California, 1986—A 911 call from a small child sends the idyllic town of Oak Knoll into a tailspin. Then a brutal crime scene is discovered: the body of Marissa Fordham with her young daughter, Haley, injured but alive.
Sheriff’s detective Tony Mendez faces a puzzle with nothing but pieces that won’t fit. To assist with his witness, Haley, he calls teacher-turned-child advocate Anne Leone, who’s already the star witness in a sensational murder trial.
As Tony and Anne begin to peel back the layers of Marissa Fordham’s life, they find a clue fragment here, another there. And just when it seems Marissa has taken her secrets to the grave, they uncover a fact that puts Anne and Haley directly in the sights of a killer: Marissa Fordham never existed.
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The house stood by itself back off the road in a field of dried golden grass, half hidden by spreading oaks. An amalgam of stylespart Spanish, part ranchthe once-white stucco building was weathered in a way that made it seem a part of the natural surroundings, as if it had grown up out of the earth and belonged there as much as any of the hundred-year-old trees.
The scene was a plein air painting, soft and impressionistic: the golden grass, the dark trees, bruise-purple mountains in the background, and the whisper-blue sky strewn with long, thin, pink-tinted clouds; the small white house with its old tile roof. On the other side of the mountains the sun had begun its descent toward the ocean. Here, the day seemed to have paused to admire its own perfection. Stillness held the landscape enraptured.
Nothing gave away a hint of what lay within the house.
The driveway was a path of dirt and crushed rock with grass and weeds sprouted up the middle like the mane of a wild pony. Falling down fences the color of driftwood created the lane between two overgrown pastures that had once been home to cattle and horses.
A vintage Woody station wagon well past its glory days was parked at a casual angle near an open shed full of rusted farm equipment. An old Radio Flyer red wagon had been abandoned near the front porch with an orange tabby cat sitting in it, waiting for a ride. On the porch two kittens played peekaboo among overgrown pots of parched geraniums and kitchen herbs. One propped herself up on the screen door and peered into the house, then squeaked and leapt and dashed away, tail straight up in the air.
Inside the house nothing moved but flies.
A horrible still life had been staged on the Saltillo tile kitchen floor.
A woman lay dead, her hair spreading out around her head like a dark cloud. Her skin was the color of milk. Her lips had been painted as red as a roseas red as her blood must have been as it drained from the wounds carved into her flesh.
She lay discarded like a life-size broken dollmade up, torn up, and cast aside, her brown eyes cloudy and lifeless.
Beside her lay a smaller dollher childhead resting on her shoulder, face streaked with the last of her mother's life's blood.
The flies buzzed. The wall clock ticked above the sink.
The telephone receiver dangled near the floor, stenciled with small bloody fingerprints. The last words spoken into it were a whisper still hanging in the air: "My daddy hurt my mommy…;"