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Pewter shrouded the October afternoon as Valerie Zea and Mike Murakita—her photog and soundman for the shoot— made their way to Moonhill, New Hampshire. Here and there a red maple leaf or a yellow beech leaf, still clinging stubbornly to a limb, flickered like a tongue of fire.
Valerie had seen photos of the White Mountains blazing with fall color, of the misty lakes like milky beads of moonstone wreathing the endless vistas from high atop the mountains, of the bellowing moose that required warnings to motorists every few miles on the highway. And she'd wanted to see all that rugged beauty, so different from the lush flatness of Central Florida she was accustomed to.
She'd been disappointed enough when she'd read that the Old Man of the Mountain—a nature-made Indian head of stacked boulders perched precariously on the side of a mountain for centuries—had fallen a few years ago and no longer watched over Franconia Notch. Just the name— Franconia Notch—conjured up a grand and magnificent picture. Not that they were anywhere near the White Mountains, since Moonhill was located in the southern part of the state. But the fog was cheating her out of her anticipated sense-stunning experience.
She compared the MapQuest directions she'd gotten online against the road signs popping up out of the low clouds on the narrow road. "Turn here."
Mike jerked the car onto the country lane. "A little more warning next time."
"Aye, aye, captain."
On the right side, a low stone wall framed a cemetery whose granite headstones and statuary poked out of the mist. Not quite on the scale of a mountaintop view, but filled with mystery, suspense and intrigue.
On the left, a Stick-style Victorian with a wraparound porch glared through the murk like some sort of movie set haunted house. Orange fairy lights dripped from the eaves. Giant glow-in-the-dark spiders and webs clung to the decorative trusses. A life-size mummy with arms outstretched seemed poised to lumber out of the six-foot tall black coffin leaning against the oak by the front walk. On the lawn, strobes blasted on and off at intervals, lighting up red-eyed bats, moaning zombies and shrieking gargoyles. There were enough special effects there to make a Hollywood techie jealous.
"Talk about overkill," she said. The overblown drama of the scene would make an interesting segment of its own, though, especially if she could find a Florida angle to it. Maybe the owner's parents were part of the snowbirds that flocked to the Sunshine State every winter. She made a mental note to look into the possibilities before she pitched the idea to Higgins, her executive producer. He'd appreciate maximizing the bang for his travel-expense buck.
She peered at the web-encrusted mailbox by the entrance for the address. "We've got a way to go yet."
Mike warbled his voice to make it sound spooky, but it came out sounding more like the Count on Sesame Street. "Maybe it's the local haunted house for Halloween." He shot her a mischievous grin. At thirty, he still looked like a kid with his boyish face that couldn't grow a beard, except for a sparse tuft on his chin that looked like a smudge of dirt. "Want some B-roll of that for your segment?"
"Yeah, Higgins would go for that. He's already ticked off Krista's doctor wouldn't let her fly, and he had to send second-choice me to do the job." The assignment was high priority since it had come down as a special order from Edmund Meadows, the station's owner. He'd requested a package about the kidnapping of his great-niece twenty-five years ago in hopes of stirring up some new evidence that could lead to finding the missing girl.
"On the plus side. He put you above Bailey." Bailey-the-Beautiful who had Higgins wrapped around her long legs. Valerie snorted. There was too much at stake for Higgins to risk needing to mop up after Bailey.
"Efficiency won out over looks."
"Either that or he couldn't give her up for four whole nights."
"There is that."
High on Windemere Drive, Moongate Mansion materialized out of the shifting mist. First the six-foot granite wall and the black iron gate, canted open, daring intruders to trespass. Then the estate itself, a gray nineteenth-century Victorian with an eclectic mix of Italianate and Queen Anne. Each generation of Meadowses, seeking no doubt to stamp their mark, had added to the original two-story, four-room house until it sprawled over 13,000 square feet, looking like some sort of Frankenstein creature.
Valerie couldn't imagine living in such a dreary place, especially with its constant bruise of painful memories. But she also understood why Rita Meadows stayed. For Valentina. If she came back, her home would be there, waiting for her, lights shining bright, and her mother would be there, too, arms open wide.
Valerie swiped surreptitiously at the moistness in her eyes. Her mother called Valerie's tendency toward the melodramatic maudlin. But what could she say, she liked happy endings. There were so few of them in real life.
Mike crunched the rental up the gravel drive. She rolled the window down for a better look at the house. The scent of decomposing leaves and wood smoke infiltrated the car. Dark trees on each side of the lane swayed and whispered as if in warning. Ahead light gleamed from what seemed like a hundred windows, brightening the gloom of the day with their glow. But even that wasn't enough to dispel the aura of decay that clung to the house's wooden boards like ivy.
Her blood quickened as the voice-over wrote itself in her head. Cohost Dan Millege's deep bass vibrated with gravity in her brain, hitting just the right emotional tone for the introduction to a twenty-five-year-old kidnapping. She ripped out her portfolio and scratched furious notes to capture the inspiration before it vanished. "Can't you just feel the mystery in the air? We have to get the fog on tape before it lifts."
Off to the side of the house, Mike shoved the rental into Park. "Don't you ever look at anything without seeing it from a story angle?"
Valerie shrugged. The story was everything. She couldn't explain it to Mike—or to her mother—but some inner force drove her to ferret information, any information, about everything. Her mother called it a disease and, although Valerie preferred to label her flaw as curiosity, she couldn't quite disagree. She couldn't remember a time when she wasn't looking for something, anything, to fill the hollowness in her soul.
We give you everything, Valerie. Isn't that enough?
It should be, and that it wasn't, truly pained her.
This curiosity had landed her the job as coordinating producer for Florida Alive, a half-hour magazine format program that aired Monday through Friday at seven, right after the nightly news, and showcased people, places and things of interest in the state.
So, okay, Florida Alive was considered soft news and didn't exactly hit life-altering issues. That didn't mean she couldn't find the deeper meaning in a sand sculpture competition or the creation of pastry masterpieces or the raising of camels. What fired up other people, what gave their lives purpose, what made them feel alive fascinated her. Passion fascinated her. And traveling all over the state to see new places and meet all sorts of different people was an amazing bonus for a girl with wanderlust who hadn't traveled more than fifty miles from home until after graduating from college.
Mike peered at the massive house, no doubt gauging shot angles. "So, you think she's dead?"
Valerie's gaze climbed up the polygonal tower, and a shiver rippled down her spine. Crazy, but the child's frantic cries seemed to vibrate against Valerie's chest and the child's panic to shudder down Valerie's limbs, making her hands cold and clammy.
She reached for the French vanilla coffee she'd bought at the Dunkin' Donuts a few towns back and warmed her hands against the paper cup. With a fervor that rocked her, she wanted that baby to be safe somewhere. Who took a child from her own bedroom? Who could purposely cause such grief? And why?
Valerie swallowed and ripped her gaze back to Mike. "After twenty-five years..."
"It's kind of sad to think of this lady pining away for her dead kid for so long."
But what else could a mother do? Without proof of death, she couldn't give up. As much as Valerie and her mother didn't see eye-to-eye on practically anything, her mother would search the ends of the earth to find her, and Valerie would do the same for her mother. Recalling their argument that morning, Valerie winced and made a mental note to call once she got back to the inn and apologize. "That's why we have to do the best job we can with the story."
Mike slanted her a knowing grin. "You just want Krista's job when she goes off on maternity leave."
Valerie had eyed the news producer's job ever since Krista had announced her pregnancy. It was a stepping-stone to producing harder-hitting stories, one Valerie had to cross if she ever wanted to get to New York. "So what if I do?"
Mike cranked off the engine and shot his hands up. "Hey, I'm just saying, word is, you've got competition for the spot."
Bailey-the-Beautiful. "Sure and steady wins the race."
"Only in fables, babe."
"Don't call me babe."
Racking up a mental to-do list, Valerie juggled her cell phone, purse, portfolio of notes and cup of coffee. "I'll introduce myself to Ms. Meadows and set up a time to look through her archives tomorrow. I'll see if I can find more potential witnesses. I have that prison interview set up for Thursday. Then we can shoot Ms. Meadows's interview on Friday." Which would mean spending the whole weekend editing to get the package ready to air next week. No wonder she didn't have a social life. That wouldn't be so bad, except for the coming-home-to-only-a-dog part. "You can get started on the exteriors. Can you get a tracking shot coming up the drive? Low angle so the house seems to pop out of the fog? Maybe a Dutch angle to make it look spooky?"
Mike had a great eye. She could count on him getting her the shots she needed. She pointed at the third-floor room of the turret. "That's where she disappeared from.
Make sure you get some shots from all angles. And this living room window, too. That's where the party was held. I want the window to look as if it's glowing so the viewer can imagine the party in full swing."
"Got it." Mike got out of the car. "Keep it short, will ya? I haven't eaten anything all day, except for those stale airline pretzels."
Valerie nodded distractedly. She'd add festive sounds during editing for the full effect. Sipping on her coffee, she stared at the window. What was it like to realize that while you were entertaining guests someone had sneaked upstairs and stolen your only child while she slept? Her heart tripped on a beat. The guilt had to crush poor Rita Meadows.
Mike was sorting through his gear in the trunk of the rental by the time she reached the solid-oak front door. She was about to ring the antique bell when the door blew open and the hard body of a man, carrying a briefcase and an air of hurry nearly crashed into her.
"Who are you? What do you want?" The timbre of his voice was deep and vibrant, echoing in the cavern of the foyer behind him. Costumed in a thousand-dollar suit and a hundred-dollar haircut, he exuded the righteous bearing and win-at-all-costs menace of a corporate sharpshooter. At the sight of those eyes, so dark and primal, a flash of awakening skittered through her brain and a choked jolt of something more acute than simple recognition made her catch her breath.
Nicolas Galloway. The man Rita Meadows had hired to run her father's investment firm after Wallace Meadows's death.
And, wow, Nick-the-Pit-Bull certainly lived up to his reputation as a rabid guardian. Voted most eligible, yet most elusive bachelor of New England by Boston Magazine. Smooth, charming and appealing. And definitely effective, if his investment track record was true. Although why anyone would want to pursue a man who ran his love life like an investment was beyond her understanding.