Dear Maggie Brenda Novak What Maggie does… Maggie Russell, a police reporter in Sacramento, works the night shift. She's divorced and the mother of a very active three-year-old son. Maggie may not have much time for a social life, but she's recently begun an e-mail correspondence with a man named John.What Maggie knows… She's finally stumbled on the big crime story that will truly establish her career–if it doesn't end her life. A serial killer who moves from one city to the next. A murderer who chooses a female reporter and writes her letters…before he kills her. As if things aren't complicated enough, Nick Sorenson, the paper's new photographer, seems to be taking an unusual interest in this case. And in her.What Maggie doesn't know…Nick's an undercover FBI agent tracking the killer and keeping an eye on Maggie–at work and through his e-mail persona, "John." Maggie doesn't realize that she's falling in love with a man who's not what he seems to be. A man whose deceptions may save her life. “What would you say if I asked you out again?” “Yes” hovered on the tip of Maggie’s tongue. It was what she wanted to say. But then she remembered the f.p. factor. Father potential. No matter what Nick Sorenson said, he wasn’t the marrying type. She could feel it. “No,” she said. “I’m sort of involved with someone else.” “With whom?” he asked. Maggie knew she was stretching here. But she needed some excuse. She couldn’t let herself fall for a guaranteed heartbreaker. “His name is John.” “John?” He blinked at her as if she’d suddenly grown two heads. “John who?” “You don’t know him,” she said. “I met him on the Internet.” Great! Now he was competing against himself. Nick sat at his desk, going over some paperwork, although in reality he was doing nothing more than wondering how he’d managed to strike out with Maggie again. The night had been going so well. He’d easily recognized the signals she was sending—they told him he wasn’t alone in his attraction. Yet when he’d gone for the close, she’d shot him down. Because of “John.” And he couldn’t even ask what “John” had that he didn’t! Dear Reader, Set in Sacramento, California, where I live, this book was especially fun to write. I drive the streets Maggie and Nick drive, I frequent the same places, I use the bike trail. Against the backdrop of such familiar territory, I guess it was inevitable that this story would seem more real to me than any other. But as you read Dear Maggie, you’ll understand why there were times when “real” wasn’t such a good thing! I often spooked myself into looking over my shoulder as I jogged along the American River or double-checking my windows and doors at night. Though there is definitely an element of suspense running through this novel, it’s still about relationships and trust and finding the one person in life who completes us. Nick, an undercover FBI agent, and Maggie, a newspaper reporter, are perfect for each other, but there are plenty of obstacles standing in their way—Maggie’s background and childhood experiences, Nick’s job and his fear of commitment…and a serial killer. I’d love to hear from you. You can write me at P.O. Box 3781, Citrus Heights, CA 95611. Or simply log on to my Web site at www.brendanovak.com to send me an e-mail, enter my monthly draws, join my mailing list, check out my book signings or learn about upcoming releases. Happy (and safeКУПИТЬ И СКАЧАТЬ ЗА: 356.27 руб.
P.S. I hope Dear Maggie helps you “get caught reading” something you can’t put down!
For being more than a sister.
For being a lifelong friend.
And to Joy,
For exactly the same reason.
I’d like to thank Dixie Reid and Ted Bell, staff writers at the Sacramento Bee, for giving me a tour of the newsroom and helping to answer my questions about a cop reporter’s world.
FOR THE FIRST TIME in her life, Maggie Russell wasn’t sure she wanted to be a police reporter. She’d always known she could, and probably would, be faced with situations like this, but somehow the reality was far worse than she’d ever imagined. Maybe it was because she was a single mother now. Maybe it was because her three-year-old son was sleeping soundly in his bed only a few blocks away.
Shivering despite the warm Sacramento night, she tried to block out the flashing police lights, and the stench—God, the stench was cloying, sickening—and concentrate on the snippets of conversation she overheard as the evidence recovery team worked carefully and cautiously to preserve the scene. This was her first big story. She couldn’t wimp out now.
“It’s a female, been here maybe three days,” the coroner announced, bending over a body so badly decomposed Maggie couldn’t bear to look. “She’s been stabbed, repeatedly.”
“Watch that piece of plastic, Rog,” someone else muttered. “The lab might be able to lift some prints from it.”
Two detectives stood off to the side frowning. Maggie recognized them as Detectives Mendez and Hurley from the Sacramento Police Department, because it was her business to know who was who on the force. But she’d never had any direct contact with them. Most of her tips came from the police dispatchers who handled the calls as they came in. And most of her stories centered on domestic violence, insurance fraud or embezzlement. She’d once reported on a convicted felon who’d escaped from Folsom Prison, and she’d paid close attention when Jorge, a fellow cop reporter for the Sacramento Tribune, followed a rash of armed robberies. But she’d never been involved with a murder—especially such a brutal murder.
The homeless woman who’d discovered the body while rummaging through the Dumpster behind a small Midtown office building sat on the asphalt parking lot, rocking. Her hair was long, matted and dark, her thin frame buried beneath several layers of clothing. She carried her belongings in a plastic grocery bag and wore a sober, intense expression on her face. Maggie thought she recognized a glimmer of intelligence in her eyes, but when Detective Mendez had tried to talk to the woman, she wouldn’t respond. Afterward, Maggie had heard him mutter to Hurley, “Man, the lights might be on, but nobody’s home.”
“See anything that could’ve been used as the murder weapon?” someone asked.
“No, that kind of damage can only be inflicted by a pretty big knife. Nothin’ like that in this Dumpster. We’ll have to spread out, check the surrounding shrubbery and garbage cans.”
Maggie shot another glance at the homeless woman and moved closer. Maybe Mendez had approached her too soon. Maybe he hadn’t been patient enough…
“Hi, there,” she said.
The woman didn’t even look up.
“You must be feeling terribly frightened after stumbling onto something like that. I’m sorry you had to see it.”
“Do you hang out here every night?”
“The police think the woman you found was murdered about three days ago, but the body could’ve been dumped as late as yesterday. Any chance you saw something that might help them?”
“Ma’am? I’m talking to you, and this is pretty important. Do you hear me?”
The lights might be on, but nobody’s home…. Maggie sighed. She’d started to walk away when the woman finally spoke. “What?” she asked, turning. “I couldn’t hear you.”
The bag lady’s gaze latched onto her face. “It could happen to you. It could happen to anyone,” she said.
“HE’S WATCHING ME AGAIN. I can feel it.” The hairs on the back of Maggie’s neck stood on end as she peered over the partition that separated the corridor where she stood from her friend Darla’s cubicle. She refused to turn around for fear she’d find herself nose to nose with Nick Sorenson.
Darla, a staff writer for the Entertainment section of the Tribune, frowned and stood up, too.
“Don’t!” Maggie said above the static of the cop radios on her desk a few feet down the corridor, the droning televisions, clacking keyboards and voices that surrounded them on all sides. “Sit back down, or he’ll know I’m talking about him.”
“Relax,” Darla muttered. “He can’t hear us.”
“He can see us!”
“He’s there, all right,” her friend reported. “At the end of the hall, about twelve feet away.” She shook her head. “Ooo la la, he’s gorgeous. But he’s leaving now. Looks like he’s on his way to the photo editor’s desk.”
Maggie seemed to know whenever Nick was around. She could feel his presence, sense his interest. Just after he’d started working for the paper almost three weeks ago, he’d asked her out, and she’d turned him down. A man like him would have no serious interest in a woman like her. She’d learned that lesson the hard way, clear back in high school when Rock Tillman and the other jocks used to throw spit wads at her in class and make fun of her braces, her acne, her red hair, even the heavy load of books she toted everywhere. Her appearance had changed considerably since then, but one failed marriage later, the girl inside remained the same, right down to her contempt for cocky hard-bodies who thought the world should bow at their feet for the price of a wink or a grin.
Fortunately, when she’d refused his offer, Nick hadn’t pressed the issue. Every once in a while, she’d look up to see him watching her, usually from a distance. Only he didn’t turn away or smile when she caught him. He wore his devil-may-care disposition like a leather jacket and studied her with thick-lashed tawny eyes as though…as though he desired her. Which was unsettling enough. Add to that the obvious strength of his tall, athletic body and her own small size in comparison, and he made her nervous as hell.
“What do you think he wants with me?” she asked.
Darla chewed her lip and squinted in the direction Nick had gone. “You know what he wants. He wants a date.”
Maggie braved a quick glance over her shoulder to find the hallway empty. “If I thought that was all he wanted, I’d probably go out with him. Lord knows he wouldn’t want a second date, so I’d be rid of him. But I’m afraid he wants to forego the date and get right down to business. He looks like the type who’s had a lot of experience, which definitely puts him out of my league.”
Darla raised her brows. “That can’t be all he wants. Practically every available woman in this office has made a play for him, but he treats them all the same, with a hands-off, don’t-approach-me attitude. And I’ve seen him treat Susie with something closer to contempt.”
Maggie shrugged. “Oh well, we can’t hold that against him. Who doesn’t treat Susie with contempt? She’s slept with every guy in the office. Even the publisher.”
Leaning an elbow on the partition, Darla propped her chin on her hand. “Maybe you should tell Frank that Nick makes you nervous.”
“No, I don’t want to bring his boss in on this. I don’t really have anything to accuse him of. What do I say, ‘Nick’s looking at me.’? He’ll think I’m a sexual-harassment case just waiting to happen. Half the time I think I’m imagining it myself.”
“Maybe your job’s getting to you. Listening to all those cop radios and working at night is creepy.”
“A cop reporter is supposed to report on crime,” Maggie retorted. “How would I know what was happening without my radios?”
“Don’t you like this better? You should thank Jorge for taking the day off and trading shifts with you. Look at the sun shining outside. During the day you don’t have to worry about simple things like walking to your car.”
“Jorge didn’t take the day off for my benefit. He’s having knee surgery. Besides, you know how hard it is to get a start in this industry. I’m lucky to be where I am.”
Darla stooped for her handbag, her fake nails clicking against its contents as she rummaged through it. A minute later, she pulled out some red lipstick, liberally applied it, then tossed the tube back where she’d found it. Her purse followed with a soft thud. “So what about that murder last week? You still think that’s your big story?”
“Yeah. But there’s definitely something strange going on with that.”
“Do the police know who did it yet?”
“No, and they’re being very tight-lipped. They’ve given me a press release with a few pat quotes, but they’re holding back. I can tell. There’s something about this case they don’t want me to know.” She smiled. “So, of course I’m going to dig until I find out what it is.”
Darla grimaced and ran her nails through her long blond hair. “Well, don’t feel obligated to share the details with me once you discover them. I, for one, have heard enough about the poor woman in that Dumpster. Everything about that crime is sickening and proves my point that nothing good happens after midnight.”
Nick Sorenson walked by, and Darla’s gaze followed him.
“That is, nothing good happens after midnight unless you’re spending the night with him,” she mouthed after he’d passed.
Maggie noted Nick’s long, confident strides, and fought her own appreciation. “Looks do not make a man,” she said to remind herself as much as Darla. “Jeez, you really have a thing for him, don’t you? Too bad he doesn’t ask you out.”
Her friend gave her a wicked smile. “Too bad is right. There’s that dangerous glitter in his eyes, you know? And there’s the scar on his temple and the way his hair falls across his forehead, like he doesn’t care how he looks. And yet he still manages to look better than chocolate.” The audible breath she took did even more to express her admiration. “What a package. And he’s intense. I can tell.”
Maggie raised a doubtful brow. “‘Heartbreaker’ is written all over him, along with ‘catch me if you can.’ I’m not up to the challenge.” She’d spent too much time and energy carefully building her self-esteem to risk losing it on a man like Nick.
“You only think that because you’re a single mom. Single moms can’t be too careful.”
“Should I ask him why he’s been staring at you?”
Maggie raised a hand. “No, don’t embarrass me.”
“All right. He probably just thinks you’re attractive, anyway. What man doesn’t?”
“Sometimes it’s very apparent that you haven’t known me long,” Maggie said. “But just for starters, what about Tim?”
“He married you, didn’t he? And let’s face it, in the end, you left him.”
A call blared across one of Maggie’s radios. Instinctively she tensed, listening to the dispatcher’s gravelly voice, then relaxed when she realized it was only a 5150—the call for a crazy person doing something stupid but certainly not news-worthy.
“I had to leave Tim,” she responded to Darla. “If it weren’t for Zach, I probably would’ve hung on, forever grateful that he’d deigned to marry me in the first place. But my son deserves a father who wants him.” She sighed heavily. “Provided I can ever find him one.”
“So that’s what’s happening.” Darla’s expression softened. “The singles scene has finally gotten you down. Is that it?”
Unexpected emotion clogged Maggie’s throat and stung her eyes. What a baby, she thought. Millions of people were lonely, and they didn’t cry about it. But here she was with her nose starting to run, at work, of all places. “There’s just no time to meet anyone. I’m here almost every night and taking care of Zach all day, and let’s face it, spending my afternoons hanging out at McDonald’s Playland isn’t exactly the best way to meet a single guy, you know?”
“You’re working today, so you’re going to have Friday night off, aren’t you? Why don’t you let me watch Zach so you can go dancing?”
Dancing? Dancing was Darla’s idea of fun. Maggie didn’t have much experience with nightclubs.
“I’m not sure a nightclub is the right place to go,” she said, knowing Darla would never understand her phobia about such places. Typical reporters were like Darla, confident and bold and, professionally, Maggie fit the image. For the most part she’d buried the awkward, self-conscious person she’d been as a young girl. But all too often, when it came to her personal life, the old Maggie reasserted herself. “I don’t have a single tattoo or body piercing,” she joked. “I’d probably be a wallflower.”
“No, you wouldn’t,” Darla argued.
An unruly, copper-colored curl tickled Maggie’s cheek, and she tucked it behind her ear. “Anyway, you can’t baby-sit for me. You need to get out, too. You told me you wanted to get married this year.”
“I did until I decided to swear off men for good.”
“You swear off men every Monday. This is only Wednesday. By Friday you’ll be ready to dress up and go out again.”
Ray, from sports, grinned as he strutted past them on the way to Frank Buckley’s office. “Ladies.”
They murmured a quick hello, then rolled their eyes because Ray considered himself such a lady’s man.
“This time I mean it,” Darla went on. “That last loser I hooked up with stuck me with over five hundred dollars in long-distance bills.”
“Ouch.” Maggie grimaced. “You’re as unlucky in love as I am. Maybe we’d be smarter not to hang out together.”
Darla waved her teasing away. “Enough already. We’ll each find someone eventually.” Sitting down, she swiveled to face her computer.
“Wait a second before you go back to that,” Maggie said. “I received something in the mail I want to show you.” Crossing to her desk, she opened the top drawer, retrieved the white envelope with the red heart on the front and returned to Darla’s cubicle. “What do you think of this?”
“What is it?”
“An advertisement for a dating service.”
Darla cocked an eyebrow at her, looking far from impressed. “What do I think? I think you’re nuts. Anyone as attractive as you shouldn’t have to pay to get a date.”
If only Darla understood how painful that whole process was for her—getting out and meeting someone, all the little rituals and deceptions…“I kind of like the idea of the questionnaire. You get to skip the first part of dating, where everyone’s kind of checking other people out.” She flattened the paper against the partition. “Look, it’s right here. You answer these questions so the service can match you up with someone who’s compatible.”
“And they use a crystal ball to decide this? Or do they simply include a ‘no weirdos allowed’ clause in their contract?”
“Come on, Darla. They obviously can’t protect their clients from every possibility, but if Tim and I had filled out one of these we would have known right from the start that we weren’t meant for each other. He didn’t tell me until after we were married that he didn’t want any kids.”
Maggie didn’t add that she’d been so happy to find a man to love her that she hadn’t pressed him on anything, and he simply assumed she’d accommodate his plan for their lives. In the end, her inability to go along with his refusal to have children had come as a big surprise to both of them. “It took me several years to change his mind, and the result was disastrous. He resented Zach from day one,” she said.
“But you could meet someone pretty scary through an outfit like this,” Darla complained. “You could wind up dating a rapist or a murderer.”
“We’d have a greater chance of meeting someone like that at a club. This route takes patience, something rapists and murderers typically don’t possess.”
Darla scowled. “Tell the woman in the Dumpster that. I’ll bet some murderers show incredible patience. Isn’t that what ‘premeditated’ is all about?”
“Come on. We could be going out with guys who have the same level of education, the same goals, the same marital status—”
“Pathetic bordering on desperate? Why would I want to meet someone like that?”
Maggie considered the questionnaire again. “We could always tick the ‘I make over $100,000’ box under annual income and insist on being matched up with someone who makes that, too.”
“Now you’re talking,” Darla said.
NICK STRETCHED OUT in his chair, crossed his legs at the ankle and closed his eyes. He wanted to photograph Maggie Russell. He wanted to dress her in a white sundress that fell off the shoulder on one side and see her through his lens, laughing and barefoot, her thick auburn hair blowing in the wind, her eyes slanting up at him.
It would have to be evening, he decided. That was when the light would be perfect and he’d be able to capture her nearly flawless skin in a warm, gentle glow. The dusting of freckles across her nose, and her mouth, slightly larger than most women’s ideal, added to the earthy beauty of her face. The sun behind her would provide just enough of a shadow to hint at the shape of her body, naked beneath the cotton dress. And he’d shoot her on a beach, where surf the color of her eyes crested in the background and shimmers of heat rose from the sand beneath her feet.
Somehow Maggie Russell managed to combine innocence and vulnerability with an incredibly high dose of sex appeal. The effect was very intriguing. And he could capture the essence of it on film; he knew he could. Someday he’d put her photograph on the cover of the coffee-table book he hoped to publish—when he had the time to pursue his love of photography more seriously.
Right now he had to get back to work. The FBI’s Ogden field office hadn’t sent him to Sacramento to pose as one of the Tribune’s staff photographers so he could waste his time lusting over the beautiful female reporter he was here to protect. The owner of the paper—someone Nick had met just once—was the only one the bureau had clued in to his true identity and purpose. Besides heading the small task force assembled by the Sacramento P.D., Nick had the added burden of performing at the Trib in a manner convincing enough to fool the photo editor who was his boss, his co-workers and everyone else, which meant he had to make the most of every minute.
Sitting up, he reached inside his desk for the file that contained the coroner’s report on the victim found in the Dumpster almost a week ago. He’d studied it exhaustively, but every time he read it, he hoped he’d find something he’d missed before. Something that would illuminate the series of brutal murders that had started along the eastern seaboard almost four months ago, then traveled to Missouri and Colorado and finally the west coast.
The victim’s name was Sarah Ritter. Her death brought the body count to seven. A Caucasian woman in her mid-thirties, she was attractive in a professional, polished way and held a master’s degree in English from the University of California, Davis. She’d taught second grade at an elementary school in the suburbs, had a three-bedroom, two-bath tract house, two children, a dog, and an insurance salesman as a husband.
Unfortunately, she’d also been brutally attacked, raped and stabbed, her body tossed in a Dumpster. How she’d gotten from her house, nearly twenty miles away, to Midtown, was a mystery.
Nick pinched the bridge of his nose. Why her? The other six victims were younger, including the Seattle reporter. Three were single, one had a live-in lover, the last was separated from her husband. All were in their mid-twenties. What had specifically attracted the murderer to these women? What put them at risk?
It certainly wasn’t accessibility. These were difficult murders to commit. The victims hadn’t been living on the street. They weren’t drug addicts or prostitutes. They had homes and jobs, and some had families. Beyond that, they had no obvious connection to each other—they didn’t belong to the same book club, graduate from the same school, attend college together or correspond for private or professional reasons. As far as Nick could determine, they didn’t know each other at all. The only thing they had in common was the fact that they’d become victims of the same murderer.
Random targets, except Lola Fillmore, the reporter in Seattle. That had been personal.
Nick shuffled through another file and came up with the letter that had brought him to Sacramento in the first place. Received at FBI headquarters almost a month ago, it had been printed on regular copy paper by a standard Hewlett-Packard DeskJet. Nothing of particular note there, at least nothing that was going to help him. But the letter itself shed some light on the psychology of the killer.
“Dear Sirs, or should I say Madams? Welcome to the investigation. For all the challenge local police have given me, I assume most forces are now run by a bunch of women, but be that as it may, I’ve decided to let you join the fun. I’ve tired of Seattle and all its blasted rain—makes working out of doors rather miserable, if you know what I mean—and have decided to move to California. But where? Los Angeles is entirely too big. With all the different jurisdictions, etc., it would be too easy for local law enforcement to bungle the investigation, and it’s certainly no fun outwitting one’s opponent so easily. I considered San Francisco, but no one would much care if I murdered women there, now, would they? They have no use for the fairer sex, anyway. So I think Sacramento is the place. River City, isn’t that what they call it? Well, we shall soon see what the river turns up.
Catch me if you can…
Dr. Dan was famous for his letters. He sent them to local law enforcement, taunting their failed attempts to catch him. He sent them to the FBI, bragging about his superior intellect. And when the police and FBI kept them from the press, he started writing to newspapers, hoping for headlines. He’d sent two letters to Lola Fillmore at the Seattle Independent, right before he killed her.
Fortunately, as far as Nick could tell, no one at the Sacramento Tribune had received such mail. Yet. After what had happened in Seattle, his instincts told him it would come, and he guessed Maggie Russell would be the recipient when it did. The Trib was the major newspaper in town, and she was the only female cop reporter on staff.
He shoved the letter back into the file and went for the profiler’s report instead. Ms. Lalee Wong, one of the FBI’s best, had analyzed the letter, along with all the others, and deemed it genuine. But she hadn’t come up with as much as Nick would have liked. She said the perp was a man, probably fairly young, most likely short and balding, with sexual hang-ups to spare.
No surprises there.
Dr. Dan’s utter contempt for women, evident in the letters but even more in the violent and cruel nature of his killing, fueled his murderous rage. Perhaps he’d been abused by his mother or a strong maternal figure in his youth. Perhaps his wife had left him.
Or maybe he’d killed her, Nick thought. There could be another body out there. Maybe more than one. Most serial killers didn’t go from zero to sixty in a matter of days. They started slowly, usually with animals, and built up from there.
Skipping further down the report, Nick skimmed the final paragraphs. Wong doubted Dr. Dan was truly a doctor, but she hadn’t ruled out Daniel as the man’s first name. She felt certain he was educated, most likely to the college level, and that he was Caucasian, possibly British, judging by his formal and rather stilted use of language. Going by the normal statistics on such violent criminals, as well as the tone of his writing, she guessed he was in the age range of twenty-eight to thirty-five.
The last sentence of her report Nick knew by heart because he’d come to the same conclusion himself. Considering how quickly and efficiently Dr. Dan removes certain internal organs, he probably has some working knowledge of anatomy. If he’s not a doctor, he could be a nurse, an EMT, a medical student, a veterinarian or a butcher.
“He is definitely a butcher,” Nick growled. Dr. Dan seemed to think of himself as some sort of modern-day Jack the Ripper, but Nick planned to put an end to it. He was going to find this bastard and nail him to the wall if it was the last thing he did. No one traveled across America killing wives and mothers and got away with it. Not on his watch.
He heard Maggie’s laugh and looked up to see her standing at the water cooler, talking to another photographer. She was very attractive in her gray tailored business suit and crisp white cotton shirt. She had the most kissable lips he’d ever seen, the most incredible bedroom eyes….
But none of that mattered. He was a federal agent. His interest in her was strictly professional. Even if she never became one of Dr. Dan’s targets, she could dig up something that might prove helpful to his investigation. Actually, chances were good she’d do exactly that. She tracked all calls coming in after ten o’clock.
And Dr. Dan always struck at night.
WHAT WAS GOING ON? Lowell Atkinson, the county coroner, had always been helpful to Maggie before. She’d sent his wife Mary Ann flowers when she’d delivered her last baby. She’d gotten Zach and the Atkinsons’ Katie together for a picnic last summer. She could hardly believe he’d treat her so impersonally now. When she’d arrived at his office to request a copy of the coroner’s report on the Dumpster murder, he’d claimed he hadn’t finished it, said he’d call her when he had. But when she’d pressed him for a verbal explanation of his findings, he’d told her he hadn’t even done the autopsy yet.
Bull. Maggie knew better. The police were under a lot of pressure to solve such a high-profile case. They wouldn’t let Lowell store the victim in his morgue for over a week. They’d probably had his report in their hands the following day, but her police contacts weren’t talking, either. And to top it all off, Ben, her editor, was riding her hard, expecting a follow-up to the story they’d run last week—a follow-up she couldn’t conjure from thin air. She needed answers, and she needed them fast.
Frustrated, she set her purse on the desk and slumped into her seat, wondering where to go from here. Detectives Hurley and Mendez had the case. She doubted they’d talk to her when no one else on the force would, but it was worth a chance.
She fished her police roster out of her drawer and dialed, but Lopez, the sergeant at the front desk, said they were both out. She considered leaving a message, decided against it and hung up, hoping to catch them later. In the meantime, she’d get organized.
She was clearing off her desk when she noticed a sticky note from Darla attached to the partition directly in front of her, next to her photographs of Zach.
“Before we join a dating service, let’s try some online sites,” it said. “They’re free.”
Maggie had never actually gone into a singles chat room before. She’d surfed the Web a lot and grown compulsive about e-mail, but she wasn’t sure online dating would work. How could she and Darla meet men via the Internet who lived close enough for dating purposes? What if she found a man who seemed interesting and he lived in Florida, for Pete’s sake? A pen pal wouldn’t exactly fill the gap in her life.
Still, she liked the idea of socializing from behind the safety of her computer screen while Zach played at her feet. No baby-sitter needed. No fuss. No awkward moments. No fears or worries if she stayed in control of the situation. Visiting chat rooms might help pass the long, lonely evenings before she went to work. And it certainly wouldn’t hurt that she could subsidize the fun with some frozen yogurt from her own freezer.
“What do you think?” Darla asked, coming into her cubicle before Maggie had a chance to make a firm decision.
“What about the risks? We could end up attracting weirdos. Cyber nuts,” she said, determined to consider every angle.
Darla frowned. “That might be true. I’ve heard some scary stories. We’ll just have to be careful.”
“How will we know when it’s safe to reveal our name and number?”
“We’ll get to know the guy first.”
“And how will we determine when we ‘know’ him?”
“We’ll just have to play it by ear, I guess.”
Maggie rested her head in one hand and regarded Darla skeptically. “You’re going to get me in trouble, aren’t you? I can tell already.”
Darla smiled, sorted through Maggie’s side drawer and helped herself to a piece of gum from the pack she kept there. “I think it’s time to mix things up around here. I think it’s time for a little trouble,” she said and headed back to her own desk.
“What are friends for?” Maggie muttered, but Darla couldn’t hear her. She was gone for a moment before popping back in to hand her a new sticky note.
“Here. This is where we’ll go. Log on tonight at eight. I’ll meet you there.”
Maggie read Darla’s loopy handwriting directing her to a chat room called Twenties Love. “You might be only twenty-six, but I just turned thirty,” she protested. “I have no business in Twenties Love.”
Darla shrugged. “Okay. Older men are fine by me. We’ll go to Thirties Love, then.”
“I don’t know.” Maggie rubbed her pencil between her hands until the friction warmed her palms. “I’m still leaning toward the dating service. Their questionnaire asks what I’m looking for in appearance.” She grinned. “I was planning on checking the box ‘moderately attractive’ so the guy wouldn’t hold my red hair against me.”
“Your hair isn’t red. It’s auburn, and it’s beautiful.”
“No one likes red hair.”
“Men are crazy about red hair.”
“Tim was paranoid our baby would have red hair.”
“Tim was always trying to hurt you.”
Her ex had definitely succeeded there. But he’d toughened her a lot, too, and Tim was old news, anyway.
Maggie pulled the dating service’s questionnaire out of her desk. “Well, I was also planning to check the box that said I was moving in six months, you know, as sort of a safety precaution.”
Darla propped her hands on her hips. “So, what you’re saying is, you’ve already decided to lie on almost every question.”
“Not every question. They don’t ask about my weight.”
“Like you’d need to lie about your weight.” She shook her head. “Okay, what would you put under ‘athletic interest’? Very active, active, occasionally active or does not matter?”
“Very active, of course.”
“You call grocery shopping once a week very active?”
“No, but everyone knows an active woman is more appealing than an inactive one.”
“You see, Maggie? Doesn’t that tell you anything?”
“Yeah, that I’m not stupid enough to put ‘inactive.’”
“No. That other people are probably doing the same thing you are, giving answers they think the opposite sex wants to hear, instead of the truth.”
Maggie chewed her lip. Darla had a point. What if men were putting “advanced degree” when, in reality, the only thing they’d ever graduated from was juvenile hall to the state pen?
Grabbing the note with the chat room information on it, Maggie scratched out Twenties Love and wrote a big 3-0, then tacked it up on her wall so she wouldn’t forget. “Okay. We go with the Web. It’s no less safe, and it’s free, right?”
“Right.” Darla tossed her hair over her shoulder. “See you in virtual reality.”
HOW WOULD HE KNOW when she logged on?
Nick sat in front of his laptop computer, his dog’s muzzle on his leg, reading the comments of people already in the chat room and hoping he’d be able to recognize Maggie’s “voice” when he heard it. He’d logged on around seven-thirty, wanting to be there when she arrived, figuring that the timing of her appearance would somehow tip him off if nothing in her screen name or comments did. But it was after eight now, and he doubted she was anyone he’d met so far.
Was he in the wrong place? He glanced down at the note he’d snatched from Maggie’s cubicle. He had the right server.
Twenties Love had been covered by a numerical Thirty, but after scanning all the chat rooms, he decided it could only mean Thirties Love. So where were they?
They could have changed their minds about coming, but that didn’t seem likely. He’d heard Darla talking about the chat room in the parking lot after work—and so had anyone else within a block radius. Darla kept nothing secret. He smiled at the many comments the tall blonde had made about him, both good and bad, not realizing he was listening to every word. He wondered if she’d be embarrassed if she knew, then decided she wouldn’t bother with anything as inhibiting as embarrassment.
Maggie, on the other hand, would be mortified to learn he’d heard so much of their conversations. He knew he made her nervous, that she didn’t want anything to do with him. Her flat refusal to go out with him had told him that. But he couldn’t protect her and his cover as one of the Trib’s photographers unless he drew a little closer. So, with any luck, he was about to become her best friend—
Hey, Mntnbiker, you just lurking or what? You the shy type?
Dancegirl was talking to him. She’d been flirting with several of the men. She’d said she was from Washington, but Nick had no idea if she meant Washington state or Washington DC. At that point, he’d known she wasn’t Maggie and started skimming.
Just quiet, he wrote.
Dancegirl: Well, join the fun. Tell us, if you had to liken yourself to an animal, which one would you pick?
Two new names appeared on his screen, one right after the other, and Nick smiled. Zachman and Catlover could only be Maggie and Darla. Maggie had a son named Zach. His pictures covered her whole office. And no one was crazier about cats than Darla. He relaxed, knowing he’d found them, and answered Dancegirl.
Mntnbiker: I’d be a Rottweiler.
Dancegirl: A dog? Why?
Because it’s the first thing that came to my mind.
Mntnbiker: They’re smart and loyal and fierce in a fight.
He scratched behind his dog’s ears. Rambo opened his droopy eyes to acknowledge the touch, looking anything but fierce, then went back to dozing.
Mntnbiker: What about you?
Dancegirl: I’d be a horse.
Nick knew his next question was supposed to be why, but he wasn’t the least bit interested in Dancegirl. So he moved to edge out a guy named Pete 010, who was welcoming Maggie to the chat and trying to draw her into a conversation about skiing.
Mntnbiker: What about you, Zachman?
Zachman: I’m sorry. I’m new at this. What was the question?
Mntnbiker: If you had to liken yourself to an animal, which one would you choose?
Catlover: I’d be a Siamese cat.
Zachman: I suppose I’d be a mourning dove.
Pete 010: Why a mourning dove?
Catlover: Because they mate for life, right, Zachy? You’re so sentimental.
Mntnbiker: There’s nothing wrong with that.
Unless you were like him and had no plans to marry and settle down.
Zachman: Beats the heck out of being a lioness and having to do all the work.
Catlover: I kind of fancy a black widow myself.
Pete 010: Watch out, guys.
Catlover: Just joking. I’m a nice girl, I swear.
Redrocket: Okay, enough inane drivel about animals. It’s time to spice things up. Let’s rate our last lovers.
Pete 010: I’ve forgotten. It’s been too long since I’ve had one.
Nick chuckled to himself. Either Pete 010 was trying to garner sympathy, or he was just too honest for his own good.
Dancegirl: On a scale of 1–10, I’d give mine a 5. He was more interested in watching television than he was in me.
Catlover: Mine wasn’t so bad in bed, but he was hell on my long-distance bill.
Wondering what Maggie’s love life was like, Nick waited for her to comment. When she didn’t, he joined the conversation to keep it alive. He didn’t relish the idea of talking about Irene, or even thinking about her, for that matter—he hated the wave of guilt that engulfed him every time he did. But he answered honestly, anyway.
Mntnbiker: I thought I was in love with mine. That made the sex great.
Zachman: What happened?
Apparently he hadn’t been as in love as he’d thought. When their relationship progressed to the point where she started pressing him to marry her, he’d finally agreed, then bolted the day of the wedding. The reception had to be canceled, all the gifts returned. Irene hated him now, and he didn’t blame her. But neither did he regret his decision to call it off.
In the end, we weren’t right for each other, he typed, wanting to keep things vague. He certainly wasn’t proud of what he’d done, but at least he understood himself better now. He might flirt with the idea of marriage, but deep down he wasn’t willing to make the sacrifices such a commitment would require. His job wasn’t very conducive to permanence in anything, which contributed to the problem.
Zachman: I’m sorry.
Mntnbiker: What about you, Zachman? How would you rate your last lover?
Zachman: That’s tough to say. I’ve only had one. I don’t have anything to compare him against.
Catlover: Come on, I’ve heard enough about him to know he couldn’t be more than a 2 or a 3.
Pete 010: All women say they’ve only been with one or two partners.
Catlover: With Zachman it’s true. She’s the shy, inhibited type. She doesn’t know what good sex is all about.
Zachman: Someday I’ll find the right man.
The image of Maggie as he’d like to photograph her came instantly to Nick’s mind. He took a deep breath and reminded himself that he was in Sacramento to catch a killer, not to volunteer for a sex-education course.
Pete 010: Hey, you don’t need love for good sex. I don’t know why women always think that.
Zachman: Maybe some people don’t, but I do.
Redrocket: What happened to your 2 or 3, Zachman? He’s gone, I take it.
Zachman: I wanted a child. Tim initially agreed but ultimately wasn’t interested. I couldn’t take the indifference or the neglect.
Mntnbiker: Do you regret pushing for a child?
Zachman: No, I’d rather have Zach. One hug from him is worth more than anything I ever got from Tim.
Catlover: That’s because Tim withheld affection as a form of punishment.
Zachman: Jeez, are these chats really supposed to get so personal? What happened to our discussion about animals?
Dancegirl: Yeah, no one ever asked me why I wanted to be a horse.
Redrocket: Wait, I haven’t rated my last lover—
Redrocket and several others expounded on the strengths or shortcomings of their past partners for a few minutes, then Nick saw Zachman disappear from his screen. Catlover left soon after. Evidently, they hadn’t found the chat room to be the singles haven they were looking for. But he didn’t mind. He’d met Maggie, discovered her personal e-mail address and established a frame of reference so he could contact her again.
For now, that was enough.
ON FRIDAY NIGHT, Maggie kicked off her slippers, which were too hot for a Sacramento summer, and sank down in front of her computer. She lived in Midtown, in an old home she’d bought with her divorce settlement when she left Los Angeles two years ago. Half the buildings on her street had been converted to small offices or retail establishments, creating a mixed neighborhood that included tenants, owners and residents from many different nationalities, along with some of Sacramento’s homeless. There were no large grocery stores, no sprawling shopping centers, only small independently-owned corner grocers, trendy coffee shops and a spattering of secondhand stores. But Maggie liked where she lived. Midtown had color and character. It had old-fashioned architecture that wasn’t quite as impressive as that found in the Fabulous 40s, several streets of beautiful old homes just a few miles away, but the neighborhood had plenty of potential. Her own house only wanted a good coat of paint and some work on the worn-out, shabby yard—something she intended to do when she had enough money and time. Meanwhile, she was removing the wallpaper in her bedroom, large bunches of faded pink roses that looked very much like something her great-aunt Rita would have chosen.
Actually, the whole house looked like Aunt Rita—aging under protest—but Maggie had big plans for it. She gazed at the black night outside and wondered if she should start by taking down the iron bars that covered the front windows. According to her neighbor, the previous owner was an old widower, who had wanted to install them all around, but when he passed away, his son inherited the house and didn’t finish the job. Maggie thought the bars were quite an eyesore, but then she remembered that Sarah Ritter’s body had been found only a few blocks away and decided she’d keep the ones she had.
Glancing at her watch to make sure it wasn’t too late, she called Detective Mendez on his car phone. She hadn’t been able to reach either detective since Lowell Atkinson had put her off two days ago. She always got routed to voice mail, and they hadn’t responded to her messages. Still, she was determined to lay hands on the coroner’s report, even if she had to camp out in Lowell’s front yard starting tomorrow morning.
“Yo, Detective Mendez here.”
Maggie sat up in surprise. Evidently miracles did happen. “Detective? This is Maggie Russell with the Sacramento—”
“Tribune. I know who you are. Dammit, don’t you people ever let up? It’s nearly ten o’clock on a Friday night.”
“If you’ve checked your voice mail, you know I tried to reach you earlier. I called at least five times today. Yesterday it was eight.”
“And the day before that it was three. I got your messages, Ms. Russell, but I’m a busy man. What can I do for you?”
“I’m doing a follow-up article on the Ritter murder and was hoping I could ask you a few questions.”
He hesitated. “Sure. And here are my answers: it’s an isolated incident. We’re making progress. We’ll catch the bastard.”
What? “I wasn’t going to ask if it was an isolated incident, Detective Mendez. Why should I?”
“How the hell would I know?”
“You anticipated the question. You must have had some reason.”
“Don’t twist my words, Ms. Russell. I’ve already given you my statement.”
“So you have. And it was gem, let me tell you. There’s just one more thing. I’d like to see a copy of the coroner’s report.”
“Oh, yeah? Well, excuse me. I’ll drive it right over.”
Maggie ignored his sarcasm. “Fax would be fine. Or I’ll pick it up at the station. You name the day and time.”
“I’m booked up through next week. How about the following Friday?”
What was this guy’s problem? “At least your buddies on the force are pretending to cooperate with the press.”
“I’m not going to insult you by playing games.”
“Well, you’re doing a good job of insulting me without it. So what’s the big secret?”
“No secret. A woman was killed. We’re looking for her murderer. I have enough to do without chronicling my every move for you.”
“Sorry, I don’t believe this murder was an isolated incident—at least not anymore. Who else was killed, Detective? Has there been another victim?”
Mendez cursed, then the phone clicked and he was gone.
What a jerk, Maggie fumed. If this guy thought he could shut her out that easily, he had a shock coming his way. This story might very well be her ticket to a promotion, a raise and some respect. And after what she’d sacrificed to make Tim happy, heaven knew she’d do almost anything to be able to take a little pride in her work.
“Mommy? I have to go potty.”
Zach stood in her doorway, rubbing his sleepy blue eyes. Earlier they’d watched a Disney movie together and he’d fallen asleep before she could help him through his nightly routine. Smiling at his tousled blond hair and round soft cheeks, she scooped him up and carried him to the bathroom.
When she’d tucked her son snugly into bed, she returned to her bedroom and cranked up the air-conditioning unit in the window. If it was this hot at night on the first of June, she was going to be in trouble later. The wallpaper, the yard, the paint, everything would have to wait until she paid for central air. She couldn’t take another summer like the last one. Zach had a fan in his room, but it would never be enough.
Sitting down at her computer again, she signed on to the Internet, intending to pull up newspapers from around the country. Mendez had claimed Ritter’s murder was an isolated incident, but he’d volunteered the information before she’d even asked and he’d said it in a defensive tone. Why? Was he afraid she might connect this attack with something else? There’d been nothing like it in Sacramento, at least not since she’d come to town, but perhaps there’d been other murders elsewhere. If so, the police could very well have a serial killer on their hands. And that would certainly make them cranky.
“You’ve got mail,” her computer cheerily informed her.
Maggie clicked on her mailbox to find a message from her mother in Iowa, a joke from Aunt Rita, who lived with her mother, spam from travel agencies and credit card companies and a whole bunch of junk mail forwarded to her by Darla. At the very bottom she found a message from someone called Mntnbiker.
Who was that? she wondered, but before the message appeared on her screen, she remembered. Oh, yeah, the guy from the chat.
You seemed a little shy the other night, so I thought I’d drop you a line to see if you might be interested in getting to know me via e-mail. I don’t usually join chats and think it’s pretty hard to decide what people are really like in that forum. Those rooms can get crowded and noisy, and the subjects people talk about can be either boring or a little over the top. Anyway, if you’re already involved with someone or you’re not interested, no problem. Just thought I’d make contact.
“Well what do you know,” she murmured. “Mntnbiker’s name is John.” She hit the reply button but before she could type anything, an instant message popped up from Darla.
Catlover: What are you doing tonight, Mags?
Maggie thought about telling Darla she was planning to scour the country for articles of murders like Sarah Ritter’s, then decided against it. Darla didn’t have the stomach for the gritty details involved with following the cop beat, and Maggie was probably wasting her time, anyway.
Zachman: Just messing around on the net.
Catlover: Anything fun?
Catlover: Nick Sorenson talk to you last night?
Zachman: He wasn’t in the office.
Catlover: Oh, so you know he was out. You keeping tabs on him now?
Maggie didn’t want to admit it, but glancing down the hall toward Nick’s desk was becoming a habit.
Zachman: Of course not.
Catlover: I can’t believe you don’t think he’s a babe.
Maggie didn’t have to think he was a babe. She knew he was.
Zachman: I just don’t want him to get too close. He makes me uncomfortable.
Catlover: You need to loosen up, have some fun.
Zachman: What makes you think I’d have fun with him?
Catlover: Are you kidding? Is there any question?
Zachman: He’s too hard-bitten for fun. He’s focused, driven.
Catlover: Yeah, and just imagine what it would feel like to have all that raw masculinity turned on you.
Zachman: For what? One night? What good would that do me?
Catlover: Forever the realist, aren’t you? Okay, forget Nick. You going to do the dating service?
Zachman: No, I’m going to save up for an air conditioner.
Maggie stretched, feeling the effects of working all week without getting enough sleep.
Zachman: I’d better go. That murder’s kept me pumped full of adrenaline since it happened. I’m just now starting to come down.
Catlover: Gee, how do you get all the good stories?
Maggie returned the sarcasm.
Zachman: By leaving all the award-winning baton twirlers to you.
Catlover: Very funny.
Catlover: Get some sleep. Zach wakes up awfully early in the morning.
“No kidding,” Maggie muttered to herself. She signed off the instant message with a friendly goodbye, then stared at the blank screen addressed to Mntnbiker. Now what? Should she really answer him?
Why not? Anonymity was empowering. If he wrote back and turned out to be a fruitcake, she wouldn’t answer him again. If he bothered her, she’d change her e-mail address. It wasn’t as if he knew where she lived. After two years in Sacramento without any romantic interludes, she was ready to expand her horizons, and e-mail seemed the perfect forum.
I’d be happy to get to know you, although I’m not sure I’m ready for anything more than friendship.
Big lie there, but she definitely didn’t want to sound desperate.
Tell me a little about yourself, who you are, where you live, what you do.
You might remember that I’m a single mom. I have one little boy who’s three and a half. I’m 5’5”, 115 lbs, have red hair, freckles and green eyes. And if that doesn’t scare you off, maybe this will: I work nights as a cop reporter and am currently following a murder. At any given point, my life is filled with the details of abuse, rape and other forms of violence. But in the meantime I try to be an average “girl.” I’m a bit of a health nut, but when I’m splurging, I like to eat coffee ice cream and chocolate-covered strawberries (not necessarily together ). I also like lying on a warm beach and reading romance novels, probably because what I deal with at work is so harrowing. I like happily-ever-afters. I hate to wait for anything and can’t cook a can of soup or sew on a button, but I can change my own oil and mow my own yard.
Now that you probably know more about me than you ever wanted to, it’s your turn:)
She signed it simply Maggie, hit the Send button, and went onto the Internet, where she quickly forgot about Mntnbiker as she scanned the major newspapers throughout the country, beginning with the New York Times. Some of the crime stories were horrible enough to curl her toes, particularly those that involved child molestation or abuse, and it wasn’t long before she decided to give up. The violence was making her heartsick, and without the coroner’s report, she knew so little about the condition of Sarah Ritter’s body that it was difficult to draw any connection between her murder and any others. She was wasting her time, just as she’d thought.
Yawning, she decided to get up early and head to Lowell Atkinson’s house with a big bag of donuts and several freshly roasted coffees. A horse came more willingly to a handful of sugar, right? The same might hold true for Lowell.
She climbed into bed but couldn’t get to sleep. The murders she’d read about had her spooked. The shadow of the trees outside fell across her carpet, their knotty, intertwining branches sometimes taking on the shape of a man, and she wondered if someone could remove her air conditioner and crawl through the hole it left behind. Then again, they wouldn’t even have to go to that much trouble. Because of the heat, there were several windows open in other parts of the house, even a few of the ones without bars, just so she could get a breeze going through.
For a few moments, Maggie held her breath, thinking she heard something rustling, the creak of a footfall in the living room….
It’s nothing, she told herself. She pulled the sheet up to her chin, resisting the urge to duck her head beneath it, too, and turned her thoughts to other things.
Fortunately—or unfortunately, depending on how she chose to look at it—Nick Sorenson came readily to mind. She tried to imagine what it would feel like to kiss a man like him, someone so completely opposite to Tim, someone who was all fire and no ice. But memories of Rock Tillman kept intruding on her fantasy. The way they’d gotten to know each other that one summer, the hope and attraction she’d felt from the start, and the way he’d treated her once school started—like she had the plague.
So she pretended to be outgoing Darla and quickly forgot all about Rock. Then she had no more problems imagining Nick’s kiss—or anything else.
BINGO! SHE’D TAKEN the bait. Nick smiled at Maggie’s message, finding the personal touches more interesting than he should have. She loved chocolate-covered strawberries and coffee ice cream and sandy beaches. Those preferences, taken together with the fact that she couldn’t cook or sew, meant they had a lot in common. Fortunately, he was damn good at ordering out. And he could certainly do worse than hooking up with a woman who knew how to change her own oil.
Hooking up with Maggie? Who was he kidding? She thought he was someone he wasn’t. Ethically speaking, he couldn’t touch her. And he was heading back to Ogden as soon as he caught his killer, anyway.
“Forget about touching her,” he growled at himself. Rambo, who’d been sleeping curled up at Nick’s feet, raised his head off his paws and cocked his ears. Nick absently patted the dog’s head as he tried to think of a response that would draw Maggie into friendship. He needed to get to know her and her habits.
He needed to do his job.
He read her message again. What could he write that would make him look like a soft, sensitive guy? Women loved men who were in touch with their feminine side, didn’t they?
Maybe. Only, as a cop, he didn’t see himself as having much of a feminine side, and somehow it was important to him that Maggie like him for himself. Maybe it was the challenge of overcoming her initial rejection. Maybe it was something more. But he decided to be as honest as his cover would allow. He told her what he truly liked, what he hated and what he dreamed about. Then he sent the message. She might have turned him down when he’d asked her out before, but he was hoping “John” would be able to slip beneath her defenses.
“MOMMY, I’M AWAKE!”
Maggie squinted at the round face leaning over hers and groaned. “Zach, it’s not even light yet.”
“Can I watch cartoons-s-s?” he added.
Maggie smiled at his lisp, longing for the day Zach would be able to work the television without her assistance. Then she thought of how fast he was growing up and regretted the fleeting wish. At three years old, he was at the perfect stage—out of diapers, cribs, and high chairs, but still cuddly and generous with his hugs.
Dragging herself out of bed, she hauled him into her arms for a big kiss, then deposited him on the couch in front of Disney’s Ducktales while she started the coffeemaker and put a frozen waffle in the toaster. It was actually later than she’d realized; when she opened the blinds, she saw that the sun was already up. She needed to get showered so she could begin her siege of Atkinson’s house.
“Hungry?” she asked Zach.
He didn’t answer. He was already engrossed in his cartoons, so she prepared his waffle with peanut butter the way he liked and brought it to him on a tray.
“I’m going to have a shower, okay, buddy?”
“Okay.” Silence, then, “Mommy?”
“I’ll be right here,” he said, digging in to his waffle.
Maggie ruffled his hair, then hurried to her bedroom, but before she turned on the shower and stripped off her nightgown, she checked her e-mail to see if Mntnbiker had written back.
Sure enough, there was a message from him, right at the top of the list.
You sound beautiful, and sweet.
Beautiful? How did he get beautiful out of what she’d sent him? Or sweet? This guy was either an eternal optimist or extremely lonely, but despite that, the flattery felt good.
As for me, I like mountain biking, sailing, sand volleyball and legal thrillers. I hate spinach, regardless of its food value, clueless drivers and people who try to convince the rest of the world that men and women have to be the same to be equal. I like our differences.
I grew up in a large Catholic family of three sisters and two brothers, a stay-at-home mom and a father who was manager of a large copper mine in Utah before he retired about four years ago. My parents were strict, but we knew they loved us, which has probably saved everyone a fortune in therapy. Right now, my parents are hoping I’ll find a nice girl and settle down to have a bunch of kids; but don’t let that worry you. My job is pretty demanding. I doubt I’ll be getting married any time soon—
Mntnbiker: Hi, Maggie.
Maggie blinked at the blue box that had suddenly appeared on her screen. Mntnbiker was sending her an instant message. She felt a moment’s panic because she’d been out of the dating game for so long, then shook it off. She wasn’t sixteen anymore. She wasn’t that girl with braces and clothes so well made they’d last a century, and this guy was a total stranger. She didn’t need to impress him. She didn’t even know where he lived.
Zachman: Hi, John.
Mntnbiker: Did you get my message?
Zachman: I was just reading it. I have to admit I like the part about me being beautiful and sweet the best, although it would certainly have been more convincing if you’d seen a picture of me first.
Mntnbiker: I have a good imagination.
Zachman: Then send me a photo because I don’t have a clue what you look like.
Mntnbiker: Does it matter?
Zachman: I’m curious.
Mntnbiker: I’m 6’2”, 195 lbs., brown hair, brown eyes.
Zachman: Do you still live in Utah?
Zachman: How old are you?
Mntnbiker: No. Never married.
Zachman: Any close calls?
Mntnbiker: I’ve been engaged once.
Zachman: To the woman you mentioned in the chat?
Zachman: How long ago was that?
Mntnbiker: Three years.
Maggie tapped a fingernail on her front tooth, thinking. She hated to come on too strong, but she didn’t want to waste her time with a guy who was still in love with someone else. Emboldened by the anonymity of e-mail communication, she decided to get right to the point.
Zachman: Are you over her?
Mntnbiker: I think so. Are you always so direct?
Zachman: Usually. I’m a journalist, remember? It’s my job to ask tough questions. So, do you ever see her anymore?
Mntnbiker: No, she’s married.
Zachman: I’m reading between the lines here, but the break-up sounds like it was pretty rough on you.
Mntnbiker: I wish I had taken the brunt of it. Unfortunately, I think it was rougher on her. How about you? Anyone special in your life?
Zachman: Just my son, Zach.
Mntnbiker: Tell me what he’s like.
Maggie stared, disbelieving, at Mntnbiker’s words. He wanted to know about Zach? For some reason, she hadn’t expected him to ask about her son. Maybe Tim’s attitude had colored her view of what most men were like. Maybe Mntnbiker—John—was different.
Smiling, she told him that Zach had a lisp, that he was blond and big for his age and that he loved basketball. The two of them played in the backyard all the time, using a pint-sized hoop and ball. Zach could already dribble.
Mntnbiker: He sounds like a great kid. What happened to his father?
Zachman: After I got pregnant, Tim demanded I get an abortion. He said he wasn’t ready, after all. But I refused to terminate the pregnancy, and that was pretty much the last straw in our relationship.
Mntnbiker: What does Tim do?
Zachman: He’s a podiatrist now. When we were married, he was going to school.
Mntnbiker: You supported him?
Mntnbiker: As a journalist?
Zachman: Not exactly.
Maggie hesitated. She wasn’t proud of this part of her life. She’d sold out, plain and simple, and she’d done it because Tim had asked her to. He had a way of making her career seem inconsequential next to his and, for a while, she’d actually bought into it.
Zachman: In order to get on at the paper in L.A., I would’ve had to intern for several years, which doesn’t pay anything. We needed money for Tim’s schooling, so he convinced me to hire on at one of the tabloids. We weren’t living too far from Hollywood, so our location was perfect for that sort of thing.
Mntnbiker: You sound like you regret it.
Zachman: I do. It certainly wasn’t the kind of writing I’d aspired to in college, but Tim can be very persuasive. He craved success more than anything, and he had a plan to achieve it. The only catch was that his plan depended on me making a sizable salary. Kids weren’t initially part of the deal, and he wasn’t happy he’d relented on that.
Mntnbiker: So is he successful?
Zachman: I guess. He has his practice, a new wife, a fancy car and a huge house.
Mntnbiker: And you have…
Zachman: An old house that needs central air and paint, a job that can eventually lead me in the direction I want to go, and Zach. Zach is worth all the cars and houses and money in the world. I actually feel kind of sorry for Tim. He’s missing out on so much.
Mntnbiker: Don’t feel sorry for him. He probably doesn’t deserve it. Does he pay you child support, have any relationship with Zach at all?
Zachman: No. He never really wanted Zach and wasn’t interested in visitation rights, so I didn’t have the nerve to ask for child support. I thought it was better to make a clean break and to do what I can for Zach on my own.
Mntnbiker: What did you ever see in this guy?
Zachman: We met in college. He was driven, ambitious, successful, confident. I fell in love with him almost right away. I fell out of love with him shortly after the wedding, for the same reasons.
Mntnbiker: And now? Are you seeing anyone?
Zachman: Oh, yeah. Lots of guys. On weekends, they form a line at my door.
Mntnbiker: How long’s the wait?
For the right man? Maggie sighed in longing. There’d be no wait for Mr. Right, but she didn’t have any hope of finding him soon.
“Mommy, you doing your e-mail?” Zach interrupted, coming into the room.
“Can I have s-s-some more milk?”
“Just a minute, honey.” When her son drew close enough, she pulled him onto her lap and shifted him to one side as she considered her response to Mntnbiker.
Zachman: It depends.
Mntnbiker: On looks or personality?
Zachman: Definitely personality.
Mntnbiker: How am I doing so far?
Zachman: Better than most, but we probably live a thousand miles apart.
Mntnbiker: We might live closer than you think.
Zachman: What if we do?
Mntnbiker: Who knows? Maybe we’ll meet someday. Maybe I’ll show up with chocolate-covered strawberries and coffee ice cream and whisk you away to the beach.
Zachman: Are you asking for my address?
Mntnbiker: No, because I don’t want you to give that kind of information out over the Internet, to anybody. Ever. It’s too dangerous.
Maggie raised an intrigued brow. This John guy seemed nice—caring and responsible. Maybe he was someone she could really like.
Zachman: I can trust you, though, right?
Mntnbiker: With your life.
Zachman: What do you do for a living?
Mntnbiker: I guess you could say I’m sort of a security guard.
A security guard? That wouldn’t appear too impressive on a resumé. Tim would have laughed and told her she was stupid to befriend a $5/hour rent-a-cop. What kind of breadwinner could he be?
Good thing she and Tim had never measured success the same way. Good thing she wasn’t looking for a meal ticket. She could earn her own money. She might never be rich, but she’d get by. She wanted a man who cared about life and love and didn’t forget the simple things. Someone who valued her above his new BMW.
I’m having a good time, she wrote, marveling at the fact that she really was, but I have to go to work right now. Can we talk later?
Mntnbiker: You have to go in on a Saturday?
Zachman: I usually work graveyard, Tuesday through Saturday, but this week I traded with the guy who has the day shift on Wednesday, which gave me last night off and enough sleep to tackle some things I have to get done.
Mntnbiker: Like chase down that story you mentioned? The murder?
Mntnbiker: How does a journalist track a story like that?
Zachman: It’s not easy. Right now, the county coroner isn’t being very helpful. He won’t give me any information on the body that was found last week, so I’m going to head over to his house with breakfast and see if I have better luck.
Mntnbiker: Maybe the police told him not to say anything.
Zachman: I’m sure they did.
Mntnbiker: But you’re a reporter. You’re not going to let that stop you, huh?
Zachman: Sort of. It’s my job to get the truth.
Mntnbiker: What if there’s a good reason for keeping you out of the loop?
Zachman: I’m not sure I’d buy it. Sometimes the police try to manipulate the media, just to make the department look good.
Mntnbiker: Everybody has a different perspective, I guess. Are you going to send me a message later?
Zachman: If you want.
Mntnbiker: I want. Do you work tonight?
Zachman: Yeah, I start at ten.
Mntnbiker: Then log on around seven o’clock, and I’ll take you on a cyber-date.
Zachman: What’s that?
Mntnbiker: You’ll see—I hope. I’m making this up as I go along.
Maggie typed LOL, the symbol for “laughing out loud,” then, teasing, told him she insisted on going Dutch. After that, she signed off.
MAGGIE HAD PLANNED to have her seventy-one-year-old neighbor, who normally watched Zach, come and sit with him while she visited the Atkinsons. But a denture crisis sent Mrs. Gruber off to the dentist, and Maggie decided that taking her son along might actually work to her advantage. She certainly couldn’t look too threatening with an endearing three-year-old in tow, not when he was carrying a box of donuts and she was toting a tray of coffee and hot chocolate. Besides, she liked having him with her.
She parked beneath one of the big, leafy trees that lined most of 36th Avenue, turned down the cop radio in her car and surveyed Lowell Atkinson’s house. She’d always admired it. It wasn’t large by modern standards but it definitely had class. Small, detached garage, well-tended shrubs, lots of flowers, big shady trees, and a new coat of paint on everything, including the fence. Maggie thought she might like to live in this neighborhood, if she could ever afford it. It was the kind of place where people bought and stayed. They mowed their own lawns, drove family cars and remembered to wave at the neighbors.
“Can I have another one?” Zach asked, lifting the lid and eyeing the donuts as she cut the engine. His face and hands were already covered with chocolate icing. Maggie considered his almost-clean shirt and decided not to tempt fate a second time.
“I think we’ve done enough damage already, buddy.” She retrieved a napkin from the glove box and did her best to spit-polish him, the way her grandmother used to do with her. When his patience ran out half a second later and he started squirming too much to make further improvements, she said, “Let’s go.”
Tall and willowy, Mary Ann Atkinson answered the door in her robe, but she looked as though she was in the process of getting ready, not getting up. Her dark hair was brushed back off her face and she’d already applied mascara and violet shadow to her brown eyes. “Hi, Maggie. Lowell said you’d be over today.”
“Yeah. Would you like to come in?”
Maggie didn’t answer right away. She was too busy wondering how Lowell might have known to expect her. She was a reporter, and he’d been dodging her questions. He could have made a simple assumption, but it was a little surprising that he’d been so specific about the day.
“How did Lowell know I was coming?” she asked.
Mary Ann smiled. “You didn’t call him?”
“No. Is he here?”
“I’m afraid not, but that’s no reason to let those donuts go to waste.” She stepped back. “Are you coming in?”
“Sure. Zach would love to see Katie. It’s been almost a year since we had that picnic.”
Katie, Mary Ann’s five-year-old, peered shyly through the railing of the balcony above as Mary Ann showed them inside. Mary Ann waved her daughter down and led them through a comfortable-looking brown-and-green living room, where her six-month-old son was sleeping in a battery-powered swing, to a large screened-in porch. They sat at an iron table on chintz-upholstered seats while Katie hung back, regarding Zach with wariness. Her reserve vanished, however, the moment he caught sight of her tricycle and appropriated it for his own use.
Mary Ann put a halt to her daughter’s indignant cries and found a smaller riding toy for Zach. Then she and Maggie watched their children play on the flagstone patio.
“The weather’s been great, hasn’t it?” Mary Ann asked. “I love this time of year.”
“It’s going to be a hot summer,” Maggie replied.
“Every summer is hot in Sacramento.”
“I’m finding that out.”
“Did you get air conditioning? I remember you spent last summer without it.”
“I decided to save two thousand bucks and bought a fan instead.”
Mary Ann laughed. “You should have saved the twenty bucks you spent on the fan because it won’t be nearly enough in another two weeks.”
“Even after I get an air conditioner I’m hoping to open my windows at night and use the fan to keep my electric bills down, at least on the nights I’m home.”
“Then you’re a braver woman than I am. After that Ritter murder, I’m keeping my doors and windows locked.”
Maggie set the cups of hot chocolate aside to cool for the kids and selected a tall Starbucks cup from her cardboard tray for Mary Ann. Then she opened the donuts. “Don’t let that scare you. Most murders are committed by a friend or relative, so unless someone close to you is unstable, you’re pretty safe.” She selected a chocolate cake donut and sat back to eat it. “In Sarah Ritter’s case, I’m guessing it was her husband. She was probably going to sue for divorce or something, so he freaked out and stabbed her with a kitchen knife.”
Mary Ann helped herself to a maple bar. “Except that she wasn’t killed with a kitchen knife. The murder weapon was sharper than that, the grooves different, more like a hunting knife.”
Maggie nearly choked on her first bite of donut. “What?” she said, coughing.
Mary Ann sent a furtive glance at her daughter and took a sip of coffee. “Lowell sometimes brings his work home with him, just like anybody else.”
“So the autopsy’s finished?”
“Of course. It was finished the same day they found the body. Lowell didn’t get home until almost midnight.”
“And? Did he find anything unusual?”
Mary Ann hesitated. “My husband left so he wouldn’t have to talk to you. He told me to play dumb.”
“I still don’t understand how he knew I was going to show up here.”
“Someone called. I thought it was you.”
“Who else could it have been?”
“Someone from the force, maybe?”
Her appetite gone, Maggie pushed her donut aside. No one on the force knew her plans for this morning. How could they have alerted Lowell? Had they been following her and guessed where she was heading? Why would they waste the manpower? Mendez must have realized his gaffe the other night and had let the others know. “What’s going on, Mary Ann?” she asked. “Lowell’s never felt he had to dodge me before.”
“He says the police are really worried about this case. They don’t want him to say anything to the press.”
“It was a brutal murder that needs to be solved as soon as possible, but why all the secrecy?”
“I don’t know. To tell you the truth, I think it’s wrong. I think people should know. The women of Sacramento should be warned to lock their doors and windows at night and to set an alarm, if they have one.”
Maggie studied Mary Ann’s agitated face. “Is it that bad?”
“Are you going to tell me why?”
With a sigh, Mary Ann lowered her voice so the children couldn’t hear. “That poor woman had her tongue cut out,” she said, her gaze pinning Maggie to her seat as effectively as her words. “Lowell said he’s never seen anything like it. He said whoever did it knew how to use a knife.”
Maggie cringed. “A hunter or a surgeon, maybe?”
“A serial killer, a wacko,” Mary Ann replied. “And the most frightening thing of all is that this guy has already struck six times. The first victim was a woman in Boston.”
So Maggie’s hunch had been right. She hadn’t found what she was looking for online last night, but she hadn’t searched very long, and she hadn’t known what she needed to track down—a monster who removed his victims’ tongues. That was certainly enough to earmark a murderer. “When?” she asked.
“Ten months ago, and he still hasn’t been caught.”
“SO THE BLUE FIBERS are from some sort of blanket?” Nick propped the phone on his shoulder so he could thumb through the pictures of the murder victims again. They’d all been killed away from where they’d been found, and they’d all been transported, wrapped in a blanket for the journey. Evidently, Sarah Ritter had been no different.
“That’s what the tests say.” Tony Caruso’s Jersey accent carried across the line even though he’d lived in Virginia and worked at the FBI’s crime lab in Washington DC for almost twenty years.
“What kind of blanket?”
There was some paper shuffling on the other end. Caruso covered the mouthpiece to speak to someone else, then came back on the line. “Sorry about that. A new one, unfortunately. Otherwise, we might have had more luck finding something else, a strand of hair maybe, to help us. I’m still hoping for a DNA profile on this guy. But, as it stands, we know only that she was wrapped in a cheap, fuzzy blanket, the kind you can buy almost anywhere.”
“What about the other fibers? The tan ones?”
“They’re consistent with the kind of carpet found in the trunk of most cars, usually the cheaper models.”
“So if this guy is a doctor, he’s not a very successful one. He’s not using a BMW or a Mercedes to haul bodies around.”
“I’d guess he’s driving an economy car,” Tony agreed. “He could have purchased it for just this purpose.”
“Maybe.” Nick pushed his reading glasses up and rubbed his eyes. Economy cars were a dime a dozen. Cheap fuzzy blankets did nothing to narrow the field of his search, either. When was Dr. Dan going to slip up and make a mistake that would really tell him something? “Did you find anything in what the coroner scraped out from beneath Sarah Ritter’s nails?”
“No skin or anything like that. If she put up a fight, she didn’t manage to scratch him. There was soil in what you sent, but it was consistent with the samples you included from her yard. I’m guessing she had a garden of some sort. Am I right?”
“She’d just planted tomatoes.” He remembered seeing them in the back, along the fence, when he’d visited the house to search for evidence of forced entry, evidence he’d never found. The tomato plants had been tender and young and vulnerable, just like Sarah Ritter’s son. The memory of the shock and grief apparent in his small face made Nick clench his jaw. He had to bring down Dr. Dan. Before he killed again…
“There was also some sand,” Tony went on.
“What kind of sand?”
“Rocky and uneven. The kind that usually appears on the shore of a lake, or maybe along the banks of a river.”
…we shall soon see what the river turns up…
“There’re two rivers that aren’t far from where the body was found. I’ll send you soil samples from each. Maybe we can get a match.”
“I’ll be expecting them.”
The American River originated somewhere in the Sierras, descended through the foothills and cut through the Sacramento suburbs to meet the Sacramento River, which came from the north to downtown, near Discovery Park. The American River had something like thirty miles of bike path along one bank and was by far the more accessible. If Nick had to choose, he’d guess Dr. Dan had killed Sarah Ritter somewhere along it. Down by the water, there were plenty of places where screams might not be heard, where foliage would easily conceal two people. Especially at night. Car bridges spanned the river, but they were miles apart, and the bicyclists who used the path so religiously by day were gone once the sun went down. A murderer could conceivably move, undetected, from car to bike path to footpath and back again—with a woman or a body. The only question was why. Why didn’t Dr. Dan simply kill her and dump her body in the river instead of dragging it downtown?
The lock jiggled at the front door, and Rambo jumped to his feet, ears forward, tail wagging. A glance at the clock and Rambo’s eager response told Nick it was Justin, the thirteen-year-old neighbor boy Nick paid to feed and walk Rambo every day. Justin filled in for potty breaks when Nick had to work long hours, too. Fortunately the pair had taken to each other right away.
“Anything else?” he asked Tony, waving as the boy came in.
“That footprint you found in Lola Fillmore’s flower bed? The size 12? It was a Nike knock-off.”
Justin retrieved Rambo’s leash from the kitchen and fastened it to his collar. “We’ll be back in about an hour,” he whispered.
Nick acknowledged his words with a nod and the door closed behind the boy and the dog. “What about wear, Tony?”
“There wasn’t any. The shoes were brand-new.”
Nick slammed his fist down onto the desk. “Dammit! Can’t we get a break?”
“Sorry, I should have called the moment we identified the shoes, but I knew it wasn’t going to help you, anyway. Not without wear.”
“How expensive were they?”
“You can get ’em for around twenty-five dollars at the cheaper stores.”
There was a long silence while Nick sank into his chair and digested this disappointing information. Everything about Dr. Dan reeked of common. They’d found nothing unique or unusual enough to track.
“You think Dr. Dan is a poor man?” Tony asked, surprising Nick out of his thoughts. Tony was a technician and usually too busy to involve himself in conjecture. That was for the field agents, who sometimes had to take risks based on instinct alone.
“No, I think he’s smart,” Nick answered. “He’s taking his time and doing everything right. What I need is a witness.” He sighed. “What I’m afraid I’m going to get is another victim.”
THE FIRST TIME Nick remembered his date with Maggie, it was nearly five o’clock. He’d spent the day gathering the samples he’d promised the lab and combing through the statements in each victim’s file, comparing and contrasting them with those he’d collected on Sarah Ritter. He had a whole chalkboard full of similarities and differences. But now, sitting in the sparsely furnished apartment the agency had rented for him with only Rambo as company, eating a late lunch of Chinese takeout, he was eager to get his mind off Dr. Dan’s sick deeds. He wanted to replace the blood he saw, even when he closed his eyes, with the sweetness of Maggie’s smile.
Fleetingly, he wondered how she’d reacted when Lowell Atkinson had stonewalled her this morning, but he felt no guilt for interfering. He was only doing his job. He didn’t mind letting Maggie dig up something he didn’t already know, but he was holding his own cards close to his chest. The last thing he needed was the press divulging everything the investigation uncovered, keeping Dr. Dan one step ahead of him.
Besides, Nick thought, finishing his chow mein and setting it aside, if she ever learned his true identity, she’d have much bigger things to forgive him for than placing a call to Atkinson.
His cop radio hissed and sputtered in the background as one of the dispatchers announced a possible robbery attempt. Rambo barked at the noise, but Nick ignored it. He used the radio to keep a pulse on what was happening around him, but listening to it was second nature to him now. It took no energy or focus.
Plugging his laptop into the phone line, he signed on to the Internet to shop for interesting places to take Maggie on their date. He considered having her join him at a site where they could watch a movie together and communicate via instant messaging. But he knew it would fall far short of the real experience. There’d be no giant screen, no smell of popcorn and no Maggie sitting next to him. He needed to take her somewhere more exotic. Knowing that he had no hope of getting an arm around her to see if her skin was really as soft as it looked, no hope of even a chaste kiss good-night, he needed to find a place that was fascinating enough to distract him—and intrigue her.
Twenty minutes later, he found it.
“MOMMY, WHEN’S-S-S Mrs-s-s. Goober coming over?”
“Mrs. Gruber?” Maggie corrected. “Soon.” She was sitting at the kitchen table, preoccupied with the various newspaper articles she’d copied off the Internet a few hours earlier. According to what she’d found, six unsolved murders reported over the past year had enough common characteristics for investigators to assume they were committed by the same person. The victims were all Caucasian women ranging in age from twenty-four to thirty-nine. They’d been stabbed repeatedly with something resembling a butcher knife. And they’d had their tongues removed after death.
That last gruesome detail was as good as a signature—and was more than enough to make Maggie feel ill. What kind of sick bastard was this guy? It terrified her to think of him circulating among the people of her own city. He could be the guy smoking outside the café where she bought her coffee each morning. He could be her newspaper carrier or the house painter down the street. He could be anyone. And it appeared he could go anywhere. One victim was murdered in Massachusetts, one in Missouri, two in Colorado and two in Washington state. As if what she’d found wasn’t unnerving enough, she noted that his last victim, before Sarah Ritter, had been a reporter for the Seattle Independent.
“Gads,” she whispered. “What are we facing here?”
“Mommy! When’s Mrs-s-s. Goober comin’ over?” This time the frustration in her son’s voice finally broke Maggie’s concentration. Crayons were scattered across the table next to her, along with several scribbled pictures. She’d tried to entertain Zach while she worked, but he was bored with it all.
She glanced at her watch. Where had the time gone? Her “date” with John was in twenty minutes and she still needed to feed Zach.
“Where is everyone? All the lights you got on in this place, you’d think electricity didn’t cost money.” Mrs. Gruber shuffled into the kitchen, an overnight case heavy on her arm, but probably no heavier than the industrial-sized purse she carried in the other hand. Maggie had no idea what was in her purse, but she knew the contents of the suitcase by heart. She watched Mrs. Gruber pack it up each morning. A bag of gumdrops—her diet staple and probably the culprit in her denture disaster—a pair of reading glasses, a jar of cold cream, a toothbrush, a hair net and an entire medicine cabinet of vitamins. She’d tried to get Mrs. Gruber to leave her things in the guest bathroom, but her neighbor felt more comfortable carting it all back and forth. So Maggie had given up trying to convince her. Mrs. Gruber was a fantastic baby-sitter—more like a grandma to Zach, really—but she was accustomed to certain things. She always let herself in, said whatever came to mind and considered it her personal mission in life to see that nothing was ever wasted. She collected aluminum foil, washed and reused disposable flatware, birthday candles and plastic bags.
“Mrs-s-s. Goober! Mrs-s-s. Goober!” In his excitement to see her, Zach launched himself from the kitchen table and nearly tackled the old woman.
Mrs. Gruber told him to settle down and mind his manners, but her gruffness did nothing to stifle Zach’s enthusiasm. He knew she loved him.
She held him close, then delved into her overnight bag. “Look at this,” she told him. “I brought you something.”
It would have been a rare night had she not brought Zach a small present—a pretty rock for their collection, a quarter for his piggy bank, a new toothbrush. Maggie filed the disturbing newspaper articles away, planning to take them to the office with her, before tossing a look over her shoulder to see what Mrs. Gruber had brought him today.
“Pajamas-s-s with a cape!” Zach shrieked, immediately stripping off his clothes.
A widow who lived alone, Mrs. Gruber survived on social security and what Maggie paid her. She had no business spending her money on Zach, and Maggie often told her so. But that didn’t change a thing.
“He’s getting too tall for his football pajamas,” she explained, a defensive note creeping into her voice when Maggie cocked a brow at her. “And they were on sale.”
“I’ll pay you back.”
Mrs. Gruber scowled and helped Zach pull the top of his new pajamas over his head. “They didn’t cost enough to worry about.”
“That’s what you say about everything you buy him.” Maggie started rummaging through the cupboards, wondering what to feed Zach, but Mrs. Gruber nudged her aside.
“What are you lookin’ for?”
“Something for dinner.”
“I brought dinner. Zach loves my spaghetti and meatballs.” Before Maggie could respond, she added, “And don’t tell me not to bring food. It was leftovers. What did you want me to do, let it go to waste?”
She took out a plastic container with enough spaghetti and meatballs to feed an army, and Maggie knew darn well that it wasn’t leftovers. She’d made it for them, probably today.
“You’re spoiling us,” Maggie said, shaking her head.
Mrs. Gruber harumphed. “It’s just leftovers,” she said again.
“What are you doing here so early?” Maggie asked, changing the subject. “I don’t have to be at work until ten.”
“You were gone most of the day. I thought you might want to take a nap. You don’t get enough sleep. You don’t eat good. It’s going to catch up with you one day.”
Maggie smiled. Mrs. Gruber foretold her physical collapse on a daily basis. She was too thin. She worked too hard. She should be getting out more, making more friends, eating more vegetables. Today Maggie would’ve liked to take her up on the nap, but she wasn’t about to postpone her meeting with John. She’d been looking forward to it all afternoon. “I can’t sleep,” she said. “I have a…date.”
Mrs. Gruber’s face brightened beneath the tight, perfect rows of short, bluish curls. “Is it that nice garbageman who takes my trash out to the curb each week? I’ve told you to introduce yourself to him. He’ll probably start getting your trash now, too.”
Maggie didn’t tell her that there was no nice garbageman. She lugged the trash cans out for both of them when she got home from work on Tuesday mornings. “No, it’s someone I met online.”
Maggie laughed. “Online. On the Internet. We met at a chat, and now he’s e-mailing me.”
Mrs. Gruber propped one age-spotted hand on a bony hip. “He’s sending you messages? That’s it?”
“Well, no, not exactly. He’s taking me on a cyber-date tonight.”
“But you’ve never seen him? Never heard his voice?”
“You’re going to stay in your house and he’s going to stay in his?”
“That’s too bad,” she said. “You can’t neck with a man online.”
MAGGIE LEFT ZACH EATING spaghetti and playing Candyland with Mrs. Gruber and hurried to her bedroom so she wouldn’t be late for her date. She couldn’t believe she was actually nervous about “seeing” John again. What did she have to be nervous about? It was a cyber-date. It was nothing.
Her modem screeched through the familiar pattern of tones as Maggie hooked up to the Internet. She’d added John to her buddy list and expected to find his screen name listed there, but a quick glance told her he wasn’t online yet. She found a message from him instead.
When you’re ready for tonight, just click on the link below.
See you there.
The link John had sent consisted of a bunch of letters and numbers highlighted in blue. Maggie had expected another instant messaging session as their date, but apparently John had something else in mind. Pointing her mouse on the link, she clicked, and a moment later the picture of a beautiful island village filled her screen. Then a voice came through the speakers of her computer.
“Hi, Maggie. You said you like sand. Welcome to paradise.”
Was that John’s voice? she wondered. If so, she wished she’d been able to hear it more clearly. Her speakers weren’t the best. Whoever it was sounded tinny and unnatural.
Mntnbiker: Are you always so punctual, or dare I hope you’re excited to see me?
The words appeared in an instant message box in the upper left of Maggie’s screen, making her smile. John had arrived.
Zachman: Where are we? This looks great.
Mntnbiker: We’re vacationing in the Caribbean. Have you ever been here before?
Briefly Maggie remembered Tim and his many promises. “After I graduate, we’ll…” She’d worked her heart out to put him through school, but it was his new wife, Lucy, who was cashing in on the trips to Europe, Hawaii and Asia they’d planned to take. Or, rather, Lucy was cashing in if Tim actually took the time off. Knowing him, he never would. In his mind, the good life was always just beyond the next professional hurdle.
Zachman: I’ve never been anywhere, except Boston, to visit Tim’s family when we were married, and Iowa to visit mine.
Mntnbiker: Then you’re going to like this. Click the start button.
Maggie did as he said and heard a new voice through her speakers, a woman with a heavy Caribbean accent. Reggae music played in the background.
“Welcome to the beautiful island of Barbados in the East Caribbean, a land of warm seas and fertile earth, a tropical paradise unlike any other….”
A video tour showed shimmering aquamarine seas, white sandy beaches, dark-skinned locals, some wearing dreadlocks, and lush wet countryside. Through instant messaging, John pointed out sights along the way and summarized the history of the island, which was something the guide didn’t cover. Maggie was thoroughly impressed.
Zachman: This is really cool! I love it. How do you know so much about the sugar plantations of Barbados?
Mntnbiker: I worked there for a while.
As a security guard?
Zachman: Then you moved back to Utah?
Maggie felt a twinge of excitement at the thought that they could meet if they wanted to. Twelve hours by car wasn’t exactly close, but it wasn’t across the country, either.
Zachman: I live in California.
Mntnbiker: Is that where you were born?
Zachman: No, I was born in Iowa.
Mntnbiker: Did you grow up there?
Zachman: Until I graduated from high school. Then I left for UCLA.
Mntnbiker: Is that where you met Tim?
Zachman: Yeah. We were married right before I got my Bachelor’s in journalism.
Mntnbiker: Tell me about your family.
Maggie told him about Ronnie and her mother, the only family she had left. When prompted by a few more questions, she shared what it was like growing up with a brother who was ten years older, what it was like having parents who were already forty-five when she was born and hadn’t been planning on any more children. She told him she’d been the apple of her father’s eye—until he died of a heart attack a year before she married Tim. She even admitted the terrible guilt she felt for going to UCLA and leaving him behind, how painful it was that she didn’t get to see him before he died. She’d received the bad news by telephone, returned for the funeral, and that was it. In her first great bid to make something of herself, she’d lost the one person who’d given her a firm foundation on which to build.
Mntnbiker: I’m sure he knew you loved him, Maggie, and that’s all that matters. I bet he was very proud of his little girl.
Maggie couldn’t help the tears that slipped from the corners of her eyes at that statement. Her father had never seen her as the ugly duckling she was—the acne, the skinniness, the knobby knees. He’d looked at her and seen a swan from the moment she was born.
Zachman: At least he wasn’t around to see my marriage fail.
Mntnbiker: That wouldn’t have lowered his opinion of you.
Zachman: I hope not. I just wish he’d lived long enough to know Zach.
Mntnbiker: I’m sure that would’ve been the highlight of his life. Where is Zach today? What do you do with him while you work?
Ah, a happier subject. Maggie told John about Mrs. Gruber and her spaghetti, the balls of aluminum foil, the sweater she wore over her dresses even in the heat of the summer, and the old Cadillac she drove without much concern for inconsequential things like “right of way.” By the time she was done, John indicated he was laughing by the LOL—laughing out loud—symbol, and she felt surprisingly close to him.
Zachman: You seem like a good man. I’m glad we met.
There was a longer pause than usual.
Mntnbiker: I’m not always sure I’m a good man, but I’m glad we met, too.
Zachman: Do you have a scanner?
Zachman: Then would you go to Kinko’s or some place and scan me a picture of yourself?
Mntnbiker: Why? I thought looks didn’t matter.
Zachman: They don’t, really. I just want something to imagine when I close my eyes and think of you. I know you’re tall and definitely not overweight. And you have dark hair and eyes. But that’s it. Aren’t you curious what I look like?
There was another pause, this one even longer than the first.
Zachman: John? Are you still there?
Mntnbiker: Sorry. Listen, I have to run, but I’ll write you later. Okay?
Maggie frowned at her screen. They’d been together online for ninety minutes, but there was still a good hour before she had to leave for work. She wasn’t ready to let him go and couldn’t figure out why he’d suddenly turned cold.
Jeez, I’m lonelier than I realized, she thought. Now I’m clinging to a man I’ve never actually met. She groaned and smacked her forehead. Snap out of it, Mag!
Zachman: Sure. I have to get to work, anyway.
WHEN MAGGIE ARRIVED at the office, she found Nick Sorenson slouched in her chair, his legs stretched out in front of him, his eyes on her pictures of Zach.
Surprised, she drew to a halt and gaped at him over the partition that divided her small space from everyone else’s. “What are you doing at my desk?”
He smiled and stood. “Waiting for you.”
He handed her a slip of paper. Maggie glanced at it and immediately recognized the scrawl—Jorge, the cop reporter who had the shift before hers—but she didn’t take time to read his note. Nick was talking, explaining.
“Jorge’s son is having his fourteenth birthday tonight. Whole family’s going to be there. He wanted to take the call but couldn’t miss the party. So it’s your story now.”
“If I want it.” She forced her gaze away from Nick’s rugged face and looked more closely at Jorge’s note.
Police on their way to the burger stand at Broadway and 14th Avenue. Drive-by shooting. Don’t know details. Call just came in.
She raised her brows in speculation. Broadway and 14th. Oak Park. It was the roughest area in Sacramento.
“Let me guess,” he said. “You want it.”
She eyed him narrowly. “Let me guess,” she said. “You’re the only photographer available for this.”
His grin showed white teeth contrasted against a day’s beard. “Yep. Don’t you trust me to get the pics right?”
Maggie didn’t trust him, period. She drew a deep breath, trying to put a finger on what was bothering her tonight. Nick had invaded her personal space, which was presumptuous, even rude, especially since he was still so new. But it was more than that. He acted as though he was in complete control, even in a place where he should’ve been out of his element. He was obviously someone who enjoyed the upper hand, she decided, someone who was used to having it, like Rock Tillman. But after Tim, Maggie had promised herself that she’d never let a man take control of her life again. And she meant that. Any man who stepped on her toes was going to hear about it.
“Just one thing,” she said.
“What’s that?” He watched her from beneath thick dark lashes, the perfect frame for the unusual color of his eyes. Not quite brown, not quite gold, they were somewhere in between, like tortoiseshell.
“The next time you feel the need to wait for me, do it at your own desk.”
Maggie had expected him to bristle at the firmness in her voice and was prepared to stand her ground. But he only chuckled softly. “Anything you say, Maggie.”
Her name sounded strangely intimate on his lips. She almost demanded he call her Mrs. Russell but immediately realized how silly that would be. Everyone in the office called her Maggie. Her gray-haired ex-mother-in-law was Mrs. Russell.
He brushed past her and headed down the aisle, and for a moment, Maggie swam in his scent. Whether it was his aftershave, soap, cologne or shampoo, she didn’t know, but whatever the combination, it was more evocative than she would have expected and caused a butterfly-like sensation in her stomach.
“Oh, God. Not Nick Sorenson,” she muttered to herself, trailing him at a distance. “Think John. Nice, tender, sensitive John, who tells you your father would be proud of you, who takes you on creative and thoughtful cyber-dates.” Just because he wouldn’t send her a picture didn’t mean he looked like a monster. He was just more enlightened than most. He understood how little looks truly mattered in the overall scheme of things. She understood that, too.
So why, then, was she having such a difficult time keeping her eyes averted from the physical perfection of Nick Sorenson’s butt?
THE VICTIM WAS a young black male, probably no more than fifteen.
Maggie stared down at the limp form sprawled on the sidewalk, watching as the paramedics worked to resuscitate him, and couldn’t help imagining his mother’s grief. No doubt the poor woman would want to know how her child’s life could end this way. What had happened? Why?
They were the same questions Maggie would have to ask but for different reasons. She would ask because it was her job.
“This kind of tragedy makes me sick,” she told Nick, who was standing next to her.
“Gangs,” he replied, a frown tugging down the corners of his mouth.
Maggie clenched her fists at her side and prayed silently that the boy would live. Come on, come back, she chanted, you should have another sixty years.
But it was only a few minutes later that the two paramedics rocked back on their haunches and stared at each other in silent communication. It was over. He was gone. There was nothing else they could do. Their faces grim, they loaded the boy on a stretcher and transferred him to the ambulance. The motor rumbled, the siren wailed, the lights flashed and soon only a dark puddle remained beneath the streetlights, along with four firemen, their bright red truck, and a gathering crowd of spectators.
Distance yourself, Maggie commanded. She couldn’t think about the violence, the senseless suffering, the mother’s bewilderment—or she’d be too angry to be objective.
Nick put his hand on the small of her back and looked down at her. “You okay?”
For a moment, Maggie forgot that she didn’t want anything to do with the Trib’s new photographer. She forgot about his arrogance, his fantastic body, his “love ’em and leave ’em” aura. She even forgot about Rock Tillman. After what they’d witnessed, nothing other than the basic issues of life and death seemed to matter. She turned her face into his chest and let him stroke her back. Then she took a deep breath and gathered the willpower to do her job and to let him do his.
“HAVING A HARD TIME staying awake?”
At the sound of Nick’s voice, Maggie lifted her head off her arms and glanced up at him, wanting to curse him for looking so alert at four o’clock in the morning. They’d gotten back to the office around midnight. She’d found a message on her desk from Ben, her editor, demanding her follow-up to the Ritter murder and had spent the next two hours trying to get hold of someone at police headquarters to confirm what Mary Ann had told her. But no one would go on record, least of all the two detectives working the case. So she’d been forced to write the story using an unidentified informant as her source.
Despite that, she was pleased with the way it had turned out. And she was glad to have it behind her. For the past hour she’d been incapable of accomplishing anything more industrious than monitoring her scanners. “I’ve been up too long,” she said.
“Why don’t you go home and get some sleep?”
Maggie rubbed her cheek, hoping she didn’t have waffle face. “Because it’s my job to stay here until the morning shift comes on. And because that guy who killed Sarah Ritter might strike again. I don’t want anyone else to get hurt, but if it’s going to happen, I can’t miss the story. I have to justify my paycheck somehow.” She shoved a copy of her latest article at him, and his eyes cut to the headline: RITTER LATEST OF SEVEN.
“Ritter’s murderer has killed before?” he asked, his expression pensive.
“How do you know? The police tell you that?”
“Not in so many words. Other sources—and a little research—confirmed it.”
“What other sources?”
Maggie gave him a sly smile. “A good reporter never reveals her secrets.”
“Seems I’ve heard that line in the movies. But we’re on the same team here, right?”
A call came crackling through one of her scanners, and Maggie adjusted the volume so she could hear it better. Sounded like a domestic violence case. She certainly wasn’t about to rush out of the office for that. If she reported on every man who struck his wife, there’d be no room in the paper for anything else.
Evidently, what she’d seen because of her job was making her a little cynical. “Don’t worry, I’ll let you know when to take the pictures,” she said, returning to their conversation.
He leaned an elbow on the partition surrounding her desk. “Want me to help you stay awake?”
Yawning, she supported her head with her hand. “I don’t think anyone could do that.”
This statement elicited a wolfish grin. “Maybe I’m better at keeping a woman’s attention than you think.”
Maggie didn’t doubt his capabilities; in fact, it was his potential for late-night entertainment that scared her. “What did you have in mind?” she asked hesitantly.
“I don’t know. We could play a game.”
“Like checkers? I’m afraid I don’t keep board games in my desk, and frankly I’d be a little surprised to find them in yours.”
“I was thinking of something like Truth or Dare,” he said with a chuckle. “Doesn’t require any props and it can be very interesting, depending on who you’re playing with.”
Maggie rolled her eyes. “I’d be crazy to play that with you.”
“Why? Got a few skeletons in your closet?”
“No, I just don’t feel like doing anything stupid. Eating coffee grounds or something.”
He scowled. “Eating coffee grounds is something a twelve-year-old would think of. I can tell you haven’t played this game for a while.”
“And you have?”
“No, but I can think of more exciting things to have you do than eat coffee grounds.”
Maggie felt an unexpected tingle go up her spine at the thought of what some of those things might be. “I think that might be the problem,” she admitted.
“I’m hurt you don’t trust me.”
“Why should I trust you? I barely know you.”
He pushed away from the partition to steal a chair from the cubicle next to Maggie’s so he could sit down. “That’s the beauty of this game. It’ll help us get to know each other. Come on, I’ll let you go first.”
Maggie regarded his six-foot-plus length folded in the chair beside her, long legs stretched out in front of him. Where was he going with this?
Wherever it was, she wasn’t sleepy anymore. She had to give him points for effectiveness.
“Okay,” she said, unable to resist the opportunity to have him at her mercy, “truth or dare?”
He pursed his lips and held her gaze. “Truth.”
“Why did you ask me out a couple of weeks ago?”
“Isn’t that obvious?”
“No. There are a lot of women in this office. Why me?”
“Because you’re beautiful and driven and a little shy. I like the combination.”
Maggie tried that on for size. It was a far cry from some of the things she’d been called in high school. Even though twelve years had passed since those days, she sometimes found it hard to rid her head of the echo. “Wow,” she said. “Okay. Maybe this game is going to be fun.”
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