Strands of blonde hair escape from beneath the sheet and catch the dawn light creeping through the window. Silence falls as the fabric is drawn back to reveal the body of a young girl, her hands folded on her chest, her long lashes resting on her cold, pale cheeks.
When Detective Casey White finds the body of a teenager perfectly preserved in salt in an abandoned beach vacation home, her heart shatters. Tina Somners has been missing since she set off to meet her friends for spring break. With her own daughter missing too, Casey knows how devastated the girl’s parents will be at this tragic end to their search.
Pushing her pain aside, Casey delves into old files and gets her first lead: years ago, a man murdered his wife and left her the same way. But he’s been locked up in prison all this time…
Interviewing him, Casey is certain the now frail and elderly prisoner couldn’t have hurt Tina himself. But is he somehow pulling strings from behind bars?
Then another perfectly preserved body is found, a threatening note addressed to Casey herself clutched in the girl’s hand. Running out of time and leads, Casey is hit with a realization that turns her blood to ice: her own daughter could be next…
An absolutely unputdownable read that will have you reading late into the night and gasping at the shocking twists. Perfect for fans of Kendra Elliot, Robert Dugoni and Melinda Leigh.
Read what everyone’s saying about The Crying House:
“Wow! What a story!... filled with suspense, intrigue, action, and lots of crazy twists and turns!... Definitely gave me goosebumps!” Sassysouthernbook
“Perfect for the summer!... nail-bitingsuspense and tons of twists and turns kept me guessing until the very end. Highly recommend!!!” NetGalley reviewer
“Begs to be read in one sitting… really tugs at your emotions, one minute I was breathless with anticipation, the next I had tears running down my face… I can't wait for the next instalment.” Goodreads reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“Pulse-pounding… ending on a series explosion big enough that you're going to want the next book in your hands immediately. Very much recommended.” BookAnon.com, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“Such a damn good read!... pulls you in… honestly I didn't want the books to end!... amazing.” Goodreads reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“Hit it out of the park… Full of twists and turns… non-stop till the end.” Goodreads reviewer
“Blew me away… plot twists that I didn’t see coming.” Goodreads reviewer
“Incredibly unique and nothing like I've ever read before… gritty… doesn’t hold back…
Release date: August 3, 2021
Print pages: 350
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The Crying House
The liquor cabinet was next. She opened it, a bottle and glass clanking, accompanied by a low grumble about the piss-poor tips and the stinking fishermen who gave her pennies for the plates she served. Her mood was bad, adding to his terror. He heard her drinking. Heard the subtle moan when she finished the first, and then heard her tip the bottle against the drinking glass for another.
He searched his bed, examining the corners, seeing that the sheets were tight. He inspected the blankets next, making sure he folded them exactly as she’d showed him. Maybe he’d go to bed. If she thought he was sleeping, she’d leave him alone. But his bedroom window was bright with daylight. He got up onto his toes, his being able to see over the sill since he’d turned seven. There was fire gliding across the bay, the sun still setting. His bedtime wouldn’t come until he could see the first stars.
Going to bed early never stopped her before. The last time he tried it, he hadn’t been able to see for days; the salt she put in his eyes causing them to burn. He’d rubbed them hard, but that only made it worse. Much worse.
“Why are there dishes in the sink!” Her hollering bounced up the stairwell and down the hall, her shrill voice piercing his ears.
The kitchen, he thought with frantic alarm. The sink. He’d forgotten about the plate he’d used for his sandwich.
“Get down here!” she yelled, slapping the dish against the sides of the sink. There was only the one, but she’d made sure to make it sound like there were dozens. “Now!”
Jump, he thought wildly. I could jump from my window. If he was hurt, maybe then she’d leave him alone. If he was dead, she’d have to leave him alone.
His feet moved toward his bedroom door, her voice exerting a power over him he couldn’t understand. She could make him move. She could make him come to her. And make him kneel as if there was magic in her voice. He thought of the television show. The one with the snake in the basket and the man wearing the orange turban. He only had a flute, but with it he could charm the snake, control it. That was magic. Maybe that’s what his mother could do.
“Coming,” he heard himself answer, a sting in his eyes, an ache riddling his body while he tried not to shake. He was already crying from the fright and could barely manage the words. “I’m coming, Mommy.”
He heard the closet door open then. He heard the burlap sack being dragged across the kitchen floor. It was the rock salt, and it dried his tears in an instant. He stopped and dared to touch his knees, feeling the papery bumps beneath his pants, the scabs from before—the cuts still healing. He hoped they wouldn’t open this time. It hurt the most when the scabs cracked and peeled from his skin. The salt hurt something awful.
Another moan. Another tip of the vodka bottle, its stout neck touching the top of her glass as though a ritual of hers. She might add some orange juice now. She usually did that. “Hurry!” He heard the tick of rock salt hitting the floor—his mother setting the stage for him. “If you don’t hurry, I’m going to add an hour.”
Every part of him told him to hide, to go into his room and disappear. But he hurried for her, the panic growing like wildfire, his little feet racing.
“I’m here, Mommy,” he answered and entered the kitchen, salt crunching beneath his shoes.
She eyed the floor, the milky white and gray stones between them.
“Well,” she demanded, and drank her juice.
He said nothing more and rolled the bottom of his pants until his knees showed, the creases and scabs becoming itchy when the air hit them. He stood still a moment, hesitant to lower himself. There was nothing to lean on; she’d never allow it. With no easy way to do it, he whimpered as he inched closer, lowering himself to kneel onto the rock salt. It must’ve been magic. A dark and ugly magic. He was in her control, and he did as she commanded. He was the snake in the basket. He grimaced and cried silently to himself as his mother watched. When he dared to look at her, he saw the satisfaction crawl onto her face.
“Good. You stay like that. Cleanse your soul.”
Tina Sommers had never felt so cold, a misty cloud in her breath, ice needling her fingertips, and her toes felt like wooden stubs. A harsh gust lashed at her bare neck, locks of golden hair flailing about her head as she tugged on one of her tattered sneakers. There were holes in the top and on the sides of them, the miles of frozen ground behind her proving too much for the worn canvas. She clutched her jacket, the joints in her fingers aching as she tightened the flimsy fabric around her front and tried to hide inside it. Another wave of wintery air struck as icy slush spilled off a passing truck, pelting her from head to toe. When it was gone, her shadow returned to the snow-covered ground, the streetlights casting an orange glow over the roadside and turning her alabaster skin the same color. It was the last place in the world she thought she’d be this evening.
She gazed at the distance ahead, her insides squeezing. Her jacket fell open, the zipper torn, her throat closing around a sob as a tear stood on her cheek, its stinging cold in an instant. Tina cursed herself for not being better prepared, for not having planned. But there was no time to plan, no time for any of it. He’d touched her again, and that was enough. Anger stirred, her body tensing. She should have seen it coming. The way he was looking at her differently. His gaze wandering inappropriately. Tina shivered, but it wasn’t from the cold January air. It was from disgust.
“I’m done with this place,” she said, her teeth chattering hard enough to make her jaw ache. Her sights were set on Virginia Beach where her father lived. Nothing would stop her. Domed lights lined the highway, each of them one-hundred and twenty-two steps from the other. She knew the next one was another forty steps. Tina hoisted her backpack up onto her shoulders, wishing she’d filled it with more than a couple of changes of clothes, and added a few dollars to her pockets. She’d make it work, though, the nearest road sign offering a respite, a place for her to get warm before she continued.
She wiped her eyes, reading, “Rest Stop Next Right Five Miles.”
Her heart sank. Five miles might as well have been one hundred. From her pockets, she uncovered her hand, the freezing air slicing her fingers. She made a fist and held out her thumb and practiced hitching it over her shoulder like she’d seen hitchhikers do in the movies and on television.
A car drove by, brake lights flashing, her heart walloping with the promise of getting off her feet, of sitting in a warm seat. Cloudy puffs of car exhaust spewed from the tail pipe, the noxious fumes sticking in the back of her throat, the idea of hitching rides feeling suddenly wrong.
When the passenger window lowered and a woman’s dark brown eyes showed in the mirror, Tina saw a person appear in the rear seat, a gloomy shadow, the sight of it frightening her and changing her mind. She waved at the car, recalling a story about a woman and man luring young girls into their vehicle, and then feeding them drugs before trafficking them for sex. Tina waved her hand and backed away.
“Suit yourself!” the woman yelled, the passenger window gliding up as the tires peeled a layer of ash-colored slush.
Alone again, Tina tucked her hand into her pocket, a shiver holding her hostage. She shrugged her shoulders forward, taking the first of the steps that’d lead her to the rest stop. “Suit yourself,” she said with teary sarcasm, the regret laboring in the cold, making her rethink her status. Was it more dangerous to stay outside or dare the safety of a stranger’s car?
It was at least three miles before another car slowed, a truck this time, the height of it eclipsing the sedans and coupes which had been the popular fare traveling this stretch of road. The truck slowed until it was crawling, its tires crunching, the slush freezing as the night grew long and the temperatures fell. By now, Tina worried she wouldn’t survive. Her fingers and toes were riddled with pins and needles. They’d find her half frozen to death, a picture of her on the morning news, legs and arms wrapped in gauzy bandaging, the headlines reading snow-covered teenager in critical condition—amputations unavoidable. She glanced at her hands, the tips of her fingers having turned oddly white, even in the orange cast by the streetlights.
“Looking for a lift?” a man asked from inside the truck’s cab.
She said nothing, the window above her head and too far for her to see. “Wha—”, she tried saying, her lips and cheeks stuck in place. Desperation played in her head, the warnings of being cautious easing.
“I said, you looking for a lift?” the driver asked again, the top of his bald head showing through the window’s opening. She saw him then, his face round, cheeks plump, a heavy white beard that gave him a festive, holiday look. The man’s eyes were a warm hazel color and recessed beneath bushy eyebrows. Tina didn’t feel a threat like she did with the other car but remained careful. From the cab, a touch of heat reached her. The cozy smell of food came with it, her stomach growling. She glanced at the driver and then to her tattered sneakers, cringing at the thought of the miles remaining to the rest stop. Tina said nothing, her mother’s voice sounding alarms in her head about strangers—the words spoken a million times since she was old enough to understand them. But the cold.
The man must have sensed her reluctance, his continuing, “It’s okay. I’m one of the good ones.”
“I’m headed to Virginia Beach,” she said, her mouth stuck. She pegged her foot behind one leg, her toes absent. She contemplated the offer, inching closer to the truck’s radiating heat. “Would you be heading in that direction?”
“The Outer Banks,” he answered, leaning close enough to peer down. His gaze drifted from her head to her feet and fixed on her shoes. “Listen, the temperature is dropping fast. It’s only going to get colder and too dangerous to be out here, let alone walking. I can take you part of the way.”
“Could we stop at the rest stop?” she asked, struggling to lift her arm and point down the road. “I think it’s about two miles ahead.” Anticipating heat, Tina moved toward the cab.
The driver agreed, his saying, “Sure, the rest stop it is. I gotta hit the head anyway.”
The truck’s passenger door opened, warm air gushing and wrapping around her like a warm blanket. The driver’s hand appeared, pale fingers dancing in the dark, offering to help her. Tina’s feet clumsily found the places to step as she climbed inside of the cab. When she was in the seat, she stayed still a moment and let the warm air from the vents wash over her. The cab’s console was different than expected, the dash looking like a video game with computer panels perched beneath the windshield and behind the largest steering wheel she’d ever seen.
“You want to get the door?”
“Yeah, certainly,” she answered, catching herself staring. When Tina closed the door, she was out of the cold but shook nonetheless.
“You’ll warm soon,” he said, shifting gears, the truck bucking as it went from first into second and then to third.
Her eyes closed, the harsh ache riddling her body fading, she drifted cozily into the path of hot air pouring from the vents, warming her head and face and feet. “That feels good.”
“Another minute and you’ll forget all about the cold,” he said, turning knobs to the right and cranking the thermostat.
Tina’s stomach let out a growl and she braced her middle, the sound embarrassing. The driver heard it. Tina tried covering it up with small talk. “How long before we get there?”
“Well, it’s more than two miles. It’s at least four by my count,” he answered, working the shifter, his knee bouncing on the clutch pedal. “Chicken soup?”
“What’s that?” Tina asked, realizing she’d only walked another mile. She looked outside, falling snow flying sideways and ticking against the window’s glass. There was a foot of it plowed and piled against the side of the road. She wouldn’t have made it. Not four more miles. Not even one. Her stomach growled again, the pit of it empty and gnawing her. “Soup?”
“The red thermos next to the console. The big one,” he offered, Tina following his hand, his finger pointing to it without his eyes leaving the road. “Do you see it?”
“I got it. Are you sure?” she asked, the outside of the canister warm to the touch. Tina held it between her hands. “I don’t want to put you out.”
“Nah. Go for it. I can grab a burger at the rest stop,” he said. He turned and eyed her a moment, looking up and down. Jokingly, he patted his gut, a noticeable paunch between the seatbelt straps. “You look like you can use it a heck more than me.”
“Thank you,” she said. And without hesitation, Tina unscrewed the thermos cap, steam rising onto her face; the smell of chicken soup bringing warm memories of a family she had once, long ago: her mother and father who liked to cook together on Sunday afternoons while she and her little brother played on the floor in front of the television set. The broth was still hot, the taste salty, her hunger overwhelming as she drank a mouthful and felt it warm in her chest as noodles slid down her throat.
“I hope you like it,” the driver said with a smile that reminded her of a favorite uncle. “I made it myself.”
“It’s good,” she said, gazing through the window where another hitchhiker struggled to take a step, his legs sunken to the knees, his feet disappearing inside a mound of packed snow. Like her, his clothes were thin and hung loose, a hooded gray sweatshirt barely covering his head. For a moment she thought to tell the driver to stop, to let one more inside with them and to share in the warm ride and the delicious soup. But there was only room for two and she had to be selfish. She couldn’t go outside again. Tina raised her hand as if waving goodbye to an old friend, a fleeting moment of guilt passing like the snowflakes falling between them. The boy waved in return, Tina turning away and facing forward, her belly warming and her hands cradling the thermos.
It was the last time anyone ever saw Tina Sommers alive.
Pink. Not just pink though. Whatever it was, it seemed to glow fluorescent as sunlight peeled the dark from the morning horizon. A jacket? I thought, believing I was alone in entering the last of a five-mile jog. Sweat teemed on my skin, and an autumn chill nipped the air while I hurried to close the distance to a goal I’d been after for more than a month. Eyeing the coastline through a salty mist as it curved into the sea, my sight reached a group of abandoned houses that marked the end of my run. Beneath one of them, a bright pink flag waved as though someone knew I might reach it today and had set it there as a finish line for me to cross.
“I’ll make it,” I said, blowing out the words with a huff. I thought of who might have put it there, how sweet the gesture and how I couldn’t wait to thank him. In the weeks since I’d ventured out before daybreak, this was the furthest I’d gotten. Waves lashed at the beach, the surf tumbling and erasing the footsteps that had been there before mine. I pushed harder, faster, my sneakers planting wet kisses as sea foam raced by me. “Today, I’ll make it.”
A stitch ticked inside, halting my stride briefly. When I tried to run through it, a spasm struck, the bite warning me to slow down. A doctor’s voice rang in my head with nagging disappointment. I stopped to catch my breath. Walloping drumbeats thumped in my chest hard enough to feel in the pit of my throat. The doctors had been adamant in their instructions for me to take it slow, telling me that it might be as long as six months to a year before I’d feel the way I did before, feel like I had before my life was nearly cut short.
I took to my knee, the wet touching me with a chill. The fall season had settled on the east coast, the summer already a memory. While the seasons may have changed, the impact of the summer would be with me for some time. It’d be with all of us. Another chill raced through me. But this one rose out of a dark memory.
Inhaling through my nose, I slowly let the air out of my mouth, timing it to the breaking waves until the ache in my chest eased. A northeasterly wind blew through me; the swells growing—the tips of them frothy white as they folded and collapsed in a foamy tumble. Goosebumps bloomed on my bare arms, and I started running again, trying to catch my earlier pace.
The sky brightened with heaping clouds, their edges crisp and blazing with warm colors. I eyed my finish line, the flag. Or was it a jacket? My curiosity was roused. Finding anything around the abandoned houses was odd since I didn’t expect to see anyone for miles. I could feel a smile, knowing I wouldn’t be able to help myself. I’d have to investigate. It had been almost two months since I’d investigated anything. A best-case scenario here was that I’d put my detective skills to work and solve a lost-and-found mystery.
The closer I got, the scarier the houses looked. The beach was sharply crooked, which put the sun behind some of them, their silhouettes casting ominous shadows; the shape frightful like giants that had been stilled by the night. I was sure if I stared long enough, I’d see one of them move.
Originally from Philadelphia, I call the Outer Banks my home these days. Cut by an inlet of the Atlantic, the narrow chain of barrier islands stretches along the coast of North Carolina. Famous for its beaches, marshlands, and wildlife reserves, and an endless number of wading birds, this is also home to the sloping golden sands of Big Kill Devil Hill where two brothers made their historical first powered flight.
There are the lighthouses too, reaching for the skies above the shoreline. They’re a huge attraction when the population explodes in the early summer months. But when the seasons change, the lighthouses empty, and the ferries and bridges grow thick with traffic for the annual pilgrimage west to the mainland. For me, this is home regardless of the temperatures or the time of year, and I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. I’ve come to enjoy the colder months, the quieter months, the island’s beauty shining through unencumbered.
A gale pushed me sideways as I continued on toward the abandoned house above it. When I’d first arrived in the Outer Banks, I’d asked a Marine Patrol major, Jericho Flynn, about the vacation homes. He’d shared how they’d once been like crown jewels, stilted beach palaces for the rich. He’d also talked of the millions some of them cost, and about the sea levels rising, the beach erosion, and the increasingly violent storms. He’d said that seemingly overnight, the tides reclaimed the houses, and that meant everything was gone, including the white picket fences.
I’d only seen pictures when the homes were in their prime. And to see them now showed that it didn’t matter how big or how fancy they had once been. The sea showed no mercy. It didn’t discriminate. The pilings that supported the structures did survive though. For now, anyway. The thick stilts were driven deep into the beach, some of them paired together for additional support. But they were showing signs of wear; the tides lashing twice a day, every day, causing them to lean derelict with the threat of toppling.
Breathless, my heart pounding, my ears ringing, and my brow drippy wet, I reached the first of the houses and doubled over to heave. I felt terrible and wonderful at the same time—the great contradiction of exercising. I was winded and sick inside and out, but I’d reached my goal and that’s what mattered. The hot pink color turned out to be a jacket after all, and I tagged one of the sleeves like it was a streamer dangling over a finish line. I raised my arms in a quiet celebration for an audience of one: a lone seagull hovering above a sand dune and swaying sea oats nearby.
I’d show those doctors a thing or two and prove them wrong, prove to them I could return to working full-time sooner than expected. A thought came to call Jericho, my wanting to hear his voice and to celebrate with me. The two of us had become a couple soon after our first meeting. And in my time living here, he’d become the closest person in my life. He was my soulmate. The love of my life. Being a detective in the Outer Banks, it also helped that he was a major in the Marine Patrol too. There was a time when he’d also been the sheriff, which has opened more doors than I can count.
I read my phone’s screen, itching to share my great news. The signal bars blipped on and off, the screen warning of a poor signal. I was out of cell range. I scanned the area, another pair of seagulls gliding effortlessly above the tall grasses and the dunes. A gust blew through me, the jacket flapping, loose boards rattling. No phone company was ever going to put a cell tower all the way out here. Not without a few residents. I’d have to wait, my celebration staying with me for now.
I took to one of the pilings and leaned against it with my shoulder, resting where the sunlight had warmed the wood. My attention shifted to the jacket. It was clean and new and not at all something anyone would have left behind unless it was by accident. I lifted it from the bottom, a sea breeze ballooning the insides. Beneath the collar, I saw the jacket had been hung. It wasn’t here by chance. An errant wind hadn’t caught hold and cast it a mile or more like a kite, loose fabric snagging a chunk of splintered wood. The jacket was placed here.
Around my feet, I found evidence of a party: a gathering of sunken beer cans and empty bottles labeled hard lemonade. Teens perhaps? High school kids probably, kids without a place to go and finding privacy in the deserted properties. I recognized the place for what it was, having been young once, my friends and I using a small patch of woods with rutted dirt paths and a trickling creek that swelled with stained water whenever it rained. We called it the clump, and it was nestled between our homes and a nearby shopping center. The clump was where we’d spend Friday nights, blowing off the school week, playing tunes from a handheld radio with a wire hanger for an antenna. We danced and smoked cigarettes and drank warm beers that tasted terrible but made us feel like rock stars.
What we didn’t have in the clump were empty houses, leading me to think that who’d ever left the jacket behind might still be here. They might be inside. Today was early Saturday morning, the first days of October, and the kids had been back in school for the new year for the last month. Friday night lights had brightened the high school stadiums yesterday for their season opening football games. The timing was right for a party.
Would someone go inside though? I gazed at the underside of the house, the lumber black and green, stained by the sea and years of exposure. Standing three stories high, there was no siding or roofing tiles anymore: the wind ripping away the vinyl and plastic and asphalt shingles years before, the ocean gobbling every bit of it. I peered around the side, the windows open cavities, black holes; the sight of them giving me pause as though I’d just approached a haunted house on All Hallows’ Eve.
Stepping around the litter, deciding to look inside, I stopped dead when I saw it. On the third piling to the left of the pink jacket, stray hairs dangled loose, anchored in the wood. And beneath them, a thick swath of blood.
The hairs were nestled between splinters, a tangle of chestnut-colored hairs that lifted and fell with a breeze. On the ends I saw tissue, the hairs having been ripped from someone’s scalp. High on the piling, and facing away from the ocean, they’d been preserved, the blood dried by an endless sea breeze. But for how long? How long would they last?
In my career, I’d learned to recognize when a scene showed signs of an accident and when it was a crime. I glanced over my shoulder at the pink jacket, and then again at the blood and hair. An assault had occurred here. The possibility of a confrontation was whispered to me on a breeze. This was evidence I’d found. This was a crime scene.
The blood, hair and bright pink jacket spun up a thousand questions. This was the last place on earth I’d expected to find anything, especially with the waves breaking yards away. The site was both surreal and morbid and had me searching the beaches for anything that strayed from normal. I found nothing. What about inside the house?
When I was certain there was nobody else around, I began to take pictures, moving fast to preserve the scene as it was before going into the house. Like I said, I wasn’t one-hundred percent sure what I had yet, but I had to investigate. A part of me hoped it would turn out to be nothing at all, my imagination gone wild. Yet, there was also a part of me that wanted a new case, craved for a new case the way I craved a sugar rush. That way I could show everyone I was better now, better than before.
Out of habit and fearful reservation, I ran the tip of my finger over the scar on my arm. It had been put there by a notorious serial killer, her driving a prison shiv deep enough to sever vessels and nerves. I’d almost bled to death but had survived the attack. The real damage she’d inflicted was what she’d set into motion: a series of events that would disrupt our lives like a hundred mile an hour train wreck. The scarring left behind was raised and shiny and fired tingles up and down my arm whenever I touched it. The doctors said the scar would eventually fade. I could only hope. While it had been almost two months, I still felt her doings every waking moment.
I shook it off, reminding myself of a promise to get back into form. Reframing the scene with my phone’s camera, I flipped on the flash, the light beneath the. . .
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