The Vanishing Season by Joanna Schaffhausen: New Excerpt
By Joanna SchaffhausenNovember 29, 2017
Ellery Hathaway knows a thing or two about serial killers, but not through her police training. She’s an officer in sleepy Woodbury, MA, where a bicycle theft still makes the newspapers. No one there knows she was once victim number seventeen in the grisly story of serial killer Francis Michael Coben. The only one who lived.
When three people disappear from her town in three years―all around her birthday―Ellery fears someone knows her secret. Someone very dangerous. Her superiors dismiss her concerns, but Ellery knows the vanishing season is coming and anyone could be next. She contacts the one man she knows will believe her: the FBI agent who saved her from a killer all those years ago.
Agent Reed Markham made his name and fame on the back of the Coben case, but his fortunes have since turned. His marriage is in shambles, his bosses think he’s washed up, and worst of all, he blew a major investigation. When Ellery calls him, he can’t help but wonder: sure, he rescued her, but was she ever truly saved? His greatest triumph is Ellery’s waking nightmare, and now both of them are about to be sucked into the past, back to the case that made them…with a killer who can’t let go.
Ellery Hathaway emerged from the steamy bathroom, toweling her hair dry, dressed again and ready to leave, but Sam still lay sprawled in the motel bed with its squeaky mattress and scratchy sheets. Always he wanted to stay just a little bit longer, kiss her just one more time. It was one of the things she hated about him. “It’s almost midnight,” she said as she laid the damp towel over the back of a cheap motel chair. The room was swimming in shadows, just like always, because she never let him see her all the way naked. It was a practical concern more than a manipulative one, but the more she held back, the more he wanted. She definitely had his attention now.
He rolled to the nightstand to put his watch back on but made no other move to get dressed. “It’s July already. Seems like we just had Memorial Day.”
She went to the window and looked out at the oppressive summer night. It was black as pitch and filled with trees. The motel gravel went about ten feet back, and then there was nothing but dense woods and the invisible creatures hiding within them. “He’ll take another one soon,” she said. “Just like last year, and we’ve done nothing to stop it.”
“Christ, Ellie. Not this again.” He sat up and tugged on his pants. “I thought you agreed to let this go.”
She rested her forehead against the glass, which vibrated in time to the churning of the antiquated air-conditioning unit below it, and she felt the hum penetrate to her veins. “Three people are dead,” she said, more to herself than to Sam. Lord knew he’d heard the words from her enough times that she need not repeat them now. The last time they’d had this conversation was more than six months ago, back when he was just the chief and she was a junior patrol officer. He had not listened to her then, but maybe now was different, now that she had something he wanted.
He came half naked to the window, long limbs moving in easy grace. It was one of the things she loved about him. “We have no proof of any murder,” he said. “You know that as well as I do. We don’t even know these people are dead.”
“They’re dead.” The first one, nineteen-year-old Bea Nesbit, disappeared three years ago somewhere between Woodbury and Boston, where she went to school. Back then, the State Police had gotten involved in the search, and Ellery had been happy to let them. She’d been on the job only seven months at that point and did not know the Nesbit family. Ten days later, Bea was still missing and Ellery had received the first card in her mailbox.
Sam touched her hunched shoulder, pushing it back down with gentle fingers. “People leave their lives all the time and don’t look back.”
She jerked away from his hand. No one needed to explain to her the urge to disappear, not when she hadn’t seen her natural hair color in more than a decade. Lately, she’d been dying it a dark chestnut brown, a no-nonsense shade whose remnants resembled the color of dried blood as it washed down the drain of her white porcelain sink.
Sam’s hair was an honest salt-and-pepper black. He was twenty-two years older and had worked his way up through the ranks in Boston before taking the small town position in Woodbury as chief of police, where he’d become accustomed to being the smartest cop in the room. Ellery was the only female officer in the department, not that this was a great accomplishment on a squad of eight people, but it meant that, for all his depth of knowledge, there were certain experiences she had that Sam lacked.
“Bea Nesbit, Mark Roy, and Shannon Blessing are dead,” she reminded him, turning around so she could look into his eyes as she said it. “In the next two weeks, unless we do something, another name will be added to that list. We’ll have another grieving family and no answers to give them. Is that what you want?”
“What would you have me do? These cases have already been investigated by our department and others. We have no bodies, no evidence, no suggestion that a crime even took place. I’m not ignoring you, Ellie, but I have to have something to go on here besides your gut feeling.”
Her cheeks burned hot and she looked away. At least he hadn’t actually called it women’s intuition. The only evidence she had, besides what little was contained in the official files, was locked at home in her bedroom drawer, in an envelope where she didn’t have to see the birthday cards unless she specifically went looking for them. Not that there was much to see. She could picture the baffled expression on Sam’s face if she brought them in and tried to explain what they meant.
This isn’t evidence of anything but the fact that you’re another year older. Congratulations, Officer Hathaway. You’re aging just like the rest of us.
Maybe if she told him about her other birthday, the one from years ago, then he would understand. He would have to act. Or maybe he would just look at her with pity and horror. Either way, once she told him, she could never take it back.
“You could reinvestigate the cases,” she said to Sam, trying to keep her voice steady. “Take a fresh look. If we can figure out what the relationship is between the victims, we might be able to stop him from taking another one.”
“You’re the only one who thinks there is a relationship.”
“So then give me the cases.” She raised her chin, challenging him to deny her. They had one detective on the force, and she sure as hell wasn’t it.
Frustration flashed in Sam’s eyes, and then, worse, sympathy. He shook his head almost imperceptibly. “You know I can’t do that.”
“Fine. Right. Just don’t blame me when you’ve got another one missing.” She crossed the room to put on her boots.
“And what will you do if that doesn’t happen? What will you obsess about then?”
She glanced up.”You’re saying I need this?”
He eyed her. “Maybe part of you. Face it, Ellery. You get off on drama.”
“Not me.” She snapped her laces together and stood up. “You’re the one who always wants to make things complicated.”
He grabbed her arm when she tried to pass him. “Stay,” he said softly, sliding his fingers down past the scars to her narrow wrist. “We can talk about it.”
She turned her arm so their fingers touched, but did not meet his gaze. “Go home, Sam. Julia will be wondering where you are. I’ll see you in the morning, okay?”
Mute, he released her and she pushed out into the night heat. Tree creatures chattered at her from tall pines; white gravel crunched under her feet as she made her way to her truck. The New England humidity melted her T-shirt against her sticky skin. Ellery paused, her hand on the door, and glanced around her into the thin edge of the forest. She had chosen this quiet town because it was so removed from the big cities filled with thousands of people. A few of the guys at the station would sit around during the slow times, which to be fair was most of the time, and talk about what they would do if a major crime ever hit sleepy little Woodbury. A bank robbery, maybe, as if anyone would come to their tiny downtown, with its pharmacy, post office, and handful of shops, thinking he could hit the local bank for a million bucks. The boys in blue were sure they would stop the bad guys red-handed before they ever reached the town limits. Sam, who knew better, smirked at their self-aggrandizing, sometimes tried to catch her eye across the room to share a wink at the guy’s expense, but Ellery always looked away and thought, Be careful what you wish for.
She climbed into her truck and switched her cell phone back on, its screen casting an eerie glow over the otherwise dark interior. The missed calls and texts showed she had been unusually popular over the past hour. A missed call from her mother, no message. A text from Brady that made her smile: 6 new kittens today. Am covered in miniature but terribly fierce claw marks. Send help! But her smile vanished when she saw the other missed call, this time with a voice message. “They’re fighting again, please come quick,” came the young, frightened whisper on the other end.
Ellery tossed the phone down and yanked the truck into gear, gravel spitting from beneath the tires as she tore out of the motel parking lot. She did not even stop to call it in because the time stamp on the call said that she was already twenty-three minutes late. Thanks to the late hour, there was zero traffic and she made it across town in record time. The neighborhood was quiet as she pulled off the main road, the houses dark and set in some distance from the street. The average family in Woodbury was poor in cash but rich in land. The result was large, overgrown yards separating small, run-down houses that had been built en masse after World War II and had mostly sat untouched since, with their identical striped front awnings faded and warped by the passing of time. As she slowed near her destination, Ellery’s headlights caught the peeling white paint on the picket fence and an overturned child’s bicycle lying in the front yard.
Yellow light spilled out from the open windows but Ellery saw no one moving around inside. She killed the engine, and in the silence, her heart beat faster as she imagined the confrontation to come. Domestic disputes were the most unpredictable part of her otherwise routine work. As much as she was fixed on her campaign to Sam about their missing persons problem, Woodbury’s last official murder had been in 1983, when Tom Pickney shot his brother Terrance after Tom found out Terrance had been carrying on with his wife.
Despite the humid summer night, Ellery retrieved her Woodbury PD jacket from the floor of the passenger seat and removed her police-issue revolver from the locked glove compartment before approaching the house. She knocked sharply on the screen door, and the heavy inside door swung open almost at once, like someone had been waiting for her. Darryl Franklin filled the entire doorway with his massive frame, blocking out the light and anyone who might have been standing behind him. “Whad’you want?” He sneered down to where she stood on the stoop.
“We got a call about a disturbance at your residence, Mr. Franklin.”
“What? Who called you?” He peered up and down at his neighbors, but the street was quiet and dark. “I don’t see nobody out.”
“Never mind who called. I want to see Rosalie and Anna.”
He stank like sweat and alcohol, his face puffy and his dark eyes unfocused. He considered her request for a moment, and then broke into a toothy but malevolent grin. “There isn’t no disturbance happening here,” he said, and he paused to take a sip from the can of Bud he held in his beefy hand. “Go home, Ellie. It’s late for a girl like you to be runnin’ around all by her lonesome. Somethin’ could happen to you.”
Ellery squared her shoulders, her hand resting lightly on her holster. “It’s an official call, Mr. Franklin. You know how this works. I can’t leave until I see Rosalie and Anna.”
“It’s my house. I know the law. I don’t have to let you into my house unless you got a warrant.” He swayed a little as he said it, sloshing beer onto the pavement between them.
“Then we can all go down to the station and visit with the chief. He’ll be real cranky if we have to wake him up at this hour.” The truth be told, Sam probably was slinking in the back door of his house right about now, but Ellery forced that thought out of her mind.
Franklin muttered a string of curse words at her, but he stood aside just enough to allow a narrow opening for her to pass through into the house. She brushed the sweat-stained cotton covering his rotund stomach as she stepped over the threshold and into the family home. The place held a heavy, forceful quiet that Ellie recognized as the aftermath of sudden violence. She took a few more steps over the threadbare carpet. The living room TV was on but muted. The scent of cigarettes and leftover dinner, something involving grease and peppers and onions, hung in the close, thick air. Ellie let her eyes travel over the overstuffed brown microfiber sofa, its cushions lopsided from years of use, to the burned-out hole in the arm of the old La-Z-Boy recliner and the fist-size dent in the wall behind it. The dent had been there the last time Ellie showed up in the middle of the night like this.
“Rosalie? Anna? Are you in here? It’s Ellie Hathaway.” Her skin tingled because she still had no proof of life and now Franklin stood between her and the door. She made sure to keep her body angled so she could see him in her peripheral vision, where he was drinking his beer and feigning disinterest.
After several tense moments, Rosalie Franklin and ten-year-old Anna shuffled around the corner, Rosa’s arms around her daughter’s shoulders and her eyes downcast. Even from fifteen feet away, Ellie could see the welt swelling on Rosalie’s left cheek. “Officer Hathaway, you didn’t need to come out here so late.”
“Are you okay?” Ellery asked her, closing the gap between them so that she could get a better look at the other woman’s injuries.
“I’m fine.” Rosalie turned her face away from Ellery, hiding behind her dark curtain of hair. “You should go.”
Franklin pushed open the screen door so hard that it slapped against the outside railing, making the women jump. “Yeah, you should go now. They’re fine, as you can see.”
“In a minute,” Ellery said, more to Rosa and Anna than to Darryl. “Why don’t we step outside? You, me, and Anna.”
She herded them toward the door, knowing that Rosalie would allow herself to be pushed along despite her fear because this was how she lived every day, following orders that went against her own self-interest. Ellery felt a twinge of regret at capitalizing on Rosalie’s indoctrination, but there was no way she was going to convince her to press charges with Franklin just six feet away, pawing at the floor like a bull in the pasture.
When they reached the doorway, Franklin blocked them with one solid arm. “S’pose I don’t feel like letting you by,” he said, his voice hard.
“Then I radio downtown and explain how you’re holding an officer of the law hostage, and you go to jail for a really long time.”
They all stood frozen while Franklin digested this information. Finally, he dropped his arm to let them pass. Ellery exhaled in relief as they hit the night air. Rosalie and Anna were both barefoot, Anna dressed in some sort of Disney princess-themed nightgown that barely covered her bottom, and Ellery ushered them both over the half-dead grass to the edge of the lawn. Franklin remained at the front door, saying nothing but casting a long shadow. “What happened tonight, Rosa?” Ellie asked her in a low voice.
“Nothing,” Rosalie insisted, hugging herself and glancing over her shoulder. “I’m okay.”
“He hit her because he wanted tacos for dinner tonight but Mama didn’t have the time to go shopping today.”
“It’s true.” The girl folded her thin arms and glared at her mother.
“It’s not true. He was just upset because his boss reduced his hours this week,” Rosalie said in an urgent whisper.
“Last time it was because his back was acting up,” Ellery replied. “What excuse is he going to give you next time?”
“You don’t understand,” Rosalie murmured, her shoulders slumping, her gaze trained on the ground. Ellie looked away, up toward the streetlamp that hosted a frenzy of swarming gnats, because she knew she could raise her sleeves, march Rosa into the white light, and show her the scars. I lived, she could say, and you can too. Maybe then Rosa would listen to her and get that order of protection. She could kick Darryl out, get a better job, go back to school, make a peaceful home for herself and Anna, and cook whatever the hell she wanted for dinner every damn night for the rest of her life.
Ellie swallowed hard as she imagined it because she knew she wasn’t going to do it. She wasn’t going to blow up her whole fragile existence just for a pile of maybes. Ellery drew in a long breath and fixed Rosalie with a hard stare. “You don’t have to take this from him. You don’t. Say the word, and I can take you away from here, you and Anna, right now, to someplace safe. Or you can swear out a complaint against him and I’ll have him arrested on the spot.”
“You?” Rosa looked her up and down in skeptical fashion.
“Me,” Ellery said, with more certainty than she felt. She risked a look at the door, where Franklin was watching them with a sullen expression, and she wondered if he kept a gun in the house. Ellery was five seven and athletically built, but Franklin had nearly a foot on her and outweighed her by more than a hundred pounds.
“He’s not gonna go anywhere with you. Besides, what good would it do? You take him away and he’ll be back here in a day or two, and then me and Anna, where’re we supposed to go?”
There was a women’s shelter one town over, but seeking it out meant walking away now with the clothes on their backs, and Ellery knew Rosalie wasn’t wrong about the likely outcome: she could arrest Franklin, but it would be for simple assault and he would be out on a minimal bond, probably within twenty-four hours. The house was his. The bank account was his. Rosa and Anna would have to start over again from nothing. “There are people who can help you,” Ellery tried again, her frustration rising as she realized she was losing yet another battle. “I will personally do everything I can to help you.”
She heard the limitation of that statement even as she said it, read the truth in the way Rosa’s expression shut down. “No, no. We just have to make it a few weeks, just through the summer, then his hours’ll pick up this fall and everything will be okay. You’ll see.” Rosalie tugged her daughter back toward the house, and Anna twisted around in her grasp, stumbling over the uneven ground as she shot a pleading look back toward Ellery. Ellie took a few steps after them, but she was helpless under the weight of the law.
The screen door opened and closed again with a sharp slap, and then Rosalie and Anna disappeared from view, leaving Ellery alone again with Franklin. He was huge and back lit, his face in shadow, but she could make out the whites of his eyes as he stared her down. “Stay away from my family,” he said, holding up a warning finger at her.
“Stop giving me reason to come out here, and I will.”
He dropped his hand, chugged the last of the beer, and crushed the can flat between his strong, fat fingers. “You come out my way, maybe I’ll do the same to you.”
“What do you mean by that?”
He shrugged and tossed the can at the ground near her feet. “You drop in at my house like this in the middle of the night, seems it’s only fair if I return the favor. You live out down Burning Tree Road, ain’t that right? Yeah, seems I’ve been out there hunting once in the woods, and I seen where you live. A little old farmhouse. All alone.”
“Are you threatening me, Mr. Franklin?”
He held up his palms in an exaggerated gesture. “Hell, no, Officer. I’m just bein’ neighborly.”
“We’re not neighbors,” Ellery told him flatly. “If I see you on my property, I will shoot you.”
He grinned again. “Now, is that a threat? Or maybe it’s an invitation. Either way, you can be sure I’ll see you around, Officer Ellie. Oh, yes, I will.”
* * *
Ellery gripped the wheel of the truck a little tighter as she navigated the long bumpy dirt road that led to her house. The previous owners had smoothed the road before putting the tiny farmhouse on the market four years earlier, but the intervening seasons had thawed and frozen the ground into a lavalike series of mounds and crevices. The lack of summer rain thus far meant the road was cracked and dusty, kicking up pebbles and grime as she rolled on home. It had never been a working farmhouse, not in the commercial sense, zoned at best for perhaps a pair of horses and some chickens. Ellery liked it because it was set well in from the main road and backed up against the thick woods, acres upon acres of protected land, because that was how she felt living by herself among the stars and the trees: protected.
“Don’t you worry about bears and coyotes and that sort of thing?” Her mother had fretted back when Ellery first moved into the place as a twenty-four-year-old new homeowner. Ellery had used the last of her funds, the blood money, to make the down payment, marking a clean break, she thought, between her past and her future.
“No bears around here,” she had reassured her city-slicker mother, not mentioning, of course, that surely her mom must realize by now that there were plenty of things out there more frightening than bears.
As she stepped out of the truck, Ellery inhaled the cool, dark scent of home in the summertime: a unique mix of wildflowers, cut grass, and the earthy smell of the forest just beyond. It was dark, the only light provided by the pinprick stars and a wedge of moon overhead, and quiet enough that she could hear the thick rustling of the distant trees. At her porch, she took the pair of worn-down wooden steps in one stretch and unlocked the dead bolt at her front door. Immediately, she heard the scratching of toenails on the wooden floor. “Hey, Bump,” she called, just before her basset hound came hurtling into the room with a frantic wagging tail. “Did you miss me?”
She knelt with a grin and rubbed his long, silky ears as he pressed his solid, wriggling body as close as possible to hers. He snuffled every inch of her, cataloging her outside adventures with his generous nose, and she figured he got a good whiff of Darryl Franklin in there someplace. Franklin’s attempt at intimidation did not frighten her; he was a dumb heffalump who spent most evenings drunk off his ass. If he tried anything stupid, Ellie knew she’d see him coming a mile away.
She gave Bump’s ears a last scratch before rising to her feet. “Let’s go out back so you can do your business, okay?” He trotted after her eagerly, through the living room, down the short hall, and into the kitchen, where she undid the dead bolt on her back door and let the dog out into the small yard. “Just stay away from skunks this time,” she called as he bounded into the shadows. She flicked on the back-porch light in an effort to keep the unwanted critters at bay while Bump scampered out to the forest’s edge. She couldn’t see him well, but she tracked him by the jangling of the tags on his collar. While Bump went about his routine, Ellie pulled out her cell phone again and found no new messages or texts, not even from Sam, which was actually kind of a relief.
She opened her messaging program and saw the little green dot that indicated Brady was online. It’s 2 A.M., she wrote him. Go to bed.
Can’t, he typed back. Feeding time.
He sent her a picture that showed his large hand, a small bottle of milk, and adorable ball of gray-and-white fur. Brady Archer worked at the Angelman Animal Shelter, where she had adopted Speed Bump a few years ago, soon after she moved in. They had struck up a friendship of sorts over a shared love of animals and ’80s music. What cemented the relationship was that he was an insomniac, like her, so they could chat like this in the wee small hours of the morning. Cheesiest ballad, he would write.
Easy, she would type in return. “I’d Do Anything for Love” by Meat Loaf. The man’s name alone makes it a surefire win.
I’m going with “Don’t Stop Believing.” The lyrics are just a bunch of random stuff the guy sees outside. Street light. People. What the hell does it even mean, anyway?
Blasphemy! That song is a cultural touchstone, and Journey is a legend.
Yeah. Legendarily awful.
Trading zingers with Brady reminded her of late-night talks she’d shared with her brother, Daniel, in their hot Chicago walk-up, nights when it seemed like the heat might peel the paint from the walls. They would sit by the overworked fans in the window with sweaty cans of pop and make up stories about the people down on the street. Ellie hadn’t told Brady about Daniel, or much about anything personal, and he hadn’t asked for any details. This was why their friendship worked. She hadn’t believed she could have any friends, because friends tended to ask questions she couldn’t answer, like Where are you from? or How’d you get those terrible scars? They wanted to come visit your house and talk about your family and just basically pry open the whole box of your life and rummage around inside. But Brady was different. She’d waited, cautious at first during their initial conversations about big-haired dogs and big-haired bands, but the barrage of questions never came. They kept the discussion loose and fun, and finally she had relaxed a little, just enough to allow herself one friend. The terms seemed to suit him just fine. She got the feeling that Brady had a rough upbringing too, just from the one sentence he’d ever uttered about his mother: “She lives in Texas.”
Sometimes, it was hard not to share more, like when he’d typed to her, Know anyone famous?
Yes, she thought, me. Or maybe infamous was a more apt descriptor. Last year she’d switched on the TV to find some skinny blond girl playing her in the movie of the week, only she was named Annabelle in the film and had much more of a chest on her than Ellery ever had at age fourteen. The movie was called Mind of a Madman, but it wasn’t her story; she was neither the hero nor the villain, just an inexorable link between them. We live in Woodbury,she’d typed back to Brady. What kind of famous person shows up here?
Why are you up at this hour? He wrote to her now. Can’t sleep?
She looked down at the glowing screen as she thought of the three missing people. When Ellery was lost, a whole city had turned out to look for her. No one was searching anymore for Bea, Shannon, or Mark. In a few weeks, there would be a new name and a new search, with officers and volunteers spanning out in lines through the woods, like ants at a picnic. Ellery bit her lip and typed her question quickly, before she could think about it too hard. Would you trade your life for someone else’s?
There was a long silence before Brady replied, Depends on who it was.
A stranger, she sent back.
Another long pause. Maybe, I guess. I’d have to think about it.
Ellery had thought of little else for almost three years.
She signed off with Brady and called Bump back inside the house, where he tanked up at his water dish and collapsed with a doggy groan on the hardwood floor. Ellie went to the second bedroom, which she had set up as an office, although she rarely had to bring any work home with her. The Bluetooth speakers connected to her phone automatically, and the music picked up right where she had left it that morning: in the middle of “West End Girls.” Ellery liked to fill the silence of her house with music, because when there was noise outside her head she didn’t have to pay too much attention to her own thoughts. The ’80s songs, she had learned to love them when she was a kid riding around in her father’s van as he made weekend deliveries. Her father was long gone now, but Bruce Springsteen would be with her forever.
Her desk had a locked file drawer at the bottom, where she kept what little information she had on the three missing persons cases. This time, she bypassed those folders in favor of a plastic Snoopy pencil case she had owned since the third grade. The Snoopy and Woodstock sticker was faded and worn away at one corner. She popped the lid and found the usual treasures: a photo of her, Daniel, and Mom taken down by the pier at Lake Michigan by her father the summer before he left them; a ribbon she’d received for winning the fifth-grade spelling bee; Daniel’s Yoda watch; and a card from the FBI.
She lifted the card and read the name to herself. Reed Markham. The man playing him in the TV movie had a strong jaw and black hair that flopped in his eyes. She had no idea if Markham still worked at the FBI or if he would agree to help her. Sam was right that she had precious little evidence of any sort of crime, let alone proof of the monster she felt was out there, probably stalking a new victim even now. When summer rolled around, her fellow cops looked at her like she was the crazy one, rambling on about murder, but they didn’t know how it was. They hadn’t been close. They’d never sat in a killer’s closet and felt the claw marks in the wood, left there by the girls who had already died. Touched, Ellie liked to think of it sometimes as she traced her scars in the dark. She’d been touched.
Ellie knew “touched” could mean gifted or insane. Maybe she was both.
But she wasn’t wrong, and if anyone out there was ever going to believe her, it was Reed Markham. Because he’d been touched once too.
Copyright © 2017 Joanna Schaffhausen.