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Excerpt: Gone by Midnight by Candice Fox

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#1 New York Times and Globe and Mail bestselling author Candice Fox delivers a compulsive new crime thriller with Gone by Midnight.

Crimson Lake is where people with dark pasts come to disappear—and where others vanish into thin air…

Four young boys are left alone in a hotel room while their parents dine downstairs. When Sara Farrow checks on the children at midnight, her son is missing.

Distrustful of the police, Sara turns to Crimson Lake’s unlikeliest private investigators—disgraced cop Ted Conkaffey and convicted killer Amanda Pharrell. For Ted, the case couldn’t have come at a worse time. Two years ago a false accusation robbed him of his career, his reputation, and most importantly, his family. But now Lillian, the daughter he barely knows, is coming to stay in his ramshackle cottage by the lake.

Ted must dredge up the area’s worst characters to find the missing boy. The clock is ticking, and the danger he uncovers could well put his own child in deadly peril.

Gone by Midnight will be available on March 10, 2020. Please enjoy the following excerpt.


One of them was missing.

I snapped out of my sleep, the sweltering night materializing around me, loud through the open windows of the house. The rain had come and gone, but the reptilian and amphibian creatures that dwelled in the forest around my property kept up their barking, hoping for more to break the heat.

I threw back the sheets, sitting on the edge of the bed as the thought evolved from a panicked impulse into a clear message.

I’d put six geese away that evening. Not seven.

It was something I felt rather than knew. My geese are well-trained. They obey my commands like fat, feathered soldiers, and when I’d opened up their coop at sunset and told them to get in, I’d observed a row enter the little house without feeling the need to do a roll call. There should have been six gray, one white. I went out into the hall and through the kitchen, finding my way by the square cutouts of moonlit rainforest in each room, until I grabbed my torch and pushed through the back screen door.

My heart was beating hard. The dog, Celine, knew something was up immediately, guessed wrongly that it was her residency on the cane lounge—a terrible misdeed. She slithered guiltily off the cushions as I jogged down the stairs and through the wet grass to the goose coop.

Six heads popped up from under wings.

“Shit,” I whispered, pushing on feathered chests as they came crowding at the entrance to be let out. I refastened the door of the coop and swung the torch around the property, the wire fence at the waterline, the gently lapping lake, still as pale glass in the moonlight. I braced for that terrible sight—a scattering of feathers trailing into the woods where the missing bird had been dragged by a fox or wild cat. Celine was whimpering at the edge of the porch, wagging her tail encouragingly so that it thumped the boards as she tried to work out my mission.

My geese are important to me. I had rescued the family of birds from certain death on the banks of Crimson Lake a year earlier, unaware that they would be the ones to rescue me. I’d taken comfort in caring for creatures more helpless than myself after an accusation had destroyed my life and taken away my home, my job, and my family.

Now one of them was gone.

I did a lap of the house and caught sight of a pale mound underneath the lounge Celine had been sleeping on. The bird was tucked against the wall at the very back corner of the porch. I flattened on the wooden boards and shined the torch on the bird, and she lifted her head slightly.

“Peeper,” I called, reaching. “What are you doing, you silly thing?”

She wouldn’t come. I jumped up and slid the couch away, and lifted the large, warm bird from the ground. I knew immediately that something wasn’t right. When I picked up the geese they usually peddled their feet in protest. Peeper’s legs remained limp. I set her down and she stood for only a second before sinking again into a bundle, her head tucked against her chest.

“Oh no.” I lifted her once more with shaking hands. “No, no, no.”

 

 

I drove furiously. A part of my brain was already whispering placations about the bird in the box in the back of the car, trying to prepare for that awful moment when I arrived at the veterinarian’s office seconds too late. Her limp body at the bottom of the plastic carrier, a wing splayed, the neck like a dropped rope. It’s a stupid bird, I thought. They can’t live forever. You gave them the best life you could. Though the words were easy to find, they were impossible to believe.

The headlights lit the dirt roads lined by high golden walls of cane, making fluttery embers of thousands of grasshoppers and moths disturbed by my passage. I glanced at the clock. It was three in the morning. The run-down houses and abandoned barns in the fields near my home were dark and empty.

I knew only one vet in the area. I’d taken the geese there the day I found them, when I was drunk and still ravaged by my time in prison. The veterinarian had made no effort to disguise his hatred when he discovered who I was, but he had already treated my birds. I was headed there when I saw for the first time a new, bright blue sign in the distance: VET.

I scanned the façade quickly for any indication that they gave twenty-four-hour emergency care, but there was none. I grabbed the box from the back of the car anyway, not daring to look inside, and ran to the glass doors.

I pounded and yelled for only a few seconds before lights began flickering on at the back of the building. Hope. The silhouette that jogged toward me through the dark was petite and lean, a woman pulling a thin dressing gown around her. She must have lived above the surgery. I lowered my eyes to the box in my hands, but I knew there was going to be no disguising who I was. Everyone in the country knew me. My trial, and its aftermath, had been a national sensation. I began speaking before she could unlock the door.

“Please don’t turn me away,” I said. “My bird is sick. She’s really sick and needs help right now. I’ll go. Just please help her. She—”

“Why would I send you away?” The woman frowned at me. Her accent was British. Northern. My mind raced. Was she new to the country? Her big, green eyes were searching mine, no sign of recognition in them.

I swallowed, shook my head.

“No reason. I meant, uh. It’s just the hour. The terribly late hour.”

“Come in.” She held the door open and I slid past her. A wall of scent, disinfectant and animal fur, the husky smell of the bags of seed and dry dog food stacked on shelves near the counter.

In the light of the surgery room I got a better look at the doctor. Honey-colored hair falling from a hastily applied clip. Her small face was crowded with big, sumptuous features. I was prickling with emotions, relief and terror as she opened the box and peered inside.

“Oh hello, birdy,” she murmured, almost to herself. Then to me: “I’ll be thirty seconds.” She jogged into a back room. I couldn’t look into the box, did a restless lap of the surgery room instead. The certificate on the wall read Dr. Elaine Bass.

Dr. Bass came back in a minute dressed in a T-shirt and denim shorts, pulling on white latex gloves.

“I didn’t catch your name,” she said.

“It’s Ted. Collins.” One truth, one lie.

“Laney.” She smiled, reaching slowly into the box. “And this is?”

“Oh.” I felt heat come into my face. “Peeper. She’s a year old.”

“How long has she been unwell?”

“I don’t know.” The dread was returning. I watched as Laney lifted Peeper onto the examination table. “She didn’t go into the coop with the others at sunset. I found her under a couch.”

Laney took the big bird’s wing in her hand and pulled it gently away from the feathery body, stretching the beautiful arc, fanning shades of gray, black, cream. She felt around the base of the bird’s neck and smoothed back the feathers on her head.

“All right, Ted. I’m going to ask you to leave her with me.”

“Can I please stay?” I cleared my throat. “Just, you know. Until we know something.”

“Of course.” Laney gestured to the door through which we’d come. “Stay as long as you like.”

I heard her talking to my bird, calling her by her name, through the door to the waiting area. I read every brochure in the room, coming to the conclusion that there were far too many types of parasites in the world. When Laney fell silent, I sat on the couch and surrendered to my crushing worry.

The truth was, without my birds I might not have been able to recover from what had happened. On the side of the highway one fateful day, I’d pulled over to fix a noise in my car, not realizing that I’d parked only meters from a young girl waiting for a bus. She’d been abducted and brutally assaulted only minutes after I left her side. I was accused of the crime, charged, put on trial, and then the charges were dropped, the judiciary leaving me to be sentenced by the public when they couldn’t find the evidence to do it themselves.

I’d been an ordinary man. A drug squad cop. A husband. A father. Now I was Australia’s most hated man.

I’d fled to the property in the remote wetlands of Far North Queensland, and taken heart at caring for a group of birds who might have died without my help. They were a symbol of something for me. Of hope. Of worthiness.

When Laney appeared in the doorway an hour later, I realized with embarrassment that I had turned my thoughts to her to escape the tension of not knowing how Peeper was doing. I’d been wondering how long she’d been in the area. Whether she owned this shop or rented it. Why on earth she’d come from wherever it was she’d been born in England to this faraway tangle of rainforest on the edge of nowhere. It was a novelty for me to meet people who didn’t know me from my time in the media spotlight.

She didn’t mess around. “I’ll have to wait for some tests to come back, but I’m almost certain she’s got aspergillosis,” Laney said.

“That sounds bad.”

“It can be. But you may have brought her in just in time. Aspergillus is a fungus. Gets in the lungs.”

“Is it something I’ve done?”

“I’m sure it isn’t,” she said. “You seem like a pretty attentive owner. It’s the Tropical North. Fungus loves it here, and poultry are susceptible to it. Is this a pet goose or do you have a farm?”

“No, no, she’s a pet. But I have six others.”

“Huh.” She gave me an appreciative look. “The bird man of Crimson Lake.”

I managed a smile.

“Go home and check the others,” she said. “And keep an eye on their behavior over the coming days. Because Peeper separated herself off from the rest, the others may be fine. Empty all their water, clean out their living quarters, sterilize everything. I’m going to give you some potassium iodine drops and instructions for treating their water.”

She went behind the counter and started looking through bottles and packages there.

“Is she going to be okay, do you think?”

“Look.” Laney sighed, bringing a small bottle to me. “Ted, birds can be really flaky. It’s very difficult to predict in the early stages how treatment will go.”

I nodded, locking my eyes on the bottle in my hands, trying to keep my face hard.

“Give me your number and I’ll let you know how we go. Okay?” She rubbed my bare forearm, a gesture that surprised me and, it seemed, her. Her hand fluttered at her eyebrow, embarrassed. “If she makes it, I’ll have to have her here for a few days at least.”

We finished up, and Laney saw me to the door. I waved, a strange tingling in my chest as I climbed into the car. I put the feeling down to nerves. It was only a matter of time before this woman found out who I was, and most likely that realization would come swiftly, when an employee asked about the bird, perhaps, and she described me. She had run my credit card and failed to notice the different surname, but that was a lucky break. In a couple of days, if Peeper survived, I’d come back in to pick the bird up and find Dr. Bass’s warm smile had soured into the uncomfortable grimace I was used to seeing on the faces of most people I dealt with.

 

 

A heavy heart is best lightened by work. Though the sun was only just rising over the tips of the blue mountains across the lake, I parked beside my house and went right out the back. The birds marched out of their coop like they weren’t missing one of their number. I took the grain container from the edge of the porch and poured out a handful, settling among the birds as they stabbed hungrily at my palm with their beaks, spilling grain everywhere. Woman, the mother of the geese and the only pure white bird, stood at the back and eyed me without reducing herself to the indignity of hand-feeding.

In fact, I’d already cleaned out my goose coop and their water trays with a pressure cleaner the day before, because this was an important day, one I had been counting down to.

My daughter Lillian, who was almost three, was coming to visit me in my home for the first time.

My cleaning efforts had not been so much inspired by a desire to impress her as to impress her mother, my ex-wife, Kelly. After my arrest our marriage had dissolved, and she’d since taken up with a man who worked in the fitness industry, like her. Things were serious between them, and had been for some time. I didn’t know if Jett, the boyfriend, really believed the accusation against me, or if he was just a territorial dick, but I did know he was completely against leaving Lillian with me for several nights. The house needed to be clean, orderly, safe, welcoming. That meant fungus-free. I went around the side of the house to grab the pressure cleaner for a second round and stopped dead at the sight of the police car in my driveway.

I stared at the two officers as they exited the vehicle and headed toward me.

They were young patrol officers. A couple of Cairns boys, it looked like. I knew all of the cops in Crimson Lake and Holloways Beach by sight, some of them from working cases in the area as a private investigator with my partner, Amanda. A continued career in the police force had been out of the question after my arrest, but Amanda Pharrell had employed me on two murder investigations and a smattering of the private-eye jobs small towns seem to generate—poisoned family pets, cheating husbands, injury insurance fraud.

The young officers strode down the small incline toward me, and their lifted chins and smirks didn’t give me much confidence that this was a friendly visit. I turned on my heel and started walking back around the side of the house.

“Hold up, Conkaffey!”

I went straight to my phone, which I’d left on the cane lounge on the porch. Celine ran over to the officers and did a tight circle of them, sniffing and barking good-naturedly.

I picked up my phone and typed a quick message to Amanda. Three letters.

SOS.

I knew it was all I had time for. And I was right. In seconds the two officers were boxing me in against the wall of the porch.

“Ted Conkaffey?” snapped one of the officers, a square-headed guy with tattoos poking up from his collar, and a name badge that read Frisp.

“You know who I am,” I said.

“We’re here to escort you to Cairns. Please hand me that phone and do not resist arrest.”

This was my nightmare. The moment I had played and replayed a thousand times in my sleep, the moment that pressed into my consciousness sometimes hourly, no matter where I was or what I was doing. Fear of rearrest. It was happening. All I could hope for was that the action plan I had put in place for this very scenario would make the experience as painless as possible.

I had never been acquitted of the charges laid against me. They had simply been dropped due to a lack of evidence. When the tables started to turn in the courtroom, the state had decided they didn’t want to proceed with my trial for fear of my being acquitted and them never being able to charge me again. I’d gone to bed every night since my release knowing that it might be my last free night, that a piece of evidence or a witness out of the blue might reopen my case at any time. Although recently the New South Wales police had released an official statement saying that I was no longer a “person of interest” in the abduction and rape of Claire Bingley, few news outlets had given the statement much coverage. It’s hard to turn the great ship of public opinion around. Most people tend to believe an accusation as terrible as mine couldn’t possibly fall on the completely innocent. If I wasn’t guilty of Claire’s assault, I was surely guilty of something.

I had briefed my few allies on what to do if I was ever arrested again.

Step one, Amanda would receive my distress signal. She would open an app on her mobile that traced the location of my phone. She would then call my lawyer, Sean Wilkins, who would make plans to get to where I was being held as soon as possible. Amanda would then call my friend Dr. Valerie Gratteur, who would go to my house and oversee any police searches that occurred there to make sure they were performed properly.

While all this was happening, I would say nothing of consequence to the police and try to make sure my rights weren’t trampled on. It was a good plan, one I’d worked on carefully over a series of months. But of course it hinged on everyone following the script, and the two young cowboys standing before me didn’t look like they planned to do that at all.

I held on to my phone and backed into the corner of the porch.

“I will not comply without an arrest warrant.” I held up the phone and turned the camera toward them as I thumbed the screen. “I’m recording this, which is my right. I want to see the warrant and—”

Gamble, Frisp’s squat, long-armed partner, faked grabbing at the phone. As I swung it away from him, Frisp snatched it from my hand. My plan was already going awry. Celine stood on the edge of the porch, terror in her big black eyes, the hackles rising along her wide back. She gave a low, groaning growl, a sound I’d never heard her make. Dangerous, from the pit of her belly.

“Celine, it’s okay, honey,” I assured her.

“Hands on the wall.” Frisp pointed.

“I want to know what I’m being arrested for. That’s my right.”

“If that fat fucking dog goes for me, I’m going to swat it.” Gamble had a hand on his baton, Celine tracking him as he stepped back from her.

“You touch my dog and I will end you.” I looked Gamble in the eyes, my whole body trembling with rage. “I mean it. I will fucking. End. You.”

Gamble must have seen something in me that turned him. He glanced at Frisp for encouragement, but found none. Trying to breathe, I put my hands on the wall, still talking for the sake of the officers’ body recorders, which I hoped were turned on.

“I have not been read my rights,” I said. “I’ve seen no arrest warrant. My property has been unlawfully confiscated. I don’t know where I’m being taken or why.”

“Save the victim act for the courtroom, Conkaffey.” Frisp cuffed my hands behind my back, ratcheting the metal bands too tight.

My mind was crashing. I needed to stay calm, stay ahead of the game, but blood was rushing into my neck and face. I couldn’t swallow. I let them lead me to the car to avoid upsetting my animals any more than was necessary. As I turned the corner at the side of the house, I saw the geese were on their feet at the end of the yard, beaks high with distress, wings splayed out from panting breasts. Celine followed us, whimpering and growling, until I stopped beside the driveway.

“Celine, it’s okay. Go to your bed and stay.” She took uncertain, fearful steps back toward the porch. “Good girl. On your bed.”

In the car, Frisp tossed my phone into the center console, which was stuffed with cigarette butts. There was a pressure in my chest and back like hands pushing against my ribcage, squeezing the life out of me, making my eyes bulge. I sucked in air and tried to stay calm, tried to rationalize the situation. Amanda would already be putting the SOS plan into action. There was nothing I could do now to stay free, but I could do things to get free again. Time to change tactics. Gather information.

As far as I was concerned, there were three possibilities.

First, that my charges for the abduction, sexual assault, and attempted murder of Claire Bingley had been brought again. If that was the case, then I had a plan. I knew who had really assaulted Claire, and her father did, too. Months earlier, I had watched helplessly as Dale Bingley had murdered her attacker, a young man named Kevin Driscoll, in a Sydney warehouse. To prove my innocence to him, at least, I’d helped Claire’s father find the real perpetrator. And he’d enacted his brutal revenge. A diary had been found in Driscoll’s car that implicated him in Claire’s attack. I would use that to defend myself in a new trial. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

That brought about the second possibility. The New South Wales police had questioned me extensively over Kevin Driscoll’s death. They had bits and pieces to go on—my phone had been in the area of the crime scene, and I had communicated with Claire Bingley’s father in the lead-up to the murder. He had come to my house, slept on my porch, drunk my whiskey, and then been found at the scene, calm but unwilling to cooperate with police inquiries. Dale was in the same position I was—no one could prove that he had done more than stumble into the warehouse where Kevin Driscoll was killed. There was no murder weapon, no physical evidence to link him to the crime. His charges were dropped, but not dismissed. Maybe things had changed. Maybe I was being arrested now because they’d found something that could definitively put me in that warehouse on that awful night.

The third possibility was that something completely new had happened. That at some time in the past twenty-four hours a child had been stolen, assaulted, or abused, and I was being brought in as a suspect. It was possible that a new accusation against me had emerged. It had happened before. If that was the case, I needed to think about my alibi. I’d spent the whole night at home, only leaving to visit the vet at 3 a.m. But I’d sent messages and made phone calls, used the Internet. I was sweating, my brain thrumming with ideas, trying to form and consolidate strategies.

I was distracted from my turmoil as the patrol car rolled toward Cairns, gliding down Kenny Street. I expected the car to turn left for the police station nestled in the heart of the tourist district, but they continued along Wharf Street, past palm-lined beaches, the newly risen sun just beginning its onslaught on the pavement. They continued past the sprawling, empty parking lot of the convention center toward the blazing-white blocks of the White Caps Hotel.

The back parking lot entrance was blocked with police cars. As we approached I caught a glimpse of a huddle of press at one of the side entrances, where more police officers stood guard, stern-faced and unaccommodating.

“What’s happened?” I asked.

They ignored me.

“Hey, shitbird.” I nudged the wire mesh between Frisp’s seat and mine. “I asked a question. What’s going on?”

“What’s going on is you pushed your luck too far this time, kiddie-fucker.” He glared at me in the rearview mirror. “You should have quit while you were ahead.”

 

Copyright © 2020 by Candice Fox

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