I have had nightmares all my life. I do not know if this is unusual. But sometime late last September, when the leaves were on the verge of turning, and the sun was still strong in the afternoons, I started sleeping the night through. Gone were the two A.M. sweats; the late nights surfing the Net; flipping channels to catch a movie at four A.M.
It felt like happiness.
I stood on the front porch of a gray stone cottage on a gentrified and tree-lined street. I held a newly made key in my right hand, a bucket of paint in my left. The wind blew rain at my back and a sudden gust toppled the Sold sign in the middle of the yard.
Joel and I started looking for a place to buy together six months ago, in September. I knew as soon as we pulled into the driveway of 1802 Washington Avenue that this cottage was it, and before Joel had even stopped the car, I told him this was our place.
Joel never gets excited. He glanced up at the porch where the realtor was waving and said, "You want to make an offer now, or should we take a quick look around?" Joel's humor is so low-key and dry that he has friends who don't know he makes jokes.
Our little cottage is in an eclectic neighborhood called Chevy Chase. Due to the ever-rising real-estate values in Lexington, Kentucky, this means we pay top dollar for our square footage. We are close to the university, not too far from downtown, and a ridiculously short drive from Billy's Barbecue. Chevy Chase Inn, a watering hole popular with divorcées in their forties, is right across from Billy's, as is an ice-cream store, a doughnut place, and a bar that used to be called The Library. The bar has burned down twice that I know of. After that the name was changed to Charlie Brown's, and it hasn't burned down near as much since.
If you want to go dancing you can hit the Blue Moon Saloon, which is on the opposite side of the road from Charlie Brown's. Some nights they have a line of people waiting to get in. This strikes me as funny. Lexington is not big enough to have clubs with long lines, but at least they don't have velvet ropes.
It took a moment for me to work the key in the lock -- old doors always have little tricks. The door was a solid oak arch with black hinges. Inside, to the left of the foyer, a staircase went straight to the second floor, or you could go right, through an arched doorway that opened into the living room.
I went right.
The smell of fresh paint made the cottage seem like a brand-new gift. The house was built when ten-foot ceilings were run-of-the-mill, all floors were wood, and heating registers blew warm air through scrolled metal grilles in the floor. My boot heels sounded loud. They echoed.
It was chilly in the house and I looked at the fireplace, wishing. It was the last day of February, the rain was cold, and I was damp and shivery. February is the worst month of the year in Kentucky.
Rain pounded the windows -- broad, heavy panes of glass that stretched from midwall to a foot below the ceiling. The glass was so old it looked wavy. The fireplace was flanked by built-in bookshelves enclosed with diamond-paned wooden doors, in the style of barristers' bookcases. It was the shelves that sold Joel the house.
And I was missing Joel, who was supposed to help pick out the paint. He was in charge of drop cloths and brushes, and today was his scheduled day off. But Joel was a cop, a homicide cop, and days off were a maybe at best. He'd left in a hurry this morning without saying why, and I'd been edgy all day, because it was the Cheryl Dunkirk case that he worked. Joel had spent eight sleepless weeks on the trail of this girl, and had yet to come up with anything other than her car -- neatly parked in the lot of her apartment house, stained with traces of blood and bodily fluids, and ravaged by a web of newly made cracks in the windshield. Her trail ended abruptly at a Pilot gas station on Richmond Road.
Joel did not know that I was considering taking Cheryl Dunkirk's family on as clients. And I saw no reason to tell him until I made up my mind. I will have no argument before its time.
Cheryl's stepfather, Paul Ellis Brady, a Pittsburgh developer who dealt in multimillion-dollar commercial and government projects, was dead set on hiring me to "do anything" I could. He and his daughter, Miranda, who lived in Lexington, were due in less than an hour to work out the details -- as in look me over, and bring me a check. Brady was very clear on the phone. He wanted me to keep the investigation going until I could find out every detail of what happened to his daughter. He wanted me to take up the slack in the official investigation.
The first thing I told him was that there wasn't any slack in the police investigation. This I knew firsthand, though I didn't tell Brady that. I tried to talk him out of hiring me. Uncertainty is the hardest thing to live with, but in the case of Cheryl Dunkirk, I didn't think she would ever be found.
I was uneasy about Joel's reaction to me working this case. I'd almost told him the night before, when he came to bed after working late, and had been deciding exactly what to say when he pulled me close, my back to his front, and put his arms around me to keep me warm. The truth is that I chickened out, but what I told myself was that it was better to make a decision on my own, uninhibited by the thought of his disapproval. Because that's how women get lost in relationships -- pleasing everyone but themselves.
Joel and I had been together for two years and counting, and I found that the longer we were together the happier I was. We bought this house jointly and were scheduled for official cohabitation in two days. Our loan folder was so new it was still piled in some In-box, waiting its turn to be filed. The mortgage papers had been signed, the closing, always tense, had been endured, and everyone who was anyone had taken a percentage from our fees.
It took me two years to completely commit -- to Joel, or to happiness, or both. Joel, ever patient, was delighted, if you can use such an energetic word for his understated ways. I was good for him. In the months we'd been together, his face had filled out and he looked younger. The lines of fatigue in his brow had smoothed; the stress creases that ran from his nose to his lips had faded.
We began our evenings in the kitchen. Joel cooked and I watched. We talked long into the night about the things that interested us -- why people kill, why men beat women, how a mother could be so drug addicted she would aid and abet a nightmare childhood for her kids. We talked forensics and DNA, and our most heated arguments involved either the death penalty, or how much garlic should go into the pasta. Joel is a "less is more" kind of cook, and I am a "more the merrier." So we talked and argued about food and work: the merits of wheat beer over ale; Joel's job in homicide; and mine as a private detective -- a woman's equalizer, specializing in cases involving women and children who fall between the cracks of the legal system.
I set the paint bucket down gently so as not to mar the floor. The heating control was a simple round dial, likely installed before I was born. Turning it on reminded me of the combination locks you use in school. There was that moment of hesitation, when you think, Hey, does this work?, then a rumble and a sigh as the compressor kicked in; the noise of air rushing through cramped, old-fashioned vents; and the toasty smell of burning dust.
And I was home. More at home than in Joel's austere warehouse loft; more at home than in my sister Whitney's haunted suburban ranch -- recently sold to make a substantial down payment on this cottage. Joel and I had agreed that I would make the down payment and he would handle the bulk of the mortgage -- a reasonable arrangement. Joel had a regular salary, generating cash flow and good credit. I was paid by economically challenged women in the midst of domestic chaos. I survived by a form of medieval barter.
It's a complex system that generates satisfaction, a million-odd privileges, but very little ready cash. There is no financial security, and none of the sort of documentation that impresses mortgage companies or any reputable bank.
On the other hand, my freezer was stocked with homemade meatballs, chicken casseroles, and Chicago steak fillets. My car insurance would be provided for the next eighteen months. I could walk into the Asian Pearl and have free martinis, which was a shame, since I didn't drink martinis. My yard maintenance would be taken care of for the next year, a bouquet of flowers arrived from Ashland Florist every two weeks, and I had gift certificates on hand to spend whenever I wanted: one from Lazarus for $175; another for Victoria's Secret for $50; and one I had just cashed in at Joseph Beth Booksellers for a Miles Davis CD. One very grateful client had signed over a 1994 Mazda Miata with 85,000 miles and a tear in the tan canvas roof. Another had a brother who kept the Miata in good repair. Clients cleaned my oven, brought over casseroles on a scheduled dinner plan, offered me the professional services of family members who moved furniture, worked in restaurants, and repaired antiques.
The arrangement has advantages for the lazy at heart. That would be me.
I thought about making coffee while I unwrapped the new CD and put it in the portable stereo. Coffee would require me to go back outside. On the other hand, it was coffee.
I went back out to the car, avoiding the lawn and the mud loosened between the drowning blades of grass. Rain had been steady for six days straight and the ground was saturated. It had been a miserable soggy month, nothing but gray skies. The scent of wood smoke was so strong that it seemed every household must be using a fireplace or wood-burning stove.
I hauled my essentials out of the car -- a corkscrew, a bottle of Chilean Merlot that met my exacting qualifications (under ten dollars, eye-catching label), a bag of salt and vinegar potato chips, coffeemaker, cream, my favorite New Orleans coffee mug that said American Belle on one side and Absolutely Pure Coffee on the other. I picked it up at Kroger's just last week. I was drinking Yuban coffee because it had been on sale, but it was nothing like the rich black Italian roast that is full-bodied rather than bitter -- and currently out of my price range.
I shut the door on the rain and slipped out of my wet shoes -- red alligator high-heeled boots I had no business wearing in this weather. I left my stuff in the foyer and headed for the kitchen. Joel had left his toolbox on the Italian marble countertop (another strong selling point), anticipating, as was his habit, exactly what we would need to have on hand for the move. In the refrigerator was bottled Dasani water, Becks, Miller Lite, and chocolate biscotti. Joel had come alone to bring these few things roughly a week ago and had not set foot in the house since. I'd wandered in almost every day.
Like his pantry, his closet, even his underwear drawer, Joel's toolbox was neat, organized, and spotless. The tools were worn, but clean, as if Joel wiped them down with a soft cloth every time he used them, which he probably did. I found a screwdriver in a plastic tray that held several screwdrivers arranged according to size. I mixed them up on purpose, grabbed one, and snapped the lid shut.
I rustled through my pile of stuff until I found the bag of potato chips, then sat cross-legged to consider the bucket of paint. Joel and I had sorted through a hundred and one color strips and settled on leaving the trim in the living room Manhattan Chalk White, and repainting the walls Lido Beige. I had been perfectly content with the Lido Beige. But standing in the paint aisle at Home Depot, the Sienna Sun Red called my name.
I had always wanted a red room, but red was something of a tricky color. Candy-apple red would be disgusting, and I would loathe any shade that looked the slightest bit orange, which let out everything with a Southwest motif. Maroon was unacceptable -- a good color for a high school marching band, but not my living room.
And then I saw it -- the red I had always imagined, the red that would be dramatic and elegant, the red I could live with day in and day out. The big question was did I have the right to paint the living room whatever color I liked. Living with someone meant compromise, and I had agreed without agony to the Lido Beige.
I turned up the music and opened the bag of chips. Fingers sticky with salt and vinegar, I used the screwdriver to pry open the paint.
So beautiful. I ripped the plastic off a brand-new paintbrush, and dipped the bristles into the placid and virginal surface. I made an arclike smear on the wall, followed by another swath of red, this one bigger. Drips of paint slid like oil down the side of the can and dropped to the newly buffed wood floors.
Joel says that disorder follows wherever I go. It's not intentional. But it is true that I have never decorated on my own before, and never picked out paint, or furniture, or dishes, without someone weighing in with a heated opinion. My ex-husband, Rick, had a place of his own when we moved in together, and we didn't change much after we got married. And when my sister was murdered, and Rick and I split, I moved into Whitney's little suburban ranch and changed not a thing that didn't involve cleaning or replacing the carpet and baby bed that had been soaked with blood and tears. It took me by surprise, this strong vision I had of how my house should look.
I set the paintbrush on the metal rim of the bucket, and stood back from the wall. Two coats would do it, and I'd leave the woodwork as it was.
The doorbell rang twice. This was the first time I'd heard the doorbell in the house, and I liked the way it sounded -- it's the little things that make you proud.
I was not looking forward to having to explain that it was entirely possible we would never know what happened to Cheryl Dunkirk. The family never gives up. Paul and Miranda Brady still had hope. But Cheryl had likely been dead for the last eight weeks, and her passing, much like Whitney's, was not an easy one; this much I knew, and very little else. I also knew Cheryl's death would haunt her sister, Miranda, the same way Whitney's violent murder haunted me.
The bell rang again -- that made three. I wiped my hands on the back of my Victoria's Secret Five Button Fly Boyfriend Jeans and went to open my arched front door.
My client was not what I expected, and it was clear from the way her mouth hung open that the reaction was mutual. She was young. If I were a bartender I would card her as a formality only before I escorted her out the door. I looked over her shoulder but did not see her father. Miranda had come alone.
She stepped forward to look at me more closely, and I could see that she was still struggling with those tricky issues of complexion. The small spray of whiteheads on her forehead were barely visible, buried beneath a generous application of cream-based foundation. She had likely selected the color during the summer when her skin was brown from the sun. The shade was too dark now, and gave her face an orange cast, though with her coloring -- medium dark hair and green eyes -- the orange wasn't all that bad. She was about my height, which, in terms of Internet shopping, is a sort of medium -- a five-foot-three or -four, average to short.
"Excuse me, I'm looking for Lena Padget." Her voice landed in the upper registers, which meant she didn't smoke.
"I'm Lena Padget."
She stared and made no comment. If she hadn't been quite so young I might have found her on the wrong side of annoying.
"Maybe you could tell me who you are?" I only asked this question to get her on track. I knew very well who she was. I looked over her shoulder one more time. Still no sign of the father.
"I'm Miranda." Her tone of voice let me know that I should have been expecting her.
"Paul Brady's daughter?"
"Your father isn't with you?"
Her voice went flat, eyes downcast. "He's still home in Pittsburgh. He can't get away right now."
I shook her hand. "Nice to meet you, Miranda. Please come in."
The invitation was unnecessary, as she was already two steps through the door. I wondered if she realized that hiring a detective was not quite the same thing as interviewing a servant.
She walked through the foyer, glanced at the staircase as if deciding whether or not to take the time to go up for a look, then moved into the living room, where she spun in a slow circle to take it all in.
"I love your house."
"Thank you. Let me get a couple of chairs." I fetched two folding chairs in from the kitchen and set them facing each other in the middle of the room. "I spoke with your father yesterday."
"I know." Miranda tore herself from the view outside my living-room window. "He told me you didn't want to take this on. He told me to convince you to do it anyway." Miranda's chin came up. "You don't have to worry about dealing just with me. I know I'm only twenty, but my father trusts me to handle things. He relies on me, he always has. And I talk to him every day. He really wants you to do this."
"Sit down," I told her. The first thing we were going to have to establish was what Paul and Miranda Brady defined as "this." And dealing solely with Miranda was going to complicate matters. She was young to be taking things on alone.
"Can I get you a cup of coffee, or a bottle of water?"
Miranda shook her head and sat on the edge of the chair. Her confidence was fading. She adjusted her skirt, which was filmy and cut on the bias. She wore clogs and her legs were bare in spite of the cold. The sleeves of her blouse flared over her pudgy hands. Her hair was either naturally curly or permed, and had been generously gelled or was in need of a wash. Her fingernails were bitten to the quick, and she wore shiny metallic lip gloss over a full bottom lip. She had a backpack instead of a purse.
College student, college student, college student.
"I'm very sorry about what happened with your sister. I know how hard this can be."
"Do you think she's dead?" Miranda looked me directly in the eyes. "I like to get things out in the open."
I did think Cheryl was dead, and I wondered about this Paul Brady, and why he hadn't made the time to come. I wondered why he would put this responsibility on the shoulders of Cheryl's younger sister, and not take care of things himself.
"Do you think she's dead, Miranda?"
Miranda bit her bottom lip, and did not answer. But silence made her uncomfortable, and she ran a finger along the material of her skirt, avoiding eye contact.
"Just so you know, Daddy got your name from Chick Ryder. He works in Legal Aid."
"He recommended you very highly. He said you guys were friends."
"Ah ha. We are, but Chick knows lots of detectives. He give any reason why he settled on me?"
Miranda twirled a curl of hair between her short, thick fingers. She was a heavy girl, by current standards, but not unattractively so.
"Mr. Ryder says you've got a good reputation."
I hid my cynicism behind a smile. No doubt Chick also made Paul Brady aware that I was sleeping with the cop who headed up the Cheryl Dunkirk investigation. If I were in Brady's shoes, I'd hire me, too.
Brady's instincts were sound, because I did have a wealth of inside information and I wouldn't be going into the situation cold. The disappearance of Cheryl Dunkirk had shaped into one of Joel's most frustrating cases, one that had riveted the entire state of Kentucky and even splashed periodically through the national news when they were having a slow day. We'd been on Nightline and CNN.
Cheryl Dunkirk, a college student at Eastern Kentucky University, was enrolled in the Criminal Justice Department with a major in Police Studies. She disappeared eight weeks ago and was last seen leaving her job as an intern at the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms outpost here in Lexington, Kentucky. Cheryl Dunkirk never made it home.
She was a top-notch scholar with a 3.7 GPA, consistently high test scores, and the respect of almost all of her teachers. If she had a fault, it was that criminal justice major or not, she followed a personal code that sometimes coincided with by-the-book rules, and sometimes did not. The one black mark on her academic record was an incident the first semester of her sophomore year when she admitted to cheating on a take-home test. Cheryl had given exam answers to a borderline student who did not have the patience or the IQ to pull the cheat off, and who took Cheryl's answers verbatim, using and misspelling vocabulary that was out of her normal realm of word usage, when compared to her previous tests.
Cheryl had been unrepentant. The dean had been careful; Cheryl had too much potential to waste, and he was the kind of dean who took an interest in every one of the students. He had delved into the details, finally deciding the situation to be one of Cheryl helping a fellow student who was having a hard time balancing work and studies in a class where the professor did not play fair. This teacher was a member in a club of one who did not like Cheryl Dunkirk; there had been complaints about him before.
Securing the ATF internship for Cheryl had been a coup -- the cheating incident had almost squelched it; ATF had high standards. But the dean backed Cheryl's application, and that, combined with her grade point average and the glowing recommendations of her other instructors, landed her an internship that was highly prized among the students at EKU.
Miranda pushed hair out of her eyes. "Daddy told me to give you this check. I just need you to tell me what to fill in for the amount."
"I think before we start getting into fees we'd better establish exactly what it is that you and your father want me to do."
Miranda wrinkled her nose. "That's kind of a no-brainer, isn't it? We want you to find my sister."
"The police are all over this, you know that."
"Yeah, and still no Cheryl. That's why Daddy wants to hire you."
I leaned back in my chair. This was exactly what I was afraid of, and I saw my fee slipping away. "I have a high opinion of the cops on your sister's case, Miranda. They're doing a good job."
"Yeah, okay, but they have intern tunnel vision. They think Cheryl is some kind of Monica Lewinsky or Chandra Levy. And look what happened there. They got so sidetracked on the intern sex drama they didn't find out what happened to Chandra Levy until too late."
"It was always too late for Chandra Levy."
"Look, I see what you're saying." Miranda leaned forward, arms wrapped around her waist, as if her stomach hurt. "Daddy already talked to me about all of this. He feels guilty, okay? Like he owes her. Let me explain something. You've noticed that Cheryl and I have different last names, right? She's a Dunkirk and I'm a Brady, like my dad.
"Cheryl and I are stepsisters. I mean, we were always close and all that, just like real sisters. It's just that she wasn't as close to Daddy as I am, and I think he feels guilty about that. He shouldn't; I mean it's perfectly natural. My mother died when I was just a baby, and all Daddy had was me. So we've got this bond, you know?"
I nodded, but I still wasn't liking Daddy.
"And he meets Cheryl's mom, who's a nurse, and she's in Pittsburgh for some kind of workshop conference training thing and...it's funny the way they met. My dad had just bought the hotel where she was staying. It wasn't the greatest building in the world, but it was worth what he paid for the location. Of course, to Violetta -- that's Cheryl's mom -- this hotel looks pretty good, considering where she comes from and all of that. Only the service was bad and there was no hot water, and she's down talking to the desk clerk about it, and getting nowhere. So she asks who owns this place, and the guy points at my dad, who is walking through the lobby.
"Violetta goes right up to my father, telling him, in a nice way, all the stuff that's gone wrong on her stay. Daddy always laughs about the things she told him. He always says how she was even charming about her insults. Then she tells him how she had to save for the workshop, and it's a big deal as far as she's concerned, and one thing leads to another, and Daddy winds up taking Violetta to lunch. His excuse is that she can give him suggestions on what he needs to do to renovate the hotel." Miranda laughed, and crossed her feet. "As if Daddy needs help in business. But she's from this small town in Kentucky, and really thinks he wants her opinion. It's romantic, isn't it? Like one of those old movies with Audrey Hepburn or Cary Grant."
I admitted to being a Cary Grant fan.
Miranda tilted her head to one side, staring down at the floor. "Just think how everything would have been so different, if my dad hadn't been walking through that hotel lobby at that exact moment. They probably never would have met. I would have finished growing up in Pittsburgh, instead of Danville."
"I didn't realize your dad ever lived around here."
"Violetta was a Kentucky girl, and she wouldn't live in Pittsburgh. So dad bought a place in Danville, and just commuted back and forth. He can do a lot of his business from an office at the house. He moved back to Pittsburgh after Violetta died."
"How long has Cheryl's mother been dead?"
"Four years. I was sixteen, and Cheryl was eighteen. I lost two mothers before I was twenty, which is pretty sad when you think about it. And both of them died of breast cancer, isn't that weird?"
"And your father moved the two of you back to Pittsburgh?"
"Daddy waited about six months, so Cheryl could finish her senior year at Danville High School. And he didn't want me to have to move in the middle of the year. He was worried about how I'd adjust. He just kept the status quo for a while for both of us, because of Violetta and all. Then when Cheryl graduated, and wanted to go to EKU, Daddy decided to go back to Pittsburgh. Cheryl could have come with us, but she wanted EKU because of the law enforcement thing."
"But you came back to Kentucky?"
"Yeah, it's weird, isn't it? Because I had been dying to get back to Pittsburgh. But a place is never the same after you go away and come back. And Daddy was busy working and getting engaged again, and I was missing my sister, so I came back here to go to college."
"You go to UK?"
"No. I started at Centre in Danville."
"Yeah, but it wasn't a good match for me. My grades were a
little...disappointing. Probably a freshman adjustment thing, Daddy says. My passion -- my absolute passion -- is art history. I already know how I'm going to make my mark. I want to open a gallery in Pittsburgh, not in L.A. or New York, and I'm going to find artists that nobody has any interest in, but that are really good, and I'm only going to sell their stuff. Every piece of art in the gallery will be from one of my personal discoveries. Once that gets started, then new artists will come to me, and the buyers will come to me because I'll be cutting-edge, because they'll know that I have the sensibility to appreciate what is true, you know? Art from the heart, I call it. I think that's what I'm going to name my gallery." The far-off look in Miranda's eyes faded. "But anyway, to answer your question, I'm taking the semester off and then next fall I'm going to enroll at Transy."
"Another good school," I said. Centre College and Transylvania University were private liberal arts schools, both with hefty price tags.
"And Daddy's paying all of Cheryl's tuition, too. He didn't adopt her or anything, but he treats her just like a real daughter. And he was glad, too, that I had someone who could kind of look out for me, going away to school for the first time and all."
"It looks like somebody should have been looking out for Cheryl."
Miranda slumped in the chair. "My dad isn't going to stop until he finds out every detail of what happened to my sister. Daddy was proud of her, he bragged on her all the time. And he isn't going to put up with her disappearance being written off as some dumb coed shacking up with a married loser and getting killed."
"You do realize that it looks like that's exactly what did happen?"
"That's only because no one gets Cheryl. And anyway, I'm her sister. She wasn't having an affair with Cory Edgers. She would have told me for sure."
"You were close?"
"Oh, extremely. I used to introduce her to my friends, and include her in things, because sometimes Cheryl could get a little housebound. She was like, one day confident, and the next day a mess. We were good for each other; we were real sisters."
"Did she ever talk about Edgers?"
"Sure she did. All the time. They were both kind of outsiders, there, in the ATF office. She's a college student, doing an internship. He's a sheriff from London, Kentucky, on loan to some kind of task force. My sister was smart and opinionated and always had a million questions, and Cory Edgers was encouraging her; he showed her the ropes. Believe me, if there was more to it than that I would have known. I told the police all this, but I don't think they believed me."
I could confirm that observation. It was frustrating being relegated to the sidelines, listening to Joel's theories about the case. I had a few ideas of my own, hunches I would have followed up, and it was tedious just to hang on the fringe, while Joel nodded and ignored everything I said. As a matter of fact, I was kind of ticked at the way he had dismissed my opinions, as if I didn't deal with this sort of thing every working day. I took a moment to indulge the thought of getting to the bottom of Cheryl Dunkirk's disappearance, and passing the killer on to Joel.
But that was no excuse for misleading a client.
"My point is, Miranda, I need to make sure you and your father understand that I'm unlikely to come up with anything the police haven't already. They're giving this everything they've got."
"That may be so, but they're not sharing any of it with my dad."
And this, of course, was the clincher; this convinced me I could contribute without misleading Miranda and Paul Ellis Brady. By necessity the police had to shut the family out, but I'd been the family, and it's a frustration I remembered very well. I caught the shrewd look in Miranda's eyes, and I knew that she realized I was hooked.
"Okay then, Miranda. You know what I can't do for you; here's what I can do. If nothing else, I bring a fresh viewpoint, and I'll look at some things differently than the police will. I won't withhold any information. Whatever I find out, I'll tell you, provided that's what you want."
"Why wouldn't I want it?"
"It means I won't censor anything to protect your feelings; it means I'll give it to you straight. But you better think about the possibility that there may be details you don't want to hear."
"I want to hear everything. I want to know. The things I imagine...look, you know how I feel. Chick Ryder told me what happened to your sister. So you know what it's like, right?"
"Yeah, I know."
"You're the closest thing to a peer I've got, did you ever think of that?"
I had thought of that. It was one reason I wanted the job.
"So no holding back no matter what. Agreed?"
"Agreed," I said.
Miranda leaned across the floor to shake my hand. I might waste her father's money, but I'd give him some sort of control and satisfy his conscience, if I accomplished nothing else.
"Now what?" Miranda said.
"The first thing I'm going to tell you is that I'm almost positive Cheryl is dead."
Miranda chewed the nail of her little finger. "But you can't really know that."
"You know the police found her car, right?"
"It was still in the parking lot at her apartment. That's what they told me."
"The police think Cheryl was killed in the car."
Miranda's face lost color, and I stood up.
"I'm okay," she said, but she wasn't.
I went into the kitchen and took a bottle of the Dasani Joel had stashed in the fridge. There were no glasses, so I unscrewed the cap and took her the bottle.
"Can I get you a cup of coffee?"
"I don't like coffee. This is fine, really, I'm okay."
"Why don't we call it quits for today, and I'll give your father a call tonight."
Miranda covered her eyes with her hands. "Don't do that to me, don't call my dad. This is as important to me as it is to him, sometimes I think more important. I'm the one who's here, you know? He's up in Pittsburgh, working and getting fitted for a tux."
"All right, then. I won't shut you out. I expect you to tell me if it gets to be too much."
"Is there any way I can take a look at the car? I want to know what the police see when they look at it. I want to know what it is that makes you so sure Cheryl's dead. I need to know, one way or the other."
I considered. It was pretty far on the rogue side, but I knew how being shut out feels. Sometimes you can't believe things until you can see them, or touch them, to make them real. And the car was the last point of contact, the place where Cheryl Dunkirk died. I could take Miranda right now, if I wanted to. And if she was sure she wanted to go.
She said yes, of course. That's what sisters do.
Copyright © 2003 by Lynn Hightower
Fortunes of the Dead
Private investigator Lena Padget has seen far too many women and children fall through the cracks of the legal system, and she has made it her life's work to redeem as many of them as she can. She and her lover, homicide detective Joel Mendez, have just moved into their dream cottage, signifying the beginning of a committed relationship. But Lena and Joel are soon torn by the need to balance personal trust with professional commitment when they find themselves working different ends of the same case.
For two months running, Joel has immersed himself in an investigation full of dead ends: the disappearance of college intern Cheryl Dunkirk. Cheryl's sister, Miranda, has turned to Lena for help. Just as Lena agrees to look into the case, Joel is teamed with Los Angeles ATF Agent Wilson McCoy, whose investigation of the Branch Davidian cult holocaust in Waco, Texas, cuts right into the heart of Joel's case. It will take all three ofthem -- Lena, Joel, and Wilson McCoy -- to track down the killer. A killer who has been flying under the radar and threatens to slip away again; whose brutality will make you turn away. A killer who will keep you awake at night, contemplating the struggle for death and redemption.