Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
The murders took place on a hot summer night, but to Juniper it would always be winter in Jericho. Bitter and unforgiving as deep February, when frost edged the windows like salt on the rim of a glass.
It seemed fitting, then, that it was dark and profoundly cold when Juniper pulled into town. In the glow of her headlights she could see that the WELCOME TO JERICHO sign was riddled with bullet holes. Fifteen years ago there had been exactly three: puncture marks with saw-toothed edges that, if connected, would form a nearly perfect isosceles triangle over the yellow block letters of her hometown. They seemed intentional at the time. A warning, maybe, or a vulgar homage to three different bullets that had taken a much deadlier trajectory. But even barreling down Highway 20 at sixty miles an hour in the raw black of a February night, Juniper could see that the sign had become a target of sorts. At least a dozen holes had been punched through the metal, and the indentations of buckshot dimpled the gaping O.
A shot-up welcome sign was certainly an inauspicious reception—she could hardly believe that in all these years the city council had never bothered to replace it—but she harbored no illusions that her return to Jericho would be a happy homecoming. It was why she timed her arrival for the middle of the night and told Cora to slip the house key in the mailbox of the bungalow. Juniper had rented it, sight unseen, on a six-month lease. She doubted she’d make it that long.
Even over a dozen years later and in the dark, Juniper knew the layout of Jericho by heart. The population was just shy of four thousand and the streets were arranged on a grid, so Cora hadn’t bothered to provide an address.
“It’s the McAvoys’ old place. One story, blue, tiny front porch. A block from the library. You know the one, right?”
Navigating the abandoned streets, she felt her skin prickle against the familiarity of a town she hadn’t seen in years. Little had changed. Main Street was shuttered and quiet, gray snow piled against the sides of businesses that she had frequented as a kid. Juniper could almost feel the cracking sidewalks beneath her feet, the slant of concrete where the roots of gnarled trees had bubbled up. She used to burst into Cunningham’s Cafe clutching a five-dollar bill. Cold Coke and hot, salty french fries, the backs of her bare legs glued to the green vinyl booth. The sticky-sweet memory felt like it was from someone else’s childhood.
Beside the cafe was a secondhand store, then, in quick succession, a run-down Dollar General, a Kirby vacuum dealer, and a small-animal vet. Across the street there was the eye doctor, the bakery, a mom-and-pop hardware, and a shoe store that had been boarded up, windows plastered with faded FOR SALE signs. That was it: all of Jericho in the blink of an eye.
At one end, right before the corner where Highway 20 intersected Main, was the library. Just the sight of it made Juniper’s heart unclench a bit, and she released the breath that she hadn’t realized she was holding. Cora had offered her a reason wrapped up so neatly she had no choice but to accept. A perfectly packaged rationale to come home.
Because the town seemed abandoned, Juniper didn’t bother to flick on her blinker when she turned at the end of the street. The small blue house was just where she knew it would be. It, too, hadn’t changed much, and she could almost picture Harriet McAvoy rocking in her chair beside the front door. But the porch was empty, freshly shoveled, and someone had left the floodlight on.
For just a moment, the golden glow of it mingled with the sudden flash of red and blue in her rearview mirror. But Juniper’s foot was already on the brake, her subconscious aware of what was happening even before she turned her head and realized there was a police cruiser behind her. It was the first car that she had seen in nearly an hour. “Perfect,” she groaned, easing to the side of the road instead of into the driveway of her new rental.
She threw the transmission into park and fumbled in the glove compartment for her papers, cursing under her breath. Of course her first few minutes back would end in a ticket. In a confrontation with the sort of small-town police officer who made her skin feel tight and itchy even all these years later.
Just as she located the little plastic folder with her papers, a shadow darkened the driver’s-side window and gloved knuckles rapped against the glass. He was talking as the window rolled down, but Juniper knew the drill. “License and registration, please.”
“Sorry, Officer,” Juniper responded. “Was I speeding? I know I forgot my blinker back there, but no one was around…”
She handed everything over, hoping the fine tremor of dismay in her voice wouldn’t come off as guilt. She couldn’t see anything beyond the officer’s waterproof black jacket and the dull glint of his badge. She tipped forward a bit to see if she could make out his features, maybe even recognize him from another time, another life. No such luck. Juniper didn’t know if she should feel relieved or frustrated.
“I’m from out of town,” she added unnecessarily. He had probably pulled her over precisely because of her Colorado plates. “Just got in.”
There was something in his voice that made her spine stiffen. “That’s me.” Instinct told her to fill the silence, play a little Jericho bingo to see if she could make a connection that would encourage him to let her off with a warning. But just as quickly as she fell into old habits, she remembered: Never answer more than asked. Never offer up unsolicited information. Never let down your guard. It was coming back to her.
“I’ll be just a minute,” the officer said. He disappeared with her papers and license, and in her rearview mirror Juniper could see him slide back into the cruiser. Tall, youngish, trim beneath his uniform. Unfamiliar. A far cry from Atkins, the round, elderly chief of police who had questioned her reluctantly all those years ago, as if he couldn’t quite believe what had happened on his watch. The officer’s skin had a blue tint from the dashboard light, and as she watched he punched something into the laptop computer she knew was attached to the console.
Juniper had nothing to fear, and yet her palms were suddenly damp in her lap. Knotting her fingers together, she pushed her laced hands out and away, tugging at the kinks in her shoulders and neck from the ten-hour drive. She was jittery, maybe a bit dehydrated, and unprepared for even this seemingly innocuous interaction. What have I done? she thought. Then: Just give me a ticket. Write me up and go away.
But when the officer came back, he only handed her a written warning. No ticket. “You were going a little fast back there, but I’m more concerned that your left taillight is out,” he told her. “Dangerous. Especially in winter.”
“Absolutely,” Juniper agreed. “I’ll call the shop tomorrow.”
“Be sure you do. And welcome back, Ms. Baker.”
Juniper’s cheeks flamed, and she was grateful that the officer was already walking away. She watched the police cruiser drive off, pressing cool hands to her burning face and wishing that she was curled up on her worn corduroy couch in Denver. Or perched on a stool at her favorite bar. Or pulling a late night in the archives. Anywhere but here.
True to her word, Cora had locked the front door and left the key in the mailbox. It was likely an unnecessary precaution (no one in Jericho locked their doors) and futile anyway, because the mailbox was the most obvious place to look if someone did want to break in. Still, Juniper felt a modicum of control when she reached a hand into the letterbox and came up with an icy key. It slid effortlessly into the front door, and the lock clicked open.
The bungalow looked exactly how she imagined it would: shabby but comfortable. There was a tiny living room with a drab floral sofa and a boxy old television set that had a twist dial for channels and another for volume. The vintage piece paired perfectly with the charming avocado-colored appliances in the galley-style eat-in kitchen.
Juniper toed off her boots and lugged the carton she was holding to the off-white Formica table pushed up against the far kitchen wall. It was the only thing she had carried into the house. Her clothes and toiletries could wait—the contents of the cardboard box could not.
Dropping her cargo onto one of two padded kitchen chairs, Juniper yanked open the bent flaps. She lifted out nine slim Moleskine notebooks, each in a different color. They were labeled in her quick, willowy cursive with black, archival-quality ink. Flipping through them, Juniper confirmed nothing was missing.
Next were the binders crammed with clear sleeves protecting copies of every single blog post, newspaper or magazine article, op-ed, and mention of the murders she could find. Juniper had scoured the internet, unearthing microscopic scraps—from a comment about the Murphy murders on an unrelated case to the Facebook profile picture of the coroner who had performed the autopsies (she never did manage to get a hold of the actual reports). At the very bottom of the box were a few pieces of material evidence. A time-softened folder with a handful of glossy photographs that were just beginning to yellow. A label she had carefully peeled and pressed flat from a jar of the Murphys’ famous raspberry jam. Her high school yearbook.
When everything was laid out on the table, Juniper felt the tension melt from her shoulders. It was all there.
She knew it was an impressive collection. If she had gone into law enforcement instead of library science, her box would have included forensic reports and interview transcripts, too, but this was enough. It would have to be.
The light was thin as spilled milk when Juniper woke. Without opening the curtains, she could tell that the day was dawning chilly and gray, the sun hidden behind long strips of clouds like cotton batting.
She had crashed on the couch, a musty afghan dragged over her shoulders and a binder open on the coffee table beside her. Thrusting back the blanket as if she had something to prove, Juniper hurried to her car and grabbed the suitcases she had left in the trunk overnight. Early to bed, early to rise, her stepfather had drilled into her, and even at thirty-three years old, seven a.m. felt downright luxurious. She could almost see Law scowl.
A quick shower and ten minutes in front of the mirror were more than enough. Sweeping on her signature dark red lipstick, Juniper tried to see herself as the rest of Jericho would. Like everything else around here, she hadn’t changed much—at least on the outside—since she had last called Iowa home. Her skin was still warm as sunbaked sand, and she often wore her long tangle of hair in a thick braid that curled over her right shoulder. Freckles sprinkled her nose and cheeks, trailing stardust down her neck to where a Milky Way of constellations spread across her chest. A lover had once traced them all, drawing patterns with his fingertips.
It was just before eight when Juniper waffled at the front door. In theory, she knew exactly what she was getting herself into: she was here to help Cora, whose breast cancer had spread to her lymph nodes and lungs. The small college in a Denver suburb where Juniper worked as the Special Collections and College Archives Librarian had given her an open-ended leave of absence, a move so generous Juniper had teared up when the Director of Library Services had made the necessary arrangements. But standing with her hand on the door only a block away from the Jericho Public Library, nothing was theoretical anymore.
Cora was dying.
The reality was, Juniper’s dear friend and only remaining confidante in her childhood hometown had decided not to undergo further cancer treatment, and Juniper had agreed to come back to keep the small country library afloat. Simple. But in the light of day, her reasons for coming were as labyrinthine as the contents of her box on the Murphy murders, which was now, she realized, strewn all over the kitchen table and on the floor beside the couch. She quickly gathered up the mess and restocked the cardboard box.
Then Juniper palmed her phone and tapped out a quick text message before she could change her mind.
I made it. See you tonight?
The text box turned blue when she hit send. Such a casual greeting when her fingers were tingling with proximity. Her child was in this place, only blocks away if she had already been dropped off at Jericho Elementary, the town’s K–8 school. Lithe, lovely Willa Baker, all arms and legs and thirteen-year-old bravado and grace. Who loved winter and pink lemonade and ballet. Juniper had watched the videos over and over again, her girl in a black leotard flowing from position to position, each move so liquid, her chest ached with pride.
I can’t wait to see you, she added, shocked by her own vulnerability and afraid of how Willa would receive it. Their relationship was light and happy, filled with funny gifs and a shared appreciation for cat videos. They didn’t often tread into more serious waters. Too nervous to wait for a reply, Juniper slid her phone into her purse and stepped out into the frigid morning.
The Jericho Public Library was housed in the old mayor’s mansion, a rectangular redbrick colonial with a wide front porch and two pillars that framed a double-wide black door. It was the most charming building in town, and the library board had fought hard to preserve it.
Inside, the floors were narrow plank and the color of clover honey, and the different book sections were collected in rooms on the main floor. Walls had been removed and columns erected to give the library better flow, but there was no way to completely erase the original layout of the home. There were two stone fireplaces and a profusion of floor-to-ceiling windows that filled the library with light, and scattered between the stacks were plush chairs in blue velvet paired with mismatched tables painted turquoise and canary yellow and apricot.
A little noise escaped her lips. Everything was so familiar it was like she had taken a step back in time. But then Cora came out of the small cluster of offices, and Juniper was jolted to the present reality.
“What on earth are you doing here?” Cora demanded, glancing at her watch with brows drawn together. In spite of her sixty-eight years and grim diagnosis, Cora’s gaze was clear and blue. Still, she reached for a pair of reading glasses dangling from a beaded chain and perched them on the very end of her nose. She studied Juniper as if she were a puzzle to fix.
“Hello to you too.” Juniper smiled around the sudden lump in her throat, taking in her friend’s newly diminished form and the purple smudges beneath her eyes. They matched the lavender tips of her silver hair.
“You’re supposed to be sleeping in,” Cora chided. “I didn’t expect you until ten, at least.”
“I did sleep in. Come here.” Juniper put out her arms and waved Cora into them. How long had it been since she had hugged someone like this? Someone who knew almost everything about her and chose to love her in spite of it all? She found herself blinking back tears, but didn’t know who they were for.
It took her a moment to realize that something else was different.
“Double mastectomy,” Cora said, as if she could read Juniper’s mind. She pulled away and held Juniper at arm’s length, giving her an unobstructed view of the flat plane of her chest. “Even if I was going to continue treatment I wouldn’t bother with a reconstruction. And don’t get me started on those padded bras. Are you crying, Juniper Baker?”
“No,” she lied, and turned away to unzip her coat.
Cora led her behind the desk and leaned against it while she watched her old friend get settled. “I’m really glad you’re here,” she said, her tough-as-tacks facade wavering a bit.
“Stop it.” Juniper couldn’t handle gratitude. Not now. Not when her motives for coming back were so complicated she could hardly begin to unravel them all herself. She tossed her coat over the back of a folding chair and tucked her backpack in one of the square cubicles.
“You’re a godsend. Truly.”
“Enough. Or I’m leaving you with Barry.”
“Oh, you’re terrible.” Cora coughed out a short laugh. “He has seniority, you know. He’s the Assistant Library Director, you technically answer to him.”
“He knows this is all temporary, right?”
“Of course. And since you’re ‘just the temp’?”—Cora curled her fingers into air quotes—“I’ve given you our Mom and Tot Hour. It’s a barbaric group.”
Juniper stifled a moan. “That’s just plain mean. I’m home less than twelve hours and you’ve already saddled me with the worst event of the week.”
Cora ignored her. “It’ll be nice to have someone younger around. Barry’s an old soul and I’m just plain old. Things have changed around here, June. The library isn’t just books and a handful of DVDs anymore. I’m also fluent in Minecraft, Fortnite, and Orange Is the New Black. I’m trying to keep up.”
Juniper was seized by a desire to plant a kiss on Cora’s gaunt cheek, but that was out of character for them both. Instead, she turned away and lifted a stack of books that were ready to be reshelved.
Cora frowned, taking the books from Juniper and setting them back down. “There’ll be time for all that. You just got here. I want to hear about everything. How was your trip?”
“Fine. Until I got pulled over in front of the rental. No ticket, but…” Juniper lifted one shoulder.
“You’re kidding. Welcome to Jericho, right?”
“Something like that.” Juniper reached for the books again, and this time managed to slip out from behind the counter with her cargo. She wasn’t trying to avoid Cora, but she felt a frisson of disquiet. Maybe she had underestimated how difficult it would be to step back into her old life.
“What about the podcast?” Cora followed her a few steps, then stopped abruptly. She glanced around and lowered her voice, even though they were the only ones in the library. “Have you figured out who’s doing it?”
“Is it someone local?”
“I think so.”
“Well, do you recognize the voice?”
Juniper felt a tingle of annoyance. “It’s not even out yet. I don’t know who’s doing it, and I don’t know how far along they are.”
Cora nodded, but she looked a bit confused.
“I want to stop them before the podcast goes live.”
“And Jonathan?” Cora changed tack. “Does he know you’re here?”
It was an innocuous question, but it stung all the same. Juniper paused. There was no way for Cora to know the distance that stretched between her and her brother. The boy who had once been her best friend and was now a virtual stranger. “He knows I’m home,” Juniper said finally, and hoped she could leave it at that.
“When are you going to see Willa?”
“What’s with the twenty questions?” Juniper sighed before answering. “Tonight.” Then she disappeared between the floor-to-ceiling shelves of adult fiction. There would be time later for a heart-to-heart, to hear the scary details of Cora’s illness and confide everything she dared to hope for Willa. Her plan to set things right. For now, there was work to do, and Juniper was grateful for it.
But after an hour or so, even the rustle of paper and the scent of old hardcovers wasn’t enough to slow the scurry of Juniper’s pulse. Her mind snagged at the thought of the podcast, and grateful for something concrete to focus on, she shifted the books to one arm and pulled her phone from her pocket.
Juniper had taken a couple of screenshots to save the thread from an obscure true crime message board. She always hid her identity online, which allowed her to gain access to information that might be concealed if her unwitting informants knew who she really was.
Posted by u/cabgreckoning10 11 hours ago
Working on a podcast about the Murphy murders. Already have a few production companies interested. Need advice re: editing. Any recs?
There were several comments. Links to editorial services and personal offers of help. A few users wondered about the Murphy murders, and then praised cabgreckoning10 for finding a compelling true crime story that hadn’t yet been made into a podcast.
Of course, jumping into the conversation had been tricky, potentially even dangerous if she’d inadvertently revealed herself to have more than a passing interest. Still, she had longed to pepper cabgreckoning10 with questions: Who are you? What do you know about the Murphy murders? Were you there? She’d managed to restrain herself. Instead, she had thought long and hard about her comment, hands trembling as they hovered over the keyboard, and finally settled on:
BookishJ47 * Score hidden * 10 hours ago
Got it solved?
cabgreckoning10 * 8.2K points * 10 hours ago
Close enough. I’m going to prove that bastard Jonathan Baker did it.
It had flipped a switch inside her, and Juniper now lived with the constant tick of a countdown clock. Who was cabgreckoning10, and did he know the truth?
Rage and desperation made people do inexplicable things, and Juniper knew a thing or two about secrets. But “that bastard Jonathan Baker” implied that cabgreckoning10 was no stranger. He—or she—was likely someone from Jericho. Maybe even someone Juniper knew.
And maybe it was all her fault that a killer in Jericho walked free.