- Available in: eBook
- Published: March 16, 2005
In California’s Central Valley, an explosion of white-hot methamphetamine rips through a trailer, its blinding flash killing a dedicated schoolteacher in search of a student whose life is in danger….
In West Hollywood, a young reporter discovers that a Marine helicopter pilot visited the gay ghetto – just days before he sent his chopper spiraling into the Pacific Ocean…
And in the wilds of California’s Coast Ranges, a mercilessly angry young woman pursues the mythic killer she believes has murdered her mother…
So begins Light Before Day, a dark new thriller of revenge and sexual obsession from New York Times best-selling author Christopher Rice.
Twenty-six-year-old Adam Murphy is chasing a career-making story when he is suspiciously fired by the magazine that employs him. Scarred by the failure of a recent relationship, and haunted by the death of his alcoholic mother, Adam finds himself cut adrift in the city of West Hollywood. Determined to expose the facts behind the suicide of the Marine pilot, he discovers that his estranged lover has vanished without a trace, and that his disappearance matches several other recent missing persons cases. Working with his new boss, James Wilton – a famously curmudgeonly mystery novelist with his own battle scars, who is eager for a new case to write about – Adam begins to suspect a serial killer is preying on the city’s young gay men.
Meanwhile, Caroline Hughes, an intense young surgical resident, scours central California, also seeking a serial killer: an avenger of such legendary violence he seems more demon than man.
The truth that Adam, Caroline, and James Wilton discover is far more diabolical than they could have ever imagined.
From the mansion-strung Hollywood Hills to the drug-ravaged hamlets of the Central Valley, they enter a labyrinth that leads to the darkest core of the human heart -uncovering a conspiracy so extraordinary that it threatens both their sanity and their lives.
Light Before Day is a riveting and complex mystery set within a gothic twenty-first-century California landscape that Rice makes his own.
“Fabulous. Stealthy as a desert wind and a deadly as a knife – a book of the year.”
— LEE CHILD, New York Times
best-selling author of The Enemy
“A richly painted, viciously paced tale that weaves its way from the mansions of the Hollywood Hills to the trailers of Visalia, Light Before Day is at once a compelling piece of crime fiction and a cultural take on gay West Hollywood and its dark undercurrents. In his most assured novel to date, Christopher Rice skillfully reveals a labyrinth of deadly secrets and horrifying surprises, each more shocking than the last.”
— GREGG HURWITZ,
Best-selling author of The Kill Clause
and The Program
“Once again Christopher Rice has crafted a deliciously pulpy tale that is both a gay book and a book for the masses – a line he magnificently walked in his previous two novels..”
Several weeks after her husband’s death, Janice Hughes packed what remained of her belongings into her Toyota Camry, left her daughter’s apartment in Berkeley, and drove east into California’s Great Central Valley, where the knee-high carpets of tule grass make the low, rolling hills look like sand dunes, and the California Aqueduct, with its rippling surface and wide concrete banks, flows south alongside Interstate 5. From there, Janice somehow ended up in the tiny town of Avenal, teaching seventh and eighth graders at Boswell Junior High.
Avenal sits in the narrow valley between the tule- blanketed Kettleman Hills and the first rounded peaks of California’s Coast Ranges. Its main street is just several blocks long, and City Hall could easily be mistaken for a doctor’s office. No one could see what such a small town had to offer a longtime San Franciscan like Janice Hughes.
To her fellow teachers, Janice mentioned a daughter who never came to visit. She wore her steel-colored hair in a pageboy cut and had a fondness for Native American jewelry, which gave birth to rumors that she was a lesbian. People suspected that when she wasn’t working, she didn’t spend much time in their town at all. But to her neighbors and colleagues, none of these speculations would have merited anything more than a passing mention, if Janice had not become so dangerously obsessed with a thirteen-year-old boy named Caden McCormick.
* * *
A few days after Janice died, her colleague at Boswell Junior High, fifty-one-year old Glenda Marsh, told a reporter for the Bakersfield Californian that Janice had come to her the week before, asking about a new student named Caden McCormick. There were trails of dirt around the boy’s ears, and other students had started to make fun of his bad smell. It was clear the kid wasn’t bathing. Glenda Marsh knew the real story. Most of the other teachers at Boswell knew how to spot the child of methamphetamine addicts from a mile away.
But in Glenda’s opinion, Janice was getting a “little too worked up” about the boy, so she gave the woman only half of the story. Tonya McCormick and her boyfriend Kyle Purcell had moved to town recently and lived in a trailer park that sat north of town, close to Highway 33. There were rumors that Tonya had spent time in prison. Glenda assumed that these details would be enough to satisfy Janice: parents who moved their kids from town to town as if they were cars, a family history of trouble with law enforcement. She was trying to convince Janice that her concern for the boy could never make a difference. She failed.
In the journal discovered by the Kings County Sheriff’s Department in her house, Janice described how one May afternoon she followed Caden home from school. The boy walked for almost a half hour north on Highway 33 before he came to a small trailer park with only six plots and a massive, dried-out date palm in its center. Hidden from sight in her car, Janice watched the boy spend several minutes standing outside a high chain link fence topped with coils of razor wire that surrounded a trailer with blackout curtains inside its windows and plywood sheets nailed over the rips in its walls. A pickup truck sat on blocks next to the trailer, its hood propped open and the contents of its engine spilled over the dirt, as if someone had been called away in the middle of ripping out its innards.
Caden wouldn’t touch the gate in the fence. A few seconds later, Janice saw why. A pit bull vaulted from the back side of the trailer, its barks crazed and ferocious and its head twisting in the air, as if it were chewing on something. Caden McCormick took a few steps back from the fence and watched the dog plow headfirst into the chain link. Then Janice heard a sound like the snap of a giant guitar string–and suddenly the dog was sprawled out on the dirt on its back, yelping in pain, its head flailing and its legs jerking in quick spasms.
The man who emerged from the trailer wore a backward baseball cap. Red welts covered his bony arms and spindly legs. His long face was wasting into sharp angles, and in his right hand he carried something long and metallic. He threw open the gate without getting shocked, and Caden ran through it and toward the trailer.
Just as the pit bull rolled squirming onto its back, the man raised the metal stick in his hand and Janice saw a blue tongue flicker at its tip.
“A Tazer,” she wrote in her journal. “The kind they use on lunatics and inmates, and this man uses it on the family pet. And who knows who else.”
On the afternoon of her death, Janice Hughes instructed her class of eighth graders to make family trees. No one could remember her giving such an assignment before. She passed out photocopies of possible formats, construction paper, and scissors and instructed the class to get to work with no further instruction.
Janice Hughes’s students claimed she never took her eyes off of Caden McCormick, who sat in the third row. The boy did not use the construction paper or scissors Janice had given him. He sketched steadily, bent lower over his desk to hide his work from the kids around him.
At one point, Janice walked up behind the boy, placed both hands on his back and peered over his shoulder. Several students would tell the Bakersfield Californian that their teacher went pale when she saw Caden McCormick’s work. “What is that, Caden?” she asked. The boy gave her a blank look and went back to work.
* * *
Deputy Amy Stahl was on patrol when a call came in from dispatch about an open 911 line in Avenal. Amy recognized the name of the caller. She had visited Janice Hughes one night when the woman had phoned to report a prowler. A search of Janice’s property had turned up nothing. Janice had been embarrassed and had offered the deputy coffee, then asked Amy questions about her life without offering up a single piece of information about her own. Amy had heard the rumor that Janice was a lesbian. She never worked up the courage to ask Janice if the rumor was true. Now, Janice had called the Kings County Sheriff’s Department in a panic, screaming something about how thirteen-year-old Caden McCormick was in danger. Amy was fairly sure Janice had been given the run around, which is why the woman had bolted out of her home without bothering to terminate the call. Or perhaps Janice thought the best way to get the police’s attention was to get them to come after her.
“She kept saying something about ‘get the boy,'” the dispatcher said, slipping out of police speak.
Amy heard another deputy call in to say that he was en route to Janice’s home, so Amy flashed her lights and blew through the town of Avenal. She was heading north on Highway 33 in the direction of the trailer park Janice had mentioned to dispatch when a flash of white lit up the northern horizon. It strobed the metal power poles in the distance and flashed across the flanks of the Kettleman Hills.
Blinded, Amy slammed on her brakes. When she opened her eyes, she saw pieces of a double-wide trailer tumbling back down to earth on a pond of fire that burned so white it looked like someone had spilled a piece of heaven. Amy grabbed the radio. She went lights and sirens and slammed her foot on the gas.
When she arrived on the scene, she almost ran into Janice’s Toyota Camry. It was lying on its roof in a bed of shattered glass that shimmered with the reflection of white flames. Janice was not inside it. Amy found her across the road from the trailer’s flaming crater, lying face down on a torn piece of chain link. Most of the hair had been burned off her head and her burned lips were trying to form words.
Her eyes smarting from the flame’s noxious fumes, Amy gripped one of Janice’s hands and brought her ear to the woman’s lips. She was whispering something about a dog but it was lost in the wail of approaching sirens. Janice Hughes died several minutes after she was loaded into the ambulance.
* * *
Later that night, Amy Stahl was the first Sheriff’s Deputy to enter make entrance into Janice’s home. A muted television still flickered in the corner of a small, immaculate living room. A hanging pendant chandelier sent a harsh corona of light down onto the dining room table, where a river of red wine wound its way around a stack of papers.
Amy leafed through them and saw the family trees Janice had instructed her students to make earlier that day. One family tree lay off to the side, face down. When Amy turned it over, her breath caught. It was a detailed pencil sketch of a trailer just like the one that had blown sky high earlier that night. The trailer was surrounded by a chain link fence topped with razor wire. Behind it, Tonya McCormick’s pit bull had been turned in a grotesque monster, its gaping jaws twice the size of the rest of its body. In the expanse of open field behind the trailer, there was a small dark figure without a face, its head rounded slightly as if it were wearing a helmet of some kind.
Amy turned the drawing back over and saw what had propelled Janice to call 911 and dash out of her house to the trailer. There was a message written on the back in small block letters. It was the answer to the question Janice Hughes had asked Caden McCormick in class that afternoon:
He’s a demon. He comes every night now.
Copyright Christopher Rice