As a newspaper reporter, Christi Daugherty, the author of The Echo Killing, began covering murders at the age of 22.
She worked as a journalist for years in cities including Savannah, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans. Her work eventually took her to England, where she wrote the international bestselling Night School series of thrillers for young adults under the name CJ Daugherty. The Echo Killing, her first adult novel, was one of Mystery Tribune’s favorite recent thrillers (see here).
What follows is an excerpt (the first two chapter) from this novel.
It was one of those nights.
Early on there was a flicker of hope— a couple of stabbings, a car wreck with potential. But the wounds weren’t serious and the accident was routine. After that it fell quiet.
A quiet night is the worst thing that can happen to a crime reporter.
With just an hour to go until her midnight deadline, Harper McClain sat alone in the empty newsroom with no story to write, doing the one thing she despised most in the world— a crossword puzzle.
On the far wall, tall windows reflected back a dark image of the huge open room with its white columns and rows of empty desks, but Harper didn’t notice it— she was glaring at the paper on her desk. Smudged and scratched- out letters glared back, like an accusation of failure.
“Why would anyone know an eight- letter word for ‘reckless bravery’?” she grumbled. “I’ve got a seven- letter word for ‘bravery’— it’s called ‘bravery.’ I don’t need a longer word . . .”
“Audacity.” The voice soared across the newsroom from the editor’s desk at the front.
Harper looked up.
City Editor Emma Baxter appeared to be focused on her computer screen, a silver Cross pen glittering in one hand like a small sword.
“An eight- letter word for reckless bravery.” Baxter spoke without shifting her eyes from the monitor. “Audacity.”
Baxter was pushing fifty at varying rates of speed. She was small and wiry, and that only made her look better in a navy blazer. Her angular face had a permanent look of vague dissatisfaction, but somehow that suited her, too. Everything about her was precise— her perfectly even short nails, her stiff posture, and you could cut your hand on the razor- sharp edge of her straight, dark bob.
“How the hell do you know that?” There was no gratitude in Harper’s voice. “In fact, why the hell do you know that? There is something fundamentally wrong with anyone who could answer a question like, ‘What is an eight- letter word for bravery?’ without first wanting to off themselves with a . . .”
Baxter was pushing fifty at varying rates of speed. She was small and wiry, and that only made her look better in a navy blazer.
At her elbow, her police scanner crackled to life. “This is unit three- nine- seven. We’ve got a signal nine with pos si ble signal sixes.” Harper’s voice trailed off. She cocked her head to listen.
“I’m willing to forgive your insubordination on this one occasion,” Baxter said magnanimously. But Harper had already forgotten all about audacity.
On her desk, her phone buzzed. She picked it up.
“Miles,” she said. “You heard about the shooting?”
“Yep. Slow night just got busier. Meet you out front in five.” His Tennessee accent glided over each word, smooth as warm honey.
Harper gathered her things with quick efficiency. Her police scanner hooked to the waistband of her black pants. Sweeping a light black jacket off the back of her chair, she shrugged it on. A narrow reporter’s notebook and pen were shoved into one jacket pocket. Press pass and phone in the other.
Moving fast, she headed across the room.
Baxter cocked an enquiring eyebrow at her.
“Shooting on Broad Street.” Harper spoke as she walked. “Pos si ble injuries. Miles and I are heading down now to find out more.” Baxter reached for her phone to alert the copy desk.
“If I need to hold page one,” she said, “I have to know no later than eleven- thirty.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
She turned out of the newsroom into a wide, brightly lit corridor that opened directly onto a staircase leading down to the front door. Her editor’s final words floated after her.
“When you return, we can have a little talk about your attitude.” It was Baxter’s favorite threat. Harper knew better than to worry.
The sleepy- looking security guard at the reception desk didn’t even look up from the small TV on his desk as she hit the green exit button with hard impatience and hurled herself out of the building into the steamy darkness.
June had arrived a couple of weeks ago, bringing blistering days with it. Nights were better, but only a little. Right now the air was velvet soft, but so thick you could stick a fork in it and expect it to stay standing up. This wasn’t the usual Savannah humidity—this was like breathing under water.
Summer rain in Georgia is no minor threat—it can wash away your car, your house, your hopes, your dreams, and Harper glanced up at the gray clouds scuttling across the sliver of moon as if they might tell her when the water would fall, but the sky had no news to give.
The newspaper’s offices were in a century- old, rambling four- story building that took up half a city block on Bay Street, close enough to the slow- moving Savannah River to smell its green river smell, and to hear the giant engines of the massive container ships rumble as they rolled slowly out to sea. The neon words DAILY NEWS glowed red from a rooftop sign that must have been one of the last things sailors saw before the great Atlantic Ocean opened before them.
Down the street, the ornate city hall’s gilded dome gleamed, even at this hour, and through a break in the buildings, Harper could see the cobblestone lanes leading down to the water’s edge.
She’d never lived anywhere except Savannah, so it had been a very long time since s he’d paid much attention to its landmarks and antebellum architecture. To her, like the verdant town squares and endless monuments to ill- fated Civil War generals, it was all just there.
She didn’t spare any of it a glance now as she waited, one leg jiggling impatiently. Her scanner crackled on her hip. Ambulances were being called out. Backup was being sent.
“Come on, Miles,” she whispered, turning her wrist to see her watch.
It was quiet enough for her to hear the faint wail of sirens in the distance just as a gleaming black Mustang rounded the corner and roared straight toward her, headlights blinding. It stopped in front of her, the motor revving.
Harper yanked the door open and leaped in.
“Let’s go,” she said, strapping on her seat belt.
The tires spun as they sped off.
Inside, the Mustang was alive with voices. Miles had one scanner on his belt, one mounted within the dash where there might otherwise have been a radio, and a third hooked up behind the gear shift. Each was set to a diff er ent channel— one monitored the main police frequency, another was set to a side channel the cops used for chitchat. The third monitored ambulance and fire.
It was like walking into a small, crowded room where twenty people were all talking at once. Harper was used to it, but it always took her a second to make sense of the cacophony.
“What’ve we got?” she asked, frowning.
“Nothing new.” He kept his eyes on the road. “Ambulance en route. Waiting for an update.”
Photographer Miles Jackson was tall and lean, with dark skin and neat, short- cropped hair. He’d been a staff photographer until a couple of years ago, when all the photographers were let go. Since then, he’d been freelance, doing what ever paid the most. He could be found shooting a wedding on a Saturday afternoon, and a murder later that same night.
If it pays it plays, he was fond of saying.
He had a cool, sardonic smile and liked driving fast. He was doing about twice the speed limit as they roared around the corner onto Oglethorpe Avenue, sending the car fishtailing.
Swearing under his breath, Miles wrestled the wheel.
“ Doesn’t this thing go any faster?” Harper deadpanned, hanging onto the handle above the door.
“Very funny,” Miles said through gritted teeth. But he quickly regained control.
As they raced past Forsyth Park, where a huge marble fountain poured a hoopskirt- shaped arc of water into a stone pool, she cocked her head, listening to the scanner.
“They know where the shooters went?” she asked.
Miles shook his head. “Lost them in the projects.”
Just then, the scanner for the police chit chat channel lit up. A grave- deep voice growled, “This is one- four. Unit three- niner-s even, what are we dealing with here?”
Miles and Harper exchanged a look. Fourteen was the code number used by Lieutenant Robert Smith, head of the hom i cide division.
Miles turned down the other scanners.
“Lieutenant, we’ve got one fatality, two going to the hospital,” the officer on the scene responded. Excitement sent his voice up an octave. He talked so fast Harper got a contact high from his adrenaline. “Gangbanger party. Three shooters, all MIA.”
Not waiting to hear the rest, Harper pulled out her phone. Baxter answered on the first ring.
“It’s murder,” Harper said without preamble. “But it could be gang- on- gang.”
“Damn.” She could hear the editor tapping her silver pen on the desk.
Taptaptaptap. “Call me back as soon as you know more.” The line went dead.
Shoving her phone back in her pocket, Harper leaned back in her seat. “If the dead guy’s a ’banger the story goes inside.”
“Well then, we’d best hope our victim is an innocent housewife,” Miles observed as they turned onto Broad Street.
Eyes on the road ahead, Harper nodded. “We can dream.”
On early maps of Savannah, the city is a perfectly symmetrical grid of straight lines, OCD neat, with Broad Street forming the eastern border. In all directions, every thing outside that grid is dark green emptiness, its contents identified with the words “Old Rice Fields” in the nineteenth- century cartographer’s precise typographic handwriting.
On early maps of Savannah, the city is a perfectly symmetrical grid of straight lines, OCD neat, with Broad Street forming the eastern border.
Today, that orderly grid remains largely unchanged, save for the rice fields, which are long gone, replaced by unlovely sprawl. Broad Street forms a speedy direct line between gorgeous, picture- postcard old Savannah and the parts where Harper and Miles spent most of their working nights.
As they headed west, the grand old houses fronted by trees draped in the gray lace of Spanish moss gradually disappeared, replaced by peeling paint, overgrown yards, and cheap metal fences.
No leafy squares broke up the dense housing in this neighborhood. No fountains poured beneath oak trees. Instead, battered apartment buildings stacked people on top of each other in cramped and ugly conditions fronted by broken sidewalks and illuminated by the garish signs marking out fast- food chains and discount shops.
Out here, the streets were busy— drug dealers did good business at this hour.
Miles’ hands were steady on the wheel, but his eyes— scanning the buildings around them— were alert.
He was older than Harper—in his forties. Photography was his second career. Years ago, back in Memphis, he’d had another, very diff er ent life.
“I was an office guy,” he’d told her once, as he took his camera carefully apart. “Pushing paper. Made good money. Had the big house, the pretty wife, the whole nine yards. But it wasn’t for me.”
He’d always loved taking pictures, and he knew he had an eye. One day, he signed up for a photography course. Just, he said, for something to do.
“ After that, I had the itch.”
As far as she could tell, within a year of taking that course, he’d quit his job, left his wife, and started over.
He’d visited Savannah for a business convention and it always stayed with him, he said. The slow way of life. The silky, sweet beauty of the place. The long curve of the river.
He said it felt like a fairy tale. So he came here to live the dream.
They’d both started at the newspaper the same year. Harper as an intern. Miles as night- shift photographer.
Even after seven years, he still saw the city with a stranger’s eyes. He loved the homey cafes and the waitresses who called him “sweetie.” He liked driving out to Tybee Island at sunset, or just sitting on River Street, watching the ships pass by.
Harper couldn’t remember the last time she’d done any of that. She’d spent all her life in Savannah. To her, this was just home.
Ahead, swirling blue lights lit up the street like a deadly disco.
“ Here we go,” Miles muttered, hitting the brakes.
Peering into the glare, Harper counted four patrol cars and at least three unmarked units.
An ambulance rumbled up behind them, its siren blaring, and Miles pulled to the side to let it pass.
“Better leave the car here,” he decided, killing the engine.
Harper glanced at her watch: 11:12. She had eighteen minutes to let Baxter know if she had to hold the front page.
Her heart began to race in that familiar way.
She had a thing for murder. Some people called it an obsession. But she had her reasons. Reasons she didn’t like to talk about much.
Miles gathered his equipment from the trunk, but Harper couldn’t wait. “Meet you down there.”
Leaping from the car, she took off, notebook in one hand and pen in the other, running toward the flashing lights.
On the street, the warm, humid air smelled of exhaust and something else— something metallic and hard to define. Like fear.
In the dark, the flashing lights were blinding. It wasn’t until Harper got beyond the police cars that she saw the body in the road.
If people get shot while they’re running, they fall hard. Legs at unnatural angles, hands above their heads, clothes fluttering around them, looking for all the world as if they’ve tumbled from the sky.
This guy had been running when he was shot.
Pulling out her notebook, Harper jotted down what she saw. Blue jeans and Nikes, baggy T- shirt riding up over a lean, dark- skinned torso. Large bloodstain forming an uneven circle on the pavement beneath him. The face was hidden from view.
Nearby, the ambulance was parked with its back door open, sending light flooding out onto the street. A team of paramedics was working on the two living shooting victims— plugging fluids into them, stopping other fluids from leaching away.
They were a bit late with that, though. There was blood everywhere.
Both wounded men looked like teen agers. The one closest to her still had baby fat in his cheeks.
They were dressed like the dead guy— T- shirts, jeans, matching Nikes.
Harper made notes, but kept her distance. Trying to be invisible.
Miles appeared across the road, crouching down on one knee to get a shot of the body. He had to be careful—the paper wouldn’t use it if the dead guy looked too dead. So he angled himself to get a shot of the guy’s hand, one finger pointing out, reaching for something now lost forever.
Movement in the distance caught Harper’s attention, and she looked up to see two men in cheap suits, their eyes focused on the ground, walking with slow deliberation. They were both listening intently to a uniformed patrol officer who was pointing and talking animatedly.
Detectives are easy to spot, once you get to know them.
Taking care not to step in the blood, she made her way toward them, sticking to the edges of the road.
She knew both men from previous crime scenes. Detective Ledbetter was short and portly, with thinning hair and a kind smile. The other detective was Larry Blazer. Tall and thin, with dark blond hair going artfully gray, he had cheekbones to die for and eyes as hard as copper pennies.
All the TV reporters had a thing for him, but Harper found him cold and self- aware, in the way of men who are handsome and know how to use that as a weapon.
Absorbed in their work, neither man noticed as she navigated the shadows until she was close enough to eavesdrop.
“The shooters came up from the Anderson Houses. The victims won’t say how they knew each other, but this wasn’t random,” the uniformed officer was saying as she walked up. “Someone wanted these guys dead.”
He was green. This could even have been his first shooting. His words poured out in an excited rush.
By contrast, Blazer’s questions were delivered at a slow and deliberate pace, trying to communicate calm and hoping it was contagious.
“You say the vics told you the three shooters ran off together. They give any idea where they went?”
The officer shook his head. “All he said was, ‘that way.’ ” He pointed roughly toward the building in front of them.
Ledbetter said something Harper couldn’t hear. She took a step closer.
In the dark, she never saw the empty forty- ounce beer bottle in the gutter, but the rattle it made when she kicked it was hard to miss.
All the cops looked up. Blazer spotted her first. His gaze narrowed.
“Careful,” he said. “Press on scene.”
Stepping back, Harper waited warily, hoping Ledbetter would be lead detective on the case.
But it was Blazer who walked toward her.
Crap, she thought.
“Miss McClain.” His voice was cool, with an oddly flat intonation. “What a surprise to see you standing in the middle of my crime scene. I don’t suppose you’re a witness?”
He was tall, just over six- one, and he used that height to intimidate, looming over her. But Harper was five- eight, and she wasn’t easy to impress.
“Sorry, Detective,” she said, her tone a cultivated mixture of contrition and respect. “ There’s no crime tape. I didn’t mean to get in your way.”
“I see.” He studied her with distaste. “And yet you are standing where no journalist belongs. Shedding DNA all over the place.”
Who was he trying to kid? They weren’t going to collect that kind of evidence at this scene. The cops cared no more for a dead gangbanger than Baxter did.
Harper blinked innocently.
“I know you’re busy,” she said, all sweetness, “but could you give me just a little information for the morning paper so I can get out of your hair? Names of the victims? Number of suspects?”
“Our investigation has just begun.” Blazer recited the familiar words in a tone that said he saw right through her. “It would be premature to say anything at this time. We’re still identifying the deceased, and have not yet notified next of kin. Now, I’m going to have to ask you to step out of the scene immediately.”
Clearly, he wasn’t in a giving mood.
Still, Harper gave it one more try. “Detective, is this part of a drug war? Should local residents be concerned?”
Rocking back on his heels, Blazer studied her with an interest she didn’t like.
“McClain, a few small- time scumbags stepped on the turf of some bigger scumbags, and they got a lesson in why that’s a bad idea. Why don’t you put that in your rag?”
She opened her mouth to answer, but he cut her off.
“It was a rhetorical question. I have no official statement at this time. Now, kindly get the hell out of my scene before I have you arrested.”
Harper knew better than to argue. Holding up her hands in surrender, she backed away.
When she made it back to the ambulance, Miles was leaning against it casually, checking his shots on the camera screen.
“Blazer’s lead detective, so I’ve got nothing,” Harper announced glumly. “That man hates me like a canker sore.”
Straightening, Miles motioned for her to follow him back toward the Mustang.
“I shot the lead paramedic’s wedding two months ago,” he said quietly, when they were a safe distance away. “Gave her a cheap deal. She owed me a favor.”
Harper grabbed his arm. “You got an ID on our dead guy?”
“More than that.” He held up a crumpled piece of paper. “I’ve got it all.
Melissa had a wonderful honeymoon. She was very chatty today.” “You hero.” Harper mock- punched his arm. “What’ve we got?” Miles squinted to read his own writing.
“Our dead guy is Levon Williams, nineteen, recent graduate of Savannah South High School— played for the baseball team. Hell of a hitter, I’m told. Also, apparently, an up- and- coming heroin dealer. The two wounded victims are his known associates. Suspects are three black men, slim, two are average height, T- shirt and jeans, one is short and stocky, wearing a bandanna around his neck. All are late teens to early twenties. Suspected members of the East Ward gang.” He handed Harper the page. “It’s all here.”
Harper scanned the paper quickly, seeing nothing that said page one. As soon as they reached the Mustang, she called Baxter to give her the bad news.
“Dammit,” the editor said when she’d heard the rundown. “Get back here and write it up for page six. It’s better than nothing.” Miles started the engine just as Harper ended the call.
“Page six?” he guessed.
Harper folded the paper and put it in her pocket.
“Buried in the weeds.”
He shrugged. “You win some, you lose some.”
Turning the wheel, he began to pull out of the parking space before braking hard to let a white van creep by. The words COUNTY CORONER were emblazoned on the side in sepulcher black.
“The iceman cometh,” Miles observed.
Harper barely looked up. She was scribbling notes for the piece she needed to write when she got back.
When the van passed, Miles turned the car around with neat precision. They’d only gone a short distance, though, when a breathless voice suddenly filled the car.
“Unit five- six- eight in pursuit of suspects from Broad Street.” Harper’s pen froze.
Miles lifted his foot from the accelerator.
They both looked at the scanner.
“Copy unit five- six- eight,” the dispatcher responded calmly. “Please verify: Are these the suspects from the shooting on Broad?”
“Affirmative.” The man was panting, his voice shook. He was running.
“Three males heading south on foot on Thirty- Ninth Street,” he shouted.
“Two tall. One short with a bandanna.”
In the background, Harper could hear the dispatcher typing the information into her computer, her fingers quick and light on the keys. It was Sarah to night on dispatch— she recognized the voice. She was good.
“All units. Backup required for unit five- six- eight in pursuit of shooting suspects heading south on Thirty- Ninth.”
Sarah’s voice was so unemotional she might have been reading a cake recipe. But her words sent excitement rushing through Harper’s veins.
She turned to Miles. “That’s five blocks from here.”
“Copy that.” He shifted gears and hit the gas. The Mustang responded, tires squealing. A smile lifted the corners of his mouth as he turned toward Thirty- Ninth.
“Let’s get ourselves on page one.”