Nowhere Girl: New Excerpt

Nowhere Girl by Susan Strecker follows the unsuspected death of sixteen-year-old Savannah Martino. Years later, when the case is reopened, her sister Cady—despite being a thriller author—is not prepared for the truth of what actually happened.

Sixteen-year-old Savannah Martino is strangled to death in an abandoned house. The police rule Savannah’s murder a random attack of opportunity, which prompts the small New Jersey town to instigate a curfew and cancel football games. Isolated and afraid, Savannah’s sister, Cady, continues to communicate with Savannah through dreams. Cady knows Savannah in ways no one else knew: The beautiful, ethereal twin everyone thought was an angel was actually on the road to self-destruction.

Years later a chance encounter while researching her latest novel coincides with an unexpected call from the once-rookie cop on Savannah’s case, Patrick Tunney, now a detective, who tells Cady that Savannah’s case has been reopened. Through new evidence, it has been determined that Savannah’s death wasn’t a random attack and that whoever killed her sister loved her.

Despite years of interviewing convicted killers, profilers, and psychiatrists for her bestselling thrillers, Cady isn’t prepared for the revelation that someone close to her could have killed her sister. Cady is drawn into a labyrinth of deception and betrayal reaching all the way back to her childhood that will force her to find the strength she never knew she had in order to face the truth.



The day Savannah was killed, she was fifteen minutes late to meet me. I was cold, standing in the November wind outside our school. Because she’d told me to wait for her, I’d missed the bus, and now I’d have to walk home in the dark. Mrs. Wilcox’s red Honda was the only car in the front parking lot. It was just me and a stone cherub above the entrance, giving me the creeps. Finally, I pushed back through the glass doors and plopped down in a leather recliner, furniture meant to make Kingswood Academy’s waiting area feel like a living room rather than a school.

I knew I should have been out looking for Savannah, but I’d been a little pissed at her lately, coming home smelling like the cigarettes she’d smoked behind the carved oak trees out back with the upperclassmen girls. She was the one with the older, cooler friends; the secret boy crushes. She was the one who’d been getting high and having sex since we were fourteen. Somehow, she was also where she was supposed to be all the time. Which is how she fooled our parents, never giving them reason to suspect that their identical twin daughters were only the same on the outside.

Kingswood had been renovated the year before, thanks to a generous and wealthy alum. The skylights above me brought a constant brightness like the manufactured cheerfulness of a hospital’s children’s ward. Somewhere in the office, I heard Mrs. Wilcox typing on her computer. When I closed my eyes, I felt a vague sensual pleasure, as though someone had his warm hands all over me—a feeling rather than a thought. I’d only kissed one boy, barely touched our lips together, so I understood it was Savannah’s experience I was feeling. As different as we were, I knew her the way a newborn knows to nurse and birds know to fly in a V.

That morning while she was flat-ironing her hair, INXS turned up too loud on the CD player in the bathroom, she told me to cover for her at the dance planning meeting after school.

“I’ll ride the late bus home with you, and we’ll just tell Mom and Dad I went.”

I’d stood in the doorway of the bathroom watching her, wondering what had been making her smile so much lately.

“Where are you going?” I’d asked. But our brother, David, called us for breakfast, and she disappeared down the stairs.

She was probably off with Scarlet and Camilla, securing her place in that coveted inner circle of senior girls where no other underclassmen were allowed. Maybe my friend Gabby was right. Savannah was too cool for us; she only wanted to hang out with older girls now. There were so many days she’d asked me to take her backpack home and do her homework. Afterward, she’d come traipsing in the front door as I was setting the table for dinner, making up a lie about being at some school meeting that would look good on the college applications we wouldn’t be writing for another two years. As I listened to Mrs. Wilcox type, I thought about something I’d been asking myself lately whenever resentment about Savannah began to creep in: What if I said no? What if I walked home alone and told my mother I didn’t know where she was?

Of course, I knew from the second she didn’t meet me outside the glass doors for the late bus that something was wrong. Still, when that hazy sensuality gave way to anxiety, I fought it. Panic crept into my stomach, my throat. If I’d allowed myself to hear Savannah, to listen to the message she was trying to send me, I would have known that, not more than a thousand yards away, she was dying.

I tried to tell myself that I was having an asthma attack, but it didn’t feel like they usually did. It was more of a choking feeling in my throat than a tightness in my chest. When it got so bad I could barely breathe, I fumbled in my backpack for the cell phone my parents had given me for emergencies only. I’d never used it before.

“It’s my sister,” I told the 911 dispatcher frantically. “She’s hurt.”

“The nature of her injuries, please,” the operator said in a robotic voice.

“I don’t know. I think she can’t breathe.”

“Is the victim with you?”

“No, no. I don’t know where she is, but she’s hurt.”

“Miss.” The operator’s monotone turned to impatience. “If you don’t know where she is, how do you know she’s injured? Did she call you?”

“She’s my twin.” I was sobbing, not from the pain in my throat but because I knew even as I was on the phone with the police that it was too late.

I could tell the dispatcher didn’t believe me, but she asked where I was and my name, and then she clicked off.

By the time I hung up, I felt weak, so weak I thought my knees might give if I got up. Somewhere far off, I heard sirens. And then suddenly, something left me. I felt washed out, empty. The wind could have blown right through me. Something ineffable and bright, a ball of light I’d been carrying since birth, exited my body.

All my life, I’d remember that moment. But it was when I was thirty-two that Savannah finally returned to save my life by leading me to her killer.




It was Valentine’s Day, and as usual, Greg and I were lying in bed, working. “How can you not like this holiday?” I asked him. He handed me a stack of letters three inches thick bound by a wide green rubber band. “It celebrates love.”

“It perpetuates mental illness and loneliness”—Greg pushed his glasses up his nose—“and its only purpose is to sell cheesy cards and chocolate.” He put the letters on my lap and then picked up a case file. “Anyhow, if you’re going to respond to all your fan mail, like your website says you will, you’d better get going.”

I held up the elastic. “Is this from the broccoli?”

He gave me a half smile. “I had to use something. The ones in the junk drawer kept breaking.”

I aimed it at his face. “Maybe someone in this stack will ask me to be his Valentine.” I swerved at the last minute, and the rubber band headed toward our wedding photo. That picture could turn my mood nostalgic. We’d been so happy.

“Really, Cady.” He set his file aside, got out of bed, and retrieved the elastic. “Grow up.”

I watched him walk to the bathroom and shut the door. I listened for him to lift the toilet seat. The name on the file he’d been reading, gibberish to anyone else, was clear to me. Greg took his HIPAA laws seriously, but it hadn’t taken me long to crack his code. Each letter was the one to the right of the actual letter on the keyboard. I’d spent so many years deciphering his files that I could do it almost instantly now.

I glanced at it while I slid the letter opener across the first envelope. What was this patient’s problem? With the metal tip, I flipped open the file and got as far as “PP: Complains…” before Greg came back in the room.

“Hey.” He grabbed the file.

PP—presenting problem. Complains about what? His wife? Thoughts of doing unspeakable things to children? Not being able to get a hard-on?

“If you need material for the new book, you could just ask. You don’t have to snoop.” He climbed in bed again.

“I might.” I sighed. “My new friends at the pokey aren’t cooperating.”

“I really wish you wouldn’t go there alone.”

“Why?” The envelope in my hands was smudged with greasy fingerprints and smelled faintly of hot dogs. This one probably wasn’t fan mail, but I opened it, anyway.

“It’s not safe,” Greg said.

“There are security cameras and guards everywhere.”

“Can’t you just Google whatever you need to know?”

He held his hand between us, palm up, an offering. And I knew I should take it, but instead, I unfolded the letter.

“No, this novel is set in a prison. I have to go there and feel it out.” I pulled out my elastic and ran my hand through my hair. “But I haven’t been able to find an inmate to talk to yet, so it could be a no-go.”

He said something that I didn’t hear because I was reading.

Ms. Bernard: You have no imagination. You keep writing about the same thing over and over.

“My website says I’ll read and answer adoring fan mail.” I handed him the angry scrawl. “Do I have to respond to this?”

He scanned the bottom of the letter. “Maybe Joe Mama is right. Scrap the prison drama and write something uplifting. You don’t always have to be so dark.”

“Have you met me?” I snatched the letter back. “Dark is all I know.” Joe Mama didn’t leave his contact information, so I tossed the letter on the floor. “I don’t do cheery. Puppies and rainbows are not interesting. Besides, I must be doing something right. A lot of people love my books.”

He opened the file. “Except your mother.”

This was true. Every time I sent her a bound galley, she’d call, make small talk about how gorgeous Saint Augustine was, and tell me that the book was beautiful but upsetting.

“Let’s leave my mom out of this. I don’t blame her for not wanting to read about dead children and murderers.”

“It wouldn’t kill your family to talk about Savannah every now and again.”

I winced at his choice of words. “I see my parents twice a year. I don’t think that’s what we want to discuss at Christmas dinner.” I could feel another fight coming on. “Besides, you know why we don’t talk about her.”

“I know your reasons. I just don’t agree with them.”

I reminded myself that I chose to marry a shrink. And that once upon a time, we had loved each other. “I don’t talk about my sister because I don’t want to. It fucking hurts too much, okay?”

He patted my hand. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

I didn’t feel like fighting. “It’s fine.”

“You are a strong writer, you know.”

“But?” There was never a compliment without a but.

“But your work is disturbing, hard to read.”

“No shit. My life is disturbing.”

He slid his hand over and set it on top of mine. Greg’s hands were big and boney. “It is not disturbing.” He said it in the way you might talk to a child. Or a patient. “You live in a beautiful house.” After my first book was published, the same year we got married, Greg found this place. It was much too big for us, but we bought it, anyway. The day we moved in, I stood in the foyer with its echoey, sterile feel and cried. “You’re happily married.” To a man who wanted to fix me and hated Valentine’s Day, I thought. “Nothing about your life is disturbing. You’re happy.” No. I wasn’t. He leaned over and gave me a dry peck on the cheek. “Right?” Quick kisses were all I seemed to get anymore. I didn’t know if I was disappointed or relieved. I just wanted things to be the way they were before the money fights and miscarriages.

“Yes.” I had at least seventy-five letters to read and didn’t want to waste time arguing about something we were never going to agree on. “Life is good.”

I thought he might kiss me again and then switch off the light, but we hadn’t had sex since December after the last miscarriage the month before. I’d been inconsolable for weeks, and there was probably nothing else he could think to do to comfort me. Now, though, he went back to his file, and I sifted through the mail until I found one I wanted to answer.

*   *   *

I woke the next morning with the letters spilling off my chest onto the floor. Greg’s side of the bed was neatly made, his reading glasses against his bedside-table light. The weight of my dream pushed against me, and I sat up, careful not to disturb the duvet. I heard the shower shut off. Greg knew about my Savannah dreams, but I hadn’t told him how real they were. He didn’t know that every time she came to me, I woke with a slight depression on my side of the bed, as if someone had been sitting next to me. It was there now. An indentation where a person might sit if they were watching you sleep. Or trying to wake you. I could feel that warm, melting feeling pouring out of me, leaving me cold in the room. It’d been months since Savannah had been in my dreams, but after New Year’s, she’d come back. Usually, she appeared in bright colors, ringing out her singsongy voice, her eyes full of mischief. I’d wake up smelling her honey shampoo. But when she came back a few days into January, it’d been in memory and feeling. I couldn’t recall the specifics, just a strange sadness as though she were reluctant to do what she had to do. The only thing I remembered from the initial dream was the prison.

Before those dreams began, I’d been planning to call Deanna and tell her I was quitting, that there would be no fifth book. I was stumped and stuck beyond recovery, but when I’d woken from that first one with that strange sensation in my body—as though I’d not only seen Savannah but I’d actually been her walking toward a prison in weak sunlight—I’d gotten up groggily and Googled directions to the South Jersey Penitentiary. I didn’t know why she wanted me to go. But I had one small hope: maybe the son of a bitch who killed her had landed there, and I was finally supposed to find him.

Because I hadn’t known who to call about an interview and it was only twenty minutes from my house, I’d driven there, hoping to charm someone into talking to me. It was a long shot. Skinny girls with flirty smiles were charming. Awkward, fat girls got sent away. But they hadn’t denied me. And now I’d been there three times already under the guise of research and had spoken to the head warden, two psychologists, the continuing education teacher, and a public defender. But when I asked about the prisoners, I got shut down. “Inmates don’t give interviews,” the warden had told me. “They’re convicts, not movie stars.”

Now I ran my hand over the depression on the bed. Through the bathroom door, I could hear Greg humming. He turned on the sink. I closed my eyes and entered again the blurred world of razor wire and armed guards. Deep in me, I knew what Savannah was really doing. She was telling me there was a reason to go back to the prison. She’d find someone to help me. Behind the guards, metal detectors, and bulletproof glass, I might come one step closer to finally knowing what happened to her.

*   *   *

It was Thursday, so after I made a cake for my weekly dinner at my brother’s house, I got in the car and headed south on the Jersey Turnpike toward the prison. It was a nickel-colored day of spitting snow, and the forecast was for nothing but that and freezing temperatures for the next week. I was in a down parka and a ridiculous hat, and because the Volvo Greg had bought me had heated leather seats, halfway there, I was sweating my ass off.

A blond guy with handcuffs dangling from his utility belt handed me a plastic box from a visitor’s locker so I could stick my purse in it. His left eyelid was limp, and it made him look sneaky and a little terrifying. His good eye stared at me as if he’d never before seen a porky girl with a notebook and a voice recorder. “Here to see?”

“Please,” I said, glancing behind him at the glassed-in office where other employees were doing paperwork. “I don’t actually know any of the inmates. I’ve been here before and have interviewed some staff members. Everyone has been super helpful, but I’m trying to write a book, and now I really need to speak to a prisoner.” I was talking quickly. “Preferably someone with a life sentence, because—”

But the guy put up his hand.

“Please?” I asked him, leaning across the counter. “I only need one inmate.”

“No can do, ma’am.” His limp eye scanned my body from one end to the other. “Rules are rules.”

He staked both hands on the counter, and I tried to focus on his good eye. It was hard and steadfast, and I knew I wasn’t getting anywhere. Having no one else to see and feeling foolish, I thanked him and hurried down the metal stairs, pushed the heavy door open, and stepped out into a gray landscape. Savannah, I thought, had steered me wrong.

I was unlocking my car door when someone in a blue DOC jacket came down the front steps. He was rough in a sexy kind of way, strong cheekbones, full lips. And as he got closer, I saw it was Brady Irons, the boy from high school whom I had loved from the moment he’d transferred in as a junior at the end of my and Savannah’s freshman year. He was a military kid whose father was stationed at Fort Dix, and I used to watch him as he walked through the halls with his head down, a white T-shirt on, and cigarettes rolled in the sleeve like James Dean, but I could never make myself speak to him. I did, however, talk about him endlessly to Gabby and Savannah. He seemed older, more experienced than all of us; he’d lived all over the country and in Panama and the Philippines, and I was just a stupid freshman. I was pretty sure Brady Irons never even knew I existed, and still I found myself shutting my car door and calling out his name.

“Brady!” I yelled.

He turned toward me, and I walked quickly to him. I could feel my thighs rubbing together as I went.

“Hey.” I was out of breath. “Brady, right?” He nodded, and there was no doubt it was him. He still had the same slicked-back hair and slightly uneven gait. Now he stood staring at me, not speaking. I could only imagine what he was thinking. It probably wasn’t every day a fat girl charged him in a prison parking lot.

“I’m Cady Martino. Well, Cady Bernard now.”

He shifted his keys from hand to hand. I couldn’t tell if he was nervous, late, or had no idea who I was.

“David Martino’s sister. From Kingswood?” I knew if I’d said something about Savannah, he’d recognize me right away, but I didn’t want to talk about her. It had been 5,914 days since she’d been gone, and it was still hard to speak her name.

“That’s right.” He looked profoundly uncomfortable. “How’re you doing?” He was holding the door handle of a baby-blue antique Ford pickup. “I was just leaving.” The prison took up the landscape behind him.

“Yeah,” I said, checking the time on my phone. I had forty minutes to get to David’s house. “Me too. I don’t mean to hold you up, but do you work here?” It was a ridiculous question given his attire, but I was a little desperate to keep the conversation going.

“Sure do.” He jiggled his keys. “Everything good?”

How was I supposed to answer that? “Um, sure.” And then I got it. What he really wanted to know was who I was visiting in prison. “Oh, I’m here on business.”

He let his eyes travel up and down my body, maybe trying to figure out what I might be pedaling.

“I’m a writer, doing research for my next book.” I’d forgotten how startlingly blue his eyes were.

He cracked a beautiful white-toothed smile. “I thought you called yourself a novelist.” That Brady Irons would know this shocked the hell out of me. The word writer made me think of a red-faced, sweaty reporter with a cigar hanging out of his mouth, pounding out stories for The Post about why the Jets hadn’t had a winning season in forever. But for some reason, I couldn’t say novelist to him.

“You’re on Facebook?” I asked, thinking of the About section of my page.

“Nope. I don’t need to know when the guy next door buys new underwear. But I’ve been following your career.” He said this shyly, ducking his head as if unsure of himself. “It’s not every day a friend from high school becomes famous.”

Friend. If only he knew that I’d spent more than a year signing my name in cursive as Cady Irons.

“Is your new book set in a prison?”

“It was going to be, which is why I’m here, but I need interviews with guards and inmates. There’s only so much information the front desk clerk or the guy who runs the metal detector can give me.” I was rambling, but I couldn’t stop. Seeing Brady Irons again after all these years made me nervous. It was like the crush had come rushing back in, or the feeling had never gone away. “Are you a guard?” Please, please, please be a guard.

“Corrections officer.” He said it with the same disdain I did when I corrected people on my job title. Right, you didn’t call them guards. But at least he wasn’t a lunch lady.

“I really need some help.” I felt myself stepping toward him. “Can I pick your brain sometime? My agent is going to kill me if I don’t get a move on.” I was doing it again. Babbling.

He spun his watch around on his wrist but didn’t answer.

“Might you have time tonight? I’m going to David’s house for dinner. He’d love to see you.”

I thought of my brother cooking Indian in the new fat clothes I’d bought him. He’d eaten his way out of his monogrammed oxfords and pleated pants since Emma had left him.

“That sounds great, but I volunteer at Hope’s Place on Tuesday nights and sometimes Thursday, too.”

“The women’s shelter?”

“They have kids there too. But yes.”

“Wow. That’s so nice of you.” Every year in December, I’d donate a couple of thousand dollars to the ASPCA when my accountants told me I needed to make some charitable contributions. I thought of how good that made me feel and imagined it was nothing compared to what Brady Irons did.

He shrugged off the compliment. “They feel safer with me there. I teach them self-defense and give them all my cell number in case their boyfriends and husbands find them.”

“Wow,” I said again, feeling shallow and stupid. “Can I give you my number?” As if Brady Irons, the do-gooder, were really going to call the chubby novelist from Kingswood, but I told it to him, anyway.

He winked at me. “Okay,” he said. “How about next Tuesday? I’m off on Tuesdays.”

*   *   *

Twenty minutes later, I parked behind David’s side of the garage. Now that Emma had left him, I guessed both sides were his.

“The cake’s here.” I stepped into the kitchen, and there were the people I loved most in the world: Gabby; David; David’s best friend, Chandler; and Chandler’s boyfriend, Odion. Chandler was standing at the stove, stirring a pot. Odion was at the sink washing what must have been a month’s worth of dishes. It smelled like curry and dirty laundry. Gabby was sitting amid piles of socks and undershirts on David’s kitchen table, pouring a thick, orangish drink into five glasses. Emma was a bitch, and I was glad she’d run home to her police chief father and overprotective mother, but she’d kept a clean house. Through the doorway, I could see my brother building one of his model cars.

I set the cake on the counter. “Smells good,” I said.

“Hope you like it spicy.” Chandler was wearing a half dozen rings and a chunky bracelet Odion had brought back for him from his last import trip to Cameroon.

I picked a piece of chicken out of the hot skillet and popped it in my mouth.

“What’s with the stupid grin?” Gabby asked, putting Chandler’s glass on the counter. She was wearing a heavy leather jacket with a fur collar, which explained the Harley sitting outside, even though it hadn’t been above freezing for weeks. She’d changed her nose ring to a silver star, and it twinkled as she brought me a drink.

“You will never guess who I ran into at the prison.” I peeked in the living room, where David’s head was bobbing to music on his iPod, all those little Mustang parts spread out in front of him. “Is he still at it?” I asked.

“He’s moping,” Chandler said, turning off the stove.

“He’s heartbroken,” Odion told Chandler. “Give the poor boy a break. It was Saint Valentine’s Day yesterday, and he was alone.”

“Did you see Emma?” Gabby guessed. “Is she an inmate?” She gave Odion his drink, and he sniffed it before taking a sip. “Chief Fisher would have a hell of a time explaining that his perfect daughter got arrested for being a cow.”

I laughed. “No, I did not see Emma, and let me get David. He needs to hear this.”

We walked into the dining room with our drinks. David had on dorky magnifying glasses, because everything in a model car kit was about an eighth of an inch long. I handed him his drink.

He pulled out an earbud. “Is dinner done already?”

“Guess who I saw at the South Jersey Pen today?”

Even though his eyes were gigantic behind the magnifying lenses, David was handsome in that messy, absentminded professor way that sometimes made me wonder if he knew how to shower. “What the hell were you doing there?”

I waved my hand at him. “Research for the new book, but that’s not important now.” I couldn’t wait to tell them. “Brady Irons.” I took a sip of my cocktail—which, from the taste of it, was mostly rum.

David raised his eyebrows. “Brady Irons is in jail?”

I balled up my napkin and threw it at him. “Of course not. He works there. Isn’t it amazing that after all these years I found him?”

Odion disappeared into the kitchen and came back with five plates. “Who is this Brady Irons? I missed so much not going to high school with all of you.”

Gabby took them from him and set the table as she talked. “Cady loved him in high school.”

“You did?” Chandler and David asked at the same time. Jesus, boys were so dense.

Gabby peered up and saw my flushed cheeks. “And apparently she still does.”

I picked up the napkins and silver I’d brought in and followed her around the table, setting each place. “I do not.” I could feel my face getting even hotter. “It was just really nice to see him again.”

David finished his drink in one long gulp and then let out a loud burp. “I don’t think a married woman should be this excited about seeing an ex-boyfriend.”

“Hardly,” I said. “I don’t think I ever spoke a word to him in high school.”

“Just because you were too shy back then doesn’t mean you’re too shy now,” Gabby said, puckering her lips.

David reached in his pocket and handed me his cell phone. “Call Lover Boy up,” he said. “Invite him for dinner next week. We won’t tell Greg.”

“I’m not inviting him anywhere near here until it gets a little less sty-like.” I swept a pile of crumbs off the dining room table into my hand. “You know, sometimes I miss Emma.”

“Fuck you,” David said pleasantly. “I’ll clean … eventually.”

“We can argue about Cady’s crappy marriage later,” Chandler told us, bringing the chicken vindaloo in on a platter. “It’s time to eat.”

“My marriage isn’t that crappy,” I told them. But the whole way through dinner, I couldn’t get Brady Irons out of my mind.


Copyright © 2016 Susan Strecker.

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Susan Strecker resides in Essex, Connecticut, with her husband and two children. She is the author of Night Blindness, an Indie Next Pick. Nowhere Girl is her second novel.

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