"Chilling...this terrific novel is...propelled by an iron-tight plot that becomes increasingly tense." --New York Times Book Review
"It’s a nerve-shredding, emotionally harrowing ride. Don’t miss it.” —Megan Abbott, New York Times bestselling author
The USA Today bestselling and Edgar Award–winning author of Never Look Back and If I Die Tonight asks how far a grieving mother will go to right a tragic wrong in this propulsive novel of psychological suspense.
Camille Gardener is a grieving—and angry—mother who, five years after her daughter’s death, is still obsessed with the privileged young man she believes to be responsible.
When her rash actions draw the attention of a secret group of women—the collective— Camille is drawn into a dark web where these mothers share their wildly different stories of loss as well as their desire for justice in a world where privilege denies accountability. Fueled by mutual rage, the collective members devise and act out retribution fantasies via precise, anonymous, highly coordinated revenge killings.
As Camille struggles to comprehend whether this is a role-playing exercise or terrifying reality, she must decide if these women are truly avenging angels or monsters. Becoming more deeply enmeshed in the group, Camille learns truths about the collective—and about herself—that she may not be able to survive
Release date: November 2, 2021
Publisher: William Morrow
Print pages: 352
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The ceremony starts in twenty minutes. I’m climbing out of the subway tunnel, a thousand unwanted smells in my hair. I’m not used to being around this many people—the stink of them, the heat, the noise. The noise especially. I just shared a subway car with a group of high school girls, and their laughter still swirls in my ears. I probably should have driven, but it’s been hard for me to drive long distances since Emily’s death. My thoughts start spinning along with the wheels, memories of road trips, of carpools and radio sing-alongs and petty arguments, and before I know it, I’m aiming straight for the divider.
The venue is just three blocks away. I walk slowly, slower than everyone around me, trying to catch my breath, to still my thoughts, to think of nothing but the sidewalk and the cold night air and where I need to be.
From half a block away, I recognize the Brayburn Club. I know it from the photo I found online. It’s located in a Gramercy Park brownstone with leaded windows and wide, majestic steps. It’s a week past New Year’s, but the Brayburn Club is still decorated for the holiday season, a lush wreath filling the front door, icicle lights dripping from the windowsills like fresh beads of sweat.
I pass a group of young women smoking last-minute cigarettes—friends of his, maybe?—and I think back to the time I caught Emily smoking weed with her friend Fiona. She must have been fourteen, always a little old for her years and bored of our small Hudson Valley town. I got so angry with her. Grounded her for two months. Her dad thought it excessive. We smoked pot when we were that age, Matt said, missing the point. Yes, we smoked pot when we were fourteen, but Emily wasn’t us. She was better than us.
I won’t do it again, Mom. I promise. Her voice in my head is as clear and real as the shrieking laughter of the girls on the train. I want to lose myself in it and never come back.
It isn’t until I’m at the top of the stairs, after I’ve handed the boy at the door my invitation and I’m in line for the coat check, that Emily’s voice quiets and I remember where I am and why I’m here.
“Anything else, ma’am?” says the coat check girl. She has a freshly scrubbed look and shiny dark hair and she’s wearing the Brayburn College colors—crimson jacket, gold blouse. “Anything else?” She says it like she’s prompting me from a script.
“No. Nothing else. Thank you.”
The girl’s nose scrunches up. She looks at me funny, and I wonder if she can sense what I’ve been up to. Who I am.
THE EVENING’S MAIN event is the first alumni dinner of the year. It will be held in the formal dining room—a four-course meal, capped off by a speech by a noted software developer from the class of ’98. But I won’t be staying for any of that.
They’re holding the ceremony first, in the club’s library—a sprawling room, with wall-sized bookshelves and grand arched ceilings painted with exotic birds and flowers. It smells of leather bindings and polished floors, and there’s a Christmas tree in the corner, decorated entirely in Brayburn colors. I imagine most people are calmed by this place—a respite from the stench and bellow of the city. I relax my shoulders and try my best to act as though I feel the same.
The seats are all filled by the time I’m in the room. A boy in a tuxedo offers me a glass of champagne from a tray. I take it for the sake of having something to hold, and slip in next to a group at the back, waiting.
There’s a man watching me. That used to happen all the time, and I used to find it flattering, but I don’t like it now. I’ve lost twenty-eight pounds since Emily’s death. I’ve stopped coloring my hair and wearing makeup and I had the bolt-ons removed, and so I am literally no longer the woman I once was. There is no reason to watch me. No flattering reason, anyway.
The man is around my age, with a thinning buzz cut, his jacket and tie cheap for the room. He smiles, and I turn away from him, the stem of the champagne glass tight between my fingers.
“Why are you here?” he says, and I think, Does he recognize me? I’m hoping my thoughts don’t show on my face.
His smile is surprisingly warm. Disarming. “Are you a relative?”
“Yes.” The easier lie. “How about you?”
He says nothing. Just nods, as though he doesn’t believe me. Then he turns back around. Strange. But then everything is strange here. Like a dream, or maybe an acid trip, the colors too soft, the whispers too loud. I’m feeling a little nauseous. There are other people looking at me—two silver-haired women in the back row. Is my hair okay? Do I have something stuck to my shoe? I almost ask them that, but I stop myself just in time.
There is a podium at the front of the room, and a man pads up to it. He has thin lips, wispy hair, narrow shoulders, everything about him meager and unobtrusive. His name is Richard Waverly, and he’s the dean of the School of Humanities. He introduces himself as such, but I already know those things. I take a big swallow of champagne and then another and then the glass is done when I hadn’t even intended a sip. The room shimmers and blurs. The silver-haired women whisper like snakes.
Waverly says, “The recipient of the Martha L. Koch Humanitarian Award this year is a young man who exemplifies public service,” and that’s when I finally catch sight of him, standing in the rear corner of the room, his golden curls slicked down, his parents sentries on either side of him. I’d recognize them anywhere. The father is square-jawed and straight-backed, the mother blond and beaming. He’s quite a bit taller now, the son. Apparently, he had some growing to do, but the parents haven’t changed a bit. The mother especially, in her seasonal wrap dress, big diamond at her throat. Her death didn’t change you.
I say it out loud. “Her death didn’t change you.” The hissing women whip their heads around in unison. I can feel the heat of their glares. I aim my eyes at my empty glass and take a deep breath, but then Waverly says the boy’s name. A punch to my throat. “Harris Blanchard.”
He strides up to the podium, taller Harris with his slicked-down curls, with his expensive suit and shiny shoes, and I hear Emily’s voice again. His name is Harris, Mom. He’s really nice. I remember her Instagram bio, Emily’s motto from an Instagram account I’d only learned of after her death, her words on the lips of a defense lawyer as expensive as the gray suit Harris Blanchard is wearing to accept his Martha L. Koch award. My daughter’s Instagram bio. The defense lawyer’s sneer. “No fucks left to give.” What does that mean to you, Mrs. Gardener?
Harris Blanchard pulls a piece of paper out of his pocket and unfolds it. My gaze pings on his mother, just as she mouths, I love you, sweetie, and I have no fucks left to give. The word bubbles up in my throat and escapes as a shriek. “Murderer!”
I start toward Harris Blanchard. I don’t get far.
I’M NOT ALWAYS this way. That is to say, nine-tenths of the time I’m calm and cool and going about my business. I do website design out of my home, and when I meet with clients—usually at the one coffee shop in town, since my house is halfway up a mountain and hard to get to—I put on a dress or a nice pantsuit and heels and behave in a professional manner. I work hard. I don’t miss deadlines or pull diva fits when someone wants a change to the design, even an ill-advised one. From time to time, I catch up with old friends over lunch. I make jokes, even.
But Emily is always on my mind, a ragged bundle of memories, cocooned in a constant, gnawing pain. To keep the cocoon tight and the pain at bay, I take pills. In my old life, I had no anxiety that couldn’t be cured by my weekly hot yoga class. Obviously, things have changed since then.
The meds I take don’t mix well with alcohol, which has never been much of an issue until tonight, when, after arriving at Penn Station two hours early for Harris Blanchard’s award ceremony, I stopped at a touristy Italian place, where an organist was playing a Doors medley at an ear-shattering volume.
My ex-husband, Matt, loved the Doors. I suppose he still does, but it feels weird to talk about him in the present tense, as we’ve barely spoken in three years. I’d gone into this place solely to get a bite to eat, but by the time the organist had screamed “Mr. Mojo Risin’” into the mic for the tenth or twelfth or maybe the hundred and fiftieth time, I’d downed three vodka rocks, and the cocoon had burst open. Emily was with me. I could smell that fruity bubble gum she used to love, her lily of the valley shampoo. I could hear her laughing along with the girls on the subway, and when I looked at the coat check girl at the Brayburn Club, I could see her face. Get out of here, I wanted to tell her. Get away from him. And then I decided to drink that glass of champagne. . . .
My whole body aches. My throat from screaming, or maybe it’s the man in the cheap suit who did it. The way he’d pinned my arms to my back and wrestled me to the floor, my cheek hot against the smooth wood planks, that smell of pine and old books and his sleazy, spicy cologne. It was an overreaction on his part. A show of force, his forearms pressed between my shoulder blades as though I had any chance of getting away, when he had a hundred pounds on me, easy. I knew it. You didn’t fit in at that place any more than I did. And the way you looked at me. That smile . . . If I’d been sober, if the room hadn’t been spinning and shimmering like something out of a bad dream, I’d have figured that douchebag for the rent-a-cop he was.
“Why would you go to the ceremony in the first place?” Reena says. “I don’t understand why you’d want to be anywhere near that guy.” Reena is one of my two arresting officers, and she is very kind. She knows who I am. She remembers my name from the news five years ago—one of the few people who still do. At the time, she’d been pregnant with her first child, a girl, which made her sympathize with me instead of the rich golden-haired boy with the angelic blue eyes and the premed major. I couldn’t imagine anything worse, she had told me in the squad car, than losing a daughter like that.
Reena and I are in the 13th Precinct house now. I’m being booked, but you wouldn’t know it from the way she talks to me, as though I’m an old friend who’s hit on hard times. When she asks me why I went to the ceremony, her partner, a stoic young man named Officer Ruiz, raises his eyebrows at her and clicks his tongue once, like a warning shot.
Reena says, “Don’t reply.” Both of them have the Miranda warning in mind, I know. But I don’t care.
“I wanted to see him. I wanted to see if he’s changed.”
Reena has large, dark, empathetic eyes, and like me she’s short, which allows her to gaze into my eyes directly.
I keep talking. “He’s taller now. Isn’t that interesting? Someone growing that much between the ages of seventeen and twenty-two? You know how tall Emily was when it happened? Four foot eleven. She was a late bloomer. I bet she’d be a lot taller than me now, if he’d given her the chance to grow up.”
Reena starts to say something, then stops.
“I know,” I say. “I know. Anything I say can and will. Go ahead. Hold it against me. I don’t give a crap.”
My head has cleared considerably. Enough to know that I’ve been charged with disturbing the peace, a violation, and drunk and disorderly conduct, a violation. When Reena initially told me this, I almost corrected her to add “violating an order of protection,” but stopped myself just in time. That order expired a year ago. Until tonight, I’ve done an excellent job of leaving the Blanchards alone.
Reena has removed something from my purse. She replaces it, quick and matter-of-fact, but I’m still able to get a glimpse. A fork from the Italian place. The memory comes to me in stabs, sharp and fleeting. Sliding it into my purse, my palms slippery on the handle. Kill him. Kill them all . . . I had thought it was a knife.
Reena hands me a voucher. “You’ll get all your possessions back once you’re released. You can make up to three phone calls. I’m going to take you to the holding cell now. My hunch is, you’ll get a DAT, so you won’t have to go through central booking. With any luck, you should be out of here and on your way home within a few hours. You’ll get your stuff back then; just give Officer Johnson the voucher. She’s the desk sergeant.”
She says all of this with a calm assurance, and in that sliver of time I feel protected, as though there’s a secret order in this world of which I am a member, and Reena is as well, and that secret, special sisterhood transcends her uniform and my handcuffs and binds us tighter than anything, even the air that keeps us alive.
We are mothers of girls.
I MAKE TWO phone calls. The first is to a client—an artist from Woodstock whose website I’m designing—telling her I probably won’t be able to make our eight thirty meeting tomorrow morning. The second is to Luke. Both go straight to voicemail.
The holding cell is empty and quiet. It’s located in the building’s basement, away from the bustle of the precinct house, but with a sad, restless energy of its own. There is no natural light here. The floor is rough concrete, and the bars are gray under the fluorescent lights. The air is thick with the smell of sweat and with something else I can’t name.
There is a metal bench against the wall, a metal toilet in the center of the room. I sit on the concrete floor and close my eyes and try to escape the ghosts, the voices. Why do you do these things, Camille? Why do you insist on opening wounds?
My heart is starting to pound. I put my head between my knees and take deep, deep breaths and imagine I’m on the beach, atop a mountain, my feet soaking in a stream. I picture myself at home, at my laptop, out of trouble. None of it works. My pulse is speeding up. I can feel it in my neck, expanding and contracting, the room swelling around me, my breath short and ineffectual. Panic attack. Great. I think of my pills at home in my medicine cabinet. More than 120 miles away. Don’t scream. My old therapist’s voice in my head again. Don’t scream, Camille; find your calming place.
“Bitch, don’t you think that’s what I’m trying to do?” I say it out loud. My voice pitches up and quavers, and I actually start to laugh. Thank God I’m alone in the holding cell, or they’d cart me off. Maybe I should be carted off; maybe that would be an act of kindness. . . .
I put my hands to my face. I feel the cool of my palms, focus on it, as Joan would have advised if she were here. Joan, my old therapist, with her red-framed glasses, her wild steel-colored hair, jasmine incense burning in the corner of the dimly lit office. The soft leather couch. Joan’s dry hands on my shoulders and the sound of wind chimes, like children laughing in another room. Find your calming place. I can see her face in my mind, the smooth young skin incongruous with the prematurely gray hair, hazel eyes magnified by thick lenses, the gentle scold in them. Breathe deep, in and out. Feel the weight and substance of your own body. She died a year ago, Joan. A late-night fall from the top of a staircase, and she was gone, at thirty-five years old. Like me, she lived alone and secluded. No one heard her cries for help. It was over a week before her body was found, glasses broken, back broken.
I shut my eyes tighter, and Joan’s face becomes the face of Lisette Blanchard, Harris’s mother, with her chemically smoothed brow and unnaturally bright smile. Her hair highlighted like mine used to be. She was wearing a red velvet dress at the ceremony. A wrap dress. Emily used to call wrap dresses Mom Uniforms, and she wasn’t wrong. There’s something so safe about them. Basic, as Emily would have said, how they flatter every shape in such a demure, dull, predictable way.
Lisette Blanchard has the same eyes as her son—blue and twinkling and completely untroubled. Before the rent-a-cop wrestled me to the floor of the Brayburn Club library, I caught a glimpse of the two of them: Lisette and Harris Blanchard staring at me with those wide blue eyes, delicate mouths dropped open. Identical masks of pity.
Find your calming place, Joan would say if she were here, if she were alive. They don’t matter. Their pity doesn’t matter. Nothing matters but the sound of the chimes. The sound of wind chimes. The laughter of a child I no longer have.
I’m screaming now, trapped in that dream I’ll never wake up from. The nightmare I’ve been living for the past five years, where the rich boy takes my daughter from me and smiles and thrives and wins awards.
I scream until I have no voice left and my throat is raw and bloody-feeling. I scream until I’ve screamed every thought out of my head, and I no longer care about the nightmare, or anything.
I curl up on the floor, the concrete cold of it, my forehead smashed into my knees. You’re a mess, I tell myself. More of an observation than a judgment.
When Emily was seven years old, she caught a bad case of the stomach flu. Matt and I were up all night with her, presumably taking turns, though I couldn’t sleep during my supposed downtimes. I was so concerned about Emily getting dehydrated. Between trips to the bathroom, I was trying to feed her tiny sips of ginger ale from a plastic cup with a teaspoon, the way my own mother used to do when I got sick. Finally the fever broke. She fell asleep with her little head on my shoulder, the spoon to her lips. Because you’re my mommy, she said as she was drifting off. Because it’s your job to keep me okay.
It’s strange, being this alone, without my phone or my laptop or even the TV to interrupt my thoughts. City girl in the country, Matt used to call me. But it isn’t technology I crave; it’s the way it numbs me.
Matt lives in Colorado now, atop a mountain. He skis and works at a marijuana dispensary, a twentysomething free spirit trapped in a fifty-year-old body. He’s been aging backward since I first met him, but Emily’s death accelerated the process. Come with me, Cammy, Matt begged me three years ago, when our marriage was still hanging by the spindliest of threads. Come with me and let’s start all over. I said no, and he got angry. Blamed Luke. The way you sneak out to see him, to be near him. You’re attached to him, and it’s sick, Camille. You’re sick.
I’m relaxed now, the fight screamed out of me. I stretch my legs and close my eyes for what feels like hours. I drift off, and come back and drift off again, waiting for whatever it is that’s going to happen next.
As it turns out, what happens next is Luke.
When we’re outside the police station, Luke tells me I look like shit. He asks if I’ve eaten or slept since the last time I saw him, and even though the last time I saw him was five and a half months ago, he makes it sound like that’s a serious question.
I force out a laugh. “Of course I have.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Well, I’m taking you out for pancakes, whether you want them or not.”
Luke says it like a tough guy. Well, as tough as any guy can sound when saying I’m taking you out for pancakes. I can’t help but smile at him. “Whatever you say, Sarge.”
I know it’ll make him roll his eyes, and it does. Luke Charlebois is a successful character actor with a master’s degree from NYU. He’s played Falstaff in a Shakespeare in the Park production of Henry IV, Part 1 and understudied Lennie in Of Mice and Men on Broadway. He’s been singled out in The New Yorker for his turn as a dying high school football coach in an Indie Spirit–nominated film, and he’s won three Obie Awards and received an Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actor in a Limited Run Series. But it’s his current TV role, as tough-as-nails Sergeant Edwin “Sarge” Barkley on the network crime show Protect and Serve, that’s put Luke on the map. When he came to pick me up at the police station, no fewer than half a dozen cops asked him for his autograph.
“That line can and will be held against you,” says Luke, who is far too highbrow to be anything other than embarrassed by his cop-show fame, and far too sensitive to badger me for answers regarding my drunk and disorderly arrest. He knows me well enough to guess the reasons, and for him, I suppose, that’s enough.
I put a hand on each of his big shoulders and gaze up into his broad, dimpled face in the purple glow of the Manhattan night. It is the kindest face I’ve ever known. “I’m sorry.”
“Well . . . for one thing, dragging you out of your home at . . . what time is it, anyway?”
“I’m a New Yorker. We never sleep.”
“I think the saying is about the city. Not the people who live there.”
He kisses me on the forehead, and I’m aware of someone watching us.
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