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I Told You This Would Happen by Elaine Murphy

I Told You This Would Happen by Elaine MurphyCHAPTER 1

The Brampton Kill Seekers meet every other Wednesday in the after-school program room of the local library. The walls are bright yellow and plastered with corkboards covered in colorful children’s artwork, notices for book sales, and volunteer opportunities. A giant rainbow arcs over a chalkboard with reading is fun written in perfect cursive.

The dozen members—“kill seekers”—sit in a circle, a mixed group of men and women, young and old, a variety of ethnicities. I get the impression I’m the only new person, and perhaps the first new person they’ve had since they formed a year earlier, because everyone keeps darting surreptitious looks my way. Even though they invited me, it feels like they’re waiting for me to stand and introduce myself. Hello, everyone. I’m Carrie Lawrence. My sister is missing and presumed dead and I survived a serial killer. Thanks for having me!

The whispering reaches an almost feverish height, and it becomes painfully obvious that the circle of chairs has fifteen seats and the only two that aren’t occupied are the ones on either side of me, making me the painfully conspicuous guest of honor. I’m doing my best to appear immersed in the contents of my phone, waiting for the meeting to begin and not making eye contact, but that’s entirely unsuccessful, and it’s a mercy when someone decides to break the tension by announcing, “You’re Carrie Lawrence.”The room falls deathly silent, and I slowly raise my eyes, searching for the speaker. He wears a plaid shirt and a knitted cap and stares at me with something uncomfortably akin to awe. For some reason, he’s also the only person wearing a name tag: emmett.

“Yes,” I say, when the silence has gone on uncomfortably long. “I am.”

There’s more astonished murmuring, as though they hadn’t just been discussing me.

“I received your invitation,” I add tentatively. “And I read about your investigations. I share your questions, and I . . . seek the same answers.”

This is not exactly true, but the group is nodding sagely, so I think I’ve struck the right somber tone. Now that I’m making eye contact, I see that, like me, they all seem to have come straight from work for this seven o’clock meeting. There’s a woman in purple scrubs, a man in a business suit, and two teens in fast-food uniforms. What they all have in common is that they’re staring at me with an equal mix of fear and curiosity. They don’t want to be through what I’ve been through, but they want to know all about it. But that’s  not what I’m here for. The Kill Seekers invited me because they want to know what really happened to my sister, Becca. I already know what happened; I just need to confirm it. I need to find the body.

“My sister is missing,” I say, knowing they’ll eat it up. It’s been five months since Becca’s disappearance and the man who took her died, but I’ve refused to give any interviews or answer questions. Until now. Sort of.

“I don’t know. . . I don’t know if it was Footloose”—I do know; he sent me a picture—”but I, um, want to know. There are too many missing people in this city—”

Someone actually says, “Amen.”

“—and I want to help find them.”

Last fall, police found thirteen bodies buried in our local park, each missing a foot, and the press dubbed the killer “Footloose.” It was definitely him that took Becca, but I can’t tell anyone how I know this. I just need confirmation that she’s really, truly, forever gone.

The words earn me a round of applause that makes me flush with embarrassment. And perhaps shame, too, because I know that Becca was not an innocent victim. As far-fetched and impossible as it sounds, Brampton has been home to two serial killers. My sister was one of them, though her deadly deeds have never been discovered. And because she blackmailed me into helping her bury bodies for a decade, I know where too many of those missing people are. The only body I need to find, however, is Becca’s. I need proof she’s dead. Proof that horrible phase of my life is really over.

“Sorry I’m late.”

The Kill Seekers and I turn as a unit to see a man standing in the doorway, framed by a wall of paper flowers and streamers, a handmade sign reading welcome spring! dangling above. He’s tall and astonishingly handsome, with shaggy movie-star chestnut hair and cheekbones to match. It could be that he’s the only man I’ve ever seen who could successfully pull off a fake tan, his perfectly bronzed skin contrasting with his starched white button-up shirt.

Unlike everyone who’s in their work attire, it looks like he changed into what he thought “kill seekers” might wear: designer jeans, a camouflage jacket, and black work boots that I’d bet my life savings have never actually seen a day of work. A gold watch with diamonds glints on his wrist, and I know instinctively that he bought it from Becca. It takes a second to place him because I only saw him once before, when my sister introduced him as Nikk with two k’s. He manages an overpriced gourmet grocery store and was one of Becca’s best clients at the jewelry store, shelling out thousands of dollars on jewelry to apologize to his abused wife.

The Kill Seekers must have been expecting him, or at least hoping he’d show up, because his arrival changes the energy of the room. Emmett looks delighted and hustles over to greet him.

“You must be Emmett,” Nikk says, shaking his hand. “Thanks for the invite.”

I frown, wondering why both Nikk and I would have scored an invitation to this strange gathering. Surely he’s not that invested in the disappearance of his favorite jewelry salesperson.

“Of course, man. Anytime. Anytime.”

Emmett pauses. “I mean, not. . . Like, not. . .”

But for an alleged wife beater, Nikk is gracious. “It’s cool; I get it.”

“Hey, everyone,” Emmett announces, like we’re not all watching. “As you know, this is Nikk Boulter. His wife, Lilly Fiennes, went missing three weeks ago.”

People start murmuring excitedly, but I try not to look shocked. Becca told me Nikk hurt his wife but not that he might kill her. To be fair, Becca was a psychopath, so she may not have thought that detail mattered.

A couple of people look at me to gauge my reaction, so I furrow my brow in consternation. Brampton, Maine, has one of the highest missing persons rates in the country, and yet I haven’t heard anything about a recent disappearance. I whip out my phone and search Lilly’s name. All that comes up are two posts on Nikk’s infrequently updated Facebook page, nothing more.

Eventually, the chatter dies down, and Emmett remains standing as Nikk takes one of the empty seats next to me, shooting me a warm smile as though we’re friends. I flinch.

“We’ve met, right?” he whispers. “You’re Carrie? Becca’s sister?”

I nod. I can’t imagine he knows that Becca told me about his jewelry-buying motivations, but I also can’t imagine bonding with him over our missing loved ones, since I’m sure he killed his wife and knows exactly where she is.

“I remember Becca introducing us,” he adds. “When Emmett told me you might be here, I decided to come. I was hoping to talk to you.”

I don’t want to talk to him at all, so it’s a blessing when the lights abruptly dim and the meeting begins. Emmett takes his place at the front of the room, beneath the rainbow on the chalkboard. He’s turned the lights so low that all the light in the room is now provided by a Himalayan salt rock lamp that does very little to actually illuminate things, making him mostly just a vague shape and not the eerily lit leader he seems to aspire to. No one laughs so I don’t either, though I want to. I think he’s attempting to make eye contact with each person in the room, which is impossible because it’s too dark, and he appears to come to the same conclusion because, after a moment, he reaches for the dimmer switch and turns up the brightness of the ceiling lights. Next to me, Nikk smothers a laugh.

“Death,” Emmett says in a deep, resonant voice. “Disappearance. Yearning.”

He says these words with the cadence and conviction of a cult leader, and now I want to laugh, too, biting my lip and scrutinizing my feet so I don’t embarrass myself.

“Brampton!” he shouts, making me jump. “Population: two hundred thousand. Missing? One hundred twenty- three. Unsolved deaths? Seventy-two. People who truly care?” He makes a show of pointing at each of us in turn, which takes an uncomfortably long time and breaks up his rhythm. “Fourteen.”

Nikk scuffs his fancy boots, and I know he’s trying to sit still and not guffaw, even though theoretically we should be grateful that a dozen people besides us truly care.

Emmett’s just warming up. “We all have something in common,” he continues. “Nikk’s wife is missing. Carrie’s sister has disappeared. Kellie-Ann’s brother was murdered in a gas station robbery. Ravjinder’s sister went to the grocery store and was never seen again.”

I try not to stare at Ravjinder, a pretty twenty-something woman with shiny black hair tied back in a loose bun and wearing a red suit jacket. A necklace with a silver pendant flashes in the V of her white button-up shirt.

“The rest of us yearn!” Emmett bellows. This time I’m not the only one who jumps. Ravjinder clutches her chest like her heart’s about to give out. “We yearn for answers. We yearn for justice. We yearn to feel safe.”

Heads are nodding, as though these wishes are somehow uncommon and shared only by the people in this room.

“Tonight,” Emmett says solemnly, “we are blessed. We have with us Carrie Lawrence, who not only saw Footloose—who slew Footloose—”

That same person says, “Amen,” again, and now Emmett holds up a tablet with a slideshow of newspaper articles about Footloose, like we may have forgotten him in the past few months.

“—but who knew and loved Becca Lawrence.”

He taps the screen, and the article switches to an unflattering picture of Becca he must have grabbed from my Instagram before I deleted the account. She would have killed him for selecting this photo, if she were still alive.

“And. . .” Emmett drums his fingers on the back of the tablet before tapping the screen to reveal a familiar face. “Fiona McBride.”

I gasp. After Footloose had beaten Becca at her own deadly game, he’d turned his attentions to me. While leaving him to burn in his murder cabin, I’d heard screams from under the floorboards and discovered another kidnapped woman in the cellar, Fiona McBride. I’d saved her, and together we’d run for safety. Now she’s missing a second time, and I’m the only person who knows why.

Several faces turn to look at me, my gasp validating the dramatic reveal.

“Um. . .” I say, wondering if that gasp sounded to them like an admission of guilt, the way it did to me.

“You’re here,” someone whispers.

I close my eyes, waiting for the police to sweep in and triumphantly arrest me.

“The one,” another person says reverently. “The signal.” I open my eyes and peer around.

“Yes,” Emmett says solemnly. “The signal.” He taps the tablet again, and a Venn diagram appears. In one circle is Becca’s name; in another, Fiona; in the third, Footloose. At the center of the diagram, the circles overlap with one common, unfortunate theme: me. A twenty-eight- year-old stationery designer with the unenviable ability to attract psychopaths.

The room bursts into applause. Nikk glances at me strangely, but eventually he claps, too. I don’t clap. I don’t know what’s happening, and I’m still convinced I’m about to be arrested.

“Good news, Carrie.” Emmett shoots me a warm smile that’s probably supposed to be reassuring but is not. “We’re here to help you.”

I try not to appear as alarmed as I feel. “Oh,” I say, because they’re waiting for something. “Fantastic.”

They’re all still staring at me. I peek at Ravjinder like she might offer a clue, but she just smiles.

I clear my throat. “With, uh, what?”

Ravjinder’s smile widens, confirming I’ve somehow asked the right question. And, indeed, I have because Emmett taps the tablet again and a picture of a piece of notebook paper with gold writing wrapped in a large squiggle appears. I squint because the text kind of blends into the background and it’s really hard to read.

“Just . . .” Ravjinder murmurs, leaning in to see the screen.

“Justice?” one of the teenagers guesses.

“Justin?” Nikk offers.

“I see an N. Who’s Justin?”

“No,” Emmett snaps. He swipes at the screen to enlarge the image but just knocks it to the side so all we can see is JU. “It says . . . Dammit. . . It says . . . For crying out. . .” He gives up fiddling with the picture. “It says ‘Just in case.’ Guys, I showed this to you before. You’ve seen it online. It’s the same three words.”

“Whatever,” mutters a bald man in blue mechanic’s overalls, the name todd embroidered on the chest.

I raise a cautious hand. “What is it? What’s that from?

Just in case. Just in case what?”

“Fiona,” Ravjinder answers, as Todd and Emmett glower at each other. “She left a secret note.”

My stomach leaps into my throat. I aim for nonchalant but sound like I’m choking on guilt. “And what, uh, what does it mean?”

She shrugs. “No idea. Her mom found it under her pillow the morning after she disappeared, but no one’s figured it out.”

Emmett has abandoned the stare down with Todd and adjusted the picture on the tablet, coming closer to me and Nikk so we can see it better. It’s a piece of paper torn from a spiral notebook, the edges frayed. Gold marker spells out the message in capital letters, a little star decorating the I. There’s one word per line, filling the center of the page. Starting at the J and looping up and over, a gold line wiggles down the edge of the paper and ends in an arrow pointing back up at the little x that ends the message in lieu of a period. JUST IN CASEx

“Obviously Fiona knew she was in danger,” Todd says, arms crossed over his belly. “So she left a clue.”

I’m sweating. “Why do, um. . . why do you. . . we. . . think she was in danger? Didn’t she just run away again?”

“Who runs away and leaves a mysterious note?” Todd challenges me to my very own stare down, a challenge I do not accept, opting instead to appear absorbed by the minimal contents of the note. “Who leaves their car at the base of an abandoned hiking trail in the middle of a snowstorm? If she was taking off for greener pastures, she would have taken the car.”

“Plus, the window was smashed in,” teenager number two pipes up. “So that’s not good.”

“No,” I agree. “It’s not.”

As though sensing my discomfort, but definitely not knowing the reasons for it, Nikk intervenes. “They didn’t find any blood in the car,” he says. “No signs of a struggle. Maybe Fiona left the car there and caught a ride with a friend.”

“We got nine inches of snow that night,” Todd argues, now glaring at Nikk. “Any ‘signs of a struggle’ would have been buried. Tracker dogs couldn’t even find the trail.”

A fortuitous turn of events, since that trail would have led straight to me.

“And X marks the spot,” Ravjinder says. “So—”

“She hid something,” Emmett interjects hastily, realizing he’s lost control of the group and his audience. “And we have to find it. That’s the mission of the Brampton Kill Seekers.”

“Except you don’t know she was killed,” Nikk adds. A muscle twitches in his neck, like he’s trying not to laugh.

“We know Footloose murdered thirteen people and hid their bodies in Kilduff Park,” Emmett returns coolly, not knowing that’s technically incorrect. Footloose hid twelve bodies in the park. Becca and I added the thirteenth. Which is how Footloose found out about us. “And all of them were considered ‘missing’ by a police department that had neither the enthusiasm nor the resources to properly investigate. Just because we didn’t know they were killed doesn’t mean they weren’t.”

Todd nods his reluctant agreement.

Nikk’s nostrils flare as he drags in a breath. Technically his wife is also just “missing.” Same as my sister. I feel Todd watching me so I blink rapidly, like I’m trying to stave off tears, not that I’m panicked because I came here hoping to put one mystery to bed and instead discovered another far worse scenario that puts my whole future in jeopardy.

“It’s okay,” Ravjinder whispers, leaning over to pat my knee. “It will all be okay. We can do this.”

“We’ll get answers,” Emmett says, walking back to the front of the room. “We’ll get closure. We’ll get them. Us. The Brampton Kill Seekers.”

More heads bob.

“But first,” he continues, tapping the tablet for emphasis but only succeeding in enlarging the image so we can see just the A, scowling as he hunts around for the x, eventually making it front and center. “First, we find X.”

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