Lydia Strong wanted a cigarette to celebrate the defeat of her enemy. She leaned back in her chair and looked at the manuscript that sat fat and neat on her desk beside her computer. She felt like a prizefighter who had finally, after a brutal showdown, sent her opponent to the mat. The Lost Girl had taken her nearly a year to write and every page had been a battle. It was a first for her. Words were her tools, sometimes her weapons; either way, she’d always wielded them with ease. But this book didn’t want to be written. Every day the blank page had seemed like a taunt, a dare, a bully on the playground looking for her lunch money.
Maybe it was because in the writing of it, she had to let go of things she’d been clinging to for years. Maybe because, as painful as those things were, they were comfortable, familiar, and a part of her didn’t really want to see them exorcised. But now they were safely incarcerated in the pages of her manuscript. Soon they’d be edited and revised, edited and revised again. Then they’d be exposed to the light of the world. And, like all demons, in the sun they’d turn to piles of dust.
She laughed a little, just because of the lightness of her relief. She got up from her desk and tossed around the idea of going out for a pack of cigarettes. Maybe if Jeffrey wasn’t lying on the couch reading the Sunday Times, she’d go down to the bodega on the corner of Lafayette and Great Jones, smoke a cigarette on the street and then throw away the rest of the pack. But he’d be able to tell and then he’d give her a hard time. It wasn’t worth it.
“I’m done,” she called, walking out of her office and through the loft. But he wasn’t on the couch; he was standing at the counter that divided the kitchen from the living room, talking on the phone.
“Oops, sorry,” she said when she saw him.
He looked at her strangely when she walked in. She hadn’t heard the phone ring. She took a frosty bottle of Ketel One vodka from the freezer and poured herself a lowball, trying and failing to be quiet as she put some ice in the glass and squirted some lime juice from one of those little plastic bottles shaped cutely like a lime.
“I see,” he said, lowering his eyes to the floor beneath his feet, tapping a pen on the countertop. “No, I’d rather tell her, David, if you don’t mind.”
“Is that my grandfather?” Lydia asked, looking at him now. She could tell there was something wrong, but she sipped at the drink in her hand and pretended she couldn’t. She needed a few minutes to enjoy the completion of her manuscript before life leaked in and started demanding attention.
Jeffrey put the phone back in the cradle and didn’t look at her right away.
“Did you hear me? I’m finished. I finished The Lost Girl.”
“That’s fantastic. Congratulations,” he said softly, moving toward her and taking her into his arms.
“Want a drink?” she asked.
“Not right now,” he said. She pulled away from him after a second and then walked over to the living room. The fire they’d made earlier in the afternoon was low, just a few flames danced. Outside, a light snow tapped against the windows and their view of lower Manhattan was obscured by frost.
She sat on the couch and curled her legs up beneath her. Something in her chest was thumping. She didn’t like the look on Jeffrey’s face or the careful way he was moving toward her.
“There’s some news,” he said, sitting beside her.
“Are they all right?” she asked, bracing herself. Her maternal grandparents, David and Eleanor Strong, were the only living family members to whom she had any connection. She thought of them, both hearty, young-minded, still traveling, enjoying their lives and each other. It seemed like they would always be there. But with both of them in their early seventies, she knew she’d have to deal with their mortality at some point. But she hadn’t done that yet. And she wasn’t ready.
“Oh, yeah,” he said quickly. “Yeah, they’re both fine.”
She felt a wash of relief. “Okay,” she said, releasing a breath she’d been holding.
“Then what?” she said, sitting up, leaning into him as he sat beside her. He took her hand in his and cast his eyes down.
“Your father . . .” he said, letting the sentence trail.
The phrase sounded so strange. She never thought of herself as having a father. Most times she forgot he even existed.
“What about him?” she asked, frowning.
“He’s dead, Lydia,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
Something shifted inside of her. “Dead?” she said, like it was a word that didn’t have any meaning to her.
“I’m sorry,” he said again, releasing her hand and taking hold of her shoulder. She looked at his face, saw worry there, sadness for her.
“How?” she asked after a moment where she searched herself for feeling and came up with nothing. She wanted to feel something, but there was only a cool numbness.
“Your grandfather didn’t have the details.”
She’d met her father only once, when she was fifteen years old, on the day after her mother’s funeral. It was a lifetime ago, and she found that she remembered everything about that time like lucid dream. Some details were vivid but a strange fog seemed to hang over the events.
She remembered the door ajar on the day she discovered her mother’s body, the blaring stereo that greeted her as she arrived home. But the terrible discovery of her mother’s body and the grim investigation that followed was a jumble of isolated events with no real timeline in her memory. She remembered the crowded funeral service and the hushed sobbing and the somber voice of the priest, the burial on a day that was too bright and sunny, too beautiful. She remembered identifying Jed McIntyre as the man who’d been following her and her mother for days. She remembered the single garnet earring missing from her mother’s jewelry box. And she remembered her father’s visit. The one and only time she’d seen him in the flesh.
She had sat alone in the living room staring out the bay window at the woods behind her house. The leaves were turning, a riot of orange, red, and gold. The day was cool and sun washed, and she remembered wishing for rain. She wanted thunder and gale-force winds, hail and lightning.
She’d heard the doorbell but paid no attention, sure it was another neighbor come to offer their condolences. She pulled herself into a tight ball and closed her eyes, dreading having to smile politely, having to say she would be all right. Then she heard her grandfather’s voice as he opened the door, then a soft murmuring, then silence. Her grandfather’s voice sounded angry, but she thought she must be mistaken. Then she saw him at the door, his face tight and ashen.
Hovering behind her grandfather, there was a stranger with her storm-cloud gray eyes. Tall and slouching, poorly dressed, he held flowers and had a hangdog look about him, an aura of shame. He shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. He was a tall, lean man, blondish, faded looking like a bad copy of himself. Even though she’d never met him, she knew him immediately.
“You’re my father?” she asked, getting up.
“You don’t have to see him, Lydia,” her grandfather said.
But her curiosity had been great. It was the first feeling she’d had other than grief and horror since her mother died.
“No,” she said. “It’s okay, Grandpa.”
She stood up and her father walked towards her. He held the flowers out to her. She took them, her eyes fixed on him. Struggling in her relationship with her mother, she’d thought about her missing father often. None of the fantasies she’d had about him in her life had even come close to predicting the ordinary man who stood before her. She had imagined him as a great lover, dark and handsome; a motorcycle daredevil, reckless and brave; an international spy, suave and sophisticated. What other kind of man, she concluded, could have stolen her strong, beautiful mother’s heart and then left her broken and forever sad? Surely, some great danger or some irresistible intrigue had lured him from his family. In spite of what her mother said.
“Don’t fantasize about your father, Lydia,” her mother had told her numerous times. “He was just an irresponsible man, living for get-rich-quick schemes, always looking for something more than he had.”
She had never believed her mother, until the moment he stood before her, eyes begging, hands quivering. It had felt like another death for her.
She let the flowers drop to the floor, turned her back on him, and walked back to her perch by the window. She might have forgiven him for leaving them, for breaking her mother’s heart, but she could never forgive him for being so unremarkable. She could never forgive that he had obviously left them for nothing.
“It’s time for you to go,” her grandfather had said. He’d stood like a sentry in the corner of the room. He had always been a big man, with strong, imposing shoulders and hands as big as oven mitts, a strong, angular face that looked like it should be carved in a mountain somewhere.
“You’ve made her a cold bitch, just like her mother,” her father said then. For all this size, David Strong moved on him like a cat.
Up until the day they moved from the house where Lydia’s mother had been murdered, the stain left by her father bleeding into the carpet after her grandfather had belted him remained, a faint reminder of a small man. She remembered thinking that the house was full of her parents’ blood, and the thought made her stomach turn. That was the only memory she had of her father.
“Lydia,” said Jeffrey.
“I’m okay,” she said, snapping back to the present. And she was. She was shocked and there was something churning in her stomach. But she felt strong, stable. She could hardly be grief stricken for a man she’d barely known.
“I guess I’m not sure how to feel.”
Jeffrey shook his head slowly, looked at her as if he were wondering if she would cry. He didn’t say anything.
“Is there a funeral?” she asked, leaning back on the couch.
“There was. Last week. Your grandfather only found out because an old buddy of his who still lives in Nyack saw the obit.”
Lydia’s grandparents had recently moved from Nyack to a two-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side, partly to be closer to Lydia and partly because they were unable to sleep in a house where Jed McIntyre, the man who’d murdered their daughter, had come for them as well.
Lydia nodded, placed her drink on the coffee table, and laid her head in Jeffrey’s lap.
“I’m sorry, Lydia,” he said quietly, putting a hand on her head.
“It’s a strange feeling,” she said after a few minutes of quiet. “To lose something you never had. I don’t know how to explain it. I don’t know how to feel it.”
But she knew she didn’t have to explain herself to him. He understood her; he always did. She turned around, took his hand in hers, played absently with the thick platinum band he wore on his left hand. Inscribed on the underside of it were her name and the date of their wedding. She wore a matching band, studded randomly with tiny star-cut sapphires.
They’d been married in a simple ceremony on Hanalei Bay in Kauai nearly a year ago. She’d worn a simple white linen shift and traditional plumeria lei and stood barefoot with him on the sand at sunset. Their ceremony, officiated by an old Hawaiian priestess, had been witnessed by David and Eleanor Strong and Dax Chicago, a man who’d become their closest friend.
“I can’t believe you’d have the nerve to wear white,” Dax had whispered to her after she and Jeffrey had exchanged rings. She’d laughed out loud. In all her life, she’d never felt as light and happy as she had that day. The long and treacherous journey they’d taken to the altar had ended well and she was grateful.
“What do we need to do?” Jeffrey asked her now. “You know---to observe this?”
She closed her eyes. “I don’t know. I’ll get back to you.”
It was after ten when the phone rang. Jeff was still reading and Lydia was half asleep, her head still in his lap. She’d managed to push thoughts of her father away enough to doze but not enough to actually fall asleep; a kind of low-grade sadness and uneasiness had taken hold of her. She hopped up to get the phone.
“Who’d call so late?” asked Jeff, not looking up from his book on New York State gun law. He had his glasses on, which Lydia thought made him look sexy and intellectual. He thought they just made him look old but he couldn’t read without them so he endured.
“Must be more good news,” said Lydia. She was thinking to herself that it was probably Dax, king of trampling boundaries.
The caller ID read “unavailable.”
“This is Detective Matt Stenopolis, NYPD Missing Persons Unit. I need to speak to Lydia Strong.”
His voice sounded youngish but there was a gravity and deep timbre to it that told Lydia he took himself seriously and expected others to do the same.
“Ms. Strong, you left a message for Lily Samuels about two weeks ago indicating that you were returning a call she made to you.” She could hear street noise on the other end of the phone.
“That’s right,” she said, concern and curiosity aroused.
He cleared his throat. “Ms. Samuels has been missing now for over two weeks and I’m wondering if we can talk.”
“Sure,” she said. “Of course.”
“I’m calling from my car. I know it’s late but would it be inconvenient if I came by?”
“Um, no,” she said glancing at the clock. “Come on by.”
She gave him the address and hung up the phone.
“Who was that?” said Jeffrey, putting down his book and looking at her.
“A detective. Lily Samuels is missing,” she said leaning against the counter.
“Remember that journalism class I taught at NYU as a visiting professor a couple of years ago? She was one of my students. She started at the Post last year on the crime desk.”
Lydia had felt a special affinity for Lily from the day she had walked into the large, over-warm classroom and sat in the front row. There was an earnestness, an honesty to her that Lydia could see in her deep brown eyes. And she had a belly full of fire. Lydia could always recognize it, that love of the hunt, that drive for the heart of a story. Lily’s talent had set her apart from the rest of the class; the kindness and compassion in her interview style and in her writing put her head and shoulders above most of the professional writers Lydia knew. In the past two years, Lydia had given her advice on pursuing stories she was working on for her degree, and eventually a reference that got her a foot in the door at the Post.
It wasn’t long before the buzzer rang. She checked the video monitor. A very tall, well-dressed, youngish man in a leather coat lifted his shield to the video monitor. Lydia pressed the button that allowed entry to the elevator bank downstairs. She watched as he stepped out of view and into the elevator that would lift directly into the apartment.
It was the little things like this which reminded her that she was free; she didn’t have to feel the cold fingers of fear tugging at her every time the buzzer rang late, didn’t have to wonder if the person she saw at the door was a threat. It was like a grip had been released from her heart. Jed McIntyre, the man who murdered her mother and then last year came for her after his erroneous release from a maximum-security mental hospital, was dead. Unlike incarceration, death was a securely permanent condition. And Lydia found she could breathe again.
As she waited by the elevator door, she heard Jeffrey in the kitchen making coffee.
“How long has she been missing?” he called from the kitchen.
“Two weeks,” said Lydia grimly. In a missing persons investigation it was the first thirty-six hours that were critical. After that time period had passed, the odds of anyone being found alive decreased exponentially. For Lily, that window had closed.
“And the guy is still working into the night,” said Jeffrey. “Must have its hooks in him.”
Lydia nodded to herself. They both knew what that was like.
Detective Matt Stenopolis was, simply put, gigantic. He ducked his head slightly as he stepped from the elevator and Lydia’s hand disappeared into his when he took it in greeting. He had pale white skin, a chaos of blue-black hair and a dark shadow of stubble to match. He smelled like snow and cigarettes.
He’s bigger than Dax, thought Lydia, as he and Jeffrey introduced themselves. It was a different kind of big, though. Dax was big by design. The detective was big by genetics. His shoulders, wide as a refrigerator, slouched the way the shoulders of all extremely tall people seem to, as if protecting themselves against the jeers and taunts that have been hurled at them all their lives.
“Thanks for letting me stop by so late, Ms. Strong.”
“No problem. Lily’s a friend,” she said. “Anything I can do.”
He followed her into the living room and she encouraged him to have a seat on the couch. When he sat on it, the large sofa looked as if it had been made for Barbie Dolls. She thought she heard it groan in protest.
“Coffee?” she asked.
“Please,” he answered gratefully.
“Three weeks ago today,” began the detective, as Lydia handed him a cup of coffee, “Lily Samuels’ brother Mickey committed suicide in his car in an Office Depot parking lot in Riverdale.”
“Oh, no,” said Lydia. She remembered thinking that Lily had sounded strained and worried in her message. But she hadn’t mentioned Mickey’s suicide. Not that anyone would leave that kind of news on someone’s voicemail.
The detective nodded slowly, took a sip of his coffee, and continued.
“The police ruled it a suicide right away. The guy was alone in his car with all the doors locked. He had a half-finished bottle of Jack Daniels between his legs. There was gunshot residue on his right hand. He left a note for his sister. He put his gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.”
They were all silent for a second, as if out of respect.
“What did the note say?” asked Lydia.
“It said: 'Dear Lily, I’m so sorry to leave you all alone here. But I just can’t do it anymore. You’re the strong one. It’s too much for me.'”
He said it like he’d played the note over and over in his mind and the words had ceased to have meaning for him. But Lydia could hear the crushing sadness in them.
“Lily was totally devastated, of course. And apparently she refused to believe he would kill himself. I mean, she wasn’t just doubtful. She was positive that he couldn’t have done it.”
“That’s pretty common with family members of a suicide,” said Jeffrey.
“An initial phase of denial is common. But, according to friends she was certain, and after the funeral she set out to prove it. She took a week off from her job and went up to Riverdale.” Detective Stenopolis took a sip of his coffee.
“I remember her telling me that she and her brother were close, more like best friends than siblings,” said Lydia. “She didn’t have any indication that he was depressed or in some kind of trouble?”
“Apparently not. Friends got the sense that there had been some kind of conflict between them. But she never said what specifically, just that he was ‘acting like a jerk.’ He had moved from the city up to Riverdale about six months ago, apparently wanting to open some kind of café and performance space, leaving a mega-money job in banking. Sounded to me like he was burned out.”
He was quiet a second, then he went on.
“Lily Samuels went up to Riverdale on October 15th. She was in touch with her friends for the first week. Then nothing. Her cell phone voicemail, which we accessed with the help of her mobile service provider, was full of worried messages from her friends. One of those messages was from you. Do you remember what she said on her message to you?”
“I can do better than that, Detective. I’m sure I saved it because I didn’t hear back from her. I tend to save email messages and phone messages until I connect with the person involved, otherwise I just forget.”
“There are messages on there from 1995,” said Jeffrey with a small smile. He considered her system of keeping track of messages somewhat disorganized. Ever since he’d read Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, he’d been nearly impossible to live with on such matters. She ignored him as she grabbed the cordless phone. She entered her codes and after she skipped about twelve messages, she put the phone on its speaker setting.
“This message was left on October 22nd at 7:04 p.m.,” said the electronic voice.
Then, “Ms. Strong, it’s Lily Samuels.” She released a heavy sigh. “I really need your help. I am out of my league. Big time. I---I just really need to talk to you. Can you call me back? As soon as possible? Thanks. Bye.”
Lydia felt a twist of guilt in her stomach. Listening to the message now she heard the fear, the anxiety in Lily’s voice. When she’d heard it the first time, Lily had just seemed really stressed to her. It had taken Lydia until the next day to return the call because she’d been stressed out herself, wrestling with her own work.
“I’ve never heard her voice before,” said Detective Stenopolis, an expression on his face that Lydia couldn’t read. “She sounds so young.”
“She is young,” said Lydia. “Twenty-five or twenty-six, I think.”
“Twenty-six,” he said. “Under what circumstances did she generally contact you? Did you talk often? Would you say you were friends?”
“It was really more of a mentoring relationship. She was a student of mine when I taught a journalism class at NYU. She was special, really talented. At the end of the class, I encouraged her to keep in touch if she needed anything. She’d call for advice on stories, references, stuff like that.”
“So when you got the call you thought she was probably calling about work?”
“Yes. That was generally what we talked about. Sometimes we chatted about personal things briefly but mainly not.”
“When was the last time you saw her?”
“I think we had drinks about a year and a half ago. She wanted to thank me for getting her in for her interview at the Post.”
Detective Stenopolis was scribbling notes as she spoke and continued writing for a minute after she’d gone silent.
She remembered that Lily was radiant that night with excitement. The interview had gone well and she felt like she was on her way of fulfilling the only dream she’d ever had, to be a journalist. She was dating someone new---a banker, if Lydia remembered right---and Lily seemed smitten with him. At the time, things in Lydia’s life had been pretty hairy, so her time with Lily had seemed like a little oasis of cocktails and girl talk in a sea of madness.
“Who reported her missing?” asked Lydia. Curiosity was tapping her on the shoulder.
“Her mother. When Lily missed her mother’s fiftieth birthday everyone knew there was something wrong. Apparently, it was not unlike Lily to be incommunicado for a week or so when she was working on something. But she was a loving daughter and a good friend. No matter how busy she was, she wouldn’t miss her mother’s birthday, especially knowing what a hard time it would be for her on the heels of Mickey’s death.”
“Her mother must be a wreck,” said Lydia. What a nightmare it must be to lose a child to suicide and then for the other to go missing. It was hard to imagine.
“She’s heavily medicated right now. Major valium just to get through the day, the husband says.”
“Lily’s father?” asked Lydia, reaching for something Lily had told her about her family.
“Her stepfather. Raised both kids from the time Lily was two and Mickey was seven.”
“What happened to their father?” asked Lydia.
Detective Stenopolis paused for a second, seemed to consider whether he should say. “Suicide,” he said, finally. “Shot himself in a car, drunk on JD. Just like his son Mickey.”
Lydia felt her heart thump. It was strange to be having this conversation after just hearing about her father’s death. It seemed surreal and Lydia felt a familiar nervousness, a slight anxiety.
“That’s pretty odd,” said Jeffrey, narrowing his eyes.
The detective rubbed his hands together as if he were warming them, seemed to consider it for a moment, whether it was odd or not. Then, “Depression runs in families often. I’m not sure how uncommon it is. Suicide. I don’t know . . . maybe it’s easier to do it if you know someone who has.”
Lydia wouldn’t have thought of it that way but it made an odd kind of sense to her. Like the idea of suicide was a contagion; the more closely exposed to it you were, the easier it was to catch.
“So you said you’ve been working on the case for two weeks?” said Lydia.
The detective nodded. “Today is the fourteenth day. I think she’s been missing since October 23rd, though, because no one who called her on or after that day heard back from her. Which means that the thirty-six hours where it would be most likely for us to find her passed before we ever knew she was gone.”
Lydia looked down at the floor. If I’d called her back on the 22nd, could I have helped her? Lydia thought. It wasn’t a healthy way to think but that was the way her mind worked. There was little point in considering the answer.
“So what have you got so far?” asked Jeffrey.
Detective Stenopolis gave him a look. “Thanks so much for your time,” he said, politely. “Ms. Strong, would you mind if I sent a tech over to record that message from your voicemail?”
“We can take care of that, if you want, Detective,” said Jeffrey. “One of the communication techs from my firm can do it tomorrow and we’ll email you the digital file.”
“That would be great,” he said, rising and handing Jeffrey his card. “It could take a week to get someone from the department over here on such a low priority.”
“Low priority?” said Lydia with a frown. “I’d think something like this would be big news. A pretty young reporter goes missing while trying to prove her brother didn’t kill himself. In fact, I’m surprised I haven’t heard anything about this earlier in the media.”
Lydia was usually a news junkie, but admittedly she had been a bit of hermit in the last few weeks while she struggled to finish her manuscript. She had tried to keep outside input at a bare minimum.
“The Post did a piece. And there’s been some coverage in Riverdale. But there’s absolutely no evidence of foul play. She had clothes and a good deal of cash with her; we know that. Her car is gone. She easily could have just taken off.”
“But you don’t think she did. Do you, Detective?”
“No. I don’t.”
“What do you think happened?” Lydia said, knowing she was pushing.
“All due respect, Ms. Strong, but I’m not going to discuss this with you.”
She nodded to indicate she understood. They’d been fortunate with access in the past because of Jeffrey’s connections to the FBI and the NYPD. But cops generally didn’t like writers or private investigators. Since she was a true crime writer and a partner in Jeffrey’s private detective firm, Mark, Striker and Strong, she was a little of both.
“I understand,” she said, following him toward the elevator.
“I appreciate your cooperation, both of you,” he said, shaking each of their hands. “If you think of anything else, call anytime.”
He stooped back into the elevator and gave them a little wave as the door closed in front of him.
“Lydia,” said Jeffrey, his voice a warning and a question.
“What?” she said defensively. The buzz was so intense that her hands were shaking a little.
Copyright © 2005 by Lisa Miscione