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Authors: Lorena McCourtney

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BOOK: Invisible
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I was not about to explain the reason behind my daytime sleeping. Magnolia would give the yelp-heard-round-the-world if she knew about those nighttime activities.

Okay, Mac had a couple of good points going for him, I conceded. One, he wasn’t into genealogy. Two, if he was on the move in his motor home, he wouldn’t be here long.

“Okay, barbecue on Saturday night. I’ll be there.”

“Wear something western. And be sure to bring that peach cobbler.” Magnolia winked a blue-shadowed lid. “Who knows, maybe it’ll be love at first sight and you’ll
want
to elope with him the next day.”

9

After Magnolia went home, I dug unread newspapers for the last several days out of the recycle stack on the back porch. I found the piece about the vandalism at Country Peace on an inside page in one of the papers. A photo showed two overturned tombstones. The caption said that eight of the thirty-six stones in the cemetery had been similarly desecrated. A bottom paragraph added that efforts to reach an officer in the Country Peace Association, which was the owner of record, had so far been unsuccessful. Responsibility for restoration and maintenance at the cemetery was at this point undetermined. A representative of a local mortuary was quoted as saying that Country Peace had been closed to new gravesites for many years, although at the moment he did not have information why.

“But it’s a beautiful setting and certainly undeserving of this disrespectful treatment,” the mortuary representative had added. “Perhaps a restoration fund could be set up.”

The developer of one of the subdivisions between the cemetery and town was quoted as expressing concern that the vandalism might spread to the heavy construction equipment he had on the property and might even carry over to when houses were built and children were living in the area.

The tone of the article expressed indignation at the vandalism, but I didn’t see anything to suggest increased patrols by the sheriff’s department. I’d earlier thought about skipping tonight’s stakeout but decided against it. In my bones I didn’t feel the vandals were done yet. Maybe I could still nail them.

The people making drug-dealing a family enterprise were on Monday’s front page. Inside was a piece Magnolia hadn’t mentioned, about a dozen elderly people being scammed with a phony bank scheme. The discovery of the body of the young woman that she had mentioned got several paragraphs on page 3 of yesterday’s paper.

The body had been found by children playing along the river and was as yet unidentified. There was a gunshot wound in the woman’s chest, but further details were not available.

I shivered in spite of the muggy afternoon heat. Magnolia was right. Terrible things were happening.

There was more about the woman’s body in that evening’s newspaper. Now information was expanded to a specific description: approximately 22 to 28 years old, 5 feet 7 inches tall, 118 pounds, brown hair and blue eyes. The body was clad in a flowered red and black blouse or dress. It had probably been in the water for several days. The authorities were seeking help from the public in identifying her.

I folded the newspaper. A small frisson of uneasiness prickled my skin. Could the body possibly—

No. Unthinkable. Not even if Kendra did generically match the description and owned a black dress with exotic red flowers. Not even if I hadn’t seen her for several days.

I went over after supper to pick up Thea’s mail in the box by her front door. I carried the advertisement from AARP and a bill from a cardiologist around to the back, because that was the door to which I had a key. Kendra’s car was not in the carport. Had it not been there for several days, as Magnolia had said?

Inside, the house already smelled musty and unused. I added the mail to the pile on the dining room table awaiting Molly’s arrival. On the way out, I eyed the ring of keys hanging by the back door. A key to the apartment was undoubtedly among them.

I tapped the doorknob, undecided. I had no solid reason to believe anything was amiss, and Kendra, private person that she was, would surely be appalled if I snooped.

I went outside and peered at the basement windows. The dead-fish curtains were closed, and I couldn’t see into the apartment.

Perhaps just a quick peek wouldn’t hurt.

The third key on the ring unlocked the door. I peered inside, then pushed the door open wider.

I stared in astonishment. No pictures on the walls, no knickknacks, no pillows on the sofa, no magazines on the coffee table. I flicked the light switch, and a fluorescent fixture in the kitchen buzzed on. I opened a cupboard door above the bare counter. No food. No dishes. I opened the drawer below the oven of the kitchen range. No pots and pans. Empty refrigerator. I crossed over to the one tiny bedroom. No linens on the bed. No clothes in the closet.

So Kendra really had moved out without even bothering to say good-bye. Disappointment twanged me, even a twinge of betrayal. Not what I expected of Kendra. The phone was sitting on the nightstand by the bed. I picked up the receiver and heard a dial tone.

Kendra must have forgotten to have it disconnected. Perhaps because she’d left in such a big hurry. The apartment wasn’t dirty, but neither was it spic and span. Crumpled tissues and bits of debris on the carpet, plastic clothes hangers scattered on the closet floor, overturned container of Comet in the bathroom. The empty medicine cabinet was open, as were the drawer of the nightstand and the bottom drawer of the mirrored vanity.

Now I also realized that all the furniture was fractionally askew. Not noticeably out of place, but not quite in place. The coffee table was off-center of the sofa. The nightstand stood at an awkward distance from the bed, and the vanity was angled against the wall. As if everything had been moved and then hastily shoved back into place.

My sense of order made me push the nightstand into proper position next to the bed and straighten the vanity against the wall. The movement revealed a snapshot lying on the floor, one corner bent, as if it had perhaps been tucked into the frame of the mirror and had fallen. A young man, tall, husky, clean-cut looking. Very blond. He was standing in a driveway beside a sporty bright red convertible, in jeans but shirtless and barefoot, as if he had just washed the car. I turned the photo over, but there was no identification on the back.

This was not the tall, lanky guy who’d bumped into Thea and me that night. That guy had been older, not nearly such an impressive hunk. Could this man in the photo be the central figure in Thea’s speculation about a tragic romance in Kendra’s past, the reason why Kendra had left California?

In any case, Kendra had now moved on, apparently in a hurry, considering the less-than-pristine state of the apartment.

Well, that was Molly’s concern, not mine. I had a date with a stakeout.

* * *

The vandals, however, did not have a date with me. No activity in the cemetery. No illegal trash dumpers on the bridge.

Yet on this warm, moonless night, sleepiness was not a problem, even though I’d gotten only minimal sleep that day and had forgotten to bring snacks. Tonight nagging thoughts even more than mosquitoes kept me awake.

The thought that it simply was not like Kendra to leave without a word. Kendra had always been so thoughtful and kind, and this bordered on rude and inconsiderate.

I also thought about that eye-catching, black-and-red flowered dress in which I’d last seen her, the backless one with the plunging neckline and seductive slit up the side. The newspaper article hadn’t said anything about a slit and had even indicated the item of clothing could be a blouse. But if the body had been sloshing in the river for several days . . .

No, it couldn’t be Kendra. Kendra wasn’t missing. She’d simply loaded everything she owned into her car and moved away.

Although there was a detail I decided it wouldn’t hurt to check out.

I got home from the cemetery at 4:00 a.m. and set the alarm for 10:00. When it woke me, I looked up a phone number and dialed even before getting dressed.

“Bottom-Buck Barney’s. Your credit is always good with Barney,” a female voice piped in cheerful singsong.

“May I speak to Kendra Alexander, please?”

“Kendra doesn’t work here anymore. This is Tiffany. May I help you?” Eagerness bubbled in the young voice. “Or would you like to talk to one of our salesmen?”

“What happened to Kendra?”

“She quit.”

“Did she submit a letter of resignation?”

“A letter?” The girl sounded taken aback by mention of such a formality. “No, I don’t think so. Usually people just tell Mr. Retzloff when they’re quitting. Or don’t show up.”

“Mr. Retzloff is the manager?”

“Yeah.”

“I understood Kendra was his assistant. Was he upset or angry that Kendra didn’t give more notice?”

“Well, she could have given longer notice. I wouldn’t know about that.”

“I see. So you have Kendra’s job now?”

“Oh no. Like you said, Kendra was Mr. Retzloff’s assistant. Loans and titles and contracts and complicated computer stuff. I just do the, you know, receptionist stuff.”

A couple of things to be said for forthright Tiffany. She didn’t seem to mind being bombarded with questions, and she wasn’t burdened with an oversized ego.

“So it’s a real inconvenience there in the office with Kendra leaving so suddenly?”

“They’re going to have to hire someone right away to do all the stuff she did, that’s for sure.”

Which told me that Kendra
had
left suddenly, without any standard length of notice, or they would have had someone competent lined up to replace her. “Is there any chance Kendra didn’t actually quit, that she just hasn’t been showing up for work?”

The girl giggled. “Well, that is quitting, isn’t it?”

“Was Kendra a friend of yours?”

“Kind of. I mean, we didn’t hang out together outside of work or anything, but she was always friendly. And she was really nice about helping when I couldn’t figure something out. I’ve only been here a month.”

“When did you see her last?”

“Umm, Saturday, I guess it was. Sometimes we have to work Sundays, but I didn’t have to last Sunday. So I don’t know if she worked then or not.”

“Did she mention anything to you on Saturday, or any time before that, about another job or moving away or anything?”

“Not to me.” Tiffany paused. “You know, I think maybe she did just stop coming to work without saying anything ahead of time. Because I remember Monday morning Mr. Retzloff asked where she was because he needed her to, you know, do stuff. But later he said she’d quit. I guess she must have called in or something.”

“Okay. Thanks, Tiffany.”

“Have a good day. And remember, Bottom-Buck Barney’s wants your business!”

* * *

Okay, that was it. The fact that Kendra had abruptly quit her job in addition to removing everything from the apartment certainly said she’d simply moved on. Maybe she’d speeded things up so she wouldn’t have to pay another month’s rent.

Although there was the peculiarity of the security deposit. Even though she’d left the apartment a bit messy, I hadn’t seen anything broken or damaged, so she could surely have expected to get most of the deposit back. Some of her clothes had looked rather expensive, but I doubted Kendra’s finances were so bountiful that she could afford to ignore the deposit. I also guessed her “friend” had paid for some of those expensive things. So why hadn’t she left an address so Molly could send her a refund on the security deposit?

* * *

No activity at the cemetery that night, except for the whine and chomp of mosquitoes. A broken bag of garbage lay on the bridge. Another night dumper or the same one with a fresh load?

The unidentified girl’s body was still in the news that evening. Police were puzzled that no one matching her description had been reported missing. Speculation now was that she could be from outside the local area, and her killer may have dumped her body while passing through.

I debated calling the authorities. Kendra did match the description. What stopped me from marching to the phone was that all available facts indicated that Kendra had picked up and left of her own free will. Just like any other woman quitting a job and moving on. So all I had to go on was speculation and this uneasy feeling that the situation was not necessarily as it appeared on the surface. Rather like one of Magnolia’s “vibes.”

Okay, I’m going to call,
I decided abruptly as I was eating lunch on Friday. Even if I came off looking like a meddlesome old lady who’d watched too many cop dramas and soap operas, I couldn’t ignore these nagging worries.

A man who identified himself as Matt Dixon, detective with the city’s major crimes unit, showed up that afternoon. He wasn’t in police uniform, but his car in the driveway bore a police logo, and even in a plain tan suit he exuded an air of law-and-order authority, which was emphasized by the glimpse of a gun in a shoulder holster under the linen jacket. He also filled the doorway like a wrestler, young and blond, husky and handsome. He flipped out a badge and identification card.

“You called in to report that you believe a young woman in this area is missing?” His manner was courteous and respectful.

BOOK: Invisible
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