Vanishing Point


By Marcia Muller

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In the latest installment in this critically acclaimed series, Sharon McCone is hired to investigate one of San Luis Obispo County’s most puzzling cold cases. A generation ago, Laurel Greenwood, a housewife and artist, inexplicably vanished, leaving her young daughter alone. Now, new evidence suggests that the missing woman may have led a strange double life. But before McCone can penetrate the tangled mystery, she must first solve a second disappearance–that of her client, the now grown daughter of Laurel Greenwood. The case, which forces Sharon to explore the darker sides of two marriages, comes uncomfortably close on the heels of her own marriage to Hy Ripinsky, and she begins to doubt the wisdom of her impulsive trip to the Reno wedding chapel.




















DOUBLE (with Bill Pronzini)










Special thanks to:

Melissa Meith, my expert on legal matters—and mothers!

Bette Lamb, extraordinary nurse, artist, and writer.

And, as always, Bill Pronzini:

Dammit, why are you always right?



"My God, what's going on down there?" I asked Hy.

He peered through the Cessna's side window as I banked over Touchstone, our property on the cliffs above the sea in Mendocino County. "Hate to say it, but it looks like a party."

"Oh, hell, I never should've called the office from Reno."

It did indeed look like a party: tables dotted the terrace, their brightly colored cloths fluttering in the sea breeze; smoke billowed from the barbecue; a crowd of people stood on the mole-humped excuse for a lawn, staring up and waving at the plane.

"There's Mick," Hy said. "And Charlotte. And Ted."

"Probably the instigators." I banked again and began my approach to our dirt landing strip along the bluff's top. "How on earth did they organize this in just a few days?"

"Well, your people're nothing if not efficient."

"Yours, too." I pointed down at Gage Renshaw, one of Hy's partners in the security firm of Renshaw and Kessell International. "He made it up from La Jolla in time."

"Nice of him. And I see Hank, Anne-Marie, and Habiba. And Rae. But all these people kind of put a damper on the rest of the honeymoon."

"Oh, Ripinsky, we've been honeymooning for years."

"That's a fact."

I concentrated on making a smooth landing, then taxied toward the plane's tiedown, where my nephew Mick Savage, his live-in love, Charlotte Keim, and several other friends had converged. When I stepped down, I was smothered in one hug after another, while Mick helped Hy attach the chains to the Cessna. The hugging and exclaiming continued as we started toward the house, and then I heard someone singing.

"Tough lady thought she couldn't be caught by the rhythm of the blues

Till she fell right hard for a flyin' man who had nothin left to lose . . ."

The voice belonged to my former brother-in-law, country music star Ricky Savage. The song, apparently, was one he'd written especially for Hy and me.

"So did you get married in a wedding chapel?" Hank Zahn, my former boss and closest male friend, asked.

"Plastic flowers and a rented veil?" This from his wife and law partner, Anne-Marie Altman.

"Were there Elvis impersonators?" The dark eyes of their daughter, Habiba Hamid, sparkled wickedly.

"You guys are thinking of Las Vegas," I told them. "We spent the night in Reno, then drove to Carson City, the state capital, applied for a license, and were married that afternoon by a judge. It was nice. Private. Tasteful, even."

Hank and Anne-Marie nodded approval, but Habiba looked disappointed. She was a teenager who probably would have delighted in the image of Hy and me rocking-and-rolling down the aisle.

"What, no ring?" Ted Smalley, my office manager, demanded.

"Neither of us likes to wear rings. Besides, we feel married enough as is."

"Nobody can feel too married," his partner, Neal Osborne, fingered the gold band that matched Ted's. They'd exchanged them at a ceremony at San Francisco City Hall, during the brief period when the mayor had declared the clerk's office open for the issuance of marriage licenses to gay couples.

"I guess not," I said. "And you two are a good example for all of us."

"Tell that to the governator."

"He'll be told, come next election. You're married in the eyes of your friends, and someday you'll be married in the eyes of the state."

"Sure is nice to be working for an honest woman." Charlotte Keim, my financial operative, punctuated the comment with a bawdy laugh.

My nephew Mick said, "I think that's a hint. She wants to fly off to Reno like you did."

"Flatter yourself, already!" Charlotte elbowed him in the ribs.

"One of these days I just might weaken and ask you."

"One of these days I just might weaken and ask you."



I smiled and left the happy couple to their half-serious standoff.

"So, McCone, you gonna tame him down?" Gage Renshaw, one of Hy's partners, smiled slyly at me, dark hair blowing in the wind off the sea.

"No more than he's going to tame me down."

"Yeah, I guess that would take some doing."

Gage never discussed personal things with me. I glanced at the champagne in his glass, wondering how many he'd had.

"In my experience," he added, "a man gets married, he gets cautious, loses his edge. In our business, that makes for mistakes. And mistakes can be fatal."

No, Gage wasn't drunk; he was trying to send a message.

"I hear you," I said, "but you're talking to the wrong person."

"Don't think so. We've got a situation coming up that's gonna require all our resources. See that your man's ready for it."

Nice wedding gift, Gage.

Hours later, clouds had gathered on the horizon, orange and pink and purple in the afterglow of the sunset. The others had retreated from the clifftop platform to the house, presumably to raid the dessert table, but Rae Kelleher and I remained behind to take in what, to me, were the most spectacular moments of the sunsets here on the Mendocino Coast. Rae—my onetime assistant, close friend, and near-relative, having married Ricky after his divorce from my younger sister Charlene.

I said, "Nice song Ricky wrote. On short notice, too."

She laughed. "He wrote it a year ago. He's been waiting for the two of you to get married before he performed it."

"Oh, and he really expected that would happen?"

"We all did—except for you."

I sighed. Sometimes our friends and relatives know us better than we know ourselves.

"It'll be on his next CD," she added.

"Our little piece of immortality."

"Well, we all want that, don't we?"

Did we? It seemed to me that right now I had everything I'd ever wanted. Even if I hadn't realized how much I'd wanted it until Hy turned the plane toward Reno a few days ago.

We sat silent for a moment. The surf boomed on the rocks in the cove below, eating at the steep cliffs. What was it the geologist who had inspected our land before we sited the house had said? Something about it possibly sliding into the sea if we intended to live there for more than a thousand years.

Right now I felt as if I could live forever.

Rae said, "What was it that tipped the scales in favor of marriage?"

"It just seemed right. Hy's been wanting this for a long time, you know. But he had a good first marriage, even if Julie was very sick for years before she died. My history with men, on the other hand—"

"Right. No need to rehash that." Rae looked down at her diamond-studded wedding ring. "Or to rehash my checkered past. What a bunch of losers—including me, for getting involved with them. What did your mother say when you told her the news?"

"Which one?" I had two: the adoptive mother who'd raised me and the birth mother with whom I'd finally connected a couple of years ago.


"Well, Ma carried on as if I'd announced I'd won the Nobel Peace Prize; then she had me put Hy on the phone. To him she said, 'Congratulations on joining our family.' And then she laughed and added, 'Well, considering the family, maybe congratulations aren't in order.'"

"Oh my God. And Saskia?"

"More restrained. But she was pleased. She met Hy last summer when she was in town for a bar association meeting, and they really hit it off."

"You call Elwood?" Elwood Farmer, my birth father, an artist who lived on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana.

"Yes. He was . . . just Elwood."

"Meaning he didn't say much and now he's thinking over the deeper meaning of it all."


"Must be complicated, having all those relatives. Sometimes I'm glad I've got no family left."

"What d'you mean? You're a stepmother six times over."

"That's different." She paused. "Shar, I need to talk to you about a potential case for the agency."

I felt a stirring of unease. Ricky had been a notorious womanizer throughout his marriage to my sister. If that had started again, and Rae wanted me to investigate, I couldn't possibly take it on. Conflict of interest on too many levels.

"I'm asking for a friend of mine," she added. "It's something that really means a lot to her, and it could be very lucrative for you."

I relaxed. "Tell me about it."

"Her name's Jennifer Aldin. She's a textile designer, works with a lot of the high-society decorators in the city. I got to know her through Ricky; her husband, Mark, is his financial manager."

"I thought Ricky managed his own money."

"No, Charlene always did that."

"Right." My younger sister hadn't finished high school because she was pregnant with Mick, but years later she'd gotten her GED and gone to college; now she possessed a PhD in finance and helped her new husband, international businessman Vic Christiansen, run his various enterprises.

"Anyway," Rae went on, "after Ricky and Charlene split and he established the new record label, he realized he was in over his head. I've got no talent whatsoever with money—you remember how my charge cards were always maxed out—so he went to Mark, who has a lot of clients in the entertainment industry. Mark keeps things on track, and makes us a small fortune from investments."

As if they needed more. Ricky made millions yearly, and Rae's career as a novelist was about to take off.

"So," I said, "Mark's wife is a friend of yours."

"Yes. At first it was one of those situations where the husbands get together over dinner for business reasons and the wives're supposed to make small talk. But neither Jen nor I is much good at polite chitchat; when we loosened up and started talking about things that really mattered, we discovered we had a lot in common. One of those things being a horror of artificial social situations. Now Mark and Ricky go sailing to talk business, and Jen and I do whatever pleases us."

I realized that I didn't know all that much about Rae's everyday life since she'd married and become a published author. We had lunch occasionally, talked on the phone every couple of weeks, and spent Christmas Eve together because that was when all six of Ricky and Charlene's kids gathered at the Seacliff-district house he and Rae shared. But I didn't really know how she spent her time, or who her other friends were.

"What kinds of things do you and Jennifer do?" I asked.

"We take hikes." At my incredulous look, she grinned. "Yeah, I've hiked some of the toughest trails on Mount Tam. No more collapsing to rest every quarter mile."

"Better watch out—soon you'll be running the Bay to Breakers."

"I haven't reformed that much. Anyway, we also go antiquing, and to galleries, visit museums, or run up to the wine country and do some tasting."

"Sounds nice." And it made me feel wistful. I'd been so busy managing the agency—which was growing month by month—that I seldom saw most of my women friends. My male friends, too; I couldn't remember when I'd last spent time with Hank.

Hell, it was a wonder I'd found the time to get married!

"Okay," I added, "now tell me what Jennifer wants investigated."

Rae nibbled on a fingernail, looking out to sea. "It's a long shot, I think. Twenty-two years ago, when Jennifer was ten, her mother, Laurel Greenwood, disappeared down in San Luis Obispo County. One of those cases where it looks like the person's either disappeared voluntarily or committed suicide, but everybody says, 'She never would have done that; it must be foul play.' And in this case they may be right. There was no trouble in the Greenwood marriage. Laurel was content with her life, a good mother, as well as a successful businesswoman, and very involved in her community."

"And no body was ever found."

"No trace of her. Afterward, Jen's father became very closed off, didn't permit her or her sister to so much as mention their mother's name. Seven months ago, when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Jen tried to talk with him about her mother, but he flat-out refused. He died two months later, and then Jen started obsessing about the disappearance. Finally she looked up the newspaper accounts of it. There was a big media flap for the first few days, then nothing. Almost as if someone had put a lid on the case."

"This was handled by the SLO County Sheriff's Department?"


"She talk to the investigating officers?"

"The guy in charge has died. The deputy she spoke with wasn't very interested in helping her. Can't blame him; it's a cold case, and he's got better things to do with his time."

"So she came to you, since you used to be an investigator."

"Actually, no. Mark got worried about her obsessing. She was losing weight, not sleeping or eating properly, not working well. So he decided he'd bankroll a full-scale investigation into her mother's disappearance, and asked Ricky if he thought your agency would be right for the job. Of course, he said it would."

"A full-scale investigation into a cold case?"

"The works. Mark's willing to spend whatever it takes to give Jen peace of mind."

"Sounds like he loves her a lot."

"Yeah, he does."

I asked, "So why didn't Jennifer Aldin approach me directly? Why have you pave the way?"

"She only decided to go ahead with the investigation yesterday. Last night, the four of us were having dinner, and when I mentioned that Ricky and I were coming up here for the party, she asked me to speak with you. The thing is, she wants you to handle the case personally."

"Why me?"

"Because you're the best there is."

"According to . . . ?"

"Ricky and me. The man on the street. Oh, hell, Shar, will you take it on? Jen needs closure in order to get her life back on track."

I considered. Late last month I'd wrapped up a case that had been very personal and had threatened my career, as well as the existence of the agency. After having my attention taken away from normal business affairs for two weeks, I'd been trying to make up for lost time, but managing our heavy caseload and the attendant paperwork threatened even now to overwhelm me. Still, Ted could pick up some of the slack in the paperwork department, and I had a couple of new operatives who were coming along fast. . . .

I was mentally shifting priorities and assignments as I said to Rae, "Okay. I'll call Jennifer tomorrow, and maybe we can set something up for later in the week."

"If I know her, she'll want to see you soonest."

"If so, I can fit her in on Tuesday afternoon. We're flying down tomorrow night."

"What, so soon? You and Hy aren't taking any more time off?"

"Can't. He's due in La Jolla at RKI headquarters on Wednesday. Business is booming—their clients see terrorists behind every tree—and they're hiring so many people that they need to restructure their training operations."

And they've got a situation coming up. One that will require all their resources, according to Gage. I can't even ask Hy about it, because he'd be furious at Gage for mentioning it to me. For attempting to dictate the terms of our relationship. If RKI is in trouble, the last thing they need is dissension among the partners.

Rae said, "So marriage isn't going to change anything for you guys."

"We don't expect it to."

She grinned. "Wait and see."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Just wait and see."



Jennifer and Mark Aldin lived down the Peninsula in Atherton, an old-money, quietly rich suburb some twenty-five miles south of the city. Red Hawk Lane had a country feel, narrow and overhung with big oak trees; a high tan stucco wall surrounded the Aldin property, and behind it sprawled a matching stucco house with a red tile roof. Sprinklers threw out lazy streams of water onto an improbably green, manicured lawn, the droplets glistening in the early afternoon sun.

A uniformed maid—Latina, with a thick accent—answered the door and showed me to a living room with a beamed ceiling and terra-cotta floors covered with jute area rugs. As she urged me with hand gestures to sit on one of a U-shaped grouping of mission-style sofas in front of a fireplace, she said, "Mrs. Aldin, she will be with you in a short time."

"Gracias," I replied.

A smile flickered across her lips. "De nada."

California: the ultimate melting pot of this already diverse country. Some fluency in Spanish is almost a necessity here—indeed, Latinos are now the fastest-growing ethnic group in our population. For people in my profession, it also helps to understand some Chinese, Japanese, and Tagalog—as well as a smattering of ghetto slang.

As I waited for Jennifer Aldin, I looked around the room. French doors opened onto a patio with a black-bottomed pool and a scattering of teak tables and lounge chairs. The air that filtered through the doors was faintly scented by chlorine and cape jasmine. Because of the walls' thickness, the living room remained cool in the afternoon's heat, and the white cushions of the spartan-looking sofa were surprisingly comfortable. I settled back and studied a framed piece of cloth that hung over the mantel—red, orange, black, and gold, woven in a complex, abstract pattern that might have been a replica of a fire in the hearth below. Jennifer Aldin's work? If so, even to my untutored eye, she had a good deal of talent.

I heard footsteps behind me, turned, and then stood. The woman was as tall as I and slender to the point of being emaciated, clad in narrow-fitting white jeans and a matching tunic, her honey-colored hair hanging dull and stringy to her shoulders. Her eyes were deeply shadowed, her skin dry. The smile she gave me was wan, the nails of the long-fingered hand she extended me bitten down to the quick. Jennifer Aldin, I saw, had once been beautiful, but five months of obsessing over her mother's disappearance had taken their toll.

"Sharon," she said, "I'm Jennifer. Thank you for coming."

In spite of her fragile appearance, Jennifer had a strong handshake, an open face with a scattering of freckles across her small nose, and direct blue eyes. A straightforward woman. I understood why she and Rae had become friends.

After the usual pleasantries—"Happy to try to help you; Rae speaks highly of your friendship." "Congratulations on your marriage. How was the party?"—we got settled on the sofas, a wide glass-topped table between us. Immediately the maid—Alicia, Jennifer called her—appeared with a tray containing a pitcher of lemonade and two glasses. After she served us and departed, I took out my voice-activated tape recorder and asked Jennifer if she'd mind if I kept a record of our conversation. She didn't.

"I've come to this meeting better prepared than at most of my new-client consultations," I said. "Rae has briefed me on your situation, and this morning I accessed the news reports of your mother's disappearance. What we need to do now is discuss what you expect of me and my agency, as well as what we can reasonably hope to provide. I take it Rae's told you she considers the investigation a long shot?"

Jennifer nodded. "She did say that. And I've reviewed every piece of information I could find about . . . that time, so I know how little there is to go on. But . . . Sharon, do you know what it's like to lose a parent?"

"Yes, I do. My father—adoptive father, actually—died of a heart attack a couple of years ago."

"And that was painful, I'm sure; I lost my own dad to cancer only a few months ago. But my mother . . . What would it have been like if your father had simply disappeared, if you never knew what had happened to him?"

"I can't imagine."

"Let me try to describe the experience. You're ten years old. Your mother comes to your bedroom one night and together you read a chapter of the current book—in this case it was The Wind in the Willows—as she's done nearly every night for as long as you can remember. She kisses you, reminds you she's going to the coast to paint in the morning, and she'll be back late, so you're to mind your father and look out for Terry, your little sister. The next night she is late, but you go to sleep, sure you'll see her in the morning. But in the morning she's still not there. You go off to school, expecting she'll be there when you return that afternoon." Jennifer paused, took a deep breath. Her face had gone pale, and she'd laced her long fingers together and thrust her hands between her knees. After a moment she went on.

"When the school bus drops you and Terry off that afternoon, there's a police car in front of the house. Lots of people are there: your dad, who's never home that early; your mom's best friend; the next-door neighbor lady; your Aunt Anna; two men in uniform. You keep asking what's happened, but they won't tell you anything, and Aunt Anna takes you and Terry to the kitchen for Coke and cookies. Aunt Anna's upset, you can tell because she won't look at you, and when you ask if something's happened to Mom, all she says is, 'She'll be back soon.' But you know she's lying, and your throat seizes up so there's no way you can eat a bite of those cookies or take a sip of the Coke."

Jennifer's voice had slipped into a higher pitch, and her eyes were focused rigidly on the cleanly swept hearth. Going back in time, reliving the incident. I felt a prickling of concern for her, but didn't interrupt.

"For two days it goes on like that," she continued. "Dad stays at home, but he's not paying much attention to you. Aunt Anna and Aunt Sally—Mom's best friend—are there most of the time, too. You and Terry are confined to the house, they won't even let you go to school. Terry's scared—she's only six—and she's afraid to ask questions, so you do. 'What's happened to Mom?' you say. 'She's away painting,' they tell you. 'She'll be back soon.' But you know she's not away painting; in all the time she's done that, she's never been gone this long. And the postcard hasn't come. When she goes someplace to paint, she always sends a postcard addressed to herself—no message, just a souvenir for her collection. Besides, why were the police at the house that first day? Why do they keep coming back to talk with Dad? And why hasn't he gone to work?"

Jennifer shrank back against the sofa's cushions, crossing her arms, hands grasping her elbows. The singsong, childlike quality in her voice had become more pronounced. She shivered.

I remained still, sensing she was coming to a critical point in the narrative.

"Then, on the third morning, your dad's acting just like he used to before your mom disappeared. He's dressed for work, and has had Aunt Anna—who came over early—get you and Terry ready for school. But he's not really the same; he's too cheerful, and he's never cheerful in the morning. He's even made oatmeal, and it's all gluey, but you choke it down to please him, because he's been so upset, and now he seems so sad under all those big smiles. When you're finished, he pushes back from the table and looks at you and Terry and says, 'I'm sorry, girls, but we have to get on with our lives. Your mother would have wanted it that way.'

"Terry starts to cry, and you ask, 'Why, Daddy? Is she dead?'

"And then his face changes—scrunches up, gets red and ugly. He says, 'Your mother is not dead. We don't know what happened to her, but she is not dead. You are never to suggest that again. Never. Someday you will understand why.'

"Terry stops crying and looks really scared, and you don't say a word because you know better. There's that tone in his voice that you've heard before when he's warned you not to do something. It's a tone that tells you he means what he's saying, and you obey. Besides, then his expression changes, and he looks so sad that you're afraid if you say anything more, he'll start shaking and then maybe break into little pieces. And then you'll be all alone in the world, with nobody to love you—because Aunt Anna doesn't really like kids, and Aunt Sally and the neighbor lady have families of their own to look after. You'll be all alone, except for Terry, who is so little and needs such a lot of looking after. That's too much for a ten-year-old to bear, so you keep quiet, in order to save your dad and yourself.

"That night, after you've gone to bed, your dad lights a big bonfire in the backyard and throws all your mom's paintings into it. You run out, crying, and he holds you and tells you it's for the best, so you can all make a new life without missing her so badly. But after he's put you back in bed, you cry some more because you loved those paintings, especially the one of the old hotel where Mom told you she and Dad spent their honeymoon.

"Then, after a while, you realize your dad was right, because things do kind of get back to normal. You go to school and to your ballet lessons; for a while Aunt Anna fixes meals that are actually better than Mom's; then Dad learns to cook and do the laundry and takes you camping like he always did. When you mention your mom, he sounds kind of absentminded. 'She loves you,' he says at first. And then, 'She loved you.' Gradually you stop talking about her, and it goes on for years and years like that, but there's still this . . . place inside you where something's not right—"

"Darling?" a voice said from outside. "You okay?"

A man in tennis whites stood in the doorway. Medium height, thick gray hair, deep tan. Craggy face, nose that looked like it had been broken more than once; deep lines around his eyes and mouth. He moved quickly into the room, toward Jennifer.

"Oh, God." She put a hand to her pale face, leaned forward. "Mark, I didn't mean to—"

"It's all right, darling." He stepped between us, as if to hide her distress from me, put his arms around her.

After a bit, he straightened. Jennifer got up from the sofa, saying, "Excuse me for a minute," and hurried from the room.


On Sale
Jul 10, 2006
Page Count
336 pages

Marcia Muller

About the Author

Marcia Muller has written many novels and short stories. She has won six Anthony Awards, a Shamus Award, and is also the recipient of the Private Eye Writers of America's Lifetime Achievement Award as well as the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award (their highest accolade). She lives in northern California with her husband, mystery writer Bill Pronzini.

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