Claudia Bishop’s perfect life fell apart when the aftermath of a brutal assault left her with a crumbling marriage, a newborn daughter, and a constant sense of anxiety about the world around her. Now, looking for a fresh start with a home restoration project and growing blog, Claudia takes on a crumbling old house—one that unbeknownst to her has an ugly history and may hide long buried secrets.
For Zoey Drake the defining moment of her childhood was the horrific home invasion murder of her parents. Years later, she has embraced the rage that fuels her. Training in the martial arts has made her strong and ready to face the demons from the past—and within.
Strangers to each other, and walking very different paths in the wake of trauma, these two women are on a collision course—because Zoey’s past nightmare and Claudia’s dreams for her future take place in the very same house. As Zoey seeks justice, and Claudia seeks peace, both will confront the monsters at the door that are the most frightening of all.
“The Red Hunter succeeds as a suspense novel on every level. It has a meticulously-woven plot, multi-layered characters, and the irony most desired by storytellers: Where the reader can’t wait to see how it ends, but then is remorseful when it does.” —Sandra Brown, #1 New York Times bestselling author
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The Red Hunter one
Raven looked repentant, but Claudia knew that she wasn’t. The girl had her head bent, and the sheets of her blue-black hair, thick and impossibly glossy, fell to hide her face. It was October. A week from Halloween, and this was Claudia’s second time in the principal’s office since school began. The first one was about grades. Raven was already struggling. We can see from her test scores that she’s capable of more, the desperate math teacher said. But it’s like she’s just not here. Not paying attention. Leaving answers blank on her test. Mrs. Bishop, she’s not even trying.
Claudia could already see it on Principal Blake’s face: The Look. It was the expression that careful people, kind people got when they started to wonder if there was something wrong with Raven.
“It’s difficult to start a new school,” said Principal Blake. “But here at Lost Valley Central we have a zero-tolerance policy for physical violence.”
Physical violence? That was new. Claudia still wasn’t sure what Raven had done. She’d raced in as soon as Principal Blake had called. A bland man with a soft voice and graying head of hair, he had greeted her in the office with an understanding smile. We’ve had a problem in the cafeteria. A girl has gone home.
“Oh, really?” said Raven. “So, it’s okay for her to be verbally abusive to me, and I just have to sit there and take it?”
“That’s enough, Raven,” said Claudia. She wondered if she sounded as exhausted by her daughter as she felt. The kid’s capacity for outrage was endless.
“There are other ways to solve your problems that don’t involve flipping a lunch tray onto someone,” said the principal easily. “What did she say to you exactly? What made you so angry?”
Raven shook her head. “It doesn’t matter.”
The principal answered her with a quick nod, like he got it, like he knew how cruel kids could be and how words could hurt as badly as any blow.
“I understand that bullying can be verbal and emotional as well as physical. And Clara Parker has had her moments; she’s sat here with me more than once. Still, when we step over that line into the physical, that can’t be tolerated.”
Oh, god, thought Claudia. She’s going to be suspended—expelled. She could just hear her sister Martha crowing, I told you that changing schools wasn’t the solution. You can’t just keep running away.
“I need a clearer picture of what happened,” said Claudia. She looked at Raven. who had turned her head away.
“Apparently, Clara and a friend had some unkind words for Raven. I am not sure what was said since neither Raven, Clara, or her friend Beth will say. But, in response, Raven flipped a tray that was in front of them, covering both the girls with food.”
Claudia felt the tug of a smile but bit it back.
“It was an accident,” said Raven unconvincingly. “I was picking it up to walk away and finish my lunch elsewhere.”
“It was meatball and spaghetti day at school today, so it made quite a mess.”
“So it’s not that she hit anyone,” said Claudia. She didn’t want to be one of those parents, the kind that rushed to the defense of her obnoxious, misbehaved child. But it was important that she be clear on exactly what happened.
“I didn’t hit anyone,” Raven said. “It was an accident. Clara went home because I ruined her outfit, not because I hurt her.”
Principal Blake nodded carefully, cocking his head and wrinkling his eyes a little. “People around the girls said that it seemed like Raven purposely dumped the tray onto Clara.”
“Yeah,” said Raven, sitting up a little. “All her friends, who were laughing while she was verbally abusing me.”
Claudia struggled against a flush of anger, a surge of protectiveness for Raven. “So, basically,” she said, trying to keep her voice mild. “A group of girls surrounded Raven, saying unkind words—to use your phrase—and when Raven got up to leave, she tipped her tray either by accident or on purpose and ruined another girl’s outfit. Is that right?”
Raven gave a light nod. “It was an accident.”
Claudia was reasonably sure that it wasn’t an accident. She knew Raven’s temper was a flash flood, surging against everything in its path and then quickly receding, leaving regret in its wake.
“That’s what I gather,” said the principal reasonably. He seemed like a nice man, trying to do his job.
“Were the other girls reprimanded?” asked Claudia.
“It’s unclear what was said,” said the principal. “So it’s difficult to address.”
“Okay,” said Claudia. She took and released a breath. “So where are we with this? Is Raven going to be punished?”
“Look . . . it’s Thursday,” said Principle Blake. He had nice hands, long thin fingers, and a white-gold wedding band, clean, pink nails. You could tell a lot about a person by his hands. He was careful, responsible, tried to follow the rules. He laced his fingers in front of him on the green desk blotter.
“I’m not going to suspend Raven; it’s not going on her record,” he went on. “Let’s just have her take the day off tomorrow and we can all start fresh on Monday, let her think about what happened and reflect on how she could have handled things better. Maybe on Monday we can have a conference with each girl and her parents to discuss how we can better handle conflict. How does that sound?”
It sounded like shit actually. A “day off” was a suspension, even if it didn’t go on her permanent record. She would have to attend the conference alone while Raven sulked unapologetic, and Principal Blake played benevolent mediator. This Clara and her parents The Parkers would play the injured party, and Claudia and Raven would be the outsiders. But she found herself nodding.
Claudia wanted to say something. She wanted to say thank you, and assure him that she was going to make sure that Raven understood the seriousness of her actions, but also ask that this Clara be made to understand the power of words.
Instead, there was a big sob stuck in her throat, a bulb of anger and frustration and sadness. She was afraid that if she opened her mouth, she wouldn’t be able to contain it. So, instead, she just kept nodding and rose. She felt Raven’s dark eyes on her. Only her daughter, and maybe her sister, knew that silence from Claudia was more serious than yelling—which she didn’t do very often either.
“Ms. Bishop?” said Principal Blake. He was staring at her with concern. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” she managed. “Thank you for your patience with Raven. She and I will talk over the weekend, and of course, there will be consequences at home.”
There. She didn’t burst into tears. Was there any more vulnerable position than being the single parent of a badly behaved child, sitting in the principal’s office? Weren’t you the one being reprimanded, really? Because wasn’t it, after all, your fault that your child couldn’t control herself?
“Raven,” she said. “Do you have something you want to say to Principal Blake?”
“I’m sorry,” she said dutifully. “I lost my temper and I shouldn’t have.”
The principal smiled warmly. “It takes a big person to admit when she’s wrong. I think that’s a good start. Write me an email over the weekend, okay? With your reflections?”
Raven nodded. “I will.”
Claudia draped an arm around her daughter’s slender shoulders as the girl stood, gave her a little squeeze, then nudged her out the door.
• • •
CLAUDIA STOOD BESIDE RAVEN’S LOCKER while the girl stuffed her belongings—iPad, binder, dirty gym clothes—into her knapsack. Claudia had hated school—the ugly lights, the cafeteria smells, gym class, the pathetic social hierarchy where looks and athleticism trumped brains and character (not that that ever changed). The scent of the hallway—what was that smell?—brought it back vividly.
“It’s not my fault,” said Raven, slamming shut the locker door.
“It never is, is it?” said Claudia.
That glare, those dark eyes in that ivory skin. That full, pink mouth and ridiculously long eyelashes. Raven’s beauty was shocking, frightening in its intensity, in her utter obliviousness to it. We need to get a burka on that kid, Martha had joked. A body like that? On a fifteen-year-old? It should be illegal.
Luckily, Raven’s gorgeousness was tempered by the boyish way she carried herself. She loped. If Claudia didn’t insist on showers and hair brushing, the girl would look most of the time as if she’d been dragged through a bush. And still, the way they stared. Men, boys, the same stunned goofy expression, eyes wide, smile wolfish on male faces young and old. Raven didn’t even see. Claudia took to carrying pepper spray in her bag. She’s a baby, Claudia had to keep herself from screaming. Don’t you look at her like that!
Claudia knew that she was a fairly attractive woman still, and she’d been pretty hot when she was younger—blonde and bubbly, with glittery blue eyes. Never thin, never one of those waifish, patrician women she’d always admired. She was full-bodied and curvy, never smaller than a size 12, sometimes bigger than that when she wasn’t watching every single goddamn bite of food she put into her mouth. Still, she’d turned her share of heads.
But she’d never looked anything like Raven—a princess, a fairy, a siren, men climbing towers, and slaying dragons, and crashing themselves upon jagged rocks, dying happy. More disturbing though was the way women looked at Raven—with a kind of naked hatred, unmasked envy. They knew what a commodity had been bestowed upon Raven, through no fault of her own. The kid had won some kind of genetic lotto. Did anyone really know how isolating it was? How dangerous? No doubt it was part of the reason Raven was drawing fire from her classmates.
“Mom!” Was it only Raven who could imbue the single syllable with so much annoyance? “You’re doing it again.”
“Sorry.” Getting lost, drifting off into her own thoughts, being somewhere else. According to her daughter, Claudia did that all the time. God forbid a mother should have her own inner life.
“What did she say?” Claudia asked as they exited the building and headed to the car. She dropped an arm around her daughter’s shoulder again, pulling her in. And the girl shifted closer, matching her gait.
Raven shook her head. “It doesn’t matter.”
And maybe Raven was right. It didn’t matter what Clara had said. What was important—what had been important back in the city—was that Raven couldn’t control herself, her mouth, her temper. Impulse control was the problem.
They climbed into the rattling old Ford pickup, almost an antique, still a workhorse, which she needed in her business, something she wasn’t worried about scratching or dinging, something that could haul loads.
“I hate this truck,” said Raven. It was a far cry from Raven’s father’s Range Rover, certainly.
“I know,” said Claudia, pulling out of the school driveway and onto the road home.
Claudia always found it funny—not funny but rather interesting or notable—that one moment or really a series of moments might derail your entire life. There you are, moving along on one track, full speed. You have your destination clearly in mind, and the journey itself is not half bad either. In fact, you’re quite happy with the whole package.
And then one thing, or a series of things . . .
Maybe a woman, suffering from depression, drives her car onto the tracks a moment too late for the conductor to stop the train on which you’re commuting. Your path (and the conductor’s and other commuters’) and hers collide. What happened to her in her life and what happened to you in yours—everything, where you were born, how you were raised, if your parents were nice, if you were bullied in school, if the gene for depression was turned on in her or not, or in you, all of these infinitesimal elements of her existence and yours lead you to be in the exact same place at the exact same moment and—KABOOM.
Or a gust of wind takes your scarf, and who should catch it but your husband-to-be, who happens to be walking past you on the same street, in the direction the wind is blowing at the exact moment on the right trajectory so that it trails beside him a flash of red and he reaches for it and turns around and your eyes meet and—SHAZAM. Love at first sight. These moments—less dramatic but equally meaningful—happened every day, Claudia often thought, and almost no one seems to notice how many things have to go wrong or right for them to occur.
It’s never one thing that leads to a tragic accident, she was sure she’d read once—though she couldn’t say where. It’s usually seven things—seven mistakes, or errors in judgment, or acts of negligence. If you reverse engineer any major disaster—oil spill or train derailment or airplane crash—there are usually seven things that had to go wrong in order for them to occur.
Claudia had spent a lot of time thinking about that theory, even though what happened to her wasn’t an accident by any measure. Especially in the darker moments—like this one—when she questioned the wisdom of almost every decision she’d made since that night. It was comforting in an odd way to look back and think that if she had changed any one of those seven things, she’d still be on that figurative train heading in the right direction.
The first thing was that her (now ex-) husband Ayers wanted to live in Midtown, since it was where they both worked. But she was in love with the East Village and had been since college. That was the real New York City—Yaffa Café and Trash and Vaudeville and St. Marks Books. There was still grit, even though it was very stylized now, and most of those wonderful places were gone or going. And very expensive even then. But she’d found a place she just loved on Fifth Street. Out back there was a garden, and it butted up against a church and an old graveyard, and the windows opened. It was utterly unlike the place Ayers wanted in Midtown, a tower with a doorman and central air, a pristine gym, and Friday socials on the sun deck.
Ayers was not a fan of grit. But he gave Claudia her way, because that’s the kind of man he was. The kind of man who subordinated his wants and needs for Claudia’s. A good man, a darling husband who she knew right away would be a lovely father.
There were gates on the back windows, of course there were. It was the East Village and as much as New York City was gentrified, junkies still busted in and took your stuff if you didn’t have bars on the windows. So they got bars, even though it bummed Ayers out. He loved unmarred city vistas. They were nice gates, painted white, with wrought-iron ivy and twisting branches, and they opened like French doors. Claudia was terrible about closing them and locking them. She forgot sometimes. That was two.
They had been married a year and they were trying to have a baby. Not in that sad, desperate way that people often seemed to. More in a joyful, let’s fuck all the time with no protection because we’re—wink wink—trying for a baby. They’d been trying for about eight months, and no baby. But hey, said Ayers, it’s about the journey, not the destination! Now take off your panties, you little tart.
Because they’d had a glass of Prosecco, Ayers got frisky. Then they messed around, having a quickie with her underpants around her ankles and her skirt hiked up, while he took her from behind over the couch. They were late to meet his parents at Café des Artistes. She never went back upstairs in their charming duplex, but mopped up carelessly in the little bath off the kitchen, putting on lipstick and sweeping up her hair, feeling dirty and naughty and loving it because Ayers’s mother was so proper. Neither Claudia nor Ayers went back to the bedroom to close the gates. That was three.
Claudia and her mother-in-law were almost exact opposites—which was probably why they got along. Claudia admired Sophie’s buttoned-up, ever stylish, cool (not cold, but unflappable) demeanor. And Claudia often caught Sophie smiling at her when she rambled on, or got exuberant, or passionate. If Sophie was pressed linen, Claudia was crinoline. If Sophie was crepe, Claudia was sequins. It worked. And her father-in-law Chuck was a bear of a man, always sweet and looking sleep-tousled, with a big appetite and sudden, explosive laugh.
After dinner, Claudia tried to convince everyone to have one last drink. But Ayers said he was tired, that he had an early meeting and wanted to work out first thing in the morning. That was four.
She was drunk. No, not drunk. Tipsy. Not puking, falling down, ugly drunk, of course—never that. But she was bouncy, giggly, silly. OTM was the code Claudia and her girlfriends used: One. Too. Many. OTM and you might get teary, telling your friends how much you love them, or laugh too loud, or dance with abandon—even though you were a terrible dancer. Which was fine under most circumstances. Perhaps not with your in-laws. But any more and you were going to regret it. Any more and tomorrow was going to be a bad day. Maybe that was the real reason Ayers wanted to go home. Because for his mother, there were limits. Pressed linen, it creased terribly. You could never tell if crinoline had been hugged too long or too tight. I love my mother, Ayers often said, as if such a thing needed saying. But I remember as a kid that she only had so much patience for affection. Claudia had no idea what that meant. Why would you need patience for affection? Claudia had maybe drifted too close to the line; there had been lots of hugging and declarations of affection (from Claudia to Sophie), and maybe Sophie was getting a little stiff. Anyway, if Claudia hadn’t been OTM, she might have noticed as soon as she came home what they only noticed later: That the lights in the kitchen were on, when they hadn’t been before. That a coat had been knocked from one of the hooks on the wall beneath the stairs. If she hadn’t been OTM, she might have seen those things and deduced the truth before it was too late. There was someone in the apartment. That was five.
Ayers was still outside, and Claudia came into the apartment alone. Claudia had taken on Mrs. Swanson, their impossibly elderly landlord. Which meant that she often loaned Ayers out to her. Oh, Ayers will help you with that. Won’t you, honey? They helped her with small things—like changing lightbulbs and getting dead mice away from Mittens, her ginger tabby. When Claudia was at the store, she often picked up eggs, bread, and 2 percent milk, dropping them off on her way upstairs. Usually Ashley, Mrs. Swanson’s daughter came to take the trash out. But Ashley was sick with the flu that night, so Ayers had promised to do it. That’s what he was doing. That was why Claudia went alone into their apartment. That was six.
Stumbling up the narrow duplex stairs, she’d noticed a strange smell. Something musky. She dismissed it. That was one of the reasons she’d wanted to live in the East Village, in an apartment where the windows opened. The city had a smell, especially in summer. And it wasn’t just garbage and bums and dog piss. There were aromas from trees and flowers, from bakeries and fine restaurants, from baristas and something else, hot asphalt and rubber, something indefinably New York. And you couldn’t smell it in Midtown. She thought absently on entering—see, she did it even then—had she forgotten to close the window? Was she too exuberant with Sophie? Was Ayers embarrassed of her? Maybe she shouldn’t have told that story about her friend Misha who had recently dyed her unapologetically long underarm hair neon green and delighted in showing it off everywhere possible. Her absentmindedness often kept her from seeing things that were right in front of her. That was seven.
A lot of women don’t remember the event, her doctor told her. And that must be a wonderful mercy. Because Claudia remembered. Every crushing, bruising, airless second from the moment he stepped out of the bedroom in front of her and grabbed her by her hair, pulling her inside and closing and locking the door. Every detail of his face from his dark eyes, to the stubble on his jaw, to the scar on his chin, to the rank of his breath, the black stains on his teeth. He punched her with a closed fist right in the face—so jarring, so brutal, blinding white stars and pain that traveled from her jaw and the bridge of her nose, up over the crown of her head, her neck snapping back.
She struggled for orientation. No, no, this wasn’t happening. Couldn’t be. He pressed his arm over her throat, cutting off air. She couldn’t breathe so she couldn’t scream. Funny how that went. She wouldn’t have thought about that. No air, no sound. She was silent, writhing. Utterly powerless against his far, far superior physical strength. She took kickboxing! She had thick powerful legs, athletic calves that never fit into those sleek high boots she so adored. She was bigger than Ayers—there was no carrying Claudia over the threshold, nothing that would have been pretty. They play wrestled all the time. He was strong, Ayers, but not like this. She couldn’t move. She was as helpless as a child. His eyes. They were blank, totally blank. He didn’t see her; she wasn’t even there. He thrust himself into her, a heinous ripping impact. The violation. It was unspeakable, beyond comprehension, and the pain. A horrible, tearing, burning. One, two, three. He shuddered, eyes closing—release, not pleasure—and it was done. He hit her again.
Stop looking at me! A hard crack against her cheekbone.
She fell back, and he kicked her brutally in the ribs. She threw up on the floor and managed to be humiliated about it even though he was already gone, out that window that offered such a pretty view of Mrs. Swanson’s garden and the graveyard. She lost herself then. Went somewhere else. The next thing she remembered was the door crashing in. Not Ayers but a uniformed cop. Why not Ayers? Why wasn’t he the first person through that door?
“Oh Jesus,” the young cop said. Claudia wanted to apologize about the vomit. Crazy, wasn’t that? Then she was out again.
It was two weeks later that she knew she was pregnant. No AIDS, no other sexually transmitted diseases. It was possible to determine paternity in vitro, but the test was invasive and caused risk to the fetus. They both decided. She thought that they both decided (though Ayers would later claim that it was all about Claudia, that he was just doing what he thought she needed) that they didn’t want to know. A baby was a gift, no matter how it was delivered. Wasn’t it? They would love the child. They would never seek to discover the true paternity. No matter what, they’d raise the baby as their own.
Don’t do this, Martha had begged. You don’t know how you’re going to feel. It’s not fair to the child.
So it’s fair to—terminate the pregnancy?
Claudia was shocked at how unanimous was the sentiment that she should have an abortion. What a horrible word: the brutal end of something before it began. Even her doctor seemed to assume. Do you want to schedule the D&C? No, said Claudia. I don’t know.
Life at any cost, then? Martha asked.
This baby is proof that even out of the most horrific possible moment, in your darkest hour, something wonderful is possible, Claudia had countered.
Martha, who was fifteen years older than Claudia, just shook her head, looked off into the middle distance as if she were the long-suffering knower of all things, just waiting for her little sister to catch up.
Ayers and I were together that night. It is equally possible that it is his child.
And if it isn’t?
It won’t matter. We’re enough—strong enough, in love enough. It’s possible. I’ve done the research.
Claudia remembered gazing out at the vista from their new apartment in a luxury Chelsea high-rise with windows that couldn’t be opened and a doorman who looked like a professional wrestler (they’d moved within two weeks of the attack) hoping—praying that she was right. She wasn’t right, not by a long shot. Not about that. Not about anything, it seemed, since that.
• • •
CLAUDIA PULLED UP THE LONG drive to their farmhouse. Twenty acres, most of them wooded, in a dot on the map called Lost Valley, New Jersey. Lost Valley? Raven had raged. Are you kidding? You’re moving us from Manhattan to a place with a name like that? It’s like something out of a horror movie. This land had been in her family for decades, bought with cash on one of her father’s real estate whims—one of many. He got it for a song—$15,000 for twenty acres in the seventies, the barn and old house falling to pieces. He’d never set foot on it in all the years he owned it, then left it to Claudia when he died.
Claudia never set foot on the farmhouse property either, until one day she got it in her head that she’d renovate the buildings and start a blog about it. Single city mom moves to the country and renovates two historic properties. She’d take pictures. Eventually it would become a book—poignant, moving, inspiring. It wasn’t just about the property. It was about rebuilding in the spiritual sense. Never mind that she wasn’t really a writer or a photographer, or that she didn’t have any experience with home renovation. And she liked the name of the town. It was romantic, wasn’t it? A secret place, a hidden gem, a place where magic was still possible.
Weirdly, it was all kind of working. Claudia was in fact a quite decent writer, according to Martha. And her photographs had a “certain special energy,” according to Ayers. She had blog “subscribers,” was “building a platform,” had a query yesterday from an advertiser. And she was—dare she say it?—happy-ish. Something she never would have believed possible once. Now, if she could just get Raven on track.
“You’re doing it again.”
Claudia had pulled the old pickup to a stop. How long had they been sitting there, with her just staring at the barn door—which, by the way, looked like it was going to fall off its hinges any minute?
“Jesus, Mom,” said Raven, climbing out of the truck and slamming the door as hard as she could. “Wake up!”
Claudia watched as Raven stormed up to the house and slammed through the front door. You were never so acutely aware of your own flaws as you were in the presence of your child. Why was that?
The sky overhead was a menacing gunmetal. She was staring up at it when a blue car, a Toyota Camry pulled into the drive. It came to a stop and a man, a stranger, climbed out. It had been more than fifteen years since her rape in the East Village. Her heart didn’t thump with alarm every time a strange man approached anymore. She didn’t think every unknown person was a potential assailant. What was different about the woman she was now versus the girl she was then, was that she was prepared if he was. She’d taken a self-defense class and spent nearly a year training every Tuesday and Thursday, when Raven was still a toddler, with a former Navy SEAL named Jet. Defense starts on approach, he used to say. Watch the body language, the eyes. Trust your instincts. If it feels like something’s not right, it probably isn’t.
What she noticed about the man who got out of the blue Camry first was a careful aura, a gentleness. He hung back a bit, lifted a hand, and offered a smile. That’s what good men did, they kept their distance. Selfish men, arrogant men, dangerous men, the first thing they usually did was violate the space bubble, or the respect bubble—moving in too close, or maybe making some inappropriate comment, calling you sweetie or babe. Maybe he squeezed your hand too hard when you shook for the first time, signaling his strength.
“Hey, there,” he said. “Mrs. Bishop?”
She wasn’t technically Mrs. Bishop. She never took Ayer’s last name. Bishop was her maiden name. If she’d at any point been a “Mrs.,” she would have been “Mrs. Martin,” which she didn’t like as much as Bishop. Raven had both their last names Bishop-Martin, which Claudia thought sounded very big and important, and had a nice rhythm: Raven Bishop-Martin. A girl could do anything, be anything, with a name like that.
“That’s right,” she said, not smiling, just standing her ground. It was so hard for her not to smile, not to be exuberantly friendly. It was a discipline, something she’d worked on. You don’t have to throw yourself into everybody’s arms, Claudia, Martha was fond of saying.
He fished for something in his pocket, withdrew a sheet of paper. “You had a flier in the coffee shop for a handyman.”
Oh, right. “Yes,” she said.
“I’m Josh Beckham.” He ran a big hand through sandy blond hair. “Did Madge tell you about me?”
“Oh,” she said. Madge, the lady who owned the bakery. Claudia, a talker all her life, had been mentioning that she needed some help with the house. And Madge suggested that she put up a flier. We have a lot of boomerang kids around here, looking for work. One or two of them can manage to hammer a nail into something. She had mentioned someone named Josh, living with his elderly mother, taking care of her. She hadn’t mentioned the sky-blue eyes or the muscles that pressed against the sleeves of his blue tee-shirt.
“Not a good time?” he said. She could see that he was eyeing the barn door.
Oh, no, she wanted to enthuse. Thank you so much for coming. It’s a perfect time. I have so much that needs doing!
“It’s fine,” she said. Why did it feel rude to be calm and measured, to hold herself back? “Madge mentioned you.”
He squinted at her, gave a nod.
“I’ve been doing handyman work around here for a few years.” He pulled another piece of folded paper out of his pocket. “I brought you a list of references. Folks you can call who’ll tell you I show up, on time, and charge a fair price.”
The sun had managed to peek out from the clouds, casting an orange-yellow glow against which he lifted a shading palm now.
“Thanks,” she said. “Can I give you a call tomorrow?”
She always jumped into things too quickly and often regretted it. She had always thought that she was just following her instincts; that’s how she rationalized it. But her instincts sometimes failed her because—as Martha was quick to remind her—Claudia was just too nice, too trusting. You think everyone you meet is as pure of heart as you are. They’re not, kid. We both know that. She wanted to hire him on the spot. Instead, she was going to do as Martha would. She would call the references and then, if he still seemed okay, she’d ask him to come out and do one thing and see where it went from there. That was the opposite of what her instincts told her—which was to hand him her list and tell him he was hired.
He handed her a card, his list of references, and gave her a friendly nod. “Hope to hear from you.”
He moved toward his Toyota, then turned back. “That door—just saying? It doesn’t look safe. Doesn’t have to be me. There’s a company in town, Just Old Doors. They specialize in fixing them or replacing them up to the historic code. Not cheap, but they do good work. You might get it looked at before you open it again. Okay?”
She smiled at him. “I will. Thanks.”
She watched him drive away. His energy. It wasn’t just careful or gentle. It was sad, too. And was there something just a little bit off? When his car was gone, she released the tension she didn’t know she’d been holding in her shoulders.
What was that noise? Something faint and discordant on the air. She looked toward the house in time to see Raven open her window. Music poured out. The angry tones of Nine Inch Nails slicing through the darkening afternoon.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Red Hunter includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Lisa Unger. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
After the traumatic death of her parents, Zoey has outwardly pulled her life back together with the help of her beloved Uncle Paul. But her quiet life in Manhattan belies a dark truth: she is the “red hunter,” a trained vigilante, and she has sworn justice against those who left her for dead . . . by any means necessary.
Similarly, Claudia has put an outward mask of placid happiness over the trauma of her sexual assault, and despite separating from her husband, she has rebuilt her life into an enviable career as a blogger. Her latest project is restoring a house upstate with her teenaged daughter, Raven, who isn’t nearly as satisfied by her mother’s platitudes about recovery and optimism.
But the house Claudia hopes to revitalize holds a dark and violent mystery that will bring the three women together for a reckoning decades in the making. Bestselling author Lisa Unger’s latest novel is filled with all of the twists, turns, and heart-stoppingly realistic thrills her many fans are hungry for.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. What is the effect of the author’s choice to begin the novel with the vivid scene of Didion’s murder? What were your first impressions of Zoey, and how did your understanding of her change from this initial portrait?
2. Ask the same question of Claudia: What is the effect of having the story of her rape appear so early in the book? What kind of person does it establish her as, and how did your impressions of her change by the novel’s final scenes?
3. Why does Raven decide to track down Andrew even before submitting her paternity test? What does she hope to find from him that a genetic test won’t reveal?
4. Review the end of Chapter 17, just after Zoey’s conversation with Boz. What power is there in the notion of revenge, even if it’s carried out against someone who wasn’t the perpetrator of a crime? How does this question fuel Zoey’s red hunter persona?
5. Troy wonders of Raven: “Why do you think where you came from has anything to do with where you belong?” What do you think: How closely is your past connected to your sense of home, or “rightness”? Discuss with your book club.
6. Examine the role of fathers and fatherhood in the novel as compared to maternal figures by comparing Zoey and Raven’s relationships to their parents, including characters like Paul, Mike, Ellie, and Melvin Cutter.
7. In many ways, Claudia is marked by her strength: She cheerfully refuses to let her assault define her life and refuses to slide into a “dark, slick-walled abyss.” Yet, in some ways, her refusal to despair also hinders her. How?
8. Both Josh and Zoey are implicated as murderers early in the book, and are complex characters who are neither fully good or fully bad. What effect did their moral ambiguity have on your relationship to them as characters? Was it easier for you to like and relate to one more than the other, and why?
9. Thinker. Watcher. Hunter. Which of Zoey’s personas affords her the most power, and why?
10. The novel ends with Zoey having to compromise her search for answers as she realizes that the secrets that undergird her life will likely never be fully unraveled. Discuss the effect of this ending—do you find it realistic? Satisfying? “Happy”?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Revisit Claudia’s theory that “if you reverse engineer any major disaster—oil spill, or train derailment, or airplane crash—there are usually seven things that had to go wrong in order for them to occur.” Test this theory in a less morbid way: What were the seven near-misses, coincidences, or chance happenings that brought each of you to this book club? Chart them on your own, and then take turns sharing with the rest of the group.
2. Though the action of the book takes place over the course of Claudia’s renovation of the old house, we don’t get many details about her vision for the place. Using design blogs (like the one she runs!), decor magazines, and online resources like Pinterest, imagine what the final product might look like. You might divide design elements among your group members, or have each person bring a few images that show their vision of Claudia’s space and style.
3. Just as Zoey names aspects of her personality the Thinker, the Watcher, and the Hunter, name three main facets of your identity. Come up with a sentence or two to introduce each, and share with your book club.
A Conversation with Lisa Unger
After a career spent writing bestselling thrillers, what new ground did The Red Hunter allow you to cover? Why this story now?
A friend of mine, and a very successful writer, sent me an email the other day asking: Why does it always feel like the first time? I know exactly what he meant. Each story has a special kind of energy, is something different than what came before it. Every time a writer sit down to write, she's a different person — changed by her experiences, observations, new ideas.
I hope it never stops feeling like the first time. I can see now looking back, all of my novels have been intimately connected to questions that I have about people, or myself or the world, or issues with which I was grappling at the time. I’ve been dwelling in my fictional town, The Hollows, for a while. But the voice of Zoey Drake, which is the driving force of the narrative, was very clear and present. Her story was not connected to the other stories that have been kicking around my subconscious. This was the story I needed to tell, and now was the time to tell it.
Do you have a favorite character in the novel? Who is it, and why are you so drawn to them?
Of course it’s impossible to ever choose a favorite character! Each one is unique and holds a special place in my heart. I love Zoey’s fire, her fighting spirit. I admire and am also alarmed by her willingness to walk into darkness to do what she thinks is “right.” I am moved by Claudia’s dogged determination to look toward the light, even from a place of deepest despair. Her willingness to take on big, nearly impossible tasks, with self-confidence and verve is inspirational—even when things crumble around her. And I am intrigued by Raven’s struggle with her identity, worried by the risks she’s willing to take to find out where she truly belongs. Through the writing of The Red Hunter each of these very different characters continually surprised me—all of them deeper, more daring, and ultimately braver that I, at first, imagined them to be.
You write Zoey’s kung fu–inflected fight scenes with so much accuracy. Why did you decide to have her train in this particular fighting style? What does it reveal about her character?
I studied kung fu for eight years, giving it up when I became pregnant with my daughter. When I first found kung fu, I was in a vulnerable place in my life. I was young, unsure of myself, wasn’t quite certain who I was or who I wanted to be. When I started to train in the martial arts, I was introduced to myself in a way I never had been before. I found a power within that I never knew was there, accomplished things that I hadn’t imagined possible. kung fu was a healing for me, a kind of rebirth. I was interested in exploring that through Zoey. Her journey from kitten to dragon, from victim to fighter is something that resonates with me.
Just before the writing of The Red Hunter, I took up kickboxing. And some of that fighting energy returned to my life. It, too, was part of the inspiration for the book.
In The Red Hunter, you’re interested in the lines between victims and perpetrators. What do you hope to reveal to readers about the way we think about good, bad, and the spaces in between?
It always seems to me that the lines between right and wrong, good and evil, perpetrator and victim are slim indeed. None of us is as far apart from each other as we think—or maybe even wish we were. This is a theme that runs through most of my novels.
I had an editor lament once that there wasn’t a true villain in my novel. But I don’t believe that there are true villains in life. Most perpetrators were victims once. Most evil-doers passionately believe in their cause, consider themselves to be righteous. My core belief about human nature is that we are each trying to be happy. It’s just that some of us have a very sick and twisted idea about how to accomplish that. People are an impossibly complicated helix of nature and nurture, of good choices and bad, action and reaction. We make mistakes, and life spins out of our control. Some of us make bad choices most of the time; some of us make good choices most of the time. Most people make good and bad choices depending on the moment, on circumstances. What makes us who we are is a topic of continuing fascination for me. I don’t know if I’ve revealed anything about people; mainly I’m just exploring.
What was your favorite thing to research for this book?
The germ for this book was Zoey’s voice, the voice of a victim turned into a fighter. And her voice I think came from my questions about victimhood. How do people who’ve experienced extreme violence, who’ve been the victim of the most horrific possible circumstance come back to life?
The book Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon was a valuable source of information in understanding the experience of children of rape. I found the insights in this ambitious, brilliantly written book to be illuminating on questions of family and identity.
I leaned on my own home renovation experience to detail Claudia’s struggle (though I wasn’t brave enough to attempt it myself and I definitely wouldn’t classify it as a “favorite” research experience).
If I had to choose a favorite, it would be revisiting my old kung fu training. That period was a special time and place in my life. I loved kung fu and what it taught me about myself, about strength, about how the ability to fight means you often don’t have to. I still think about my school, and the tremendous sense of peace I found there. I stopped studying, but the things I learned there I carry with me.
What message does this novel have for survivors of traumatic violence, like Zoey and Claudia?
I wouldn’t presume to send a message to survivors of traumatic violence. Most of my novels revolve around a question I have about human nature. And in this book, one of the central questions is: How do we survive the worst day? The characters in this book all have very different answers to that question, approach their moving on in myriad ways. I’ll leave it to the reader to draw conclusions about which way worked better. I suppose the central question in the book is: What is the difference between justice and revenge? Maybe in the asking of that question, there’s a message. But the answer will be different for everyone.
Your books are thrillers, but they also have strong aspects of psychological suspense. What do you see as the difference between the two genres? What draws you to thrillers as a writer?
Hmm . . . that brings up another interesting question. What is the difference between a thriller and psychological suspense? If you can find the person to tell me, have him give me a call!
When writers sit down to write, few of us are thinking about genre. We have voices and stories in our heads; we get it all onto the page to the best of our ability. And then if we’re very fortunate, our publishers bring those stories out into the world. It’s at that point that publishers and booksellers decide on genre, where your book fits on the shelf. Readers and reviewers will have their opinions, too, about what kind of book you’ve written. For me, it’s all about following those voices, hearing the stories they tell, exploring human nature, and the psyche. Usually these stories are dark, because it’s the dark recesses of the mind that interest me most. As for whether my books are thrillers or stories of psychological suspense—I hope they’re both.
Tell readers about your writing routine. Do you have any particular routines, rituals, or places that you regularly return to?
My golden writing hours are 5 AM to noon. That’s when my creativity is at its highest vibration. Of course, with a school-age daughter, I don’t always get those hours. So her school day is mainly my work day. When I first got serious about my writing, I was working a full-time job. So I got very good about writing while dealing with other high-level goals and demands. I am lucky in that I can write anywhere, anytime, even with distractions. So there’s no ritual or places where I have to be. Needs like that tend to become excuses for why you can’t write. So I try to get those morning hours, and if I don’t, I make the time elsewhere.
Your writing can be incredibly cinematic. Who can you see playing this book’s main characters in a film version of The Red Hunter?
Impossible to answer! My characters are so clear and vivid in my mind’s eye. It would be like asking me who would play my husband in a movie of our life. (Okay. Bradley Cooper.) In an absolute fantasy, I could see Ellen Page inhabiting Zoey; she has that sweet exterior that conceals the steel within. With her earnestness and strength, Reese Witherspoon would be a compelling Claudia. But those are just imaginings after being asked. All the characters in the novel are as vivid and real as anyone I might meet in life, so it’s hard to imagine them as anyone else.
What are your plans for your next novel?
I am at work on my next novel now. But I can never talk about it until it’s complete; that just drains all the energy. So stay tuned, follow me on Facebook and Twitter, or sign up for my newsletter at www.lisaunger.com, where you’ll hear everything first.