There’s nothing like a good true crime story, and Killing Time‘s teen protagonist Natalie Temple is possibly the genre’s biggest fan. When reporters from her quiet, simple town inform her that her teacher — and fellow true-crime aficionado — Mrs. Halsey was found dead, she takes it upon herself to uncover what really happened.
Rolling Stone shares an exclusive excerpt of the book by the magazine’s own chief research editor Brenna Ehrlich. The first chapter of Killing Time — which is set to be released on March 8 via Inkyard Press and HarperCollins — introduces the lovable and relatable Natalie as she finds out, while working her summer job at a local diner, that her favorite teacher is gone.
After that summer, Natalie Temple would forever associate the smell of ketchup with death. Her hometown, Ferry, Connecticut, was in the midst of one of its famous heat waves as Natalie finished up her shift at her mom’s diner, marrying half-empty bottles as it got dark out. She had spent the evening sliding ice cubes down her freckled neck and across her collarbones as she served up burgers to sweating summer kids fresh from the sidewalks. They’d play in the shadows until their parents called them home from under the porch lights: packing like sardines into someone’s shed, hunting fireflies by the pine trees, slurping rapidly melting ice-cream cones from Sammy’s Shack, a roadside spot flanked by the ocean and the graveyard.
Ferry was any neighborhood in summertime, and Natalie was any kid with a summer job, watching the clock and willing it to move faster. She was just finishing her business with the ketchup bottles when Mrs. Pressman and Mr. Lugo, the crime reporters from the Ferry Caller, pushed through the front door of her mother’s diner, their faces white and drawn.
“Can I get some water, Helen?” Flora Pressman asked, smoothing her frizzled ponytail to no avail; her face was always framed by a halo of flyaways. She plunked down at the counter and guzzled the water Natalie’s mother, Helen Temple, placed in front of her. Henry Lugo settled onto his stool and, despite the sweat streaming down his bald head, ordered a hot coffee.
“Long day?” Helen asked, leaning on the counter, fanning herself with a menu. “Did a bird get into the ShopRite again?” Ferry wasn’t exactly a hotbed of crime, much to Natalie’s chagrin: she wasn’t entirely sure why the paper needed a crime reporter, let alone two. People kept their hedges trimmed and their noses clean. Parents had jobs in offices that their children didn’t understand, and everyone went to the beach on the weekends to turn like rotisserie chickens in the sun. It was more tourist destination than town—its seaport teeming with antique boats, the aquarium boasting daily sea lion shows. The same creatures doing the same tricks year after year as the kids got older, left and then came back to have kids of their own.
Natalie always felt like there was something darker under the soil, though, like a hand struggling to burst from the grave in an old movie. That perfection had to come at a cost. Not that she had experienced firsthand any real darkness in her eighteen years. It was just a hunch—and she was an avid fan of the hunch. Or maybe it was that she just hoped her town wasn’t as utterly boring as it seemed.
Mrs. Pressman shook her head, draining her glass, and tears started running down her cheeks. Natalie’s hands stilled, and her breath froze: an adult crying was distinctly wrong, like a pet talking or something. She kept quiet, despite her alarm. It seemed that the adults had forgotten that she stood by the jukebox, surrounded by ketchup bottles, and she didn’t want them to remember her—or their manners—and hush up.
When Natalie had started getting interested in true crime a few years back, Helen had hastily put the kibosh on her intrigue. Natalie wasn’t entirely sure why her mother was so vehemently against the subject; she figured it was just part of Helen’s generalized anxiety about the world at large. She did know, however, that Helen would not like it if she knew her daughter sat up nights poring over books about the Golden State Killer and the Zodiac, or about the hours she spent on true-crime message boards, trading theories with faceless strangers. She would especially hate Natalie’s blood-drenched podcast, Killing Time—if she knew that it existed, which, thankfully, she did not. Sometimes, when Natalie listened to old episodes, she kind of scared herself. But it was hard not to get carried away in the drama.
“You know I worked in the city before this. Ten years,” Mrs. Pressman said, accepting another glass of water. Helen nodded. “Well, this one… It was worse than anything I saw there. Burned into my brain. Will be for a long time. Found her at the bottom of the stairs. It was…bad,” she continued, playing with her wedding ring. “The worst part is? She was John’s teacher.”
Natalie felt the fine hairs on her arms rise, a chill like a kiss racing up the nape of her neck. Jonathan Pressman was in her class—or had been, before they’d graduated the week before. Natalie and her mom usually had Thanksgiving at the Pressmans’ house, and she and John had paid their dues at the kids’ table together. He also interned with her at the Ferry Caller.
Mr. Lugo nodded. “Yeah, Katie had her, too.” Katie Lugo, another Thanksgiving kids’-table regular—also Natalie’s best friend and podcast cohost. “She was her favorite. A good woman. Whip-smart.”
Pressman wiped her eyes, her hands trembling now. “Who the hell would want to kill Lynn Halsey?”
Natalie’s hand seemed to atrophy around the neck of a ketchup bottle, and it plummeted to the floor, red haloing the black-and-white tile, dripping down the front of her shirt. The smell of sugary tomato inundated the air. Bile rose in her throat. Mrs. Halsey taught senior-year English. She had written Natalie’s recommendation letter to the University of Pennsylvania. She had helped Natalie get a full scholarship, meeting up for hours after school to go over her essay until it shone. Now she was dead, and the last thing Natalie had said to her had been “You never cared about me.”
The shame threatening to choke her, Natalie thought of her cat, Lemons, hit by a car when she was ten. She had found him on their lawn by the mailbox, his head dented and his ribs jutting through his skin where some neighborhood dog had probably gotten to him. She had just stared down at his inside-out body, lying on the lush grass under the spring sun, a bee lazily alighting onto his nose, then moving on in search of something more fragrant. It seemed impossible—the carnage—and how everything around the cat kept going despite it.
Natalie didn’t remember sitting down, but she suddenly felt her head resting on the table and the vinyl of the booth stuck to the backs of her legs. Her mother sat next to her, tracing small circles in the center of her back. She took a shuddering breath and sat up, blinking away a tide of dizziness. Her mother’s hand went for another rotation before Natalie shook it off, cringing. Helen was the reason she’d left things so poorly with Mrs. Halsey. How dare her mother try to comfort her now? As her eyes cleared, she saw Mr. Lugo and Mrs. Pressman staring at her, sweating. She pushed a hand through her pale blond hair and tried for a shaky smile—for their benefit, not Helen’s. They hadn’t ruined her life.
“I’m sorry, Helen,” Mr. Lugo said, speaking over her head and abandoning his coffee as he rose to his feet. His shoes were shiny, Natalie noticed through her haze, and she wondered how he kept getting up and polishing them when he had to report on things like murder and mayhem. It seemed pointless, somehow. “I didn’t see her there…” he continued, muttering another apology as he practically sprinted toward the exit. Mrs. Pressman took a final sip of her water and stood up less hurriedly. She knelt down by Natalie and put a cool hand on her knee, bare and bruised below the hem of her cutoffs from pedaling around on her bike. Helen gave her friend a warning look but didn’t interfere.
“We’ll find out what happened to her, honey,” Mrs. Pressman said, her voice quiet and even, eyes level with Natalie’s. “I promise you.”
Natalie nodded. Lemons and Mrs. Halsey flitted through her mind again, the unreality of their deaths. The largeness of Mrs. Halsey’s, so much bigger than a cat’s: a human was gone, would never come back, and someone had made her that way. Someone still out there. Someone she might even know.
Mrs. Pressman gave her knee a final squeeze and turned to follow her coworker. The door jangled open, and a blast of hot air eddied into the weakly air-conditioned diner, bringing with it the smell of impending summer storms and the arrival of a single bee. The insect landed on the livid pool of ketchup oozing like tar across the linoleum, and Natalie sat and watched the red spread.
Natalie had first met Mrs. Halsey the second week of her freshman year, not because she had a class with her or anything so mundane. Natalie had been called into the school counselor’s office after writing an essay for English class about Ray Bradbury’s short story, “The Crowd,” which she compared to the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese. Natalie’s thesis: human nature is dark and terrible, and we’re all doomed. Her teacher, Mr. Miller, had been less than thrilled with her moody conclusion and had promptly sent her to Mrs. Ketchum, the school shrink.
Sitting in Mrs. Ketchum’s office, Natalie studied her lap and assured the spindly, bored-looking woman, who sipped primly from a mug with a dog dressed as a nobleman on it, that she had no suicidal or homicidal ideations. She was just incredibly realistic about human nature, in her opinion, and also maybe the slightest bit jaded; it wasn’t her fault her teacher didn’t understand nuance. Natalie had been told that high school sucked, but faced with the bald reality of what she saw as its aversion to critical thinking and creativity, the next four years seemed insurmountable. At least until she met Lynn Halsey.
After Mrs. Ketchum released her with a final promise that she would check out some of the wonderful clubs the school had on offer—except improv, Natalie had her limits— Natalie fumed her way into the hallway, her paper crumpled in her hands. She had gotten a C due to her supposedly weak thesis. She didn’t get Cs. Tears threatened to overflow the corners of her eyes as she made her way to her locker, but before she could dig in her pocket and text Katie about the indignity of the whole ordeal, someone tapped her on the shoulder. Expecting the counselor to appear with a pamphlet of some sort, Natalie whirled around, a smile plastered on her face that she hoped read as I’m fine! I’m excited to try new activities! But instead of Mrs. Ketchum, there was a fine-boned woman with long, dark hair pulled back into a ponytail. Her eyes were bright blue and, Natalie noticed, she was wearing a battered leather jacket that seemed far too cool for a teacher.
“You’re Natalie, right?” she asked, gesturing at the paper clenched in the girl’s hand. Natalie Temple was clearly printed across the top, but that still didn’t explain why the woman had stopped her.
Natalie nodded, dumb. The woman didn’t look like a teacher—and it wasn’t just the jacket. Her eyes still had some light in them. Her mouth had fine lines around it that suggested she laughed more than once a year.
The woman nodded back. “I thought so. Mr. Miller told me about your essay. About Kitty Genovese.”
Natalie felt the tears threatening to spill once more. It had gotten around school that she was a freak. Obsessed with murder. Probably in need of a padded cell and restraints. She was pretty sure her mother would let her be homeschooled if she asked. In fact, Helen would love it: mother and daughter living together in quiet solitude until they were eaten by cats—cats they didn’t even own.
The teacher seemed to see the terror reflected in Natalie’s eyes, because she reached out a tentative hand and touched the girl’s shoulder. “Relax. He told me about you because he thought I could help. I’m Mrs. Halsey. I teach senior English, but I also run the True Crime Club here at East Ferry. I thought you might want to join.”
Natalie’s eyes widened. She knew there were clubs for math and science and football and whatever, but she never imagined anyone else at East Ferry High would be interested in true crime. She and Katie had started their podcast the summer before, but no one really listened to it except for a couple of internet randos.
The teacher held up a hand as if attempting to temper Natalie’s excitement. “It’s not official yet because there’s a dearth of members, but the would-be president, Jessica, has asked me to be the adviser, and I jumped at the chance. We just need two more on the docket to get our picture in the yearbook.”
Natalie stared at the trim woman with her bouncing ponytail and soft eyes. “You’re into true crime?”
Mrs. Halsey laughed. “Well, I’m into a good story. And crime has a lot of them.”
“Fuck yeah, it does!” Natalie exclaimed, forgetting she was talking to a teacher for just a second before blushing. Natalie’s mom always warned her about swearing too much, about how it made her sound stupid and young—the exact opposite of the poised journalist she longed to be. Excellent first impression, she chided herself. You sound like an idiot.
Mrs. Halsey only laughed, though; then her face got more serious. “But the telling of those stories… Well, that could use a little work. When it comes to both the genre and your essay.”
“What do you mean?” Natalie asked.
“Take Kitty there, for instance.” The woman gestured at Natalie’s essay. “Your piece made some great connections between Bradbury and the original crime—the passivity of the bystander, the complicity of the crowd—”
Natalie snorted. She knew it wasn’t a C assignment. Maybe this woman could get her grade fixed. She was an English teacher, after all. “Tell that to Mr. Miller…” she said, half-serious.
“But,” the woman interjected, “you’re ignoring an important ramification of Kitty’s death. One that debunks your theory that the world is some soulless hellscape.” She smiled like she had a secret, and Natalie couldn’t help but like this strange, little woman. “Because of Kitty’s death,” she continued, “we have 9-1-1, a direct line to help when someone’s in peril. It was directly inspired by Kitty’s situation. A great invention, I would say. One worthy of its own story.”
“I didn’t know that,” Natalie murmured, crumpling up her paper further. Maybe she’d deserved that C after all. Maybe just because she was smart in middle school didn’t mean she’d cut it in high school. Fantasies of homeschooling once more flitted through her head.
“That’s because you were just focusing on the crime,” said Mrs. Halsey. “Which is perfectly natural,” she added when Natalie’s face fell even more. “It bleeds, it leads, right? But what makes the salacious the stupendous?”
Natalie frowned, at a loss.
“The story,” the woman said, pointing at Natalie. “What happens around the blood. What came before and after. Otherwise, you’re just rubbernecking.”
The bell rang then, interrupting Natalie as she opened her mouth, eager to find out more, to ask the woman how she knew so much about Kitty and murder and true crime.
“I have to get to class, but it was nice to meet you, Natalie,” Mrs. Halsey said, extending a hand. “And I’ll see you after school in the library for the first official meeting of the East Ferry High True Crime Club.”
Excerpted from Killing Time by Brenna Ehrlich, Copyright © 2022 by Brenna Ehrlich. Published by Inkyard Press.