#1 New York Times bestselling author Candice Fox's Crimson Lake is the first novel in a thrilling contemporary crime series set in Queensland, Australia, perfect for readers of authors like James Patterson, Harlan Coben, Lisa Gardner, and Tana French.
How do you move on when the world won’t let you?
12:46: Claire Bingley stands alone at a bus stop
12:47: Ted Conkaffey parks his car beside her
12:52: The girl is missing . . .
Six minutes in the wrong place at the wrong timethat’s all it took to ruin Sydney detective Ted Conkaffey’s life. Accused but not convicted of a brutal abduction, Ted is now a free manand public enemy number one. Maintaining his innocence, he flees north to keep a low profile amidst the steamy, croc-infested wetlands of Crimson Lake.
There, Ted’s lawyer introduces him to eccentric private investigator Amanda Pharrell, herself a convicted murderer. Not entirely convinced Amanda is a cold-blooded killer, Ted agrees to help with her investigation, a case full of deception and obsession, while secretly digging into her troubled past.
The residents of Crimson Lake are watching the pair's every move . . . and the town offers no place to hide.
"Complex, human characters, and a dark, meaty story, and fine writing, and a great sense of placethis is one of the best crime thrillers of the year. Sign me up as a big-time Fox fan!" Lee Child
About the Author
CANDICE FOX is the award-winning author of Crimson Lake and Redemption Point. She is also co-writer with James Patterson of the #1 New York Times bestsellers Never Never, Fifty Fifty, and the forthcoming Liar Liar. She lives in Sydney.
Read an Excerpt
I didn't know Sean was there until his shadow fell over me. I jolted, grabbed my gun. I'd fallen asleep in my usual place on the porch, spread out against the wall on an old blanket. For a moment I thought an attack was coming.
"This is a sorry sight," my lawyer said. The morning light was already blazing behind him.
"You look like an angel," I said.
"What are you doing sleeping out here?"
"It's glorious," I groaned, stretched. It was true. The hot nights on the porch behind the mosquito netting were like a dream. The roll of distant thunder. Kids laughing, lighting fires on the faraway bank. The old blanket was about as thick as the mattress I'd had in segregation.
Sean looked around for a chair on which to place his expensively fabricked backside. When he didn't see one he went to the step, put the coffees he'd been carrying and the bag on his elbow on the wood and started brushing off a spot. Even in the Cairns humidity there was some silk in his ensemble, as always. I sat up and joined him, scratched my scalp awake. I'd placed Woman and her young in the cardboard box turned on its side in a corner of the porch, a door made out of a towel. The big goose hissed at the sound of us from behind the towel and Sean whipped around.
"Don't tell me —"
"It's a goose," I said. "Anser domesticus."
"Oh, I thought it was a snake." The lawyer gripped at his tie, flattened and consoled it with strokes. "What the hell have you got a goose for?"
"Geese, actually. It's a long story."
"They always are with you."
"What are you doing up here? When did you get here?"
"Yesterday. I'm heading to Cairns, so I thought I'd stop by. Got a sexual assault defendant who's jumped bail. I'm going to try to talk him back down. Everybody flees north."
"If you've got to hide, it's better to do it where it's warm."
"Right." Sean looked at me. "Look, good news, Ted. Not only have I brought my favorite client a delightful care package, but as of this morning your assets are officially defrosted. They took the block off your bank account this morning."
"Just in time," I said. "I'm down to my last few bucks. Those birds are officially the most expensive thing I own."
The white-haired man handed me a plastic bag of goodies. Inside were a couple of paperbacks and some food items. I didn't have the heart to tell him about my fridgeless state. There was an envelope of forms as thick as a dictionary in the bag. He took one of the coffees and handed it to me. It smelled good, but it wasn't hot. There wasn't anything at all within twenty minutes' drive of the house, certainly nowhere that made a decent cup of coffee. It didn't matter. The scary forms and the cold coffee couldn't possibly dampen my joy at seeing Sean. There were about twenty-one million people in Australia who believed I was guilty of my crime. And one silk-clad solicitor who didn't.
"I imagine there's something in that envelope from Kelly," I said.
"Adjustments to the divorce settlement. Again. Semantic stuff. She's stalling."
"It's almost as though she wants to stay married to me."
"No. She just wants to watch you wriggle."
I sipped the coffee and looked at the marshlands. It was flat as glass out there, the mountains on the other side blue in the morning haze.
"Any sign of ...?" I cleared my throat.
"No, Ted. No custody inclusions. But she doesn't have to rush, she can do that any time."
I stroked my face. "Maybe I'll grow a beard," I said.
We considered the horizon.
"Well, look at you. I'm proud of you," Sean said suddenly. "You're a single, handsome, thirty-nine-year-old man starting all over again with a rental house and a few too many pets. You're not really that much worse off than a lot of guys out there."
I snorted. "You're delusional."
"Serious. This is your opportunity for a do-over. A clean slate."
I sighed. He wasn't convincing either of us.
"So are they guard geese?" he asked, changing the subject.
I had to think for a moment what he meant.
"The Nazis used geese to guard their concentration camps," he explained.
"Can I take a look?"
I waved. He approached the box cautiously, squatted and lifted the towel with manicured fingers. He wore houndstooth socks. Probably alpaca. I heard Woman squeal from the gloomy depths. Sean laughed.
"Wowsers," he said.
"All still alive?" I asked.
"Looks like it." Sean glanced at me. "You looking for work?"
"Not yet. Too soon."
The little geese pipped and shuffled around in the box. Claws on cardboard. He left them alone.
"Would you do me a favor?" Sean said.
"Would you check out a girl in town named Amanda Pharrell?"
"Would I check out a girl?" I looked at him, incredulous.
"A woman," Sean sighed and gave me an apologetic smile. "Will you pay a visit to a woman in town?"
"Who is she?"
"Just a woman." Sean shrugged.
"What do I want to visit her for?"
"You're full of questions. Stop asking questions. Just do what I tell you. She'll be good for you, that's all. Not to date. Just to meet."
"So it's not romantic in any way."
"No," Sean said.
"Then what the hell is it?"
"Jesus, Ted," he laughed, before offering an adage he'd used many times during my trial prep. "I'm your lawyer. Don't ask me why. Just do it."
I made no commitment.
We sat for a while talking about what he was doing in Cairns and how long he'd stay. Sean was sweating through his linen trousers. His poreless nose was burned already by the sneaky tropical sun, slowly cooking the unwary Sydney man through the wet air. I'd managed a nut-brown tan just trudging around the property for a month, walking to the shopping center to buy Wild Turkey. I hoped I'd fit in eventually. That I'd grow safely unrecognizable from the man who had graced the cover of the Telegraph for weeks at a time, the broad-shouldered ghoul in a suit hanging his head outside the courthouse, pale from jail. A beard might do it, I thought. And time. I'd need plenty of time.
Here's what I remember. And it's a lie. It's a composite memory, built from things I actually remember, stuff I heard during my trial, what I read in the paper and things whispered to me in my jail cell while I was on remand. Some bits and pieces I'm sure come from my nightmares — it's possible that the storm wasn't so foreboding, or her eyes so big and pretty. But the memory of those fatal moments is impossibly clear. More fabrication than history. The narrative is woven from many colorful strings. It cannot be snapped now, even if small fibers over the years will part and coil away. I believe it. Even if I know it isn't true.
She was standing by the side of the road, exactly in line with the road barrier markers, which weren't that much shorter than her. She was thirteen. She looked ten. The girl was so pale, and her hair was so doused in flaming afternoon sunlight coming through the clouds that she almost became one of those markers; a white sentry beside the isolated highway, still as stone. I didn't see her at first. I saw the bus stop and the well-worn tracks of the great vehicles in the dry mud. I slowed, turned off the highway and pulled in to the bus stop area, parking my car somewhere between ten and fifteen meters from the girl.
A blue Hyundai Getz drove past on the highway going south, carrying Marilyn Hope, thirty-seven, and her daughter Sally, fourteen. They would testify to witnessing my car pull off the highway "suddenly" and park "close" to the girl. It was 12:47 p.m. Sally Hope testified to the exact time I pulled off the road because she glanced at the clock in the car as they went by, and she remembered calculating that they had thirteen minutes to get to her dance lesson.
I got out of the car and spotted the pale girl standing there for the first time. She was looking at me, her pink Pokémon backpack sitting on the ground beside her.
My first thought was: Where did she come from?
My second thought was: Fix the noise.
The fishing rod had been tapping against the back window of my Corolla. I opened the back left-hand door of the car, climbed halfway in, and pulled the rod and the tackle box toward me across the seat so that the handle of the fishing rod slid down into the gap behind the front passenger seat, pulling the tip of the rod away from the window.
A red Commodore drove past on the highway going north, carrying Gary Fisher, fifty-one. Gary was the third witness. He would testify to seeing my car parked by the girl, the back passenger-side door open. The door closest to the girl.
I spotted my car insurance renewal notice, open and crumpled, in the mess of papers and takeaway containers on the floor behind the driver's seat. I picked up the pale green paper and examined it, still half in, half out of the door.
Truck driver Michael Lee-Reynolds, forty-eight, drove past on the highway going south. Witness number four. He'd back up Gary's claim of seeing me parked by the girl, the back passenger door open. A tall, broad-shouldered man fitting my description, halfway in, halfway out of the backseat.
I leaned out of the vehicle, righted myself, and tucked the insurance notice into the pocket of my jeans. I looked at the girl. She was still watching me. A light rain had begun to fall and it was caught by the gentle breeze, tiny droplets misting all around her in the sunlight like tiny golden insects. She kicked the dirt with her shoe and played with the hem of her jeans, then turned away. She was a thin girl. That's about all I would genuinely remember about her, all I would tell the police I remembered in my initial interrogations. She'd been thin, bony, and white. The rest of my recollections of the girl who would ruin my life I would fill in from photographs at the trial. I'd see her big teeth in "before the attack" pictures. The way her nose crinkled when she smiled.
I stood beside the highway on that terrible day and glanced at the dark purple horizon beyond the trees as I closed the car door.
"Some pretty heavy rain coming," I said.
A red Kia drove past going south, carrying sisters Jessica and Diana Harper, thirty-four and thirty-six respectively. Witnesses five and six testified that they'd seen me talking to the girl. They were unable to agree whether my back left door was open or shut. It was 12:49 p.m.
"Yeah," the girl said.
"Your bus coming soon?" I asked.
"In a minute," she said and smiled. Crinkled her nose. Or maybe she didn't. I don't know anymore.
"All right," I said. Two more cars full of witnesses drove past, uncertain, between them, if when I waved at the girl it was with my right hand, palm flat, facing toward her, in a "good-bye" type of gesture, or if in fact I was beckoning her, left hand up, palm open and turned toward me, in a "come here" type gesture. Testimony about the exact nature of the "good-bye"/"come here" gesture would last three days.
All of them would agree, in the end, that I made some sort of gesture while I was standing by the back passenger door of my car. The door closest to the girl.
I walked around the front of my car, got into the driver's seat, started it, and drove away. I didn't look back.
At 12:52 p.m., the girl's bus drove past. The exact time would be recorded on the vehicle's GPS. The Pokémon backpack was on the ground, the driver and passengers all agreed.
But there was no girl.
* * *
Claire Bingley was abducted from the bus stop at Mount Annan, on the edge of the highway, that Sunday afternoon. She was driven to a patch of bush about five minutes away along dusty back roads dividing cattle farms and vacant lots. In the dark of the woods, she was brutally raped and then strangled until she lost consciousness. Her attacker must have thought she was dead. But with the unexplainable tenacity and physical resilience possessed by some children, the girl, against all odds, didn't die. Claire lay in the dark listening to the sounds of the bush around her for several hours, terrified that her attacker was nearby. Night fell and then the horizon lit again. The girl wandered out of the bush and walked in a zombie-like daze to the highway, reappearing some ten kilometers south of where she'd vanished. It was about six o'clock the next morning. Claire had been missing for eleven hours.
An old man driving to Razorback to help his son move house spotted her crouched at the roadside, nude. Her face was so bloody he'd thought at first she was wearing a red mask. Her throat was so damaged she couldn't explain what had happened to her.
Social media, by this time, was well into a frenzy that had begun the previous evening, about two hours after the girl disappeared. The eight o'clock news updates picked it up, right between The Project and MasterChef. The whole country saw it. Her parents whipped up the panic until it was on all news networks, and a quickly designed missing poster of Claire was shared online eight hundred thousand times, in places as far away as San Francisco. Claire had been abducted. They knew it. The disappearance was totally uncharacteristic of their daughter. Claire's parents knew in their hearts that something terrible had happened. They were right.
The first time a suspect was ever mentioned was in the comments section of one of the social media posts. Under a picture of Claire, plastered with pleas to share the image of the missing child around, one of the drivers who had been on the highway that day wrote "I think I saw the guy."
That guy was me.
I walked to the corner shop in the rain. It's like that in Cairns sometimes. It will begin to rain without warning, hammering downward like bullets, and there will be no shelter on the road, a strip of bare earth between stretches of yellow sugar cane six meters high, running for kilometers, the walls of a hidden city. Grasshoppers in every earthly color sprang and danced on the hot dirt in joy. Hundreds of swallows lined the sagging wires. I inhaled steam and watched the cloud bank pass overhead for an hour, plodding slowly.
It wasn't that I'd chosen Crimson Lake as my hideaway by throwing a dart at a map. I'd simply headed north from Sydney with my belongings in the car and panic at the back of my throat, certain only that I couldn't stay where I was, and with some vague notion that I'd stop running when I felt safe, when people stopped recognizing me. The five or six days I'd spent in Sydney after I'd been released from prison had been a cat-and-mouse game with the press, who hung around any hotel I stayed in, annoying the owners until they threw me out on the street. Kelly wouldn't have me at the house without a police escort, so I'd only been able to go home briefly to gather some things. The city people were fuming. I was being talked about on every television channel. Every radio station. I was on the front cover of every newspaper. I hardly ate. Half the times that I ducked into a fast food restaurant to grab something, the counter staff recognized me. The other half, I didn't go in, too afraid that they would.
Things were easier in the small towns heading north. The more remote the location, the less people seemed to mind each other's business. I traveled north along the coast of New South Wales, hopping between quiet motels, drinking and eating chips by the light of television sets in stuffy little rooms. I crossed the border into Queensland and decided I'd get away from the coast where the weather was warm and the beaches packed with tourists carrying newspapers under their arms, into the desert. Slowly climbing the country, watching desert turn to scrub, scrub to bush, bush to lush, wet rainforest as I crossed back toward the rocky cliffs north of Townsville. White beaches, signs warning of crocodiles, fishing rods replacing the newspapers riding against bare ribs. I didn't stop in Cairns, but rolled through quietly on a Saturday night. The football was on and the pubs were full of sweating, cheering men. I set out the next day halfheartedly, knowing soon enough I'd run out of country. I was twenty-eight hours' drive north of my home and only just beginning to feel safe. I stopped short when the signs began pointing to a place called Cape Tribulation. That didn't sound good.
When I got to Crimson Lake, an hour's drive north of Cairns, not only were people disinterested in "city news," but I seemed to have found a region stolen from the hands of time, a slice of bare-bones civilization only just managing to fight back the rainforest trying to swallow it whole.
Tangled in roadside undergrowth, battered billboards advertising the Great Barrier Reef tours featured women in floral bikinis with Farrah Fawcett hair and yellowed smiles. Kids peering through the glass of snorkel sets.
Moss and vines grew on every surface they could manage. Along the rivers, broken-down houses with yawning doorways squatted in the bush, peering out, not a brick or patch of wood that composed them showing through their cloaks of lush leaves. This was a town where the bad things about a person's life might be eaten up. The constant dampness, the regular rains, the rivers and lakes that swelled and grabbed at the roadsides could wash away histories, cleanse sins. It was a place that wanted to consume itself; a warm, green abyss. I fell into its arms.
Excerpted from "Crimson Lake"
Copyright © 2017 Candice Fox.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Also by Candice Fox,
About the Author,