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Tuesday, late afternoon
What a disaster. And this was one of her good days.
Standing outside the Fox and Hound, Gina Rodgers reached into the bottom of her handbag to fish out car keys and found her snazzy new cell phone marinating in beer.
Perfect. Her boss's jealous wife had quite a way with the cold shoulder and a pitcher of beer. All completely accidental, of course.
Right. And pigs fly.
Happy hour at the North Dallas sports bar was supposed to have been a celebration. Her celebration, thanks to today's big win on the PharmaVax Pharmaceuticals account. Finally, Gina the Screwup Nope, not screwup. She didn't call herself that anymore, thanks to hours of therapy. Gina the Competent had done something right at Dixon Meyers Advertising. Not only had she done something right, but she had done something incredibly right and landed the biggest account the firm had on board.
Nonetheless, she was now covered in beer and heading home early. All because Marci Meyers couldn't stand the fact that her husband had dated Gina before he'd married her. Despite today's triumph with PharmaVax, her employment at Dixon Meyers wasn' t going to last. Marcie's seething hostility aside, Gina couldn't take much more of working for Clay Meyers. The man was a weasel.
Perhaps with the pharmaceutical giant's scalp under her belt, she would be a more desirable job applicant. Creative directorships in advertising were rare, but not for those who'd landed Fortune 500 accounts. She'd have to contact a headhunter. Soon.
Her hand closed around the wet phone, and a new surge of anger hit. She'd just bought the electronic wonder yesterday. It took a moment to realize herbeer-soaked purchase was now ringing like mad. She wiped the wet LCD screen on her blouse before answering, but her shirt was damp too. A missed-call icon glowed brightly in the small window.
Great. She hadn't even mastered voice mail or volume control. No surprise she hadn't been able to hear the Mediterranean jingle over the racket in the bar. She flipped open the sticky phone.
"Gina, this is Harlan Jeffries, a friend of your sister's. I help out with Adam. Do you know where Sarah is?" The voice was steady with a deep Southern drawl but had an urgency that Gina caught immediately. "I've been trying to reach you."
"Sarah? No, I mean, I assume she's at home in Starkville."
Despite the certainty of his tone, she asked, "Are you sure? I mean, you called her house? I know she gets busy sometimes with Adam and all." Sarah's research work coupled with an autistic son made for a rather full plate.
Behind Gina, the bar's door opened and music poured out, overpowering the man's next words. She shoved the phone closer to her head. Stuffing a finger in her uncovered ear, she struggled to hear through the static-filled reception.
"I'm here at her house. Adam's with me."
"I'm sorry, what is your name again?"
"Harlan Jeffries. I help out with some of Adam's therapy." The deep voice held a hint of impatience now. "Gina, I don't think you understand. Sarah is missing. She never came home from work last night."
Gina felt the car keys slip through her fingers and drop to the pavement, along with what felt like her stomach. "That's not like Sarah." A stupid thing to say but the only comment she could manage at the moment.
There was some mistake. Sarah couldn't be missing. She was the responsible one with the perfect job and the perfect life. Well, not so much anymore. A divorce and Adam's diagnosis had combined to make Sarah's situation anything but perfect.
"Have you contacted the police?" she asked.
"Yes, but there's a twenty-four-hour waiting period for missing persons."
She and Sarah hadn't talked much lately. Not since their last visit and subsequent argument at the lake house. Despite Sarah's good intentions, Gina didn't want or need her charity anymore.
Wrapped up in her own life and clueless about how to deal with her nephew, Gina had taken the easy way out. She'd quit calling. The flash of guilt stung. She shook her head as she thought about their last phone call two months ago.
Pretty pathetic. Still, Sarah would have let her know if something was wrong.
"Harlan, you said you're a friend of my sister's. If you know Sarah, you know she wouldn't just leave."
"I agree, but I think it's going to take more than me saying that to the police. Like maybe a family member?"
She nodded even though he couldn't see her response. His reasoning made sense. A relative should be able to put more pressure on law enforcement officials than a friend, or therapist, or whatever this guy was.
The thought of her sister missing was so unbelievable that she was having difficulty wrapping her mind around the concept. What in the world had happened? The quickest way to find out would mean going to Sarah's home in Mississippi herself.
If Gina stopped to think about how she was completely torpedoing her job, she might hesitate. Hesitation was not an option. Instead, she focused on how her elder sister had always been there for her. And how she'd never been there in return.
She took a deep breath. "I'll be there as soon as possible." Squeezing her eyes shut against the vision of Armageddon she'd just rained down on her career, she waited a beat, then realized her career didn't matter a damn compared with Sarah.
"Harlan, I have a lot of questions."
"I understand. I'll answer whatever I can as soon as you get here." His voice grew fainter on the wavering connection.
"I don't know what the flight schedule will be from Dallas to Starkville." She dug around in her wet bag for a pen and came up with an indelible marker. "I'm not sure if I can get out tonight. Give me your number, and I'll call you when I have arrangements made."
He rattled off his home and cell phone numbers, and she wrote them on the inside of her wrist. There was a long pause.
"Um is Adam okay?" she asked.
"Yeah, he's fine right now." The reception grew worse and his words were garbled, but she could still understand him. "Thanks, Gina. Your sister needs you." A loud, final click echoed in her ear, and he was gone.
Gina closed her phone. His last words were as shocking as the reason for his call. Sarah needed her. No one had ever said that before. Gina had always been the one in need.
Darkness closed in around Gina as soon as the cab pulled out of Sarah's circular driveway. Frantic with worry, she gathered her bags and hurried up the rain-drenched walk. It had been more than twenty-four hours since she'd first spoken to Harlan Jeffries.
Before leaving Dallas, she'd called the Starkville Police Department to confirm his story and discovered that trying to file a missing person's report long distance was an exercise in futility. Even getting to Mississippi had been a nightmare, what with flights and rental cars sold out because of an SEC basketball tournament. But she'd finally made it.
Tall trees lined Sarah's drive, their branches forming a canopy overhead. On the way from the airport, the cab's headlights had illuminated deep ravines on either side of Highway 82. Steep-sided embankments overflowed with succulent green kudzu. Monstrous vines wrapped around tree trunks and trailed from towering branches to give the impression of a haunted fairyland. Even from her sister's front porch, the surroundings felt spooky. And very deserted.
Why in the world was Sarah living in the boondocks? And where was she? Clammy fear crept up Gina's spine, much like the fog swirling around the cottage-style house tucked into the woods before her. She pressed her nose to the window beside the front door. The porch was cheerily lit, but inside it was dark as pitch in the foyer and beyond.
Was anyone even here?
Harlan might be asleep, or maybe he'd taken Adam to his house, since she'd told him to expect her several hours ago. She hadn't tried to call again until she was in the cab. By the time she realized her cell phone didn't get service here, on the back end of nowhere, it had been too late to do anything.
She knocked on the door, rang the bell and heard nothing but rain. After three minutes, she decided either no one was home or they slept like the dead. Despite the porch light, darkness seemed to press in around her. She was going to have to find her own way inside.
Wondering if Sarah still hid a key in plain sight, like she used to in Dallas, Gina scanned the flowerbed for the distinctive frog statue that doubled as a key safe she remembered from years past. She spotted the small stone amphibian tucked beside an Indian hawthorn bush near the sidewalk. The spare key was inside the frog's belly.
Unlocking the door, she stepped over the threshold. "Hello? Anybody home?" Her voice sounded unnaturally loud in the deep quiet. She stood there a moment, but no one answered.
Pulling her luggage across the scattered letters that had been dropped through the mail slot in the front entryway, she searched for a lamp or light switch. She groped along the wall, and her heart rate skyrocketed when she almost knocked a picture down.
Finally, she located a switch. Light from the overhead fixture illuminated the foyer and cast shadows into the surrounding rooms. She sighed a frustrated laugh at herself. Well, this certainly felt normal in an "I'm klutzy" kind of way.
After righting the crooked print, Gina scooped up the mail and stacked it along with the key on a walnut chest in the entry. She looked around, breathing in the scent that characterized every house Sarah had ever lived in.
Vanilla. Gina felt an involuntary smile tug at her lips.
Sarah loved those sweet-smelling candles and burned them year-round. For a moment Gina could believe that everything would be okay. She wanted to close her eyes and imagine this as a typical visit.
A living room was on her right, and a hallway leading to what she assumed were bedrooms was on the left. Straight ahead was the den. The dim green glow from a microwave clock indicated that the kitchen was beyond that.
Still, the house felt empty.
Turning left, she headed down the hall to make sure Harlan and Adam weren't sleeping in the back before she explored the rest of the house. She ended up in the master bedroom before discovering another light switch. With a sigh of relief, she looked up at the ceiling as she flipped the toggle. An antique lantern illuminated the room with bright slivers of light.
"Oh my God!" She heard her own words echo down the hallway.
The room was trashed. Drawers had been ripped from the cherry dresser, with the contents spread across the floor. The bed was unmade, and the mattress slashed to pieces as if someone had carved it up like a Thanksgiving turkey. One bedside table lamp was shattered, and papers littered the hardwood floor.
The bathroom was worse. The contents of the medicine cabinet had been emptied over the marble tiles. Shards of glass, various liquids and pills pooled together, looking like some mad modern art sculpture. Towels were thrown haphazardly about, and the large bathroom mirror was cracked.
Her scalp tingled with fear, but she still felt as if she were in a dream. She slowly backed out of the bathroom and moved toward the foyer, picking up speed along the way. Light from the master bedroom illuminated similar chaos in the guest room next door. She rushed toward the entry.
Rounding the corner past the final bedroom, obviously Adam's, she saw that the contents of his room were undisturbed. Light from the foyer shown on bright green walls and a cheerfully patterned rug. She stopped for a moment.
Where exactly was she running to?
A phone. I need to call 9-1-1.
Her brain stuck in slow motion as her feet glued themselves to the floor. Instead of going through her options, her faulty synapses took a lazy inventory of the room.
The only thing out of place here was a stuffed dinosaur on the floor by the desk. She gazed stupidly at the small T.rex, its glassy eyes catching the reflection from the hall lights. She pressed her lips firmly together and tasted the light sheen of sweat beading on her upper lip.
Think, Gina. Where are you going? Outside, with its dark and creepy atmosphere, did not seem to be a good option.
What about inside?
She strained to listen.
The house was silent.
Was she really alone?
That hadn't occurred to her. Surely whoever had done this was long gone. Still, she wanted out of the house as soon as possible.
Just call 9-1-1 and leave. She'd rather deal with the creepy atmosphere outdoors while she waited for the police. The scent of vanilla was no longer discernable. Instead, all she could smell was her own fear.
The full realization that an intruder could still be in the house
thawed her frozen feet. Quickly backing out of the room, she heard a slight scraping sound behind her.
With a sickening sense of dread, she turned to identify the source of the noise. She had an impression of height and dark clothing just before the dizzying blow crashed down on her temple. She saw stars as she fell to her knees and raised her hand to ward off another hit.
Brown work boots and muddy jeans filled her vision, then there was nothing but gut-wrenching pain as everything faded to black.
Voices echoed around Gina as she lay on the floor. She had no idea how long she'd been lying there, but she couldn't bring herself to open her eyes yet. This was going to be bad. Even now her head throbbed with a ferocity that left her nauseated.
The voices grew louder. One was high-pitched and excited, the other deep, calm and Southern-fried.
"Dickens here! Dickens here!" This from the child's voice.
"I know, Adam, I see him. I need you to take Mr. Dickens in the playroom."
"No, no Madagascar. The DVD's at my house. Take Dickens in the playroom and make a picnic for us, okay?"
Something about this didn't make sense, but she was too incapacitated to explore that train of thought. She heard the sound of retreating footsteps and started to open her eyes. The searing pain in her skull had her quickly shutting her lids against the light. Gentle hands touched her cheek. She winced as fingertips brushed her temple.
"Can you hear me? You're gonna be okay," said a deeper, somewhat familiar voice. "I know it hurts. Just lie still. The police and EMTs are on the way."