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She had to do it.
She had to glance in her rearview mirror.
Because a black SUV was rolling up behind her.
A black SUV with the green Range Rover medallion on the left side of its grille.
The truck stopped inches away from her car’s rear bumper.
The sound of music reached her first—Notorious B.I.G., “Hypnotize.”
Maybe her worry was irrational. It wasn’t like she was on an abandoned road. She was on the west side of Los Angeles, and there was a sports equipment store over there. And a Taco Bell over there. There were storefront windows that promised Pho! Massage! Comic Books!
Didn’t matter, because right at that moment, she was the only woman in the world.
But the man behind her wore familiar-looking aviator sunglasses and—
This truck could be his.
Whenever she spotted a black Range Rover, the hair on her neck and arms shot up like straw. In this city, that meant she was a scarecrow four times a day.
She was trembling now, panic sizzling through her blood. She fought it, shallow breath by shallow breath, until she could take deeper breaths, until her fear huddled in that safe place behind her bladder. She kneaded her mind to remember any tiny detail that would tell her this was not the truck. Like … A yellow pine tree air freshener hung from the mirror. Like … A white scrape on the fender’s black paint.
She was boxed in—car to the left of her, car to the right, cross traffic and red light before her. In the crosswalk, an old lady inched from one curb to the other curb.
What if he tries to open my back passenger door as I’m sitting here?
The doors were locked.
What if he tries to break a window?
Then she’d … blow the red light, try her damnedest not to hit the old lady in the crosswalk, but if she had to hit her …
No. She wouldn’t let him walk up on her again like that.
The driver removed his sunglasses.
Those eyes …
She squinted at the image in the rearview mirror. “That’s not him.”
Those eyes …
Too small. Too spaced apart.
He was not the man who had promised to kill her.
Not this time.
Los Angeles was a city of skies—and everyone in the city now sweltered beneath a dirty-blue sky. Later in the evening, that same sky would turn rose quartz and then, in the morning, Necco wafer orange. Because the marine layer, exhaust from cars and refineries, and brushfire smoke reflected the sun. It was a murder sky, killing four million people slowly … slowly … molecule … by molecule.
But Grayson Sykes wouldn’t die on this eleventh day of July because of that killer sky.
She planned to end her day with dollar tacos and strawberry margaritas with her coworkers at Sam Jose’s. They would talk about Zadie’s upcoming retirement, Clarissa’s upcoming bachelorette party, and Jennifer’s “thing” with her husband’s chief mechanic.
Gray had no wedding and she was far from retirement. “I just won’t eat heavy tomorrow,” “Are you serious?,” and “I did my steps today”—those were her happy hour lines. The quartet would eat, drink, and laugh; they’d cast lustful glances at men who should’ve been home with their wives, who should’ve been working out at the gym, who should’ve been at the office preparing PowerPoint presentations on midyear fiscal numbers.
Now, though, Jennifer Bellman sat in the lobby of the smoked green glass and metal building where Rader Consulting was located. Just a hop, skip, and jump away from the magnificent Pacific Ocean, Rader Consulting did it all—from pets to cons. Looking for lugs in all the right places, squeezing into spots where cops weren’t allowed to go. No warrants? No problem. Need info? Got it right here. From background checks to finding long-lost boyfriends. From simple internet searches and deep, dark web dives to, ahem, other methods.
The blonde was pretending to read the two-week-old People left on the coffee table. One of the primary skip tracers at Rader Consulting, Jennifer sniffed, snuffled, and clawed to find missing deadbeats and debtors. Men saw the hair, the boobs, the blouse that framed those boobs, and they never took her serious enough to keep their traps—or their flies—closed.
Gray asked, “Why are you sitting down here?”
Jennifer bit her bottom lip. “There’s a new tech titan on the third floor. Tall, Slavic hotness in a Hugo Boss suit. He needs to know that I exist.” A gossip, a ditz, a flirt—thrice-married (and still married) Jennifer could be all that and worse.
The “worse” now walked beside Gray to the elevator bank. “Where’d you go?” she asked.
“No offense, but I don’t know why we celebrate one hundred percent linen.”
“You lost me.” Gray pressed the Up button.
“Your pants, honey.” Jennifer tsked Gray’s wrinkled white linen slacks, then batted her baby blue eyes. “What’s that dog with all the wrinkles in its face?”
Jennifer clapped. “That’s it! Wrinkles everywhere, like your slacks. They’re cute, though. The dogs, I mean.” Jennifer and her perfect blonde bob and her perfect high breasts bursting from her floral print Chico’s dress. So efficient, Jennifer Bellman. So eager to climb and so eager to please.
Not really. Jennifer Bellman was a fifty-year-old rottweiler in cocker spaniel cosplay.
The two women entered the elevator together. Gray’s eyes burned—Jennifer wore enough perfume to scent a small country. At the end of the day, Gray always smelled like marshmallow and vanilla.
“Oh,” Jennifer said. “Nick’s been drifting through the building looking for you.”
“He texted—he just gave me my first real case.”
Jennifer clapped. “No more looking for lost Chihuahuas! Cheating husband?”
The elevator doors opened to the second floor.
“You’re gonna need help,” Jennifer said. “I’ll be right there to guide you. My first bit of advice: when all else fails, cry. Tears make people feel sorry for you, and they’ll tell you anything you need to know just to shut you up.”
White-haired Zadie Mendelbaum stood at the breakfast bar clutching a soft pack of Camels and a bottle of Dr Pepper. A career of squinting at records had frozen her face into a mask of narrowed eyes and an upturned nose. She also had a pack-a-day habit and exquisite hobbit-size hands. She’d worked at Rader Consulting since its establishment, seven years before, and was always proud to boast that she was “employee number one.”
The old woman reminded Gray of one of her foster mothers. Naomi Applewhite also had a Dr Pepper addiction, but she smoked hard-pack Newports while sucking peppermints. Gray had stayed with Mom Naomi for seven months. Two weeks before starting eighth grade, Gray had been snatched out of that depressing Oakland apartment by Child Protective Services and placed into a girls’ home. No explanation given. Whenever Gray smelled smoky mint or cloves-black licorice almonds, she thought of Naomi Applewhite. Which, now that she worked with Zadie, was all the time.
“Went on break without telling me?” Zadie followed the two women into Gray’s office.
Gray dropped her purse onto the credenza. “About to start my first missing person case.”
“Congrats, honey,” Zadie said. “How you feelin’?”
“Excited. Nervous. Nauseous.”
“Like a virgin at a prison rodeo?” Jennifer asked.
“Never been to a rodeo,” Gray said. “So … maybe?”
“You’ll do fine.” Zadie pointed at the pile of books on the corner of Gray’s desk. “Looks like you’ve been studying.”
For two years, Gray had worked as a contractor for Rader Consulting, writing reports, transcribing recordings, and much, much more! Now, though, she wanted to be a private investigator. She’d read handbooks, attended community college courses, shadowed Nick for two weeks, and watched YouTube videos featuring investigators on the job. She’d even immersed herself in mysteries written by Hammett, Chandler, and Mosley. Nick promoted her, placing her on his license until she’d be eligible to apply for her own in three years. And then he’d given her a case: finding Cheeto, a stolen Chihuahua.
“Sounds simple,” Gray said. “Find the guy’s girlfriend. I shouldn’t fuck it up too much.”
“You obviously haven’t met you,” Jennifer snarked.
Gray plucked a sheet of tissue from the box on her desk. “I have, and I’m actually the best report writer here.” She cleaned her tortoiseshell glasses but kept her gaze on Jennifer.
Jennifer offered a saccharine smile. “Totally different skill set. But you’ll see that.”
Zadie clicked her nails against the Dr Pepper bottle. “I’ll always remember my first missing person case.… He woke up on Saturday, stayed home while the wife and kids drove to synagogue. He fed the dog, opened the front door. He took his kayak out in the marina, where he ‘drowned.’ But really, he swam down shore for three miles, where he’d hid dry clothes and a new life and a new name behind a fucking drug dealer’s boat.”
Gray and Jennifer eyed each other.
Zadie had just described how her husband Saul had disappeared thirty years ago.
“Well, women disappear all the time,” Jennifer said. “Some intentionally.”
Because she’d grown tired of her man, had grown tired of his hands, of that job, of those freaking dishes that kept filling the sink, dishes that no one touched even as their stink wafted through the house. If she wasn’t taking the kids with her, she kissed them farewell, took out the trash one last time, and just … left.
Natalie Dixon, a woman Gray knew once upon a time, had disappeared like that.
Unlike the men who disappeared, women left their egos behind along with their keys, photo identification, and unpaid electric bills. These women may have wondered about their past lives—What are they doing back home? How are they living without me? Did somebody finally wash those damned dishes?—but they rarely did more than wonder. They never visited old haunts. They never searched their names on Google or checked their Facebook pages. Unlike most men who vanished, women rarely got caught. They just wanted a new beginning.
Natalie Dixon had also longed for a new life and hadn’t wanted to be found. Guilt had gnawed at her spirit, Gray recalled, and that prickly sensation of millions of eyes had pecked at poor Natalie Dixon, and she always worried that the wrong pair would pick her from the crowd.
“Two, three days, tops,” Gray said. “That’s Nick’s estimation.”
“I would say use sex appeal to help you,” Jennifer said, eyes on her coral-painted fingernails, “but that won’t work. Fortunately, you have a great personality. You can talk about books and … and … movies and … politics. Oh, and comic books. Improvise. Make shit up.”
Gray cocked an eyebrow. “I’m good at making shit up.”
“She’s better than you at that, Jen,” Zadie said.
“Doubt it,” Jennifer sang, with a twisted grin. “I’m a supreme liar—Oh!” She pointed at Gray. “Think I’m a bitch now? Skip Sam Jose’s tonight and see how evil I’ll be tomorrow morning. I can’t do Clarissa alone.”
Zadie rolled her eyes. “That girl does nothing but yak, yak, yak.”
“I’ll let you know about tonight,” Gray said.
Jennifer slapped Gray’s desktop. “Nuh-uh. I’ve dated enough black men to know that ‘I’ll let you know’ means ‘I’m not showing up.’”
“You’ll see your ex-marine,” Jennifer sang.
“Former marine,” Gray corrected.
Hank Wexler was the new owner of Sam Jose’s. Two weeks ago, the square-jawed jarhead with blue eyes and thick salt-and-pepper hair had claimed that the blue-inked Hebrew letters tattooed on his left forearm were Gray’s name. Back then, he didn’t even know her name, not that him not knowing had kept Gray from licking tequila salt off his skin. An hour later, she and Hank had made out in his office—it was like they’d known each other in a former life, so making out so soon was okay. He had tasted like whiskey sours and Juicy Fruit gum. That had been a good night.
“No flaking,” Jennifer said now, as she glided out of Gray’s office.
“Scout’s honor,” Gray shouted. “Have a margarita waiting for me.”
Copyright © 2020 by Rachel Howzell Hall