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Holt Kincaid was no stranger to insomnia. He'd been afflicted with bouts of it since childhood, and had learned long ago not to fight it. Consequently, he'd grown accustomed to whiling away the long late-night or early-morning hours catching up on paperwork, going over notes from whatever case he was working on, knowing that what he didn't pursue would come to him on its own, eventually.
Not this time.
The only case he was working at the momentthe only one that mattered, anywaywas at a dead standstill. The paperwork had been done. He'd been over his notes a hundred times. There was nothing more to be gleaned from them.
Over the course of his career as a private investigator specializing in missing persons casesthe cold ones in particularhe'd had to admit defeat only once. That one failure was the case responsible for a lot of the insomnia he'd suffered for most of his life, and the idea that he might have to add this one to the roster of his regrets weighed heavily on his mind. Sleep wouldn't come to him this night, no matter how coyly he played her flirting game.
Laurel Canyon was quiet now. There'd been sirens earlier, prompting him, as a longtime resident, to pause and sniff the air for the smell of smoke. But the cause this timea traffic-stopping fender bender on the boulevardhad been cleared up hours ago. An onshore breeze rustled the leaves of the giant eucalyptus trees that soared above his deck, but in a friendly way, last week's Santa Anas being only a bad memory now. Late-October rains had laid the threat of brush fires low for the time being.
Holt had come to be a resident of the notorious Santa Monica Mountain community by happenstance rather than choice, but over the years it had grown on him. He'd found it suited him, with its shady past, the steep and narrow winding dead-end streets and pervasive aura of mystery. The huge old eucalyptus trees and rickety stairways and ivy-covered walls guarded its secrets well. As he guarded his own.
He'd also come to embrace the canyon's laid-back, live-and-let-live attitude, a holdover from the sixties when it had been the center of L.A.'s rock music scene. Now as then, in Laurel Canyon the expression "goin' with the flow" wasn't just a hippie slogan, but a way of life.
It had become his way of life: Go with the flow don't get emotionally involved go about your business and don't waste energy railing against things beyond your control.
Yeah. That was my mistake with this case. I got too close. Made it personal.
As with the first and still his greatest failure, he'd let himself get too fogged in by emotions to see where the answers lay hidden.
Face it, Kincaid. Maybe there just aren't any answers. Not in this life, anyway.
Unbidden, as if a stubborn imp in his subconscious-ness had again touched Replay, the case and the events of the past year unfolded slowly in his mind, playing out against the murmur of breezes through eucalyptus trees and the intermittent shush of a passing car.
He'd taken on Cory Pearson's case for two good reasons: First, because it presented a new kind of challenge. Typically, he'd be searching for a birth parent, a child given up for adoption, an abducted child long ago given up for dead by everyone except loved ones still praying for answers. But this was a man searching for four younger brothers and sisters. The children had been taken from him when they were very young by a well-meaning social services agency after their Vietnam vet father had shot his wife and then himself during a violent episode of PTSD. The four younger ones had been adopted by two different families while the oldest brother fought his way through a dismal series of foster homes and juvenile detention facilities, only to be denied access to his siblings' whereabouts when he finally reached adulthood.
A sad story, for sure, but one to which Holt had felt confident he could give a happy ending. These kids had vanished into the system. Systems kept records. And Holt was very good at getting old systems and old records to give up their secrets. That was his second reason for taking on the case of Cory Pearson's lost siblings: He'd expected success.
Holt didn't take on hopeless cases. He already had one of those, and it was more than enough.
Things had gone about as expected, at first. After months of tedious detective work, he'd finally gotten a line on the oldest boy, now working as a homicide detective in Portland, Oregon. The timing hadn't been great. Cory had dropped into his brother's life in the middle of a case involving a serial killer and had very nearly been mistaken for the killer himself. Thanks to a drop-dead gorgeous blond psychic who'd been helping out with the investigation, everything had turned out fine in the end, and the psychicor empath, as she preferred to call herselfhad recently become Cory Pearson's sister-in-law.
Cory's reunion with one brother was followed immediately, and without any further help from Holt, by the second. Finding his younger brother paralyzed as a result of a climbing accident, Cory'd been determined to bring him back to the life and the woman he'd loved and left. After epic battles with a wild river and a deranged killer, he and his wife, Sam, had been successful.
Two down, Holt had thought then. Two to go.
It hadn't been a piece of cake, but eventually he'd tracked down one of the twin girls. And again, his timing had been lousyor, he supposed, depending on how you looked at it, fortuitous. He'd arrived in the woman's Texas Hill Country town to check her out only to find his client's baby sister had just been arraigned on charges of murdering her ex-husbandwith the aid of a pet cougar, no less. Since both Cory and Sam had been on assignment and unreachable, Holt had called on Cory's best friend, a well-known part-Native American photojournalist named Tony Whitehall.
That had all worked out okay, tooagain, depending on how you looked at it, since former confirmed bachelor Tony now appeared about to become his best buddy's brother-in-law, stepdad to a nine-year-old kid and co-caretaker of one helluva big kitty cat.
Holt had been riding pretty high that day, thinking he had the case as good as sewed up, since finding one sister meant finding both, right? Then the news had come down on him like a ton of bricks: Brenna Fallon had run away from home at the age of fourteen, and hadn't been heard from since. Her sister Brooke didn't know whether she was alive or dead. Holt didn't like remembering how he'd felt hearing that the cold knot in his stomach, the sense of utter helplessness. This kidthough she'd be a woman in her thirties now wasn't in any system. She'd gone completely off the radar. She could be anywhere. Or nowhere. She could very well be dead, or as good as.
He hadn't given up, though, even then. Giving up wasn't Holt's style. In the past two months he'd called in every marker, every favor he had coming and then some, and as a result had had people combing through cold case files and unclaimed Jane Doe remains in virtually every state in the union, plus Canada and Mexico. He'd personally checked out more bodies of young women dead way before their time than he'd ever expected to see in his lifetime, and armed with DNA samples from Brooke, had eliminated every one of them. Which was good news, he supposed.
But it still didn't give him answers. And three out of four wasn't going to cut it. He didn't think for one minute Cory Pearson would be content to have found three out of four of his siblings. The one he hadn't found was going to haunt him forever.
Nobody knew better than Holt Kincaid what that felt like.
He rubbed a hand over his burning eyes and turned away from the window, and from the mesmerizing sway of eucalyptus branches. Sinking onto the couch, he reached for the remote, thumbed it off Mute and began to click his way through ESPN's late-night offerings, rejecting an old George Foreman fight, some pro billiards and a NASCAR documentary before settling on a Texas Hold 'em poker tournament. Maybe, he thought, if he could get into the strategy of the game it would take his mind off the damn case.
He'd watched enough poker to know this wasn't a current tournament, more likely one from a few years back. He was familiar with some of the players, particularly the more colorful ones. Others, not so much. The commentators seemed to be excited by this event because of the fact that a woman had made it to the final table, something that evidently had been almost unprecedented back then. It didn't hurt any that the woman in question was young, blond and cute, either. Billie Farrell, her name was, and Holt thought he'd probably seen her play before. Anyway, she looked familiar to him.
Damn, but she looks familiar
He felt an odd prickling on the back of his neck. Leaning closer, he stared intently at the TV screen, impatient with the camera when it cut to one of the other players at the table, tapping his fingers on the remote until it came back to the one face he wanted to see.
She was wearing dark glasses, as so many of the players did, to hide their eyes and not give anything away to steely-eyed opponents. She had short, tousled blond hair, cut in layers, not quite straight, not really curly, either. An intriguingly shaped mouth and delicately pointed chin, like a child's.
He really needed to see her eyes.
Take off your glasses, dammit.
He got up abruptly and crossed to the dining room table that served as his desk, half a foot deep now in manila file folders and stacks of papers he hadn't gotten around to putting in files yet. Nevertheless, he didn't have any trouble finding the one he wanted. He carried it back to the couch, sat, opened the file and took out a photograph. It was a picture of a fourteen-year-old girl, computer-aged twenty years. He didn't look at the photographhe didn't have to, because it was etched in his memorybut simply held it while he stared at the face of the poker player known as Billie Farrell.
He wasn't conscious of feeling anything, not shock or excitement or anything in particular. Didn't realize until he fumbled around for his cell phone and had to try to punch the buttons that his hands were shaking.
It took him a couple of attempts, but he got the one he wanted. Listened to it ring somewhere in the Texas Hill Country while he stared at the TV screen with hot, narrowed eyes. When an answering machine picked up, he disconnected, then dialed the number again. This time a man's voice answered. Swearing.
"Okay, this better be an announcement of the Second Coming, or else I just won the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes. Which is it?"
"Tony. It's me, Holt."
"Dude. D'you know what time it is?"
"Yeah. Listen, is Brooke there?"
"Of course she's here. She's asleep, what did you expect? At least, she was" There was a sharp intake of breath. "Wait. It's Brenna, right? God, don't tell me. You found her? Is sheshe's nothey, Brooke. Baby, wake up. It's Holt. He's found"
"Maybe," Holt interrupted. "I don't know. I need Brooke"
"I'm here." Brooke's voice was breathy with sleep, and shaky.
"Okay." Holt took a breath. Told himself to be calm. "I need you to turn on your television. ESPN. Okay?"
"Okay." Her voice was hushed but alert. She'd been married to a deputy sheriff once upon a time, so Holt figured maybe getting phone calls in the middle of the night wasn't all that unusual for her.
"I don't know which channel," he told her. "Just keep clicking until you find the poker tournament."
After a long pause, she muttered, "Okay, got it."
"Watch for herthe woman player. Okay, there she is. Tell me if"
He didn't get the rest of it out. There was a gasp, and then a whispered, "Oh, God."
He felt himself go still, and yet inside he was vibrating like a plucked guitar string. "Is it her? Is it Brenna?"
He heard a sniff, and when she spoke in a muffled voice he knew Brooke was crying. "Oh, God, I don't know. It could be, but she was just a little girl when she It's been so long. I'm not sure. I can't see her eyes! If I could just see her eyes " And then, angrily, "Why doesn't she take off the damn glasses!"
Holt held the phone and listened to soft scufflings and some masculine murmurs of comfort while he waited, eyes closed, heart hammering. After a moment Tony's voice came again, gruff with emotion.
"Hey, man, I'm sorry. She can't tell for sure. It's been whateighteen years? She says it might be her. But you're gonna go check her out, right?"
"Yeah," Holt said, "I'm gonna go check her out." He picked up the remote and clicked off the set.
An hour later he was in his car on I-15, heading east toward the rising sun and the bright lights of Las Vegas.
He hit the jackpot right off the bat. The casino manager at the Rio was new, but Holt found a couple of dealers who'd been around awhile, and had actually worked the poker tournament he'd been watching on ESPN reruns.
Although, even if they hadn't, they would have remembered Billie Farrell.
"Sure, I remember her. Cute kid. Pretty good poker player, too," Jimmy Nguyn said as he lit up a cigarette and politely blew the smoke over his shoulder, away from Holt and the other dealer. Jimmy was a guy in his late thirties with a Vietnamese name and an American-size bodyfive-eleven or so and hefty.