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The Moores are Missingwith Loren D. Estleman: The Moore family just vanished from their home without telling a soul. A last-minute vacation? A kidnapping? A run for their lives? You’ll never see the truth coming.
The Housewifewith Sam Hawken: Maggie Denning is a former chief detective adjusting to a quiet life in the suburbs with her family. But when the woman next door is found brutally murdered, Maggie starts investigating – everyone’s a suspect. Even her own husband.
Off the Face of the Earth
Forty-one years old.
I was all ready for forty. I’d prepared for it since thirty-nine. Forty-one blindsided me. When I blew out the candles last Tuesday, it struck me that time was speeding up, like a recorded tape whirling faster as it approaches its end. Before I know it, I’ll be fifty, with hair growing out of my ears. Sixty next, getting around with a walker. Then my threescore and ten, and then death.
Thank God for Kevin; he’s three months older and never whines. Like he said at my party: “Look at it this way, old-timer: Would you really want to relive your twenties, have to learn that crap all over again?” His seize-the-day attitude is contagious. He’s spread it through his family, which is why I spend so much time at their place. My standing weekly appointment to shoot hoops with Kevin is mainly an excuse to see the Moores.
It’s an atypical Pacific Northwest Saturday in early spring: the sun is coming up, revealing what will be a bright blue sky scraped clean of clouds. There’s still a chill in the air left over from the night. We like to get going and play early, before breakfast. Maybe we should be playing golf instead. If we played golf.
I ring the magic bell. Kevin’s grin, Margo’s quiet smile, will ease my worries. They’re aging gracefully, visibly in love with each other and devoted to their kids, who love and respect them (when they’re not driving them nuts, like healthy normal teenagers).
No one comes to answer. Margo will be cooking breakfast, the fan in the stove hood whirring loudly. Kevin in the bedroom, tying his sneakers Just Right. Josh and Gabby listening to hip-hop or playing video games in the den or texting, whatever it is young people do for entertainment now.
Ray, you’re thinking like an old crank.
I ring again, wait, then reach for the button a third time. On impulse I try the door instead. The knob turns.
I frown. Our side of town has had two break-ins in six months, and less than a week ago a terrifying home invasion in Sackville, minutes from here, that left three people shot to death. We don’t leave our doors unlocked anymore.
“Guys? It’s Ray. LeBron couldn’t make it.”
I start to open the door. I don’t want to spook them. I push it just enough to stick my face through the gap. “Hel-lo-o-o?”
Is it my imagination, or does my voice echo?
I step across the threshold into the house. I raise my voice. “Kevin? Margo?”
Buzz-click! I jump almost out of my shoes. But it’s just the sound made by the retro mechanical clock on the fake fireplace mantel changing numerals. The place is that quiet.
“It’s me, Ray,” I say, cupping my hands around my mouth. I’m an invader now. Well-meaning neighbors have been struck down with baseball bats under similar circumstances. “Ray Gillett, not Freddie Krueger.”
The house is done in excellent taste, but no antiseptic showcase. Margo manages a doctor’s office, and has decorated with the same attention to detail that she brings to files and scheduling. The open living room, cozy den, spacious kitchen, three bathrooms—one on the ground floor, two on the second—are clean and relatively uncluttered. The bedrooms likewise.
And deserted. Huh. If they were in the backyard, I would have seen them as I walked over.
A side door in the kitchen opens into the attached garage. Margo’s red Buick is there. There’s an old oil stain on the concrete floor where Kevin parks the Flex he drives to work and uses on family outings. Maybe—but no, why would they go off on a lark when they know I’m coming?
I start to worry. This is not Moore behavior, even on Saturday, the most unpredictable day of the week.
Upstairs, I check drawers and closets. I’m violating my best friends’ privacy, pure and simple. If they came home, this would be hard to explain. But I can’t leave. What would I do with the rest of my Saturday, not knowing why I’d been stood up? More important:
“Where are the Moores?” I say it aloud.
Everything’s in place, as far as I can tell. All tidy—Josh’s and Gabby’s things casually if not carelessly kept—with no obvious sign of anything missing. Suitcases and duffels stashed out of the way in all the bedrooms. I lift Kevin and Margo’s luggage by the handles. They feel empty.
I sit on the edge of Josh’s mattress, feeling out of place. Is there any space more private than someone’s bedroom? Or anything ruder than someone outside the family entering it without being invited?
Then I see the cell phone on Josh’s dresser.
What college freshman leaves home without a way to text his friends?
I get up and go back over old ground. In Gabby’s room I draw a pink sweater off the foot of the bed, revealing her iPhone in a padded pink cover.
Picking up the pace now, to the master bedroom. Kevin’s slim gray phone is in a stand on the table on one side of the neatly made bed, Margo’s blue case on the matching table on the other side.
I reach for Kevin’s, then withdraw my hand. How far is it acceptable for a worried friend to dig into someone’s privacy?
Strangers disappear, always for a reason. Not whole families with deep roots in the community. Not the Moores. There’s no sign, as they say on TV, of a struggle. Silly even to think in those terms. They went out for pancakes and got caught in traffic on the way back, or simply lost track of time.
Leaving all their cell phones behind.
Worried? I wished I were only that. I don’t know a word for the chilled feeling I got. It was like the feeling in a nightmare, when your car flies over a hill and there’s nothing on the other side.
There’s a landline in the kitchen, a yellow wall unit on an old-fashioned long coiled cord. I unhook the receiver, listen for the dial tone, and peck out 911.
“I wouldn’t be too concerned, Mr. Gillett. You said the car’s gone. Sometimes people just play hooky, without thinking to tell their friends. Maybe to unplug for a while. Kind of inconsiderate; but no reason to issue an AMBER Alert.”
The Willow Grove police station wouldn’t interest a Hollywood director scouting locations. The chief’s office in the one-story brick building could belong to an insurance agent. The walls are painted a cheery apple-green and the framed family photo on the desk looks like a publicity still from Leave It to Beaver.
It’s my first visit. I know Cam Howard well enough to say hello to, but thank God I’ve never had any official business with his department. He’s middle-aged and solidly built, in an inexpensive blue suit with a tie that I suspect clips on. On him the outfit resembles a uniform. His hair is black and so thick you can see the marks of the comb. Sitting in the swivel behind his plastic woodgrain desk, he gives an impression of coiled strength.
“I thought of the same explanation, and rejected it,” I say. “You don’t know the Moores as well as I do, Chief. They never just take off. Kevin is the chief financial officer for a solid firm in the city and Margo runs a doctor’s office. Their son is studying for a business degree, and their daughter belongs to the honor society at Willow Grove High. They’re the most responsible people I’ve ever met.”
Howard smiles tightly. “I know them; Kevin, anyway. He donates generously to the Police Athletic League. We take each other to lunch sometimes.”
“He never told me that.”
“He wouldn’t, in case you asked how we know each other. He’s the best kind of philanthropist. He never brags. I think he’s a swell guy, and from what I’ve seen of his wife and kids, it’s a Moore family trait. They all put folding green in the collection plate every Sunday.”
“You go to the same church?”
“Knowing the community makes my work easier.”
“In that case, you better call me Ray.”
“Ray, I was a big-city cop for fifteen years, and if nothing else, I learned that people are anything but consistent. It’d be easier for us cops if they were, like on TV when a crook steps out of character and nails himself. That’s why I asked you to come down, instead of sending a team to the house.” He drops the reassuring smile. “I’m not brushing you off. Let’s wait forty-eight hours, like it says in the book. If we don’t hear from them by then, I’ll turn loose the bloodhounds.”
“Anything can happen in forty-eight hours.”
“So can nothing. They come home, everybody lives happily ever after, and you’re glad we waited. Misplaced good intentions can be as hard on a friendship as betrayal.”
I lean forward in my chair, my fists clenching. “Chief. Cam. They all left their cell phones behind. Not just one of them. All of them. Who does that?”
“Someone who wants a holiday without any interruptions.”
“Their kids are teenagers. You can’t pry them away from their cells with a crowbar.”
“You can if you have their respect as a parent.” His eyes flick toward the family photo, then back to me.
“Cam. Chief. Just whose side are you on?”
“What’ve you got to make you suspect there is a side? You said there were no signs of force. Your friend stood you up for a date. As emergencies go, that rates pretty close to the bottom.”
“This is pointless.” I scrape back my chair and stand up. “An entire family falls off the face of the earth and all you can say is they’re on a picnic.”
“I said maybe. It’s part of the job. Sit down.”
Calm as his tone is, I can’t overlook the command in it. I sit.
He shrugs. “Okay, the phone part’s unusual. It’s still not enough to justify a full-scale missing-persons investigation. I’m not a private detective. I serve the community, not one household, no matter how much they give back to it. The worst deadbeat in town is entitled to the same amount of protection as the pastor at St. Matthew’s.”
“You’re the chief. You’re supposed to give the orders, not take them.”
“If I were to say that, I’d be out on my can. You should come to a town council meeting and listen to the cranks spout off every time someone in this department makes an honest mistake; you’d think we picked their pockets. How will they react if I put out an APB, get everyone in a lather, and then the Moores come back from the beach at sundown with sand in their shoes?”
“How will they react if the Moores don’t come back at all and you did nothing?”
Howard’s frown is as tight as his smile. “I’m liking them more and more, the friends they’ve got. I’ll look into it, okay? Make some calls.”
“You mean like the highway patrol, the hospitals, the”— I swallow. I can’t say morgue. “I can do that myself. I need to know you’re doing something I can’t.”
“There’s a difference between when it’s a civilian calling and when it’s a cop. I have personal contacts with the state police. They can act unofficially, circulating descriptions throughout the department, minus the paperwork involved with a formal investigation. That’s a thousand pair of trained eyes prowling the state and reporting directly to me. I’ll call you if I hear anything.” He spreads his hands. “Ray, it’s the best I can do.”
I press my lips tight, then nod. I give him a card. “I work at home. That number’s good night and day. My cell’s on the back.”
He slips the card into his shirt pocket and holds out his hand. “Kevin’s my friend, you’re his friend. I’d like you to be mine as well.”
Chief Cam Howard has a firm, dry grip. I don’t find it as comforting as I’d like.
I work out of my home full-time. The basement’s full of stereo receivers, toy rocket launchers, video-game consoles, and Waterpiks. A Golden Nerd Award stands on my bedroom dresser, presented to me by the National Association of Industrial Artists.
I’ve found that when an attractive woman in a cocktail bar asks my occupation, “writer” gets better mileage when I leave out the adjective “technical.” When I told my barber I’m a writer, my time in his chair went from fifteen minutes to an hour. He’s writing a book, just like everyone else; in his case a history of the razor. Like every barber I’d ever had, he can’t talk and cut hair at the same time, so he stands in front of me waving a comb in one hand and scissors in the other, describing the development of the steel blade from imperial Rome through fin-de-siècle France with enthusiastic gestures. I resolved to clarify my job description from that day forward.
Specifically, I draft owners’ manuals for various tools and appliances. A degree in Creative Writing doesn’t guarantee a living wage, as I found out when I plastered the walls in my old bedroom in my parents’ house with rejections. About that same time I figured out how to set the clock on my first VCR—after throwing away the instructions—and it struck me that the people who write them may know how to assemble a complex mechanism, but can’t put together a coherent sentence. So I sent letters to the manufacturers of every appliance I could think of, offering to write manuals in return for free use of their products while I figured out how they work.
That led to more rejections; but it only takes one acceptance to get a career started. After a year, Miracle Deck bought my clear and concise instructions regarding the operation of its top-of-the-line pressure-washer. More sales followed.
Give me a doohickey, any sort of doohickey. Don’t tell me what it does, hold the corporate instructions, and give me forty-eight hours to figure it out on my own. I’ll write you a users’ guide any five-year-old could follow.
But not today.
I keep writing and rewriting the same paragraph. When I read it back, it seems like worse gibberish than those manuals translated from Japanese by a Swiss national into English. I push back from the keyboard and reach for the phone for the third time in fifteen minutes. I hit redial, and listen once again to the purring on the Moores’ end of the line until the recording comes on asking if I want to leave a message. I don’t.
The first time, I cut the connection and got halfway through Kevin’s cell number before I remembered it would be ringing in an empty house.
I hang up again, but I let my hand rest on the handset. Is it too early to call Cam Howard? If I make a pest of myself, it might annoy him enough to let the investigation hang for pure spite.
Once can’t hurt. He didn’t strike me as a soulless bureaucrat—quite the opposite, in fact—and anyway a man should get something from his taxes.
“Ray, I’m glad you called.”
My heart does a happy flip. “You’ve found them?”
“No, but there’s a man here who wants to talk to you. Can you come down to the station right away?”
My heart drops back into its hollow recess. “I told you everything I know. How many people do I have to talk to before the system goes into action?”
“This one’s got information to trade.”
“A witness? He saw something?”
“I’ll let him tell you in person.”
It’s a ten-minute drive downtown. I make it in six. Cam is standing behind the desk when I enter his office for the second time that day. The man in the chair where I sat earlier is even more substantial than the chief, with huge shoulders and a big head. His suit is institutional gray, his hair also, and chopped so close to the scalp I can make out the features of his skull.
“Ray Gillett, this is Dale Mercer. Mercer’s a US marshal.”
He rises just enough to grasp my hand quickly and let go. Gray eyes take me in from head to toe. “How well do you know Kevin Moore?” His voice is thin, but not weak; a guitar string tightened almost to the breaking point.
“Almost twenty years. I was best man at his wedding.”
“Know anything about his business?”
“It provides all the maintenance for the university over in Sackville. He’s chief financial officer. But what’s that got to do—?”
“Maybe everything. Know who owns it?”
“Jeremy Adder’s majority stockholder. Ever hear of him?”
“Rings a bell.”
“Clear to Las Vegas. He uses his legit operation here to launder cash from gambling, hooking, and drug dealing. The FBI’s been trying to get something on him for years.”
“You’re telling me Kevin works for the mob?”
“He says he didn’t know. For now the Bureau’s deciding to believe him, but that’s not my problem. My problem is keeping him alive long enough to tell a grand jury everything he does know.”
“You talked to him? When?”
“Easy, Ray.” Cam tilts a palm toward another chair. I hesitate, then take it. He lowers himself into his. “Mercer heard what I put out on the radio and came in to offer assistance.”
“The witness protection program is our baby,” Mercer says. “The Marshals’. We’ve offered Moore, his wife, and their son and daughter relocation and a new identity in return for his testimony.”
“This is like something in a movie,” I say. “What would Kevin know about gambling and prostitution and dope?”
“The FBI will settle for putting Adder away on those charges. It’s his other activities that put us in the picture as babysitters.”
“What kind of activities?”
Mercer rolls his big shoulders. “Murder. For starters.”
“Adder’s a throwback to gangland’s golden age,” Mercer continues. “His first reaction, when he suspects a leak, is to plug it with a corpse. He’s believed to have ordered at least sixteen hits. If he learns we’ve made contact with Kevin Moore, he’ll try to make it an even twenty.”
Cam says, “Isn’t there some kind of underworld code about not touching civilians?”
“With all due respect, Chief, your experience is limited to your garden-variety crook. Whatever romantic guff you’ve heard about the Mafia, its members are as cavalier about the so-called rules as they are about the laws of the land. This one wouldn’t take the chance of assuming Kevin hasn’t confided in his family. He won’t bother with the tedious business of obtaining proof.”
“This gets more ridiculous by the minute,” I say. “Whatever his boss is up to, Kevin isn’t part of it.”
Mercer’s face draws as tight as his guitar-string voice. Everything about this man is drawn so thin he could snap at any time.
“Maybe he is and maybe he isn’t. But as chief financial officer, he has access to the books, which are what Justice needs to indict Adder. If Moore can’t provide the actual records, he can tell what he knows on the stand. What’s in his head is US property.”
“Mystery solved,” says Cam. “I’ll cancel the search.”
“I wouldn’t do that just yet.”
We stare at Mercer. The tension in his face—in his whole being—is contagious.
“I cleared this meeting with Washington when we caught the squeal. We hoped to keep this under wraps, but we can’t be working at cross purposes with local law enforcement. Whether your friend’s an innocent dupe or in it up to his chin, we won’t know till we find him and talk to him.”
“Hold on!” Cam leans forward, resting his forearms on the desk. “You just said the Marshals’ office has relocated the Moores. How could you have lost Kevin?”
“I didn’t say that. I said we talked to him. It was in his home, with his family present. Two agents from the Bureau told them everything I just told you, and I assured them of the Marshals’ successful track record in protecting citizens from retribution. Since the couple’s mothers and fathers are deceased and there are no other close relatives, the provision against maintaining contact wasn’t the problem it usually is in these cases. When Mr. or Mrs. Joe Blow turns up sealed in concrete at some construction site, it’s usually because they couldn’t bear to spend Thanksgiving away from Aunt Tilly.”
His bluntness freezes my spine. I don’t like Dale Mercer. But I play the game. I need all the experienced help I can get, and so do the Moores.
“They were open to the idea; Kevin seemed genuinely shocked when we trotted out Adder’s record, and everyone was nervous, the boy especially. They went into another room for a family meeting. Imagine how surprised we were when they came back in and turned us down flat.”
“They must have had a reason,” I say. “I’ve known Kevin longer than Margo. I was with him in the waiting room when their kids were born. He’d do anything to protect his family. So would she.”
Cam is more direct. “Did they give an explanation?”
“We asked. The agents threatened to book Kevin as a material witness, but he called their bluff. ‘I could tell you everything I know, and you wouldn’t be any closer to what you want than you are now. I saw nothing wrong with the figures in the books.’ Well, even the FBI can’t arrest a man without probable cause. In order to hold him, they’d need the very evidence they hope he can provide.”
“I thought you people pushed congress to pass a law to get around that little problem.” Cam’s tone is bitter.
“RICO: The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. The Supreme Court’s divided on that point. The justices may look the other way when we swing it against a Don or Hells Angels or a smuggling ring, but one more appeal on behalf of Ozzie and Harriet could strike it down, and we’d lose the only effective weapon we have against organized crime. Their lawyers know the rule of law front to back.”
“I’ve managed to operate inside it.”
“Once again, Chief, you haven’t had the same disadvantages we have on our level.”
I definitely don’t like Mercer. “I’m with Kevin. Why should a man agree to uproot his family from their home and everything they know when he has nothing to offer?”
Mercer’s face now is as flat as a plank. “Then why did he do it on his own? Generally speaking, when someone refuses witpro, it means they have something to hide.”
I look at Cam. “You know Kevin. Talk some sense into this guy, will you?”
“Ray.” The chief is sitting back again, forted up behind the desk with his name and title block-lettered on its steel trivet. “You can afford to give your friend the benefit of the doubt. We can’t. When I’m in a marked car and I stop at a red light beside a motorist who’s putting just a little too much effort into looking innocent, I give him a block, then pull him over. Nine times out of ten he blows over zero-eight-percent on the Breathalyzer or has something interesting in the trunk.”
“What are you getting at—Chief?” Hard to believe I ever called him by his first name.
“Has it ever struck you the Moores are just a little too perfect?”
I spring to my feet, and this time I won’t be ordered to sit back down.
“I’m not a cop,” I say. “I can afford to believe in my friends. If both of you are going to treat them like Public Enemy Number One, it’s up to me to rescue them.”
And for the first time in my sedate life I slam a door behind me.
- On Sale
- Jul 25, 2017
- Page Count
- 432 pages
- Grand Central Publishing