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"People are disappearing!"
Kris Worth barely refrained from rolling her eyes. Her maternal grandmother had a flair for the dramatic, something that Kris had inherited, according to her parents. "Grams, what are you talking about?"
Sadie Arnold shut the door of her studio apartment in Miller's Rest Retirement Center and shuffled across the carpeted floor in her soft leather shoes to point one thin, shaky finger at her granddaughter. "I'm telling you, people are vanishing in the dark of the night."
Colored lights glowing from the small decorated Christmas tree in the corner cast a garish glow over Sadie, emphasizing the pallor of her complexion and making the elderly woman seem infinitely older than she had just two days ago.
Today was Sunday when they normally headed to the small community church at the nearby high school, but Sadie wasn't dressed for an outing. And there was no disguising that Sadie's shoulders hunched slightly more than normal beneath her powder-blue fuzzy sweater.
Her degenerative discs must be bothering her today.
Kris made a mental note to talk with the duty nurse about her grandmother's care. "You read too many murder mysteries."
Sadie waved away the comment. "First there was Lena Street. One night we're playing board games and the next day she's gone. And then night before last, Carl Remming was here with us, having some of Mrs. Tipple's delicious tea, and in the morning, he was gone, too."
Kris remembered Carl pretty well. He was a big man with a big laugh, who had done some time in prison when he was young. Gangster stuff, Sadie had whispered.
A tidbit Kris had kept to herself, lest her mother find out and then insist that Sadie move into a more "selective" retirement community. Something Sadie had fought against because she had no intention of rubbing elbows with "uppity people." Still, Miller's Rest wasn't exactly cheap.
As for Lena, Kris didn't have a mental image of the woman. "Maybe they passed on?"
Sadie shook her head and frowned. "No. They didn't die. They just disappeared." Sadie fumbled with the pocket of her sweater before producing a man's black wallet. "Carl wouldn't go anywhere without this."
"Grams, where did you get that?"
"I found it on the janitor's cart, hidden beneath some towels."
Kris couldn't believe what she was hearing. "What were you doing searching through the janitor's stuff?"
"Looking for clues," Sadie stated, as if it were obvious. "That janitor did something with my friends."
"I'm sure there's a logical explanation," Kris said in a soothing tone, hoping to calm her grandmother's growing agitation. "Maybe he found the wallet on the ground somewhere."
Sadie pursed her lips for a moment. "I know what I know. Don't patronize me, dearie."
A smile tugged at the corner of Kris's mouth. Her grandmother had always been a pistol. While growing up, Kris had loved spending as much time with her as her parents would allow. "I wouldn't dream of patronizing you, Grams. I love you."
To prove the point, Kris rose from the edge of Sadie's bed and went to hug the only relative whose love she had never questioned. Sadie let Kris be herself. Kris thanked God every day for having blessed her with the best grandmother.
Sadie inspired a loyalty Kris didn't feel for her own mother and father, who wanted her to be a cookie-cutter, clichéd socialite. But Kris wanted more out of life. She wanted to use her talent as a photographer to glorify God, not climb the social ladder of Boston society.
Sadie patted Kris's back. "Don't get mushy on me, Krissy. It isn't polite."
Kris chuckled as she released Sadie. "You sound like Grandmother Worthington."
"Bah! Don't be rude," Sadie muttered with a grin.
Kris returned the grin. It was no secret that Emmeline Worthington and Sadie didn't mesh well. Emmeline thought her son had married beneath him and Sadie had thought Meredith married a stuffed shirt. The only thing the two older women had in common was their love for their one and only grandchild.
Sadie took Kris's arm and let Kris guide her to the oak rocker beside the window overlooking the lavish gardens, now dusted with a fresh coat of December snow, and spread across the back ten acres of the facility grounds. Trees lined the property, separating the retirement center from the Boston skyline. The township of Miller was a twenty-minute ride from Kris's downtown loft and another ten from her parents' Beacon Hill residence.
Charles and Meredith Worthington rarely visited, preferring that Kris bring Sadie to their home for occasional family dinners. Which, thankfully, were few and far between. Dinners with the Worthingtons were a case study in upper-crust dysfunction. Dress for dinner, no elbows on the table and certainly no talking about anything that even remotely resembled emotions. Something Kris had rebelled against most of her life.
After settling Sadie in the rocker, Kris resumed her spot on the bed, tucking her feet beneath her and gathering her long blond hair into one hand to lift the heavy mass off her neck. "What did Ms. Faust say about Carl and Lena disappearing?"
"You did ask Ms. Faust about them, didn't you?"
For a moment Sadie looked confused. "Them?"
Kris frowned. "Carl and Lena?"
Sadie's expression cleared and she scoffed with a gentle shake of her head. "That woman doesn't know her knee from her elbow."
"Grams," she admonished lightly. Admittedly, Ms. Faust, the center director, wasn't the warm and fuzzy type. But she seemed well organized and competent.
Sadie rocked. "Carl would not go on vacation with his rheumatoid arthritis acting up the way it has been or without his wallet, and Lena hates going outside for anything, let alone a cruise. And for them both to go on vacation at the same time without saying a word to anyone is ludicrous."
The social butterfly of Miller's Rest, Sadie made knowing everyone's business her business. Kris didn't want to point out that neither Carl nor Lena needed Sadie's permission to leave the center, so instead she said, "I'm sure they'll return soon with plenty of stories to tell and Christmas gifts for everyone. And maybe Carl just lost his wallet."
Sadie's sparkling, dark blue eyes regarded Kris intently. "Is that what you'll be saying after I disappear?"
Kris blinked. Way, way too many mystery novels. "Grams, you are not going to disappear."
Shaking a finger at her, Sadie remarked, "Well if I do, don't be believing I went on vacation."
"Of course not, Grams. You wouldn't go on vacation without me," Kris quipped.
"Too true," Sadie replied. Then her brow furrowed. "I just think something has happened to Carl and Lena. Something bad."
"What can I do to ease your mind about them?" Seeing her grandmother so upset burned Kris's chest.
Sadie slapped her palm on the rocker's arm. "Call the police! Call the FBI! Find my friends!"
Kris could only think of one person who might be willing to humor her by looking into the matter on the strength of Sadie's suspicions.
The man who'd broken her heart.
Homicide detective Gabe Burke hated the paperwork associated with closing a case. He wished the department would spring for a secretary to fill out the required stack of forms. And he made the suggestion every time he got a complaint about his illegible handwriting.
This particular pile of papers related to the murder of a prostitute by a john, who happened to be a married grade school teacher. Man, he hated cases like this. Just proved every human was capable of evil. With a grunt of disgust, Gabe gathered the forms and jammed them into the file folder.
His partner, Detective Angie Carlucci, stopped by his desk and regarded him with concern-filled dark eyes. "You okay?"
"Of course. Why wouldn't I be? It's Christmastime," he shot back, immediately regretting his harsh tone.
It wasn't Angie's fault he was on the brink of burnout. She was a good partner and friend. Though in those almond-shaped eyes he could see evidence of the signals she'd been giving off lately that she'd be open to taking their "partnership" to a new level.
No way. He didn't date fellow cops. He only dated uncomplicated women who didn't need anything but a good time. It was less emotionally taxing.
She shrugged and held up her strong, capable hands. "Just asking, Grinch."
"Sorry." He sighed. "This last case left a bitter taste."
"Yeah, I hear that." She took a seat at her desk across from him.
"Hey, Burke! Lady here to see you."
He turned his attention to the front of the station where Sergeant Sean O'Grady had called from, but was instantly distracted by an attractive blonde gliding toward him. His senses went on alert. She was stunning. Her long flowered skirt flirting around her knee-high leather boots and a ruffled blouse were more appropriate for an outdoor party than a police station in the dead of winter. A more suitable, cold-weather wool coat and colorful handbag hung over her arm.
What was she doing here? They hadn't talked in over eight years. He'd caught a glimpse of her at a friend's wedding a while ago, but he'd done a good job of avoiding her. Now she was in his place of work.
Not the typical Monday morning.
Gabe automatically rose as she stopped in front of him. Kristina regarded him with a mixture of wariness and hope in her baby blues. The top of her head reached his chin. He'd always been partial to petite women. This woman in particular.
Keep it professional, Burke.
"Kristina, long time no see. Can I help you?" he asked as he studied her beautiful oval face.
"I hope so." She glanced at Angie, who watched them with raised eyebrows. "Do you have a moment to talk?"
"Is this a police matter?" he questioned, ignoring the battering of his heart.
"Uh, well. Yes," she replied as a blush brightened her cheeks.
Now why did disappointment nip at him so viciously? He fought to keep his expression neutral. "Then we can talk here. This is my partner, Angie Carlucci."
Angie bolted up and held out her hand. "Nice to meet you, Mrs…?"
His unexpected visitor swallowed before reaching out. "Just Miss, Kris…tina Worthington."
Using her interrogation face, Angie hiked a hip on Gabe's desk and flipped her black ponytail over her shoulder. He smothered a grin at the display of female rivalry.
Kristina's gaze returned to him expectantly, probably anticipating he would fawn all over her as he'd done so long ago when he'd foolishly tried to believe in love and all the trappings that accompanied the sentiment. He'd made that mistake once. Once was enough.
Feeling the need to expedite things, he prompted, "What can I do for you?"
She twirled one long strand of silky hair around a slender finger of her ringless left hand. A monster-size emerald pendant hanging from her slender neck twinkled in the fluorescent overhead light. A blatant reminder they came from different worlds. "I know it's going to sound bizarre. I mean it's a strange tale and you probably won't believe me—"
He held up a hand, halting her as he pulled out a chair. "Here, sit. Just start at the beginning."
With a nod, she sat and waited until he was seated before launching into her story. She told them of the retirement center and her grandmother's insistence that people were disappearing. She was right. Her story did sound odd. Bizarre. And, yes, strange. But no worse than some of the stuff he'd heard before.
Life, he'd long ago acknowledged, was unpredictable. Anything could, and would, happen. Being prepared was half the battle.
When Kristina dug through her large tapestry bag and produced a man's black wallet, Gabe held out his hand. "You found this… on the janitor's cart?"
Kristina scrunched up her nose. "I didn't find it. My grandmother did. Hidden beneath a stack of towels."
He raised an eyebrow at that. "You two shouldn't be snooping around. You might actually find trouble." Gabe passed the wallet to Angie, who proceeded to pull out the contents.
"Driver's license. Expired," Angie announced. "Credit card, library card and a senior's discount restaurant card." She hopped off Gabe's desk and settled in her own desk chair. "I'll run these through the computer. See if we have him on file."
"You probably will," Kristina said. "My grandmother said he belonged to a gang when he was young."
"Then maybe he wanted to disappear?" Gabe suggested. "It wouldn't be unusual for an ex-gang member to need to vanish, if, say, someone he'd once crossed found out where he'd retired."
Kristina's eyebrows drew together. "I suppose. But what about Lena? She wasn't in a gang. She was a sweet little old lady."
"Maybe they ran off together," he remarked drily.
"Not according to the center's director." Blue fire sparked in her eyes. "Something's happened to them."
She seemed genuinely concerned. Gabe took out a pen and paper. "I'll do some checking and see if I can track Lena—what was the last name again?"
"Right." He made a note. "And the janitor?"
"Frank Hayes," she supplied.
After jotting down the name, he asked, "Where can I reach you?"
The pretty blonde hesitated long enough to make him raise an eyebrow.
She surprised him further by taking the pen and paper from his hand with just the slightest brush of skin against skin, but awareness zipped all the way to Gabe's toes. He mentally shook the sensation off and focused on what she was doing. She wrote down her information and laid the paper on his desk.
Gabe sighed. "I'll let you know the minute I have anything," he said and motioned for her to proceed him. "I'll walk you out."
She didn't move. "Aren't you going to check into Frank?"
Slowly he nodded as a little bubble of irritation shot through him. He didn't need her dictating his job to him. "Yes. And I'll let you know what I find out."
She arched an eyebrow and crossed her arms over her chest, her tapestry bag dangling from the crook of her elbow. "I'd rather wait."
He shook his head. He'd rather she walked back out of his life, thank you very much. "That won't be necessary."