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The Other Side by Mark Leichliter

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@Archaeolibrary, @Bethb19861, @LeichliterMark,

#Mystery, #PoliceProcedural,

How do you start an investigation when you have no evidence that a crime has been committed?

When a seventeen-year-old girl abruptly disappears, the ensuing investigation probes dead-ends seemingly as deep as Flathead Lake—the geographic and investigative center of The Other Side. In sleepy Lakeside, Montana, Britany Rodgers’s disappearance is as unexpected as the sudden, violent appearance of a storm sweeping off the lake. The search to find her unearths crimes but none that can explain her disappearance, and Detectives Steven Wendell and Stacey Knudson face one empty trail after another.

Wendell, unlike the girl for whom he searches, has never quite fit the expected norms of his peers. Meticulous, cerebral, a loner, he has the distinction of being the oldest graduate of the Montana Police Academy. When he and Knudson grow suspicious that Britany has been murdered, they have scant evidence and no body.

The investigation to discover what has happened to Britany takes readers into starkly contrasting environments—inside spectacular lakefront mansions and within gritty trailer parks—and into the lives of those who exhibit motivations as murky as the fog-choked Montana woods and mist-shrouded Flathead Lake bays.

The Other Side offers readers a tense crime novel with a literary heart.

For the first time in two days, Sheila Rodgers was alone. With quiet, she might think, might solve the riddle of her daughter’s absence. Yet she hadn’t a moment’s quiet before her younger sister called with accusations that Sheila was overreacting. Her sister’s reprimands echoed those of her husband, who grumbled that Britany was “pissing right in our faces. Off God knows where playing adult.” “The police should be forming search parties,” Sheila had pleaded with him. “They should be using helicopters and dogs.” “Stop it,” he had replied. "She lied to us, and now she knows her lies are gonna come home to roost. When she drags her butt home, she’s got questions to answer.” “Tom,” Sheila pleaded. “We have no idea where she is. Anything could have happened.” “She’s testing us, is all. Now she’s afraid to own up to it. You’ve been too soft on her.” Her husband’s voice had sounded again in her head as her sister said, “So she’s not your perfect angel, Sheila. You and I both have some stories we’d rather Mom didn’t know. I’m sure she went to a party or something, had a few drinks. She’ll be home any time now, embarrassed for a hard lesson learned. Don’t make a mountain out of a—” Sheila had touched “end call” while her sister was in mid-sentence and then immediately dialed Britany’s phone, praying her sister and husband would be right. She’d gladly let them throw her “overreaction” in her face if it meant Britany was okay. Britany’s recorded greeting on her voicemail still sounded as Sheila dropped the phone on the couch. She followed the phone’s path, slumping like a marionette cut from its strings.

* * * The previous day she had called her daughter’s phone every fifteen minutes for over five hours. Each time the call went straight to voicemail as it had done now. When she’d made the first call, she left an angry message demanding to know why her daughter wasn’t awake. “I explicitly said you could spend the night at Kristen’s so long as you were back here ready for church this morning. You’re going to make us late,” she’d said. Now she fantasized about hacking into Britany’s mailbox to erase the shrill timbre of her anger. When she dialled a second time, her anger had only accelerated, so much so she hadn’t left a message but instead redialed and hung up twice more in a span of a minute. When she tried again ten minutes later, she’d opted for guilt over anger and left a message that said, “Okay, sleepyhead, I’m really disappointed that you’re missing church. Get yourself home as soon as you get this. I want both bathrooms spotless. Gram is coming over.” They had returned home from church and a trip to the grocery store to an empty house and dirty bathrooms with a houseful of relatives due in time for the Seahawks’ kick off. Sheila’s anger shifted full throttle into worry. Tom’s foul mood only accelerated. He thumped clean pans into cabinets and slammed the doors. “Where the hell is she?” he shouted when Sheila hung up from her first, unanswered call to Kristen’s mom. “I thought she was spending the night over there. What kind of funny farm are they runnin’ that they don’t know who sleeps under their roof?” While Tom stomped out to the garage where she knew he would sneak a cigarette—a sure sign of his stress—Sheila had begun a flurry of calls, first to the homes of, what she soon realized, were mostly childhood friends rather than current ones—numbers that had remained in her contacts unused for years. She thought she and Tom were engaged parents, aware of their children’s whereabouts, but she was embarrassed to realize that she only had a handful of phone numbers for Britany’s friends, and this included no more than an ancient landline for Kristen Schneider. Instead, her phone contacts were filled with parents with whom they ride-shared for Tommy’s hockey team. The few numbers she had yielded no information. One sleepy sounding friend said, “Gosh, Mrs. Rodgers, I haven’t really talked to Britany in months other than at school.” She called Dairy Queen, where Britany worked, and reached a shift manager who could offer no better than “Sorry, Mrs. Rodgers, Brit’s not scheduled to work until Friday.” Tom emerged from the garage and said he was going to look for Britany. “What are you doing?” Sheila implored when he picked up his keys from the ceramic bowl Britany had made in sixth grade. "You’re not looking for the dog. She’s isn’t wandering around in back yards.” “Got to do something.” “Tom, we need help from the police. They know how to handle these things.” “I know how to take care of my own. I might just go by and give Kristen’s dad a piece of my mind.” “Tom. Please.” Tom ignored her. When he returned a half hour later, Sheila saw the panic in his eyes. She begged him once again to call the sheriff’s department. This time he relented. They had forgotten that two of Sheila’s three sisters, their husbands and children, and Sheila’s mom were coming to watch the game. That she’d failed to phone any of them among her calls searching for Britany did not occur to Sheila until she heard her oldest sister, their mother in tow, sing “hello” as she passed through the front door. Sheila, wiping tears, ducked into the kitchen. She dabbed at her eyes with a paper towel and heard her sister explain from the living room as they shed coats, “Mom and I wanted to see if you need help with dinner. Brad and the kids are coming in a bit.” Sheila looked at her mother, frail after two months of chemotherapy. She looked like she might shatter if she fell. Her mother, without greeting, asked, “Why is your face all red?” “It’s nothing,” Sheila said. “PMS. Tom,” she shouted into the next room, “why don’t you get mom settled by the fire. I’ll fix snacks.” Her sister was close at her heels, and as soon as their mother had passed out of hearing, touched Sheila’s retreating elbow. “What’s wrong?” The tears sprang anew. “Britany’s gone.” “What do you mean, gone?” “She was supposed to be at a friend’s house last night, and never came home this morning.” The words rushed out of her. “She was never at Kristen’s. No one’s seen her. I don’t know what to do.” Her tears flowed freely now. “I don’t know where she is.” “There’s some logical explanation.” Megan stepped forward and gathered Sheila into a hug. She pulled Sheila’s hair back from her face as she had done since they were children. “Just breathe a minute. It’s probably car trouble.” Sheila pulled out of the embrace. “She doesn’t have the car. She’s supposed to be three blocks away. She’s not answering her phone. Something has happened to her.” Sheila began to sob. Megan picked up a pad and pen she found near the phone. “Write down everyone you’ve called. Then we’ll make a list of all her friends and any place she may have gone. We’ll think it through.”

With trembling hands, Sheila accepted the pen from her sister. “We’ve already called the police.” “That’s great," Megan said. “The more help, the quicker we’ll find out what’s going on.” An automaton, Sheila followed her sister’s orders. She had barely started on the list when she heard a commotion as the rest of the family arrived. Jessica, their youngest sister, was lost in a battle with her kids. Sheila’s mind shifted to forming a plan for how they might keep the news from their mother. She’d already been through enough in the past months—chemo and radiation and physical therapy, the loss of appetite, the exhaustion, the financial worries. Sheila couldn’t face her mother. As if reading her mind, Meagan said, “No need to upset Mom, sis. This is all going to be some mix-up, a funny story we’ll tell around holiday dinner tables for the rest of Britany’s life about how you had to call the police when she’d just been suckered into a snipe hunt.” Sheila listened to her sister, but her voice sounded like it was deep underwater. Her thoughts sprang from one to the next, and she couldn’t keep up. The doorbell rang. Accustomed to family who had no need to announce their presence, everyone turned at the sound. Sheila dropped the notepad and stepped into the living room just as Tom opened the door. The sight of the uniform triggered a gasp from Sheila, and she reached for the kitchen doorjamb. The deputy saw the look on Sheila’s face and said to the room, “Sorry, folks.” Jessica looked from the deputy to her sister and nearly shouted, “What’s going on?” When no one responded, she demanded again, looking directly at Sheila. “Sis, what’s happening?” The deputy looked at Tom, who held the door for him. “You reported your daughter missing?” Everyone in the room with the exception of Sheila seemed to step toward the two men who filled the narrow entryway. An imposing presence despite a boyish face, the deputy made the room seem to shrink. Tom Rodgers wasn’t a small guy, but he hadn’t seen the inside of a gym since his high school football days. Just then his brother-in-law arrived at the open front door. A warden for Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, standing six foot five, Brad stepped into the narrow foyer and stopped, his two adolescent children stuck on the porch behind him. Sheila backed toward the kitchen, her retreat stopped by her mother’s raspy voice. “Someone explain to me why my granddaughter is missing.” Her voice, commanding despite its rasp, sliced through the commotion. Sheila’s mother appeared someone she no longer recognized, her cheekbones nearly penetrating the thin skin of her face, her lips pulled back to reveal her teeth. “Mom, Britany didn’t come home this morning.” Her mother straightened her shoulders and stood taller. “Then this young man has a job to do. All of you, get out of his way. Come into the other room so he can speak with Sheila and Tom in private.” She turned back out of the room, and the others dutifully followed. * * * Sheila looked at the phone beside her on the couch. The house was silent. For the first time since calling the police, she was alone. No one drilling her with questions. Remembering how her mother took command when she wanted to disappear brought fresh tears. Had that only been a day ago? She hadn’t slept. Hadn’t eaten more than a few grapes and some crackers from the plate Megan brought. Her mind was filled with spiderwebs, cotton balls, lake fog. She wished she had inherited her mother’s strength. The woman continued to surprise her. After the deputy left, her mother had entered the kitchen and, without a word, gathered Sheila in a hug and whispered in her ear. “We’ll find her. Don’t you doubt it.” She turned to the others in the room, their faces a swarm of withheld questions. “Someone take me home and bring the kids. The rest of you get to work finding my granddaughter.” Now, having again heard her daughter’s recorded phone greeting, she wanted her mother. Wanted some portion of her strength. Her certainty. That morning Tom had said that “normalcy” was the best medicine while they waited for Britany’s return, so he opted for work and insisted that Tommy be sent to school. She’d argued with him, shouting so loudly she imagined the neighbors would hear. “For God’s sake, Tom. Our daughter’s picture is on the morning news.” She pointed to the television. An annoying teen band had replaced the local news. Tears dripped off her chin. “Normalcy,” she hissed. “What are the police doing? A deputy who is practically a child asks us ten questions? Why aren’t they ringing every doorbell in the valley?” “I’m just sayin’ that there’s a logical explanation,” Tom said. “You made me call the cops. Now let them do their job. I’m sure they’re doing things we can’t see.” “The neighbors brought us flowers this morning. Flowers,” she said. Her eyes drifted out the window. "What does that mean?” “You’re letting your imagination run away with you,” Tom said. “We need something to occupy our minds.” His voice trailed off. “I’m going to work. She’s gonna be back before dinner.” Sheila had watched him walk out the door to the garage and had wanted to throw something at his back. Then her thoughts had been interrupted by Megan. She’d forgotten her sister had spent the night.

“I’m headed out,” Megan said. “We’ve got a meeting at the church to distribute flyers with Britany’s picture. You sure you’re going to be okay here on your own? Wouldn’t you rather help us?”

Sheila nodded. She couldn’t explain that while alone she wouldn’t have to listen to others tell her to stop thinking through the scenarios forming in her mind. Alone, she’d find the clarity to figure out exactly where Britany was. Instead she said, “Somebody needs to be here if she comes home.”

Sheila wanted to call Britany’s phone again if only to hear her voicemail greeting: “Hey, it’s Brit. You know what to do.” She missed the old outgoing message, the one Britany had recorded with excitement when they’d first given her the phone at fourteen, a message that ended in a fit of giggles among a roomful of girls.

She looked out the window. Rain had moved in overnight, and the sky was gray and close. Where was her baby girl, she wondered, shivering as if she had stepped into the October cold. “Where are you?” she asked of the empty room.

4 out of 5 (very good)

Independent Reviewer for Archaeolibrarian - I Dig Good Books!

Steve Wendell is the detective put in charge of the disappearance of Britany Rodgers. He is determined to find out what happened to her no matter how long it takes.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel there were so many twists and turns I really did not expect half of what happened or the outcome of the case and not to brag but I'm normally quite good at figuring these kind of things out. There was a lot of emotion involved in the story and I felt every bit of it.

Definitely a gripping novel, fantastically written.

4/5 stars

** same worded review will appear elsewhere **

* A copy of this book was provided to me with no requirements for a review. I voluntarily read this book, and the comments here are my honest opinion. *

Mark Leichliter is the author of the crime fiction novel The Other Side. He has been publishing fiction, essays, and poetry in literary magazines and anthologies since 1991, including in the pages of The Arlington Literary Journal, The Bloomsbury Review, Dogwood, Fugue, Per Contra, Talking River Review, Weber: the Contemporary West, and Zone 3, among others. Writing as Mark Hummel, he is the author of the novel In the Chameleon’s Shadow and the short story collection Lost and Found.

Mark has taught fiction and essay writing at colleges and universities for much of his career, where he also administrated writing programs, directed a writers’ conference, and ran a visiting writers’ series. He is the founding and managing editor of the nonfiction literary magazine bioStories. After nearly two decades on the faculty of the University of Northern Colorado, Mark taught in an International Baccalaureate curriculum at Journeys School of Teton Science Schools. He continues to serve on the resident faculty of the Jackson Hole Writers Conference, often teaches workshops and courses on memoir and fiction writing, and offers editing and writing coaching through his firm theWORDwright. He is an experienced ghostwriter, guiding several books a year to publication, helping CEOs, coaches, and thought leaders bring their ideas to print. Mark grew up in Wyoming and much of his work is influenced by the wildness and beauty of the Mountain West. While completing a graduate degree in English, he studied with prize-winning authors John Edgar Wideman, Robert Roripaugh, and Donald Murray. He writes from his home in Montana’s Flathead Valley. When not working, he and his wife can usually be found on the trails of Northwestern Montana or travelling around the world. Mark is an avid, if slow, trail runner, an aspiring photographer, and an amateur woodworker.

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