Lost Lake: New Excerpt
Lost Lake by Emily Littlejohn, the third mystery featuring Colorado police officer Gemma Monroe, follows the investigation of a woman who went missing while camping.
On a bright Saturday in early spring, Detective Gemma Monroe responds to a missing person call at Lost Lake, near the small town of Cedar Valley, Colorado. With its sapphire waters and abundance of wildflowers, the lake is a popular camping destination in the summer. But for now, ice still grips the lake and snow buries the flowers.
When Gemma arrives at the shore, she meets three friends who have been camping there: the fourth of their group, Sari Chesney, has disappeared in the night without a trace. Sari is an assistant curator at the local museum, which is set to host a gala that night―a project she’s worked on for months and would never intentionally miss. As Gemma begins to understand the complex dynamics of the supposedly close-knit friendship group, she realizes that more than one person is lying to her―and that the beautiful, still waters of Lost Lake may hide more terrible secrets . . .
I stood at the edge of Lost Lake and raised a hand to my forehead to shield my eyes from the bright sun. Accustomed to the gloomy overcast skies of March and April, I’d left my sunglasses at home. But this, the second Saturday in May, was one of those warm spring days when the temperature edged pasty sixty degrees and the sky was blue enough to make the gray winter begin to fade from memory.
My head hurt from a long night of broken sleep with my six-month-old teething daughter and one too many glasses of pinot noir over dinner with my fiancé, Brody Sutherland. I closed my eyes against the glare and instead let the language of the lake wash over me. The crack of the melting ice that lined the water’s edge. The young aspen leaves, whispering to one another over the sound of the gentle breeze. The splash of water as an eagle dipped down and plucked an unsuspecting fish from the middle of the lake, the bird’s movements as deliberate as a stealth bomber.
It should have felt peaceful, but there was a roughness to the pastoral scene, like a pencil sketch that has been handled by greasy fingers, the edges smudged.
By June, the area would be flush with hikers and fishermen. Both groups would come hungry: the hikers for the chance to see the annual wildflower bloom of lapis and indigo lupines, sprawling up the mountain on the far side of the lake; and the fishermen for the plump trout and bass.
But this early in the season?
The few people hardy enough to try to reach the lake would trek two miles uphill, traversing melting snow and muddy, soggy soil.
There was the ever-present threat of bears, too, just waking from their long winter slumber. Bears that were hungry.
Opening my eyes, I turned from the lake and stared back at the small group huddled around the unlit fire pit.
Why had they come here, to Lost Lake?
There were dozens of camping spots scattered throughout the lower valley, any one of them more accessible than this place. The water was frigid, the wildflowers still in hibernation. It was pleasant now, nearly midday, but without the sun, temperatures would plummet. The ground would have made a cold bed last night.
Yet the group had chosen to come here. And now one of them was missing.
Lost, at Lost Lake.
The ice cracked again. It made an eerie, otherworldly sound, and I left the lake’s edge and trudged back to the group, careful to avoid the muddy collage of footprints that seemed to lead both somewhere and nowhere.
They stared at me, the two men and one woman.
The woman spoke first. “I’m very worried that something has happened to her.”
Her name was Allison Chang but she preferred to be called Ally. She had told me she was Sari’s best friend.
“Has Sari ever done anything like this before? Gone off without leaving word?”
“No, never. Sari’s very responsible,” Ally said. “She knows we would worry.”
Mac Stephens added, “I agree with Ally. I have a bad feeling about this, Detective Monroe.”
“Please, call me Gemma.”
Mac was Sari’s boyfriend, a big bear of a man with messy red hair. He was the only one of the group that I’d seen before; he was a nurse at the hospital in town and had given my daughter, Grace, her first set of shots. He didn’t remember me, though; or if he did, he didn’t say anything.
“I think someone has taken her,” Mac continued. “This place is remote as hell. Anyone could have snuck up on us and kidnapped her.”
“Kidnappings are rare, especially in a place like this, with you three right here.” I gestured back to the lake. “I hate to ask the obvious, but is there any chance she went for a swim?”
Mac and Ally shook their heads vigorously.
“Sari nearly drowned as a child in a boating accident. She hates the water. She only agreed to come because Mac bullied her into it,” Ally said with a troubled glance toward Mac.
He met Ally’s glare with one of his own. “That’s not true, Ally, and you know it. Yes, Sari hates the water, but she loves hiking and camping. She was happy to come.”
I glanced at the second man. Aside from giving me his name—Jake Stephens, Mac’s cousin—he’d remained silent, watching the conversation unfold.
“Look, there’s no evidence to indicate a crime has occurred. Sari’s an adult, and her keys, driver’s license, and cell phone are all missing. That’s a good sign. Everything points to the likelihood that she left the campsite of her own accord,” I said, reflecting on the handful of missing person cases I’d worked in my six years with the Cedar Valley Police Department. In each case but one, the individual had turned up within a day. The one person who never returned was later tracked to a commune in Las Vegas.
Ally seemed to have a change of heart and she nodded her head in agreement. Color flared in her cheeks, giving her a sunburnt look. “You know, I bet you’re right. Sari can be a little nutty. She’s been stressed with work lately. I wonder if she got restless and just up and left in the middle of the night.”
“Even though that would mean walking out in the dark, through the big, bad woods?” Jake asked. He stared at Ally, his black hair peeking out from under a blue knit beanie cap. He was in his early twenties, a few years younger than Mac and Ally. His eyes, as dark as his hair, were unreadable behind a pair of thick horn-rimmed eyeglasses.
Ally shrugged. “Maybe. If I was as stressed as she’s been, I might do the same.”
Another sharp crack of ice drew my attention back to the lake. Once more I squinted against the glare of the sun. A mild spring breeze created gentle waves that should have been soothing. Instead, they beckoned like the hands of a tribe of water sprites, intent on luring us into the lake.
Someone in the group coughed. I turned away from the lake. “You’re positive of the timing, that she disappeared in the middle of the night?”
Mac Stephens nodded.
“How can you be so sure?”
“We’re sure.” Mac scratched at the back of his head. “We went to bed late, close to one in the morning. We’d, uh, had a lot to drink. I got up, maybe about six, to take a leak, and noticed Sari wasn’t in the tent. I thought maybe she was going to the bathroom, too. To be honest, I was still drunk at that point. I went back to bed and passed out. When I woke again at nine, she was gone. I mean, she was still gone. So I got the others up and we searched for a while. Finally, Jake hiked out, back to the parking lot to get cell reception. He tried Sari’s number first, then when it went to voice mail he called nine-one-one.”
I pulled my phone from my pocket and looked at the signal; it was weak, intermittent.
I glanced at Jake. “Did you see anything strange on your hike down?”
Jake had a narrow penknife in one hand and a twig in the other. As he spoke, he took the knife to the wood. Shavings from the twig fell to the ground in a steady stream. “What do you mean, strange?”
I pursed my lips, wondering myself what I meant. “Another hiker, or signs of Sari … maybe animal prints?”
Jake shook his head. “Nah, there was nothing weird. But then again, I was moving pretty quickly. I took more time on the way back here, though, after I called you guys. I was stopping every couple of feet and calling Sari’s name.” He cupped his hands round his mouth, to demonstrate. “Sari! Sari!”
Ally flinched at the shouting and said, “Stop it, Jake. Seriously. Stop.”
He shrugged. “Sorry.”
I turned back to the best friend and the boyfriend. “While Jake hiked down, what were you two doing?”
Mac said, “We poked around in the woods, in case Sari had tripped, maybe fallen, and was unconscious. Then I searched Sari’s backpack. At first, it made me happy, seeing that her wallet and phone were gone. Because that’s what you’d grab, you know, when you leave your house. But then I got scared. Where could she go? It’s two miles back to the parking lot.”
He fished in his pocket and pulled out a keychain. “Look, I’ve still got my keys. My van is in the parking lot—that was the first thing Jake checked. And no matter what Ally says, Sari is not that brave. She’d never hike out in the dark. It’s too big a risk with the mountain lions and bears up here.”
He turned to the side, gesturing to the woods around the lake, and I noticed a handgun tucked in the back of his pants, sticking out from under his thick wool shirt.
“Do you have a permit for that?”
Mac looked back at me, surprised I’d noticed the gun. He nodded. “Of course. I’ve got a concealed carry. It’s a 9mm. Do you need to see it?”
Only if I find a body with a bullet in it, I thought.
I shook my head. “Not necessary. Just keep it out of my sight. Concealed means concealed. Look, could someone have picked her up at the trailhead?”
None of them had an answer to that.
The thing was, it was odd.
Not suspicious, not yet … but odd. Though the fire pit was unlit, ashes from the night before still smoldered in the ring. There was a lingering trace of marijuana smoke, lending the campsite an air of seediness.
Again I wondered why they’d come here, to this lost lake in the middle of the forest. Finally, I asked the question. “Why here?”
“You mean why did we come here to camp?” Mac said. “I’ve been coming to Lost Lake since I was a kid. Never this early in the season, though. I wanted to check it out, you know, see what it was like with a bit of snow and ice still on the ground. Jake’s new to town and I thought it would be fun.”
“I’d never even heard of this place,” Ally said. “I guess they call it Lost Lake for a reason.”
“You mentioned that Sari has been stressed at work. What does she do?”
Mac smiled proudly. “She is the assistant curator at the Cedar Valley History Museum.”
Ally added, “What she is, is exhausted. Sari’s been putting in twelve, thirteen-hour days working on the museum gala. There is no way in hell she’d miss the big event. Plus, her boss is a total witch and will fire her if she doesn’t show up tonight. And Sari can’t afford to lose her job.”
The gala was the kick-off event of a week-long celebration of the sesquicentennial anniversary of Cedar Valley. One hundred and fifty years ago, the town’s founding fathers had signed the necessary documents to take Cedar Valley from a mining outpost in the mountains of Colorado to an actual town. The local history museum was hosting the gala, while other organizations in town were hosting the rest of the week’s events.
I chewed on the corner of my lip, thinking about a seedy campsite and a frozen lake and a missing woman. A woman who put in a tremendous amount of work to prepare for a party, and then disappeared on the eve of the event. It wasn’t adding up. The thought of waiting twenty-four hours to open a missing persons case, per our standard police procedure, made me uneasy.
“Okay. Let’s go ahead and get Sari reported as a missing person. I’ll need a recent picture of her, a description of the last things she was wearing, and any identifying characteristics like birthmarks, tattoos, that sort of thing.”
“Damn it,” Mac said. The fear in his eyes intensified. “You just said we shouldn’t worry.”
“Look, here’s the thing. Nine times out of ten, a missing person turns up. Maybe Sari was upset or ill. We’re over eight thousand feet up here; perhaps she got altitude sickness and woke up disoriented. Or maybe she met up with someone. The point is, in the end, there’s almost always a good explanation. However, you tell me Sari’s been working on the gala for months, and that she’s a responsible person, and needs her job. So, for her to go missing, today of all days … I don’t think you should worry. But I do want to make sure we’re doing our due diligence here.”
Mac nodded. “Okay. You’re the expert.”
A cloud drifted in front of the sun and swallowed the warmth from the day, blocking the light and darkening the landscape. I shivered, then turned around and looked again at Lost Lake, suddenly uneasy having my back to the water.
I watched as, under the dark sky, the lake shifted in color to a murky shade of cobalt ink, and for the first time really noticed the dense woods on the far side of the water. There, a thick grove of Colorado blue spruce trees sprawled along the edge of the lake, a buffer between it and the mountains. As the trees grew up the slope of the mountains, though, they began to thin out. At the tree line, about eleven thousand feet, the spruces were replaced by scrubby alpine brush.
The cloud continued to drift and in another moment, the sun reappeared. Something shiny winked at me across the water from the thick forest of blue spruces. Then I blinked and it was gone.
Another camper? Or a day hiker?
“Did you see that?”
Ally, pulling on a sweatshirt, paused. “See what?”
I blinked again, but the strange light was gone and suddenly I wanted to be anywhere but here. There was a feeling to this lake, a restlessness in the wind, a hardness to the water.
It was a feeling I didn’t like.
“Never mind. Just a reflection off the water.”
Jake coughed. He rubbed the back of his neck and spoke slowly. “What about the tenth time?”
He removed his eyeglasses and cleaned them on the edge of his sweatshirt. I saw he’d dropped the knife and twig he had been carving. They lay at his feet, next to a plastic water bottle and a half-eaten granola bar. “You said nine times out of ten, the person shows up. What about the tenth time?”
That was a path I didn’t want to go down.
“It’s too early to think about that. Look, let’s get a move on. Pack up your stuff. You can head to the police station to file the official report and give a statement. I’ll swing by Sari’s apartment and see if she’s there.”
“Can I come? I have a spare key to her place,” Mac said.
“Fine. You can ride with me.”
Jake said, “Hey, Mac, I’ve got stuff to do. Before yesterday, I’d never even met Sari. I’ve got to find a job soon or my … I need work.”
Mac ran a hand through his thick red hair, frustrated. “This is my girlfriend we’re talking about. I’ve helped you out more times than I can remember, bro.”
Jake nodded slowly. “Sure, yeah. You’re right. Of course I’ll help.” He pulled the blue beanie cap farther down over his ears. “I guess we should pack up.”
The three of them split up, tending to different tasks around the campsite. Ally and Mac worked on dismantling the tents while twenty feet away Jake lowered plastic bags of trash and food from the high bough of a thick pine tree. Bears were hungry, curious, and agile climbers; tying food and trash up high might not prevent a determined bear from getting to it but at least it would keep the bear away from the tents.
While they worked, I checked the perimeter of the site, attempting to recreate in my mind the events of the previous night: the roaring fire, the bottles of wine passed from hand to cold hand, the tip of a joint glowing in the dark, a hovering red-hot firefly setting a tiny patch of the black night alight.
Maybe it was the warm spring day, or the lake, once more laid out by the sun like a turquoise egg nestled in a basket of blue spruces, guarded by jagged, ancient stone peaks.
Maybe it was my own fatigue, settling in after the tricky hike and a night without much sleep. I’d had too many evenings recently where a glass of red wine with dinner had turned into a second or third in the hours between meal and sleep.
Whatever the reason, I couldn’t see what had happened here at Lost Lake.
All I was able to take in were the slushy, muddy ground and the colorful tents, the four backpacks and the unlit, ashy campfire. The three friends, moving around the site with grim determination.
Later, I would think about the ice cracking that morning, and the eagle, fishing for its breakfast, and the three friends who were once four: quiet and subdued, packing up after a night of indulgence. The three of them silent, like ghosts of their former selves, living in a new world where it was possible for a woman, a friend, to vanish overnight.
Later, much later, I would regret every decision I made that morning.
Copyright © 2018 Emily Littlejohn.