eyes and made a gagging sound. I know I'll never win American Idol but I'm not that bad. I've heard worse.
I rounded up my hat, gloves, and flashlight and followed Finn down the short hallway that led from the squad room to the front door. He paused so I could button up my parka, then he opened the door. The storm had picked up in intensity and the screaming wind seemed to tear the oxygen from the air.
"Jesus," I muttered. No one in their right mind would be out in a blizzard like this. I was sorry I'd returned to work, tonight of all nights. I should have been home, with Grace and Brody, in front of a roaring fire with a hot cup of cocoa and a gossip magazine in my hands.
I thought I was ready to be back, but all of a sudden, I didn't feel so sure.
In early February, at the peak of winter, darkness comes early to the Rockies. A particular coldness takes hold and the wind blows in hard, gathering speed and strength as it races down from the high peaks and crosses the continental divide before hitting the Great Plains and dispersing its energy like seeds tumbling from a farmer's hands.
It was that same dark, cold, hard wind that fed the snowstorm we found ourselves in. We drove to the Valley Academy in whiteout conditions on roads that were slick with low to no visibility. The air smelled of wet steel. The scar that curved around my neck like a comma felt tight, as though it was made of piano string, tuned just past the right key.
Some people feel the weather in their bones, or in the acting up of old injuries. I felt it in the one physical reminder I have of the car accident that left my parents dead.
Finn drove in silence.
He was hunched over the steering wheel, peering through the windshield, while I controlled the heat, letting the defroster run for a few minutes and then spinning the dial over to warm our feet and hands. We sat in his personal car, a heavy Suburban. The big truck crept along like a tank, and I felt a hell of a lot safer than I would have felt in any of the department Jeeps or sedans.
Finn muttered something underneath his breath.
I pulled the hood of my parka to the side. "What was that?" "Who the hell is out on a night like tonight, able to spot a prowler?" he said, slowing down and carefully pulling around a thick tree branch that lay in the middle of the road. "Let's drag that thing out of the road on the way back."
I nodded absentmindedly. "I bet it's some busybody that lives in that tiny trailer park across from the school, Shady Acres."
Finn barked a laugh and then swore as his breath fogged up the window.
I sighed and changed the heat back to the defroster. I leaned over and wiped the windshield with the sleeve of my parka. "Is that what it's called? That doesn't sound right...."
Finn said, "Shaded Acres. Shady Acres would be something out of a comic book, like a suburb outside Gotham."
"It's the perfect name for a villain's estate," I said, humming the theme song to Green Acres.
Finn flinched and then punched my shoulder. "You know, you have the worst singing voice I've ever heard. It's terrible. You could skin a cat with a voice like that."
I rolled my eyes and rubbed my shoulder. I tried to think of a biting comeback but nothing came to mind. I watched him out of the corner of my eye and remembered how infuriating he could be.
He returned my side-eye with a look of his own. "What?"
"Nothing. We're here."
Finn pulled into the private school's parking lot and stopped at the heavy, locked front gate. Beneath a streetlight, the falling snow was caught in the light's beam and I watched, mesmerized, as the wind blew the flakes sideways.
He put the car in park and shut off the engine but left the heat running. Almost immediately the snow began to collect on the windshield. We stared out into the storm through the rapidly narrowing view and took stock of the situation.
The lot was deserted.
The school was deserted.
I felt the skin on the back of my neck crawl. A cramp, sudden and intense, hit me in the gut, a primordial punch of unease.
Finn spoke first. "Something's wrong. It's too ... quiet."
Quiet was an odd choice of words, given the howling wind on the other side of the window, but I knew what Finn meant.
Something was wrong.
Dim headlights swept over us. Finn and I watched as a big, rumbling truck with the words KASPERSKY SECURITY printed on its side slowly drove past us. The truck stopped a few feet ahead of our car and sat in park, its red taillights glowing back at us like the eyes of some prehistoric creature.
I lifted my chin in the direction of the truck. "Do you know them? Kaspersky?"
Finn nodded. "I've met the owner, Dan or Daryl or something like that. Devon maybe. I think he's got five or six different guys running security for him."
After another moment, the driver turned off the truck and slid out from the front seat. He slowly walked back to our car and Finn rolled down his window.
"Sir, ma'am," the driver said as he leaned into Finn's open window. "I'm Bowie Childs. I'm in charge of campus security."
He was blond and heavily bearded, with light, intense eyes and a chipped front tooth. We introduced ourselves and he shook Finn's hand. He peered in at me and after a long moment said, "That's a nice jacket. I like it."
"Um, thanks," I said. "We'd like to drive through campus. I think our dispatch told you we got a call about a prowler?"
Childs nodded and said, "Yes, a prowler. It's probably a damn kid. I'll open the gates for you and wait here. Watch your rear, so to speak. Keep your radios on Channel 2 and let me know if you need anything. You'll have to walk, though. It's all sidewalks from here on out."
Childs leaned back and motioned for Finn to roll his window up. The guard walked over to the gate and entered a code into a pad on the side, then the gate swung slowly open.
"Are you kidding me? I don't want to get out of the car. As in, I really do not want to get out of this car."
Finn shook his head and gently patted his cheeks, talking himself into it. "You can wait here if you want. I'm sure Childs could use the conversation. Listen, the campus isn't that big. Didn't you go to school here for a few years?"
"Just one year," I said, staring out the window. The falling snowflakes were mesmerizing, totally and completely at the wind's mercy. "It was the second worst year of my life."
"Well, you can wait here but I'm going."
Finn put a hand on the door and gave me a devil-may-care grin.
Ah, hell. I knew what that grin meant. I groaned and gripped the passenger's side door handle.
He said, "Come on, let's do this. You take right and I'll go left. We'll meet somewhere in the middle. Keep your radio on. This'll take ten minutes. Welcome back, baby, welcome back."
Welcome back, my ass. It wouldn't surprise me in the least if Finn had arranged this whole thing as a nasty little welcome-back prank.
I took a deep breath and pushed my way out of the car, into the wild of the blizzard. The blizzard, with its blowing snow that hung before me like a living veil. The blizzard, with its frigid air that made my teeth hurt when I inhaled. The scar on my neck felt as though it would snap in half.
I went right while Finn veered left. After a few steps, I turned around and scanned the parking lot. I could hardly see the grape-colored Suburban, let alone Finn or the security guard.
They had disappeared into the darkness. I was alone.
My heart skipped a beat and it took more effort than it should have to turn away and continue walking. My legs, normally sturdy and muscular, felt weak and foreign.
"Get it together," I whispered to myself. "You've been out of the game too long, Gemma."
All around me, a manic performance played out for an audience of one. The wind shrieked as it blew through the trees, making their limbs dance and their few remaining leaves jump like marionettes.
Anything was possible on a night like this.
Excerpted from "A Season to Lie"
Copyright © 2017 Emily Littlejohn.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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