The Hunter

The Hunter

by Jennifer Herrera
The Hunter

The Hunter

by Jennifer Herrera


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Notes From Your Bookseller

We were quickly caught up in the story, drama, and mystery in Jennifer Herrera’s debut novel. Family dynamics, hometowns, and a sense of duty to the job had us rooting for Detective Leigh O’Donnell. If we had a wish list (without any spoilers), we sure hope there’s more where this book came from!

A riveting atmospheric suspense debut that explores the dark side of a small town and asks: How can we uncover the truth when we keep lying to ourselves?

“Herrera has a gift for drawing vivid characters and rich settings. A voicey and compelling debut that is not to be missed.”—Karin Slaughter

After reckless behavior costs NYPD detective Leigh O’Donnell her job and her marriage, she returns with her four-year-old daughter to her beautiful hometown of Copper Falls, Ohio. Leigh had stayed away for more than a decade—even though her brother and a trio of loving uncles still call it home—because, while the town may seem idyllic, something rotten lies at its core. Three men in town have drowned in what Leigh suspects to be a triple homicide. She hopes that by finding out who killed them, she just might get her life back on course.

Headstrong and intuitive, Leigh isn’t afraid to face a killer, but she has to do more than that to discover the truth about what happened to those men. She must unravel a web of secrets going back generations, and, in doing so, plumb the darkness within herself.

Perfect for fans of Mare of Easttown, this taut debut is a haunting look at how the search for truth often leads back to the most unlikely of places.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593540213
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/10/2023
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 630,112
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Jennifer Herrera is a former philosophy grad student turned literary agent, who is fascinated by the stories we tell ourselves to live and the lies we cling to that sabotage our chances at a good life. She has lived in six states and five countries (so far) and now resides in Philadelphia with her husband, daughter, and cat.

Read an Excerpt

Thursday, November 2

I would not have pulled the trigger.

It was just after ten when I tuned the boxy police scanners to their stations. I set the Bearcat to cover Precincts 1, 5, and 7. The HomePatrol would hit Precincts 20 and 24. I tuned the Whistler to listen in on Precincts 19 and 23.

I lined them up on the marble coffee table next to the picture of Simone on Eric's shoulders at the Bronx Zoo. The photo of me in dress blues, shaking the police commissioner's hand. My leather holster, empty now, yet clinging to the shape of its old duty, its new regrets.

On the windowpane, I watched the same scene that played out a thousand times each day, like the jumbled pieces of a puzzle I was sure would never fit. A hand that was my hand reaching for my sidearm. My Glock aimed at my partner's head. A thumb that was my thumb cranking back the hammer. My voice, a command: Don't move.

I would not have pulled the trigger.

I knew this like I knew my own name. What I didn't know was why I had done it, why I had blown up my life for the sake of a perp who was caught hours after I helped him get away. This was three, maybe four, minutes of my life. Yet, like an explosion, it had devastated everything.

I turned up the volumes on the scanners until they hurt my ears. I closed my eyes. I waited for the static to drown out my noise.

On the north block of Seventy-Ninth at Columbus, an officer called in a Level 1. Shots fired. Dispatch sent an Emergency Service Unit for an evidence search.

At the Port Authority, a man was struck by a northbound A Train. A robbery. A traffic accident. A suspicious vehicle on Fifty-Seventh and Lex. But no homicides. I sat on the sofa that still carried Eric's musk and wool scent. I sipped water like I had a reason to be sober. But there were no homicides.

On other nights, when a Signal 7 had come through, I would piece together enough of the scene to interrupt my regularly scheduled spiraling. A woman killed in her apartment was usually a domestic. A man killed in the park was a mugging gone awry. Shot in a vehicle meant gang violence. Sometimes drugs. After a while, these images would blot out the memory of how I'd ruined everything. Finally, I could sleep.

But not tonight.

It was close to midnight when my cell buzzed. It was my little brother. He'd already tried me three times this week. Each time I felt a little guiltier for not answering. If he really needed me, I told myself, he'd text.

As I waited for voicemail to pick up yet again, outside my window, the video-arcade lights of the Empire State Building shifted from blue to red. I used to love their predictability, the way they could surprise me. Now as they blurred against the rain, all I felt was an overwhelming sense of the city's indifference to me, even after all I'd done to keep it safe.

I swiped to answer the call.

"Leigh? It's me, Ronan."

"I know who it is," I said, my voice a little hoarse. "Your name comes up on my phone."

"I know, but it's polite. Hey, sorry to call so late. I've been trying to reach you. Did you get my messages?"

I assured my brother that, yes, I'd gotten his voicemails, which had all said, unhelpfully, Call me back. Yes, I was fine. I was Busy Evaluating My Options. I was Reassessing and Regrouping. I was Planning Next Steps. I was the same as every other time he'd called over the past six months, still trying to imagine the future, still stuck trying to decode the past.

"I'm sorry, Leigh." Over the line, a pause like an axe swinging. "And Eric? Are you guys still separated?"

"I knew it was coming," I replied. By which I meant, I hadn't seen it coming at all.
I stood up too fast, stumbling. I strode past the uncluttered living room, cavernous now with Eric's things gone, and into the galley kitchen, where it was always dark, always wet smelling. I started opening a bottle of wine with the corkscrew I'd left out after I'd put my four-year-old to bed. I never started drinking until after she was down. I pretended this made me virtuous.

"You know, Leigh," Ronan said, "we would hire you."

The cork popped, loud like a safety disengaging. It jolted my gut. We, as in the Copper Falls Police Department. We as in the tiny police force housed in the stone building just off the main street. In winter, they hung Christmas lights. On the Fourth of July, they had a booth for twisting balloons into hats. I said, "I can't ask you to do that."

"You don't have to. That's why I've been calling. It's already done."

"What do you mean it's already done?" I pulled the screw from the cork. "You're just asking me now."
"I cleared it with the chief. Leigh, you're hired."
"Ronan." The corkscrew clattered against the bowl of the sink. "I didn't ask for this."
"Hey, calm down. It's no big deal. You're my sister, right? It's my job to help." As Ronan spoke, I pulled a glass from the open shelving. I filled it to its brim. The glug was loud, like a drain emptying into a sewer. But if Ronan heard, he didn't say. In my family, alcohol was believed to disinfect even psychological wounds. In this, we were all devout.

I stood at the counter. I held the glass to my lips. "Does your chief even know why I was suspended?"

"He didn't ask so I figure he doesn't care."

I went back to the living room. I shook my head. I swallowed another mouthful of wine.

"I'm telling you, Leigh, he loves the idea. A big-city cop? On his squad? Plus, we don't have any women."

"So I'd be a quota hire?"

"Is that any worse than being hired because you're my sister?"

I eased onto the sofa in front of the window. I placed my glass on the arm.

"Come on," Ronan said. There was a smile in his voice that begged me to reciprocate. "Don't you miss it? Even a little?"

It'd been fourteen years since I'd stepped foot in the place I'd grown up. Yet I could conjure its image as effortlessly as if I'd just left: sunset oaks that arched over the drive leading up to the old house. Knobby balustrades like turrets surrounding the porch. Wide, wooden stairs that bent with every step. In the distance, the waterfall, the creek. Everywhere, the scent of water.

I pictured the rooms-all those rooms-cathedral height and embellished with decorative woodwork. Ceilings stamped in tin. The house was beautiful from a distance. Yet even in my memory, even after all these years, I could still sense it. That residue that could never be washed away, like stains after a flood. The water recedes and you paint over its marks. Yet still the mold grows. It will always grow. You will always be sick from it if you stay inside that house.

"That's a generous offer." I rubbed the warmth back into my skin. "Please, extend my thanks."

Ronan made a sound like a tire deflating. In the background, the floor groaned. "You didn't even think about it."

"I did think about it. But I'm not going to uproot my life."

"Your roots are here, Leigh. We're here. Me. The uncles. The town. Everybody. Would it be so bad? Coming back?"

Before me, raindrops raced. Behind them, new ones wove down their tracks. I wished for lightning, for the bray of thunder. Outside, there were only sirens. Their urgency. Their rush. They faded as they sped away.

"Look," Ronan said.

I took a drink.

"I know you're some big-time detective. I know small-town policing isn't, like, on your vision board or anything."

"I don't have a vision board."

"But before you turn us down, please just remember one thing."

I stared at the callus on my trigger finger. It had turned yellow, the way leaves change color before they fall.

"Here, at least, we look after our own."

The slap was not subtle. But it was also deserved. I had, after all, abandoned my family to become a soldier in a faceless city. I had put my trust in people who weren't my own. Really Leigh, I could hear him thinking, in a city like that, what did you expect?
I looked away from the police scanners, toward the tunnel of my kitchen, gray scale now, cast in darkness. "What would I even do there?" I was just humoring him. I needed him to see for himself this wouldn't work. "I'm a detective," I said, "not a beat cop. There's no major crime."

A tinge of hope spread through Ronan's voice. It made me feel sorry for him. "I can think of lots of major crimes. There was that family reunion. The one where everyone got burned alive? The FD says that was arson."

I knew what he was talking about. It was Copper Falls lore. "That was more than sixty years ago."

"Okay. Well. How about those guys who tried to cook up meth? Out in the Sticks?"

"I'm homicide," I said. "Dead bodies only."

Ronan was quiet for a long moment, so long in fact that I thought I'd finally ended the conversation. I expected him to say something too earnest, to add a You can't blame a guy for trying. Then the calls would stop. "Leigh," Ronan said. "There's something else."

"Unless it's a dead body, I don't care."

"It's not a dead body."

"Then I don't-"

"It's not one dead body." Ronan's voice sounded strange, reluctant. "It's three of them."

Friday, November 3

As Simone and I stepped through the gold, revolving doors of the entrance to Eric's building, the chill of autumn gave way to the sterile breath of indoor space. We reached the doormat, and my daughter stilled. She watched me with concern. That's when I realized I was holding my breath.

I worked to smile. I said, "Did you know armadillos have hair on their bellies?" I touched the stuffed armadillo in her hand. His name was Arnie, and she took him everywhere.

Simone brightened. "And did you know they eat worms?"

"That's funny. Because I heard they eat spiders." I used my fingers to imitate legs crawling up her shoulder. Simone giggled. I held her tiny hand in mine. I exhaled as we stepped across the parquet floor, toward the tall desk in the lobby.

The doorman wore a suit that was too big for his frame. He smelled of pepper and cologne. He said, "Your name?"

"Leigh O'Donnell. This is Simone Walker. We're here to see Eric Walker."

I always said this when I dropped off Simone. Yet the doorman, whichever one it was, always looked at me with condescending amusement, as if I were a tourist who'd asked for directions to Central Park. Eric had noticed this, too. Not just with doormen, but with witnesses, suspects, prosecutors, other cops. It was something about the way I spoke or how I dressed, or that my teeth were a little crooked in front. Yet even when I was new to police work, Eric had never underestimated me. Not ever. Not once.

The doorman replaced the receiver on the hook. "Mr. Walker is coming down."

"No," I said. "We go up."

"Mr. Walker was very clear. He asked that you wait."

"But this is his daughter. I'm his wife."

There it was again, that look. I felt the impending explanation of how lobbies worked, the invitation to sit on the sofa and enjoy the people watching of Madison Square Park.

I picked up my daughter. I started us toward the bank of elevators.

"It won't do you any good," the doorman said to my back. "I have to unlock them."

I posted us in front of a wide beveled mirror with a scrollwork frame. I was breathing deep now, trying to make myself calm. Simone wrapped her arms tighter around my neck. She held Arnie in the crook of her elbow. She said, "Say again. About the ball?"

I met my daughter's eyes. We were the spitting image of each other, Simone and I, just painted with different palettes. Whereas my skin was pale and pink, hers was dark and brown. My hair was light and wavy. Hers was brown and textured. I had green eyes and hers were the color of cherrywood. But I couldn't look at her and not see myself. I couldn't look at her and not see Eric. I said, "When armadillos get scared, they curl up into a ball. Their armor seals them shut. That way, no one can hurt them."

Simone cuddled Arnie as she hugged me tighter. I inhaled her shea butter scent. I felt sealed up. Yet I knew this particular armor had a chink.

Behind us, the elevator pinged. We turned, and the doors swept open. Then there he was. My husband.

Eric was six foot two, sturdy, with ropy muscles. He had the same dark skin as his daughter. The same cherrywood eyes. But whereas Simone's face was expressive and open, his was cool and guarded.

He came toward us wearing the smile he reserved for press conferences and people he didn't like. He said, "Hey there, baby." He wasn't speaking to me.

Simone reached for him. I let her weight release into his arms until mine were empty and his were full. I clasped my hands just to have something to do with them.

"I'll have her back Sunday night." Eric pressed the elevator button.

"I need her back tomorrow," I said.

The elevator chimed. He stepped into it. "Sunday. It's what we agreed."

I took a breath. Was I really doing this? "Tomorrow is when we leave for Ohio."

It was only then that Eric turned. Only then that his eyes met mine. A fire lit inside of me, out from my chest, up to my throat. Eric stepped out of the elevator. The door closed behind him. He worked his jaw. He said, "You didn't tell me you were taking a trip."

"It was just decided." I was electric under his gaze. "I want Simone to meet my family."

"You don't have any family."

"I don't have any parents." My father had died from a heart attack freshman year of high school. My mother had died less than a year later, from grief. "But I have family." The way I said it felt like a plea.

"Right." He evaluated my face. "And now it's important that you see them, even though you've never visited?"

"I’ve been busy," I said. "It doesn’t mean I don’t care."

In his eyes there was this flicker. Like I was a witness with inconsistencies he needed to bring to light. He did this sometimes, went from being my husband to being a Captain with the NYPD. He did it with the shift of cadences, with the tone of his voice. He did it and my pulse fired. I wanted to run my fingers underneath his clothes until that tension between us bucked and released.
“I’ll have her to you tomorrow morning.” Eric looked away. "When will she be back?"

"Two weeks. Maybe three."

His eyebrows lifted. "Three weeks?"

Eric asked Simone to play on the couch. After a beat, she scrambled away, Arnie in hand, bookbag bouncing. When she reached the lemon-yellow sofa in the corner of the lobby, Eric pinned me with his eyes.

"Why are you going to Ohio?"

"You said it yourself. I never visit."

"Why now?"

"I have time."

"Why else?"

I shrugged.

A sharp intake of breath. A voice like an explosion: "Leigh, please. Just tell me the truth.”"Eric held me with his eyes. Color was rising in his cheeks. It rose in mine. I didn’t take my eyes off him. He didn’t look away.

Push me. Keep pushing. Don’t ever stop.

At last, I said, "I am telling you the truth." What I meant was, I need to do this. What I meant was, This is how I right our course. What I meant was, Trust me. Please.

Eric inched closer. His skin had a chemical scent I didn’t recognize. I ignored it. He said, "Leigh, it’s backwater out there."

"You’re worried she won’t be safe?"

"Yes," he said. "I am."

We both looked at Simone. She was bouncing on the couch, preparing to stand. Eric was right to be concerned. The people in Copper Falls were all white. But it was also true that the people there didn’t care about anything but their own town and their own petty squabbles. They believed they weren’t racist because, in a place so white, race was irrelevant. I knew that wasn’t true. Race was always relevant. But I could shield Simone for three weeks. I said, "I grew her inside of me."

Eric brought his eyes to meet mine.

"I’d never let anything happen to her. Whatever else you think about me, you have to believe that."

The thing that passed between us was like that moment after sex, that moment when wanting gives way to relief. You know it’s only temporary but at least for now the throb of it is gone. A line split across Eric’s forehead. I wanted to skate my finger across it, to show him that I still knew him, that I still loved him, that I wasn’t done with our family yet.

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