When a phantom stalker targets her friend, Lacey McCrae’s crime-busting skills are tested to their limits.
With her career in tatters and her marriage receding in the rear-view mirror, ex-RCMP corporal Lacey McCrae trades her uniform for a tool belt, and the Lower Mainland for the foothills west of Calgary. Amid the oil barons, hockey stars, and other high rollers who inhabit the wilderness playground is her old university roommate, Dee Phillips. Dee’s glossy life was shaken by a reckless driver; now she’s haunted by a nighttime prowler only she can hear.
As snowmelt swells the icy river, threatening the only bridge back to civilization, Lacey must make the call: assume Dee’s in danger and get her out, or decide the prowler is imaginary and stay, cut off from help if the bridge is swept away.
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About the Author
J.E. Barnard's first book in the Falls Mysteries series, When the Flood Falls, won the CWC Award for Best Unpublished First Crime Novel in 2016. Her novella Maddie Hatter and the Gilded Gauge was an Alberta Book of the Year and a 2018 Prix Aurora finalist. She lives in Calgary.
Read an Excerpt
The glass wall gazed blank-eyed over the clearing, each of its nine panes backed by thick, pale drapes. No woodcutter’s shack here, but a huge, glossy house built of stripped and varnished logs, each as wide as Lacey’s waist. The porch pillars were sanded tree trunks and in the arched front door was carved a relief of saplings. More show home than family home, more Neil’s flavour than Dee’s. Why had Dee kept it in the divorce?
Spruces ringed the glade, their roots lost in tangled undergrowth, while before the house, all was austere. Red rock shards filled zigzag beds punctuated by spiky shrubs, their jagged edges scraping on Lacey as she gave the doorbell a final push. Dee had coaxed her for weeks, leaning on the good old university days and shared misadventures in her daily texts and voice mails, to set up this reunion supper, and now she, not Lacey, was late. Six years of separation due to careers and spouses was supposed to finally end, but Dee wasn’t home.
As the last echo of the last chime died, Lacey retreated from the stone-paved patio to her shabby Civic to lean on the fender and contemplate her options. Th ey amounted to two: leave now, or wait until Dee either showed up or replied to her messages.
Five minutes. She would give Dee that much. She glanced at her watch to mark the time, crossed her arms, and settled into the alert idleness learned through years of conducting stakeouts on the Force. Catalogue every detail. Th at was how you knew when something had changed. Th e fl utter of a drape might indicate someone hiding inside, or that a rear window had been opened for a stealthy escape, sending a draft through the rooms. A barely registered movement beyond a hedge could signify someone sneaking out, or in. A man in a mail uniform wasn’t always delivering letters and fl yers. Not that these scattered acreages along the hillside would have home delivery. On the edge of wilderness, an hour from Calgary, at the feet of the Rocky Mountains, a mailman would stick out like a neon Popsicle on an igloo.
As she leaned there in the still glade, the forest rustled toward her from all sides. Tiny sounds — leaves or birds or little rodent feet going their secret ways through last year’s leaves — whispered isolation. She might be alone on the hillside, save for the sharp corner of a roofl ine higher up. She should be on her way back to Calgary and supper, although it would mean crossing that lone bridge over the rushing brown river again.
Locals expected the last of the snowpack to surge through sometime next week. Until then the river would keep rising, bringing down whole trees and threatening the bridge. Blinding, turbulent water, Lacey’s worst nightmare, and right under the windows of her new jobsite, the not-quite-fi nished Bragg Creek Arts Centre and Foothills History Museum. Lacey knew even less about art and history than she did about security-camera wiring, but being Wayne’s gopher brought in some pay and kept her most desperate worries at bay, at least during working hours. She couldn’t ask more than that of her new life. Not yet. Was that shushing sound the river tumbling over its banks, or just the breeze through the spruce tops? Where was Dee?
Only three minutes had passed. Th e emptiness was getting to her. Too much open space after a decade in the overpopulated Lower Mainland, where even the wilderness trails were rarely empty. It was a two-minute drive down the hill into Bragg Creek. She could grab a burger at the bar, the only eatery that wouldn’t look askance at her dusty jeans, workboots, and faded T-shirt. Okay, two more minutes and then she was going. She scanned the front of the house again.
Still, no drapes fl uttered, but this time she recognized something odd she’d overlooked in her annoyance. Dee loved the sun and the wide-open sky, fi r trees piercing the blue, birds fl uttering past her windows. Loved to watch deer wander through the yard to nibble on anything she planted. She had gushed about all that to Lacey when she’d fi rst moved out here, six, maybe seven years ago. Th at explained the spiky shrubs, anyway. Not deer food. Why, now, were all the windows shrouded in heavy drapes on a celestially sunny day, when small birds were squabbling around a seed tray suspended from the porch overhang? All these Dee loved, and yet she had blocked them out.
Lacey straightened up, surveying the house with the keen ex-cop’s eyes she hadn’t fully brought to bear earlier. No visible windows were open, but that could mean air conditioning. No drapes had been disturbed since her last scan. If the back of the house wasn’t as closed in, maybe Dee was merely protecting expensive upholstery from sun damage. Circling the house would fi ll in the two minutes nicely. A single glance inside could ease the half-formed worry that her old friend might be lying injured inside, victim of an accident or worse. Times beyond count as a constable, she had undertaken welfare checks on strangers, saved a few, and found some past saving. She could not let this one pass her by.
Returning to the carved front door, she turned left past the vast windows and around a massive fi eldstone chimney stack. Each window she saw was securely locked and swathed. French doors on the rear terrace had their blinds turned down too tight to see anything at all between the slats. Impossible to guess which rooms lay beyond which windows. She’d seen grow ops less carefully cloistered.
A plank deck connected the terrace and the front patio to a triple-car garage. A high post-and-beam pergola supported a riot of blossoms in hanging baskets well above the reach of a deer’s teeth. Garage doors: all locked. No sign of forced entry anywhere, no signals of distress. Just an unfriendly house devoid of its current resident.
She skirted the sage-green deck furniture and looked again over the rear yard. Th e spruce circle was wider here, leaving space for a tended lawn and opening a gap where a woodland path ran up to a wider trail. A wire-fenced dog run attached to the garage was deserted, but the stainless steel water bowl was half full. Maybe Dee had simply taken a dog for a walk. She’d always had a dog. Young Duke, a honey-haired Labrador, had hiked the Algonquin Trail with them when he was a gambolling pup, barely knee high. He’d be old now, and slow. Maybe it was a slow walk, and this search and speculation were only the old habits of a cop’s brain that had not quite retired six weeks ago, when Lacey’s resignation letter landed on her staff sergeant’s desk. Th e RCMP had been her life for most of a decade, and now it wasn’t. Her head needed time to adjust to civilian life, to stop seeing criminals behind every closed curtain. Dee had simply gone for a walk and lost track of time.
Blue sky refl ected on glass in the garage’s rear wall: a window inside the dog run, above Lacey’s head. Impossible to tell from here whether it was covered or not, but she bet not. Dee’s vehicle was probably parked in there right now, supporting the walk theory. Finding out would fi ll in another minute or two. She jiggered an oblong patio table, one end at a time, down the wide plank steps and into the dog run. When it was fi rmly in position against the garage wall, she scrambled up and peered in. What would Dee think if she came home to fi nd her old friend perched on a patio table, peeking into her garage?
Whatever Lacey had subconsciously hoped or feared, the garage held no answers. A second small window high up in the end wall cast enough light to show her a gold Lexus SUV and a rack holding two bright plastic kayaks. Th e third space was empty now of whatever Dee’s recently divorced skunk had driven. Did that SUV mean she had gone for a walk, or did she have a second vehicle that she now parked in Neil’s spot? Had she gone away with someone else? Why wasn’t she calling back or replying to texts?
As Lacey turned back to the house, to the deep shade of the front patio, she blinked. Just for a second, she had fl ashed back to coming home to her old house in Langley, checking that all the drapes were shut tight the way she had left them, and scanning the street for Dan’s car before she risked opening the door. She knew all too well what she’d been afraid of then. Was Dee afraid of her ex-husband, too? In the warm afternoon sunshine, Lacey shivered.