Between octobers bk 1, savor the days series (page 25)

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Last night, as I tried to fall asleep,I thought of our wedding, when I laid eyes on her in the aisle.There was something my mother used to say—that God saves a woman’sbeauty. She said,He never allows it to befully realized until the day a woman marries. I neverthought it was true until that moment. She was radiant, anexceptional flower blooming just for me. I hold that picture in myhead, now, hanging on for dear life.

Lights are burning along the tree-linedstreet. Out front, groups of people have gathered—throngs who don’tknow a thing about her standing shoulder to shoulder—holdingcandles and signs, singing prayers. Stuffed animals and cards,ribbons with balloons are clumped against the outer wall. Theirsong turns to cheers as my car rolls up.

All they want is another piece of mysoul.

“We’ll find her.” Crew Cut says. This isn’tthe first time he’s spoken, but it’s the first time I look at him.He presents a hand. “John Marshall.”

Every light in the house is burning. There’sa bland beige rug covering the floor of the formal living room.It’s plain and ugly. I want it back the way it was.

Lily’s on the sofa, holding herself. Whenshe sees me, she starts bawling. Cue run-and-hug sequence.

I knew she was upset. I talked to her, heardher crying, but couldn’t picture it. Lily has only ever shown metwo temperaments. She’s Party Girl and Betty Bad Ass—joy and anger.She’s in pieces. This is really bad. Grace would hate it.

“It’s alright,” I pet her hair. “We’ll findher.”

“Eigh-teen ho-urs.” She halts with eachsyllable, staccato.

“The kids?”

“Sleep-ing”

“Marcus?”

“Lands-two hours.” She takes a deep breathand lets it out. “Ronnie, tomorrow—today. Later.”

My cell rings. “Yeah?”

“Mr. Matthews, could you come nextdoor?”

I grab Lily’s hand and take her along withme through the kitchen, heading for the back door. It still looksthe same.

“Where’s the pot?” I point at the emptyshelf where the coffee flask should sit but don’t stop. Past thepatio, through the grass and back gate, into the adjacent garden.“Maybe they’ve found something.”

John meets us in the doorway. Dress shirt,tie, still no jacket. I wonder where he’s taken the time to set itnow and if it’s still pristinely folded. He herds us towards thenearly empty three-car garage. My car, well, Marcus’ Range Rover,is still there. The cover’s been removed, now sitting crumpled onthe bonnet. The driver and passenger doors are open. John points tothe opposite side at a shelf hinged to the wall. In front of it, apile of clothes sits on the floor.

“Ma’am, are these yours?”

“They belong to Marcus, like the car. Butthey were in a trunk.”

John looks at two other men, clad in gloves,firing questions while Lily describes a large green and browncamouflage trunk.

“I know it, I gave it to Marcus.” The lockwas broken, so he didn’t take it back to England.

John’s hands go up—one to his earpiece andthe other becomes a barrier between him and his assistants. Acommand to pause.

“Yes. Direction? When? Is that confirmed?”He looks to me. “I’ll talk to him myself. Coordinate with localsupon verification.” His raised hand drops and he starts talking tous, rather than near us. “One of my guys picked up a possible leadnear Kings Canyon. A forest ranger reported a vehicle of matchingdescription heading into the Reserve just before nightfall. Doesshe know anyone up there?”

Lily and I look to each other and giveidentical answers. “No.” “Nobody.”

“Is there any reason you can think up thatmight put her there?”

Utter stupidity. “She’s been put on bedrest. I thought we all agreed? Someone had to take her!”

He nods. “Yes, sir, I know. I’m trying tocover all the bases. When I take this information to lawenforcement, I want them to jump on it. No excuses.”

“Right. Sorry.” I let him ask as manyquestions as he wants, then.

 

Lily has gone withmy driver to the airport to pick up Marcus and Eric. The boysare still asleep, despite the shuffling of bodies through thehouse. The garage, great room, and kitchen are off-limits. Thecarpeted hall’s been covered in plastic.

Nigel’s curled up with Caleb. All three arein Noah’s bed.

The house looks nearly the same, except forthe carpet and the French doors in the master suite that lead outto the covered pool.

Her bed is made up with neat hospitalcorners, fluffy pillows atop a black and white striped downcomforter. Her iPod’s on the nightstand beside a dried rose. I gaveit to her the night of our first date. I take up the music playerand put her earbuds in my ears.

The playlist doesn’t come up, but the lastsong she listened to starts to play. A smoldering tenor croonsdesperate poems of messages in bottles and songs on pages. It’sPaper Tongues, the band she loves and missed that night I slippedand fell for her.

She’s gone. Missing. And it’s my fault. Idon’t know how or why, but I know in time, it will lead back tome.

Lying helpless on the bed, I roll to myside, clinging to the vision of us in my head and the impressionshe left on top of the covers. Gracie, that day in my hotel room.We don’t fight. We talk and she doesn’t believe the lie.Everything’s as it should be. She glows, making herannouncement—pregnant and lovely. I feel the would-be joy wellingin my chest, filling my throat. She would have touched me,uncontrollably, the way she always did. I might have joked,pretending to withdraw only to feel her chase, to sense herdesperation and measure it against my own. The night would havecome and gone before we noticed, too rapt in one another to careabout anything outside our bubble.

Supplications come naturally in times ofdestitution. Even for us morally bereft. I beg God to make her comeback. I barter and bargain, offering up things that aren’t mine. Myheart—He knows it belongs to her. My soul—though I’m sure it waslost long ago. I pledge eternity, offer eternal servitude,anything, everything. My money, my future, my so-calledtalents.

But what use has God for such things? If Icould give them up so quickly, why would He want them?

A soul is useless—pass. Eternity’sjust wasting time if it’s spent alone. I don’t want anything if Ican’t give it to her. I only ever wantedforher—to be a man she could be proud of, tomake her smile.

Her smile . . . it warms the air, lights theroom. I’ll give anything to see her smile again.

Evan—

Trail

SMASH CUT.

The closest the plane can get us is afarming community called Visalia. From there, it’s roughly anhour’s drive to the park. Dispatch has video surveillance of hercar at the southern entrance of the Sequoia and Kings CanyonNational Park via Highway 198. It’s too grainy to identify thedriver, but it doesn’t look like her.

Everyone is on high alert since there was a911 call placed from her home in early-afternoon. I’ve listened tothe recorded call a hundred times. The voices are barely audible,like someone may have accidentally hit the auto-dial. Or she was indistress and couldn’t talk. It seems the authorities were leaningtowards the former. In accordance with standard procedure, a unitwas dispatched to follow-up on what they thought was an accidentalcall. Noah and Caleb were there alone, searching for Grace.

It’s a full-scale search and I’m pulling allresources, calling in favours from everyone I’ve ever met andeveryone they’ve ever worked with. Eric’s got a publicist workingon another press release and they want something from me.

“I don’t care how big the space is. I’llmove heaven and earth for the chance of finding her.” My handbrushes through Caleb’s hair. He fell asleep in my lap on the planeand I haven’t the heart to wake him, though my legs are going numb.I can’t answer his questions. I don’t know where Mummy is.

The trunk. Her car. The garage opener I leftin the Rover’s gone from the visor. It might have gone unnoticed,if not for the imprint left in the leather.

Sheri’s nowhere to be found, either. Notthat I’ve looked very hard.

I keep hearing Grace’s voice in my head, theway she says my name like a prayer.

“What the bloody-hell was Sheri doingtalking with her?” Marcus is confounded.

“I don’t know what makes people do what theydo.” A ten-year character study couldn’t crack that nut. Apparentlyshe’s been a regular visitor these last months, though by myreckoning, she never liked Grace much. Still, Lily said she’ddropped by a few times, in the daytime, when Grace was alone.

Noah’s on the seat beside me, taking inevery bit of information from John, who sits in front of him in thepassenger van. He’s asking questions and answering as many as hecan about how Grace has been spending her time. He’s had thebrilliant idea of remotely activating the GPS in Sheri’s car. IfSheri was with her yesterday at all, they want her input. Maybe shesaw someone in the area that didn’t belong. Once we go through theproper channels to do that, we should have some idea of where sheis within a few minutes.

Grace placed that call. I know it in my gut.Her phone records indicate it was only a few minutes after Marcusspoke with her. Between those two phone calls, something happened.And whatever that something is, it’s the reason we can’t find her.Dread wells in my stomach, churning bile at an alarming rate. Ipress her earbuds further into my ears, straining to listen to therecording of her phone call. Over and over, I try to make out thesounds, but there isn’t much to hear. Muffled, static-filledvoices. One’s definitely Grace, but the other’s too low to pickup.

She wasn’t alone when she called.

My mind goes back to the young girl Gracementioned. The one who camped outside for days on end. She has adeceptively sweet face. I used to see her at fan events. Not justaround LA, either. Then, she started showing up where I wasstaying. No matter how many posters and shirts I signed, or howmuch time I spent talking with her, she wouldn’t leave. The moreshe got, the more she wanted. She used to leave letters for me withthe concierge. She’d threaten to hurt herself if I didn’t comedown. Hotel security made her leave each time they saw her. She didgo away for a bit, but resurfaced outside the house after I’d goneoff to shoot. I’ve thought of her as more weird than dangerous.Still, I wonder if she was hanging around and try to recall thesound of her voice as I rewind and listen.

Fresno and Tulare County Sheriffs, CHP,dozens of park staffers, and rangers with ATVs are gathered in andaround the park’s main office when we arrive. Eric thanks everyonefor me and makes arrangements for a place to lay Caleb. Lily andNoah will see after him.

Everyone’s talking and I’m gutted. Peoplewithout faces are trying to chat and I can’t make out their words.All I see are the poorly placed smiles.

“Here, mate.” Marcus gives a paper cup ofcoffee. “You’re knackered.” He leans in, speaking low. “Get yourhead straight. They might be here for you, but they’re here, sothank the volunteers or Grace’ll string you up.”

“She would, wouldn’t she?”

His shoulders draw up. “She will.”

 

 

Evan—

The Search

Deadman’s Canyon has a body in it. The oldgrave of a sheep herder—that’s how it got the name.

Near dawn, as I’m making my case againstbeing forced to stay behind to answer phones, a call comes over theradio. Two hikers camping inside the eight-mile-wide canyon havefound something.

The room of bleeding hearts collectivelystops. Mine just breaks.

John takes my arm and makes for the helipad,double-time. He points to a seat facing the back, instructs me tobuckle up, and keep quiet. I put on the huge headphones corded to abox on the ceiling.

When the rotors start up, the wind isenormous. Great evergreens sway and shrink as we sail up into thesky.

Helicopters are bloody noisy. You have towear headphones to hear anything; and the others, John, a rangerwhose name I forget, the pilot, and co-pilot are having aconversation I’m not allowed in on. Their lips exchange silentwords while I stare out at the snow-capped peaks not far off andthe groupings of trees below. Someone hands me binoculars.

“We’re nearing Elizabeth Pass,” says thevoice in my headset. “The canyon’s beyond that. When I set herdown, I need you to stay put, Mr. Matthews.”

John nods in agreement.

I can’t consider what I may or may not do.Trying to think about anything beyond this second is like hitting awall. I resume my inspection of the forest floor and meadow. Theappropriately named canyon is probably something to look at inspring, but right now it looks desperate, lonely, anddangerous.

People—three women and two men—come out froma patch of trees, waving their arms. Every bit of vegetation looksas if it’s trying to bolt as we land. The canyon’s huge, surroundedby steep granite walls and traversed by a stream. Patches of treessprinkle the edges of a line that I guess is a hiking trail. As thenoise of the blades dissipates, everyone unbuckles. Everyone exceptJohn and me.

I guess he’s decided to make sure I do whatI’m told. Obedience has nothing to do with it. I’m scaredshitless.

“You should start on the other side. Keep’emeven.” John removes his headset.

“I hadn’t noticed,” I say, taking my fingersfrom my brow.

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