I Did It For You: A Novel

I Did It For You: A Novel

by Amy Engel
I Did It For You: A Novel

I Did It For You: A Novel

by Amy Engel

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Overview

A twisty thriller from the beloved author of The Familiar Dark, in which a woman returns to the town where her sister was murdered and finds a presumed copycat on the loose

It’s been fourteen years since Greer Dunning’s older sister, Eliza, was murdered, and Greer’s family has never been the same. And now there’s been a similar killing in Greer’s small Kansas hometown. A copycat, according to the authorities, but Greer is convinced there is more to the story. That Eliza’s murderer had help all those years ago.

So Greer returns home after more than a decade away, desperate to answer the questions that have haunted her for years. And in her drive to uncover the truth, she forms a bond with the unlikeliest of allies. One that puts her in grave danger, as almost everyone in her small town becomes a suspect.

At once a riveting mystery and a deep exploration of guilt, loss, and the ways in which a violent murder transforms both the family of the victim and the family of the killer, I Did It For You will keep readers captivated through the very last page.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593187395
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/25/2023
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 355,967
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

About The Author
Amy Engel is the author of The Familiar Dark, The Roanoke Girls, and the Book of Ivy series. A former criminal defense attorney, she lives in Missouri with her family.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

I didn't attend the execution, although I was invited. "Invited"-such a civilized word for a string of events that began with my sister's brains being blown out and ended with his veins pumped full of state-sanctioned poison. I heard later, through the grapevine, that his final words were "I shouldn't have done it." A pretty half-assed apology, if you asked me. That same grapevine reported a last meal of chicken-fried steak and twice-baked potatoes, capped off with fresh strawberry shortcake. I wondered, for a long time, if it had been the kind made with biscuits or the kind made with angel food cake. Those were the type of pointless details my mind snagged on to keep it from having to think about uglier ones. Like how long it took him to die. Twelve minutes, for the record. I wish that brought me some pleasure. Or at least more pleasure than it does.

After he was gone, I put him away. Did my best to shove him into the cobwebby corners of my mind where I stored most of my memories about Eliza and that long, sultry summer before she died. And then my father called, left a rusty-voiced message that I had to strain to hear, bourbon breath boiling through the phone. "It's happened again, Greer," he said. A noise that might have been a sob, might have been a cough. "He did it again." I got the details off of the internet, not from my father, an unreliable source on even his best days, of which there were few. An eighteen-year-old couple shot to death where they were tangled together in the front seat of the boy's car. Ludlow, Kansas. My hometown. Change the date, change the names, and it could have been a story about my sister and her boyfriend, Travis. More than a decade of time wiped away in an instant. Back to the moment when my world spun off its axis. Although that's not quite accurate. Less spinning off and more splitting open-all the hairline cracks turned to sudden yawning fissures.

But despite my father's drunken ramblings, Roy Mathews hadn't done it again. His trigger finger was as dead and buried as the rest of him. These were two other kids. These were two different murders. Copycat, the reporters said. Sick. Disturbing. But not directly connected. And yet it felt like someone reaching out to me, opening a door, waiting to see if I would walk through. A whisper slithering out of the dark. Come back.

Leave it alone, I told myself every night as I took long, tepid baths, trying to escape the lingering late-summer heat. "Leave it alone," I whispered under my breath as I poured a glass of wine with dinner. Glass. Singular. Eliza's death might have torn my family apart, but I'd be damned if I let it turn me into my father. You've been doing well, I lectured myself as I lay in bed chasing sleep that wouldn't hold still long enough for me to catch it. Okay, "well" might be overstating it. But I had a job, an apartment, a small circle of acquaintances. I went to museums, and movies, and the occasional ball game. I voted and saved for the future. I had the outlines of a life, at least, if not the full, colored-in version. I'd been doing fine, and after everything, I considered fine a win.

But I couldn't leave it alone. Had never been able to, really. I'd never felt any comfort when Roy Mathews was arrested less than twenty-four hours after my sister's life ended. Everyone else in Ludlow had let out a collective sigh of relief. The madman was locked up; their lives could return to normal. But I'd looked at his expressionless face staring back at me from the front page of the local paper and thought: You? How could it be you? I'd asked Sheriff Baker if he was sure Roy had acted alone so many times that he'd eventually stopped answering my calls. Instead, he'd phoned my parents, told them I needed professional help. What followed was a string of therapists who chalked up the constant, always-there unease in my gut to post-traumatic stress disorder. But I knew it was something deeper. Eliza screaming in a frequency only I could hear. Now two more kids were dead, and I'd been right all along.

Finally, after all this time, I understood what had to happen. I was accepting a different invitation-come back-and I was heading home.


•••••


When I told my boss I needed to take an extended leave due to a family emergency, he didn’t ask too many questions. Over the years I’d learned to deflect well enough that most people had stopped trying to get real answers. They figured I was private or had some horrible childhood I didn’t want to disclose. Random guys I’d dated in college tried to guess what I was hiding like my past was a party game they could win through sheer perseverance. But even when they knew where I was from, it rarely triggered any sort of memory. Turned out Eliza’s and Travis’s deaths hadn’t generated the frenzied headlines some murders received. I wasn’t sure why exactly, but if I had to guess, I’d say it was because if we’re going to pore over details of a murder, chat about it with our friends over coffee, and read the details online, we want something more gruesome. A bloody knife or a garrote of wire. A dungeon basement and a body-part trophy collection. Three bullets resulting in two bodies wasn’t going to cut it. And then there was Roy Mathews himself. As a killer, he left a lot to be desired. He wasn’t a jilted lover or a jealous stalker. He didn’t even know Eliza or Travis, had never spoken so much as a word to either of them as far as anyone could remember. He wasn’t charismatic or sly or even crazed. He was just an angry-at-the-world, not-too-bright eighteen-year-old with a bloodstream full of booze and a gun burning a hole in his pocket.

"Well," Mr. Goss said after I'd finished filling out the paperwork, "I hope everything turns out all right and you're back with us soon. The kids are going to miss you."

I'm a middle school guidance counselor, tasked with helping seventh and eighth graders navigate the choppy waters of adolescence. Trusted to steer them through potential emotional land mines and emerge safely on the other side, stronger and wiser, and hopefully with minimal lasting damage. Most days, though, I was simply treading water. Trying to save them from drowning when I could barely stay afloat myself.

It's okay to laugh at the irony. God knows I do.


•••••


It didn’t take me long to pack for my trip-no pets I had to farm out to willing neighbors, no plants to foist on friends while I was gone. For that matter, no friends I needed to leave with hugs and promises to keep them posted. No men consulting the calendar, eager for my return. Other than my colleagues, who I joined a few times a year for an after-work beer, I didn’t have any attachments in Chicago. It was almost like deep down I’d been preparing for this moment, the day I would need to drop everything without a backward glance and rush home. And I knew, as much as I might want to pretend otherwise, that I couldn’t go on the way I had been. Living a suspended half-life, waiting for something to change without taking a single concrete step to alter my course. Now, with the familiar lines of US-75 laid out in front of me, underneath the uncertainty and the fear, there was a pulsing vein of relief. Returning to Ludlow felt dangerous, like standing next to a powder keg with a lit match in my hand. But part of me longed for the oncoming explosion. Maybe I would find answers and this limbo could be over, one way or the other.

Most people are familiar with Kansas only from elementary school geography-the nondescript rectangle smack dab in the middle-and popular culture-Dorothy and her glittery red shoes; Truman Capote and a blood-splattered farmhouse. So if they ever actually visit, instead of flying over, they're armed with enough knowledge to expect the flatness, the fields of wheat and soybean, the tractors trundling across the earth like great metal beasts. But the sheer scope of the land has to be a surprise. How the flatness goes on and on in all directions, how the horizon melts into the sky, disorienting without any buildings to add scale or dimension. Out here, on the prairie, you feel as small as you ever have.

I used to love everything about this place. The sound of wind whispering through wheat, the metallic smell of a thunderstorm rolling in fast from the north, the thump of your car tires over the old brick streets running through the middle of town, a blue October sky so vast and cloudless you'd almost be forgiven for thinking it couldn't be real. The one place in the world where I'd felt like I could always be myself because everyone here knew me, knew exactly who Greer Dunning was, so there was no point pretending. I'd been the younger daughter, the borderline smart-ass, the one who'd walked right up to the line of too much spunk without stepping over. I'd talked fast and laughed loud, and nowadays I could barely lay hands on the ghost of that girl. She was as lost to me as Eliza was.

As I glided past the "Entering Ludlow, Est. 1871" sign and took a right on Main, it hit me that all those things I used to love were now tainted with Eliza's death. The bandstand in the town park was no longer the place where we'd listened to "The Star-Spangled Banner" before Fourth of July fireworks. It was where my dad, drunk and stumbling, crashed through a railing during a memorial service for Eliza and Travis and puked all over my sobbing mother. The library wasn't my favorite childhood spot to hole up on rainy afternoons with a stack of books and a contraband Hershey bar. It was the place where, on the Halloween after Eliza died, I ran into a group of girls each dressed up as my dead sister, rubber cement for the bullet hole in her forehead and dripping red slime for the blood. When Roy Mathews pulled that trigger, he took more than my sister away from me. He took all my best memories, too.

My parents still lived in the house where I grew up, where my father grew up also. After Eliza died, part of me had assumed we would move. If not away from Ludlow completely, then at least to a new house. Someplace where Eliza's absence didn't echo from every corner. Where every square inch wasn't a reminder of who we used to be. But my parents never even mentioned the possibility, my dad probably out of drunken inertia and my mom because on some level she still hoped Eliza was coming back. Like maybe if they stayed put, one day Eliza would scratch her way out of the coffin, come shambling up the front walk just in time for dinner.

We were never the richest family in town. That was the Parkers, who owned the now-defunct oil refinery but continued to live large on the profits decades later. And we weren't the most devout family, either. That was Preacher and Mrs. Frogue and their passel of pale, waiflike children whose eyes always focused somewhere above your head, like they were already looking to heaven. But we were the steadiest family in Ludlow. You could count on the Dunnings, no matter what. My father owned the grocery store, passed down from his father and grandfather before him. He knew more about most people in town than they knew about themselves. Who stocked up on too much wine, who snuck in for a pregnancy test squirreled away in a paper bag, who asked to buy their groceries on credit until they were back on their feet. My dad knew everyone's secrets and would have died before he revealed a single one. For her part, my mother kept the town's social circles running. Room mom at school, president of the PTA, head of the church bake sale, and the library fundraiser, and the food pantry collection drive. And Eliza and I were steady, too. Pretty enough, but not beautiful. Smart, but not gifted. Well-liked, but not the most popular. We rode that middle line of small-town solidness every day of our lives. So when it all fell out from under us, we had no idea where to land. We became Ludlow's sideshow, and the Dunnings weren't meant for the stage.

From the outside our house looked the same as it always had-whitewashed brick, pale gray shutters, a wraparound front porch my grandmother had added on a few years after marrying into the family. To soften the exterior, according to my dad. The better to spy on passersby, according to my mom. The front door was unlocked, a small-town habit my parents couldn't break even after the murder of their daughter. The house might have looked familiar, but it didn't smell the way it had during my childhood. Chocolate chip cookies, a roast in the oven, faint cigar smoke from my dad's Sunday afternoon guilty pleasure. The only scent now was bleach, strong enough to make my eyes water. After Eliza's funeral, my dad picked up a bottle of bourbon, and my mom picked up every cleaning product known to man. Now she spent her days scrubbing, wiping, scouring until her knuckles were raw.

"Mom?" I called. "Hello? Anybody home?"

"Oh, Greer, honey." My mom bustled out of the kitchen with a broom in her hand. "You're here! I can't believe it!"

I dropped my duffel on the floor. "I'm here." I avoided looking to my right, where I knew the giant framed portrait of Eliza and me still took pride of place on the foyer wall. Teenagers trapped under glass. Safe and alive and forever smiling. A constant, painful reminder of what we'd lost, like a splinter buried too deep for removal.

My mom took a step forward, gave me an awkward one-armed hug. My first instinct was to flinch backward; it had been years since she'd touched me this way. Before Eliza, she'd been a woman of kisses, shoulder rubs, hugs when we passed in the hall. It felt like I'd spent half my childhood shrugging her off of me. But after Eliza she avoided contact, never reaching for me, eyes always focused a little to the side of my face. As if looking at me, acknowledging me, would be tempting fate, her rejection of me a way to tell the universe there was nothing to see here; it could move along and torture someone else. And thus far it had, but my mother and I lost each other anyway.

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