From the bestselling author of the Annabelle Schwartzman series comes a chilling story of a woman with a forgotten past and a town with dark secrets.
After surviving a car accident on an icy road in Hagen, North Dakota, Lily Baker regains consciousness with no idea where or who she is. Scattered Bible verses and the image of a man lying in a pool of blood haunt her memory.
The same night of the accident, a young woman is murdered and tossed in a dumpster. Kylie Milliard, Hagen’s only detective, doesn’t immediately recognize the victim, but Kylie soon discovers that Lily and the dead woman share a dark past…if only Lily could remember what it was.
Lily and Kylie both want answers. But Kylie has to play by the book. Lily has to play it safe. And the more Lily learns about her identity, the more she fears the truth.
Release date: August 1, 2020
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
Print pages: 361
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Cold sliced her skin like a thousand tiny blades, and pain beat its thunderous drum in her right temple. Her feet were damp, her toes frigid. She opened her eyes to pitch black and had the sensation that her body, pain and cold and the distant heartbeat, hovered in midair. Something slid down her neck with the thick, heavy texture of turkey gravy rewarmed the day after Thanksgiving.
In the darkness, her memory conjured a pool of scarlet blood, thickening on the floor. In the blood lay a man with a pale, round face and a patchy beard. The air smelled of yeast, vinegar, and pennies.
She recalled an older girl who had held her protectively. “It’s over,” she’d whispered through tears.
She blinked, a red light behind her eyelids, and searched for more memories—of the girl and the dead man—but none came. Who were they? Where were they?
And more importantly, where was she?
As her fingers explored the dark, fabric rustled. Not the familiar cotton of bedsheets but the whispered hush of a windbreaker or a parachute, as though she were buried in it. She pushed the fabric aside and touched her face, palpating until she reached the epicenter of the pain above her right ear. There was no bump. A bruise, maybe. She reached out and touched a hard, cold wall. Too close.
Adrenaline flooded her limbs. She was in some sort of box. Trapped.
As she shifted, a hideous noise erupted beneath her, the wailing of some massive cat. But the sound was too loud and mechanical to be an animal.
Panic reared her upright, but she rose only inches before something halted her. She blinked furiously, willing her eyes to adjust. A moment later, the piercing stutter of metal on metal filled the space.
She touched the bar against her chest, fingered the hard fabric edge across her shoulder. Not a bar—a seat belt. As realization struck, she clasped the fabric. It was not a parachute but an airbag. She was in a car. She felt a moment of pure relief. She was the passenger in a car. She thought of the pale man in the pool of blood. Was that man the driver?
After a moment of fumbling around on the ceiling, her fingers found the reading light. She blinked against its brightness and studied the driver. Eyes closed, hands limp in his lap, chin dropped to his chest. He wore a heavy down coat, and on his right wrist was a bulky gold watch, like for scuba diving. He was attractive but not at all familiar. And he wasn’t moving.
She closed her eyes. Mine eyes are ever toward the Lord; for he shall pluck my feet out of the net. Turn thee unto me, and have mercy upon me; for I am desolate and afflicted. Psalm 25. The words felt natural in her mind, offering a brief calm.
Reaching for the sleeve of his coat, she followed the arm to a hand and broad fingers. She gripped his wrist. Palmaris longus. Flexor carpi radialis. Then the radial artery, where she felt the steady thump thump of his pulse.
“You’re alive.” Her own voice was unfamiliar, loud in the tight car.
He did not respond.
She shook his arm. “Wake up.”
Nothing. She squinted through the windshield but saw only blackness. Inside, everything was foreign to her. The seats were leather, the dash inlaid with wood. Expensive. A man’s billfold sat in the console between them. She palmed the pebbled texture and fingered the LV embossed across the brown leather. Louis Vuitton.
She opened it and read the driver’s license. Brent Alexander Nolan from Fargo, North Dakota. She surveyed his unconscious form, then the wallet, her pulse a steady thrumming in her neck. The pain subsided slightly as a nervous throb rose below her ribs. A voice, male and angry, spoke in her head. “Always take what’s easy. Quick. Then get back. Nothing bad happens when we’re all here, together.”
A warm rush of adrenaline spiked in her chest as she ran her fingers along the line of credit cards. Several Visas, two AmEx. Take what’s easy. A stack of bills—crisp bills, meaning high denominations. How did she know? She slid the bills from his wallet and folded them, their hard edges sharp against her fist. A few hundred dollars, maybe more. She imagined a bottle of whiskey, something sweet. She was filled with pride. She’d done well.
“Now, get back. Don’t leave me here with him.” She imagined green eyes behind too-long bangs, felt the warmth of recognition. A name flashed in her head. Abby. Where was Abby?
The car lurched and pitched her forward, and the seat belt cut across her sternum. She froze, panting tiny breaths to avoid big motions. Through the windshield, she made out the twisted guardrail beside the car, the dark void beyond it.
The car rocked forward, and she held her breath. They had crashed on an overpass. The front of the car jutted over the edge. It would be—what—thirty or forty feet to the ground below? Or more? They would not survive the fall.
Her breath came in ragged chunks like violent hiccups that she tried to hold in. Stay calm. No big motions.
She leaned back against the seat, using her body weight to keep the car from tipping.
She had to get out. But Brent . . .
“Don’t help nobody. Don’t stop for nothing.” The voice again, angry and male.
She shook her head. No. She had to wake him up. Get him out. “Brent,” she said, her voice rusty in her throat. She gripped his forearm with all her strength, afraid shaking him would tip the car over the edge. “Come on.”
Fingers trembling, she pressed the button to unfasten her seat belt. The belt didn’t release. She jabbed harder, using only two fingers, keeping the motions controlled and small. Still, it stuck.
Terror clamped her throat and squeezed. Trapped. “No!” The word was sharp in her ears as she wrapped the belt around her hand for purchase. Clenching her jaw, she jammed three fingers into the release and jerked hard on the belt. It sprang free. The car tipped several inches, then slowly righted again.
She slapped Brent’s cheek, then pinched. “Come on. Come on. We’ve got to get out!”
He didn’t respond.
Get out; then go around and get him.
She edged toward the door, gripped the handle, and said a prayer that it would open. When the door cracked, she cried out in relief. The door swung open, and the car’s underside let out another howl as it slid forward an inch or two, then stopped, swaying gently. She froze until the car steadied.
Setting her right foot on the icy pavement, she shifted her weight off the seat. Her foot was wet inside the boot, and the chill in the outside air cut straight to her toes. She was almost out of the car when her boot slid on the ice. She landed hard, slamming her head on the asphalt. The car tipped forward, and the door swung closed on her left foot. The nose of the car teetered over the edge.
Grunting, she kicked to free her leg, but the door was heavy, the boot caught. The ground was too slick; she couldn’t get traction to hold on. The car slipped forward, dragging her across the road. Panic scalded her lungs as she twisted, clawing at the ice. The cawing sound of the car sliding over the guardrail escalated into a scream.
“No!” she cried, fighting to cling to the passing ground as the car tipped, every second gaining momentum. She cried out and bucked upright. Her fingers caught the edge of the door. She wrenched it open. Her foot came free.
The door fell closed, and the car wrested through the guardrail with a deafening screech. She scrambled backward as the car tipped into the night.
A beat of silence passed, and a sound exploded from the blackness, the rippling crunch of the car landing below.
She swiped at her tears and listened for sounds from below—Brent calling out or the whisper of fire from the car. There was only the hush of wind blowing ice across the asphalt like the scurrying of so many mice. Above her, stars dotted a moonless black surface like reverse freckles. Around her lay road and darkness. There was no sign of a house or building. Where were they? She patted her pants pockets for her phone, but they were empty. The wind cut through her blouse, and she shivered. Where was her jacket? She couldn’t remember how she’d gotten there. Or why she’d been with Brent. Why she had stolen from him.
It was more than that, she realized now. She couldn’t remember anything.
Scrambling onto her hands and knees, she crawled to the broken guardrail. Below, the car lay upside down, its cabin crunched to half its normal height. The front bumper hung from one side, flung out like a limp arm, and the rear right tire spun slowly, as though trying to find purchase in the air. “Brent!”
He couldn’t have survived that fall.
He had to have survived.
“You get back home. You don’t come back, you know what happens.” Pain sliced her shoulder—the sharp edge of a blade. She spun around, but there was no one there. Nothing touched her back. And yet there was something there, some lingering pain. Her fingers dug beneath her shirt, finding the hard edge of her scapula and, below it, a series of narrow ridges, like thin worms beneath the skin. She scratched them, though they didn’t itch.
The wind howled, and she shivered against the cold and pressed her palm to her chest, struggling to draw a full breath. The cuffs of her jeans were damp against her legs, her shoes wet, as though she’d walked through water somewhere. But there was no standing water in sight. She had to get moving. On her feet, she took a step. Her left ankle throbbed, the pain a metal taste in her mouth. She stepped forward, slipped and fell, then rose again, sliding her boots slowly across the ice.
When she reached the place where the overpass met the sloped ground, she studied the icy hillside. She wouldn’t make it down without falling. Sitting on the frozen ground, she inched down: butt, then feet, using the heels of her boots and her fingers to keep from sliding. Come on, Brent. Be okay. Please. She needed him—to tell her who she was. Where she was.
Her fingers burned with cold. She stopped partway down the hill and blew onto them, rubbing them roughly as though to beat the warmth back in. Her own hands were unfamiliar, the red polish uneven on her thumbs and forefingers. A messy job, done in haste. She pressed them into the denim fabric of her pants, willing the heat to return.
When she made it to the car, she went straight to the driver’s side and dropped to her knees at the blown-out window. Brent hung upside down from the seat belt. Small abrasions covered his face, but she couldn’t see any external trauma. It would be internal. The internal damage was what would kill him.
She located his pulse—palpable, consistent. He was not dead. “Oh, thank God,” she said, pressing her forehead to the cold car door. Get him out. She flattened herself to the ground and stared up into the car. The window opening was crushed. Would he even fit through?
You have to try.
With her head inside the car window, the top of the frame cut painfully into her spine. She stretched for the seat belt, then hesitated. If he fell wrong, he could break his neck, or his weight might pin her, and they’d both be stuck. And what about his back? If he was injured, the drop could paralyze him. She drew a breath, trying to decide. Beneath them, the ground vibrated. She backed out of the car and saw the black lines that ran under them.
The car was on a railroad track.
There was no decision to make. Moving might paralyze him, but a train would kill him.
The vibrations dulled, and she wondered how long they had before the train arrived. Was there a train actually coming? It was suddenly quiet. Get him out. She slid back into the car, headfirst. The rearview mirror against her tailbone, she jabbed the seat belt’s release button. The strap loosened, and Brent dropped. Arms extended, she guided him down so that he landed shoulders first.
Brent’s knees caught under the steering wheel, and she struggled to move him, her back aching with the effort. But the steady beat of his carotid reassured her—he was alive. She managed to maneuver him so his head was closest to the window.
Hard ice and gravel dug into her knees as she muscled her hands beneath his back. She gripped under his arms, then tugged him through the window. He was heavy, the space narrow. Every inch of progress was slow.
Halfway out, he caught on something. Tugging, she struggled to free him but couldn’t. Not strong enough to lift him, she set his torso down and moved to one side. There—his belt was hooked on the plastic window seal. She tried and failed to free it. Beneath her knees, the earth vibrated again. She froze and listened. A train? Why couldn’t she hear it? Move him. She lifted his jacket and unbuckled the belt. With the belt loosened from his pants, she tossed it aside. A long final yank freed him from the car.
She dragged him down a small hill to softer ground, safe from the tracks. Sweat slid between her shoulder blades, collected at the waist of her jeans.
“Brent,” she whispered, crying. A tear fell from her chin and landed on the side of his face.
As she reached to wipe it off, a man’s voice sounded from the car. “OnStar has recorded your accident, Mr. Nolan.”
She leaped backward, striking her elbow on a rock. Yelped.
“Mr. Nolan? Can you hear me? We are contacting the authorities.”
She clamped a hand to her mouth. Why didn’t she answer? What was wrong with her?
“You don’t talk to anyone. Ever.”
She waited a moment, silent.
What she needed was her phone. She crawled back to the car and scanned the backseat, spotting a canvas purse on the ceiling, almost in the rear window. The passenger-window glass was shattered but still in its frame. Using her uninjured foot, she kicked the toe of her boot at the glass, flinching as it collapsed into the car.
“Mr. Nolan, can you hear me?”
She said nothing. Her belly on the cold earth, she crawled over cubes of tempered glass and retrieved the purse, returning to Brent.
“We have police and emergency vehicles en route, Mr. Nolan.”
The word police took her breath.
“A response team is seven minutes out.”
“Never talk to the police. No matter what. You know what he’ll do.”
“No!” she cried out and clasped her hands against her ears, willing the voice away. They’d had an accident. They needed the police. An ambulance, too.
But every fiber inside her screamed one thing—run.
She turned to the bag but felt a rush of dread. Why? What would she find in her own purse? She drew even breaths. A minute passed. The voice from the car spoke again, muffled by the roaring in her ears. The ambulance was coming. The police.
She would go to the hospital. With Brent.
Beside her, Brent’s expression was still, lifeless. His pulse was still palpable. She drew his eyelids open, one at a time. The darkness made it impossible to see whether his pupils were uneven. Surely he had suffered a concussion. But that fall—there would be other damage as well. Gently, she lifted the hood of Brent’s coat to cushion his head from the hard ground. She zipped it up to his chin and pulled the sleeves over his hands to keep him warm. Rubbed his shoulders through the heavy down.
On the dark horizon lay a dull-orange glow. Civilization beyond the hill. Again, the instinct to run overwhelmed her. Dread collected like sharp stones in her belly.
She would wait for the police and tell them what had happened.
“Don’t forget the rules.” A boisterous laugh. The same green eyes, an older face. “Abby.” The name was swept into the darkness.
Do something. Find your phone. She turned to her purse and took hold of its zipper. The thread was frayed, the pocket on one side torn at the corner. Nothing like Brent’s Louis Vuitton wallet. She emptied the bag’s main compartment. A light-blue zip-up fleece. A makeup bag containing powder, lip gloss, and mascara, the labels worn off. She pulled on the fleece, saw the broken stitching on the blouse she wore. Her jeans were dark but worn thin at the knees. It was all a far cry from Brent’s expensive jacket and wallet. Maybe they didn’t know each other.
At the bottom of the bag she found a pink-and-red polka-dot wallet. It all looked so innocent, so young. She ran her fingers over the inexpensive vinyl, worn at the edges, and waited for some memory, some sense that the wallet belonged to her, or she to it.
She cracked it open and squinted at a state-issued ID card from Arizona. The name was Lily Baker. The woman didn’t look familiar, but she guessed from the dark hair in her peripheral vision that she was this woman. Lily.
She studied the ID. Born July 2, 1994. But what year was it now? Was she twenty years old? Or thirty? The address on the ID card was Phoenix, Arizona. She looked around the dark, cold night, thought of Brent’s North Dakota address. This was not Phoenix.
“Mr. Nolan, your response team is four minutes out.”
Lily Baker. You are Lily Baker. She drew another breath and sifted through the contents of the wallet. A debit card for the Paradise Valley Credit Union. A frequent-shopper card for Safeway and a couple of other loyalty cards. The billfold held seven dollars—a five and two ones—and a folded photograph. The image was old, the photo finish cracked where it had been folded, the paper softened from wear. Two girls—one blonde, one brunette. The brunette was her, a younger version of the woman in the ID photo. The blonde was older, her face thinner, her expression more a wry twist than an actual smile. Those same green eyes. Abby. Her sister?
She shivered and looked through the rest of the wallet, but it was empty. There were no receipts, no credit cards. A debit card and seven dollars. She returned the wallet to the bag and unzipped the side pocket. She reached in and drew out a hard metal column, four or five inches long. A flashlight? She held it in her hand, squinting at the black object. Through a slit in the center, she eyed the copper circles of primers, one on top of the other. Bullets.
Not a flashlight. She was holding the magazine for a gun. Tentatively, she fingered the cloth bag and felt the outline of a pistol. She drew it out slowly. Her hands came together, the magazine sliding into the gun with a firm click. She drew the slide back, chambered a bullet.
The pale, fat face, surrounded in blood. “You did it,” the girl whispered.
What had she done?
She jumped, the gun slipping from her hand and cracking against the frozen earth. The sound of a bullet echoed in her mind. Had she killed that man?
“The ambulance is two minutes out, Mr. Nolan. Can you hear me?”
Two minutes. And then, in the distance, she heard the muted shriek of a siren.
“Run,” the voice shouted, sharp and angry. “What are you waiting for?”
She could not be here when the police arrived. She touched Brent’s face, whispered, “Don’t die, Brent. Please don’t die.”
She pulled back the slide to release the chambered round. The bullet dropped to the ground and disappeared from view. She scanned the snow-dusted shrubs underfoot but couldn’t locate it.
Forget the bullet, she thought. Two minutes.
She rose quickly, facing the orange light that blinked beyond the hill. Looping the strap of the bag over her left shoulder, she hurried down the train track as the pitch of the sirens grew louder.
A line came to her. Romans, chapter six, verse twenty-three.
For the wages of sin is death.
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