The moon shined over the lake.
The killer was close, I could feel it deep in my bones. It was like the ache I got every time a thunderstorm started rolling in.
“I didn’t expect to see you here,” a man’s voice came from around the corner of the cabin.
I steadied myself as best I could.
“Come on out, you’ve been caught.”
When the man stepped into the moonlight, my breath caught in my chest. “It was you? How could it be you?” I hated the way my voice sounded—like that of a whiny child. “You’re supposed to be one of the good ones.”
“I am one of the good ones.”
“Why did you do it?” I asked.
“You know why,” he said, looking down the driveway as if expecting someone.
“You said you’d moved past it,” I said. How had I been so stupid to believe him?
“I have,” he said, turning his attention back on me. “Well, now I have.”
“She’ll never forgive you. You’ll never get her back.”
“That’s not what I was trying to do.” He took a step toward me, but I stepped away. “I don’t care about her anymore.”
“Then why did you kill the man she left you for? If you were over it, you wouldn’t need to kill him. Or anyone.”
His face showed no remorse. “I need to get out of here. If you found me, the police will be right behind you. In fact, I’m surprised they didn’t beat you to it.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked. But he didn’t answer. Instead, he pulled a gun from the holster on his hip.
But I was faster.
I took the shot I never thought I’d have to take.
His arm wasn’t even parallel with the ground before my bullet found purchase and he fell backward toward the water.
Police rushed in behind me as tears streamed down my face.
“You did what you had to do,” one of them said. But all I could think about was how he and I had spent so many hours together working on cases. He’d been my best friend.
# # #
I closed the book and sighed. Henrietta Rose was masterful.
I’d always hated reading until I picked up one of her books. Now, I could hardly wait to read the next one.
“Wanna go for a walk?” I asked Fizzy, my pit bull Lab mix.
He flew off the couch and started jumping like he had springs in his back legs.
“I’ll take that as a yes.” I thought about how Garrett and I used to take Fizzy and Babbitt on walks together most nights, but pushed the thought away. There was no purpose in dwelling in the past.
The evening spring air was enough to elicit a chill and necessitate a jacket. I grabbed my favorite Denver Bronco’s hoodie and locked the door behind me.
Only a few steps from my apartment building, my phone rang. “Hello?”
“Rylie? Are you there?” My mom sounds like she’s in a gymnasium with all the noise behind her.
“Yep, I’m here. Where are you?”
“Your sister and I just finished our pickleball game. We beat them by a landslide.”
I didn’t have the heart to remind her that the people she played against were easily twenty years older than her and more than twice my sister’s age. “That’s great.”
“I wanted to invite you over for dinner tonight,” she said. “It’s been a while since we had a family dinner, and I’m missing my girl.”
“Can’t tonight,” I said. “I have plans. But I’ll come over soon.”
“You’ve been saying that for weeks. Did I do something wrong? What can I change to get you to want to spend time with me again?”
“I’ve just been super busy since I came back from Ireland.” I’d visited Ireland to see my best friend and roommate Shayla who had recently decided she wasn’t coming back to the United States. So, I guess she was my ex-roommate.
I pushed away the thought so I wouldn’t start crying . . . again.
“Busy doing what?” Mom asked. Of course, she wouldn’t let this go. “Reading those ridiculous mysteries.”
“They’re not ridiculous,” I said. “They’re fun.”
“I tried to read one and it was so far-fetched I had to put it down.”
I did my best not to get irritated as we took a turn down a side street toward the park where Fizzy liked to roll in the mud. “Well, I like them.”
“You know, you can’t just sit around reading silly mysteries for the rest of your life. You’re going to have to go back to work. Or get another job if being a park ranger isn’t what you want to do.”
When I’d gotten back from my honeymoon just before Christmas, I had been certain I wanted to go back. I told my boss—Ursula—that I’d be back after my Ireland trip.
Since then, I’d pushed the timeline out approximately ten or eleven times. It was only a matter time before she gave me an ultimatum . . . or gave up.
“I’ll get a job,” I said. “Or go back to the reservoir. I don’t know yet.”
Mom sighed into the receiver loudly enough for her entire gym to hear it. Even Fizzy glanced up at me with a look of worry in his eye. “I’ll call you tomorrow about dinner. Try not to make any plans.”
We said our goodbyes and disconnected the call. As Fizzy rolled in the mud, I scrolled through the newest video app that was all the hype with the younger kids. Though it was only a matter of time before people my age made it uncool.
I shook my head. Since when was I old enough to make something uncool?
“Stuck in a rut?” A woman with pretty brown hair and big eyes smiled at me from my phone. “Revamp your life in six days.”
I was about to swipe to the next video, but something made me stop.
“Day One: Purge. Get rid of anything you don’t absolutely adore. Is your ex’s stuff still hiding in your closet? Burn it or return it.”
I chuckled a bit at her rhyme.
“Day Two: Get out of the house. Go on a date. Or to dinner with friends. No, your dog doesn’t count.”
I glanced at Fizzy who was happily running through the dog park.
“Day Three: Get a new pet. You heard me. A NEW pet. Don’t get rid of your old pet. Just get another pet. Someone new to liven up your place.”
Fizzy was lively enough. I shook my head at the thought of this.
“Day Four: Redecorate. Splurge on yourself. Make your space a place you’re eager to come home to after a long day of work.”
My stomach turned at the thought of a long day of work. Not because I was lazy, but because I just couldn’t see myself going back to the reservoir without Shayla or Luke working somewhere in the city too. What if I found a dead body? I’d need one of them to help me with the crime scene. Okay, fine, there were other officers I trusted, but Shayla and Luke were police officers and my friends.
At least, I thought Luke was still my friend after the falling out we had at Christmas.
The video had come to the end and was now replaying. I had no way of fast-forwarding. I’d just have to watch it again to get to day six.
I watched Fizzy roll in another mud puddle before I heard the pretty brunette say, “Day Five: Try a new activity. Pretty simple right? And Day Six: Have a big party to celebrate your revamped lifestyle. Follow me for more tips.”
I hit the follow button and saved the video. Maybe my life did need a little revamping.
Day one was a breeze. Cleaning everything out of the apartment really meant my bedroom since Shayla had already had her belongings packed up and shipped to Ireland.
Her door stayed closed. It hurt too much to look in there and see an empty space where my best friend used to be. It was like a physical representation of the hole in my heart.
I only had a few of Garrett’s things still in my closet. Things I hadn’t realized had been there in the first place.
Part of me wanted to burn them, but the other part knew that wasn’t the right thing to do. I loaded them into the trunk of my red Mustang convertible—Cherry Anne the Second—and headed in the direction of his house.
I hadn’t been in Garrett’s neighborhood since I’d left after collecting my things after our wedding fell apart. Garrett hadn’t been there. In fact, I hadn’t seen him since he walked back down the aisle without my hand in his.
The house looked the same as it always had—a two story brick home in the nicest part of town. The garage doors were closed and, if Garrett was home, both his truck and his car were inside.
I sucked in a breath, pulled the box from my trunk, and walked up the steps to the front door.
When I knocked, Babbitt barked a few times.
“Oh Babbitt, it’s just a nice lady.” A woman I’d never seen before wearing a long skirt and fitted blouse opened the door. “Can I help you with something?”
My heart pounded too loudly for my brain to put any words together. Was this perhaps his sister? The last time I saw a woman at his door and had suspected something else, it had been his mother.
“Are you his sister?” I asked.
She giggled a bit. “No, I’m his fiancée.” She held up a ring that looked slightly larger than the one Garrett had given me. At least he hadn’t used the same one.
“I—uh—“ I tried to make out the words, but nothing would come.
“You look like you might pass out, do you want to come in and get some water?”
I shook my head furiously. “This. Garrett’s. Stuff.” I practically threw the box at her feet and turned to run.
Too bad my feet didn’t get the memo.
My body turned and my feet, trying to keep up, twisted causing me to topple down the top three steps onto the steep hill.
“Oh my goodness,” Garrett’s fiancée said, hurrying out to help me.
Babbitt came to my side and started licking the tears that were leaking from my eyes.
“Can I help you up?” the woman asked. “Garrett should be home from work soon, if you need to talk to him.”
I hugged Babbitt around the neck then brought myself to a stand. “I’m okay,” I said. “Just let Garrett know Rylie stopped by to drop off the last of his stuff.”
Her eyes widened in recognition. At least he’d talked about me.
Before she could say anything, I stood and marched down the steps with as much dignity as I had left.
“It was nice to meet you, Rylie,” the woman said.
I lifted a hand and waved without looking back at her.
# # #
Who was that ridiculous woman on that ridiculous app to tell me how to revamp my life? She was probably just some stupid influencer who roped people in with false promises and six-day plans that didn’t even work.
I sat in my living room and opened the app heading straight to her profile.
She had one point seven million followers and was listed as a licensed life coach with the little checkmark that said she was legit.
As I scrolled through her videos, she was side by side with other people’s videos who talked about how her six-day program changed their lives.
None of them talked about nearly quitting on day one. Maybe I was just a wimp. Maybe day two would be better.
I watched the video again to remind myself what day two was all about.
“Get out of the house. Go on a date. Or to dinner with friends. No, your dog doesn’t count.”
The only friends I had were the rangers and, if I went to dinner with them, they’d inevitably ask when I was coming back. That was a no-go. My mother’s offer tickled the back of my mind, but I quickly pushed it away. She said a date or friends. Not family.
Where would I find a date on such short notice?
I swiped through the app, trying to think of something. Or maybe think of nothing. About three videos in, an ad popped up for a new dating app called Just Personalities. No pictures. Just your personality.
Maybe that’s what I needed—to fall for someone because of their personality instead of their looks. All of the guys I’d dated or been attracted to since high school were the overly gorgeous type. Maybe I needed to go for someone because of their minds instead.
I clicked on the button to join. What did I have to lose?
The first thing it asked for was my name, then my favorite foods, my favorite tv shows, and a few other favorites. Then it asked me to create a short bio.
I tried to remember what Shayla had written about me on the app that had eventually—in a roundabout way—gotten Garrett and me together, but just the thought of our fun together made me a bit teary-eyed.
I ended up settling on: Loves Burgers, Beer, and the Broncos.
It was all I could come up with.
Now, I had to wait to see who I might be compatible with.
I put the phone on the coffee table and went to the kitchen to make myself a microwaved quesadilla. It wasn’t much but it was cheap and delicious.
My phone pinged and I practically dove over the couch to see if it was a notification from the app.
A message from Ursula said:
Need an answer. Could really use your help.
I felt like I was being sucked into a massive vacuum cleaner by my ass. What could I possibly say?
I need more time.
Her reply was almost immediate.
We need your help now.
Why? What’s going on?
That’s classified unless you’re willing to commit to returning.
I put the phone down. As curious as I was, I wasn’t going to give into her manipulation. It was slightly hilarious—or ironic—that she was so adamant about me coming back when she’d been the one who threatened to fire me several times at the beginning of my employment.
She could wait for an answer. And if she couldn’t, then she could just find someone to replace me.
I picked up the next book in the mystery series and started reading.
After staying up all night to finish the book, I needed a nap and a shower. Preferably in that order.
When my phone rang just as my consciousness was fading, I almost pushed the ignore button. But it was Nikki and she rarely called me.
“What’s up?” I asked keeping my voice intentionally groggy so maybe she’d get the hint.
“Are you still sleeping?” Nikki asked, disgust in her voice.
“I just went to bed,” I said. “I was up reading all night.”
“Do you have just a couple of minutes to listen? And maybe give me your input?”
I sat up so I wouldn’t fall asleep while on the phone with her. “Sure.”
“You cannot tell anyone I’m telling you this,” she said. “It’s just, I’m stuck and the only person I can think to talk to about it is you.”
“Is everything okay?” I asked. “Are you pregnant with Naked Guy’s baby?”
“His name is Oliver,” Nikki said. “And, I’m not pregnant. This is about a case I’ve been working.”
That made sense why she didn’t want me to tell anyone. This was probably the leverage Ursula was trying to use to get me to come back. “Okay, spill. I won’t say anything.”
“Rylie,” Nikki’s voice hushed slightly and became more serious, “there have been four murders in the last month in Prairie City parks.”
I sat up straighter. “Four?”
“All single men in their mid to late forties,” Nikki continued. “And we can’t find a connection. There hasn’t been a murder at one of the parks since the boat explosion months ago.”
“And now there have been four in a month,” I said. “That’s not great. How did they die?”
It sounded like Nikki was shuffling papers in the background. “The first guy was found in a floating barrel at Alder Ridge. The forensic team believes he was put in the barrel with some sort of acid mixture before being thrown into the water.”
Just the thought made my skin crawl. “Sounds horrible.”
“The second looked like a suicide by gunshot, but the gun was missing,” Nikki said. “When we looked into it more closely, we realized it was definitely a murder.”
The hairs on the back of my neck rose. It couldn’t be. It had to be a coincidence.
“The third was on the bike path where a runner stepped on a buried explosive and blew up.”
That was it. I knew what was happening. “Are there any cabins in Prairie City parks?”
Nikki didn’t reply for a few seconds. “Why do you ask that?”
“I’m going to take a wild guess here,” I said. “The next guy was found in a cabin that had been set on fire, but he didn’t die from the fire, he died from poisoning.”
Nikki was silent.
“Have these been reported on in the news?” I asked. Surely someone else would have come up with this theory before me.
“We’ve kept them out,” Nikki said. “But how did you—”
“They’re murders based on books,” I said. “Henrietta Rose’s Black is the New Dead series. You just basically outlined every murder in the first four books.”
“Except we haven’t gotten toxicology reports back from the guy in the cabin,” Nikki said. “We assumed he died from smoke inhalation.”
“It happened like that in the book too,” I said. “It’s okay. You can’t know until you get the reports.”
“Rylie, this is big,” Nikki said. “I need your help with this. Please come back and help me?”
“The next book had a guy who was suffocated then taken to a lake and thrown in so it looked like he drown,” I said. “You should keep an eye out at the lakes for whoever is doing this.”
“Please,” Nikki asked.
“Sorry,” I said. “I can’t. It’s too soon.”
Nikki didn’t say anything for what felt like forever.
I finally had to break the silence. “If that’s it, I need to get some rest.”
“Yep,” Nikki said. “Bye.”
She hung up before I could say anything.
I fell asleep within seconds of my head hitting the pillow.
# # #
When Fizzy started barking like a crazy person, it took everything in me not to yell at him.
“Fizzy stop,” I said. “I’m tired. I’ve only had a little bit of sleep. We’ll go on a walk in a little while.”
He wouldn’t stop.
“Fine,” I said. “But this better be important.”
I followed him to the living room and realized someone was knocking at the door.
I glanced at my reflection in the mirror, but I couldn’t hardly see myself. I flipped on the light and straightened my hair before answering.
Detective Harry Bryant of the Prairie City Police Department and Nikki stood on the other side of the door. They both looked extra official with Harry in his uniform and Nikki in a polo and khaki pants that didn’t take anything away from her model-like physique.
“What’s going on? Did something happen?” Panic rushed through me. The only reason they’d be at my door—together—was if something terrible had happened. “Is it my mom? My dad? My sister?”
“No, nothing like that,” Harry said. “I believe Ursula texted you and told you we needed your help?”
Nikki gave me a slightly panicked look. No matter how irritated I was becoming with their persistence, I wouldn’t rat her out. We may have started off as enemies, but we’d become something like friends.
“I didn’t agree to help,” I said.
“That’s why Ursula sent us over,” Nikki said. “Because you’re being a stubborn recluse.”
“I’m just taking some time to—”
“Wallow in self-pity?” Nikki shook her head. “When’s the last time you left the house?”
“I took Fizzy on a walk yesterday,” I said. “We’ll go on another one tonight.”
“Tonight? In the dark?” Nikki pointed to the window.
I hadn’t realized it was already dark outside. I’d slept all day.
“Ursula didn’t want us to discuss this with you unless you agreed to come back, but we know you can keep things confidential and won’t share what we tell you.”
I had to play this like I didn’t already know what he was about to tell me. But I also didn’t really want to be part of the case either. “Please don’t tell me. I’m sure you can figure it out on your own.”
Nikki shuffled her feet. I’d already given her the key to solving it. All she had to do was figure out who was copying Henrietta Rose’s books.
“Rylie,” Harry said in a low father-type voice. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t important. We need a fresh set of eyes on this. Please, will you at least let me tell you what we’re dealing with?”
He used to hate me. He’d tried to get me fired and had me kicked off of cases. Now he wanted my help.
Nikki and I had been enemies. Now we were friends.
Ursula didn’t think I’d last a summer. Now she was practically begging me to come back.
Maybe Shayla and Luke and Garrett had left me and moved on, but people still cared.
“Okay, you can tell me about it,” I said. “But no promises I’ll help.”
Nikki smiled and sat in the chair across the coffee table from me.
Harry pulled a file folder from the briefcase he’d brought with him. “We’ve had four murders on Prairie City properties in the last month.”
I tried to act surprised. “Four? That’s a lot.”
“I guess you’re not the shit magnet after all,” Nikki said.
I rolled my eyes at her. “Do you think they’re connected?”
Harry shook his head. “We can’t tell. Nothing we’ve come up with connects them other than the fact that they’re all men in their mid to late forties.”
“Were they all killed in the same way?”
Harry started to open the file then stopped. “These are pretty gruesome. Do you think you can stomach them?”
I nodded. “I haven’t eaten in twenty-four hours.” As if on que, my stomach growled.
“You might want to eat before you see these, because you’ll likely lose your appetite afterward.”
“I’m okay,” I said. “Just show me.”
He wasn’t lying. The pictures were not pretty.
“This man was found in a barrel that floated up in the middle of the reservoir. We think he was put in this barrel with acid.” Harry pointed to the photograph of a man who was barely distinguishable as a human at all.
“Any fingerprints or DNA?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said.
“This one looks like a suicide, but they ended up ruling it a murder,” Nikki said. “The gunshot wound would have left residue and burns on his skin but didn’t, meaning someone else shot him from farther away. Also the gun was never recovered.”
I sucked in a breath and moved my gaze to the next photo. “Oh my gosh.” I averted my gaze, why hadn’t I thought of what was coming?
“This man stepped on a bomb that was under the crusher fine on the running trail. The bomb was powerful enough to blow up an entire building.” Harry turned the page. “This one died by smoke inhalation.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
Nikki cleared her throat. “He was found inside a burning cabin.”
“I didn’t know we had cabins in the parks,” I said, trying to cover up the fact that I’d almost blown Nikki’s cover.
“It’s one of the old ones up in the newly acquired property in the foothills,” Nikki said. “It’s been scheduled for teardown for a while.”
“Can you think of anything that might tie these together?” Harry finally asked.
I glanced from him to Nikki. She gave me a slight nod.
“These are copycat murders,” I said. “It looks like you have a serial killer on your hands.”
# # #
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