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Authors: Mary Higgins Clark,Alafair Burke

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BOOK: The Cinderella Murder
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Mostly, he was thankful for his new identity. He no longer used drugs. He didn’t hurt people anymore. With the help of Martin Collins and AG, he was on a path to find himself by serving the Lord and the poor. He had even transformed himself physically. Before he ventured into the basement of that tattoo parlor, he had been skinny, with long straggly hair, often unwashed. Now he did a hundred sit-ups and push-ups every single day. He ate healthfully. He kept his hair shaved close to the scalp. He was hard, lean, and clean.

“Do you need something?” Steve offered.

Steve thought of himself as Advocates for God’s own private investigator. He gathered dirt on former church members who tried to sully AG’s reputation, often by slipping in and out of the homes of Keepsafe’s customers unnoticed. When Martin got wind that a federal prosecutor was looking into the church’s finances, it was Steve who had conducted the surveillance to prove the lawyer was cheating on his wife. Steve was never certain how Martin handled the crisis, but once he gave Martin photographic proof of the affair, the murmurs of an investigation disappeared.

His work for AG wasn’t always strictly legal, but Martin—and Steve—saw it as a necessary evil to keep tabs on people who tried to suppress the church and its good works.

“Yes. I need you to keep an eye on someone. And to send a message when the time is right.”

There was something about the way that Martin said “send a
message” that made Steve’s skin prickle. Steve closed his eyes and thought to himself, Please, no, not that.

He accepted this life, in a noise-filled studio overlooking a traffic-filled street, in a city where he knew no one, because he was a better person here than he had ever been when he made his own choices. It had been years since he’d inflicted physical pain upon another living being. What if he tried it again and liked it too much? But then he reminded himself not to question the supreme Advocate for God.

“Whatever you need.”

14

A
ccording to Nicole Melling’s GPS, the drive to Palo Alto was supposed to take less than an hour once she hit the Golden Gate Bridge. Clearly her car’s computer system hadn’t taken traffic into account. She was stuck in yet another stretch of gridlock, this time through Daly City.

She looked up at the endless rows of nondescript houses packed on the hillside above I-280. What was that song someone—Pete Seeger, perhaps?—had written about this suburb? Little boxes, on the hillside, all the same, all made of “ticky tacky.”

Nicole had a sudden memory of herself at barely seventeen years old. Thanks to her skipping fifth grade, she had been a full year younger than the other seniors ready to graduate, but still years beyond them academically. She had gotten into every school she applied to: Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, all of them. But her parents had been trapped in an income bubble—too rich for financial aid, too poor for private tuition. The plan had been for Nicole to attend UC Berkeley, but then the letter came in the mail: on-campus housing was full. She would need to find an apartment.

She remembered pleading with her father, the letter from Berkeley unfolded in front of him like a pink slip on the kitchen table. “I can do it, Dad. I’ll spend all my time in classes and the library anyway, so it’s only a matter of walking to and from campus once a day.
Just a few blocks. They even have safety monitors to walk you home after dark.”

He had avoided eye contact with her as he endlessly twirled spaghetti around his fork. “You’re too young, Nicky. You’re just a girl. And it’s
Berkeley.
” He said it like it was a war-torn country on the opposite side of the world, instead of a six-hour drive from their home in Irvine.

“Mom, please. Tell him. I’ve never gotten into any trouble. Ask any teachers at school. I do everything I’m supposed to do, all the time. I follow every rule. I can be trusted.”

Her mother was banging dishes around in the sink, but even in profile, Nicole could see her pursed lips. “We know all that, Nicky. But we won’t be there. Your teachers won’t be there. No one will be there to set the rules for you.”

It was only when Nicole started to cry that her mother finally turned off the running water, joined them at the table, and grasped both of Nicole’s hands in hers. “We know you, Nicole. I know you better than I even know myself, because you’re my baby. We can’t let you get
lost
.”

Nicole remembered looking to her father for some explanation, but he just nodded once at the certitude of her mother’s statement and continued to twirl his pasta.

Nicole had no idea what her parents meant at the time, but it would soon become apparent that her parents had indeed known their only daughter. Just like her family’s income bubble, young Nicole had been in a bubble of her own—her intelligence robust, but her personality still . . . inchoate. They had feared that she would be lost in the crowd. Unfortunately, her fate was worse.

The sound of a car horn brought her back to the present. Noticing the short stretch of open road in front of her, she gave a friendly wave to the honking driver behind her and pulled forward.

According to the GPS, she had twenty-nine more miles to go. Nicole
hadn’t seen Dwight Cook since college, but she had read about him in the newspaper. Everyone in America had.

•  •  •

A full hour later, Nicole pulled into the crowded parking lot of an office park. The sleek glass buildings were surrounded by grass so green it looked spray painted. Above the entrance of the main building, giant purple letters spelled out the company name:
REACH
.

The young woman behind the high-gloss white desk in the lobby had piercings on the left side of her nose and through her right eyebrow. Nicole resisted the temptation to ask if her face felt crooked.

“Nicole Hunter, here to see Mr. Cook. I have an appointment.” For the first time in nearly eighteen years, she had used her maiden name when she had called. Even then, she hadn’t been certain that Dwight would remember her.

Nicole knew other people who still kept up with their college friends. Her neighbor Jenny had gone to school in New York but organized Bay Area mini-reunions once a year. And she knew from other friends that their Facebook pages were filled with shared photographs and remember-whens.

Of course, Nicole couldn’t even have a Facebook page. It would undermine the very purpose of having a clean slate with a new last name in a new city.

But even without her special circumstances, Nicole wouldn’t have stayed in touch with her college crowd. She never really had friends at UCLA, other than Susan. How lucky she had been to get paired with someone like her—someone who looked after her. She had won the roommate lottery.

It had been just the two of them freshman year. Then sophomore year, Susan had brought in Madison—a fellow actress from the theater department—because they could get a better suite if they took a triple.

It was also through Susan that Nicole had first met Dwight Cook,
who would go on to launch REACH the summer after his sophomore year in college.

“Nicole!”

She looked up at the sound of her name. The lobby was designed as an atrium, open from the floor to the glass ceiling three floors up. Dwight was looking down at her from the top of a circular staircase.

Once he had descended to the ground floor, he smiled awkwardly. “You look the same.”

“As do you,” she said, even though it stretched the truth. His face was different—paler, fuller. His hairline was beginning to recede.

But his attire seemed like a retread of her memories: high-waisted blue jeans and an ill-fitting Atari T-shirt that had already been retro when they were college freshmen. Even more startlingly familiar were his mannerisms. The jittery gaze and excessive blinking had been noticeable in an awkward teenager but were even more so in a grown man who was probably close to being a billionaire.

He led the way past the pierced receptionist, down a long hallway of offices. Most of the workers appeared to be in their twenties, many of them perched on top of giant fitness balls instead of traditional office chairs. At the end of the hall, he opened a door, and they walked into a courtyard behind the building. Four people were shooting hoops on a nearby court.

He didn’t wait for her to sit before taking a spot on a cushioned chaise. She did the same, knowing he hadn’t meant to be rude.

“You said you wanted to talk about Susan.”

Again, she wasn’t offended by the lack of small talk. He might have been considered a king of Silicon Valley, but she could already tell he was still the same uncomfortable kid who had worked in the campus computer-science lab with Susan.

He sat affectless as Nicole told him about the show,
Under Suspicion
, and the possibility that they would be featuring Susan’s case. “Did you get a letter from the producer?” she asked.

He shook his head. “Once Susan’s murder became a story about Hollywood, no one seemed to care that she was also a brilliant programmer. I doubt the producer even realizes we knew each other.”

Back in college, it had taken Nicole a few outings as a trio—her, Susan, Dwight—to realize that Susan had been hoping to play Cupid between her lab partner and freshman dorm-mate. On one level, the pairing made sense: both Dwight and Nicole were off the charts in raw intelligence. And now that Nicole saw it for what it was, they were both—let’s face it—peculiar. They were both projects for Susan, who tried her best to coax them from their shells. Dwight found comfort in computers. Nicole eventually found it in—well, she didn’t like to think about that part of her past.

But after only two dates, Nicole had realized the fundamental difference between Dwight and her. Her oddness was short-lived. She had been young, sheltered, and so busy succeeding that she’d never learned how to exercise independent thought. She just had to find her way. Dwight’s “issues” ran deeper. Nowadays, they’d probably say he was somewhere “on the spectrum.”

At the time, Nicole thought that made her the better catch. But she hadn’t learned the hard way—not yet—how dangerous a young, brilliant woman’s desire to find her own way could be.

“Well, that’s why I came here, Dwight. I’d like to tell the show about your friendship with Susan. How she had another side to her.”

Dwight was looking in the direction of her face, as he had probably learned people expected him to do during a conversation, but he wasn’t really connecting to her. “Of course. Susan was always so kind to me. She looked after me. I was lucky we happened to work for the same professor, or I never would have met her.”

In other words, he felt the way she did about winning the roommate lottery.

“So I can tell Laurie Moran you’ll help with the show? Appear on camera?”

He nodded again. “Anything to help. Anything for Susan. Should I ask Hathaway, too?”

“Hathaway?”

“Richard Hathaway. Our professor. That’s how Susan and I met.”

“Oh, I hadn’t thought of him. Is he still at UCLA? Have you kept in touch?”

“He’s retired from the university, but we’re definitely in touch. He works right here at REACH.”

“How funny to have your former professor in your employ.”

“More like a partner, really. He’s helped me from day one. I’m sure he’d be willing to help with the show, too.”

Nicole wondered whether Dwight found comfort in keeping his college mentor close, someone who knew him before he was a twenty-year-old millionaire on the cover of
Wired
magazine. “Sure,” she said. “That would be great.”

She almost felt guilty for pulling Dwight Cook into this. He was the head of REACH, a tech company that had become a household name in the 1990s by changing the way people searched for information on the Internet. She had no idea what they worked on now, but from the looks of these grounds, Dwight was still a major player in the tech world.

But that was exactly why Nicole had come to Palo Alto. Frank Parker had become a famous director, but Dwight was a kind of celebrity in his own right. The more high-profile people who were involved in the production, the less screen time the show would devote to the roommate who dropped out after her sophomore year, changed her name, and never went back to Los Angeles again.

•  •  •

Once Nicole was in her car, she pulled Laurie Moran’s letter from her purse and dialed her office number on her cell phone.

“Ms. Moran, it’s Nicole Melling. You contacted me about my college roommate, Susan Dempsey?”

“Yes.” Nicole heard the rustling of a plastic bag in the background and wondered if she had caught the producer midlunch. “Please, call me Laurie. I’m so happy to hear from you. Are you familiar with
Under Suspicion
?”

“I am,” Nicole confirmed.

“As you probably know, the name of our show indicates that we go back and talk to the people who have remained literally under suspicion in cold cases. Obviously you don’t fit that bill, but you and Susan’s mother will remind viewers that Susan was a real person. She wasn’t just the pretty girl with an aspiring actress’s headshot. She wasn’t Cinderella.”

BOOK: The Cinderella Murder
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