Follow Me Down is a rare finda gutsy, visceral, and beautifully crafted psychological thriller that Diane Chamberlain called "an engrossing page turner [that] will keep you guessing right up to the delicious ending" from talented new author Sherri Smith.
Mia Haas has built her life far from the North Dakota town where she grew up, but when she receives word that her twin brother is missing, she is forced to return home. Back to the people she left behind, the person she used to be, and the secrets she thought she’d buried.
Once hailed as the golden boy of their town, and now a popular high school teacher, Lucas Haas disappears the same day the body of one of his students is pulled from the river. Trying to wrap her head around the rumors of Lucas’s affair with the teen, and unable to reconcile the media’s portrayal of Lucas as a murderer with her own memories of him, Mia is desperate to find another suspect.
All the while, she wonders: If he’s innocent, why did he run?
As Mia reevaluates their difficult, shared history and launches her own investigation into the grisly murder, she uncovers secrets that could exonerate Lucasor seal his fate. In a small town where everyone’s lives are intertwined, Mia must confront her own demons if she wants to get out alive.
|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
When not writing, SHERRI SMITH spends time with her family and two rescue dogs, and restores vintage furniture that would otherwise be destined for the dump. She lives in Winnipeg, Canada where the long, cold winters nurture her dark side. Follow Me Down is her first thriller.
Read an Excerpt
Follow Me Down
By Sherri Smith
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2017 Sherri Smith
All rights reserved.
WEDNESDAY, EARLY MORNING
My first thought was my mother had started another fire. Or maybe she did something nasty to a fellow patient again. Last year she stabbed a woman sitting next to her in the dining room with a fork because, she said, the woman tried to steal her dessert. Both times I had to cover the costs (the woman needed four stitches, one for each tine), which I couldn't help but suspect the care home had inflated. I always pictured the nurses clanging their after-work mai tais together, telling each other they deserved this little something extra for having to deal with that woman.
I almost didn't answer. I'd just spent the last slow hour helping a prostitute pick out hair dye (Midnight Vixen by L'Oréal seemed a professionally sound choice) after refilling her Valtrex prescription and was taking my second break of the overnight shift. But it was the strangeness of the hour. My phone never rang at 6 A.M.
"Mia Haas?" A gruff voice.
"Yes." I was sitting with two front cashiers, sipping weak coffee and eating powdery donuts for a cheap rush to carry me through the next two hours.
"This is Wayoata Police Chief John Pruden."
"What did Mimi do now?" I offered up a theatrical sigh for the benefit of my co-workers who had never heard me mention Mimi before now and locked myself in the bathroom for privacy.
"I'm calling about Lucas."
"Your brother, Lucas. Have you heard from him?" He sounded irritated he had to repeat himself.
"Why?" My teeth sunk into my lower lip. Visions of accidents sucked me into a panic, of bloody highway collisions and motorboats crashed into rocky lakeshores with beer bottles still rolling back and forth on deck. A school shooting. Wayoata was the kind of crappy town where angry, awkward outcasts went on shooting rampages. "What happened?"
Pruden evaded my question. "So you're telling me you haven't heard from him in the last seventy-two hours?"
I tried to think when I last talked to my twin brother. He called me a couple of weeks ago but didn't leave a message, which meant it wasn't important. Just one of those catch-up calls and a full report on Mimi. The twenty-four-hour chain pharmacy where I worked in Chicago had opened yet another location two blocks away, and I was doubling up on shifts until another pharmacist was hired.
"No, I haven't. What is this about?"
Pruden muttered something I didn't catch, then followed up with "We can't find your brother."
"What do you mean, you can't find him?" The better question would have been to ask why they were looking for him, but of course I didn't think to ask that yet. I was too blindsided. "He's probably at work." It was June. Exam time. Lucas wouldn't be anywhere but in his classroom. If he'd suddenly decided to quit, he wouldn't have done it during exam time. Plus, he would have told me.
"At work?" Pruden parroted. I'd insulted him; obviously it's too early for Lucas to be at the school. "He's not at work. You need to come in. When can you get here? Sooner the better." Someone jiggled the handle on the bathroom door.
I pushed for more details — really, really pushed — but Pruden insisted we talk in person.
* * *
Immediately after hanging up, I tried calling Lucas twenty times in a row. Each time I expected him to pick up so we could laugh at this whole absurd situation. He'd have a funny story about some woman he'd met and half moved in with for the last week and would be stunned that the police got involved over a few unwarranted sick days.
But Lucas wasn't picking up his phone. The ringing, the pause as the call rolled over to voice mail was all dashed hope and building dread. The heat from my phone burrowed deep into my ear, turned into an electric buzz that stayed long after I stopped trying. No answer.
Still sitting on the toilet lid, I went to my brother's Facebook, thinking there'd be a selfie of him doing whatever and I'd know he was fine, but his account had been deleted.
I Googled the Wayoata Sun. My ears started to hum; my windpipe twisted. It looked like a novelty newspaper. Pure bogus. The kind you get from some mall parking lot carnival with the words "WANTED AKA [INSERT YOUR COOL NICKNAME HERE]" above your laser-printed face. Yearbook photos, side by side. One staff, one student. My brother and a teenage girl. The breaking news headline, LOCAL TEACHER PERSON OF INTEREST IN STUDENT'S MURDER. It was dated yesterday.
I scrolled down to the comments section, and here was a litany of abuse against my brother. Cap-locked words, among them "MURDERER" and "RAPIST" mottled the screen like bullet holes. Even our miserable old neighbor who liked to plant plastic roses in his front flower bed, their startling, colorful heads peeking through the North Dakotan snowdrifts like the earth below was oozing blood, had managed to get in on the verbal stoning: Rot in hEll sick mutherfucker!!#! It struck me as especially serious that Paul Bergman felt no need to hide behind a username.
Earlier articles depicted the disappearance and search for a sixteen-year-old girl named Joanna Wilkes. She'd been missing for three weeks before her body was discovered in Dickson Park two days ago.
* * *
It didn't take me long to pack. I flung an armful of clothes into my suitcase, fistfuls of underwear and socks; I noticed the red makeup bag at the back of my underwear drawer. Put it in my suitcase, took it out, put it back again. I couldn't imagine going to Wayoata without it. Zipped up the suitcase. It didn't take me long to do anything because I couldn't stop moving. I lived alone in a loft-style apartment in Wicker Park. I'd filled it with all the right things to coordinate with its industrial look of brick walls and exposed ductwork, but somehow it still looked uninspired.
With what I paid in rent each month, I could have afforded a mini-mansion in Wayoata. This was something Lucas had kept reminding me of in the first few months after he went back home. As if all that stood between me and Wayoata was a prime piece of real estate; as if prime real estate existed anywhere at all in Wayoata.
On the plane I ordered a whiskey and water to keep my teeth from sinking into my bottom lip. There was no one to call. Not really. No one to tell me, Oh, that thing about Lucas and a student was just a big misunderstanding, another snafu our Wayoata finest are known for. It'll be straightened out by the time you get here — in fact don't even waste your time coming in. We did not have an extended family. Our mother had fled Omaha after a falling-out with her parents when she was nineteen and never talked to them again. Supposedly, they died sometime when Lucas and I were children. She'd told us this very matter-of-factly: "Your grandparents are dead, so stop asking about them." We had an aunt, but I had no idea how to get in touch with her. She had called us every second Christmas for a while, but for whatever reason, that had ended. Mimi would go around, ice clinking in her glass, saying she was estranged from her family, drawing out the word "estranged" like it was a sophisticated, glittery term.
* * *
Wayoata does not have its own airport. The earliest flight landed in Bismarck. I had to drive another three hours northeast to get there. I'd reserved a silver sedan online, but the car rental clerk handed me keys for a candy-red PT Cruiser and tried to up-sell the insurance coverage. I asked for something else, anything else. The color didn't matter — it could be a beige or black sedan, the kind of car that didn't draw any attention (negative or positive) — but the clerk just shrugged helplessly.
The drive was claustrophobic, with open fields so lacking in depth and dimension the view could have been a canvas backdrop. The sun lit up the greasy bug spatters on the windshield; they looked like a demented child's finger painting. After leaving for college, I'd returned once a year for Thanksgiving and would sit in my mother's room, plate in lap, silently picking away at the pinkish turkey the care home provided. Once Lucas moved back, nearly five years ago, I no longer felt obligated to make an annual visit, telling myself that Mimi now had Lucas to visit her anytime she wanted and that was important to me, that Mimi had someone. Equally important was that the someone wasn't me.
I knew I was getting close when I saw the same old anti-abortion billboard: a photo of some four-year-old forever stuck in the late nineties with her neon sweater and ribboned hair with ABORTION KILLS CHILDREN scrawled across her. Thirty seconds later, I was passing Wayoata's welcome sign. WAYOATA: HOME OF THE CORN AND APPLE FESTIVAL produced the usual knot in my throat. Just seeing it made me feel sticky and heavy. Someone had spray-painted an "S" in front of "Corn," and the smiling cartoon corn below had been given a penis tip shooting three ejaculating dashes onto the heavily lashed apple. It said something about the town that the welcome sign was always in some state of defacement while the antiabortion sign remained unscathed.
Then came the two competing gas stations lit up like casinos. The houses got closer together. Labyrinthine residential streets followed; the backyards offered views of rusted grain elevators, and the roads looped around and back out to Main Street to avoid dead end signs; no one wanted to look out their window and see a dead end. A number of storefront businesses had shut down. Wayoata was too far northeast to have benefited from the state's Bakken oil boom, and so, like at prom, where one side of the gym was full of ugly girls who wouldn't put out, all the able-bodied men migrated to the other side, where the getting was good. Faded purple ribbons hung from trees and streetlamps like half-opened gifts.
* * *
I went directly to Lucas's apartment and leaned on the buzzer for what seemed like hours. Buzzed the caretaker — no answer there either. The building was built in the early seventies before the farm crisis, when Wayoata was at its peak. Even the name, "The Terrace," in curlicue font over the front entrance, was hopeful for eight stories of plain beige brick. A high-rise by Wayoata standards. A permanent SUITES AVAILABLE sign was bolted to the brick beside the glass doors. I walked over to the parking lot and looked for Lucas's truck, but the parking spot was empty.
* * *
I got back into the car and made the heavyhearted drive to the police station. There was only one. I pictured my brother there, clad in an orange jumpsuit, pleading his innocence through prison bars while a self-satisfied Pruden, his legs up on his desk, wiped squirts of jelly donut off his chin. We'd figure it out. Hire a lawyer. Make bail. Sue the Wayoata police for unlawful imprisonment. On the way out, Lucas would say, Well, that was a bit of a Sticky Ricky.
Sticky Ricky. Hadn't thought about that for years. Mimi had a boyfriend for a while she called Ricky instead of Rick, like he was some sort of ostentatious pool boy because he was three years younger than her. I was fourteen, doing the dishes when Ricky started to grind up against me. Lucas saw, and without saying a word, he grabbed his hockey stick and whacked Ricky in the small of his back, hard. That's the kind of brother Lucas was. Ricky ditched Mimi, told her he didn't need the bullshit kids she came with. Along the way, this incident got abbreviated to Sticky Ricky and became a long-running inside joke that we applied to assholes and awkward life situations for the remainder of our teen years. What a giant fucking Sticky Ricky.
I didn't know why I was thinking about this, other than somehow trying to deflate what I read in the newspaper, deflate the fact that I was even here in Wayoata and that my brother wasn't answering the door.
* * *
The station had undergone a serious renovation since I'd last been there. Gone was the mix of wood paneling and forest-green walls that had given it the feel of some backwoods hunting lodge. Now it was open concept and off-white. The front desk had the arc of a hotel check-in desk, two flat screens shared warnings on speeding, texting while driving, and the perils of the zebra mussel.
The receptionist jumped up when I asked for information on Lucas Haas. She gave me a stunned look, her lips curled up, buckteeth on full display before leading me to a door with a plastic plaque that readINTERVIEW ROOM #1 (though there was no second interview room down this, the only hallway). "Chief Pruden will be right with you," she said with a librarian's whisper.
I sat down in a molded plastic chair. A second passed, and Pruden opened the door. He was followed by a younger officer with a brown crew cut, clean-shaven. Blue eyes and cleft chin. Milk-fed. Wholesome. He looked like a trainee. If he was about to introduce himself, he didn't get to, because Pruden sat down and just started talking.
"Miss Haas. Or is it Mrs. something now?" Pruden asked. It was considered bad etiquette in Wayoata to get a woman's marital status wrong. I'd known Pruden most of my life. He'd "escort" Mimi home from time to time, for whatever reason, usually because some Good Samaritan had called to report that a drunk woman was about to drive or was already driving. Sometimes he'd attempt some kind of cringeworthy humor at the door to ease the situation —"Your mom's a bit of a troublemaker, kids"— but we knew better. Mimi had to have something on offer for Pruden to let her DUIs slide by.
Mostly he'd stand there a minute, red-cheeked, as Mimi blathered away, before giving us an embarrassed nod good-bye. I wondered how many times this man's cock has been in my mother's mouth.
* * *
"It's Miss," I answered. My voice sounded funny. Tinny and fake. Pruden awkwardly extended a damp hand. He smelled faintly of the outdoors and mosquito repellent. He was well past sixty with fluffy silver hair and a meaty nose. His light blue button-down was wrinkled, and a paternal paunch gathered over his leather belt. You could easily picture him spending his Sundays parked in a recliner, muttering angrily at the television while his mousy wife flitted about, handing him beers and pleading with him to take his heart medication. He probably should have retired a year or two ago.
"Thanks for coming in." Pruden said this, all casual, like he hadn't been hanging the specifics of my missing brother over my head, like the Internet had yet to be invented. "I really wish we were meeting under different circumstances. Can I get you some water? Coffee?"
Pruden's hospitability was making me edgy. "No thanks. I just want to know what's going on. Why is my brother being associated with this ..." I couldn't bring myself to say murder. "Of being involved with this girl?"
"Joanna Wilkes. Her name is Joanna Wilkes." Pruden's voice tipped toward moral outrage, as if I was trying to dehumanize the murder victim by not saying her name (which I was, but only because my brother had been declared a person of interest).
"Joanna Wilkes," I repeated, looking him in the eye. "Have you found my brother?"
"So you know about Joanna Wilkes, then? What did your brother tell you about her?" Pruden answered, sounding nice and encouraging, like he was trying to coax out a victim impact statement.
"Lucas didn't tell me anything. I read about it online. Why is this happening? Why would the Wayoata Sun call my brother a person of interest?"
Pruden let out a heavy sigh, like he'd been holding his breath. "OK, let's just take a step back for a second. First things first. Can you tell us about the call you received from your brother at 10:17 A.M. this past Friday?"
I had no idea what he was talking about. "What call?"
"The call lasted thirty-two seconds. On Friday," the trainee added.
"Oh, that." I remembered now. Lucas had called me Friday morning, but it was just a pocket dial. A bunch of rustling, some breathing. Not good that they already had my brother's phone records. "We didn't actually talk. He just called me by accident."
"Huh." Pruden looked at the trainee, then back at me, skeptical. "Why didn't you just hang up, then?"
"After thirty-two seconds. A lot can be said in that time." The room was getting small. Hostile. So this explained Pruden's reticence on the phone. He'd wanted to ambush me when I got here. Catch me off guard so I'd panic and spill whatever supposed escape plan Lucas had revealed to me in thirty-two seconds.
"Look, I'm here because I want to know where my brother is. I want to know what's going on. You're telling me my brother's missing, but you're interrogating me over a pocket dial?"
Excerpted from Follow Me Down by Sherri Smith. Copyright © 2017 Sherri Smith. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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