Authors: Ava Parker
Table of Contents
Copyright © 2015 by Ava Parker
All rights reserved.
First Edition: December 2015
Cover design by
Michele Catalano Creative
Cover photographs: Paul Brady Photo/Shutterstock.com & Creativa Images/
No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to locales, events, business establishments, or actual persons—living or dead—is entirely coincidental.
To all of my parents, for your unfailing love and support.
To my friends and colleagues at MFW, for all of your knowledge, reassurance and irreverence.
To my urban family, you’re simply the best.
To Mara White, for your kindness and encouragement.
To my editor, Leanne Rabesa, for your unforgiving mark-ups, superhuman memory, and humorous commentary.
To Michele Catalano, for turning my words into pictures.
he Seattle cab driver stopped at a red light and adjusted the rearview mirror to get a better look at the tall redhead in the back seat. She was definitely the hottest fare he’d gotten all night. Maybe all week. Fair skin, bright eyes and an overdose of cleavage in the V-neck of her low-cut sweater.
She was looking out the window; something across the street had caught her eye. He glanced over in time to see a woman in a stylish leather coat get into a sleek silver sports car and figured it was the BMW that had caught his fare’s attention. She should be riding in a car like that, not taking ratty taxis around town. He caught a quick glimpse of the driver to size up the competition, then glanced again in the rearview mirror.
Now the lady was looking straight back at him. Caught.
He took off and two minutes later dropped her at a posh restaurant overlooking Elliott Bay and the Sound beyond. Before he drove away, the driver took one last look at the curvy redhead as she strutted into the restaurant. It was a sight to remember.
lara Gardner had always been a daddy’s girl: more interested in Legos and the elastic properties of hardwood than soufflés and pretty dresses. Those were Maddy’s and Mom’s departments. But that didn’t make it any easier for their dad, or any harder for their mom, when Maddy disappeared without a trace.
She arrived in Seattle feeling anxious and alert. The unusually warm, sunny day and the gentle breezes off of Puget Sound did little to ease her mind, even though the weather was much more comfortable than the below-freezing temperatures and snowstorms that were plaguing Boston at this time of the year. Her muscles were tight and her breaths were shallow and tense. Normally, a visit to Washington State in February to see her sister was a thing she looked forward to, but the reason for this visit had her stomach in knots.
Last night, when she’d booked the Alaska Air flight from Logan Airport to SeaTac, packed her clothes and toiletries, and called her clients to tell them their furniture restorations were on hold while she dealt with a family emergency, Clara had at least felt like she was doing something useful. But every minute since then had been excruciating. She hadn’t slept last night; she hadn’t slept on the plane. She couldn’t concentrate on the movie, music just reminded her of Maddy, and even SkyMall’s newest inventions for pets didn’t distract her. There was only one thing left to do. She played Tetris for the duration of the six-and-a-half-hour flight.
The previous evening Clara’s parents had called to tell her that her sister was missing and every moment since then had been a fight to keep from panicking. Only two days since his hip replacement surgery, her father certainly couldn’t travel and her mother had to care for him, leaving them feeling helpless. Frustrated and afraid, confined to their home in Newton, a well-to-do suburb west of Boston, they had called on Clara to fly to Seattle and find out what had happened to Maddy.
Wednesday evening, still at her workshop in Somerville, just on the other side of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Clara had been examining a nineteenth-century armoire that had arrived earlier that day when the phone began ringing. Some of the inlays in the doors were chipped and Clara would have to match the wood and hand-carve the pieces before she could begin refinishing the enormous wardrobe. She had been so absorbed that she almost missed the call entirely. Answering a little breathlessly, she had barely said hello when her dad began talking. Disbelief was quickly replaced by fear when her mother, apparently on the extension, told her that Maddy had not shown up for work in two days. As a devoted chef and restaurant owner, Maddy never missed a day of work. After promising to book a flight right away, Clara had thrown a heavy drop cloth over the armoire, locked the shop and made the short drive to her apartment in Boston’s North End to pack a bag and book a flight. She left on the first plane out the next morning.
After checking in at Seattle’s downtown Hilton and doing her best to remain polite while the concierge asked her what her plans were in Seattle and made a few restaurant and sight-seeing recommendations, she retreated to her room with a tourist map and her small suitcase. For a few seconds after the door closed behind her, Clara stood stock still, feeling utterly lost. Where had her sister gone? And how the hell was she going to find her?
Dropping into a chair by the window, she surveyed downtown Seattle from the twentieth floor. Madeline had to be out there somewhere. She pulled her phone from her coat pocket and tried her sister’s cell phone again but the familiar message came through the line after a few rings: the voicemail box she had called was full, please try again later.
Next, Clara called Maddy’s best friend Michelle. They owned a small restaurant together below First Street near Pike’s Place Market, and it was Michelle who had first called Maddy’s family back in Massachusetts to tell them she was missing.
“Clara?” came the tense voice over the phone.
“Michelle. I just got to my hotel. Have you heard anything?”
“Nothing. I filed a missing persons report over the phone after I talked to your parents yesterday evening, but it all seemed perfunctory, even after I told them that Clara is my partner at Dovetail and she hasn’t shown up in two days. The restaurant industry is a big deal in Seattle – no one works that hard to make a place successful and then ditches it for a few days of fun. Anyway, I don’t know how much they’re doing right now. But at least it’s all official.”
“Thanks, Michelle. I’ll go into the station today. Are you at the restaurant now?”
“Always. Look, Maddy would never leave me in the lurch. Something is seriously wrong.”
“That’s why I’m here, Michelle. I’ll head down to the restaurant now and you can tell me everything.” Without even taking her trench coat off, Clara put the tourist map into her purse and left the hotel room. When she was back on the street, moving fast and dodging meandering pedestrians, she allowed herself a few deep breaths of the mild air and tried to relax her clenched stomach muscles.
The terror that Clara felt now was foreign to her. She had come this far in life with a belief that of all the things that could go wrong in the world, the universe did not mean her or her loved ones harm. Malicious intent and meaningless tragedy had left the Gardner family thus far untouched, and though Clara and her sister did not walk through life with a senseless disregard for danger, they had never let fear keep them from adventure and exploration. They were courageous, but not careless, mindful of the risks they took but not afraid to take them. And so, with bravery and self-possession, confidence, and reasonable consideration for their own well-being, each of the Gardner sisters had traveled and studied, had loved and lost love, had tried and tasted, and had found their own paths in this world which their parents conceded may never include a white picket fence or a rose garden, but would most certainly be fulfilling.
The surreal horror of Maddy’s disappearance made Clara feel weak with fear for perhaps the first time in her life. But now, as always, she wouldn’t let it stop her. She was going to find Maddy.
Maybe it was the briny air, maybe it was the exercise, but the rising panic she’d been feeling ever since her parents’ phone call the day before ebbed and thoughts of happy times with Maddy filled her mind. Sneaking into the kitchen after bedtime to get into the Oreos, building forts out of sofa cushions, huddling under the covers together after their first horror movie, teenaged fights about clothes and curling irons, their adventures backpacking in Europe together. Maddy’s proud delight when Clara graduated from Harvard with a dual degree in Architecture and Art History. Her unfailing encouragement when Clara declared she was going to open her own furniture restoration business.
Maddy had always been a star to her little sister, with fresh-faced beauty, a quick mind and enough bravery and ambition to make her dreams come true. Whatever they turned out to be. After two years of liberal arts education at UMass Amherst in western Massachusetts, she had abruptly announced that she was taking time off to see the world. Clara, having just told her parents that
was putting college off for a year, thought they would lose it, but after a few heated discussions over the summer, the family of four fell back into harmony. For the next three months Maddy and Clara had lived at home, each working three jobs and saving every penny until they had enough for a flight to Paris and a few months of rough travel. Shortly after Thanksgiving, Clara returned to North America for more backpacking and road-tripping before starting college the following fall. But a few months became a few years for Maddy when she got a day job teaching English in Northern Italy, and a night job in an Italian restaurant. When she finally came home to the United States it was with a new purpose. She wanted to own a restaurant. After graduating from a two-year management program, she moved to Seattle and worked her way through culinary school, then from line cook to sous chef, and finally she and Michelle opened Dovetail.
“Our crazy girls,” their mom would say, “think the world is their oyster.”
Their dad would say, “And it is.”
When she entered Dovetail a few minutes later the happy memories stopped abruptly. She was greeted by a statuesque redhead, who nearly did a double-take before asking Clara if she wanted a table for lunch.
“I’m here to see Michelle. She’s expecting me.”
“Of course! You must be Madeline’s sister. I’m Susan Burns, floor manager,” she explained.
Maddy was two years older than Clara and had darker hair, but they looked remarkably similar. Like Maddy, Clara had clear blue eyes, high cheekbones and full lips that opened into a broad toothy smile when she was happy. They were both tall and slender, though Maddy was curvy and Clara was as thin as a ballerina.
Maddy had just turned thirty-six. She was single, insanely ambitious, and she would never ever abandon her beloved restaurant, or leave her partner to try to run it alone.
The hostess brought Clara to a quiet table by the window. There were still a few patrons in the restaurant, but the lunch rush had ended and soon the servers would be setting up for dinner. Clara asked Susan for a cup of coffee with milk and a minute later, Michelle sat down across from her with two cups of coffee and a pitcher of cream. “I ordered us lunch,” she said, and when Clara started to shake her head, she went on, “You look exhausted. You need some food or you’ll fall apart and that won’t do you or Maddy any good.”
Clara knew Michelle from her first trip to visit her sister in Seattle five years earlier. The two women had been at culinary school together and became fast friends. Why Maddy had chosen Washington State for school after her years of cooking and studying hospitality management in Europe and New England had been a mystery. The Pacific Northwest seemed like a random choice, especially for an East Coast girl, but when Clara saw the city, the water, the mountains, as soon as she spent a day walking among the eclectic residents and shopping in the markets, she realized that Seattle suited her sister to a T.
Doctoring her coffee with heavy doses of cream and sugar, Clara asked, “When did you last hear from her?”
“Monday afternoon. We’re closed on Mondays and I knew Maddy had dinner plans that night, so I sent her a text to wish her good luck and she texted back to say she didn’t need luck because it wasn’t a date and she’d see me on Tuesday. I haven’t seen or heard from her since.”
Clara’s fist tightened around her coffee mug. It was now Thursday afternoon.
“Maddy never came in on Tuesday. She usually arrives shortly after we close for lunch to prep for dinner and when she didn’t show I tried calling a million times and just got her voice mail. Finally, I went to her apartment and rang the bell a few times. When she didn’t answer I just let myself in. Honestly, Clara, by then I was afraid I’d find her unconscious in the shower or deliriously sick, but she just wasn’t there and that was even worse. Nothing was out of place, her cat needed food and water, but the bed was made, the curtains were open, the dishes were done. She just wasn’t there.”
Clara gave her sister’s distraught friend what she hoped was a comforting squeeze on the arm. “Nothing looked out of place?”
“No!” There were tears in her eyes now and she started talking fast. “I called her again, walked around the apartment, petted the cat. Her purse wasn’t there. Her keys and phone weren’t there. The door was locked when I came in. She must have left and just not come back, but where the hell is she? Maddy would never do this. She would never just shrug off work and scare everyone half to death with worry.”
Clara didn’t need any convincing. Her sister loved her work, loved her friends and family and was unfailingly responsible and considerate. “I know, Michelle. It doesn’t make sense.”
“Like I said,” Michelle went on like she was afraid that Clara was going to get up and walk away before she finished, “the cop I talked to was nice, but he’s not out sweeping the streets and chasing leads. He asked for all of her particulars. Age, height, hair color, address. Tattoos. I told him about her dinner plans Monday night and he asked if she might have just run off for a fling.”
A waitress brought two plates of sweet potato ravioli and a basket of bread and butter. Michelle thanked her and waved the pepper mill away without waiting to see if Clara wanted some. “And that was it. He said he would file the report and her description would go out on the wire, whatever that means.” She took a deep breath, blew it out and fell silent, staring across the table at Clara as if to say,
“I’ll head over to the police station next,” said Clara. “Do you have any idea who Maddy had dinner with on Monday?”
“No idea. Maddy does try to get out when she can, but she said it wasn’t a date, so I didn’t give it another thought until she didn’t show up on Tuesday.” She took a big bite of her pasta.
They both finished their lunch and talked some more. Before she left, Michelle gave Clara the keys to Madeline’s apartment and invited her back to Dovetail for dinner. “Eddie will be here to help out if we need him, but I’ll give him a break to keep you company. I know he’ll want to see you.”
Eddie and Michelle had been married for nearly three years and Clara had attended the wedding as her sister’s date. “I’d love to see him too, but I’ll have to see how my search goes. Either way, I’ll be in touch later this evening.” Michelle gave her a long hug and she headed out the door.
Back on First Street, Clara decided to detour to her sister’s apartment before talking to the police. Maybe she would find something helpful there.
She started walking and pulled out her phone to call her parents. When her father answered she told him she’d been to the restaurant and was on her way to Maddy’s place. Her heart broke a little when she told him there was still no sign of her. He sounded completely forlorn when he told Clara he would pass the news along to her mother.
Ten minutes later she was standing in Maddy’s one-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath condo. It was an airy space on the sixth floor of a newer building with a tiny balcony and a partial view of Puget Sound. A small kitchen with an island and a few wooden stools opened onto a living space with a small table and four chairs, a sofa that pulled out into a bed, a couple of armchairs, a bookshelf full of cookbooks and romance novels, a twenty-four-inch TV and a fluffy black cat named Bea.
“Meow,” said Clara.
“Meow,” said Bea and sauntered over looking for attention.
“Poor kitty,” said Clara, kneeling down to pet the cat. “Where’s your mom, Bea? Where did she go?” She went to the kitchen to check her food and water bowls, refilled them both, checked the bedroom on the off chance she would find her sister there, sleeping peacefully – no such luck – and returned to the living room to take off her coat and start snooping. There was a short stack of junk mail and restaurant catalogues on the table. Nothing informative though. Michelle was right. Everything looked very normal. No broken furniture, torn clothing, or spilled wine. The TV was turned off; the throw pillows were in place. She went back to the bedroom. Bed was made; clothes were in the closet or folded in the dresser. Nothing amiss there either.