In only a few months, the small town of Hagen has lost two high school seniors, both under strange circumstances. When a third senior, the mayor’s son, drives through the plate glass window of the town’s diner and ends up in a coma, the deaths no longer seem unrelated accidents. The town is paralyzed with fear. The police can find no good explanation. Other students deny any knowledge of what’s happening, but Detective Kylie Milliard is certain at least some are lying.
Hagen’s sole investigator, Kylie Milliard fears that something sinister is at play, but she can’t convince the town’s powers that be to take her concerns seriously. Mounting discord between herself and Hagen’s sheriff have her thinking that it may be time to leave Hagen for a bigger city and a new job, but she’s not going anywhere until she determines the connection between the self-destructive act of the mayor’s son and the two untimely deaths.
Whoever is behind the dangerous stunts doesn’t want to be discovered. To keep their secret, they’re willing to take out anyone who gets too close. With time running out before the next stunt, Kylie is in a race to solve the puzzle. She is all too clear that, until she does, no one—not the students, nor the town—is safe from danger.
Release date: May 23, 2023
Publisher: Saddle Peak Entertainment
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Tash Kohl was not worried about drowning. During swim season, Coach had
them work drills to improve lung capacity and at his peak, Tash could beat three
minutes. Even chained to a cement block, two minutes was child’s play.
The sun hung high in the cloudless sky, a perfect day for swimming. Getting out
of the truck in his team parka and flip-flops, he exhaled, his breath fogging the air as he
looked out over the pond. There was one major difference between swimming inside
and out here—pool water was close to eighty degrees, while pond water in early
November was maybe sixty. But he didn’t have a choice. Not unless he wanted the truth
to come out. For a month, he’d been avoiding complying with the demand. Now, he
wished he’d just gotten it over with then, when the water was five or six degrees
warmer. Seeing frost on his front porch this morning made him want nothing more than
The whole thing was bullshit. Why the fuck should he answer to someone who
insisted on being called Wolf? What the fuck did that make him? A fucking lamb offered
up for slaughter?
Moments after his anger flamed to life, its fire was smothered by the memory of
the night two months ago, the body as he’d first seen it. When he’d woken, the heat of
summer remained baked into the earth overnight, the ground warm beneath him.
Tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. Skull aching like it’d been split by an ax. His
stomach churned with the remnants of the night’s activities. Lying on the scrubby grass,
he’d told himself it was enough. He was done with it. To get off the ground, he’d had to
roll over and push up onto his knees. The hard packed earth left an ache in his bones.
But then Tash was up and moving, his blood warming.
It was over. He’d survived.
He went to find the others. Nearby, Connor had groaned and rolled over.
Confused, he’d blinked the sleep out of his eyes. Man, they were in bad shape. That’s
what he’d thought at first. Hung over, hurting. In the distance, he’d seen a patch of
white, a bump in the leaves. Someone lying under a tree, curled into a ball. He’d run
over, ready to shout that it was over. Then he saw her face.
His first thought was that her skin looked so wrong against the green grass. Eyes
closed, one swollen shut; left cheek bloodied and purple. What the hell had happened?
But it wasn’t the injury, which looked like a punch to the face. It was the color of the rest
of her—not just the face but the hands, curled in under the chin. Not pink and healthy,
but lifeless and gray.
Her skin was the same gray as Old Mr. Thompson, who owned the auto shop on
the west side of town. Kids called him Tin Man because his skin was the color of
cement, of the dark steel of a carburetor. Colloidal suspension of silver, once touted as
a health tonic, was the actual cause of the gray skin, his mother, the high school
science teacher, had explained after that trip to have their truck fixed. His truck now.
That's all he could think about, as he stared at the unnatural hue of her skin, that he
needed to get his truck and get the hell out of here.
Tash studied the body, waiting for movement, for the joke. It had to be a joke. A
brush of movement beside him, and Connor was there, staring down at the body, his
face in shock. Then, he screamed. Lunged to the body and took hold of the shoulders.
Shaking her, he shouted, “Wake up. Wake up, damn it.”
Her head swung back and forth on the neck like a tetherball on its rope. Tash
imagined the skull popping off and rolling away through the damp leaves.
“Come on,” Connor shouted, dropping the body, which slumped back to the
As she lay unmoving, Tash’s gaze caught the unnatural twist of the neck. The
awkward angle of the chin. Connor was talking, but his words were lost as Tash turned
and vomited onto the soft earth, a rush of liquid, the burn in his throat, then the stench
of bile and alcohol.
Connor was still talking, but all Tash heard was, “Dead.”
They should have called the police. He had wanted to, but Connor said no way.
The police would blame them. They would have questions Tash and Connor couldn’t
That should have been the end of all this. What had started as something to
stave off the boredom of Hagen had gone off the rails. Tash had wanted out. Connor
had wanted out. Less than a mile from where he stood now, that park used to be a
favorite hangout spot. He hadn’t gone back to that park since that morning. He didn’t
think he’d ever go back.
The Wolf had said no way he’d let them out of it. Not until they paid for that night.
For their mistake.
And how could they say no?
So here he was, standing at the edge of the pond. Two minutes down there and
it would be over. Bouncing on the balls of his feet, he prepared himself for the cold.
“You better not wuss out,” came the grating voice. That was all he heard
now—the commands, the fucking power play. They’d been friends once. Good
friends—he and Connor and Wolf. Friends since elementary school. People were
surprised Tash hung out with them. With a mother from the Lokota tribe, he should have
hung out with the Native kids. Why would he hang out with the Wasicu? Those snobs?
But to him, they weren’t snobs. He’d seen them spray milk through their noses, kick a
kid for pulling a robin’s nest out of a tree near the school, straight out lie to protect him
when the lie had landed them in trouble at home and at school. The Native kids liked to
remind him that he wasn’t true Lakota anyway. Nor was he full white.
He’d never been bothered by being different. He’d felt one of them, despite his
ancestry. At least before that night. After that, their friendship had changed. Connor and
Tash had been there, but neither remembered how it happened. Had Connor killed her?
Had he? It seemed impossible. Still, the death was on their hands. After that night, Wolf
became relentless. Cruel. Hateful.
And Tash had started to hate right back. Maybe it wasn’t fair; it had only been
Connor and Tash that night. God, he wished they’d all three been there. Maybe then no
one would have died. Or at least there would have been a third person to share the
A gust of wind cut through his jacket, and he bounced on his toes to warm
himself. Get it over with. He let the swim coat drop off his shoulders, and before he
could think more about it, he drew a full breath and dove into the pond. The water stole
his breath as his skin contracted against the cold, pulling into itself like soldiers
tightening in formation.
He surfaced and cussed, shaking the water from his hair.
Connor was zipping up his dry suit while Wolf leaned against the hood of his
truck in a hat and puffer coat, arms crossed like it was someone else’s fault they were
here. Like this wasn’t all designed by Wolf.
Before some snarky comment could be launched Tash’s way, he turned and
swam toward the far side of the pond. Warming his body. He didn’t want to be winded
when he went underwater, but he also didn’t want to be freezing, so he took long
freestyle strokes until the chill burned from his muscles and he felt looser.
As Tash swam back toward the parking lot, Connor waded slowly into the water
until he was waist deep. Even in his dry suit, Connor looked miserable, tank on his
back, BCD hanging over one shoulder.
“Okay. You ready?” Connor asked.
“Any time, Kohl,” the voice called back like Tash was holding everyone up.
“Ready,” Tash said.
“Don’t forget to keep the camera rolling.”
Tash met Connor’s eyes and saw his hate, too. For knowing what had happened,
for not being there to prevent it, for not sharing in their guilt. Tash looked away, unable
these days to look at Connor where he saw the mirror of everything that swirled inside
his own chest. Fear, dread, horror at what he’d done and what it made him.
Treading water now, Tash found his rhythm, remembering why he loved to swim.
The water was the place that drowned out all the noise. It was where he came after his
dad died, after nights when he’d laid awake and listened to the ebb and flow of his
mother’s sobs. And after that night when they’d found the body. Those first weeks, he’d
spent as much time as he could in the water, fighting against images of what might have
happened when he was too drunk to remember. If he’d contributed to the death. If it was
actually murder rather than … what? Alcohol poisoning? He and Connor had decided it
had to be that. That the face injury had happened in a fall. Or running into a tree.
They weren’t killers … were they?
In those early days after, he often lifted his head at the end of a lap with the fear
that the police would be there, surrounding the pool, their weapons aimed at him. It
could still happen, but the fear no longer took up so much space inside him that he
couldn’t fill his lungs.
He pushed those thoughts away and drew long, slow breaths. Connor had
submerged and was making his way to the bottom. The clock would start as soon as
Tash went under. Connor would attach the surf leash to his ankle. The leash was
attached to a chain and the chain to a concrete block on the bottom.
It was only two minutes.
Four minutes from now, he’d be climbing out of the water and going home. He’d
He drew a last, long breath and told himself that he wasn’t doing any more of
this. He was fucking done.
He sucked a tiny breath to top off his lungs and dove toward the bottom of the
pond where Connor waited with the cement block and chain.
Five Months Later
Chapter 2 Kylie
The smell of decomposition would remain in her nose for days—rotting fish and
garlic and the sour stench of spoiled cabbage, combined with feces and eggs. Showers
and soap, perfumes and laundry detergent would help, but the smell couldn’t be washed
away or masked. Detective Kylie Milliard had learned this lesson early in her
career—not after the first death, perhaps, but by the third.
Death permeated the skin and penetrated the cells, injecting its rancid DNA into
the fabric of its observers. Not just into their clothes but into their bodies, making them
vessels for the putrid stench until, some days later, enough cells regenerated that the
smell of death finally dissipated. Like being sprayed by a skunk without the spray.
All you had to do was show up when death was thick in the air, and it had been
The rain had made it worse, bringing the death through her clothes and into her
bones. As she entered Hagen Diner, water ran off her in rivulets. She slid out of her
coat and hung the dripping garment on the rack by the door. A tiny space that housed
five four-top tables and an L-shaped bar for another dozen, the diner was almost always
packed. After four years in Hagen, Kylie rarely saw a strange face among them. Folks
looked up now and eyed her with the same mixture of curiosity and disdain that she’d
felt as an outsider from day one. At least now there were a few smiles in the bunch—but
only a few. From across the room, her friend Amber pointed to an empty barstool and
Kylie squeezed between two tables to take the seat at the counter next to Amber’s son.
Currently hard at work on a drawing, five-year-old William studied his art with his
little brow furrowed. As Amber was a single mom, William spent a lot of hours outside of
preschool at the diner, a fact that Amber hated and William seemed to enjoy immensely.
Kylie cracked her knuckles and rolled her neck, trying to let loose the tension that had
built up from the hours standing in the cold rain. But the tension had other sources too,
the primary one being the detective job with the Fargo PD—her dream job.
The detective role in tiny Hagen was always meant to be a steppingstone. Her
first year in Hagen, she’d emailed Lieutenant Marks in Fargo every three months,
checking in to see if he had an opening for her. Every three months became every six.
The last time she’d emailed to see about a job was almost a year ago. Then, Tuesday
evening, home from work, she’d logged into her personal email and there it was. The
words looped in her brain. We have a detective position available. You’ve got a good
shot at it if you want to apply.
If you want to apply … of course she did. Didn’t she?
Smells of meatloaf and coffee swirled in the air, but the whiff of death was there
too, mixed with her own uncertainty to ruin the generous slice of untouched banana-
cream pie that Amber had set on the counter for her. And it was a very generous
piece—Amber always served a big piece of pie, but Kylie’s were bigger than normal. As
big as the pieces were, rare were the times when Kylie couldn’t put every bite away.
Looking down at the Nilla wafer crust, all Kylie could picture was the dead
woman, green and bloated and lying on the tattered mattress of the camper. She lifted
her fork, then lowered it to the side of her plate with a sigh of disappointment in herself.
If you’re going to work with death, you’ve got to have a strong stomach. Some asshat
teacher had said that while she was in the police academy, someone who probably
hadn’t worked outside an academy classroom in a few decades.
She’d like to send him a slice of that smell, see how banana-cream pie looked to
him after that.
She pushed the plate away and sipped her coffee. Amber would box it for her,
and it would almost certainly be gone before breakfast.
Her best friend made her way along the counter, her bright yellow blouse and
jean skirt way too cheery for the day Kylie’d had. She chatted with customers as she
filled their coffee mugs, each hand holding a pot of coffee—right caffeinated, left decaf.
For Amber, the pots were appendages, and she held them aloft as effortlessly as if they
were her own hands. Kylie struggled to imagine her life if she moved to Fargo—going to
a diner full of strangers. Not seeing Amber or William.
As wet as she was, Kylie should have gone straight home and gotten in a hot
shower, but the chance to catch up with her friend and see William had been too
tempting to pass up. Truth was, she’d needed a distraction from the scene at the trailer
and the email from Fargo that was like a record that skipped back to the same line until
your favorite song became the most frustrating sound in the world. Almost a week had
passed, and she still hadn’t responded. Didn’t know what to say. Of course you want the
job—a promotion, a bigger city, her city. But then there was that other voice.
Do you really want to leave Hagen?
Amber paused in front of Kylie and eyed the plate. Untouched pie was rare for
Kylie. “You feeling okay?”
Kylie shook her head, a bead of rainwater dripping down the button-down,
already plastered to her in patches, to run between her breasts like an unfortunate
worm. She shuddered and pressed the shirt against her skin. “Long day.”
Amber nodded. “Gotcha.”
Kylie’s work was not something they often discussed—Amber was not a fan of
even the tamest crime shows—and they never mentioned the uglier aspects of her job
with William in earshot. Kylie had spent the afternoon in Hagen’s trailer park, an area
known as The Field, fifteen acres in the southeastern corner of Hagen that had been
converted into housing during the town’s last oil boom. In the subsequent bust, The
Field’s corporate owners had walked away, and the trailers had been taken over by
Hagen’s poorest residents.
Around 2:00 p.m., one of the residents, an older man with a preference for
alcohol and cigarettes over food and water, called, complaining about fighting from a
neighboring trailer. And a smell. Kylie had gone to the scene with one of Hagen’s newer
deputies, Mika Keckler, and discovered the body of a forty-eight-year-old drug addict in
bed. Though the noise had come from her trailer, she was not the one fighting. The
racket was caused by two raccoons who had broken into the trailer and were bickering
over the prodigious collection of rotting trash.
Kylie had called Animal Control to deal with the raccoons, then waited in the rain
while Hagen’s coroner gave his initial impressions on cause of death. Based on the
woman’s appearance and evidence in the trailer, the coroner believed she’d likely died
of a cardiac event—overdose or just her heart failing after a lifetime of abuse. But the
remains were too degraded to be certain, which meant the body went to the state
medical examiner in Bismarck as did every death with an unknown cause.
Scenes like today were rare for Hagen. Most often, Kylie’s job was investigating
graffiti and the occasional breaking and entering. Usually kids. Mika Keckler, a young
deputy recently assigned to the department, had almost retched when he saw it. Today
was the young deputy’s first dead body since starting the job, and Keckler had handled
it surprisingly well. A quiet man who had grown up on a Lakota reservation about thirty
miles from Hagen, Keckler was thoughtful and a fast learner, a strong addition to the
sheriff’s office and a nice balance to some of the bigger personalities. She was grateful
for him today.
Amber dropped a box and Kylie slid the pie into it and left cash on the counter.
“Hey, William, I’m going to head home.”
William looked up, wide eyes blinking as though just realizing that Kylie had been
seated beside him for the past ten minutes. She’d never imagined children in her own
life, a fact about which her mother regularly complained, but Kylie knew, even if her
mother didn’t, that as a single woman, perpetually alone in a dangerous job, she was
the last person who ought to think about becoming a mother.
Hell, she hadn’t even realized she was going to be moving in with a child when
she agreed to lease the room in Amber’s house four years earlier. An obvious oversight
for a detective, considering William’s toys had been strewn across the floor of the living
room and, well, all the rooms. But she’d fallen hard for William. After a year and a half in
Amber’s house, it had been time to get her own place. Recently renovated and within
her budget, the house she rented now was perfect for her, if occasionally a little too
Amber set down the coffee pots and leaned on the counter, nudging William with
her shoulder. “Did you tell Aunt Kylie about school?”
William sat up straighter and set his crayon down, collecting himself for a serious
announcement. “I’m going to start school in five months,” he announced.
“That’s so exciting.” Kylie glanced at Amber who shrugged, her gaze fastened on
her child. Amber had been struggling with whether or not to wait one more year to enroll
William in kindergarten. But he was ready.
Through the diner’s front window, the setting sun emerged from a break in the
thick blanket of clouds, reflecting off the windshield of a car parked across the street
and almost blinding her. Would have been nice to have that sunshine a couple of hours
“Is five months a long time?” William asked.
“Kind of,” Kylie admitted, the record player in her head reminding her that she
might be living in Fargo by then.
“Dinner sometime soon?” Amber asked. “I’m off Sunday/Monday.”
“I’d love that.” Kylie turned to William. “Can I come to your house for dinner?”
William nodded and Amber walked off with her coffee pots, setting them down to
take an order at the far end of the counter.
Kylie kissed William’s head, something he still endured without fuss. School
would change that, she thought, and she felt a pang of nostalgia for when she’d lived
with Amber and William, for the nights he’d requested that she tuck him, for the smell of
his fresh-washed hair and baby skin. Then, as though to counterbalance whatever weird
hormonal thing might be happening in her ovaries, she remembered the smell of vomit
when he’d eaten too much mac ’n cheese one night when Amber was out, and Kylie
had to swallow her instant gag reflex.
At the diner door, she pulled on her wet coat and stared out into the evening.
Clouds split in a long V-shape like a jacket being unzipped, and dusk darkened the sky
to a steely blue. The idea of being wet and cold in the dark shot an involuntary shiver
down Kylie’s neck. Only the lure of a hot shower and a cold beer kept her moving.
As she reached to push open the door, motion caught her eye three blocks north.
A car had crossed the yellow line and was driving in the wrong lane. Dark colored with
the sleek design of a luxury automobile, the car was coming fast. Kylie waited several
beats for the car to change direction or slow down, but it stayed its course. Electricity
ran across Kylie’s shoulders and sparked in her hands.
Something was wrong.
She pictured the path of the car. The speed.
Brake. Hit the brakes. Instead, the car seemed to accelerate.
Kylie scanned the diner, calculating the danger. Three tables bordered the
diner’s glass storefront, two occupied and one empty. An older couple sat at the farthest
table, a cane leaning against the bench seat. The counter was almost full. William, his
head still bent, worked on his picture; two farmers sat at the corner. Beyond them lay
the far exit that emptied into the alley.
She glanced back as the car blew through the stop sign. Two blocks out.
Kylie spun back and crossed to the counter in two long strides, yanked William
off his stool. “Everyone!” she shouted. “Get away from the window.” She set William on
his feet on the counter. “Go to your mom. Hurry!”
She waved the tables to clear, all eyes turned to her. “Now. Now!” People
jumped up from the tables, shouting. A girl screamed in her mother’s arms. “Lionald. I
Amber emerged from the kitchen, a plate in each hand. Her eyes widened at the
chaos and immediately she scanned for William. Finding him already making his way
across the counter, she dropped the plates and ran to scoop him into her arms.
“Everyone out the rear door!” Kylie shouted. “Hurry.”
A block away, the car still sped toward them, going maybe forty. The older couple
shuffled from their table, the man struggling to hurry his wife along with her cane. Kylie
shoved a table out of their path, yanked aside another.
Tables and chairs squealed across the linoleum floor as patrons spilled toward
the far exit in a swarm of shouts and cries. Ready to run herself, Kylie spotted a
teenager standing a few feet from the window, unmoving. Another stupid kid on their
phone. All for an Instagram post.
“Hey, get out of here!” Kylie screamed.
Kylie clawed a chair out of her path. “Hey!”
The teenager didn’t respond.
Lunging over an overturned table, Kylie yanked the girl away from the glass.
“Move!” Kylie shouted as the car jumped the curb outside.
The roaring of the engine vibrated through the window, the hum of it chattering
her teeth. A last glance at the speeding car, she spotted the driver’s face. Young.
Stumbling, Kylie lifted an arm to protect her face as the glass exploded.
The car rocketed into the diner in a thunderous boom. Glass fragments exploded
in every direction and rained down. In the span of a blink, the car streaked across the
linoleum, a blur of headlights and black metal, then crashed into the counter. The wood
buckled inward, linoleum spraying in chunks from the surface as the car’s rear wheels
popped off the ground, tossing a chair into the air. The car’s front grill crushed the seat
William had occupied moments earlier.
Before Kylie could get out of the way, the chair dropped and ricocheted off a
table to strike her in the chest. The impact threw her backward as the car’s rear tires
landed in a crunch of metal and glass. Kylie struck a table and rolled over it, onto the
Her skull struck the hard linoleum floor with a deafening thwack, the air forced
from her lungs, and everything went dark.
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