The Other Mothers
“Just WOW!! The twists I just didn’t see coming… The story was crazy SO CRAZY!!! If you think you can guess what is going to happen, you will be sadly mistaken!! The characters in this one were great… I loved every second of it.”Crossroad Reviews
It’s a crisp spring morning when the small-town community around Briar Ridge Elementary School is shattered by devastating news.
Bright and shy five-year-old Nicole has disappeared at recess. Nicole’s mother, Gia, is lost in her grief. On the same day her baby girl vanished, Gia found out she was pregnant with the sister Nicole had begged for. Gia is also devastated that her best friend Karen was supervising the playground when Nicole was taken.
And when Nicole’s body is discovered, Gia can’t help but ask: why didn’t Karen protect her little girl? Someone knows what happened in school that day and Detective Jo Fournier is determined to find the truth. Jo’s little nieces also attend Briar Ridge and she would cross mountains to keep them safe. As she starts to dig into the mothers’ secrets, she begins to wonder if anyone is telling the truth.
Gia’s been hiding a part of herself for years and Jo can tell it’s eating her apart. And Karen is definitely lying—but what is more important than finding the killer of her best friend’s daughter? As Gia and Karen struggle with their guilt, a teacher at Briar Ridge dies in what looks like a tragic accident. But with two deaths in such a short time, Jo knows better than that.
In this school, where soccer moms flock to the gates with cookies for teachers, someone is willing to kill to keep a secret. The only question is who.
A completely addictive thriller that will not let you go until you turn the last heart-thumping page! Perfect for fans of Gregg Olsen, Christopher Greyson and Teresa Driscoll. Readers are utterly addicted to M. M. Chouinard!
“Loved it, loved it, loved it!!... If I could give it 6 stars I would! In this current climate of ‘twists you will never see coming’—believe me... you will never see this coming!... Best book I have read for some time —and if I am being honest, a bit gutted I have finished it! ” NetGalley Reviewer
“My head is spinning. My eBook froze as I quickly tried to turn the pages!! Could not put it down!!... Don’t want to give anything away but don’t miss this book!!! ” Goodreads Reviewer
“Wow, what a book!! I don’t think I drew a full breath for the entire time I was reading… I took it everywhere I went… I needed to read it at every opportunity!… Unbelievably twisty… I loved every word of it! ” Goodreads Reviewer
“Wow, Wow, Wow… The most exciting new author I have read for a long time… Extremely addictive and left me wanting more… A huge unexpected twist you will not see coming. I can’t emphasize enough how much enjoyment I got from reading this… Well-deserved 5 stars—Wow.” Goodreads Reviewer
“M.M. Chouinard you have done it again!!... One hell of a read from one hell of an author… I was hooked straight away… You just know that you are going to be taken on a wild ride and what a ride it is!… I was on the edge of my seat throughout this book and biting my nails… Full of action and suspense, this one will get a hold of you and will keep you in its clutches until the final thrilling act.” Once Upon A Time Book Blog
Release date: January 20, 2021
Print pages: 327
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The Other Mothers
Several of her kindergarteners already waited on the strip of grass where the class gathered. She pulled out her whistle, gave three sharp tweets, and watched the little heads spin and run toward her. She smiled as they lined up, their faces cheerful and eager-to-please as she gently guided them into formation. Such little angels, all of them, even if they had moments where they acted like little devils. Lively spirits were important, she liked to remind the trainee teachers who occasionally worked with her—you want to channel their beautiful spirits, not break them.
She moved down the line, tapping each head playfully as she went. One, two, three… fourteen, fifteen, sixteen.
Sixteen—not seventeen, as there should be. Someone was missing.
She glanced back over the playground. Empty, except for Jim Karnegi, the third-grade teacher, and Karen Phelps, today’s parent volunteer, each walking with lollygagging stragglers.
Everything was fine, she reminded herself. Someone had probably just gone to the outside bathroom without asking one of the two adults to take them.
She ran through her class roster in her head. Nicole Marchand, she realized, and a tendril of fear gripped her. Nicole was the missing child, and it wasn’t like her to go missing. She was quiet, cooperative, and never a troublemaker; she’d never go to the bathroom alone without permission.
She looked back at her students, and kept her voice light. “Does anyone know where Nicole is?”
They looked at one another and shook their heads.
She waved Karen over. “I can’t find Nicole. Do you know where she is?”
“No.” Karen’s huge blue eyes widened, and her blonde ponytail bobbed as her head whipped to scan the playground. “Are you sure she didn’t already go in?”
“She might have,” Stephanie said, but knew she hadn’t. “Can you stay with them while I go check?”
“Of course.” Karen turned to the children and started them singing ‘The Hokey Pokey’.
Stephanie waited until she was out of the view of the other children to break into a sprint. She checked her classroom, but it was empty. She checked the ‘big girl’ and ‘big boy’ bathrooms, but they were empty, too.
She bolted back out to the yard, then slowed to a walk, shaking her head as she passed to let Karen know she hadn’t found Nicole. With a practiced power walk, she surged down the midway of the playground calling Nicole’s name, hoping to find her crouched behind something, lost in her own private game.
She followed the perimeter of the yard back toward the school building, bobbing and weaving to check behind the jungle gyms and the utility sheds. They were all abandoned and secured.
Her heart thumped in her chest. She slipped around the corner and down the ten-foot-wide space where the chain-link fence ran parallel to the school building, ending at the back entrance to the cafeteria. Her fear morphed into panic as she sprinted toward the dumpster enclosure near the door.
Because the brown gate that fronted the redbrick enclosure was ajar.
She called Nicole’s name again as she yanked it fully open—and found nothing, except a few errant lettuce leaves on the pavement between the two dumpsters. She dashed to the side of the left dumpster, just to be thorough.
Nicole’s crumpled body lay sprawled in the back corner, head covered by her puffy blue jacket.
At the principal’s instruction, Karen Phelps led the kindergarteners into Ms. Roden’s classroom. As the last one filed in, she glanced up and down the corridor. Once she confirmed it was empty, she reached into her jacket pocket and slipped out her phone.
“No phones allowed in the classroom!” one of the boys shrieked, and ran toward her.
She pushed it back into her pocket and stepped inside the room.
“She’s a teacher, she’s allowed!” one of the little girls called back.
“She’s not a teacher, she’s a mom,” the boy answered scornfully.
“Well, it’s nice to follow the rules, no matter who you are,” Karen said. “I have an idea. Who wants to have an extra story time?”
Nearly all the hands shot up, as Karen hoped they would. She herded the children over to the carpeted area, snatched up a book from the shelf, and cast a frustrated glance back at the door.
Detective Josette Fournier surveyed the stacks of printouts and files dotting her home-office desk. She threw the final file onto what she hoped was the right stack, then pushed away from the cherry-wood desk and stretched her neck. She needed more coffee.
She smoothed her sweatshirt down over her pajama bottoms as she padded into the kitchen, then filled the bottom of her Bialetti Moka Express with Columbian roast. The little silver coffeemaker had been a gift from Matt Soltero, the man she was dating, after she’d become addicted to the espresso he made with his—or rather, after she’d become addicted to the process of making espresso with it. Purists would scream from the hilltops that it didn’t make true espresso, she knew that. But with the right technique, low and slow and patient, the thick brown liquid that bubbled from the spout was surrounded by a rich, frothy crema just as luxurious as any she’d ever tasted. And there was a satisfaction—more like a soothing magic—in her control over the grounds and the timing and the modulation of the heat that her ‘real’ espresso machine just didn’t deliver.
And control was something she was in desperate need of right now.
She frothed a cup of milk as she waited for the magical moment when the coffee would erupt and ran her mind over the work she’d just completed. Her therapist would probably argue that working from home wasn’t quite the two-week respite she’d strongly suggested Jo take to grieve her miscarriage and get a handle on the ‘cumulative PTSD’ it had triggered from years ago. Double the cumulative post-traumatic stress actually, because she’d miscarried after a murder suspect shot her. But even if working wasn’t the best thing for her, being home alone all day—no matter how much she loved her cozy little cottage—left her far too much time to spend in her own head. She needed something to focus her mind on instead of the endless cycling between pain and regret, futilely wondering if her baby had been a boy or a girl, blaming herself because she hadn’t been certain she wanted the baby, feeling guilty because part of her was relieved she no longer had to make an impossible choice, and fighting the consuming terror that everyone and everything she loved would die as the result of her mistakes.
So, after failed attempts to distract herself with novels and binge-watching, she’d decided the healthiest outlet was her on-going obsession with the apparent suicide of Martin Scherer, a serial killer she’d hunted eight years earlier. The process of scouring and categorizing had allowed her to shift from something she couldn’t control to something she could, and now nearly five hundred Golden Gate Bridge suicides were organized in a spreadsheet according to fifty variables, entered meticulously over her two weeks’ leave. Nobody at the Oakhurst County State Police Detective Unit, not even her partner Bob Arnett, understood why Martin’s death had sunk its claws so deeply into her. But what it came down to, at least for now, was her need for a sense of agency and the possibility of attaining closure, and this was a proactive way to work toward both.
She poured the milk into a mug, then rotated her wounded arm, ignoring the pain as she attempted to stave off stiffness. When the maker sputtered the final drops of espresso into the upper compartment, she flipped the lid closed, poured the contents into her mug, and topped it off with her steamed milk. She sipped, and closed her eyes to savor the warm, milky coffee. Rich, with not a hint of bitterness, and it made her feel human again. The purists could go to hell.
Anticipation pricked at her as she settled back in front of her laptop, now fully prepared to while away her last day off work in a blur of hierarchical variable searches. But as her fingers hit the keyboard, her phone rang. Tempted to ignore it, she took a quick glance at the screen just in case it was important, then answered it.
“Bob. Is everything okay?” After pushing her to take the leave, he’d never disturb her unless there was an important reason.
“Yep, I’m fine. But I just got called out to a homicide, and since you’re coming back tomorrow, I thought you’d prefer to see the scene in real time rather than piece it together after the fact.”
“I’m guessing this isn’t some run-of-the-mill drive-by if you think I need to see it?” Jo cast a longing glance at her spreadsheet.
“No. I’ll be honest with you—I tried to get Martinez to assign it to anybody else, but since I couldn’t tell him why, he refused.”
Her shoulders tightened. Their temporary lieutenant thought her leave was only because she’d been shot in the line of duty; nobody in the unit knew about her miscarriage. “What do you mean?”
“I’m torn about having you work it. The victim’s a little girl. Very little.”
A blinding pain flashed through Jo, and the vision she’d been seeing in her nightmares, of a young girl who called her mommy, appeared before her squeezed-shut eyes. She gripped the desk with her free hand, surprised by the intensity of the anguish that took her over. She forced herself to shift into slow, deep breaths.
This wasn’t acceptable, she told herself. Of course she didn’t expect to work everything out in two weeks, but she’d expected to have it under a functional amount of control. She’d taken time away to heal, and spent an hour nearly every day with her therapist talking it all through. The nightmares had finally stopped, and she was feeling almost normal again. Happy, even, excited about picking up a trail on a long-past case. But everyone had pain, everyone had bad things happen to them, and everyone had to find a way to deal with it all. The time for self-indulgence was over, and she couldn’t let a case destroy her progress—this was her job, and she had to pull it together and do what needed to be done.
She took a deep breath, then pushed the anguish down and slammed her protective walls back up. A quiet numbness replaced the burning pain.
“How soon can you pick me up?” she asked.
Ten minutes later, Jo climbed into the undercover black Chevy Malibu and buckled in as Bob Arnett pulled out from the curb.
“You look like hell,” he said. “Maybe I shouldn’t have bothered you after all.”
She glanced down briefly at her gray utility jacket, academy sweatshirt, jeans, and trainers, admittedly a far cry from the blazer and slacks she normally wore when working, then shot him a skeptical up-and-down look. His salt-and-pepper hair was scruffy, and his brown eyes peeped out from dark circles. “I’m gonna go ahead and ignore that coming from the man with the Louis Vuittons under his eyes and the marinara on his shirt.”
He rested a hand on his small paunch. “Yeah, but that’s my resting state. This isn’t normal for you. In twenty years I’ve never seen your hair doing whatever you call that.” He pointed at her head.
“Hey, if you surprise me on my day off, this is what you get.” She laughed, but one hand shot up to smooth the messy bun of chestnut hair as the other pulled down her visor. She did look more tired than she should, her green eyes puffy and slightly red. But what else could you expect from someone who’d spent the last two weeks processing grief counseling and staying up till all hours compiling spreadsheets? “Don’t worry, Bob, I’m fine. I promise.”
He nodded, and swung on to the pike. “Good, because there’s something I didn’t mention on the phone.”
She narrowed her eyes at him.
He avoided looking at her. “The reason I wasn’t completely heartbroken when Martinez wouldn’t let me hand this off is, the scene’s in Harristown. At Briar Ridge Elementary.”
Jo winced her eyes shut. Her sister Sophie lived in Harristown, and her two nieces went to Briar Ridge. “How old did you say Nicole was?”
“Five. She was a kindergartener.”
Jo stared out at the forest lining the pike. Her niece Emily was in the first grade, while Isabelle was in the third. But even if Nicole wasn’t in either of their classes, Sophie was sure to be freaked out by it all. “You did the right thing. She’ll be calling me in hysterics either way.”
“Yeah, that’s what Laura said. She sends her love, by the way.”
Jo smiled. “How is she?”
“Good. She decided to take a drawing class at Oakhurst Community College this summer. We’ll see how long that lasts.”
“Now, now. You’re being supportive, remember?” Jo waved a finger at him and laughed. Laura, his wife, had struggled with becoming an empty nester, particularly in light of the long hours Bob worked. She’d had an affair and they’d almost divorced over it, until he’d agreed to give her more time and attention. That had translated into a string of new hobbies she wanted to try out, usually with Bob. “At least she doesn’t want you to do this one with her.”
“Truth. Even she can’t deny my art skills begin and end with stick figures.” Arnett pulled off the pike.
Jo caught sight of Briar Ridge Elementary in the distance. Harristown was the sort of quaint, quintessential New England town you found in movies, filled with redbrick and white clapboard, steepled churches and town halls, and abundant colonial architecture. Right in line with it all, Briar Ridge Elementary was a modern take on a classic schoolhouse, and in actual fact had started out that way. The original structure, built in the early 1700s, formed the center of the school, with newer redbrick wings extending out and around on either side, built up through the years as needs changed. One of two elementary schools in the small town, Briar Ridge was private, and part of the considerable tuition parents paid went to keep the original schoolhouse in pristine condition. It was quite a point of pride for Sophie, for whom those sorts of things mattered.
Arnett pulled into the U-shaped drop-off driveway that cut through the school’s front yard and parked behind a squad car. Jo stepped out and pulled her jacket closer against the cold; despite a few warm days the week before, spring was refusing to give way to the promise of summer any faster than it had to. The tall, uniformed responding officer crossed over and introduced himself.
“Your team’s already processing the scene.” He pointed to the right side of the building. “Through there, then back where the dumpsters are. My partner’s inside with the administrators.”
He escorted them through the main entrance, out through the courtyard and playground, and around to a strip of tarmac that extended along the side of the building. The far end of the space was cordoned off with police tape, where two medicolegals in full kit worked the scene. Jo recognized Janet Marzillo, who oversaw the Oakhurst County SPDU’s lab, and Hakeem Peterson, a relatively new hire, under all the personal protective equipment.
“Marzillo. Peterson.” Arnett waved to them from across the tape. “We’re suiting up.”
Hakeem gave a two-finger air salute that he made sure didn’t touch his face, then returned to work while Marzillo came over to talk with them. “Jo. I thought you weren’t back until tomorrow?”
Jo slipped into coveralls. “My nieces go to school here, so Bob thought I’d want to be in it from the start.”
“Gotcha,” Marzillo said, carefully holding her hands away from her sides as Jo and Arnett finished slipping into their gear. Once they were done, she turned and led them to the girl. “There, to the left of the two dumpsters. Stephanie Roden, the teacher that found her after she went missing during recess, tried to resuscitate her.” She gestured to a sky-blue puffer jacket. “She says that was over Nicole’s head when she found her, but she had to move it.”
Jo squatted down next to the little girl. Dressed in a sweet pink daisy-print dress with matching yellow tights, she looked like a doll that had been put through the washing machine, then tossed on the floor to dry. Her mop of midnight-brown curls were squashed and askew, and her eyes were closed; her mouth hung open in a small O-shape, and her skin was tinted a faint blueish-purple. The overall effect gave her an air of mild concentration, like she was trying to figure out the answer to a difficult puzzle.
Jo fought back a desperate wave of anger and helplessness as she stared into the tiny face, a precious life snuffed out before it began. Horrors like these, committed against the defenseless, were the ones that ripped at her soul. She forced herself through a series of deep breaths, and shoved the emotion down.
Shifting her weight to one heel, she surveyed the area from her current vantage point. Zero visibility from the playground, even with the enclosure open, unless you came around the side of the building. Same from the cafeteria door—someone could be standing there, looking out, and see nothing.
Jo turned back and pointed to several nasty red spots that marred the porcelain-skinned cheeks and throat. “I’m guessing she was suffocated?”
“The ME will have to make the final determination, but that’s what it looks like to me.” Marzillo’s career as a medicolegal began in a medical examiner’s office, and her opinions rarely turned out to be wrong—that was part of why she’d advanced to overseeing the lab. She pointed to a spray of tiny red dots. “Petechiae in both eyes, and here on both ears. Those marks on the neck have a strange shape and spacing, not what I’d predict from normal fingermarks, so my guess is the killer held her down and strangled her through the jacket, which would have distorted the contact to some degree.”
Jo glanced up at Marzillo. “Can we test for touch DNA, then?”
“You read my mind. But don’t get your hopes up too high, because on a day like this, it’s very possible our killer wore gloves.”
“And if they held her down, it wasn’t just some sort of accident, or rough-housing with some other kids?”
Marzillo tilted her head. “No way. Someone knew what they were doing.”
Arnett leaned over them. “Any other injuries?”
“We can’t do a complete examination out here, but from a quick initial look, I don’t have any reason to think she was sexually assaulted in any way.”
“That’s a blessing, at least,” Jo said, fighting nausea.
Marzillo nodded. “There is some bruising on her chest, but that could have come from the resuscitation attempt.”
“CPR’s hard when they’re that small,” Arnett said.
“Have you had a chance to check the area?” Jo asked.
Marzillo straightened back up. “We’ve checked everything inside the dumpster enclosure, and around the perimeter. We did a quick look into the dumpsters themselves and didn’t see anything unusual, but we’ll have to go through the contents.”
Jo scrunched up her face sympathetically. “So nothing to tell us how she might have ended up in here?”
Marzillo removed her gloves and tossed them in the biohazard container, put on a new pair, then carefully rolled Nicole onto her side. “Nothing conclusive, but my guess is she was alive when the killer brought her in here. You can see here, the asphalt scraped her dress, she has asphalt particles in her hair, and there are hairs and fibers from her dress on the ground. The teacher would have had to be pretty aggressive to cause all of that during CPR. It’s possible she was killed on another similar surface, then dumped here, but—”
“But someone would have had to risk being seen walking with a dead child,” Arnett said.
“Right. And Nicole was alive when recess began, twenty minutes before she was found dead, so nobody killed her earlier and dumped her.”
“No,” Jo agreed, standing up. “Nobody snatched her, killed her, then brought her back here all in twenty minutes. This is most likely our kill site.”
Marzillo gestured toward the enclosure. “Whoever brought her here had to open the dumpster gate. We dusted for prints, and there’s no shortage of them. We’ll collect samples from all the cafeteria workers and the janitorial staff and start identifying people. But again, my guess is the killer wore gloves.”
“So how did they get her back here?” Arnett said, staring out toward the playground.
Jo grimaced and pointed to the fence. “Maybe they stood by the end of the building and called over to her? Possibly the perp came through that gate?” She gestured to the fence near the cafeteria.
Arnett strode over and tried to lift the latch. “Locked.” He gazed up at the eight-foot fence. “But you could climb this without too much skill.”
“Wouldn’t you hear it if someone climbed over a fence like that?” Jo asked.
Arnett looked skeptical. “Depends on where you were in the yard, and what you were doing. If some kid just fell and hurt themselves at the far end, you probably wouldn’t even notice.”
“So our killer waits for a distraction, snatches a kid, then brings her back here to suffocate her? That seems like a long wait for a tiny possibility,” Jo said.
“Oh, one more thing.” Marzillo pointed to an evidence bag. “We found that near the wall of the enclosure, a few inches away from Nicole.”
Jo picked up the bag. A three-inch toy lay at the bottom, a figure of a pig dressed like a human, standing upright with one arm outstretched. “Do we know if this belonged to Nicole?”
“It’s possible she had it with her when she was killed. Or someone may have just tried to throw it away, and missed the dumpster.”
While Jo pulled out her phone to snap a picture of the toy, Arnett squatted down and peered under the dumpsters. “Nothing else lying around?”
“Nope, just Nicole, her jacket, a couple of lettuce leaves, and the toy.” Marzillo shook her head.
“Do you know if the parents have been notified?” Jo asked, trying to push down the memory of her own reaction when she learned her baby was gone.
A matching cloud passed over Marzillo’s face. “We sent an officer out as soon as we officially confirmed Nicole’s identity. The parents should know by now.”
“Then we’ll go talk to the principal while you finish up.” She put her hands on her hips, looked around again, and shook her head. “I’m getting two contradictory sets of cues from all this—some that point to a stranger, and some that make a stranger nearly impossible. I need some answers to make sense of them.”
By the time Jo and Arnett pulled off their gloves, Marzillo was already refocused on the scene.
“Are you the detectives?”
The female voice behind them was strong, so much so that when Jo turned, she was surprised to find a slight five-foot-three woman in front of her. The woman’s blue power suit matched her voice, as did her straight posture and grim expression.
“We are. I’m Detective Josette Fournier, and this is Detective Bob Arnett.” Jo stripped the rest of her protective gear into the biohazard container before extending her arm.
The woman grasped it with one firm pump, then turned to shake Arnett’s. “I’m Principal Eileen Pham. I’m sorry to interrupt, but I need to speak with you urgently. Our kindergarten parents will be here to pick up their children at one fifteen.”
Jo checked the time. Eleven forty-five, so just over an hour before the class let out. But if the other mothers were anything like Sophie, they’d be here at least fifteen minutes ahead of that, carrying freshly baked cookies for the teachers. “Just the kindergarteners? You’re not shutting down the whole school? Isn’t that standard protocol?”
Pham shifted. “In situations like this, we go into a lockdown. We close the blinds so the students can’t see what’s happening, but keep them in their classrooms while we assess the situation; it’s less traumatic to allow them to continue their normal day as much as possible. I’ve been waiting on your determination to decide if I need to contact the parents before the normal end of the school day. The kindergarteners get out earlier than the othe. . .
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