Last Seen Alive

Carlene Thompson

St. Martin's Paperbacks

Chapter One

Twelve Years Later

1

Chyna Greer stood on the bank of Lake Manicora. The late October day was gray, the sun almost white, and the lake bank covered with faded, damp leaves brought down by a recent storm. She drew the belt of her black raincoat tighter. “Lake Manicora,” she said aloud. “A manicora—a being with the head of a woman and a body covered in scales.” She sighed. “I don’t know who named this lake, but it doesn’t seem they were in a cheerful mood that day.”

Michelle, sixty pounds of husky dog with yellow Labrador mixed in her lineage, looked like she was frowning in concentration as she gazed up at Chyna. She seemed to absorb the information about the lake’s name, then went back to warily studying the cold, dark water.

“Enjoying the day?”

Chyna looked up to see a tall black-haired man approach her. He wore jeans, a brown suede jacket, and a tentative smile. He also limped slightly and leaned on a walking stick. Her heart jumped at the sight of him just as it had done when she was sixteen. “Hey, Chyna, it’s me—”

“Scott Kendrick,” Chyna supplied quickly, too quickly, she immediately thought.

“Well, I must not have aged so much you didn’t recognize me.” He smiled, then looked at the dog. “And who’s this?”

“Michelle. I got her last year at the pound.”

Scott drew toward the dog slowly, stooped down with a slight grunt as he bent his right leg, and put out his hand for her to smell. Chyna immediately noticed healing scratches on his hand and wrist. Michelle sniffed, then licked his hand, and Scott smiled, showing even white teeth against a fading tan. The smile was nice, but it didn’t have the rakish quality Chyna remembered from his younger years.

“She’s beautiful,” Scott said.

“She’d thank you if she could. I was lucky to find her.” Chyna scuffed one of her black boots through a pile of sodden, molding leaves. It seemed to her autumn had gained an early grip on the town, although she hadn’t been home in October for years.

“Maybe you don’t care to talk about your mother right now, but I want you to know I saw her last week,” Scott said gently, still petting Michelle absently as if he didn’t quite know what to do with himself in this situation. “She looked happy and healthy. In fact, she stopped by the house with a cherry cheesecake. I couldn’t believe she remembered my favorite dessert.” He finally stood up, all rangy six foot two of him, leaning on the walking stick again. He’d always been slim, but he had the look of someone who’d recently been ill and lost weight. “She was a close friend of Mom’s, but she was always especially nice to me, too.”

To her surprise, Chyna had not cried one time in the thirty-odd hours since she’d learned of her mother’s plunge down the stairs in the Greer home, a fall that had broken her neck. When Chyna had received the call from her brother, Ned, with the news, she’d simply packed a few clothes, stuffed a frightened Michelle in her carrier, taken the first flight out of Albuquerque, New Mexico, for Charleston, West Virginia, then rented a car and driven, arriving in Black Willow at dawn.

“The autopsy showed that Mom had suffered several minor or what they call ‘silent’ attacks and then a final, fatal attack. That last attack must be what caused her fall down the stairs. I didn’t even know she had heart trouble,” Chyna said, looking back at the lake, partly to hide the fact that she wasn’t tearful. “And here I am a medical resident.”

“She probably didn’t want you to worry about it.”

Chyna nodded. “Not even Ned knew Mom was sick. I’m not sure if she was getting treatment. She always avoided seeing doctors. You can imagine how that drove me nuts, because I’m in the medical profession.”

“I guess it would.” Chyna noticed the shadows and deepened wrinkles around Scott’s dark eyes. He didn’t look as if he’d been getting much sleep. “But I want you to know how sorry I am.”

“Thank you.” Chyna thought she sounded formal and insincere, but something inside her refused to let her emotions show, even in her voice. “So what brings you out here on this dreary day?” she asked abruptly, forcing herself to look directly into Scott’s beautifully sculpted face and stop acting like a stiff, backward child, which was exactly how she felt.

“I didn’t really want to come out. I just needed to think. To be alone.”

“Oh.” Chyna pulled on Michelle’s leash. “Sorry to interrupt you. We’ll be on our way—”

“I didn’t really mean alone,” Scott said instantly. “I meant alone from Irma Vogel, who’s been helping out ever since I came home.”

“I remember her,” Chyna said. “When I was a teenager, she worked at our house. General cleaning. A little cooking. I always got the feeling she didn’t like me. She left when I was about sixteen.” She’d left right after Zoey’s disappearance, but Chyna didn’t want to refer to that depressing incident.

“It probably wasn’t you she didn’t like. It was your looks. Irma’s no beauty and she’s never very friendly to girls who are pretty.” Scott smiled, but Chyna kept her face downturned, a bit taken aback by the low-keyed compliment. “I think she’s just bounced from job to job all of her adult life. I know she means well, but she empties the ashtray every time I smoke a cigarette, grabs any magazine I lay down for three seconds and puts it in the rack, and tries to feed me every twenty minutes. While she’s working, she sings in an indescribably awful voice. She frequently lets me know that she’s still single at forty. And a virgin. I never know what I’m supposed to say about that last piece of information.”

“Immediately propose.”

“I guess so, but for some reason, I’m not tempted. I wish I could get rid of her, but I don’t want to hurt her feelings. Besides, I guess I have needed some help the last few weeks, although not nearly as much as Irma is offering.”

“I’m surprised your parents didn’t come home when you did,” Chyna said.

“They wanted to, but they’ve been planning this cruise to the Hawaiian Islands for twenty years. They were already three days out in the ocean when I called them about the . . . accident. I told them I didn’t want them to come home now and Dad could tell I wasn’t just being noble or polite. Frankly, I’d gone over the details with investigators so much, I couldn’t bear talking about it anymore for a while, and you know Mom is like a pit bull when she wants information. I think I have Dad to thank for insisting they continue the trip. They’ll be home next week, though. Then I’ll have to go through a complete description again.”

“Oh.” Chyna felt absolutely stumped when it came to saying something comforting. After all, what simple words could comfort Scott, who had been piloting a jet that had crashed in Indiana five weeks ago, killing seventy-two people? Her mother had written to her that he’d been cleared of all blame, but he was deeply depressed and thinking of giving up his career as a commercial jet pilot. After over a week in the hospital, he was now on leave, recuperating from the wounds he’d suffered in the crash. “I’m sorry, Scott.” Chyna colored, not knowing whether she should bring up the crash or merely leave the disaster unmentioned.

He jammed his left hand in his jacket pocket and stared up at the dismal sky. “I’d planned a trip home soon. I just didn’t expect it to be under these circumstances. And the house is depressing. It’s more like a museum than a home.”

He smiled, but his incredibly dark eyes remained sad. His gaze used to be confident, just charmingly shy of being cocky. She wondered if it would ever regain that look. The wind picked up a bit, blowing his black hair across his forehead. Chyna hadn’t seen Scott for five years, but she spotted wrinkles above his eyebrows and the purple-yellow remains of a bad bruise. He also had a healing laceration down his high right cheekbone and another along his left jawline. Both bore thin Steri-Strips, and Chyna guessed that stitches had been removed recently.

“Do you mind if I walk with you?” he asked. “It might warm us up.”

“Good idea. I’m afraid I’d gone into a trance standing here. Michelle is probably bored to death, especially with all these exotic smells around her to explore.”

“Exotic? The rotting leaves at Lake Manicora?”

“To her they’re exotic. She’s used to the desert. Or rather, looking at the desert,” Chyna said as they started out slowly, like two invalids. “She doesn’t like to walk in the sand.”

“Do you like New Mexico?” Scott asked.

“Most of the time. Occasionally the heat gets to me, but I’m usually inside in the hospital.”

“Ah, that’s right. What are you now? First-year resident?”

“Second year.”

“And you probably know as much as a third year. Or more.” He gave her that pleasant smile that never quite reached his dark eyes. “What do you plan to specialize in?”

“Pediatric oncology.”

“Children with cancer? My God, Chyna, you’re a lot stronger than I am if you can face that every day.”

“I’m not there yet, Scott. I might find out I’m not strong enough, either.”

“You will be. I have confidence that you can do whatever you set your considerable mind to.” He smiled slightly. “And speaking of children, how are your niece and nephew?”

“Kate and Ian are fine. Ned says they’re excited about trick or treat tomorrow night. I’m sure their mom is great at diverting them from dwelling on their grandmother’s death. Beverly is a born mother, even though at five and three the kids are really too young to let a death in the family ruin trick-or-treat night anyway.”

Michelle began sniffing around Scott’s legs, and Chyna glanced down at the object of her curiosity. “That’s a beautiful walking stick you have, Scott.”

Scott looked slightly chagrined. “I could not stand using a crutch anymore, so I grabbed this at the house.” He held it up. “It’s one of Mom’s antiques.”

Chyna looked at the dark hardwood stick with its ivory head and frowned. “I can’t quite make out the carving on the ivory.”

“It’s Henry the Eighth.” Scott flipped the stick over. “The Tower of London is carved on the other side of the head. Mom would probably rather I wasn’t using it, although right now I can get away with just about anything.” He sighed. “It feels good being home, though. I never thought I’d say that about Black Willow, but for once, it’s seemed like a haven. I’m afraid I’ll never want to leave again.”

When Chyna was growing up, she’d felt connected to this place, maybe because her ancestors had lived in or near Black Willow since the mid–nineteenth century. After Zoey disappeared, though, and the police had finally stopped looking for her day and night and even unsuccessfully dragged the lake, Chyna longed to escape this town and never come back.

She’d left a year later for college and been shocked to realize she yearned for the town. She’d tried to suppress the yearning, tried to obliterate it, but she never could. The pull of Black Willow and the pull of the lost Zoey were too strong. Still, Chyna had managed to confine her trips to Christmas. She couldn’t bear to look at the lake in the summer when it appeared just as it had the night when Zoey had seemed to walk off the face of the earth.

“You’ll want to leave,” Chyna told Scott. “If you don’t leave, you can’t be a commercial pilot.”

“That’s the problem, Chyna. I’m not sure I want to be a pilot anymore.”

“But it’s what you’ve always wanted to do!” Chyna burst out. “You told me that when I was just a teenager.”

Scott shrugged. “Time and experience can change you, Chyna.”

They had reached the spot on the shore where a wooden bridge used to lead to the gazebo on the tiny man-made island set picturesquely in the lake. At least, Chyna had once thought the gazebo was picturesque. Now it looked shabby, the wood weathered, a shingle dangling off the top of the structure, and fallen leaves blowing through it. Chyna had a feeling she was seeing the true face of the gazebo—bleak, lonely, and shabby. And something beyond those minor failings. Something dangerous and malevolent. Something that laughed in the night when bad things happened.

Chyna couldn’t force herself cheerfully to assure Scott that of course he’d want to return to piloting. If she’d had his experience, she’d probably never again want to look at any airplane, particularly a commercial jet. To fill the silence, she gazed at the gazebo and said almost angrily, “That place looks like hell.”

Scott nodded. “I agree. That storm we had late Friday night didn’t help. It even tore loose the gazebo bridge. Irma, who seems immediately to know everything that happens in this town, tells me the city council is debating on whether to repair the gazebo or tear it down and build a new one.”

“They can’t possibly be cheap enough to just patch up this one!” Chyna said fervently. “The bridge is barely hanging on and the roof is in bad shape. Good heavens, I can see holes from here and most of the shingles are gone. I’m sure the floor isn’t safe.”

“I wouldn’t want to go in it if they only spring for repair work. I don’t think most people would, either, especially those with children. It’s always been a big draw to the area, though. Tourists love it and it wouldn’t cost a fortune to replace it. I’ll bet Ridgeway Construction would do a beautiful job, and since they’re located in Black Willow, they might even be talked into charging only for materials.” For the first time, Scott seemed to brighten a bit. “I think I’ll talk to Gage Ridgeway about that. He used to be a friend of your brother’s and mine. He’d listen. Now his dad—”

Suddenly Scott glanced at his watch. “I lost track of time. I have an appointment with a rehab therapist. I’ll be late if I don’t leave right now,” he said abruptly, a shadow falling over his face as the memory of the plane crash came back to him. “It was great seeing you, Chyna, even under the circumstances.”

“Do you need a ride?” Chyna blurted, then realized that of course Scott hadn’t walked to the lake. Her face reddened, but Scott ignored her silly question.

“Thanks, but I’m parked right over here.” He pointed to a white sedan. “Old car of Dad’s I’ve been borrowing. I’m sure I’ll be seeing you again. Don’t stay out too long. It’s chilly.” He looked down. “Nice meeting you, Michelle. Bye, you two.”

Michelle knew the word “bye” and held out her big paw. Smiling, Scott bent slowly and shook it. “You’re a doll,” he said with some of his old liveliness. In a few minutes, he waved to Chyna as he pulled out of the Lake Manicora parking lot and headed back for town.

Copyright © 2007 by Carlene Thompson. All rights reserved.