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"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 seemed to affect her far more acutely than it would anyone else, and by virtue of the fact that they were divorcedfor the second timehe 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 whattwenty-six? She'll turn up."
"How can you be so sure?"
"Susan's disappeared before. Remember that time she met some rich 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 changed. She has a steady job at Nordstrom's cosmetics counter and she's kept her own apartment for almost a year."
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 sorry Susan's giving you a scare, but I'm really busy," he said, determined to escape this time. "I've got to go."
"Caleb, don't do this to me," she replied, openly crying. "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 claim of not bothering him, she called often. She called to borrow money. She called to ask how to file her income tax returns. She called to see if he could remember what happened to the X rays that had been taken of her leg when she'd had that wa-terskiing accident. She even called to see what his plans were for certain holidays.
"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"
"Skipping 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. Eleven women had been abducted and killed near the University of Washington over the past twelve years. Holly had lived right next door to one of them. That was how he'd met her. He'd been working for the Seattle Police Department, canvassing the apartment building of the strangler's ninth victim, looking for leads, and he'd knocked on Holly's door to check if she'd seen or heard anything.
But Caleb was certain the man who'd committed those murders was now dead. He should know. He'd spent three years on the task force investigating the case and another four continuing to help after he'd quit the Seattle PD. "Holly, the Sandpoint Strangler shot himself in his own backyard over a year ago."
She sniffed. "If you're so sure, why didn't you ever finish the book you were going to write about him?"
"There wasn't enough hard evidence to connect Ellis Pur-cell to the killings," Caleb admitted. "But you saw him drive away from your apartment building the night Anna was murdered. You're the one who gave us the partial plate number."
"But you could never place him inside the apartment."
"That doesn't mean he was innocent, Holly," Caleb said, making a halfhearted attempt to organize his desk while they talked. "Purcell couldn't account for his whereabouts during several of the murders. He failed two different lie-detector tests. The geographical profile done by the FBI indicated the killer lived within a five-block radius of him and his family. And he was secretive, kind of a recluse. I talked to him twice, Holly, and it always felt as though he was hiding something."
"I know all that, but when you worked for the department you searched his place three different times and never found anything."
"Some of the task force searched it. I was young enough, and new enough to the force, that I did what Gibbons told me, which was mainly behind-the-scenes grunt work. Gibbons was lead detective. He always dealt with the really important stuff. But the murders have stopped since Purcell's death," Caleb said. "That should tell you something."
"They stopped for several years after Anna's body was discovered, too," Holly argued.
"That's because the police were watching Purcell so closely he could scarcely breathe. The murders started up again as soon as that custodian, John Roach, killed a kindergarten teacher at Schwab Elementary downtown and almost everyone on the force, including Gibbons, suddenly believed we'd been barking up the wrong tree. But it was only wishful thinking."
"Then what about the woman who went missing from Spokane a couple of months ago?" Holly asked. "How do you explain that if the strangler's dead?"
"I haven't heard anything about it," he said.
"I just read an article the other day that said the police found some of that date rape drug on the floor of her car. Roach is in prison and Purcell is dead, but that sounds like the strangler to me."
Caleb still had several close friends on the force. If anything interesting had developed, Detective Gibbons or Detective Thomas would have called him. This case had meant a lot to all of them. "Have they found her body?"
"Then they don't know anything. Roofies are only about two bucks per tablet, and they're easy to buy. We saw them in that pharmacy when we were in Mexico, remember?"
"So what about Susan?" she asked, with more than a hint of desperation.
She was baiting him, trying to tempt him back into her life. But it wasn't going to work this time. He no longer felt the same compulsion to rescue her that had drawn him to her in the first place. "I don't know what you want me to do."
"You used to be a cop, for God's sake! A good one. 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 was spread out before him. "I live in California now, Holly." As if to prove how necessary it was that he remain in his current surroundings, he added, "I have someone coming to lay new carpet next week."
"This could mean Susan's life!" Holly cried.
Another over-the-top statement? Given Holly's penchant for theatrics, he figured it was
. "I'm not a cop anymore. I write true crime books. 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. He'd 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 leave. I'm in the middle of another book."
She seemed to sense that he wasn't going for the panicky stuff, and made an effort to rein in her emotions. "What's this one about?"
"A girl who murdered her stepfather."
She sniffled again. "Sounds fun."
At her sarcasm, he felt his lips twist into a wry grin. "It's a living. Somebody I know hated being a cop's wife and encouraged me to go for my dream of becoming a writer."
"And is that so bad? Now you're rich and famous."
But still divorced. No matter how much Holly professed to love him, he couldn't live with her. She was simply too obsessive. He'd married her the first time because he'd thought they could make a life together. He'd married her the second time because his sense of honor demanded it. But beyond their initial few months together, their relationship had been fractious at best, and they'd spent more days apart than they'd ever spent as a couple.
"You should come back here and do some more work on the Sandpoint Strangler," she said in a pouty voice.
"No, thanks. I've learned a bit since the early days." Caleb started doodling on an empty message pad. "Now I typically write about crimes that have already been solvedby someone else. It's a hell of a lot easier."
"You helped the police solve the murder of that one young runaway, then wrote a book about it, remember?"
He remembered. Maria had been the most satisfying project he'd worked on to date, because he felt he'd made a real difference in achieving justice for the victim and everyone involved. "That one happened to work out," he told Holly. "But it's always a gamble, and I don't think my publisher would appreciate the increased risk of having each book languish for years while I search high and low for a satisfying resolution."
"But you were fascinated by the Sandpoint Strangler."
He'd probably been more obsessed than fascinated. Even after leaving law enforcement, he'd continued to work the case, pro bono, with the hope of eventually putting it all in a book.
"You've said yourself, a hundred times, that working the investigation gave you an insider's view you simply couldn't achieve when you were writing about someone else's case," she went on. "I know a book about him would really sell. Nobody's done one yet."
"There're still too many unanswered questions to make for interesting reading, Holly. 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."
"I doubt there's enough new information to make much of a difference," he said. "So you won't come?"
"Where does that leave me with Susan, Caleb?" she asked, her veneer of control cracking and 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. Although 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 justified. "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 cardsat least, that we could telland 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've heard from her by now. Unless
"Stop imagining the worst," he said. "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 was always"
"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. Susan adored her schnauzers, to the tune of paying a veterinarian six thousand dollarsmoney she didn't really havefor extensive surgery when one darted across the street and was hit by a truck.
Caleb rocked back and draped an arm over his eyes. 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 would be to find her.
"When was the last time you saw her?" he asked in resignation.
"Six days ago."
Caleb propped his feet on the desk and considered the book he was writing. It wasn't going very well, anyway. After piecing the whole story together, he was actually feeling more sympathy for the girl who'd committed the crime than the abusive stepfather she'd 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 glancing at it again 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 crowdedperfect for spiders or, worse, rats. Which was one reason Madison generally avoided it. When she was a child, she'd been afraid her father would 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 there.
It wasn't the fear of spiders or rats, or even the fear of being locked in, that bothered her at age twenty-eight, however. 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 in annoyance 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?"
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.