17-year-old Jessica is missing. There are no clues as to why she disappeared – apart from the note she left behind: I love you. Goodbye forever. It turns out that Jessica is not the first teenager to have gone missing, nor the first to have left exactly the same note.
With a personal family connection to the missing girl, crime blogger and radio host Kit Doyle is determined to find out what happened to her. To do so, she must go undercover as a teenage runaway herself. Out on the streets, Kit is about to enter a violent, unpredictable world where life is held cheap – and into the clutches of a dangerous psychopath …
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By Bonnie Hearn Hill
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2016 Bonnie Hearn Hill
All rights reserved.
The day she learned of the girl's disappearance, all Kit Doyle wanted to do was sleep in. That was what people who worked all week did on Saturday. Sleep was an escape from what she had just gone through. It was a way of avoiding this reconciliation that felt neither all right nor all wrong.
Richard wouldn't get up early and drive her across town just to shop for vegetables, but she didn't feel like arguing. Six months before, Kit had lost her best friend and almost her own life while finding her biological mother. Now, she and Richard still lived in separate residences by day. By night, they stayed at Kit's house, lying in the bed that used to be theirs, watching films they had once loved, and reading from new books they wanted to share. They talked to each other. They listened. Most of all, they tried to cling on to what had brought them together in the first place. At its best, what they shared in that bed felt like hope to Kit, and, at its worst, like desperation. Although they couldn't seem to find what they had lost of their marriage, they couldn't let go of what remained of it either.
As they headed for the raw-food truck at a Sacramento farmers' market on that Saturday morning, Kit tried to feel like the wife she almost was, the wife she would sacrifice almost anything to be. The almost was the problem, and, even after everything she had gone through, it hadn't changed. Richard chewed on his lip, his thoughts clearly elsewhere.
'Something on your mind?' she asked, thinking she would just as soon learn his reason for this trip now as later.
'I was thinking about the quote I read you earlier by that Vietnamese monk. If we look deeply at the rose, we see the garbage; if we look deeply at the garbage, we see the rose.'
The point, Kit guessed, was how connected the ups and downs of people's lives must be. Or maybe just that no one should view anything as unchangeable. Richard could always find an obscure, indirect way to discuss any topic, and she both loved and hated that about him. 'Meaning that?' she asked him.
'I'm not sure,' he said, 'but thinking about it makes me feel good.'
They pulled in and parked in the dirt. Again, Kit wondered why he seemed both focused and distracted. The farmers' market stretched out along a seemingly endless strip of grass in what looked like an overgrown parking lot. Vendors peddled everything from jasmine rice pudding and local honey to homemade tamales and the healthy stuff Richard steered them toward. He put his arm around her as if sensing that she wanted to know why he had insisted they come here on her Saturday off.
'The ones with the green banners are the most sustainable booths,' he told her.
'No hotdogs? No curly fries?'
'Not today. You might like this, though.'
They stopped, and he handed her a paper cup of something the texture of hummus.
'Cashew queso,' he said.
Roughly translated, fake cheese made out of boiled nuts.
'Not bad.' Kit ate the stuff and then tossed the cardboard dipper into the suspiciously full trash barrel beside the food truck. 'Why did you really want to come here today?'
'To help you reconsider the way you eat, perhaps.' The warm autumn breeze tossed Richard's hair across his eyes. Farm-dog hair, she thought, silky and untamed.
'You're a vet, not a dietician.' She leaned against him and tried to figure out what he really had on his mind. 'I eat very well actually.'
'You cook very well.' Kit looked up into his eyes and guessed he was doing his best to hold back something. Maybe a secret. Maybe an emotion. Maybe even tears.
'Am I right in suspecting this conversation is leading somewhere other than the nutritional and political correctness of my sirloin tips in Marsala sauce?'
He seemed to force a smile. 'Remember my niece, Jessica?'
She felt her lips tighten. 'Your brother's daughter? You haven't mentioned her since we started seeing each other again.'
'I'm not sure.'
'What do you mean you're not sure?' she demanded. 'What happened?'
'That's what I want to talk to you about.'
Without saying more, he led her to a booth with a sign that read Organic plums. Last of the season.
The unsmiling blond woman behind the counter offered them a tiny black lacquer tray. The thin golden plum slices smelled and tasted like spring. The woman watched Kit as if expecting a comment.
'These are wonderful,' Kit told her.
The blonde's expression didn't change.
'This is Sarah.' Richard nodded toward the woman with the gelled-back hair and long brass earrings. 'Sarah, this is —'
'Rich, I told you no.'
'And I told you Kit can help you.'
Kit's dad Mick would have called it a set-up, in this case a ploy to drag her into Richard's most recent attempt to fix someone's life the way he wished someone would fix his.
'Sorry.' Kit backed away so fast she nearly tripped over a display of pumpkins. 'Richard, I have to run.'
'Wait. I just want to introduce you two. Sarah is Jessica's mother.'
So this was the woman who had kept Richard's niece from him for more than fifteen years. She didn't look vindictive – just scared. 'I can't help someone who doesn't want help,' Kit said.
'That would be me.' The woman shook her head, and her earrings almost brushed her shoulders. 'You shouldn't have done this, Rich. You have no right.'
'I have every right.' He moved closer to her. 'I'm your daughter's uncle. You and Kit need to talk.'
The woman glared again, and Kit reminded herself that her job at the radio station was already stressful enough, especially now that she and Richard were trying to figure out a way to get back together. Still, she wanted to be polite. 'Nice meeting you, Sarah.' She put out her hand. Sarah didn't take it.
'Jessica disappeared Thursday.' Richard placed his paper cup back on the tray.
'I'm sorry,' Kit said. Stop talking, her dad would tell her right now. Just shut your mouth or you'll be buying into the problem.
'I already spoke to the police,' Sarah said.
'Sounds as if you've got it handled,' Kit replied in a fake-cheerful voice.
'I do,' she said right back.
'Besides, my blog and the radio segment focus on only old, unsolved cases.'
'Right. That leaves me out.'
'There's something else, though,' Richard said. 'Over the last couple of years, at least one other girl has gone missing from the apartment complex where Sarah lives.'
'How many?' Kit asked.
'I'm not sure, but you can find out, Kit. Farley can help.' Richard opened the vegan cheese container again. 'So can that ex-cop who's working with you now.'
'John Paul has other cases he's interested in,' Kit said. 'And Sarah has already made it clear she doesn't want me involved.'
'Don't talk about me as if I'm not here.' Sarah slammed the tray on the counter, and the one remaining cup of fruit bounced to the ground. They both ignored it.
'You haven't exactly been forthcoming,' Kit said.
'Because I don't want my private life used as entertainment for your radio audience.'
'Farley and I do a lot of good on that show.' Kit glanced at Richard. 'Surely you know about what happened with my biological mother?'
'Yes, and I get that you haven't had an easy time of it. But you don't have kids of your own, do you? You have no idea what I'm going through.'
That did it.
'I'm not inhuman, Sarah. I know how scared you must be.'
'That's not how you're acting.' Her dark eyes filled with tears. 'I keep thinking I should have done something, paid closer attention. I never thought Jessica would just take off without talking to me. I just never dreamed it.'
'If another girl also disappeared from the apartment complex, maybe Jessica didn't take off willingly,' Kit said.
'But who would harm her? Why?' She reached down like a woman in a trance, picked up the plum slices from the grass, and placed them into the trash can.
'Somebody knows something,' Kit told her. 'I understand that you think the radio show would violate your privacy, but if I put something – even a small mention – in my blog, someone might come forward. I'm no substitute for law enforcement, and I'm not pretending to be.'
'Kit does have a following,' Richard finished. 'Can you see now why I wanted you to talk to her?'
'I know you're probably trying to do the right thing,' Sarah said, 'but I'm scared. There has to be something else going on here. For all I know, she's in some kind of trouble.'
'Another reason you need to find her right away.' Kit saw surrender in Sarah's face and realized she had just convinced the woman to share her story.
Richard lifted the queso cup and something that looked like a potato chip. Kit took a bite and had to admit the taste was starting to grow on her. At his strongest, this man could convince her to attempt any task, regardless of how hopeless.
'So,' she asked him. 'If I look at this cashew patty long enough, will it turn into a cheeseburger?'
For the first time, Sarah attempted a smile. 'Jessica left a note,' she said in a harsh whisper. 'The police have the original. This is a copy.'
'Could I see it?'
She pulled a folded piece of paper out of her black handbag. 'It's her handwriting. Jessica's.'
Kit took it from her and studied the note. Just a few words, neatly written.
I love you.
Goodbye forever.CHAPTER 2
I have a place, Jessie, and I have a plan.
Jessica had never forgotten those words. They had kept her going through all kinds of hell. Now, as she sat at the counter of the Mexican restaurant, Jessica willed herself invisible. She had perfected that skill, a shutting down of self, a dimming of perceptions. Gray, inside and out. Background noise blended to a hum. She pulled the navy watch cap below her ears. Hair the cartoon color of hers attracted attention. Paranoia, Lucas would say, and had said when he was only eleven, and she was fourteen. Pay attention to it. No reason to advertise herself, especially when she was this close to freedom.
'Miss?' Jessica looked up at the woman on the other side of the counter. 'Are you all right?'
'I'm meeting someone,' she replied in a precise, staccato way that discouraged further questions.
'Can I get you something?' The black-haired woman, her soft skin lined with thin shadows that would soon be wrinkles, placed a red-plastic woven basket of tortilla chips in front of her. The heat lifted from them to Jessica's cheeks. God, she was hungry, but she couldn't spend her last dollars on anything until she knew she'd be back with the others.
'Just waiting for my friend.'
'On the house.' The woman went to the end of the counter and came back with a bowl of salsa. 'I make it myself.'
Jessica gazed down at the chips dusted with chili powder. Their scent made her mouth water. 'No, thank you.'
The woman's apron was a disgusting shade of green, a cross between lime and moss that only accentuated her rotund shape. Rotund shape? That sounded like something Lucas would say, as if being geographically closer to him brought her closer to his mind. If he were here, he'd devour this woman's free food and compliment her on her parrot earrings and matching fuchsia lipstick. Take advantage, he would say. Take what you can before they try to take you.
Yet he had brought her a blanket that night in Weaver's cage. He risked his own safety to protect her.
Jessica lifted a chip from the basket, dipped it into the chunky sauce, and chewed it slowly. The flavors melted into her mouth, hot and sweet and so satisfying that, even as she chewed, she reached for another.
The woman smiled. 'That's more like it.'
A hulk of a guy in jeans, his hair cut close to his head, settled on to the stool beside her. She glanced over. Ike had grown both up and out. No more shaved head. No more black barely-there beard. In his red-and-gray jacket with 'Bulldogs' printed across the front, he could easily pass for a jock or at least a fan of whatever team sport folks got off on around here.
'I go by Jessica now, Ike. Good to see you. I've been waiting awhile.'
'A lot of trucks on the highway tonight.'
'The ninety-nine is always slow on Sunday,' the woman behind the counter said. 'Everyone heading south toward Los Angeles. Would you like menus?' Her eyes registered the expected answer, even before Ike spoke.
'Thanks, but we have to get going.' He grabbed a chip, dragged it through the salsa like a spoon, and expertly shoved the whole thing into his mouth. 'Ready, Jessie?'
'Jessica.' She didn't budge.
She could feel the woman watching her, as if trying to make sure this was consensual. As a couple, they didn't match. Ike was brought into the group for his loyalty and brute strength, as Lucas had pointed out from the start. Though tall for a woman, Jessica must have looked far more delicate than she was. Lucas didn't want her here for her height, though. He wanted her because of her brain and because they were like the siblings neither of them had ever had. That alone was reason enough to be sitting in this sad little restaurant with this slow-witted animal.
'Ready?' she asked.
Ike grabbed another chip. 'Whenever you are.'
'Let's go, then.'
They rose from their stools as the woman openly watched. Jessica dug into her bag, took out her last five-dollar bill, and placed it on the counter.
'Goodnight.' She met the woman's astonished gaze and gave her a smile. 'And thank you.'
Once they walked into the quiet, cold air outside the restaurant, Ike said, 'That wasn't smart.'
'Like you'd know smart?'
'Leaving that money, I mean. Lucas says we can't do anything to draw attention to ourselves.'
'You think taking free food wouldn't? I had to pay the woman.'
'Not trying to argue.' He opened the door of the truck, and she climbed in. 'I'm just pointing out what Lucas says. Come on. Let's get in the vehicle.'
'Do you think I really care what Lucas says?' She slammed the door. 'And why do you call it a vehicle? Are you trying to sound like a cop or something?'
'It's the way I talk.' He took his time coming around to the driver's side. Once he got in, he turned to her. 'I don't think Lucas would be too happy to hear what you think of him.'
'Do not presume you know one thing about my friendship with Lucas, Second Year.'
'Wait just one minute.' He warmed up the truck and began driving. 'We're here so we can finally have the freedom to be ourselves, remember? We don't judge each other, Jessie ... Jessica.'
'No, we don't, so let's get going, all right?'
As the truck moved into the field and its narrow dirt road, she knew that she would have to make this trip several times before she could find her way. After weaving through dead vines, Ike parked alongside a tractor that was mostly rust.
'We'll have to walk the rest of the way,' he said. 'We've got a golf cart on the compound, but no one uses it.'
'Not a problem.' She slung her bag over her shoulder and was glad she had left almost everything from her past life behind.
'It's farmland,' he said. 'Dried-up now but rough.'
'I said I'm fine with it.' She forced herself to keep up with him.
'Snakes around here sometimes.'
'Really?' She was less fine with snakes. 'Don't they hibernate in weather like this?'
'Not out here. Foxes too. Lucas swore he saw a bear tear through the compound one night.'
'So,' she said, 'is that part of your job? To try to scare the crap out of me before we even get there?'
'Yeah, kind of.' His grin in the moonlight seemed too innocent for the rest of him.
'The part about the bear is true,' he said. 'At least, Lucas claims he saw one. Something sure tore the place up.'
'Ike.' She stopped, as much to take a breath as anything else. 'Whatever is out here, I can deal with, I promise you. Remember, I am one of the Originals.'
'So am I.' He stopped too, and, even in the dim light, sweat shone on his forehead.
'There are only six of us.' She counted them off on her fingers. 'Wyatt, Theo, Angel, Sissy, Lucas, and me.'
'Lucas let you in the following year.'
Neither one of them spoke, and she knew Ike was remembering why Weaver had been forced to call off that second-year study. She glanced down at Ike's thick black gloves. He yanked them off and shoved them in the pocket of his jacket. The raised strips of scarred flesh on the back of his hands matched her own.
'Lucas says I'm an Original, and that's good enough for me.' He took off ahead of her.
Excerpted from Goodbye Forever by Bonnie Hearn Hill. Copyright © 2016 Bonnie Hearn Hill. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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