Beautiful, blond Liza Silvestri has put her bad-girl ways behind her and is living the California dream in a Malibu beach house with her adoring venture-capitalist husband, Jay—until gunfire erupts one evening at their L.A. loft. Liza doesn’t dare call the police—she’s got a secret in her past—and it turns out Jay has secrets of his own. Now, running from professional killers and dirty cops, Liza begs her college friend, Ellen, to come with her. At the last moment, Liza grabs her piglet, Felton, as well. Racing through the back roads of Northern California and Oregon, she tracks the only clue she has, to end the nightmare that has enveloped her, hoping it will prove to be Ellen’s and her salvation—and not their grave. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Susan Dunlap including rare images from the author’s personal collection.
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About the Author
Susan Dunlap (b. 1943) is a prolific author of mystery novels. Born in the suburbs of New York, Dunlap majored in English at Bucknell College and earned a masters in teaching from the University of North Carolina. She was a social worker before an Agatha Christie novel inspired her to try her hand writing mysteries. Five attempts and five years later, she published Karma (1981), which began a ten book series about brash Berkeley cop Jill Smith. Since then, Dunlap has published more than twenty novels and numerous short stories. Her other ongoing characters include the meter-reading detective Vejay Haskell, medical examiner Kiernan O’Shaugnessy, and Zen student turned detective Darcy Loft. In addition to writing, Dunlap has taught yoga, worked as a paralegal, and helped found the women’s mystery organization Sisters In Crime. She lives in San Francisco.
Read an Excerpt
By Susan Dunlap
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2004 Susan Dunlap
All rights reserved.
The one black and white photo was all Liza Silvestri had of Jay's youth, and he wasn't even in the picture. The white-bordered shot was simply a living room, the squat, plaid sofa already old, the plank coffee table partially blurred, and only the edge of the Formica dinette set visible in a corner. Jay once described it as red and white, but in the photo it was shades of gray.
But it wasn't just any living room; it was the beach house where his family had stayed every July, where when he was fifteen, he'd had a magic week of sex. Eager, all-consuming, and so innocent. If she could take him back there—to wherever there was—he'd be okay.
At the best of times, he was never still, grabbing for six ideas at once, foot tapping, eyes sparkling. For him life was a game. But the momentum had turned on him.
Now he was wired, exhausted, gray. He needed respite. Devising an escape was tough, even though escape was her forte. A sexy blonde wife who could create the kind of games that distracted him had been enough for three years, but now the tentacles of business grasped no matter where she took him.
Escape ... the photo was Jay's passport to a time when his only thought was Ingrid, an older woman, eighteen to his fifteen, three cottages down the beach.
It had taken Liza a month, searching thrift shops from L.A. to Barstow, south to El Cajon, to replicate that room here in the loft that would soon hold Jay Silvestri Financial Management. Finding the sofa had been easy—sofas last, are reupholstered, and when they're beyond salvation, given to thrift stores. The coffee table turned out to be the sticker. But the coffee table was key. Without it the room would have been an appetizer before an empty plate.
"It had big wooden pegs," Jay had said, "lines of them going across. After that first afternoon with Ingrid I had purple bruises all over my shoulders and butt. I couldn't take off my shirt for a week." Liza hadn't asked why they chose the coffee table when there was a sofa a foot away—teenagers, she figured. She'd finally found a similar one in a shop aptly named The Last Ditch way out near Joshua Tree. The loft room that would be the receptionist's office became the "beach house." Here Jay would relax, away from the phone, in this unconverted loft in this building that was still virtually empty. He could languish all weekend in front of the nine-inch Philco—she'd had to call half way to San Francisco to find a man who could get that to work—eat pizza and "make out" on the coffee table. He could be fifteen again. She looked around at her creation, took a deep inhalation of brine and Sea & Ski—eau de beach —and smiled.
But Jay was already an hour late, and soon time would accordion and even if everything was perfect those perfect things would be too crammed together.
A clank in the hallway startled her. The freight elevator? There had never been hall noise when she and Jay had lain on the futon in the unfinished area that would be his office, kitchenette and bathroom—sweat cooling their bodies, fingers just beginning to roam again, eyes half-focused on the red, green, and white lights of the Los Angeles night reflected off the fog.
She listened for footsteps, but now she heard nothing. Planes were late all the time. If she'd brought the cell phone in from the car she'd know about his flight, but she could hardly break the one rule she'd insisted on: no phone.
The clank startled her. This one was real. She could hear Jay's shoes hitting the hard hall floor. It wasn't the slowness of the steps that surprised her, but the connected sounds, as if one step dragged into the next. If he took the elevator, instead of the stairs to the second floor, he really had to be exhausted.
But he was here, and there was still an hour and a half before 10:00, when the pizza would arrive.
He had to come into the room alone, see it as he had when he was fifteen. He had to take it in, fill himself full from this room where he had been so safe, so at home, when the wonders of life were bubbling up before him. But she couldn't bear to miss the look on his face. She slipped behind the arch to his office-kitchen space, stood peeking around the wall, feeling like a child on Christmas Eve waiting for a glimpse of Santa.
His feet stopped; his key scratched into the lock. Her skin quivered; it was all she could do not to jump out shrieking, "Look at this! And this! And this!"
The door shoved open. He stepped inside and plunked his briefcase on the chest she'd put next to the door.
She wasn't breathing at all, couldn't. He had barely noticed the chest. Would he stumble into the room, flop on the couch and never corral the energy to look around him? If she had to explain, the joy would be gone, his escape would sink to duty. The pizza would be not the end to the perfect evening, but the respite from an hour and a half of awkwardness.
"Omigod!" His voice cracked. "Oh my God!"
He strode to the couch, stood before it staring as if it were a Picasso. He turned toward the end table and she couldn't make out his face. But that didn't matter now. She could see his shoulders relax, his arms move forward as if to embrace the room. It was all she could do to keep from running out.
"Oh my God, it's the house at the shore! I can't believe it! The old sofa! Is it really our sofa? Liza? Liza! Oh my God! And the Point Pleasant Beach sign like we stole from the beach. Oh my God!"
She ran through the arch. He bear-hugged her, lifting her like a child, squeezing the air out of her, splotching kisses on her forehead and ears, her nose and cheeks before he found her mouth, and all the time exclaiming, "Oh my God!"
When he put her down she was too breathless to talk, but that didn't matter because he hadn't stopped talking. "Look, there's the Philco. A Philco, Liza, how did you find that? When we had the house, even then the Philco was ancient. Jeez, does it work?" He was halfway to the nine-inch television when he wheeled around, his attention grabbed by the end table. "Those lamps! I didn't think there were two of them left on the planet. I broke one of ours myself. My mother was good and pissed about that, too. It wasn't our house, she told me. She must have told me six times. We were just renting it. We couldn't be breaking things. Oh, and ..." He stopped, staring at the coffee table. A slow grin crept up his face. He slid his hand under Liza's arm and cupped her breast. "The coffee table! The coffee table—"
"—you hid under when you were three."
He laughed. "Right, and later—"
"—you sat on it and ate peanut butter crackers and watched cartoons on the black and white TV."
"Yeah, that too." He was laughing now, getting in rhythm with her teasing. "And what else, Liza? What else did I tell you before I mentioned Ingrid Carroll and the broken ashtray?"
She eased down onto the table, grinned up at him and pushed the ashtray off the edge.
"It's plastic! You got the ashtray made from plastic!" He balanced on the edge of the table, pulling his arms out of his jacket. "The old ashtray must've weighed five pounds and it was full of butts—everybody smoked then. But the sucker hit the floor and it bounced. Honest to God, bounced. When I got around to checking it, after Ingrid pretty much left me for dead, it was fine, but I was on my hands and knees till my parents got home and there was still soot in the rug." He yanked his arms free and ran a hand over the table. "Jeez, you even got a table with a row of those godawful wooden pegs. My back looked like I'd been attacked. The guys kept at me every time I took my T-shirt off."
She gave his arm a poke. "Yeah, and you were one proud fifteen-year-old, right?"
She sank against his body, feeling a softness, an ease of tension she barely recalled in him. His lips moved across her face but she held him off before he got to her lips. "We've got till ten o'clock—"
"And what, my parents come home?"
"Till the pizza's delivered."
"Like Ingrid and I had! God, I felt like such an adult when I strode to the door and paid the 'boy' who had to be older than me. Jeez, Liza, this is too much. This is a dream, isn't it?"
She pinched him, and stretched back on the table.
It was a moment before she connected the sound to the hall door. Knocking. She pushed up on her side. "Damn! I'm sorry, Jay. I told them not to come before ten. I told them a minute before ten and no tip."
"Don't worry, Sweet. We've got all weekend. And I'll give the boy a tip; but I'll chew him out first." He was already off the table and holding out a hand to haul her up. "I suppose there's beer in the cooler, too?"
"Aren't you underage?" She laughed and splatted through the arch, her bare feet cold now on the concrete. In the kitchenette she stood by the fire-escape window, the air cooling her skin. The flow of light from the living-room lamps reflected off her car keys and outlined the styrofoam cooler. Even with the pizza fiasco, and his plane being late, this evening was perfect. Worth every thrift shop in southern California. There'd be plenty of time. She looked up at the red and green and amber lights melting in the fog and smiled.
"—fucker!" It came from the door.
She stiffened. The male voices were low but "Goddamned fucking asshole" was clear. Not Jay's voice. She strained to hear him, but now she couldn't make out anything. But the door didn't slam. She should never have brought up the tip thing.
Something banged. She rushed to the arch.
Jay was backing away from the hall door. He had a gun. A man—big—faced him back-lit from the hall light. He had a gun, too. Not pizza. Fire shot out of his gun. Jay stumbled back. She put out her arms toward him. He sagged against the arch, slid around it and fell against her.CHAPTER 2
Liza jumped back. She tried to pull Jay through the archway but his blood-slicked body slipped out of her hands and she stumbled backward. His white shirt glistened, spouting red, white disappearing, red all over.
"Run!" His choked voice startled her. "Go!"
She couldn't leave him.
A thick gargling sound came from his throat, then words almost indistinguishable between his viscous breaths. "Richland ... grade. Go—" Blood poured from his mouth, gushed from his neck. She tried to staunch it; new spurts tore open his neck. Blood everywhere, gallons of blood, all his blood. His head flopped to the side. Half his neck was gone.
It was only a moment, the silence that followed Jay's death.
"Search the place!" Then the beach-house room exploded in noise; shots so loud it sounded like the earth splitting apart. Shots going on and on and on. Men screaming, bodies crashing over furniture.
She stood behind the arch wall for an eternity, unable to help Jay, unable to desert him, frozen. She had to get Jay a doctor—but he was dead! She had to go, go fast. Call 911. But he was dead. DEAD!
The noise filled the other room but it no longer registered as gunshots, yells, shoes slapping floor. The volume blasted through thought. Words lost their form. Terror, grief turned to black. She had no thoughts, just buzzing in her head. She picked up the gun, Jay's new gun.
Silver sparkled by the cooler. Car keys.
Oblongs of light. Windows.
She grabbed the keys, thrust up the window she'd never been able to budge, climbed out onto the fire escape. The gun slipped out of her hand, smacked metal, clattered down, hit with a thud. She shot a glance down at the light-spotted darkness two stories below. So far down. Too far. Instinctively she began to climb. Metal rungs cut into her bare feet; rusting rails scraped her fingers and palms. The old metal structure shook with every step, rattling like ... like the gun shots coming after Jay. She climbed faster, fingers clutching the keys.
Noise below. Great snores of traffic. Metallic spikes of music. Voices. Closer. From her window. Sharp. Gruff. The fire escape rattled. She hit the fifth-floor landing, passed the darkened window, caught the railing and raced on. Her breaths came fast, singeing the back of her mouth. Voices from below pierced her consciousness. Suddenly the collage of meaningless sounds reassembled. Voices separated from the splatter of noise, shifted into words, smacked her like a jockey's crop.
The fire escape ended.
She stopped. Thoughts spun in her head but she couldn't get hold of them. She looked over the edge of the roof, clambered over. Pebbles on the gravel surface cut her bare feet. She stumbled, looked down, kicked at a sock that must have fallen out of ... something.
Jay, was he dead? No, no; he couldn't be. Jay was dead.
She started for the far corner, stopped so abruptly her feet stung. No escape? Where to hide? No safety but the shadows here. She raced for the near corner in the dark below the next building. The fire escape rattled like thunder; heavy feet pounded, closer, closer. The neighbors will hear; they'll call the cops. She relaxed, just momentarily. She was fooling herself. This was an industrial area. There were no neighbors to notice anything, much less call the cops.
The voices were closer. Any second they'd be on the roof.
She pushed back into the corner. Her jeans and T-shirt were black. If she could cover her hair ... and her feet ...
A ladder led to the roof of the next building. It was still in shadows, but gray not black. She tossed the sock near it, and huddled in the darkest corner, kneeling, head almost in the gravel, arms crossed over her blond hair.
Shoes scraped against the gravel. The two men were panting ferociously. She peeked through her hair, squinting so they wouldn't shoot when they saw the whites of her eyes. She almost giggled, caught herself, let out a squeak.
Both of them stopped dead.
Light shone off the silver guns.
She held her breath. She could see only one pair of shoes, pant legs. Feet moving around a central point as the man surveyed this half of the roof. He was facing her, closing in. She was going to die. Like Jay. Oh, God, Jay. She clutched the keyring like a talisman.
The feet stopped. He was standing ten feet away. Did he not hear her teeth clattering against each other?
Five feet away! How could he not see her?
No flashlights. The men didn't have lights!
"Over here!" he yelled.
Pebbles shot into her scalp as the black shoes pushed off. The gravel under her shins, ground into her bones. She didn't dare move. Where did the next roof lead? To another roof, to a stairway, a dead end that would bring him back?
Maybe this was all part of some bizarre game and Jay wasn't really dead.
Jay's blood was real.
She shifted her head and watched till the last foot lifted onto the bottom rung. The man was huge, twice the size of Jay. His black-clad body stood out against the lighter night like an eighteen-wheeler coming out of the fog. He grunted and hoisted a leg up onto the next roof.
She pushed off and ran for the fire escape, raced down, hands sliding down the rusty railings. Her bare feet smashed into the grated landing. The fire escape thundered. She leapt for the flight of stairs, sliding on her hands, feet not touching the steps. Men shouted. A flight above? Two? Three? She was moving too fast to make out words. She turned again, slid down another flight of stairs. Her feet crashed into the grate. She turned—
The crack was ear-shattering. The ping a foot away.
Her arms went stiff; she slid down the stairs, swung into the turn.
Her breath caught. No more stairs. The sidewalk was twelve feet down. Frantically, she looked for a ladder. Nothing. Another shot—so close the blast of air iced her shoulder.
The fire escape thundered, shook.
The vibrations stopped. Everything was silent.
She felt the heat on her breast before she recognized the sound of the shot, the bullet ricocheting off the railing. Blood spurted bright, light against her black T-shirt.
She grabbed the grating, dangled her body through the hole where the ladder should have been, and dropped. Metal reverberated. She'd hit a garbage can. Some part of her body stung but she couldn't tell which.
Where was Jay's gun? She scanned the sidewalk.
Feet banged on the fire-escape stairs.
She looked behind the garbage cans, beside the stoop, the patch of weeds that once was garden. There: in the dirt! She grabbed it.
Her car was ten yards away. She fumbled the keys out of her pocket and hit the remote, holding her breath till she heard the buzz. She was into the seat and starting the engine without realizing it. The wheels screeched as she cut into the lane and floored the gas.
Excerpted from Fast Friends by Susan Dunlap. Copyright © 2004 Susan Dunlap. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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