In Jane Haseldine’s gripping and brilliantly crafted debut, a reporter searching for her kidnapped son must untangle the connection to her brother’s long-ago disappearance.
Julia Gooden remembers nothing about the worst night of her life. Thirty years ago, her nine-year-old brother Ben—the person who promised he would always protect her—was abducted from the room they shared. Try as she might to recall any clue or detail, there is a black hole where Julia’s memories of that terrible event should be.
Now a crime reporter at a Detroit newspaper, Julia tries to give others the closure she’s never found. But guilt and grief over Ben’s disappearance have left her fearful that whoever took her brother is going to come back. Nowhere seems safe—not the city, not the suburbs, not even the secluded lake town where she plans to raise her children. And then, on the anniversary of Ben’s disappearance, Julia’s worst fears are realized when her two-year-old son, Will, is snatched from his bed.
Convinced that the crimes are related, Julia tries to piece together memories from her final day with Ben. Are the sudden reminders of her brother clues that will lead her to her son’s abductor, or merely coincidence? Julia knows she has hours at best to find Will alive, but the deeper she digs, the more personal and terrifying the battle becomes, and an undying promise may be her only hope of saving herself and her son.
Praise for The Last Time She Saw Him
“A sharp, breathless thriller. From the opening scene to the last, The Last Time She Saw Him, kept me flipping the pages. I loved it! Jane Haseldine is one to watch!” —Lisa Jackson, #1 New York Times bestselling author
“So visually written and chilling, with such real, believable characters and twists that shocked. A gripping story that I read in one night—I could not put it down . . .” —Debbie Howells, author of The Bones of You
“Haseldine’s first novel is a solid read that fans of Debbie Howells, Julia Dahl, and Laura Lippman will appreciate.” —Library Journal
“Terrific! Suspenseful, poignant, and completely surprising. Jane Haseldine’s riveting story of love, danger, paranoia, and family is powerfully and emotionally authentic—and deserves a standing ovation.” —Hank Phillippi Ryan, Agatha, Anthony, and Mary Higgins Clark award-winning author
About the Author
Jane Haseldine is a journalist, former crime reporter, columnist, and newspaper editor, who also worked in politics as the deputy director of communications for a governor. Jane resides in Southern California.
Read an Excerpt
The Last Time She Saw Him
By Jane Haseldine
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Jane Haseldine
All rights reserved.
I became a reporter because I never found out the ending to my own story. Thirty years after Ben's abduction, the only answers I could find were for others, the victims, or those they left behind. The crime beat is a natural for me. The people I write about are the most fragile, the most broken, and they need the most answers. I piece together the frayed strands of their lives. I have to tell their stories. I feel like I owe the victims at least that.
Five p.m. in the newsroom, and I am in the zone. I stare at my half-written follow-up story on the Boyner boy until a blast of static crackles from the scanner above my desk. "Shots fired on the two-hundred block of Rosa Parks Boulevard," the female 911 dispatcher calls out in a staccato monotone.
I turn back to my story and listen with trained detachment to hear whether there's anything more I need to chase on deadline. More likely, it's a drug deal gone bad or a gang-related drive-by. Just another rush hour in inner-city Detroit.
The scanner goes silent for thirty seconds. Nothing further. No follow-up required, for now anyway. I go back to my article on Donny Boyner when my e-mail chimes and the NEW MESSAGE alert flashes across the right side of my computer screen. It's from Bob Primo, the metro desk editor. Primo has been my middleman boss for the past ten years, and he's been consistent, a certified Grade-A solid prick throughout. Primo thinks I owe him for successfully pitching my story for the front page during the big bosses' three o'clock editorial meeting. But it wasn't Primo's pitch. It was the story that sold it, an eight-year-old boy who disappeared on the way to the bus stop. With no new news on day two of the story, it's my job to make the little boy real to the readers. And Primo and his bosses know I will deliver.
I ignore Primo's interruption and glance down at my reporter's notebook. It's filled with quotes I got two hours prior while sitting in the living room of the tidy row house Donny Boyner shared with his grandma, Laveeta, a seventy-year-old whisper of a woman who stared intently at the velvet picture of a black Jesus that hugged the entirety of her living room wall as she recounted stories about her grandson. When I asked about the last time she saw Donny, Laveeta tore her gaze away from Jesus and cast her eyes downward to the scuffed gold vinyl floor. Ever since he started kindergarten, Laveeta said she walked Donny to the bus stop, just one block away. But yesterday she caught a cold — more than a cold, she said, a flu bug that made her body sweat and burn through the night. By morning, she was worse. Donny wanted to stay home so he could take care of his grandma, but Laveeta insisted he couldn't miss school. His grandma knew school was Donny's only ticket out of the projects. So Donny grabbed his backpack, promised Laveeta he'd take care of her when he got home, and kissed her on the forehead before he headed out on his journey: one short block alone to the bus that would safely deliver him to his third-grade class at Gardner Elementary School.
Just one short block.
I throw my reporter's notebook into the top right drawer of my desk and write from memory. The city editor at my first paper told me the best reporters write from both the head and the heart.
I stare at the third-grade class picture of Donny on his missing-persons flyer. I pinned it to my desk when the Amber Alert first went out after Donny didn't get off the bus at the end of the school day. In the photo, Donny wears a short-sleeved blue and white striped shirt buttoned all the way up to his collar. He peers hesitantly through his thick glasses at the camera as though he is uncomfortable being the center of attention even on school picture day.
My eyes flick to the other photo on my desk. It's a framed picture of my sons, Logan and Will, taken down by the lake last summer. Logan is eight, just like Donny.
I turn my concentration back on the article about the missing boy, but I already know how this story will ultimately end. There will be bad news, the kind that decimates the living. Or no news at all. Not ever. Good news in child abduction cases is a bona fide miracle. And I stopped believing in miracles when Ben never came home. Miracles are like Santa Claus, just stuff kids believe.
My desk phone rings. I stare at it, debating whether to pick it up on deadline or to retrieve the message after I finish the story. Five o'clock. It's not my husband. David and I have been separated going on six months now. In the early days of our relationship, my once golden boy thought he could save me from the demons of my past. But after nearly ten years of trying to help me recover from the loss of my brother and forgive myself for not being able to remember anything from the night of Ben's disappearance that could have helped the police, David walked. He packed up his suitcase one Friday after getting home from his law firm and dropped the bombshell that he was leaving. David's tone was cold and cutting as he told me he was tired of trying to fix me, tired of never being able to make me completely happy, and he couldn't live with my constant fears over our boys' safety anymore. I tried to explain that no matter what I did, I couldn't make myself into the person David wanted me to be. I watched as David's car pulled out of our driveway and couldn't believe he had given up on me. And our family. But I didn't throw the blame on him entirely. No one can cut in when you're doing a slow waltz with the devil.
I stare back at the ringing phone and realize David would never call on deadline unless it's an emergency about our boys. And he would try to reach me on my cell phone first. That leaves a crackpot pitching me a story about how her husband isn't paying alimony. Or it could be the cops.
I take my chances and pick up the phone.
"Newsroom. This is Julia Gooden," I answer.
"Hey, it's Detective Ray Navarro. This didn't come from me, but you better get down here. A tagger found a body inside a burned-out building on the three-hundred block of Mount Elliott Street. It's a kid and the body matches Donny Boyner's description."
I breathe out and stare back at the picture of the shy little boy with the wire-framed glasses in the missing person's photo.
"Julia, you there?" Navarro asks.
"Did you call Laveeta Boyner yet?"
"Yeah. The coroner just got here, and then we'll take the body down to the morgue to be identified. We're keeping this off the scanner for now. So unless another member of the media is tipped off, you'll be the only reporter at the scene."
"I appreciate the tip. I'll be there. I just need to take care of something first."
I hang up my desk phone and recall my meeting last week with the man in the tweed jacket. Post-traumatic stress with borderline paranoid personality disorder. That was my diagnosis. I finally relented after years of resistance to David's urging and saw a psychiatrist to talk about my brother. I was becoming obsessed with protecting our sons. No Little League for Logan, despite his pleas, since sleazy strangers with nefarious intentions could be watching. No play dates or friends unless I had a sit-down with the parents first, which was more like twenty pointed questions on my end and usually scared them off. There were no babysitters, not even David's father and stepmom, and subsequently no date nights after the children came. The topper was when Logan won a lunch with his principal, Mr. Brandish, during a charity auction at his elementary school to raise money for the PTA. Logan was supposed to ride to the restaurant in Mr. Brandish's car, but I pitched a fit to David, who told me to lighten up for just one time in my entire life and not spoil Logan's afternoon. I pretended to acquiesce, but I secretly went to the school, followed the principal's car to the restaurant, and sat in the back of the pizza place trying to blend in with the lunch crowd as I kept my eyes glued on my son. But Logan saw me, which he inadvertently shared with the family during dinner that night. David blew up.
The counseling was part of the agreement if we were going to reconcile, so I tried. I stared at the psychiatrist's advanced degrees, which were hung prominently on his wall, as he told me I became a crime reporter so I could repeat my childhood trauma every day. It was my way of punishing myself, he said. After one session, I decided to never go back. I could handle it on my own. I always have. And I know what I have to do now.
I close out of my story, wind my unruly, dark curls into a makeshift bun, and walk across the newsroom to Primo's office. I pass the thinned-out bank of metro reporters and the ghost town where the recently laid-off feature writers once sat. Primo's office is command central, smack in the center of the newsroom, where he can keep an eye on his dwindling empire. I pause in the doorway. Primo sits ramrod straight in his leather swivel chair, giving hell to someone on the other end of the phone while staring out at rush-hour traffic weaving through my broken-down city.
Primo reminds me of a just-fed spider, spindly arms and legs with a rigid bowling ball of a gut. I tap on the doorframe to get his attention. When Primo doesn't turn around, I enter and smack my knuckles hard against the top of his computer.
Primo jerks his chair toward the unwanted interruption. I've apparently made the cut, and Primo abruptly ends his call.
"Did you turn in the story about the Boyner kid?" he asks without turning around.
"Not yet. I need to talk to you about something."
Primo ignores my request and hunches over his computer. The spider, hungrily trying to snare its next victim, or in this case, its next story.
"Where the hell is it? I'm about to go into the five o'clock editorial meeting. Don't think I won't bury your story inside the local page. I can't guarantee it will even make it on the website if you just recycled the news from yesterday about the kid's abduction."
Primo is just being a bully. He knows this is a front-page story. In fact, it's the story of the day.
"Of course you'll post it. The story got picked up on the national wire. People care about this little boy," I say, calling his bluff.
Primo parts his lips as if he's about to unleash a snarling tirade. Instead, two strings of thick white spit pool in the corners of his mouth. Primo's endless supply of spit always seems to accumulate in mass quantity right around deadline.
I look away in disgust and so does Primo. He grabs his phone and turns his back to me as though I am dismissed.
But I still have a card to play.
"The cops found a body. They think it's Donny Boyner."
Primo swivels his chair toward me with renewed interest and drums his long fingers together as he weighs his options. "When are they going to have an ID? You need to work your sources to get them to confirm it's the Boyner kid. We need to have the story before The Detroit News gets it. I will not get beat on this. Understood?"
Primo had long ago crossed the line from ethical journalist with a sense of duty to a full-blown viper.
"I don't know why I expected a humane response," I answer.
"If you care so much, become a social worker. Your job right now is to get the story. You can feel all you want when you're done."
"That's why I'm here. I'm leaving."
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm taking a leave of absence. I need some time."
Primo's rubbery lips contort into a patronizing sneer, and a dribble of built-up spit escapes from one corner of his mouth.
"You don't get time. This is a newspaper. The news doesn't stop, remember? Journalism 101."
"I'll write the story on Donny Boyner, but then I'm gone. I'll contact HR. If you have a job for me when I'm ready to come back, fine. If not, I'll reach out to The Detroit News. Either way, it works for me."
"Get an ID on the Boyner kid and get your ass back here. You're a veteran, ten years in at the paper. Don't tell me you're getting soft. The death of another kid in the projects is going to make you give everything up? He's just a throwaway kid who would've wound up selling drugs on the corner in four years anyway. Things are tight right now. We've already shed a hundred jobs, thirty in the newsroom in the past six months alone. You're lucky to still be on the payroll."
I hold Primo's gaze until his hard, dark eyes dart away first. The spider then buries himself back into his beloved computer, where he begins to troll for new stories.
"That's why I need to get out. I don't want to wind up like you."
I launch the insult like a grenade and hustle out of Primo's office before I can give him the satisfaction of being a captive audience to his caustic comeback.
I thread my way back to my corner of the newsroom and ignore the barbs from the guys at the sports desk ribbing me about my New York Yankees' loss to the Detroit Tigers in last night's blowout game. I instead concentrate on Laveeta Boyner and the guilt that will undoubtedly squeeze the life out of what is left of her once she IDs her grandson.
But at least she will know.
At least Laveeta Boyner will have an answer.
I grab my reporter's notebook and tape recorder before I head out to the crime scene. I gather my scant personal effects off my desk. Easier to do it now without explanation than after deadline when someone might notice and ask questions. I hate questions unless I'm the one asking. I stuff the photo of Logan and Will in my duffel bag, reach into my bottom desk drawer, and carefully retrieve an overstuffed red binder.
I make my way through the parking garage, adrenaline flowing, as I chisel down the list of questions I will pose to the police about Donny Boyner. As I slide my key into the ignition, I calculate the fastest route through rush-hour traffic to Mount Elliott Street. Only a mile away, the usual five-minute drive will now take me half an hour in gridlock traffic. There's still time though. There's always time.
I unzip the duffel bag on the passenger seat and gently pull out the red binder, now cracked and faded with age to a muted shade of pink. I open the cover and run my hand over the first yellowed article, safely protected through time by a thin sheet of plastic that holds the newspaper story firmly affixed to the first page.
I know it by heart.
Sept. 6, 1977
Nine-year-old boy disappears in resort town
By Karen Quantico
DETROIT (Associated Press) — A nine-year-old boy remains missing one day after he disappeared from his bedroom in the usually quiet resort town of Sparrow, Michigan.
Ben Gooden, who was to join the rest of his incoming fourth-grade class at Willow Glen Elementary today, was reported missing by his seven-year-old sister, Julia Gooden, who called 911 at approximately 12:30 a.m.
Police would not comment on whether the mother, Marjorie Gooden, is a suspect or will face child endangerment charges, although sources close to the case claim witnesses saw Mrs. Gooden drinking heavily with an unidentified man at a local bar around the time the boy disappeared. Police are trying to locate the missing child's father, Benjamin Gooden Sr., who was reportedly out of town at the time of the boy's disappearance.
"Right now, we're looking at this as a missing persons case, not a criminal investigation. Let me reiterate that Sparrow is a safe town for our visitors and locals alike," said Deputy Michael Leidy of the St. Clair Sheriff's Department. "However, when a little boy suddenly goes missing from his bed in the middle of the night, we want to assure the public that the police will do everything in our power to bring him home safely."
Police confirmed there was no sign of forced entry, but the sliding glass door leading from the outside courtyard into the boy's room was found wide open. Police also found a crushed package of Marlboro Lights cigarettes outside the home in addition to an Indian arrowhead discovered under the boy's bed.
A neighbor, who asked not to be identified, said the Gooden family had just moved to the North Shores neighborhood.
Principal John Derry of Willow Glen Elementary School said the students and staff started the day with a moment of silence for Ben's safe return.
(Photo caption: Julia Gooden, the missing boy's younger sister, sits alone on the front steps of the family home and clutches her brother's baseball against her chest.)
Excerpted from The Last Time She Saw Him by Jane Haseldine. Copyright © 2016 Jane Haseldine. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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