The amateurs, p.1
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       The Amateurs, p.1
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         Part #1 of The Amateurs series by Sara Shepard
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The Amateurs


  Contents

  Title Page

  ALSO BY SARA SHEPARD

  Dedication

  Before

  Five Years and Four Months Later

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37

  After

  Acknowledgements

  Sara Shepard

  Copyright

  ALSO BY SARA SHEPARD

  Pretty Little Liars

  Flawless

  Perfect

  Unbelievable

  Wicked

  Killer

  Heartless

  Wanted

  Twisted

  Ruthless

  Stunning

  Burned

  Crushed

  Deadly

  Pretty Little Secrets

  Ali’s Pretty Little Lies

  The Perfectionists

  The Good Girls

  The Lying Game

  Never Have I Ever

  Two Truths and a Lie

  Hide and Seek

  Cross My Heart, Hope to Die

  Seven Minutes in Heaven

  The Heiresses

  The Visibles

  Everything We Ever Wanted

  To Kristian and Henry

  BEFORE

  The snow fell all night, transforming the world by morning. It was crystal snow, magical snow, creating a perfect, uniform blanket that concealed everything underneath.

  Eleven-year-old Aerin Kelly scrambled down the three-tiered back patio, her boots sinking into the sparkling fluff. She fell forward and laughed, rolling onto her back and staring at the white sky. A figure appeared over her. It was her seventeen-year-old sister, Helena, wearing a fitted white overcoat with a fur collar, fur boots, and a brown fedora. Her eyes looked extra blue. Her newly short platinum-blonde hair framed her face. Helena looked more beautiful than ever that day, Aerin would think later.

  Aerin scrambled to her feet just as Helena tipped her face upward. ‘Isn’t it funny how snow has a smell?’ Helena mused.

  ‘I think we’re supposed to get more,’ Aerin said eagerly.

  Helena pressed a fur boot into a snowdrift. ‘Got your phone? Can I check Weather.com?’

  ‘You’re always losing yours,’ Aerin said good-naturedly, lobbing her iPhone, which she’d talked her mother into buying for her last summer, to her sister.

  Helena caught it between her red leather gloves, pulled them off, and tapped on the screen. ‘Six more inches today.’ She grinned. ‘We really should make our inaugural snowman tomorrow, but I bet you’ll be on the slopes all day. You up for it now?’

  ‘Sure.’ The girls tramped toward the middle of their vast six-acre property, where they’d been building the first snowman of each season since they were little. Helena started rolling a snowball, her hat tilting across her eyes.

  ‘I think this year’s should be a snow-woman,’ Helena decided. ‘With big boobs.’

  ‘And a badonka butt,’ Aerin added, still breathless.

  Helena smirked. ‘And maybe a vagina. Make her totally anatomically correct.’

  Aerin giggled. But what she really wanted to do was throw her arms around her sister. Helena was downplaying it, but it was weird they were hanging out again. Laughing.

  There was a time when Helena and Aerin had been inseparable. They made tents out of blankets and told ghost stories. They dreamed up new, better uniforms to propose to Windemere-Carruthers, the private school they attended in Dexby, Connecticut. They invented new ice-cream flavors like strawberry jalapeño for their mother to make in her ice-cream machine, crazy ones they both admitted they would never try themselves.

  At the beginning of last summer, though, Helena had … changed. She’d holed up in her room, chopped off her signature long hair, and stopped talking to her family, even Aerin. She’s a teenager, their mother had told Aerin absently. She has her first boyfriend. Give her space to figure it out.

  But Aerin had needed her more than ever. Their parents, who had always seemed so in love, were fighting nonstop. Aerin knew Helena heard the fights through her thin bedroom walls, too, but whenever Aerin tried to talk to her about it, Helena always changed the subject.

  But now, Helena was piling snow together for the torso, smiling like things were totally normal. She even started chattering about how Aerin should join the junior ski team – she was so talented. Suddenly, Aerin blurted, ‘I guess Kevin didn’t want to make a snowman?’

  Helena stopped and looked at her. ‘I didn’t ask him.’

  ‘Do you guys, like, do it?’ Aerin asked quickly.

  Helena’s brow furrowed. ‘Do it? ’

  Aerin had thought asking would make her seem older, like a girl her sister still wanted to hang out with. Helena would probably go inside and slam her door, and that would be that.

  Helena cupped Aerin’s shoulder instead, the way she used to at swim meets when Aerin would climb out of the water after coming in last. The gesture was so tender and familiar that Aerin felt a rush of tears. ‘It’s just that I miss you.’

  Helena squeezed hard. ‘We’ll talk more. But … some of it will have to be under wraps.’

  Aerin blinked. ‘Huh?’

  ‘Like on our phones.’

  ‘Like … texts?’

  Helena looked at her as if she wanted to say something more, but then cocked her head toward the woods, like she’d heard something. Aerin followed her gaze but only saw the same trees that had always been there. When she peered at Helena again, her sister was scooping up a ball of snow and smashing it into Aerin’s head. Aerin squealed. ‘Let’s find sticks for her arms,’ Helena said. ‘I’m freezing my butt off.’

  They built the head and shaped the hair. Chatted about getting a new puppy. Aerin voted for a golden; she thought they could name him Cap’n Crunch.

  ‘That’s a good name,’ Helena said softly.

  Aerin looked up, even more puzzled. It was a dumb name, and they both knew it. Why was Helena being so nice? Aerin felt self-conscious. What if she knew something about their parents that Aerin didn’t – like they were getting a divorce? Aerin wasn’t sure she was ready for that conversation.

  But Helena said nothing about that, and then the snow-woman was finished. Both girls stepped back a few feet. Aerin smiled at their work. ‘She’s our best one yet.’

  When she looked at Helena, her sister’s head was turned toward the woods. ‘Totally,’ she said softly. For a moment, she looked like she might cry, but then she focused on the snow-woman and smiled cheerfully. ‘She needs something else, don’t you think?’

  ‘Like what?’

  ‘Like …’ Helena put a hand to her mouth. ‘A purse, maybe. I found a brown vinyl one at Goodwill a few days ago. It’s on my bed. Wanna grab it?’

  Aerin was certain she’d heard her wrong. Helena’s room was off-limits. Maybe this was some kind of test? ‘O-o
kay.’

  Aerin crossed the yard back to the house, climbed up the three tiers of the patio, opened the sliding door, and padded through the living room, leaving wet tracks on the handwoven rug. The house was quiet, her parents absent. She smiled at her reflection in the giant hallway mirror. She had the same blonde hair as Helena, but her features were more muddled, her shoulders broader, her face more masculine. Still, it was clear they were sisters.

  Maybe they would get pizza later. Maybe Helena would drive her somewhere in her VW Bug. Maybe they’d figure out some way to get their parents to stop arguing.

  Helena’s bedroom door was closed. Aerin turned the knob. Inside, she breathed in patchouli oil and jasmine – heady scents that seemed mysterious and grown-up. She surveyed a desk full of art supplies, posters of bands Aerin had never heard of, an iPhone on a heart-shaped pillow on the bed, the brown vinyl purse. Helena’s closet doors were flung open, revealing the flamboyant clothes she’d been wearing lately – feathers and silk, swirl prints and fringe. Aerin’s gaze moved to the dresser. A crane, folded out of slick red paper, stood like a sentinel.

  A shiver went through her body. It seemed to be staring at her.

  She walked closer, touched its wing. A cloth-covered journal lay next to it. Aerin lifted the cover and looked at her sister’s name written on the front page in her spiky scrawl.

  There was a creak, and Aerin stiffened. She grabbed the purse from Helena’s bed, slung it around her elbow, and ran into the hall. The giant kitchen was still empty. She peeked into the backyard. Helena was gone. The snow-woman stood, arms akimbo, in the middle of the yard.

  ‘Helena?’ Aerin called out, taking a few steps onto the patio.

  A bird called from a high branch. The wind was still.

  ‘Helena?’ Aerin cried again, clomping down the steps. ‘Where are you?’

  Her voice echoed in the stillness. Her heart thudded. She left because I spied.

  She ran around to the front. Helena’s car sat in the driveway. No one was in the driver’s seat. Aerin flashed on the image of Helena’s phone, still inside the house. Her sister would never leave without it.

  Something flickered at the tree line, and Aerin turned. ‘Helena?’

  Then she noticed something in the snow. The fallen berries from the bushes that lined the back of the property looked like smeared blood against white. In their midst, Aerin almost hadn’t seen the red leather gloves Helena had been wearing, in the snow next to them, palms up.

  Aerin ran to them, heart pounding hard. ‘Helena?’ she called out. ‘Helena! ’

  Helena would never answer again.

  FIVE YEARS AND FOUR MONTHS LATER

  WELCOME TO CASE NOT CLOSED,

  THE #1 COLD CASE WEB COMMUNITY

  MESSAGE BOARD

  FOLDER: ONGOING CASES

  NEW THREAD TITLE: HELENA KELLY, DEXBY, CT

  Posts: (1) April 14, 9:02 p.m.

  AKellyReal: I need some answers about my sister. Help …

  CHAPTER 1

  On Thursday night, just before school was off for spring break, Seneca Frazier sat cross-legged on her bed in her small dorm room at the University of Maryland. It was after 11 p.m., and the dorm was quiet because everyone was out partying at the frats or in upperclassman houses. Tove Lo played through her laptop’s speakers. Packed boxes sat around her bed. She’d shut off the overhead light, and the glow from her computer turned her tawny skin a brassy gold. The perfume that her roommate, Eve, had sprayed on before she went out kept making Seneca sneeze, and pieces of her wiry ponytail kept falling out and tickling her cheeks. But when she saw the post Maddy had just written on the chat feature of Case Not Closed, a crime-solving forum Seneca was a little bit addicted to, those small aggravations fell away. Her gaze tunneled in on the words on the screen.

  MBM0815: Do you know this case?

  Below was a screen grab of a post written just hours before by someone called AKellyReal. Seneca’s stomach flipped at the name in the thread’s title: Helena Kelly. Yeah, Maddy. I have every last detail of that case memorized.

  But she couldn’t tell Maddy that. She wiggled her fingers over the keyboard.

  TheMighty: Rich girl goes missing about five years ago? Body found in a park?

  MBM0815: Yep. It happened in the town right next to me. I’m thinking about looking into it.

  Seneca pulled at the chunky-knit infinity scarf around her neck and looked again at the screen grab. Was the poster, AKellyReal, Aerin Kelly, Helena’s sister? How had Aerin heard about Case Not Closed? Maybe the same way Seneca had – by accident. Ashton, one of her friends at college whom she’d swapped dog-eared Agatha Christie paperbacks with, mentioned it in the dining hall: ‘Did you know there’s a website where amateur sleuths solve crimes?’ he said excitedly. ‘It’s, like, part video game, part Bones. It’s totally eating into my homework time.’ Seneca had given him an apathetic shrug and pushed around her concoction of strawberry froyo and Cocoa Krispies. ‘Sounds fun.’ The first moment she could, however, she’d bolted up to her room, pounced on her laptop, and typed Case Not Closed into the browser.

  It was easy to lose hours on the message boards of CNC. She’d bring her laptop to class, pretending to take notes, but instead weighing in on cold-case murders and abductions. Some days she skipped class altogether – the course videos went online later anyway. She didn’t want to miss any new developments on her cases. Some of the posters were morons or rubberneckers, but others had smart input and practical knowledge: MizMaizie used to work for the Seattle PD. UnicornHorn had a background in forensics. BMoney60 always chimed in with a one-sentence proclamation like Spoiler alert: the mom did it. He was often right.

  It was like Seneca had her own little CSI unit inside her computer.

  And then there was her friend Maddy – or MBM0815, or Madison Wright from Connecticut. On Facebook, Maddy was a smiley cheerleader type with perfect Asian skin and hair and a penchant for pink, but her posts on Case Not Closed were witty and insightful. When they’d graduated to Gchat, they talked about silly, personal things and made up a game where they compared people they knew to types of candy. Seneca had admitted lots to Maddy, but not everything. She never told anyone everything if she didn’t have to.

  Temptation stirred inside of Seneca, and she started a new message.

  TheMighty: Crazy idea. I’m on spring break starting tomorrow, and I’m going to be super bored. I could come see you. We could check out the Helena stuff together.

  She added a surprised-face emoji and pressed SEND, anxiously tapping her nails against the bedpost. It would be amazing to meet up with a new friend. She had a group of kids she hung around with at college, but they all still felt like acquaintances.

  And Helena Kelly … well. That was the Holy Grail of cases for her. She was dying to dig in.

  Five and a half years ago, right around when Helena disappeared, Seneca had watched CNN religiously. The news wouldn’t shut up about the story. Valiant search parties went out every day, the whole town was interviewed, and even the Governor of Connecticut gave a speech about bringing Helena home safely. At first, it disgusted Seneca, leaving her empty, but as the months passed and Helena still hadn’t been found, her feelings began to shift. When Seneca saw a Helena report on the news, she dropped everything to watch. She read every Helena investigative story over and over. She scrolled through her memorial page, inadvertently memorizing her friends’ names. She searched the family’s Facebook pages for months, discovering that the Kelly parents were separating and that Mrs. Kelly was reviving an ice-cream business in town, supported heavily by the Dexby community ‘in the family’s time of need.’ Seneca had held her breath, hoping for Helena’s safe return. She understood that the universe didn’t dole out happy endings, but she thought, just maybe, Helena would beat the odds.

  Then, four years later, Helena’s body was found. Seneca watched in horror as the Dexby police admitted that they doubted they’d ever find who’d done it. But there’s so muc
h more to look into! she’d thought. Why hadn’t they tried harder to prove the boyfriend’s alibi? Couldn’t they send more dogs into that upstate park? Was every moment of Helena’s life accounted for?

  Seneca’s computer pinged again. She clicked the message.

  MBM0815: You must have ESP. I was thinking the same thing. You can stay with me. Amtrak to Metro-North will get you here – there’s a train station in Dexby.

  Seneca sat back, knocking into her packed box labeled Mysteries, A–L. Excitement flooded her body, followed by a chilly grip of fear. She was actually going to do it. Travel to the place that had consumed her thoughts, question the people she already knew so much about. It would bring up a lot of memories she’d long tried to ignore.

  Yet she couldn’t help but feel galvanized by the challenge. She knew more about this case than most of the cops who’d worked it. Maddy needed her. Hell, Helena needed her, and Aerin, too. Seneca could just picture Aerin logging on to Case Not Closed just like she did, desperate for answers. Maybe if Seneca figured it out, everything else in her life that was spinning out of control would fall into place, too. All right, then: she was going. She was going to figure out what happened.

  It wouldn’t solve all her problems. It wouldn’t solve all her mysteries. But it was a start.

  CHAPTER 2

  Aerin Kelly sank into an uncomfortable wicker love seat in her friend Tori’s sun porch, crossed her legs provocatively, and gazed at the guy next to her. Oliver. No, Owen. Shit. It was definitely Owen.

 
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