In the early 2000s, a string of abductions rocked the small upstate town of Reine, New York. Only one girl survived: Alex Salerno. The killer, Ken Parsons, was sent away. Life returned to normal. No more girls would have to die. Until another one did.
It’s been seven years since Kira Shanks was reported missing and presumed dead. Alex Salerno has been living in New York City, piecemealing paychecks to earn a livable wage, trying to forget those three days locked underground and her affair with Sean Riley, the married detective who rescued her. When Noah Lee, hometown reporter with a journalistic pedigree, requests an interview, Alex returns to Reine and Riley, reopening old wounds. What begins as a Q&A for a newspaper article soon turns into an opportunity for money, closure and—justice. The disappearance of Kira Shanks has long been hung on Benny Brudzienski, a hulking man-child who is currently a brain-addled guest at the Galloway State Mental Hospital. But after Alex reconnects with ex-classmates and frenemies, doubts are cast on that guilt. Alex is drawn into a dangerous game of show and tell in an insular town where everyone has a secret to hide. And as more details emerge about the night Kira Shanks went missing, Alex discovers there are some willing to kill to protect the horrific truth.
In the modern vein of Dark Places and Mystic River, The One That Got Away is a dark, psychological thriller featuring a compelling, conflicted heroine and a page-turning narrative that races toward its final, shocking conclusion.
Praise for THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY:
“A great book! I devoured it. Taut, pacey and with a powerful sense of place, Joe Clifford’s The One Got Away is an intelligent and astutely observed piece of American small town noir.” —Paula Hawkins, New York Times bestselling author of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water
“Joe Clifford is a gifted storyteller with a knack for crafting characters who are entirely human. The One That Got Away is dark and unforgiving, a chilling crime novel with the perfect touch of tenderness that will keep readers turning the pages with haste. This is one book you won’t be able to put down. —Mary Kubica, New York Times bestselling author of The Good Girl and Every Last Lie
“The mystery of The One That Got Away sucked me in, but it was the emotional punch of Alex Salerno’s return home that broke my heart. With its sharply observed characters and setting and crime-thriller pace, its tough exterior belies a vast, unexpected tenderness. I cannot not quit thinking about this book.” —Emily Carpenter, author of Burying the Honeysuckle Girls and The Weight of Lies
“It’s not often that I read a top-notch thriller with layers of emotion buried within each page. On the surface, Joe Clifford’s story of a young woman who survived a kidnapping and returns to her hometown to investigate a seemingly similar disappearance is compulsively readable, but when you dig a little deeper, you discover there’s so much more to unpack. The On That Got Away is by far Clifford’s best and most fully realized novel to date, and might well be the most rewarding thriller I’ve read this year.” —Jennifer Hillier, author of Jar of Hearts
|Publisher:||Down & Out Books II, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.63(d)|
Read an Excerpt
On the overpass leading into Reine, the small Upstate New York town where Alex Salerno had grown up, some smart ass had spray painted "Abandon all hope ye who enter here." There was only the one road in off the 87, making the concrete billboard the perfect platform for free advertising. Mostly pissed-off punks who had been scaling the trestles since Alex was a little girl. Drunk on blackberry brandy, draped in black, tempting fate on midnight tracks where freight trains rumbled alongside the Hudson River all night long. Anything to mark territory, stake a claim. Make voices of discontent heard. Every spring the town sent in a cleaning crew. The following fall, another tag. As Alex drove closer to the bridge she made out the hastily scrawled response: "You need hope to lose it, Asshole." Point. Counterpoint. Alex imagined respectable suburban professionals, mothers with small children, housewives driving this same route every day, seeing the graffiti and wondering what was wrong with kids today because they had never been young and didn't remember what outrage felt like.
It took her a while to find the campus. Even when she lived up here, Alex hadn't spent much time at Uniondale University, the private college on the hill with its fake ponds and planted sod. Sitting on a bench burnished with names she'd never heard of, Alex took in the sprawling campus, the packs of giggling girls and cocksure boys. Alex had nothing against learning or higher education. She read books. In another life, she might've done well in college. But with each passing minute she felt increasingly uncomfortable among the rich kids shuttled in from Connecticut and the Hamptons.
Why had she agreed to this meeting in the first place? Because someone wanted to tell her story again, had offered to shine the spotlight once more.
The October sun lingered in a stubborn autumn sky, creating the illusion that there was time left. Late-afternoon clouds rolled in, horizon growing darker. Alex pulled up her black hoodie and jammed hands in pockets. The college was a strange choice for an interview. Albany would've made more sense. Troy, Schenectady. Even Rensselaer. That's where the press was, the little big towns of Upstate New York. Which definitely did not include Reine. The longer she sat there, amidst the quaint woodsy backdrop and post-modern metal sculptures, the more pathetic she felt. It had been years since she escaped that basement. Who would want to talk to her now? After all this time? Back then, they wrote stories about her. Back then she was, if not national news, at least part of local lore. The girl who'd risen from the dead, emerged untouched, still pure. The one that got away. No one else would have to die.
And then another girl died, and Alex's story turned cautionary tale, an unpleasant reminder that promises get broken and nothing gold can stay.
Alex pulled her Parliaments, stashed them, pulled them again. A jogger stomped past and she flinched. She checked her phone. No missed calls, no unanswered texts. Opened her email. No update from Noah Lee, the reporter, saying that he was running late, no messages about crossed wires, a misunderstanding over what time or where they were supposed to meet. She contemplated heading back to her car, digging for his number among the clutter, it was in there somewhere, but she knew once she crossed the quad she wasn't coming back. She'd hit the 87 back to the city, where she'd do what she always did. Run off, find a party, score something to make her forget she'd ever been this needy.
A college kid with a backpack draped over his shoulder headed toward, pleasant smile plastered on his smooth, youthful face like he needed to borrow something. Alex hid her cigarettes. Students were always bumming smokes at the bar, despite having way more money than she ever would. But the kid did not want a cigarette.
"I'm Noah," he said. "You must be Alex." He slipped the bag off his shoulder, dropping it between his feet and plopping down beside her.
She sucked on her smoke, biting the inside of her cheek, an anxious habit that had created a permanent nub, soft candy she chewed when nerves got the best of her.
Noah pointed at the tall light pole, a big sign with red slashes through all the things you weren't allowed to do. "Campus is smoke free."
"I thought this was an interview?" Alex dropped the cigarette, squashing the burning ember beneath the heel of her Chuck Taylors. "For a newspaper?"
"Yup. The Codornices. Uniondale's student publication."
The meeting had been set up via email, details arranged digitally. Why hadn't she taken six seconds to verify the name of the newspaper?
"I mean, I'm hoping they'll run it," Noah said. "No guarantee. Not too much competition though. I live in the same dorm as the editor. Mainly I need the interview for my final project."
"Beats and Deadlines. It's a journalism class —"
"How hold are you?"
"You got to be shitting me."
"I'm sorry. Did I say something wrong?"
Of course no mainstream press would want to talk to her now. Not after all this time. It had been years since Alex Salerno mattered. How many kids — girls, boys, teens, toddlers, babies — had been stolen over the past dozen years? Hundreds? Thousands? Hers was no longer even the latest abduction to come out of Reine. Certainly not the most infamous. Not after Kira Shanks went missing. The day Kira Shanks disappeared, Alex's fifteen minutes were up.
She stared at her old Civic across the quad, rusting in the metered section of the parking lot. A jangle of clipped wires barfed out a hole in the dash from where the stereo had been stolen. The prospect of driving two hours without music, back to a tiny rented room, as appealing as playing freshman comp Q&A. She hated that sick part inside her that longed for the attention.
"Just ask your questions," she said.
"Sean Riley? The detective who rescued you?"
"What about him?" Alex leaned back on the bench. Just hearing Riley's name cracked the fragile parts inside her, unleashed the emotional shrapnel she'd learned to keep hidden. Talking about being snatched, imprisoned against her will? No problem. If she pretended hard enough, she could imagine somebody else's life. Dissociation, that's what her therapist called it, a strategy trauma victims employed to stay safe. Thinking about Riley made her feel things. Tender things. Vulnerable things. Alex did not want to feel those things.
Alex braced for what came next. Because just as she was inextricably linked to Riley, Alex was forever tied to that other girl. The bigger deal. The sexier story. The Mary Sue to her outcast. And if Noah Lee said her name right now, Alex swore she'd scream.
But of course he did.
"And, y'know, Kira Shanks."
There had been no reason for Alex to believe this interview would lead to anything beneficial. There was no money in it. No prospective job offers. It was a long drive up from NYC, costing gas money she didn't have, shifts off from the bar she couldn't afford, time spent in a town full of painful memories. But at least the focus would be on her. Her struggle, her victory. The one good thing she'd done with her life: she'd survived.
Alex glanced around uneasy, trying to figure a way to bolt without looking smaller than she already felt. How do you explain you're sick of competing with a dead girl, without sounding petty? What happened to Kira Shanks was terrible. Of course she felt bad for her. But by living, Alex thought she'd won. Turned out by not dying, she'd lost.
"Does it feel weird to be back up here?" Noah asked, pen in hand.
"No. Why would it?"
"Because it's not far from here where it happened."
"Where what happened?" Alex knew what he meant.
"Um," Noah stammered. "Do you feel, like, an affinity?"
"Kira Shanks. Because of her disappearance. Like you're both part of the same curse on this town. The other girls, too. But I can't talk to them. They're all, y'know, dead. You're the only one who's not."
Noah had been, what, seven, when Alex was taken? Twelve by the time Kira went missing? He knew the whole story or they wouldn't be sitting here. Alex Salerno had been the last of several young girls kidnapped by a man named Kenneth Parsons, who was currently serving several, concurrent life sentences far away without chance of parole. He'd die in prison. Kira Shanks had been murdered by a different man altogether. Five long years separated the crimes. Nothing tied the two cases together. Alex fought against her quickening pulse.
"When you wrote," she said, "it was to interview me. Why are you asking about Kira Shanks? Like I had anything to do with it?"
"I didn't mean you were involved."
"Wasn't even the same guy who took her. Everyone knows that. Parsons took me and killed those other girls. They arrested Benny-what's-his-name for Kira."
"Brudzienski. Benny Brudzienski."
"There's no connection between what happened to her and me."
"Some people think Parsons had help —"
"A rumor, something the media drummed up for ratings. Parsons and Benny never even met. That's been proven." Alex was repeating what the police and Riley had promised her. Even now she couldn't keep those wolves at bay.
"Parsons could've had a partner," Noah said. "They found other DNA."
"I know what they found. I was there, remember? Parsons confessed, copped to everything, pled out. Gave up every kill, every body. Hand-delivered detectives to each gravesite. Why would Parsons cover for anyone? His plea bargain with the D.A. is the only reason I am here." It had taken Alex a long time to squelch fears that another monster lurked in the dark, waiting to drag her back to hell. It was a never-ending losing fight. "Parsons is in prison because of me."
"Not exactly because of you."
"He got time for the others. Technically. He didn't do anything to you."
"Didn't do anything to me? You know what that was like? Being locked underground, not knowing if I'd live or die, get raped or something worse? I'm supposed to what? Feel lucky? Grateful? Because Parsons got picked up before he had a chance to do me like he did the others? Because Riley found me in that bunker, half starved and nearly dead of dehydration? I was seventeen years old. Couple years younger than you are now. You have any idea how terrified I was?"
"I didn't mean —"
"You keep saying that, Noah. You didn't mean this. You're sorry for that. Why did you want to interview me? If what I went through wasn't tragic enough for you?"
"I need to write this paper. It's very important to my grade."
"What's that got to do with me?"
"I messed up, okay? I jumped the gun and made enemies of your friend, Sean. "Riley. Detective Riley. This paper I'm writing accounts for seventy-five percent of my grade. I had this big idea for a real investigative piece because of how he doesn't think he did it and my prof loves frontline reporting — he worked with my dad — muckraker shit, undercover journalism. The 1960s." He rolled his eyes. "I had the whole story mapped out. The cop who cracked the case changes his mind. Grants last-minute reprieve. Like the Life of David Gale."
"What are you talking about? Who doesn't believe what?"
"Detective Riley?" Noah said, surprised. "How he doesn't believe Benny Brudzienski did it? Killed Kira Shanks? Riley's working with the Brudzienski family to get the murder charges dismissed. Although it's technically a disappearance, right? Since they never found the body. That's part of the enduring mystery, how they never found the body. Brings up all kinds of interesting legal ramifications. Don't you and Riley talk anymore?"
"Why would we?"
"I thought after ..."
"Nothing," Noah said.
"Why do you care so much about Benny Brudzienski?"
"I told you. It's an exposé." Noah fished around his rucksack, retrieving a black and white composition notebook, the same kind Alex used to fill with the names of hard rock bands inside ballpoint pentagrams. He sat upright, clearing his throat, projecting confidence. "Seven years ago this November, Reine High senior Kira Shanks went missing, the latest in a string of horrific abductions to rock the small Upstate New York town. Benny Brudzienski, hulking man-child with a third-grade IQ, was sought in connection with the crime. Blood and DNA found at the Idlewild Motel just off the Interstate where Benny worked as a handyman linked him to the scene. However, questions remain. Before police could swoop in and make an arrest, Benny had an 'accident.'" Noah did air quotes with his fingers. "Now Benny Brudzienski sits in a posh state hospital on the taxpayer's dime pretending he can't talk because he fell off his bicycle and hit his head after concerned citizens took to the streets, unwilling to be victimized anymore. Some call it vigilante justice. But not this reporter. Where is the justice for Kira Shanks?" Noah closed his book. "Pretty good, eh?"
"I don't know. It's all right, I guess. A little pretentious."
"That's all I got." Noah's shoulders slagged. "A progress update on my paper is due and I can't get Riley to talk to me. I barged into the precinct and got tossed on my ass. Ordered not to come back. I kinda made a scene. That's why I reached out to you. You're right. I don't know what I'm doing. I got to write this paper, and it's a big deal, and Detective Riley won't return my calls. They almost arrested me."
"What do you want me to do about it?"
"I thought maybe you could hook me up with Riley."
"Why would I do that?"
"Look. My dad pays my tuition, all right? And he kicks down a lot of scratch for the dayto-day incidentals. Journalism's, like, supposed to be my thing? My father is Yoan Lee."
Noah waited for the reaction. Alex had no reaction.
"Yoan Lee, the columnist? The Post? The Yoan Lee?" Noah scanned the grounds, making sure no one else could hear him act like the spoiled trust fund kid he really was. "It's too late in the semester to change my topic now. And if I flunk Beats and Deadlines, I am screwed. My dad won't foot the bill if I get less than a three-point GPA. I live off that money. I'm not moving back home, and I'm not getting a job. I figure you can talk to Riley. You're still friends, right? I mean, he'll answer your questions. Maybe let you glance his evidence, tell you why he suddenly thinks Benny Brudzienski is innocent? You get me his notes, snap a pic with your phone, provide me some quotes, I can pay you a little money. Like a finder's fee. An anonymous source. I ace this paper, it runs in the Codornices. People are reminded of who you are, your story, women's rights groups or whatever. A feature like this jumpstarts a career. It's a scoop. I might be able to start interning at the Times next summer."
"They teach ethics at Uniondale, too?"
"Couple hundred bucks ease your conscience?"
"How about you do your own homework?"
"Don't you think it's a little convenient?"
"Benny Brudzienski not being able to talk."
"Not for Kira Shanks, it's not."
"She goes missing. The one guy who knows what really happened's already retarded."
"I don't think people call them that anymore."
"Fine. Mentally challenged, handicapable, whatever. Now all of a sudden he clams up with some mysterious condition. The dude was hardly Mensa material but he used to be able to hold down a job. Had to be able to follow instructions, right? From what I hear, after that bicycle accident, he just stares at walls and shits his pants. I think it's all an act. I want to know why your pal, Riley, thinks this dangerous predator is innocent? That's interesting, right? You say Parsons didn't have a partner —"
"For the last time he didn't have a partner."
"Fine. He didn't have a partner. The two cases aren't connected, whatever. But there's still got to be a reason why the detective who broke both cases is now rushing to a killer's defense. I'd think you of all people —"
"Play me. What makes you think Riley would let me look at case files."
"Because of your relationship."
And there it was. Noah said it so brazen too, like everyone in Reine knew about their affair. The scandal they'd sought to avoid, a secret to no one. She loved Riley. So she'd let him go. But if Noah knew about it, everyone knew about it, so what difference did it make? They'd thrown away any hope of a future together. For nothing.
Alex gathered her things and left.
"Wait," Noah called after her. "How about two-fifty? Three hundred? Come back. Let's talk. Price is negotiable! Alex!"
Alex headed to her car. No matter how loud he called her name, she did not turn around.
When she came to the Interstate 87 split south, she did not go home either.CHAPTER 2
She never wanted to hurt him. She knew the damage done if word spread, how it would destroy Riley's world, which in addition to the job and wife now included a new baby girl. The age difference alone would destroy his reputation. He might even go to prison. Alex had understood Riley's need to break things off. She never held that against him, and she believed him when he said he wanted to stay friends, have her in his life. And he tried.
It was funny. Riley's ending their affair wasn't what spurred Alex to leave town. It had taken Kira Shanks to do that. Not being in his bed hurt bad enough. Being rendered irrelevant was too painful to bear, the entire town consumed by Kira Shanks hysteria.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The One That Got Away"
Copyright © 2018 Joe Clifford.
Excerpted by permission of Down & Out Books.
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
The One That Got Away,
About the Author,
Also by the Author,
The Down & Out Books Publishing Family Library of Titles,