“Caleb, she’s gone. Disappeared. Vanished,” Holly said.
Caleb Trovato could hear the distress in his ex-wife’s voice, but he wasn’t about to respond to it. Everything that happened seemed to affect her far more acutely than it would anyone else and, by virtue of the fact that they were divorced—for the second time—he didn’t have to ride her emotional roller coaster anymore.
He propped the phone up with his shoulder and swiveled back to his computer to check his e-mail, so the next few minutes wouldn’t be a total waste. “Your sister’s what–twenty-six now? She’ll turn up eventually.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Susan’s disappeared before. Remember that time she was on her way back from visiting your parents and she met some guy on an hour’s layover in Vegas and let him talk her into a wild fling? We were positive something terrible had happened to her. Especially when the airline confirmed that she’d boarded the flight out of Phoenix.”
“That was different,” Holly retorted. “She called me the next day.”
“Only because Loverboy had started acting a little scary. She finally realized it might be a good thing to let someone know where she was. And she needed money to get home.”
“That was almost five years ago, Caleb. She’s been doing better. She has a steady job and has kept her own apartment for almost a year.”
“Where’s she working?”
“At the cosmetics counter at Nordstrom. I’m telling you, she’s changed.”
“Right. She’s a shop-a-holic and she’s working at her favorite department store. I doubt she’s changed very much.”
“How can you say that?”
The high pitch of Holly’s voice brought back memories of the many outbursts he’d been forced to endure while they were married and put his teeth on edge. “Listen, Holly, I’m busy,” he said, determined to escape this time. He didn’t owe her anything. They’d been apart almost two years. “I’ve got to go.”
“Caleb, don’t do this to me,” she said, openly crying now. “I haven’t bothered you for anything since our last divorce.”
Caleb rolled his eyes. Wasn’t that the general idea? It wasn’t as if they had children together. And contrary to her interpretation of not bothering him, she did call occasionally. She’d called to borrow money. She’d called to ask how to file her income tax returns. She’d called to see if he could remember what had happened to the X-rays they’d had taken of her back when she’d had that water skiing accident.
“I don’t understand what you want from me,” he said in frustration.
“I haven’t been able to reach Susan for almost a week. Mom and Dad haven’t heard from her. Lance, the guy she’s dating, hasn’t heard from her. She hasn’t called in at work–”
“Shining off work is nothing new for Susan, either,” he pointed out.
“Caleb, she was living near the university.”
At this Caleb sat forward, feeling his first flicker of alarm. Fourteen women had been abducted, raped and killed near the University of Washington over the past twelve years. And Susan fit the killer’s profile. Tall and slender, she was in her mid-twenties to mid-thirties and had sandy-blonde hair.
But Caleb was certain the man who’d committed those murders was dead. He should know. He’d spent months and months researching the case. “Holly, the Sandpoint Strangler shot himself in his own backyard over a year ago.”
She sniffed. “If you know who the Sandpoint Strangler was, why didn’t you ever finish the book you were going to write about him?”
“There was no hard evidence to connect Ellis Purcell to the killings,” Caleb admitted. “But I met him, Holly. I talked to him a couple of times, and I’m telling you the guy was hiding something. And, believe me, there was plenty of circumstantial stuff pointing his way. The cops must have searched his place three different times.”
“They never found anything.”
“The murders have stopped since his death. That should tell you something.”
“So what about Susan?” she asked with more than a hint of desperation.
She was playing him again, tempting him to bite off on the high drama. But it wasn’t going to work this time. He no longer felt the same compulsion to rescue Holly that had drawn him to her in the first place. “I’m sorry about Susan,” he said. “But I don’t know what you want me to do.”
“I want you to come out here and find her, Caleb.”
Shoving his mouse away, Caleb turned in his new leather office chair to stare out the picture window that revealed a breathtaking view of San Francisco Bay. A panorama of blue-green, undulating ocean dotted with at least twenty colorful sailboats spread out before him. “I live in California, Holly.” As if to prove how necessary it was that he remain in his new surroundings, he added, “I have someone coming to lay new carpet this week.”
“This could mean Susan’s life!” she cried.
Another over-the-top statement designed to manipulate him. “I write true crime novels. That doesn’t make me a detective or an investigator. I don’t know what you think I can do.”
“I know what you can do,” she said. “I married you twice, remember? It’s almost uncanny how you turn up whatever you’re looking for. It’s a talent. You’re…you’re like one of those journalists who’ll stop at nothing to uncover a story.”
Caleb wasn’t sure that was such a positive association, but he let it pass because she was still talking.
“You could come, if you wanted to. Lord knows you’ve got the money.”
“Money isn’t the issue,” he replied.
“Then what is?”
His hard-won freedom. Caleb had had to leave the Seattle area to get far enough away from Holly. He wasn’t about to head back now, even though his parents still lived on Fidalgo Island, where he’d grown up, and he loved the place. “I can’t get away. I’m in the middle of another book.”
She seemed to sense he wasn’t going for the panicky stuff and made an effort to rein-in her emotions. “What is this one about?”
“A girl who murdered her step-father.”
Another sniffle. “Sounds uplifting.”
“It’s a living.” He felt his lips twist into a wry grin. “Somebody I know talked me out of continuing my education. I’m certainly not going to make any money with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology.”
“You wouldn’t have been happy as a shrink.”
No, but maybe he could have done what all the counselors they’d visited hadn’t been able to do–fix him, so he could tolerate Holly, or fix her, so she wouldn’t be so tough to put up with. Then they wouldn’t have ended both marriages. Maybe they’d even have a couple of kids…
“You should come back here and do some more work on the Sandpoint Strangler.”
“Nice try, Holly, but no thanks.”
“I know a book about him would really sell. Nobody’s done one yet.”
More bait. “Because there’re still too many unanswered questions in the case to make for interesting reading. People like a definitive ending when they purchase a true crime book. They like logical sequences and answers. I can’t give them that with the Sandpoint Strangler.”
“Maybe you can, now. I read an article in the paper just the other day that said they believe that one woman who went missing in Spokane might have been one of the strangler’s victims, too. There were a few differences in her case, but the article pointed out a few similarities, too.”
Caleb had several friends on the Seattle force, sources he’d developed just after he married Holly and started his crime-writing career. If anything very exciting had developed, Detective Gibbons or Detective Thomas would have called him. He knew they’d like nothing better than to have him solve what had essentially become a cold case—so the department wouldn’t look so bad for never reeling in the Sandpoint Strangler, and so they could officially clear it off their desks. Part of the appeal, of course, was that he didn’t cost taxpayers a dime. He used his own time and resources to search and made his money on the back end.
Fortunately, that paycheck was usually worth the wait.
“I doubt there’s enough new information to finish the book,” he said.
“So you won’t come?”
“Where does that leave me with Susan, Caleb?” she asked, her veneer of control cracking and finally giving way to a sob.
Caleb pinched the bridge of his nose. He didn’t want to let Holly’s tears sway him, but her distress and what she’d said were beginning to make him wonder. Susan had been his sister too, for a while. Though she’d been a real pain in the ass, always getting herself into one scrape or another, he still felt some residual affection for her.
“Have you called the police?” he asked.
“Of course. I’m frantic!”
He could tell. What he didn’t know was whether or not her state of mind was warranted. “What’d they say?”
“Nothing. They’re as stumped as I am. There was no forced entry, no sign of a struggle at her apartment, no missing jewelry or credit cards–at least, that we could tell–and no activity on her bank account. I don’t think they have any leads. They don’t even know where to look.”
“What about her car?”
“It’s gone, but I know she didn’t just drive off into the sunset. We would have heard from her by now. Unless…”
“Stop imagining the worst,” he said, trying to calm her. “There could be a lot of reasons for her disappearance. Maybe she met a rich college boy, and they’re off cruising the Bahamas. It would be like her to show up tomorrow and say, ‘Oh, you were worried? I didn’t even think to call you.'” He rubbed the whiskers on his chin, trying to come up with another plausible explanation. “Or maybe she’s gotten mixed up in drugs. She always was a pretty big par–”
“She left her dogs behind, Caleb,” Holly interrupted. “She wouldn’t leave for days without asking someone to feed them. Not for a trip to the Caribbean. Not for the world’s best party. Not for anything.”
Holly had a point there. Susan nearly worshipped her schnauzers, to the tune of paying a veterinarian six thousand dollars—money she didn’t really have—for extensive surgery when one darted across the street and was hit by a truck.
Caleb rocked back and draped an arm over his eyes because he didn’t want to face it, but this wasn’t sounding good. Even if the Sandpoint Strangler was no longer on the prowl, something had happened to Susan. And the longer she was missing, the tougher it was going to be to find her.
“When was the last time you saw her?” he asked in resignation.
“Six days ago.”
Six days… Caleb put his feet up and considered the book he was writing. It wasn’t going very well, anyway, he decided. After piecing together the whole story, he was actually feeling more empathy for the girl who’d committed the crime than the abusive stepfather she’d finally poisoned.
“All right, I’ll fly out first thing in the morning.” He hung up and looked around his crisp, modern condo. “Shit. So much for putting some space between me and Holly.”
Somehow she always managed to reel him back in…
Madison Lieberman stared at her father’s photograph for a long time. He gazed back at her with fathomless dark eyes, his complexion as ruddy as a seaman’s, his salt and pepper flattop as militarily precise as ever. He’d only been dead about a year but already he seemed like a stranger to her. Maybe it was because she wondered so often if she’d ever really known him…
“Madison? Did you find it?”
Her mother’s voice, coming from upstairs, pulled her away from the photograph, but she couldn’t help tossing it another glance as she hesitantly approached the small door that opened into the crawl space. She’d been raised in this home. The three-foot gap under the house provided additional storage for canned goods, emergency supplies, old baskets, arts and crafts and holiday decorations, among other things. But it was damp, dark and crowded–perfect for spiders, or rats. Which was one reason Madison generally avoided it. When she was a child, she’d also been afraid her father would come along and lock her in. Probably because he’d threatened to do so, once, when she was only four years old and he’d caught her digging through the Christmas presents her mother had hidden in there.
It wasn’t the fear of spiders or rats, or even the fear of being locked in, that bothered her at twenty-eight. Ever since the police and the media had started following her father around, suspecting him of being involved in the terrible murders near the university only a few blocks away, she’d been terrified of what she might find if she ever really looked…
“Madison?” Her mother’s voice filtered down to her again.
“Give me a minute,” she called, annoyed, as she opened the small door. “It’s a twenty-dollar punch bowl,” she grumbled to herself, “Why can’t she just let me buy her a new one?”
A musty scent, along with the smell of moist earth and rotting wood, greeted her as she flipped on the dangling bulb overhead and peered inside. Years ago, her father had covered the bare, uneven ground with black plastic and made a path of wooden boards that snaked through the clutter. These makeshift improvements reminded her that this was his domain, one of the places he’d never liked her to go…
Which didn’t make the thought of snooping around any more appealing.
She considered telling her mother the punch bowl wasn’t there. But ever since her father’s suicide, her mother seemed to obsess over the smallest details. If Madison couldn’t find it, she’d probably insist on looking herself, and Annette was getting too old to be crawling around on her hands and knees under a house. Besides, Madison and her mother had stood by Ellis Purcell throughout the investigation that had ended with his death. Certainly Madison could have a little faith in him now. The police had searched the house three different times over a four-year period just after the killings began and never found anything.
She wasn’t going to find anything, either. Because her father was innocent. Of course.
Taking a deep, calming breath, she crawled inside, resisting the fresh wave of anxiety that seemed to press her back, toward the entrance. The punchbowl couldn’t be far. It would only take a second.
A row of boxes lined the wall closest to her. Some were labeled, others weren’t. Madison quickly opened those that weren’t labeled to find some things her father had owned before he’d even married–old photo albums, school and college yearbooks, military stuff from his stint in Vietnam.
As she dug through the photos and letters, it all seemed so normal and far removed from the articles she’d read about Ellis in the newspaper that she finally began to relax. A lot of cobwebs dangled overhead, almost iridescent in the ethereal glow of that single bulb near the entrance, but the only spiders she saw were off in the corners. And nothing jumped out to grab her. She saw nothing to indicate that anyone had been beneath the house since her half-brother Johnny had come by to get some summer clothes out of storage two years ago.
Her father might have ended his life with one heck of a finale, but his death and the investigation, if not the suspicion, were behind them now, she told herself. She could quit being afraid of what she didn’t know. She could move on and forget…
Shoving the memorabilia off to one side, she rummaged around some more and eventually came up with the punchbowl her mother wanted. She was about to drag it to the opening when she remembered the box of Barbies she’d packed up when she was twelve. They were probably down here, too, she realized. If she could find them, she could use them for her own daughter Brianna, who’d just turned six.
Following the curve in the wooden path toward the far end of the storage area, Madison came across some extra tiles from when they’d redone the bathroom, a dusty briefcase, an old ice cream maker, and some of her baby things. Near the edge of the plastic, where bare dirt stretched into complete darkness, she found a few boxes that had belonged to her half-brothers, along with the denim bedding her mother had bought when Johnny and Tye came to live with them.
As she pushed past Johnny’s old stereo, she promised herself she’d write him again this week, even though he never returned her letters. He’d been in and out of prison for years, always on drug charges. But he had to be lonely. She didn’t think Tye stayed in touch with him. Her mother, for the most part, pretended that he didn’t exist. And he hated his own alcoholic mother who, last Madison had heard, was living somewhere in Pennsylvania in a halfway house.
She squinted in the dim light to make out the words on several boxes: “Mother Rayma’s tablecloths… Mother Rayma’s dishes… Aunt Zelma’s paintings.”
No Barbies. Disappointed, Madison rocked back into a sitting position to save her poor knees and hugged her legs to her chest, trying to think where that box might have gone. Brianna had had a difficult year, what with the divorce, their move to Whidbey Island, her father’s remarriage, and the expectation of a half-sibling in the near future, all of which had happened very fast. Madison would have loved to have fifteen or more vintage Barbies waiting in her backseat when she collected her daughter from her ex-husband’s.
Danny certainly lavished Brianna with enough toys…
Maybe she needed to dig deeper. She hated prolonging her visit to this uncomfortable claustrophobic place, but while she was already here…
Pushing several boxes out of the way, she slid the old mirror that had come out of the spare bedroom to the left, and the avocado bathroom accessories that had once decorated the upstairs bathroom to the right, to reach the stuff piled behind. She was pretty far from that single bulb at the entrance, which made it difficult to see, but she was eventually rewarded for her efforts when she recognized her own childish writing on a large box tucked into the corner.
“There it is!” she murmured, wriggling the box out from behind an old Crock Pot and some extra fabric that looked like it was from the sixties and better off forgotten. “You’re gonna love me for this, Brianna.”
“Madison, what could possibly be taking so long?”
Madison jumped at the unexpected sound, knocking her head on a beam. “Ow.”
“Are you okay?” her mother asked. Annette stood at the mouth of the crawlspace, but Madison couldn’t see her for all the junk between them.
“I’m fine.” She batted away a few cobwebs to rub the sore spot on her forehead. “You can tell Mrs. Howell I found the punch bowl you said she could borrow.”
“I use that punchbowl every Christmas. What’s it doing all the way back there?”
“It wasn’t back here. I’ve been looking for my old Barbies.”
“Don’t waste another minute with that,” her mother said. “We gave them to Goodwill a long time ago.”
“No, we didn’t. They’re right here.”
“Sure.” Madison pulled open the top flap of the box to prove it, and felt her heart suddenly slam against her chest. Her mother was right. There weren’t any Barbies inside. Just a bunch of women’s shoes and underwear, in various sizes. And a short coil of rope.