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Dear Wife / (by Kimberly Belle, 2019) -

Dear Wife /   (by Kimberly Belle, 2019) -

Dear Wife / (by Kimberly Belle, 2019) -

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: 1 748
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Dear Wife / (by Kimberly Belle, 2019) -
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2019
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Kimberly Belle
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Vivienne Leheny, Chris Andrew Ciulla, and Pete Simonelli
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upper-intermediate
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09:37:20
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64 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

Dear Wife / :

.doc (Word) kimberly_belle_-_dear_wife.doc [897.5 Kb] (c: 36) .
.pdf kimberly_belle_-_dear_wife.pdf [1.53 Mb] (c: 29) .
audiobook (MP3) .


: https://telete.in/Dear_Wife


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BETH I hit my blinker and merge onto the Muskogee Turnpike, and for the first time in seven long years, I take a breath. A real, full-body breath that blows up my lungs like a beach ball. So much breath that it burns. It tastes like freedom. Four hours on the road, two hundred and eighty-three miles of space between us, and its nowhere near enough. I still hear the clink of your keys when you toss them on the table, still tense at the thud of your shoes when you come closer to the kitchen. Still feel the fear slithering, snake-like, just under the surface of my skin. You have three moods lately: offensive, enraged or violent. That moment when you come around that corner and I see which one it is always inches bile up my throat. Its the worst part of my day. I tell myself, no more. No more tiptoeing around your temper, no more dodging your blows. Those days, like Arkansas, are in my rearview mirror. For early afternoon on a Wednesday, the highway is busy, dusty semis rumbling by on both sides, and I hold my hands at ten and two and keep the tires between the lines. Oklahoma is crisscrossed with turnpikes like this one, four-lane highways dotted with cameras for speeding and toll violations. Its too soon still for one of them to be clocking every black sedan with Arkansas plates that whizzes by, but Im also not giving them any reason to. I use my blinkers and hold my speed well under the limit, even though what Id really like to do is haul ass. I hit the button for the windows, letting the highway air wash away the smell of you, of home. At sixty-four miles an hour, the wind is brutal, hot and steamy and oppressive. It reeks of pasture and exhaust, of nature and chemicals, none of it pleasant. It whips up a whirlwind in the car, blowing my hair and my clothes and the map on the passengers seat, rocking it in the air like a paper plane. I reach down, shimmy out of a shoe and smack it to the seat as a paperweight. Youre serious about holding on to me, which means I need to hold on to that map. It may be old-school, but at least a map cant be traced. Not that youd have already discovered the number for the burner phone charging in the cup holder, but still. Better to not take any chances. I took the phone out of the package but havent powered it upnot yet. Not until I get where Im going. I havent made it this far into my new life only to be hauled back into the old one. So far, this state looks exactly like the one I left behindfields and farms and endless belts of faded asphalt. Sounds the same, too. Local radio stations offer one of two choices, country music or preachers. I listen to a deep voice glorifying the power of forgiveness, but its a subject I can no longer get behind. I toggle up the dial, stopping on a Miranda Lambert anthem thats much more my speed these daysgunpowder and leadand give a hard twist to the volume dial. For the record, I never wanted this. Running away. Leaving everything and everyone behind. I try not to think about all the things Ill miss, all the faces Ill miss, even if they wont miss mine. Part of the planning was putting some space between me and people I love most, not letting them in on the truth. Its the one thing I cant blame you forthe way I drove a wedge into those friendships all by myself so you wouldnt go after them, too. Theres only one person who knows Im gone, and everyone else. Itll be days, maybe weeks until they wonder where I am. Youre smart, so I have to be smarter. Cunning, so I have to be more cunning. Not exactly a skill I possessed when we walked down the aisle all those years ago, when I was so squishy in love. I looked into those eyes of yours and promised till death would we part, and I meant every word. Divorce was never an optionuntil it was. But the first time I mentioned the word, you shoved me to the floor, jammed a gun into my mouth and dared me to say it again. Divorce. Divorce divorce divorce divorce. I never said the word out loud again, though I will admit its been an awful lot on my mind. I picture you walking through the door at home, looking for me. I see you going from room to room, hollering and cursing and finally, calling my cell. I see you following its muffled rings into the kitchen, scowling when you realize theyre coming from the cabinet under the sink. I see you wrenching open the doors and dumping out the trash and digging through sludgy coffee grounds and the remains of last nights stir-fry until you find my old iPhone, and I smile. I smile so damn hard my cheeks try to tear in two. I wasnt always this vindictive, but you werent always this mean. When we met, you were charming, warming up my car on cold mornings or grilling up the most perfect strip steak for my birthday. You can still be sweet and charming when you want to be. Youre like the cocaine they slip the dogs that patrol the cars at the border; you gave me just enough of what I craved to keep me searching for more. Thats part of what took me so long to leave. The other part was the gun. So no, I didnt want to do this, but I did plan for it. Oh, how I planned for this day. My first day of freedom. JEFFREY When I pull into the driveway after four days on the road, I spot three things all at once. First, the garbage bins are helter-skelter in front of the garage door two days after pickup, rather than where they belong, lined up neatly along the inside right wall. The living room curtains are drawn against the last of the afternoon light, which means theyve probably been like that since last night, or maybe all the nights Ive been gone. And despite the low-lying sun, the porch lights are oncorrection: one of them is on. The left-side bulb is dead, its glass smoky and dark, making it seem like the people who live here couldnt be bothered with changing it, which is inaccurate. Only one of us couldnt be bothered, and her name is Sabine. I stop. Shake it off. No more complainingits a promise Ive made to myself. No more fighting. I grab my suitcase from the trunk and head inside. Sabine? I stand completely still, listening for sounds upstairs. A shower, a hair dryer, music or TV, but theres nothing. Only silence. I toss my keys on the table next to a pile of mail three inches thick. Sabine, you here? I head farther into the house. I think back to our phone conversation earlier this morning, trying to recall if she told me shed be home late. Even on the best days, her schedule is a moving target, and Sabine doesnt always remember to update our shared calendar. Shed prattled on for ten endless minutes about the open house shed just held for her latest listing, some newly constructed monstrosity on the north side of town. She went on and on about the generous millwork and slate-tile roof, the pocket doors and oak-plank flooring and a whole bunch of other features I couldnt give a crap about because I was rushing through the Atlanta airport to make a tight connection, and its quite possible that by then I wasnt really listening. Sabines rambling is something I found adorable when we first started dating, but lately sparks an urge to chuck my phone into the Arkansas River, just to cut off one of her eternal, run-on sentences. When I got to my gate and saw my plane was already boarding, I hung up. I peek out the window into the garage. Sabines black Mercedes isnt there. Looks like I beat her home. I head into the kitchen, which is a disaster. A pile of dirty dishes crawling up the sink and onto the countertop. A weeks worth of newspapers spread across the table like a card trick. Dead, drooping roses marinating in a vase of murky green water. Sabine knows how much I hate coming home to a dirty kitchen. I pick up this mornings cereal bowl, where the dregs of her breakfast have fused to the porcelain like nuclear waste, putrefied and solid. I fill it with water at the sink and fume. The trash bins, the kitchen, not leaving me a note telling me where she isits all punishment for something. Sabines passive-aggressive way of telling me shes still pissed. I dont even remember what we were arguing about. Something trivial, probably, like all the arguments seem to be these days. Crumbs on the couch, hairs in the drain, who forgot to pick up the dry cleaning or drank the last of the orange juice. Stupid stuff. Shit that shouldnt matter, but in that hot, quicksilver moment, somehow always does. I slide my cell phone from my pocket and scroll through our messages, dispatches of a mundane married life. Did you remember to pay the light bill? The microwave is on the fritz again. Im placing an order for office supplies, need anything? I land on the last one to me and bingo, its the message Im looking for. Showing tonight. Be home by 9. I spend the next half hour righting Sabines mess. What doesnt go into the dishwasher I pitch in the trash, then toss the bags into the garbage bins I line up. And then I haul my suitcase upstairs. The bed is unmade, Sabines side of the closet a pigsty. I try to ignore the chaos she left everywhere: kicked-off shoes and shirts with inside-out sleeves, shoved on lopsided hangers. Nothing like the neat, exacting lines on my side. How difficult is it to put things back where they belong? To line the clothes up by color? Ten minutes later Im in shorts and a T-shirt, sneakers pounding up the path in an angry sprint west along the river. The truth is, I am perfectly aware Im not the easiest person to live with. Sabine has told me more times than Id care to admit. I cant help that I like things the way I like themthe cars washed, the house clean, dinner hot and waiting when I get home from work. Sabine is a great cook when she wants to be, when her job isnt sucking up most of her day, which lately seems like all the time. I cant remember the last night I came home to one of her home-cooked meals, the ones that take all day to prepare. Once upon a time, she would serve them to me in an apron and nothing else. Ive spent a lot of hours thinking about how to bring us back to the way we used to be. Easy. Sexy. Surprising. Before my job dead-ended at a human resources company that sells buggy, overpriced software nobody wants to buy. Before Sabine got her brokers license, which I used to laugh off as a hobby. Now, on a good month, her salary is more than double mine. Id tell her to quit, but honestly, weve gotten used to the money. Its like moving into a house with extra closet spaceyou always use it up. In our case, the money made us cocky, and we sank far too much of it into our house, a split-level eyesore with too-tiny windows and crumbling siding. The inside was even worse. Cheap paneling and shaggy carpet on the floors, climbing the walls, creeping up the staircase. You have got to be shitting me, I said as she led me through the cramped, musty rooms. It looked like a seventies porn set. It looked like the destitute version of Hugh Hefner would be coming around the corner in his tattered bathrobe any second. No way were we going to live here. But then she took me to the back porch and I got a load of the view, a sweeping panorama of the Arkansas River. Shed already done the math: a thirty-year mortgage based on the estimated value after a head-to-toe renovation, an amount that made my eyes bulge. We bought it on the spot. So now were proud owners of a beautiful Craftsman-style bungalow on the river, even though as children of Pine Bluff, a working-class town wedged between farms and factories, we should have known better. The house is on the wrong side of town, a castle compared to the split-level shacks on either side of the street, and no renovation, no matter how extensive, could change the fact that there arent many people in town who can afford to buy the thing. Not that well ever be able to sell. Our house doesnt just overlook the river, it is on the river, the ropy currents so close they swell up the back steps every time theres a sudden rain. But the point is, Sabines job, which began as a fun little way to provide some extra income, is now a necessity. My cell phone buzzes against my hip, and I slow to a stop on the trail. I check the screen, and my gut burns with irritation when I see its not Sabine but her sister. I pick up, my breath coming in sharp, sweat-humid puffs. Hello, Ingrid. My greeting is cool and formal, because my relationship with Ingrid is cool and formal. All those things I admire about my wifeher golden chestnut hair, her thin thighs and tiny waist, the way her skin smells of vanilla and sugarare glaring deficiencies in her twin. Ingrid is shorter, sturdier, less polished. The wallflower to Sabines prom queen. The heifer to her blue-ribbon cow. Ingrid has never resented Sabine for being the prettier sister, but she sure as hell blames the rest of us for noticing. Im trying to reach Sabine, Ingrid says, her Midwestern twang testy with hurry. Have you talked to her today? A speedboat roars by on the river, and I wait for it to pass. Im fine, Ingrid, thank you. And yes, though it was a quick conversation because Ive been in Florida all week for a conference. I just got home, and shes got a showing. Have you tried her cell? Ingrid makes a sound low in her throat, the kind of sound that comes right before an eye roll. Of course Ive tried her cell, at least a million times. Whens the last time you talked to her? About an hour ago. The lie is instant and automatic. Ingrid might already know I hung up on her sister this morning and she might not, but one thing is certain: shes not going to hear it from me. Sabine said shed be home by nine, so you might want to try her then. Either way, Ill make sure to tell her you called. And with that I hit End, dial up the music on my headphones to deafening and take off running into the setting sun. BETH The District at River Bend is an uninspired apartment community on the banks of Tulsas Arkansas River, the kind thats generically appealing and instantly familiar. Tan stone, beige siding, indistinguishable buildings of three and four stories clustered around an amoeba-shaped pool. There are a million complexes like it, in a million cities and towns across America, which is exactly why I chose this one. I pull into an empty spot by the main building, grab my bagalong with the clothes on my back, my only earthly possessionsand head to the door. People barely out of college are scattered around the massive indoor space, clutching paper coffee cups or ticking away on their MacBooks. Everybody ignores me, which is an unexpected but welcome development. I make a mental note that a complex like this one would be a good place to hide. In the land of self-absorbed millennials, anybody over thirty might as well be invisible. I spot a sign for the leasing office and head down the hallway. The woman perched behind the sleek glass desk is one of them. Young. Blonde. Pretty. The kind with a carefully curated Instagram feed of duck-face selfies and hand-on-hip glamour shots. I pause at the edge of her desk, and she looks up with a blinding smile. Hi, there. Are you looking for a home in the premier apartment community in Tulsa? Because if so, youve come to the right place. Good Lord. Her Midwestern drawl, her Kardashian whine, her unnaturally white teeth. This girl cant be for real. Um, right. So I was looking at the one-bedroom units on your website and Omigosh! Then this is your lucky day. I literally just learned theres a Vogue unit available starting next week. How does eight hundred square feet and a balcony overlooking the pool sound? I hike my bag higher on a shoulder. Sounds great, but I was hoping to find something thats available a little sooner. Like, how much sooner? Like, immediately. Her collegiate smile falls off her face. Oh. Well, I have a couple of one-bedroom units available now, but theyre all smaller, and they dont offer that same stunning view. I shrug. Im okay with that. She motions to one of the upholstered chairs behind me. Then have a seat, and Ill see about getting you into one of our Alpha units. When were you thinking of moving in? I sink onto the chair, dragging my bag into my lap. Today, if possible. Her eyes go wide, and she shakes her head. Its not. Possible, I mean. The application process takes a good twenty-four hours, at least. My heart gives an ominous thud. Application process? I know about the application process. Ive already scoured the website, and know exactly what it takes to get into this place. I also know that this is where things can get sticky. The woman nods. Ill need two months worth of pay stubs, either that or proof of salary on your bank statements, a government-issued ID like a drivers license or passport, and your social security number. The background check is pretty standard, but it takes a day or two depending on what time of day I submit. I have all the items she requested, right here in an envelope in my bag, but as soon as this woman plugs them into her computer, one little click of her mouse will propel all my information into the ether. Background checks mean paper trails, clues, visibility. Once you spot me in the system, and you will, Ill have only a few precious hours before you show up here, looking for me. She checks the time on her cell. If we hurry, I could get everything through the system by close of business tomorrow. By then Ill be long gone. I push the envelope across the desk. Then lets hurry. I start my new job in two days, and Id really like to be settled before then. She flips through the packet of papers. Her fingers pause on my bank statement, and the air in the room thickens into a soupy sludge. Apartment complexes require a minimum salary of three times the rent, which is why I added a couple of zeros to that statement in lieu of proof of salary. Part of the preparations for Day One included learning Photoshop. Its not the amount shes focused on, but my former address. Arkansas, huh? So what brings you to town? I relax in the chair. I got a job at QuikTrip. Its a lie, but judging by the way her face brightens, she buys it. A friend of mine works there. She loves it. Great benefits. Way better than this place, though if you ever repeat that Ill deny ever saying it. She grins like were in on the same joke, and so do I. I gesture to the packet in her hand. I dont have pay stubs yet, which is why Ive included a copy of my contract. Forged, but still. It looks real enough. As long as her friend doesnt work in human resources, nobody but me and the Pine Bluff Public Library printer will ever know its a fake. I give her time to flip through the rest of the documents, which are real. My real drivers license. My real social security number. My real addressscratch that, former address. This entire plan rests on her accepting the papers in her hands, on me laying this decoy trail, then disappearing. She looks up with a wide smile. Its not often that I get a prospective tenant with a record this spotless. Unless the system catches something Ive missed, this is going to be a piece of cake. I cant tell if her words are a question or a warning. I smile like I assume theyre neither. She drops the papers on her desk and reaches for the mouse. Lets get you in the system, then, why dont we? You and I met at a McDonalds, under the haze of deep-fried potatoes and a brain-splitting migraine. The headache is what lured me there, actually, what gave my body a desperate craving for a Happy Meal. A magical, medicinal combination of starch and salt and fructose that works better than any pill Ive ever poked down, the only thing that will loosen the vise clamping down on my skull and settle my churning stomach. But good, so there I sat in my sunglasses, nibbling french fries while tiny monsters pounded nail after nail into my brain, when you leaned into the space between our tables. Whatd you get? I didnt respond. Speaking was excruciating and besides, I had no clue what you were talking about. You pointed to the box by my elbow. Dont those things come with a toy? What is it? I pushed my sunglasses onto my head and peered inside. Its a plastic yellow car. I pulled it out and showed it to you. Thats a Hot Wheels. I settled it on the edge of my tray. A what? Pretty sure that ones a Dodge Charger. Every boy on the planet has had a Hot Wheels at some point in their lives. My nephew has about a billion of them. You were distractingly gorgeous, the kind of gorgeous that didnt belong in a fast-food joint, chatting up a stranger about kids and their toys. Tall and dark and broad-boned, with thick lashes and a strong, square chin. Italian, I remember thinking, or maybe Greek, some long-lost relative with stubborn genes. I held the car across the aisle. Take it. Give it to your nephew. Your lips sneaked into a smile, and maybe it was the carbs finally hitting my bloodstream, but you aimed it at me that day, and the pain lifted just a little. Three days later, I was in love. So now, when I push through the glass door to the restaurant, I am of course thinking of you. Different state, different McDonalds, but still. It feels fitting, almost poetic. You and I ending in the same spot we began. The smell hits me, french fries and sizzling meat, and it prompts a wave of nausea, a faint throbbing somewhere deep in my skull, even though I havent had a migraine in months. I guess its true what they say, that scent is the greatest memory trigger, so I shouldnt be surprised that one whiff of McDonalds can summon the beginnings of a migraine. I swallow a preventative Excedrin with a bottle of water I purchase at the register. For a fast-food restaurant at the mouth of a major interstate, the place is pretty deserted. I weave through the mostly empty tables, taking note of the customers scattered around the dining area. A mother flipping through a magazine while her kids pelt each other with chicken nuggets, a pimply teenager watching a YouTube video on his phone, an elderly couple slurping brown sludge up their straws. Not one of them looks up as I pass. I select a table by the window with a view of the parking lot. A row of pickup trucks glitter in the late afternoon sun, competing for most obnoxious. Supersized tires with spit-shined rims, roll bars and gun racks, wavy flag decals on the rear window. People of God, guns and Trump, according to the bumper stickers, a common Midwestern stereotype that Ive found to be one hundred percent true. Another stereotype: the lone woman in sunglasses, sitting at a fast-food restaurant with no food is up to no good. I consider buying a dollar meal as cover, but Im too nervous to eat. I check my watch and try not to fidget. Three minutes to five. This Nick guy better not be late. He is a crucial part of my plan, and I dont have time to wait around. Youll be getting home from work in an hour. Youll walk through the door and expect to find me in the kitchen, waiting for you with dinner, with the endless fetching of newspapers and remote controls and beer, with sexthough whether your desire will be fueled by passion or fury is always a toss-up. The thought makes me hot and twitchy, my muscles itching with an immediate, intense need to race to my car and flee. An hour from now, a couple hundred miles from here, youll be looking for me. How will I know you? I asked Nick two days ago during our one and only phone call, made from the customer service phone at Walmart, after I lied and said my car battery was dead. Nick and I have never actually met. Weve not exchanged photographs or even the most basic of physical descriptions. I didnt know he existed until a week ago. Nick laughed. What do you suggest I do, carry a rose between my teeth? Dont worry. Youll know me. I cast a sneaky glance at the teenager, laughing at something on his screen. Surely not. When we spoke on the phone, Nick didnt seem nearly so oblivious. My gaze shifts to the elderly man, offering the rest of his milkshake to his wife. Not him, either. When Nick rolls up at thirty seconds to five, I blow out a relieved breath because he was right. I do know its him, because any other day, at any other McDonalds, hes the type of guy I wouldnt have noticed at all. It begins with his car, a nondescript four-door he squeezes between a souped-up Ford F-250 and an extended-bed Dodge Ram. His clothes are just as unexceptionalgeneric khakis and a plain white shirt over mud-brown shoes. He looks like a math professor on his day off, or maybe an engineer. He walks to the door, and his eyes, shaded under a navy baseball cap, dont even glance my way. He orders a cup of coffee at the counter, then carries it over to my table and sinks onto the chair across from me. Nick, I assume? From the look he gives me, theres no way Nick is his real name. And you must be Beth. Touch?. Not my real name, either. Up close hes better looking than I thought hed be. Wide-set eyes, angled chin, thick hair poking out the rim of his cap. In a normal world, in jeans and a rumpled T-shirt, Nick might not be half-bad. He dumps three packets of artificial sweetener into his coffee and swirls it around with a red plastic straw. Its the only way I can stomach this stuff, by masking it with something that tastes like it was imported straight from Chernobyl. If I grow an extra ear, Im blaming you. Its a little dig because Nick here wanted to meet at the Dunkin across the street. He wasnt the least bit subtle about it, either. If you dont mind, Id really rather meet at the Dunkin, he said, not once, but enough times that the old me almost caved, even though I did mind. Because what I called Nick here to discuss has to be done in a McDonalds. The universe demands it. Symmetry demands it. This place has special memories for me, I tell him now, not so much an apology as an explanation, an olive branch for the Chernobyl coffee. Not good memories, but memories nonetheless. Lets just say its karma that we do this here. Nick shrugs, letting it go. Karmas a bitch. Best not to piss her off, I always say. He takes a sip of his coffee, then puts it down with a grimace. Clasps his hands on the Formica table. Waits. I understand you travel extensively for business. Nick came highly recommended to me exactly because of this qualificationmust travel extensively for business. The other qualifications, must be dependable and discreet, were something I mentally checked off as soon as I clocked him walking through the door, on time and in clothing that might as well make him invisible. Im on the road more often than not, yes. Long trips? It varies. Sometimes I need to stay put for a day or two, but even then, Im never sleeping in the same bed two nights in a row. I like to move around just in case. He leaves it at that, just in case, and I dont ask. Whatever he means by it, I honestly dont care to know. For the job I called him here to do, it makes zero difference. But sure, he continues, shrugging again, in a typical month, Ill log three to four thousand miles so I guess that qualifies as long trips. Do you have a home base? Multiple home bases. But like I said, Im hardly ever there. Perfect. He grins. Tell that to the missus. Im pretty sure hes joking, or maybe hes saying it to try to throw me off his tail. Men like Nick arent the marrying typeor if they do marry its more for convenience or cover than for love. Never for love. Thats funny, I say, twisting the cap on my water. I always liked it when my husband traveled for work. As soon as I say the words, I want to swallow them back down. The skin around Nicks eyes tightens, just for an instant, but long enough I catch it. Unlike his joke, harmless words about a wife that doesnt exist, mine revealed too muchthat the husband is real, that life was better when he was gone. Nick is not my friend. Hes not someone I should be joking with over a cup of crappy coffee. This is a business meeting, and the less he knows about me, the better. I slide a shiny Wells Fargo card from the side pocket of my bag and push it across the table. I want you to spend my money. He doesnt say anything, but he picks up the card, running a thumb over the shiny gold letters across the frontmy real name, definitely not Beth. When he looks back up, his expression is unreadable. For the record, I dont mean spend it as in booking a first-class ticket to Vegas and going nuts at the roulette wheel, but spend it as in ten dollars here, twenty there. I want you to move around a lot. Never the same ATM, or even the same city, twice. The farther away the withdrawals are from each other, the more varied the locations, the better. Think of me as your ATM fairy godmother. You want me to lay a trail. I tip my head, a silent confirmation. Assuming you dont withdraw more than a hundred dollars a week, which you cant because Ive set up the card with a weekly limit, youll get five weeks of money off that card. And my fee? His fee is five hundred dollars, an amount he made very clear on the phone is nonnegotiable. Whatever it is Im hiring him to do comes on top of that, which means this is a job that comes with a hefty cash bonus, one thats double his fee. Probably the easiest money hes ever made. Your fee is on there, too. You can withdraw that today. The weekly limits kick in as soon as you do. He hikes up on a hip and slips the card into the front pocket of his pants. You want me to go east or west? I know why hes asking, because he assumes Id want him to head in the opposite direction. Or at least, I think thats why hes asking. But Im still stinging from my slip-up, and thanks to the card in his pocket, Nick now knows my real name. No way Im telling hima criminal, a strangerwhere Im planning to land. Not that I think hed come after me, but still. If theres one thing Ive learned these past ten years, its to trust no one, not even the people youre supposed to trust the most. East, west, north, south. I dont care, as long as your withdrawals are erratic and your stops unpredictable. Ill be watching the transactions online, and if I dont like what I see, Ill put the brakes on the account. You do know there are cameras at every ATM, right? I roll my eyes. Of course I know. I didnt spend the past ten months planning this thing to have not thought about something as basic as security cameras. But itll be days, maybe even weeks before you find the withdrawals, longer before you see Nicks face on the tapes instead of mine. Im not worried about the stupid cameras. Make sure to smile pretty. I pull my bag onto my shoulder, a sign that this conversation, an interview and marching orders at the same time, is over. The pin is 2764. Nick reaches for his coffee cup, still full but no longer steaming, then thinks better of it. He leaves it on the table and stands. I bet that happens a lot, doesnt it? What does? That people underestimate you. That they think youre greener than you actually are. And before you roll your eyes at me again, you should know thats not a bad thing. If things get hairy, you can use it to your advantage. Now, finally, he gets a grin from me. Im counting on it. JEFFREY I jerk awake on the couch, and the crystal tumbler balancing on my stomach pitches over a hip. I roll away from the spill, shifting to one side, but Im too late. The liquid has already seeped through my jeans, dripping a good two fingers of expensive bourbon down my leg and into the fabric of the cushion. With a groan, I plunk the glass on the floor, push myself upright and try to get my bearings. The half-eaten pizza I ordered for dinner sits cold and congealed on the coffee table, and I flip the box closed. Images of a house fire flicker on the television on the wall, a handful of figures in slick yellow gear under a dripping arc of water. I reach for the remote and hit the button for the guide. Tiny numbers at the top of the screen tell me its 11:17 p.m. Shit. When I stretched out on the couch, it was quarter to nine. The four days of travel, of being on all day at the conference, must have worn me out more than I thought. Sabine? No answer, but then again, shes probably sound asleep. I picture her upstairs in bed, her long hair like silk across the pillow, and a familiar fire burns in my chest. Why didnt she come in to say hi? Why didnt she wake me? I click off the TV and stand. The downstairs is quiet, the lights still burning bright in the hallway. I flip them off on my way to the stairs, pausing at the doorway to the kitchen. The counter is still spotless, and the three matching pendants over the island light the air with a golden glow. Sabine might be a slob, but she hates wasting money as much as I do. If she were here, if shed sneaked past me on her way upstairs, she would have turned off the lights. Unease tightens the skin of my chest. I jog across the kitchen tiles and yank open the door to the garage, getting a faint, heady whiff of gasoline. My car, right where I parked it. In Sabines spot, nothing but an oil stain on the concrete. My heart gives a painful kick. I take the stairs by twos and threes, sprinting down the hallway runner and into the bedroom, even though I already know what Ill find. The comforter, still unturned from where Id made it. The pillows, still stacked and fluffed. The bed, empty. BETH I stand at the bathroom sink of room seventeen in a grubby motor lodge on the outskirts of Tulsa and take inventory in the mirror. Chalky skin. Eyes shaded with purple circles. Hair too long, too thick to style. Youre always telling me never to cut my hair. You say you like it longdark, thick strands streaked with shiny ribbons of bronze, with just the right amount of curl. Its the kind of hair you see on commercials, the kind women pay hundreds of dollars a month for. But its more than just hair to you. Its a plaything, a turn-on, something to plow your fingers through or moan your orgasms in whenever we have sex. But this hair you claim to love so much? You also love to use it as a weapon. To drag me by it from room to room. To pin me down. Hair is so much stronger than you think itd be, the roots like barbed hooks in your skin. The scalp will rip open sooner than a hank of hair will break. I know this from experience. I pick up a handful and a pair of shears and slice it in an uneven, stubby line. Its a lot easier than I thought it would be. A hell of a lot less painful than when you grab me by the ponytail and lift me clear off the bed. The strands tumble down my chest, sticking to the white cotton of my shirt. I feel lighter. Unencumbered. Free. I keep chopping, brushing the strands into the sink to toss later, not because I think youll track me here, but because I believe in karma. One day very soon Ill need a job, and its not unthinkable Ill end up in a hotel room like this one, scrubbing someone elses hairs from the drain. Not exactly what my parents were hoping for when they paid for my college, but a better paying job, a job Im actually qualified for, would send up a smoke signal you might spot. Ive never cut my own hair before, and I dont do a particularly good job of it. I was going for a pixie cut, but its more of a walk-in salon hack job, or maybe a sloppy bowl cut from the seventies. I pick up random chunks, pull them between my fingers like a hairstylist would, and slice in asymmetrical layers. When Im done, I fluff it with my fingers and study myself in the mirror. With a bit of hair gel, it might not be half-bad. You are not who you used to be. You are Beth Murphy now. Im Beth, I say, trying on the name like a questionable shade of lipstick. Its the name I gave Nick, the one I signed on the hotel register, but only after forking over two twenties so the man behind the counter didnt ask for my ID again. My names Beth Murphy. Beth with the crappy haircut. I dig the box of hair dye from the CVS bag and mix up the color. In my previous life, I was one of those brunettes who never longed to be a blonde. Blondes are louder, bolder, more conspicuous. Flashy and competitive, like sorority girls and cheerleaders. Not good traits when your goal is to disappear. The picture on the box advertises an ashy blond, the least in-your-face blond of the blonder shades. Blond for beginners. I paint it in lines across my scalp with the plastic bottle, then slip off the gloves and check my watch. Ten minutes until we find out if what they say is really true, that blondes have more fun. While I wait for the color to set, I flip on the television. Its past midnight, and Im three hundred miles away from Pine Blufftoo late for a local broadcast, and too soon for news of my disappearance to have spread across state lines and made it to cable. Still, I sit on the edge of the bed and flip between CNN and Fox, watching for the tiniest sliver of my story. An empty house. A missing woman. My face hidden behind dark sunglasses, spotted heading west. But theres nothing, and Im torn between relief and dread. Youll be looking for me by now. I shower and dress in the clothes I bought earlier at Walmart, a dowdy denim skirt and a shirt two sizes too big. The duffel on the bed is stuffed with clothes just like them, synthetic fabrics in Easter egg colors, cheap and outdated items Id normally turn up my nose at. In my former life, I would have turned up my nose at Beth, too. With her baggy clothes and dollar-store hair, Beth is a frump. I leave the key on the nightstand, gather up my things and step outside. Sometime in the past few hours, clouds have rolled in, a dark and threatening blanket hanging over muggy, electrically charged air. The wind is still, but it wont be for long. Ive lived in these parts long enough to know what a wall cloud looks like, and that they often swirl into tornadoes. A bolt of lightning rips the sky in two, clean as a knife slash. Time to either hunker down or get the hell out of Dodge. I choose door number two. My car is exactly where I left it, at the far edge of the lot next to the dumpster, though my is a relative term since the car doesnt officially belong to me. It belongs to a Marsha Anne Norwood of Little Rock, Arkansas, a woman who seemed as eager for a discreet, all-cash transaction as I was. I bought it two weeks ago, then moved it from lot to lot in a neighboring town, but I never transferred the title to my name. I peek inside and things are exactly as I left them. The keys, dropped in the cup holder. The title, folded on the front seat. The doors, unlocked. I cast a quick glance up the asphalt, taking in the other cars, jalopies like this one. My car is no prize, but its an easy target. A jackpot for any wannabe thief. No, Marsha Annes car wont be here for long. I turn, head to Dills Auto Repairs and Sales across the road. You cant buy a car, you told me once, when it was time for me to trade up. Just keep your mouth shut and let me handle it. Dill might disagree, seeing as Im able to sweet-talk more than 10 percent off a 1996 Buick Regal. Its a rusty old pile of junk, but the motor runs and the price is right, especially once I discover that Dill likes it when I call him Sugar. He forks over the paperwork and the address for the nearest Oklahoma DMV, which I promise to visit first thing in the morning. If I hurry, Ill be in the next state by the time the office doors open. He hands me the keys and I fall inside and crank the engine, right as the skies open up. JEFFREY The first number I call is Sabines, even though I know before I dial the first digit its a waste of time. If Sabine is pissed, if shes punishing me for something, shes not going to pick up. And if somethings happened. My stomach twitches, and I push the thought aside. Her phone rings, four eternal beeps, then flips me to voice mail. Sabine, its me. Did I forget you were going somewhere tonight? Because I got the message where you said youd be home by nine, but now its almost midnight and youre still not here. Call me back, will you? Im at home, and Im starting to get a little worried. Okay, bye. I hang up, think about calling 9-1-1, but shes what, less than three hours late? Not long enough to be an emergency. And dont the police require a minimum of twenty-four hours before you can report a person missing? What am I going to tell them, that my wife missed her curfew? I slip my cell in my pocket and pace the length of the upstairs hallway. Okay, so I know she had a showing. A late showing. Even if it ran over, even if it were all the way on the other side of town and she decided to grab a bite to eat before coming home, she would have been here by now. And its not like Sabine to ignore her phone. Its one of her least desirable job requirements, that shes always, always available. From the moment she wakes up until the time she goes to sleep, theres a device either in her palm or pressed to one of her ears. If her car broke down on the way home, if shes sitting on the edge of a highway with a flat tire and no clue how to switch it for the spare, she would have called roadside assistance, and then she would have called me. Assuming shes conscious. My skin snaps tight at the thought of her bleeding on the side of the road or worse, floating facedown in the Arkansas River. I picture her bobbing in the currents or caught in the reeds that line our backyard. I see some sicko dragging her into the show house, her heels digging into the brand-new hardwood floor. Screaming into the empty house. Ive never loved the thought of her showing houses to complete strangers. It was one of the sticking points between us when she took this job, the idea that anyone could come by pretending to be a prospective client. What if a prisoner escaped from Randall Williams? What if he had a knife or a gun? She might as well put a sign out front and a target on her back. Pretty broker, here for the taking. I pull out my phone and call her again. Sabine, seriously. This isnt funny. Where are you? I get that youre still mad at me, but at least shoot me a text so I know youre breathing. Im really worried here. Im giving you one more hour, and then Im calling the police. I hang up and haul in a deep, calming breath, but it doesnt help. Somethings wrong. I dont know what it is yet. I just know that something is very, very wrong. I pull up the number for her sister. Ingrid picks up on the first ring, like shed been lying there with her finger hovering above the screen, waiting for it to light up with a call. Her voice is gruff and insistent: Hullo! Not a question, said with an upward lilt at the end, like how a normal person answers the phone, but a demand. More grunt than word. How these two women share the same DNA is one of Gods great mysteries. Ingrid, its Jeffrey. Sorry to call at this hour, but I have caller ID, Jeffrey. Put Sabine on the phone. I close my eyes and inhale, long and steady. Thats the reason Im calling you in the middle of the night. I dont know where she is. What do you mean you dont know where she is? Shes not with you? She didnt come home after her showing, and shes not answering her phone. Jesus, Jeffrey. And youre just calling me now? What the hell have you been doing all this time? I hear a rustling of fabric, the high-pitched squeal of bedsprings. Ingrid lives alone, in a condo a couple of miles from here, Im sure because nobody else can stand to share a roof with her. Who else have you called? Nobody. Youre the first. And already, Im regretting it. Talking to Ingrid is like chewing on glassyou just know its going to be painful. Do you know the number for her boss? I say. She had that late showing tonight, so maybe Russ will know whats going on. Russ? Ingrids voice is clipped with exasperation. Russ moved to Little Rock in December. You should try Lisa. Who? Lisa OBrien. Sabines boss? She pauses for my reply, but I dont know what to say. Sabine has a new boss? Since when? Oh my God, do the two of you even talk? This all happened months ago. I huff a sigh into the phone, done pussyfooting around Ingrids shitty attitude. Do you have Lisas phone number or not? Not. A door slams. A car engine starts. Call the police, Jeffrey. Im on my way. When early on in our relationship Sabine told me she had a twin, I remember thinking how lucky she was, how lucky I was. Somewhere out there was a carbon copy of this woman, the yin to her lovely yang. The idea felt like a novelty. Two Sabines for the price of one. And then I met Ingrid, and the dislike was both instant and mutual. This was right around the time they buried their father, and their mom was starting to repeat the same tired stories often enough that the sisters noticed. In those first few weeks, I attributed Ingrids testiness to grief, to worry. I gave her a pass. But Ingrid was accustomed to being the most important person in her sisters life, and she made it clear she wasnt about to hand over the reins. Ingrid was fiercely territorial, and she treated me like a phase, an unwelcome but temporary intruder in their codependent lives. I accused Ingrid of loving her sister too much, and she accused me of not loving Sabine enough. Sabine felt caught in the middle, and from then on out, planned our lives so Ingrid and I were rarely in the same room. Ive become a master at avoiding the woman, driving on at the first sight of her car when Im out running errands, ducking into the next room at parties when she walks through the door. I eye her now across the kitchen table, taking in her dust-bunny hair and shiny, rosacea-covered cheeks as she makes notes on a yellow pad of paper. Fat, black pen strokes scratching out the name of Sabines firm, her height and hair color, the number for her cell. This woman looks nothing like my wife. She is the angry, ogre version of Sabine, the kind that bathes in swamp water and gnaws on bones under a bridge. Her face is scored with pillow marks, angry purple lines in the shape of a cross. I sigh, wishing I was the one with a pen and paper, wishing there was something I could do. My legs bounce under the table. We are sitting here, waiting for the police to arrive, and I dont have any patience. I want somebody to go out there and find my wife. Theres got to be an explanation, I say. Ingrid shushes me. Actually flicks her fingers in my direction and hisses shh, never once looking up from her scribbles. Upside down, her handwriting looks just like Sabines big, messy loops. Answer me, will you? I said theres got to be an explanation for wherever Sabine is. Where she went. Im terrified something happened to her. Ingrid grunts, and the sound sparks like flint in my gut. What is that supposed to mean? I didnt say anything. Yes, you did. You grunted. If you have something to say to me, just say it. Dont grunt at me from the other side of the table. The words come out just as angry, just as venomous as I feel. Its the middle of the night, my wife is unaccounted for and the sloppier version of Sabine is sitting across from me, looking to start a fight. I dont know what it is about these Stanfield sisters, but they sure know how to scratch and pluck at my nerves. Jeffrey, I didnt say anything. No, but you wanted to. So go for it. This is your big chance. Say what you wanted to say. Fine. You want me to say it? She slaps down the pen, pressing it under her fingers. Wheres Sabine? Im the one who called you, remember? Why are you asking me? Ingrid rolls her beady snake eyes. Come on, Jeffrey. My sister and I talk every day. We tell each other everything. This isnt exactly news. On a good day, Ingrid and Sabine will spend hours on the phone, discussing the minutia of everything from the tacos they ate for lunch to their favorite brand of tampons. Last weekend they killed an entire afternoon deliberating on the consistency of their mothers latest bowel movements, and whether changing her diet might slow down the dementia thats eating up her brain. I know they talk ten times a day. Most of the time, Im witness to it. Well, clearly she didnt tell you where she was going tonight. Or maybe she was unable to. For a second I dont understand, a fleeting moment of she thinks something bad happened, too, and then I go completely still. Ingrid thinks something bad happened all right, but she also thinks I had something to do with it. Careful. I say the word like an order, sharp and commanding. If I didnt know better, Id think you were accusing me of something. Why, do you feel guilty? No. Because I know about your fights. Sabine calls me after every one. Of course she does. The two are always on the same page, always, always of the same mind. They use the other both as a sounding board and a tuning fork. As long as the other sister agrees, then their opinions are vindicated. Two like-minded twins cant be wrong. And then theres that weird twin telepathy Sabine and Ingrid share, that creepy ability to know what the other is about to say before they even say it. Last year for Christmas, they bought each other the exact same gift, a hideous beige purse in the shape of a take-out bag. The two of them squealed like theyd both won the lottery. I dont know how to compete with that. So? All couples argue, which you would know if you could ever hold on to a man long enough to be in a relationship. Wherever Sabine is tonight has nothing to do with our arguments. She cocks an unplucked brow. You didnt even know she had a new boss, and that happened ages ago. When is the last time the two of you actually talked? When is the last time you had sex? None of your fucking business, thats when. And dont you ever ask me that again. Not while youre in my house. She folds her hands atop the pad of paper, and Id think she was calm if it werent for her paper-white knuckles. Really? Because Im pretty sure this house belongs to Sabine. Its the most hateful thing she could say to me, and as much as I hate her for it, the person I really blame for her words is Sabine. Sabine knows the name listed on the mortgage is like the drunk relative trying to talk politics at a dinner party, better just to ignore. Its always been a touchy subject between us, but like Ingrid said, Sabine tells her sister everything. My wife needs to keep her mouth shut. Our personal business is just thatpersonal. Sabine shouldnt be sharing every little thing that happens with you, just like I shouldnt have to tell you that wherever she is right now, I had nothing to do with it. Ingrid goes silent, and I can tell she has more to say. She stares at me, chewing her lip, weighing her options. I see the exact instant the decision is made. Her eyesSabines eyesice over. She told me what you did to her. She says it just like that, her voice low and deceptively calm, like Ill know what shes talking about. I do know, and the fury that rises in me is as familiar as the woman sitting across the table. Sabine told Ingrid what I did, and I want to leap across the table, wrap my fingers around Ingrids throat and squeeze until she wipes those awful, horrible words from her brain. Did Sabine tell you what she did? I already told you. Sabine tells me everything. Then you know that she pushed me first. Thats not an excuse! A man should never lay his hands on a woman, Jeffrey. I shouldnt have to tell you this. Ingrids condescending tone burrows under my skin like a tick. Sabine told me I was forgiven. She promised we would never speak of it again, and then she went blabbing it to her sister. Of course Ingrid thinks the worst of me now. She only heard one side of the story. Sabine accused me of checking out of our marriage. She said I was emotionally and physically disengaged. She kept harping on about her love tank being empty, whatever the hell that means. You know what? I shouldnt have to explain myself to you. The point is, we had a fight, it was bad, we both apologized and we moved on. Thats what successful couples dothey forgive each other and move on. I hear the words coming out of my mouth, and I wonder if theyre true. Not the part about Sabines complaintsshes never been shy about voicing thosebut the part about us as a couple. Forgiving each other. Being successful. Are Sabine and I a successful couple? Once upon a time, we were. For the first few years, we were that couplethe one every other couple wanted to be. Happy. In love and in lust, both of them at the same time. The kind of couple that shoulders major life disappointments together. Her mothers sudden forgetfulness. My low sperm count, and their decided lack of mobility to reach Sabines wonky uterus. We will get the very best care for your mother, I would murmur to a sobbing Sabine. Well adopt. That was back when everything, even the most impossible, felt possible. I was a champion, a supportive husband, a fixer. I could fix everything. And then something happened that I couldnt fix: my career stalled out halfway up the ladder at PDK Workforce Solutions. Account Executive may sound impressive, but its a midlevel slog that entails sucking up to needy, curmudgeonly customers so theyll buy crap they dont actually need. But even more limiting, theres nowhere for me to go. The next rung is my bosss job, and hes blocking the ladder like a king-of-the-hill linebacker, with no plans to retire, change industries, or move to Toledo. Ive put out some feelers, even talked to a couple of headhunters, but the only companies hiring are all the way in Little Rock, and Sabine wouldnt hear of moving. So yes, I may be bitter but Im not oblivious. I am fully aware how unfair it is to blame Sabine, but her success makes it so easy. Im forty and washed up, and shes just getting started. I come home beaten and burning with rejection to find Sabine glowing with the high of yet another sale. Lately, Ive begun eating dinner alone in the den, mostly because I cant stomach her hum of satisfaction. And so, late last year, after a particularly shitty day at work, when I got home and Sabine wouldnt stop nagging, when she kept pick-pick-picking at every little flaw, when she accused me of checking out of our marriage, of sitting back and letting her do all the hard hitting for our house, our bank account, our sex life, her words filled me with a pure, inarticulate rage. She shoved me, and I hit her. I didnt plan to. I didnt mean to. It just happened. I know how this looks, believe me. I lost my temper with my wife, and now shes gone. Maybe shes trying to punish me for what I did, or maybe my earlier hunch is right, maybe something is really, really wrong. Either way, you dont have to tell me. I am the husband with a history of violence, the man living for free in the house his wife owns, the person with the most to lose or to gain. This doesnt look good for me. BETH The storm blows north so I point the Buick south, aiming the nose toward Dallas. Its not the most efficient way to get to the East Coast, but Im not in any sort of hurry, and its an easy, roundabout route that circumvents my home state of Arkansas entirely. Even though you are hours, hopefully days behind me. Even though youll be on the lookout for a brunette in Marsha Annes black sedan, not a blonde in a gas-guzzling Regal, already down to a quarter tank, now is not the time to take any chances. I flip off the air-conditioning and roll down the windows, letting in the humid highway air. One advantage of this stupid new hair, it doesnt blow into my eyes while I drive. My eyelids are dangerously heavy, and I stop often. To grab another coffee and some snacks, to splash cold water on my face, to load up on gas and an IHOP breakfast platter. Eggs, biscuits, sausage, the works. Its not my normal kind of mealyou like me thin and waiflikebut ever since leaving Pine Bluff, Ive been ravenous. Maybe its the relief of finally breaking free, or maybe its that Im no longer my normal self. Im Beth now, and Beth eats whatever the hell she wants. Im nearing Atlanta when the sun comes up, streaking the sky with a spectacular orange and pink, so psychedelic bright that I reach for my sunglasses. My heart skitters in anticipation of my final-for-now destination. A city I visited for the first and only time with you, ages ago, for a college buddys booze-fueled wedding. The reception was loud and rowdy and at the rotating restaurant atop the Westin downtown, where you twirled me around the dance floor until we were dizzyme from the shifting skyline, you from the cheap Russian vodka. When we stumbled downstairs to our room, I asked if you were drunk and your answer was to shove me into a wall. Atlanta was the first time you hurt me that way, and the last place youll think to look for me now. I know Im close when a giant Delta jet lumbers over my head, its belly white and shiny, its wheels braced for landing. I catch a whiff of jet fuel, brace for the roar of its engines, a sound somewhere between an explosion and a NASCAR race. It rattles the steering wheel, the windows of my car, my teeth. All around me, people slam their brakes, and traffic grinds to a halt. Six lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic, red taillights as far as I can see. Ive studied the map, so I know where Im going. Merge onto the downtown connector, follow it to I-20 east, then take a left on Boulevard to Cabbagetown. Eclectic and edgy is how the internet describes the east-Atlanta neighborhood, but what sold me on it is its affordability. Especially the Wylie Street Lodge, where one can rent a small but fully furnished room for a whopping twenty-two dollars a night. Ill have to share a bathroom and kitchen, but still. Ive already prepaid for the first week. An eternity later, I pull to a stop on Wylie Street and climb out. The road under me might as well be on fire, a steaming, sizzling furnace melting my tires and the soles of my sneakers, but its the house Im looking at, my stomach sinking at the sight. The yard is a foul-looking patch of dirt and scraggly branches that has seen neither fertilizer nor lawn mower since sometime last century. Front steps, rickety and rotting, lead to a porch littered with trash and a ripped brown sofa, where three raggedy men drink from paper bags. If it werent for them and the hooker advertising her wares from a second-story balcony, Id think the place was abandoned. I stand on the sidewalk, thinking through my options. I could cut my losses and leave. I could march to the door and demand my money back. I could suck it up and stay. The men eye me from the front porch, and I know how they see me. The rusty Buick with Oklahoma plates, the soccer-mom shirt, my fried hair. Im the naive country girl come to the big city. Im an easy target. The hooker calls down to me. Hey, blondie. You looking for this? She pulls her tube top down to reveal breasts as enormous as the fat rolls holding them up. She jiggles them back and forth like a bowl of caramel pudding. Uh, no thanks, I say. Im good. She barks a phlegmy laugh, and shes not wrong. Beth is going to have to work on her one-liners. I drop into my car and motor away. Around the corner, I squeeze my car into a spot at the edge of a crowded parking lot. After the car, the hotels, the food, Nicks fee and debit card, I have just over two thousand dollars in cash left. Tens and twenties mostly, siphoned from grocery funds, birthday and Christmas money, forgotten bills swiped from your pockets when you were passed out. Saving was a long, laborious process that took me almost a year to do in a way that you wouldnt notice. I bought things on discount and shopped sales. I switched to cheaper toilet paper, coffee, washing powder. Ironically, I stopped cutting my hair. My stash of money grew slowly, deliberately. Anything else would have gotten me killed. But two thousand dollars wont last long, not even with a strict budget. Hotels are expensive, and most require ID. Even if I got a job tomorrow, staying in one would blow through my cash. For a city of six million souls, Atlanta has an astonishing lack of beds for abused or homeless women, of which I am both. I could sleep in my car, but it doesnt feel safe, and I probably wouldnt do much sleeping. A better option would be to find another lodge, one that is cheap and wont ask for identification. Like the ones I found before settling on Wylierooming and boardinghouses, a hostel or two, some seriously sketchy motelsif only I remembered their names. And no, I didnt write any of them down. I couldnt. If youd found anything even remotely suspiciousthe search parameters on my laptop, a new number on my phone log, a faraway address scribbled on the back of a receiptyou would have confronted me. That was the hardest part of this past year, staying one step ahead of you. Im reaching for the burner phone to start my new search when I spot a sign at the far end of the lot for a Best Buy. Best Buy means computers, banks and banks of computers. The internet at my fingers, free and with no tracking, unlike the data on this piece-of-crap prepaid phone. I crank the key and head farther up the lot. The store is packed for a Thursday morning. People everywhere, jamming the aisles and forming lines a dozen people deep at the MacBooks display. I push past them to a lonely, unmanned Dell at the end of the counter. I navigate to the internet and pause. Stare at the blinking cursor. Check behind me to make sure no one is watching. Old habits are hard to break. Two seconds later, Im typing in the address for Pine Bluffs local news website. I hold my breath and scroll through the headlines. Arkansas man accused of killing wife for changing TV channel. State police investigate Monticello murder. Pine Bluff officer shot in ambush attack. Nothing about a missing woman. Nothing about me. And yet, Ive been gone for almost twenty-four hours now. Why is there nothing on the internet? Is the police department sitting on the story? Are they holding out on the press? Or has the media just not sniffed it out yet? The Pine Bluff Police Department website doesnt make me any wiser. Their home page is as generic as ever, the last item on a long list of to-dos for the department, updated almost as an afterthought. The most recent post on their newsroom page is from 2016. On a whim, I surf to Facebook, and Im in luck. Gary Minoff, a middle-aged man from Conyers, Georgia, forgot to sign out. No one will think anything of him nosing around on the Pine Bluff Police Department Facebook page, which is much more current than their website. I scroll down their wall, past posts about robberies, murders, a deadly hit-and-run, and the knot between my shoulder blades tightens. Maybe something happened, and you havent yet figured out Im gone. Maybe I have more of a head start than I think. I cant decide if the old adage applies here: Is no news really good news? Best priced laptop in the place, a voice says from right behind me, a ginger with facial hair and a Best Buy polo. He gestures to the Dell. Intel Pentium duel core processor, two megabyte cache, up to 2.3 gigahertz performance. All that and more for only $349. I have no idea what any of that means. I give him a smile that is polite but perfunctory. Im just looking, thanks. For a few bucks more, you can upgrade. Tack on some more memory, or some cloud-based backup storage. I just want to play around a little more, try things out. Maybe if you come back in ten minutes or so, Ill be ready to decide. Or maybe, by the time you come back, Ill be gone. He wanders off to bother another customer, and I exit out of Facebook. Time to get busy. I Google cheapest boarding houses Atlanta and take a picture of the results with my burner phone, then do the same for area hostels. Just in case, I find five hotels advertising rooms under fifty dollars a night and take a picture of those, as well. The rest of the time I use for poking around on Craigslist. Most of the housing listings are either too expensive or too creepy. A dollar for a live-in girlfriend? Pass. I click on one of the cheapest listings, a furnished basement bedroom in a house in Collier Heights, then back out of the page when I see the field labeled drivers license number. I click on the next one, for professional ladies only. My girlfriend got totally shafted on Craigslist. Its the ginger salesclerk again, hovering behind me even though its been nowhere near ten minutes. Shed booked a room with what she thought was a nice family, but it was a scam. She gets there and some crazy dude pulls a gun on her and next thing she knows, shes got no money, no wallet, no car, no nothing. Thats.awful. He shoves his hands in his pockets and grins, revealing a row of neat white teeth. Ill say. Three months later shes at the courthouse, declaring herself bankrupt. Bastard stole her identity, then took out all sorts of loans and credit cards in her name. By the time she figured out what was happening, hed racked up over fifty thousand dollars of debt in her name. Its going to take her years to get her credit back on track. Anyway, all that goes to say, you might want to be careful. His gaze wanders to the picture on the laptop screen, and hes not wrong. This place is a dump. I click the X to close the screen. He starts in on his sales pitch again, something about a LED-backlit screen and HD camera, and Im about to tell him to back off when something occurs to me. His girlfriends wallet was stolen. Some asshole took her credit cards, her drivers license, everything. Even if she went to the DMV that very same day, it would have taken her a couple of days, maybe a week, to get her new plastic. My voice is a lot more friendly when I turn back to the salesman. Where did your girlfriend stay in the meantime? After that guy took off with her wallet, I mean. Oh. Well, she couch surfed and stayed with me for a while until she found this sweet boardinghouse over on the Westside. Most places want some kind of credit card number as a guarantee, but this boardinghouse was cool with her paying cash, especially after she told them her sob story. I realize this is only the first hurdle of many. I have no home, no ID, no more than a couple grand to my name. But I have a sob story, one thats so much sadder than this guys girlfriends, and I have something even better. Determination. The smile that sneaks up my cheeks is genuine. Do you remember the boardinghouse name? JEFFREY The man on the other side of my door is not in uniform, but everything about him screams copdark pants, pressed button-down shirt, his soldiers stance and the gun strapped to a hip. Behind him on the driveway, an unmarked sedan ticks off the heat. He flashes a badge. Detective Marcus Durand, Pine Bluff PD. I understand you have some concerns about your wife? His voice is low, his words businesslike. I search him for even a hint of concern, but I cant find anything beyond a weary intensity. I swing the door wide and step back. Thanks for coming. My tone is thick with sarcasm, because Ive been waiting for hours. Six of them, at least, trying to get some rest on the couch despite Ingrid standing above me, huffing like an angry dragon. The longer he kept us waiting, the harder she stomped on the floor, poking me on the shoulder every half hour to ask how it was possible for me to sleep. I just lie down and close my eyes, I told her. Maybe you should try it. If the detective hears the snark in my voice, he doesnt acknowledge it. Hes younger than me, midthirties maybe, and half a foot taller. He fills my foyer with his presence and size, making me feel small in my jeans and bare feet. I wish Id changed into something nicer. I wish I had on some shoes. His jaw is set with the gravity of the situation. A missing woman, an after-hours house call means hes taking this seriously. But not seriously enough to show up on time. He looks around, his gaze pausing on the curved staircase, the custom newels with vertical slats, the antique Turkish rug under his feetnone of which he can afford on a detectives salary. None of which I could have afforded, either, were it not for Sabine. I consider telling him my wife made the million-dollar club four years running, that when it comes to decor she knows how to get the best bang for your buck, but then his gaze lands on Ingrid, standing at the doorway to the kitchen. Somethings wrong, she says, her voice high and tight. In the light of day, I notice her sneakers are mismatched, one black, the other blue, both of them untied. Something is terribly wrong, I just know it. And you are? Ingrid Stanfield. Sabines sister. She juts a thumb into the next room. Ive made some notes. Theyre in the kitchen. Detective Durand shifts his weight, but his shoes stay planted to the hardwood. He turns to me, pulling a notepad from the front pocket of his pants. I understand your wife didnt return home last night? I give him a perfunctory nod. Sabine had a late showing, something that happens fairly often these days. Shes a real estate broker, a really good one. She texted me earlier in the day that she would be home by nine, but she never showed up. Ive called her multiple times. Her phone rings, but it keeps sending me to voice mail. Ive called her, too, Ingrid says, nodding. Ive been calling her all night. Can you maybe trace her cell phone? Im worried shes had an accident, that shes hurt somewhere and needs help. Detective Marcus checks the time, by now closing in on nine in the morning, and he looks as exhausted as I feel. Drooping shoulders and pale, lined face. Im guessing this is the end of his shift, and not the beginning. Could she have gone anywhere else? he says, in a tone thats a tad too calm. He sounds like hes holding back a sigh, or maybe a yawn. Maybe both. To a friends or family members house, or maybe grabbed a drink with someone and forgotten to tell you? I open my mouth to tell him no, but yet again, Ingrid beats me to it. Sabine is too responsible to stay out all night without calling, and she always calls me back. Always. Its how I know something has happened to her. Something bad. I turn to the detective with a pained smile. Ingrid is right to be worried, Im afraid. Its unlike Sabine to not let one of us know where she is. Their father is dead, and their mother is in assisted living over at Oakmont. The only other place she would have gone is to her sisters. Have one of you called over to Oakmont just to be sure? I have, Ingrid says. One of the nurses spoke to her on the phone yesterday, but the others havent seen or heard from her in days. The detective flips to a fresh sheet in his pad, writes OAKMONT across the top in all caps. He points to the kitchen, where the lights are still burning despite the early morning sunshine. Maybe we could sit down? Of course, of course. I sweep an arm toward the doorway like Vanna fucking White. In the kitchen, Ingrid makes a beeline to the table, parking herself on the same chair as before, her back to the wall, her hands folded on her notepad. Detective Durand chooses my chair, the one at the head. A man used to being in charge. Detective, can I offer you something to drink? I think I have some Coke in the fridge, or I can make a pot of coffee if youd like. Ill admit the offer is not entirely unselfish. Last nights pizza has resulted in a ferocious thirst, and its probably not a bad idea to demonstrate I am both helpful and forthcoming. So far he hasnt said anything to indicate he might suspect me, but hes also not said very much. Ill have a water, Ingrid says, and I glare at her over the detectives head. Did either of you call any of your wifes friends before you called the police? he says. Her colleagues? I pull three glasses from the cabinet by the sink. It was the middle of the night. I didnt want to wake anyone up. And I am certain my wife wouldnt go to their houses anyway. Shed go to her sisters. Jeffrey and I dont agree on much, but hes right. Sabine and I talk multiple times a day. I know her schedule. She would have come to me, and she would have told me if she was going anywhere else. Thats why this is so urgent. The detective looks at her with new interest. Not, I sense, because of her conviction some awful disaster has overcome her sister, but because of her first words. The ones that imply she and I dont get along. She rips the top few pages from the notepad and holds them across the table. The names and numbers of everybody I could think of who might know Sabines schedule yesterday. I left messages with everyone I got through to. I also wrote down Sabines description, the make and model of her car, her email and cell phone number. If you give me your number, I can text you her picture. Detective Durand takes a few seconds to scan the pages, then looks up with a nod. This is all very helpful, maam. A great start. His voice is as earnest as his expression, and I get the sudden and sinking feeling that Ingrid is showing me up, making me look unprepared. That Im uncaring, when Im anything but. Im the one who sounded the alarm in the first place. Leave it to Ingrid to make me feel defensive in my own housewhich she so kindly pointed out is actually Sabines. Leave it to her to make me feel like a bum, a mooch. Its always the husband. Especially one like mesexually frustrated and financially dependent. It wouldnt take much digging to uncover our marital issues. Ingrid knows. How long until she tells the detective? I fill the glasses with water from the tap, a sudden surge to seem cooperative. So what now? Whats next? You mentioned she had a showing. Where was it? What time? I dont know, I say, only that she said shed be home by nine. Ingrids eyes hold mine for a second too long. The showing was at seven thirty. She turns to the detective. Sabine is the lead broker at that new development on Linden Street. You know, the one with the stone columns at the entrance and the big, colorful sign. I dont have the address for the house she was showing, but it was in that developmenther boss Lisa can tell you which one. Lisas name is at the top of the second page, but youll have to track down her number. Unfortunately, I dont have it. I pass out the glasses of water, and the detective doesnt look at me, but I can sense his judgment. The husband and sister are not friends. The sister is better informed than the husband. Neither reflects well on our marriage. When is the last time either of you talked to Sabine? he says. I talked to her twice yesterday morning, Ingrid says. The last time was at just before eleven. She was on her way to the office. But Jeffrey spoke to her later in the day, in the afternoon. The lie comes back to me in a flash of icy hot. Ingrid, interrupting my jog, asking to speak to Sabine. Me, telling Ingrid Id spoken to Sabine only an hour earlier so I could get back to my run. If I repeat the lie now, it would take the detective all of two seconds to catch me in it. One look at my call log would prove me wrong. I sink onto the chair across from Ingrid and shake my head. No, I didnt. I said I talked to Sabine yesterday morning, right before I boarded my connection in Atlanta. I turn to the detective, explaining, Ive been in Florida all week, at a sales conference. Ingrids head whips in my direction, and she glares across the table. When I called you, at just before five, you said youd talked to her an hour ago. So around four. You must have misunderstood. She presses both hands to the wooden table, and theyre shaking. I heard you loud and clear, Jeffrey. I asked when did you talk to her last, and you said an hour ago. Do you want to see my call log? I didnt say that, and I didnt talk to her. The detective raises both brows, taking a long breath through his nose like a parent might, when hes had it with his two squabbling toddlers. Okay, okay, lets just back up here for a second. Am I to understand that neither of you talked to her since yesterday morning, is that correct? I nod. Yes. Thats correct. Apparently so, Ingrid mumbles. And when you talked to her, did she mention anything out of the ordinary? Maybe that her car was acting funny, or that she had an errand to run in another town, anything like that? Ingrid and I shake our heads. Finally, something we agree on. And this showing last night. Any idea who it was with? She waits until I shake my head again, then juts a triumphant chin. I dont know his name, but he was from out of town. Some executive whos just started at the Tyson plant. Sabine had found him temporary housing while he searched for a housean apartment just off 530, but now his wife was coming to town. This showing was more for her than for him. He already loved the house. Im silent, and also a little shocked. Ingrids knowledge of her sisters business, all the particulars and detail. Sabine didnt tell me any of thisor maybe she did. Maybe I just wasnt listening. What else have I missed? Detective Durand consults Ingrids notes, taps the page with his pen. This Lisa OBrien will be able to tell me his name? Hes no longer directing his questions at me. Im sure she can, Ingrid says. In fact, if I had her number, I would have already called to ask. Can you, I dont know, look her up in your system or something? Ill contact Ms. OBrien, absolutely. Ill also drive by the development and see if anything looks out of the ordinary. Im not saying it will beI just want to be sure, to cover all the bases. If I do find any signs of foul play the words make me twitch like a spider Ill put a trace on her phone and contact you immediately. Cant you do that now? Trace her phone, I mean. Because if somethings happened, if shes hurt or. Ingrid shakes her head, swallowing. I just dont think we should waste any more time. Im not going to waste any time, I assure you. A missing person is about as high priority as you can get. And Im sorry to have to ask this, but has your wife been receiving any threats? Is there anyone out there who might have wanted to hurt her? No! I beat Ingrid to the answer this time, but I cant look at her. I keep my gaze, sure and steady, on the detective. Absolutely not. Everyone loves Sabine. She goes out of her way to be friendly to everyone. Partly because thats her job, but mostly because thats just how she is. Friendly and helpful. Shes never met a stranger. Ingrid clears her throat. Its true. Sabine is a lovely, lovely person. The detective offers up a smile, but its neither friendly nor comforting. Okay. Im going to start by checking the standard placeshospitals, medical centers, jails. I want the two of you to take a look at anything that might give us some insight as to her movements yesterday. Emails, texts, social media pages, mutual bank statements and credit cards, things like that. Compile a list of everything you find and send it to me. Detective Durand slaps a card to the table, pointing to the number at the bottom. Call me the second Sabine shows up, or if you think of anything else that might be relevant to where she could be. Well regroup later today. I nod, mainly because I dont know what else to do. Thats it. Interview over. The detective lets himself out and the two of us sit stunned, staring at each other with wide, horrified eyes. Across from me, Ingrid starts to cry. Now that the detective is gone, I shove Ingrid out the door and put on a pot of coffee. I make it extra strong, the kind that bubbles out opaque and is thick as molasses. Not that I think Ill need the caffeine. Despite my sleepless night, Im not the least bit drowsy, my veins humming with adrenaline and purpose. If Sabine doesnt show up soon, if somebody doesnt figure out where she went and what happened to her, Ingrid wont be the only one who thinks I had something to do with my wifes disappearance. The detective told me to comb through Sabines social media and bank accounts, but I was one step ahead of him, already thinking about where Sabine left her laptop. Its an ancient Acer, a thick chunk of plastic and metal as manageable as a cinder block, and just as heavy. Its bulk is a big part of the reason why she doesnt usually lug it to work. The other part is that shes got a slick new desk computer at the office, and her iPhone is permanently attached to her palm. But in order to see what shes been up to, I need her log-in credentials, the ones she keeps in an unprotected Excel file on her desktop. Usernames and passwords for pretty much anything you need a username and password for. Email accounts. Bank records. Credit card statements. Things that will give me a road map to wherever she is, or at the very least, which way shes gone. I start upstairs and work my way down, moving from room to room looking for her computer, double-and triple-checking everywhere I can think of. The problem is, Sabine is not logical. She treats her laptop like an old sweater or pair of shoesas an afterthought, an item to leave lying around wherever she pleases, half-hidden under the bed or the couch. I concentrate my search around the places where Sabine tends to sit. On our bed, the laptop resting on her stretched-out thighs. The left end of the couch, her legs curled under her like a cat. The desk in the study and the chaise by the window in the den. I peer on shelves and under tables, sift through stacks of papers and books, lift bed skirts and blankets. No laptop. Typical. In each room, before moving on to the next one, I stand in the middle of the floor and call her cell. Even though wherever she is, chances are her phone is with her and not here at home. I hit her number and then I hold my breath and listen for the familiar melody, or if its on silent, the muffled buzzing of it vibrating under a pile of pillows or some clothes. But the only sound is the four lazy beeps, right before it goes to voice mail. I hang up and move to the next room. After an hour, I end up back where I started, in the kitchen, empty-handed. I pour myself a cup of thick, black sludge and sink onto a bar stool. Maybe Im wrong. Maybe yesterday was one of the rare workdays that Sabine needed her computer, to search the MLS system or draw up a contract from a coffee shop between showings, in which case Ill have to go to her office to fetch it. That is, assuming she left it there, and its not sliding around her trunk or on the floorboards of her car. I often see it sticking out of that canvas tote she lugs around, the one Im forever tripping over when she chucks it by the garage door to search for her keys. I pop off the stool, race to the garage, and there it is. The tote, on the cool cement floor. I snatch it by a handle and carry it inside. The laptop is completely dead. No surprise there. Sabine has needed to replace the battery for ages now, though what she really needs is a new laptop. One that doesnt require almost-constant charging. I plug it in under the island counter and turn it on, topping up my coffee while I wait for the thing to power up, which takes forever. I think about Ingrid across town, doing much the same thinghunched over a laptop in her lonely kitchen, combing her files in search of her twin. I see her red and swollen nose, her hair still frizzy from the pillow, her squinty eyes when she said those ugly words to meI know what you did to Sabineand I feel a momentary spurt of fury. Ingrid thinks I had something to do with this, that I am behind my own wifes disappearance somehow, and the idea makes me want to strangle her. The Acer gives a metallic beep, then lights up with a log-in screen. A blinking cursor, but there are only so many things her password could be. Sabines birthday, or mine. Our anniversary. Combinations of the dates with our names. With every try, the password dock shimmies, but it doesnt let me in. She would choose something thats easy to remember. She doesnt have hobbies, and we dont have pets or children. I try the other people in her life, her mother, followed by her dead father. Still nothing. And then I sigh and type Ingrids name and birthdate into the barthe one I should have started with, honestlyand voil?. The screen dissolves into her desktop. I email myself the password file, from Sabines email program that is a giant, honking mess. More than twenty thousand unread messages, everything from stores to spam to requests for a viewing, automatically generated emails from the MLS and RE/MAX systems. It would take days to search through the chaos for anything remotely relevant, especially since Im not even sure what Im looking for. Instead, I flip to the sent messages and start at the top. Contracts, sales pitches, the usual stuff. After the one I just sent, the most recent message is from Tuesday, now two days ago. I exit and head to Facebook. Sabine has some three thousand friends, most of whom arent friends at all. Clients, colleagues, people from Rotary and business clubs. I go to her profile page, scrolling through post after post boasting sales numbers and pictures of homes listed and sold. No wonder shes always on her phone, her pretty thumbs flying across the keyboard like a teenagers. Her Facebook page is a walking advertisement for her services, her success. Halfway down, I pause on a video from last week, a Facebook Live clip featuring a newly built house on Longmeadow Street. Im shocked at the number below it, a counter boasting 758 views. Sabine is one of the top brokers, but still. That many? I click on the video, and the counter ticks to 759. The video loads, and there she is. My AWOL wife. Shes wearing her favorite summer dress, the yellow one with the ruffles around the hem, and the gold locket I gave her last Christmas, dangling from a chain around her neck. Her hair, pulled high into a ponytail, flicks cheerfully when she talks, bobbing over a tanned shoulder. Hey, yall, Sabine Hardison here with the most fabulous house on the block. She laughs. Okay, so I know I say that about every house, but this one really is the most fabulous Ive seen in like, ever. Four humongous bedrooms, five and a half bathsyes, people, you heard that right, a full bath for every bedroomand a master suite you have to see to believe. Lets take a look, shall we? She looks happy. Her skin is flushed, her cheeks pink with excitement as she backward-walks the camera through the house, pointing out the features. When she signed up for the real estate course in Little Rock, I bitched about the time commitment, didnt hold back about how the house and our social life and our marriage would suffer, but I knew shed be good at it. The truth is, thats what I was more worried about. I lean forward on my chair, remembering when she used to smile like this at me. When I was the one to make her glow. The computer beeps, and at the bottom of the screen, a window opens. A message from someone named Bella. Hey you. I ran into Trevor last night at the grocery store, and he was asking about you. Like, really asking. If Ive seen you lately, if weve talked, what we talked about. He wouldnt tell me why, just gave me this big-ass smile like a canary would pop out any second. Are you the canary? Im here for you whenever you have something to tell me. XO I sit back on my stool. Trevor. Who the fuck is Trevor? I click on the list of Sabines friends and type the name in the search bar, with zero results. I repeat the search in her email program, and this time I get a hit. Multiple hits, actually, messages sent and received with Dr. Trevor McAdams, an ob-gyn at Jefferson Regional. Apparently, Sabine sold him a house last fall. The most recent string is a boring exchange from November, setting up a meeting for the signing of papers, the official exchange of keys. I scan their back-and-forth, but theres nothing out of the ordinary. No flirtatious innuendo, nothing that implies a swallow-the-canary kind of outcome. The only thing Trevor says that is even remotely personal is that he wishes her a nice Thanksgiving. She thanks him, says she hopes he and his family will be happy in their new home. His family. Maybe Im overthinking this. Trevor is an ob-gyn, so its not entirely impossible he could be Sabines doctor. Not because shes pregnant, something thats impossible when you havent had sex in fivethats right, count emfive months. But women go to the gynecologist for other reasons. Maybe Sabine goes to this guy. I scroll down to his signature, click through to his bio on the hospital website. Trevor McAdams is a decent-looking guy, probably somewhere in his early forties. Clear skin, bright eyes, full head of hair swept off a broad forehead. The type of face that plenty of women wouldnt mind having between their legs. Is my wife one of them? I return to the emails and open one of the attachments. Eight months ago, Trevor plunked down just over three hundred thousand dollars for 4572 square feet of newly renovated house on a quiet street overlooking Pine Bluff Country Club. Thats a lot of square footage, and an address in the swankiest area of town. No mortgage, which means he earns a hell of a lot more than Sabine and I do added together. I jot his address on a sticky note, 1600 Country Club Lane. I open Sabines calendar, in search of the address for last nights showing, but its empty. She hasnt synced it in ages, maybe never. I click the icon for the internet instead and surf to Google, where Sabine is already signed in. I pause, the cursor hovering over the symbol for Gmail. Sabine has a Gmail account? I stop. Stare at the screen. Breathe hard and fast through my nose. My finger lingers over the track pad because I know, I know, I goddamnitalltohell know what Ill find once I click it. Hundreds of IM chats, all with Trevor McFuckingAdams. I need to see you. Even if its only for a minute. Im sitting next to him, thinking about you. Meet me at our place in half an hour. You said we wouldnt fall in love. You lied. (Im glad) Im ready to tell them, Sabine. Im ready to take that step whenever you are. OMG, are we really going to do this? Can we? Yes, dammit. All you have to do is say the word. I love you. Lets tell them this weekend. The coffee turns to oil in my stomach, and I shove the cup away. It skids across the counter and into the sink, and its a good thing Sabine is not here, because if she were, I would fucking kill her. No, first I would hurt her, and then I would hurt Trevor, and then I would kill them both. No wonder he swallowed the fucking canary. For the past however many months, hes been having secret sexcapades with my wife while I played the role of clueless, foolish, idiot, ignorant husband. Somewhere across town, a bitch named Bella is laughing. At me. Is that where Sabine is right now? In a bed somewhere, with him? My gaze lands on the sticky note. 1600 Country Club Lane. Ten minutes later, Im death-gripping the wheel of my car, the pedal punched to the floor. MARCUS This case, I handle by the book. I start at the show house, walking the grounds and studying the dirt for imprintsboth shoes and tires. I press my face to the windows and peer into all the rooms. This place is a show house all right, every room packed with complicated, flashy furniture, every horizontal surface crammed with bowls and candles and crap. I try the doors, the latches on the windows, but the place is locked up tight. No sign anyone but a decorator has been here. From there, I go to the office for a face-to-face with Sabines boss, Lisa, a perfumed blonde in a ruby-red suit with lips to match. According to her, not only was Sabine a no-show for last nights showing, she also missed a company-wide training yesterday afternoon, where she was supposed to present on building a social media platform. You dont understand, Lisa tells me, a frown pulling on her Botoxed brow. Sabine is my hardest worker, and shes always on time for everything, especially showings. Honestly, Detective, this is very worrisome. This isnt like her at all. The other brokers I talk to say much the same. Sabine is responsible, considerate, punctual. Like Lisa, theyre worried something happened. An accident, maybe, or worse. Could she have booked a last-minute vacation? I ask every one of them. Maybe she needed to get away for a day or two. Head shakes all around. Im on my way to the station to write up a report when my phone rings. Bryn. My reaction is both instant and physical. I wince. My lungs deflate like an unleashed balloon. Three years since her husband passedmy former partnerand her calls still hit me like a punch to the gut. Stifling a groan, I pick up on the handsfree system. Hey, Bryn. Hi, Marcus. Do you have a minute? She sniffs, and I know its not going to be a minutepretty much the last thing I have time for right now. I need to get my ass to the department. I need to plug Sabines name through all the available databases, make sure Chief Eubanks sees my hardworking face. I need to make it known around the department that I met the missing woman once, when she showed my wife and me a house, so theres no uncomfortable questions down the road. I need to get every cop on the street watching for her car. But once upon a time, I made a promise to Brian and to Godto watch over his sons, to be there for their birthdays and school graduations, to make sure they go to church and stay out of trouble. Theyre two little hellions, but I love them like theyre my own. The only problem is Im not so crazy about his widow, Bryn. Scratch that. Its not that I dont like Bryn, its that I dont always agree with her parenting methods. She babies those boys, lets them get away with far too much, and without a man in the house to counteract her coddling, her boys have the run of the place. Shes constantly calling me to bellyachehow theyre walking all over her, how they could use a good talking-to. My wife, Emma, says its a cry for adult male interactionin this case, mine. For someone to shoulder the burden like Brian used to. Emmas not the best armchair psychologist, but in this case, I think she might be right. Bryn sighs into the phone. I was cleaning up Timmys room just now, and I found a whole bunch of toys Ive never seen before. Those spinners, you know the ones all the kids are flinging around these days, and a whole bunch of other stuff thats not his. The problem is, I didnt buy it, and theres no way he could have bought it all himself. First of all, hed need me to drive him to the store, which I didnt do. And toys are expensive. Howd he afford so many on a dollar-a-week allowance? You think he stole them? I hate thinking that about my own son, but I dont know what else it could be. He didnt get them from me, thats for sure. She pauses, giving me time to make the offer. To tell her Im on my way. He talks to you, Marcus. He tells you things he wont say to me. I dont have time for this. Im almost to the station, and backtracking to her house will tack on a half hour, maybe more, of driving time alone. And visits to Bryn are never quick. They involve tearful conversations and awkward hugs, endless pep talks and bottomless glasses of sweet tea. I do not have time. But I think of Brian and I cant say no. I beat a fist on the wheel, then jerk it hard to the left, making a U-turn in the middle of the road. Ill be right over. Twelve minutes later, I skid to a stop in front of the house, a squat ranch thats seen better days. The grass needs mowing, the window frames could use a fresh coat of paint, and I count at least a half dozen shingles missing on the roof. I shake my head, shake it off. Not my responsibility. No time. Im coming up the walkway when the front door opens, and Bryn steps outside. Shes lost more weight since the last time she called me here, less than a month ago, and it looks like shes gotten even less sleep than I did. Pale skin, eye bags, the works. She likes to joke that her kids are trying to kill her, and not for the first time, I wonder if it might be true. Thanks for coming, she says. I didnt know what to do, who else to call. How about her father, who lives just up the road? Brians brother in the next town, or any one of the other fifteen detectives who stood behind her when she buried her husband? Im not just her first resort, as far as I can tell Im the only one. I meant my promise to Brian, but in moments like these, I sure wish shed let the other men in her life help, too. I drop a kiss on her cheek, which is cold and pasty. Hows he doing? Pouting. Upstairs in his room. I pat her shoulder and step inside, taking the stairs by twos. Timmys door, the last at the end of the hall, is closed, but Im pretty sure hes not pouting. Video game sounds are coming through the wooda car race, by the sound of it. I rap the door with a knuckle. Yo, Timmy. Its me, Marcus. Timmy is the oldest boy, a wiry kid with his fathers cowlick and a half-decent jump shot. He was only four when his father died, a bullet to the chest at a routine traffic stop. I heard the pop, looked up and Brian was on the ground, the kid who shot him running away. Hes currently serving life in prison, but the point is, Timmy barely remembers his father. He only remembers me, stepping into his fathers shoes. When he doesnt answer, I open the door, lean my head inside. I take it you know why Im here. Timmy is sprawled on his bed in sweatpants and bare feet, and he looks up with a sheepish expressionin my mind, another strike against his mother. She only calls when one of her kids need disciplining, which is all the damn time. If shes the pushover, Im the bad guy, the strictwell, not parent, but certainly disciplinarian. Id much prefer the role of cool godfather. Yeah. I know why. Timmys gaze goes back to the TV, and his thumb works the joystick in his hands. On the television screen, his car, a bright green Mustang, is tearing up a dirt track. I step inside, shut the door behind me. You want to explain it to me then? He shakes his head. Uh-uh. Come on, Timmy. Either you turn the game off, or I will. Timmy sighs, but he hits Pause. He stares at his lap as the room falls into silence. I sink onto the edge of his bed. So, heres the thing. Theres a woman missing, and for about I check my watch, do the math twenty hours now. The most crucial hours in an investigation, and the farther out we get from the time of disappearance, the less likely it is Ill find this woman in time. I shouldnt even be here right now, but I am because youre important to me, too. He looks up, a lightning-quick glance. You think the womans dead? I should have known hed latch on to that part. Thats what happens when you lose a parent at such an early age. You have an unnatural preoccupation with death and dying. But Timmy is smart, and he knows when someone is lying to him. Ill tell you what, buddy, its not looking good. Oh. Yeah, oh. I drape a hand over his scrawny leg, give it a jiggle. So help me out here, will you? Tell me where you got the toys. Timmy tosses the joystick on the bed and reaches over, pulling a notebook from his bedside table. He flips it to a page smothered in writingbig, sloppy letters and numbers lined up in crooked columns. I scan the page, taking in the list of names and toys. A logbook. Youve been trading your toys and games? Yeah. But only for a little while. We were gonna trade back after were done playing with them, only Mom took everything and now I cant. Thats why I kept a list, so I wouldnt forget where all my stuff went. I toss the notebook to the bed, biting down on a grin. This kid may be a hellion, but hes not a thief. In fact, hes actually kind of brilliant. Whether he realizes it or not, this kid just created a co-op. Okay. But you do realize if youd just told your mom all of this, you could have saved me a trip. Timmy frowns, folding his scrawny arms across his chest like I said something wrong. Im trying to figure out what when my cell buzzes, and I check the screen. A text from Rick, another detective on the force. Hospitals, med centers, jails and morgues all clean. No sign of car, no activity on phone, either. I type out a replyOn my way, be there in 15and slide it back into my pocket. Listen, I need you to promise me two things. Timmy, look at me. I wait for him to meet my gaze, then I stick a thumb in the air. First, that youll tell your mom the truth about the toys. Explain it to her like you did me. Show her the list. Your moms a smart woman, and she loves you. Shell think youre as smart as I do for coming up with such a plan. Do you think you can do that? He gives me a reluctant nod. I uncurl a finger, hold it alongside my thumb. And second, next time you want to see me, just pick up the phone and call. Its a hell of a lot easier for everybody involved. Way better than getting yourself in trouble just so Ill come over. The look he gives me tells me I was right. His mother is not the only one in this family looking for a little male influence. The boys need it just as much. I resolve to be better, to do better. I ruffle his hair and stand. As soon as this case is behind me, well do something fun, just you and me, okay? A movie. A ballgame. You pick. Does that sound all right to you? Timmy looks up from his bed and smiles. That sounds awesome. Now get up here and gimme a hug so I can go. Its the fastest hug on record, as is my trek down the stairs. Bryn is waiting for me at the bottom, her expression hopeful and disappointed at the same time. Im not staying. That much is clear from the way I hit the floor and keep going, heading in long strides to the door. Talk to Timmy. He promised to explain. My phone buzzes. Rick again, with a possible sighting of Sabines car. Shit. Are you sure you cant stay? Bryn says. Call you later, I say, and then Im off like a shot, jogging across the front yard to my car. BETH I roll up at a two-story cottage on the Westside and double-check the address1071 English Street. I take in the salmon-painted siding, white picket fencing, the neat, manicured front lawn lined with a cheerful border of impatiens. On the outside at least, Morgan House is a dream. A hundred times better than the shithole on Wylie Street, and thats without even taking into account the hooker. I park at the curb, sling my bag over my shoulder and head for the door. The woman who pulls it open is large. Amazonian large, with a stretched-out frame and limbs like a panther, lean and miles and miles long. The tallest woman Ive ever seen, though. My gaze lands on her throat. Not even a shadow of Adams apple. She steps onto the porch in four-inch heels, and I have to tip my head all the way back to look at her. Can I help you? Her voice is round and resonant, like shes talking into an empty jug. I clear my throat and smile. Yes. Im looking for whoevers in charge of this place. Well, then, youre in luck, cause you found her. She sticks out a hand the size of a skillet. Her nails are pointy and sharp, painted a shiny hot pink. My names Miss Sally. And you are? Her makeup is immaculate, if a little heavy. Fuchsia lips, lined and shaded lids, a pinkish bronze lining her cheekbones. I search her chin for tiny pinpricks of whiskersits too early to have a shadow, but stilland find nothing. Her foundation looks spray painted on, dense but flawless. Beth Murphy, I say, shaking her hand. A friend gave me this address because Im looking for You dont look like a Beth. She leans back and studies me, her gaze exploring my face, my hair, my suspiciously dark eyebrows, which I didnt think to color until it was too late. You look more like a Haley, or maybe a Madeline. I go ice cold and overheated all at once. I dont look like a Beth. I dont feel like one, either. My baggy clothes, my dollar-store hair are all wrong. Ive only been Beth for a day, and already I can feel her slipping away. Miss Sally laughs, slapping me playfully on an arm. Im just playing around with you, sugar. In my house you can be whoever you want to be. Now come on in and Ill show you around. I step inside the tiny foyer, and she shuts the door behind me. A TV blares from the room to my left, a square space crammed with mismatched couches and chairs, a table, some bookshelves. The only occupant is a man, in dusty jeans and a yellow hard hat. He looks over from his perch on the couch and lifts his chin in a greeting. Living room, TV room and study, all in one, Miss Sally says. Those books there are loaners, meaning dont go leaving them all over town or selling them off to Goodwill. Theres cards, darts and board games in the cupboard. The Wi-Fi is free, but the vending machines arent. Parking is out back. Looks great, I say, but Im talking to air. Miss Sally is already halfway down a long, narrow hallway. I hustle to catch up, peeking into the bedrooms as we pass. Tiny but neata single bed, a dresser and not much else. So, Beth, she says, stopping, turning on the hallway runner to face me. Did you just get to town? Yes. Today, in fact. How are you liking Atlanta so far? Its okay. Theres a lot of traffic. She laughs, though its not even remotely funny. Its also jungle-hot, sprawled halfway to Tennessee and has entirely too many Republicans. But its not all that bad, youll see. You on your own? Very. Where from? Out west. She twitches a brow that says she wants more. Youre a great liar. For years Ive watched you tell the truth whenever possible, and not embellish with too much detail youll only forget later. Lies multiply, contradict, proliferate. Sticking to something close to the truth is the only way for you to keep track of all your lies, to keep them from piling up and you from stumbling over the simplest answers. I follow your example now. Im not really from anywhere. Not anymore, anyway. I move around a lot. Its enough for Miss Sally. She turns on her heels, raps on a door with a knuckle. Weve got three bathrooms, she says, shoving the door open, one for every four bedrooms, and they pretty much all look like this one. She steps aside so I can see. Two pedestal sinks, a toilet and at the far end, a glass-enclosed shower, utilitarian and blinding white. The room smells clean, like Old Spice and bleach. Shower time is three minutes. Seems short, I know, but you can get everything you need to get done in that time if youre efficient, and if youre not.well, we know what youre doing in there. And you do not want to be going over. People start pounding on the door at two minutes, fifty-nine seconds, and they wont be polite about it, either. Bitches who hog the hot water arent so popular around here, I can promise you that. Its very neat. No toothbrushes, no sticky tubes of cream or paste, no forgotten towels on the floor. The place is spotless. Miss Sally gives me a nod that says shes pleased I noticed. Thats because anything you leave behind gets confiscated, if not by me, then by whoever goes in after you. Dont leave your shit lying aroundthats one of the house rules. What are the others? She ticks them off on Jolly Green Giant fingers. No smoking, no drugs, no sleepovers, and if youre not in the door by midnight youll be sleeping on the lawn. Other than that, just dont be an asshole and youll do fine. Does that mean Im in? In lieu of an answer, she turns and moves farther down the hall. Kitchens down there, and the laundry room is in the basement. A buck a load, drop it in the lockbox on the wall. We live by the honor code here, and dont even think of stiffing me. Im not saying I have cameras everywhere, but its best to assume I have cameras everywhere. I start at the word cameras, and my gaze wanders to the ceiling, searching out the corners. Miss Sally laughs, a big sound that fills the hallway like a cello chorus. Well, Im not going to be that obvious about it, now, am I? I cant tell if shes fucking with me or not. And the price? Single rooms are twenty-four dollars a night. Rent is due in cash on Sundays at noon. No exceptions. Come to me either short or late, and youre out. A few bucks more than Wylie Street, but also a million times nicer. I nod. She looks down her nose at me, and the silence that fills the hallway tightens the skin of my stomach. Shes waiting for something, and so am Ifor her to pose the question Ive been dreading since I walked through the door: Can you prove you are who you say you are? She opens her mouth, and my heart gives a sudden kick. Who is this friend you mentioned earlier? I shake my head, confused. Im sorry, what? When you knocked on my door, you said a friend gave you the address. Who? Tell me his or her name. I think about how Beth should answer, if shes the type of person to lie easily and effortlessly, like you. The opposite of Old Me, whos never been a natural liar, though Ive certainly sharpened my skills some. Dont change your voice. Dont fidget or become too still. Hold a steady, confident gaze, and whatever you do, dont look up and to the left. But now Ive waited too long to answerthe dreaded, too-telling pause. Its too late to blurt out a name and hope for the best, and my gut tells me this is some kind of test. That Miss Sally, with her third-degree tone and squinty eyes, would see straight through me. So maybe friend was too big a word, I say, lifting an apologetic shoulder. Maybe it was more like some random person I met at Best Buy. Miss Sallys shiny lips spread in a grin. Girl, welcome to Morgan House. I celebrate securing a new room by falling onto the bed fully clothed and conking out for five hours straight. Its still light when I awaken, but the sun has dipped below the trees, giant pines that sway in the air above my window. My few belongings are tucked in the drawer to my right, an easy arms reach from my bed. When Miss Sally shoved open my door, she handed me two keysone for the door and the second for the drawerbut if shes the type to spy with secret, hidden cameras, then shes also the type to have a master key. My dwindling wad of cash is strapped to a belt inside my shirt. Somewhere below me, people are starting to trickle in. The front door opens and closes, opens and closes, and voices worm up through the floor like distant waves. I wonder about the proper etiquette here. Do I go down and say hello? Stay in my room? I hear a sudden burst of laughter, and I am overcome with uncertainty. Venturing downstairs means talking to people. Introducing myself as Beth. Answering questions like the ones Miss Sally asked. Up here in my room, behind my closed door, I am invisible. My stomach growls, and I unlock the drawer and dig out a small bag of peanuts, the last one. I rip off the corner and think what I really want is a burger, dripping in grease and draped in bacon, smothered in mayonnaise and ketchup and a thick layer of pickles. My mouth waters, and I remember all those times I ate pickles at the fair, giant, foil-wrapped mammoths my sister and I had to hold in both hands. Wed wander among the bumper cars and farm stalls, eating them until our stomachs ached. You say pickles make my breath stink. Tomorrow Im going to buy a jar of Vlasics and eat every single one. For someone who is trying to shed herself of a husband, I sure do think of you a lot. Part of it is habitall those years of tiptoeing around your moods and catering to your every whim are hard to unlearn, like a Charles Manson brainwashing. And its still a necessary measure to keep myself safe. I have to think of you, to imagine the steps youre taking to find me in order to stay one step in front of you. But I cant stay up here, hiding in my room forever. I reach for my phone, pull up the calculator. At twenty-four dollars a night, my two-thousand-dollar stash will last me only a couple of months, and thats assuming the pile of crap car Dill sold me doesnt blow a fuse or a tire. And Beth has to eat, which means Beth needs to do some seriously creative thinking. Even a job slinging burgers requires some sort of identification. I turn the peanut bag upside down over my mouth, but all I get is crumbs. I toss the bag on the bed. Groceries and a job, thats on the agenda for tomorrow. I think about what youre doing now, some thirty hours into my disappearing trick. I wonder if youve found my car, my cell phone, the clues that will lead you to Tulsathe opposite direction of here. I picture you searching through my things, calling my sister and my friends, combing through the files on my computer, and my senses go on high alert. I listen for the rumble of your car, the scrape of your key in the door, the tremor of your heavy shoes coming down the hallway floor. I shoot a glance to the window, half expecting to see the pale moon of your face peering in, the flash of your gotcha smile before you point your gun at my head. My heart taps a double time, and I take deep, belly breaths, trying to calm my nervous system. Post-traumatic stress is no jokeflashbacks and nightmares and anxiety attacks like this one are the product of years of abuse. Itll take more than a couple days of freedom for my body to uncoil. Freedom. Im not there yet, not even close. Im more in danger now than that time the waiter accidentally brushed his fingers against mine when refilling my water, or any one of the times you came home after a particularly bad day at work. Leaving does not stop the violence, and it doesnt guarantee freedom. Why doesnt she just leave? gets asked in living rooms and courtrooms across the country, when a better question would be, Why doesnt he let her go? It took me a while, but Ive finally figured out the answer. Youd sooner kill me than let me go. JEFFREY On a long stretch of stick-straight road, 1600 Country Club Lane is tucked behind a thick tuft of trees and bushes. I dont see it until Ive already blown past, and then I slam the brakes and screech to a stop in the middle of the road, because what the hell. Nobodys on this street but me, and with any luck, the squealing of my tires lets them know Im here, that Im coming in. I throw the car into Reverse, pulling into the driveway in a sloppy arc, my gaze lighting on an upstairs window. I picture the two of them popping up in bed behind the shiny glass, sheets pressed to their naked, panting chests. Im here, bitches. Just in case, I lean on the horn. The house is a renovated bungalow, sprawling and ivy-covered, the kind of place Sabine would go gaga over. A pompous thing that belongs in the rolling hills of Tuscany, not pressed up against the faded greens of the Pine Bluff Country Club. An easy sale, a house shed already be in love with before Trevor walked through the door. I climb out of the car and slam my door with a sharp clap that echoes down the street. Inside the house, a little dog barks, high-pitched and frantic. Good, at least somebody knows Im here. I stomp up the walkway and bang on the front door with a fist. Sabine! I know youre in there so open up. Open this door right goddamn now! The fury fills me like a furnace, bathing my body in a thin layer of sweat. Somewhere inside this stupid, pretentious house, my wifes body is wrapped around her lovers, and if one of them doesnt open this door right fucking now, Im going to bust it down with my bare hands. I cup my hands around my face and lean into the glass, searching for movement, but all I see is an empty foyer. I haul back a fist and bang some more. On either side of me, two gas-fueled porch lights flicker in the fading light. Two feet appear at the top of the stairsmale feet, sticking out from under blue scrubs. The man comes down trailed by a tiny white dog that is losing its shit. Each frantic bark pops all four of his paws off the ground, a fluffy jumping bean bouncing down the stairs. But its Trevor, all right. A shirtless Trevor. I recognize him from his headshotfull head of hair, strong shoulders that taper down into the abs of a movie star, not an ounce of fat or love handles on him. Not that I would normally notice such a thing, but Sabine would. Shed notice, and then shed want to trace all those sculpted muscles with her fingertips, and maybe her tongue. Its you, he says, studying me through the doors paned windows. All those years of hospital training, of on-call shifts and middle-of-the-night births are working now like a Xanax, making him look almost bored at the prospect of his lovers husband banging on his front door. I beat on the wood hard enough to crack it. Wheres Sabine? Tell that little bitch to stop hiding and get her ass down here! On the other side of the glass, the dog is going ballistic. Trevor scoops it up and cradles it to his chest like a football. His mouth is moving, but I cant hear his words over the barking and the doorbell, which Im mashing over and over and over again with a thumb. He opens the door with a whoosh of cool air and moneyed manliness. Im sorry, Jeffrey, but Sabines not here. Jeffrey. Ive known about this motherfuckers existence for less than half an hour, and now hes calling me by my first name. Did Sabine show him my picture? Did they laugh about poor, clueless Jeffrey and talk about the best way to make me look like a fool? I shove him out of the way, marching to the stairs and hollering up them. Sabine! You can come out now. I saw the emails. I know. Jeffrey. A hand lands on my shoulder. Calm down. Shes not here. I shrug him off, swinging my arm through the air. You touch me again, Trevor, and I will shove my fist down your throat hard enough to come out the other side. Do you understand what Im telling you? The dog kicks things up a notch or ten, barking so hard hes starting to foam at the mouth. Jeffrey holds a chill-out hand in my direction, then wraps his fingers around the dogs snoot like a muzzle. Finally, thankfully, the beast stops barking. Where is she? Im not looking at him, but beyond him into the foyer. A familys foyer. Kids shoes, a soccer ball, forgotten jackets and book bags. I wonder if Sabine has met them yet, if they hate her for blowing their happy home to bits. Trevor shuts the door. I already told you. Shes not here. Why should I believe you? You shouldnt. But Im telling you the Gods honest truth that shes not upstairs. Id let you look, but my kids are up there. He winces. Jesus, Im going to have to explain this to them, arent I? Theyre only six and four. Theyre never going to understand. If that was an attempt to make me feel sorry for him, it gets him nowhere. I dont give a shit about his kids, or the fissure in his family. I only care about mine. You fucked my wife. A normal person would deny it, especially one whos just been threatened with a fist down his throat, but not Trevor. His shoulders slump and he sighs, and his body language just lays it all out there. Yes. Yes, now that you mention it, I did fuck your wife. He even has the balls to look apologetic. Look, if it makes you feel any better, we didnt want you to find out like this. Sabine was going to tell you to your face this weekend. Ask hershell tell you we had it all planned out. She was going to tell you the right way. The right way. What in the fucking hell could possibly be the right way? Now that the dogs calm, he settles the thing on the floor. By telling you that were in love. That we want to be together. I know that hurts to hear, and believe me, weve struggled with it ourselves, but I throw back my head and shout hard enough to burn the back of my throat, Shes married, you asshole! The words bounce around the house, then fall into a silence so absolute it rings in my ears. I understand that, Jeffrey, and Im sorry. Truly. You cant even imagine how sorry. But swear to God, Sabine and I didnt set out intending to break up two families. It just happened, and this isnt just some fling. This is the realest, most genuine thing Ive ever felt. Sabine is my soul mate. I love her. I adore her. Shes the best thing thats ever happened to me. His speech might have worked on another man. His words might have been a balm on a brittle, broken heart. Sabine will be loved, cared for, cherished. Hes not stealing her out of greed or spite, but because he has no choice, because their connection is too great to ignore. Only an asshole stands in the way of soul mates. But weve already established that I am a bitter, bitter man. Well then, Trevor, I feel obliged to tell you that this woman you cherish so much? Your soul mate? The fur bag sniffs at my shoe, and I push it away with a foot. Shes missing. Trevor makes a face like I punched him in his perfectly sculpted abs. What do you mean, Sabine is missing? Missing, missing? I nod. She had a showing last night With Corey Porter and his family, I know. The doctor stops, waiting for me to continue, but Im still processing the fact that he knows more about my wifes business than I do, than even Ingrid does. As much as Id love to leave him hanging, I need to know what he knows. I fix him with a defiant stare. She never came home. She never. He swallows the rest, but his expression is screaming the words. Came home. Sabine never came home. She didnt show up, and neither did her car. Okay, okay. Lets think about this logically. I mean, she was pretty sure Corey would pull the trigger on the house. Maybe he did. Maybe they went out after to celebrate. Maybe. But now its the next day. Did you call her? I sigh. Roll my eyes. Of course you called her. But, but. Trevor runs a shaking hand through his hair. What about Ingriddid you call her? Did you call the police? Yes to both. Ingrid was at my house when the detective got there. He was going to check out the show house, see if he saw anything out of the ordinary. That was hours ago. Trevors eyes go wide with fear, with horror. Oh my God. Oh my God. He stumbles into the kitchen, and I follow behind. I step on one of the dogs squeaky toys, and the beast comes running. Trevor leans against the kitchen counter, tapping numbers into a cordless phone with his thumb. He presses the phone to his ear, muttering, Come on, come on, come on. And then his shoulders slump, and he curses. Babe, its me. Jeffreys here, and he said you never came home last night. Wherever you are, please call me, okay? The very second you get this. I need to know youre okay, that youre. Im scared shitless. I love you. Call me. He hangs up, and I almost feel sorry for the bastard. He begins pacing, his bare feet slapping the hardwood floor. Now what? Under the kitchen can lights, his face is green and shiny, sweating despite the air-conditioning. What are we going to do now? I shake my head, battling a rush of disgust at his use of the word we. You and I are not on the same team here. We do not share Sabine. Shes my wife. Shes nothing to you. He stops, takes a long, slow breath. When is the last time you talked to your wife? Yesterday morning. And then she texted me later in the day that she had a showing but shed be home by nine. Whens the last time you talked to my wife? Has anybody confirmed that she actually made it to the showing? Did she meet Corey and his wife at the house? I shrug. Like I said, I havent heard anything from the detective, so Im guessing so. What time Did anybody call Corey to ask? Youre the first person Ive talked to who knows who the showing was with. The most I could tell the detective was the name of Sabines boss. He turns and races from the room, his footsteps crashing up the stairs. While hes gone, I take a look around, try to see the place like Sabine would, like she did when she showed it to her soon-to-be lover. I picture her leading him through the empty house, pointing out all the features. Open, rambling rooms with French doors and generous windows. A spacious kitchen with new stainless appliances. Custom molding and hardwood floors throughout. Was their first kiss under the arched doorway? Did he push her up against these granite countertops? The visions burn like acid in my eyes, and I rub them away. The floor creaks above my head. I open the fridge and study the contents. Definitely a doctors refrigerator. Milk, fruit, yogurt, enough vegetables to stock a produce department. Nothing even remotely unhealthy except a lone IPA, shoved to the very back behind a container of organic pineapple. Im digging it out when Trevor returns with a shirt, thank God, and his cell. Coreys not answering his phone, he tells me, and neither is Lisa. I shut the refrigerator and wave the beer in the air by my head. Where do you keep your opener? Trevor ignores me, staring at the phone in his hand. The first drawer I try is stuffed with pencils and Post-its, so I close it and keep going, moving down the island, opening and closing the drawers in search of a bottle opener. On the third try, I find one, a golf-themed piece of plastic that makes a cheering sound when I open the cap. I toss it back into the drawer mid-hurrah. You never answered my question, I say. When is the last time you talked to Sabine? He looks up, and his eyes are liquid. She came by the hospital yesterday afternoon. She wasnt there very long, only fifteen minutes or so. She left around one thirty. I stare at him across the island. At one thirty yesterday afternoon, I was in Little Rock, fretting about the canyon thats cracked down the middle of my marriage and plotting the steps I can take to win my wife back, oblivious to the fact that she was more than likely being fucked by her lover in a hospital supply closet. Would you stop looking at me like that? he says. Sabine is missing. Its just that Im having trouble letting go of the fact that she made time in her day to go to the hospital for fifteen minutes with you, when she can never squeeze in a lunch with me. Shes hardly ever home for dinner! Trevor sinks onto a stool at the counter, shoving aside a coloring book and a Solo cup packed with colorful markers. What about her car? Has anyone seen it? Not that I know of. Ingrid gave the detective her license plate number, though, so Im assuming hes on the lookout. I take a long pull from the bottle, then make a face. Its one of those snobby IPAs, bitter and aggressively hoppy. I check the label and see its also organic. Do you have any normal beer? Trevor plucks a blue marker from the cup. Whats his name? Whose name? The detective. Whats his name? Oh. Something Durand. Mike or Mark or something like that. I pour the rest of the IPA down the drain while Trevor calls 9-1-1 and demands to be put through to the detective. He uses his doctors voice, polite but overly self-important, each word delivered in a tone that commands attention. He introduces himselfDr. Trevor McAdams, Chief Obstetrician at Jefferson Regional, romantically involved with Sabine for the past five monthsthen rattles off Coreys name and number. Sabines schedule until the moment she left the hospital, at sometime around one thirty. Her cell plus another number I didnt know existed, for a phone I didnt know she had. The entire conversation lasts no longer than five minutes. He thanks the person and hangs up. I slam the bottle onto the counter with a clap, and the dog, whod curled into a sleepy ball on its bed by the table, looks up with a start. Five months? Trevor frowns. You told the detective just now that you and Sabine have been romantically involved for five fucking months. Those were his words, romantically involved. The beer turns to acid in my throat. Like I said, this isnt the way we wanted you to find out, but can we drop the guilt trip for a minute? At least until Sabine is found. I grip the granite with both hands. Five months ago, Sabine started to cringe whenever Id touch her. She started turning her head when I kissed her and complaining about headaches any time I reached for her in bed. I thought it was me, but it was you, wasnt it? Trevor sighs, and he lifts a hand from the counter. I dont know what to tell you, Jeffrey. That phone number you gave the detective just now. Let me guess. Sabine got it when she started seeing you, didnt she? He doesnt answer, but his expression tells me its a yes. Sabine has a secret phone. She got a separate device so she can talk to Trevor without me knowing. A Trevor hotline. He opens the coloring book, scribbles across a smiling Dumbo in bright purple marker. Corey lives in those gated condos on Old Warren Road. He must know something. I need to know what it is. He rips out the sheet and holds it across the counter to me, waiting for me to take it. Please, Jeffrey. My kids are upstairs. I cant leave them. My wife. He shakes his head. Shes already taking me to the cleaners. I cant have her taking them, too. Please. I sigh, a hard huff filled with resentment and something sharper, something that gnaws at me like hungerbut for revenge. When I get home, Im going to look up the number for this guys wife and volunteer as a witness. You do realize that Sabine leaves her shit all over the house, right? If you actually lived with her, if you spent time with her on a regular basis, youd know shes demanding and forgetful and selfish. That she pees with the door open and she hogs the couch and she never bothers cleaning up her own dishes. You dont want her because shes your soul mate. You only want her because shes not yours. He gives the paper a shake. Please, talk to Corey. Dont do it for me. Do it for Sabine. For our He stops himself just in time, but its too late. I already understand. I heard the words he didnt want to say. You motherfucking fucker. I pause, the realization lighting me up from insidehot, smoldering coals that seethe in my stomach and spread outward until my limbs feel like theyre on fire. One good spark, and Ill blow. Shes pregnant, isnt she? He doesnt nod, but his eyes are glassy in the dim light. Finally, after all these years of wishing and wanting and eventually giving up entirely, Sabine is pregnant. With Trevors child. His gaze dips to the paper. Please, he says, and his voice breaks on the word. I take the paper, but then I stalk around the island and punch him in the face. BETH That night, you come to me in my sleep, a blur of lightning limbs and shouted curses, tearing through the house. Opening and slamming doors, whipping off pillows and bedcovers, flipping couches and tables, ripping pictures off the wall. You are searching for something, for me. I teeter on the edge of awake. I see you gaining speed, moving closer, and my stomach clenches into a spiky knot. You puff your big chest and scream, and that lock of hair I used to love to run my fingers through falls flat on your sweaty forehead. You push it off with the back of a fist, and thats when I see the gun. Wake up! I pinch the skin of my arms, smack myself on the cheeks. But my legs, tangled in the sheets, are like lead. They wont move. Suddenly, youre here, stomping down the hallway at Morgan House. The hollow thud of your footsteps trembles the floor, the walls, the lining around my heart. The noise stops in front of my door, and I am frozen with fear, with pure terror. My doorknob rattles, then goes still. I hold my breath, wait for the gun to go off. The door explodes, wood splinters showering down on me like a million deadly spikes. The hallway sconces light you up from behind, glowing underneath your skin like blood. I scream. You grin and aim the gun. I shoot upright in my bed, the scream ringing in my ears. I clamp a hand over my mouth and stare into the dark room, trying to get my bearings. My room, my bed at Morgan House. Im safe. Youre not here. It was only a dream. And yet. Was it? The back of my throat burns in a way that tells me the scream might have been real, but the ache could also be from the sobbing. My cheeks are slick, the hair at my temples damp with sweat or tears. I mop my face with the sheet and take several deep breaths, willing my hammering heart to slow. I check the time on my cell phone: 4:00 a.m. Somewhere above me, a male body is snoring loud enough to rattle the floorboards, and I wonder what this says about my housemates. That they are either deaf or sleep like the dead. Or maybe they are immune to a strangers scream ripping through their slumber. Miss Sally runs a tight ship, but this place is an oasis in a questionable neighborhood, one where the houses sport bars on the windows. This doesnt bode well for me if my nightmare turns to reality. What will they do if you find me here? Sleep through the screams? Hide behind the locked doors of their bedrooms? Suddenly, the room is too hot, the four walls shrinking around me. I kick off the twisted sheets and reach for my shorts, in a wadded pile on the floor. I need a glass of water, or maybe a cup of tea if I can swipe a tea bag from somebodys supply. Mostly, I need to get out of this room. I strap my money belt around my waist, pluck my keys and phone from the nightstand, and creep into the hall, locking the door behind me. The hallway is dark, lit only at the far end by a streetlamp somewhere outside the window. I move, breathless and on tiptoe toward its golden gleam, the pads of my bare feet silent on the polyester runner. The stairs are trickier, sagging and creaky in the middle. I hug the side instead, my fingertips skimming the walls, following them to the kitchen. A single bulb above the stove casts faint light on the scuffed linoleum floor, but otherwise the room is a black hole. I power on my cell, use the light of the screen to guide the way to the cabinets on the far wall. The first one is dinnerware, neat stacks of plates and bowls and plastic cups. I shut it and move down the line. Cleaning supplies, pots and pans, but not a single crumb of food, no box of dusty tea bags. You must be the new girl, a female voice says from behind me. A grenade erupts in my chest, and I whirl around, searching for her face in the darkness. The shadows shift, and the ceiling lamp buzzes to life, blinding me with sudden light. I cover my eyes, squinting through my fingers at the woman sitting cross-legged atop the kitchen table. Caramel skin and big brown eyes and the body of a fifties film star, petite but curvy. She watches me with barefaced curiosity. What are you looking for? Maybe I can help you find it. Shes as pretty as her accent, a South American cadence slowed with a Southern drawl. Two silver discs hang on delicate chains from her neck, each of them engraved with something I cant quite make out from this distance. Names, Im guessing. I wasnt expecting to find anyone here, not when the money belt hanging from my middle is about as subtle as a third breast. I pull on my too-tight T-shirt, fold my arms across my waist. You scared the shit out of me. Was that you upstairs? She pauses. I heard somebody scream just now. Was that you? Shit. So that part wasnt a dream. My face goes hot, thinking of all the sleeping bodies upstairs. Sorry. Did I wake you? How many others did I rouse from their slumber? No. My room is right next to Neds. She points to the ceiling, the boards above our head rumbling like a faraway train. Ned, I assume. Anyway, tell me what you came down here looking for, and Ill tell you where you can find it. Though I will warn youMiss Sally keeps the good stuff locked in the pantry. Oh. Miss Sallys warnings ring in my earher honor code, and the hidden cameras everywhere. But surely a tea bag doesnt count as stealing, especially if I replace it first thing tomorrow. I was hoping to borrow a tea bag, actually. Well, thats easy enough. She hops off the table and pads on bare feet across the room. Her shorts are the kind a cheerleader would wear, skintight and Daisy Duke short. Ive got a box of Liptonhope thats okay. You once hurled a full cup of piping hot tea at my head because it was Lipton. You said if youd wanted a cup of hot piss, you would have asked for some. I smile. Lipton is perfect, thank you. She pulls a yellow box from a drawer by the microwave, flips on the electric kettle, drops the bags in two mugs she finds in a cabinet. So, what were you doing down here? I say, gesturing to the table. Why were you sitting here in the dark? I was meditating. Seriously? Its not at all what I was expecting. She doesnt seem like the typetoo fidgety, too va-va-voom to be that grounded. In the middle of the night? Why not? Meditation relieves stress, increases concentration, clears your mind and calms your nerves. She closes her eyes, holds her hands in the air, palms to the sky, in a classic meditation pose. I notice a tattoo that pokes out from the collar of her white tank top, winding down the skin of one arm. The other is covered in bracelets, leather and bright, colorful beads. Ommmmmm. Her eyes pop open, her gaze finding mine. Ill teach you sometime. Honestly, Im glad to have another one of us here. Another female, I mean. Were the only ones, if you dont count Miss Sally. I dont know if youve noticed yet, but this place is boiling over with testosterone. Her rapid-fire change of subjects is dizzying to my sleep-deprived brain, and I sink onto a chair at the table. I consider which part of her monologue to latch on tothe meditation, the proffer of friendship, the gender imbalance in this placebut shes already moved on. I take it youre new to town, she says. Just got here, actually. How long have you lived here? Atlanta or Morgan House? I shrug. Both, I guess. Im a Grady baby, born and raised. She leans a hip against the counter, taking in my frown. Oh, sorry. Gradys the hospital downtown, where they take all the gunshot patients and moms too strung out to know theyre pushing out a baby. I spent six weeks in one of those heated bubbles, sweating the crack and Lord knows what else out of my system. By the time I was clean, my mom was long gone. They handed me over to foster care. Her story has a few holes. Her accent, for one. Even if her foster parents were Latino, even if she grew up speaking Spanish at home, would her accent really be that strong? And why would someone born and raised in this city end up here, in a boardinghouse that caters to transients? Still, no way Im planning to ask. The less she tells me about her life, the less shell expect me to tell her about mine. Im sorry, I say instead. The foster system is tough. She shrugs, a what-can-you-do gesture. The worst part is not being wanted by anyone. That really messes with your head, you know? It can make you feel worthless if you let it. She pulls a bear-shaped bottle from the cabinet by the fridge and waves it next to her face. Honey? I nod, even though I dont usually take my tea sweet. My stomach is sharp with hunger, and honey will help. She squirts a generous blob in each mug, reaches in a drawer for two spoons. Im Martina, by the way. A first name, nothing else. I follow her lead. Im Beth. Nice to meet you, Beth. She grins at me over her shoulder. How you liking it here at Morgan House? I havent really been here long enough to know, and youre the only other person Ive met besides Miss Sally. I lower my voice to a whisper. She scares me a little. Martina turns, swiping a hand through the air, her bracelets jangling. Oh, dont you worry about Miss Sally. As long as youre cool, shes cool. Ditto for most of the people staying here. They might need more than a three-minute shower, but they keep to themselves, mostly, and they wont grab your ass or try to steal your shit, because they know Miss Sally would eat them for supper. Keep your head down and dont ruffle any feathers, and youll do fine. How long will you be staying? I dont know. It depends on how quickly I can get a job. The kettle clicks off, the water gurgling in a rolling boil, and she pours it into the mugs. The place I work for is always looking for some new help. Nothing fancy, just mopping floors and scrubbing sinks, but still. The work is steady and it pays enough to afford the rent here. Your voice bubbles up in my head, as clearly as if you were sitting at the table across from me. No such thing as a free lunch. Somebody offers you something, you best be thinking about what they want in return, because they always want something. I study Martinas back as she dunks the tea bags up and down, up and down, and I wonder what she wants from me. The money strapped to my belly, most likely. She glances over a shoulder. Dont like cleaning toilets, huh? I push your words aside and flip the script. Tell myself this isnt about what this girl wants from me but what I want from her. The thing is, I already know that becoming Beth Murphy, really becoming her, is a pain in the ass, and maybe an impossible one. I need a Georgia drivers license, and for that I need documents that seem as elusive to me as sprouting fairy wings or finding a flying unicorn. A birth certificate, a social security card and not one but two documents proving residency, something like a utility or credit card bill. Miss Sally doesnt seem like the type who could be persuaded into slapping my name onto a rental agreement for a couple of crisp bills; Im pretty sure shed toss me onto the street if I even asked. And what about the other documents? The utility bills, the birth certificate and social security card? My Photoshop skills are nowhere near good enough, and Im pretty sure forging a government-issued document is a felony. Its not that I mind cleaning toilets, I say. Its just that I lost my ID. Martina gives me a look. You lost it, huh? That happens a lot around here. She carries the mugs to the table and holds one out to me. You dont have anything? Not even an old, expired one? Especially not that. My Arkansas license is a charred lump at the bottom of a hotel trash can four states away. I take the tea and shake my head. But according to the internet, this city has more than three hundred thousand undocumented workers. The question isnt if there are jobs here, but where to find them. I can still get a job without one, right? She sinks onto the table, swinging her legs onto the wooden surface and crossing them underneath her, resuming her old position. Sure, if you dont mind working construction or cleaning rich ladies houses. Know any Buckhead Betties? I open my mouth to answer, but she waves me off. Never mind. You do not want to work for one of those bitches, I can promise you that. What I meant was, youll need a roster of regular customers, people with big houses who dont mind paying you cash under the table. My stomach sinks. The only people I know in this city are you and Miss Sally. Miss Sally can maybe help you, but I cant. I try to stay out of the northern suburbs. She blows over the surface of her tea, regarding me with a thoughtful expression. How much money you got in that bag strapped to your waist? The hand I press to the bag is automatic, as is the expression on my face, a mixture of distrust and defiance. Dont even fucking try it. Martina laughs. Come on, chica. I already told you people here dont try to steal your shit, and that includes me, though its probably not a bad idea to keep your cash on your person at all times. What Im asking is if you would be willing to part with some of it. Because if you are, I might know where you could find an ID. I lean back on my chair, eyeing her with suspicion. My hand is still on my money belt, my legs still ready to pounce. Im bigger than Martina, and thanks to you, I know the most effective places to land a punch. Kneecap, face, solar plexus, throat, temple. Ill be back upstairs, barricaded behind the door of my room before she stops writhing on the floor. But an ID would solve a lot of problems. How much? I say warily. Last I heard, Jorge charges somewhere in the neighborhood of three hundred dollars. You can probably talk him down some if you find him in a good mood. The hard part is finding him in a good mood. Is he any good? The best. The Rolls-Royce of fake IDs. Thats why hes so expensive. I sip my tea and do the math. Three hundred dollars is a lot of cash, almost two weeks worth of rent and 15 percent of my rapidly dwindling stash. But if Jorge is as good as Martina says he is, it might be worth the money. Finding a job will be so much faster and easier if Beth is legit. And you? Martina looks up from her mug, her brows sliding into a frown. And me, what? How much do you charge for telling me where to find this Jorge person? Martina looks at me for a moment, letting the silence linger. Her expression is that of someone making a hard decision, and I know what shes thinking. How much is the information worth to me? How much is too much? Your words run through my headno such thing as a free lunchand I hate you even more for being right. Las Tortas Locas on Jimmy Carter Boulevard, she says finally, unfolding her legs and pushing to a stand, walking with her mug to the door. Consider it your housewarming gift. JEFFREY A pounding on the front door lurches me out of a dead sleep. I sit up on the couch and rub my face, blinking into the room. The only light comes from a thin slice of morning sunshine where the curtains dont quite meet, blanching a strip of carpet. I check my watch11:00 a.m. Ive been asleep for all of two hours. The past two days have been a shit show. Coming home to find Sabine missing, discovering shes been screwing around, my surprise rendezvous with her lover, Trevor accidentally spilling the beans about the pregnancy. By the time I drove across town to Sabines client, then did the same with her boss, every muscle in my body was knotted up, my skin vibrating with fury. Corey and Lisa told me exactly what they told the detective: that Sabine never showed up for the showing. Theres another pounding at the door, followed by three rapid-fire rings of the doorbell. I push off the couch and stumble to the door. Ingrid doesnt look like shes slept much, either, but shes cleaned up since the last time I saw her. Shes fresh from the shower; her hair is still damp, the ends gathered in wet clumps, dripping onto her dress, some awful blue-and-white thing. She barrels into my foyer, and I catch a whiff of her perfume, cloying and sweet. She takes in my T-shirt and rumpled sweats, the same ones I was wearing the last time she was here, and frowns. Why arent you dressed? Didnt you get my messages? I wince, pressing down on my throbbing temples with a thumb and middle finger. Ingrids volume, louder than usual, isnt helping whats pounding in my head like a hangover. And then theres that constant edge to her voice. I cant take much of her on a good day; now, after two bad days in a row, shes chipping away at my last threads of civility. Clearly not. Well, go upstairs and change. Were due at the police department in thirty minutes. The detective has an update. My heart bangs a slow, heavy beat. An update could be anything. Her car, found wrapped around a tree. Her body, found rotting in a field of soybeans. Her killer, on the loose or locked behind bars. What kind of update? I dont know, Jeffrey. He wouldnt tell me anything other than he had some news. She chews on a corner of her lips, which are already red and cracked. Her eyes are fat pink pillows. What if he She stops herself before she can finish, and I dont touch it. A detective calling with news he wouldnt share over the phone cant be good. I turn and head upstairs for a quick shower. Nine and a half minutes later Im crammed into the passengers seat of Ingrids Acura, barreling south toward the police station. Traffic is light, but on the other side of her windshield, its gearing up to be another blistering day. I turn the air-conditioning to high and aim the vents at my face. Trevors news last night lit me on fire, and Ive been burning up ever since. I suppose you knew about the baby. Ingrid stares straight ahead, hands at ten and two, but she nods. Sabine and I Tell each other everything. I know. I glare out the side window at the storefronts flashing by and wish Id thought to bring sunglasses. What else have the two of you been keeping from me? Shes been talking to a lawyer. She was going to ask you for a divorce this weekend. The news hits me like an anvil; not that Sabine was planning to leave meTrevor already told me as muchbut at the implication she saw a lawyer. Something thats easy to verify. I dont need to be a detective to know how it makes me looklike I have a motive. I snort. Thats convenient, isnt it? What is? The timing. Sabine disappears, pregnant with another mans child, right as shes about to file for divorce from a husband who onceand only once, so help me Godlost his temper. If I were the detective, Id be calling me in for questioning, too. I twist on my seat, turning to face Ingrid. Is that what this is? Is that why you came by the house, to haul me in for questioning? Did he send you to lure me to the station? Im pretty sure the detective can haul you in himself if he wants to. She gives me the same guilty side-eye Sabine does, right before she admits to having ruined my favorite sweater in the laundry. But to be perfectly honest, I came to get you because I cant do this alone. Sit in some sterile room at the police station while the detective tells me something awful has happened to my sister. Im terrified. And I couldnt bring Mom. She wouldnt understand, and even if she did, I cant deal with her and bad news at the same time. As much as I hate to admit it, I need you there. Why didnt you call Trevor? She presses her lips together. You did call him. He wouldnt come. Hes a mess. She punches the gas to make it through a light, then merges into the far-left lane. And he was right. Having him there would only make everything worse. At least I wont have to take care of you. Im not quite sure how to take that. Her mother would be too clueless, Trevor would be too emotional and I would be my usual asshole self. I choose to focus on the words she doesnt say: that Im strong, solid, sensible. No matter what the detective has to tell us, at least I wont go apeshit. But is she right? I think about what Id do if the detective tells me Sabine is dead, or asks to swab the inside of my cheek. What will my reaction be then? I look over at Ingrid, at her pointy features and shiny profile, and think I really dont want to do this alone, either. Its ironic, I say, turning back to the traffic. What is? That it took Sabine disappearing to make us actually want to be in a room together. BETH For a boulevard named after a former peanut-farmer-turned-president, its nothing like I expected. A magnolia-lined avenue, maybe, or a winding country road slicing through rolling green fields would be fitting, not this six-lane thoroughfare that packs the Buick Regal on all sides with bumper-to-bumper traffic. I cling to the far-right lane, keep a safe distance between my car and the guy riding the brakes in front of me and search the storefronts for Las Tortas Locas. I spot it up ahead, a giant margarita glass jutting above the rooftops like a crown jewel. I swerve into the turn lane and head toward the building, a riot of flashing neon lights squeezed between a strip mall and a drive-through bank. I pull into the lot, and mariachi music rattles the Buicks tinted windows. The inside is even worse. Music blares from the ceiling speakers, mixing with the din of a full house of diners and the hard chinks of porcelain and glass. The hostess has to cup a palm around her ear when I yell at her who Im here to see, and then she points me to a table at the far end of the restaurant. Are you sure? I shout, squinting at the man across the room. Even from here, from clear across the room, the man doesnt match the name. Im here for Jorge. Jorge. She leans on the hostess stand with an elbow, and I catch a slight roll of her eyes. Thats him. And I heard you the first time. I wind my way through the tables to Jorge, four hundred pounds of a milky-white man eating a burrito the size of his forearm. I hover at the edge of his table, waiting for him to stop shoveling food long enough to notice me. This Jorge guy may not be Latino, but hes no stranger to churros. He looks up, and his eyes are thin slits, part genetics, part his cheeks squeezing them shut. It looks like hes glaring at meand maybe thats exactly what hes doing. Martina said he was in a perpetually bad mood. He picks up a hard-shelled taco loaded with meat and cheese, and dunks it in salsa. Martina gave me your name, I say finally. I lean closer, across what looks to be a bucket of refried beans smothered with cheese. She said you could help me get an ID. What kind? His accent sounds Asian. A drivers license. For Georgia preferably. And maybe a social security card if youre able. He gives me a look, and I dont know if its to say he does or doesnt have one. Four hundred dollar. He shoves the tacothe whole entire thinginto his mouth. For both? Yup, he says around a mouthful of meat. But Martina told me three. The slits all but disappear. I give him time to swallow some of the food bulging in his already-swollen cheeks. Three hundred for license only. Four hundred for both. Barter, you say in my head. For you haggling is a sport, a competition. You will hold up the grocery store line to bicker about the price for dented cans and boxes torn at the edges. Say it like you mean it, you tell me now. Theres always wiggle room in a price. Always. Three hundred and fifty, I say. Three hundred seventy-five. A shard of ground beef flies from Jorges mouth and ricochets off my leg. I make a face, edge backward until I am out of range. I will never eat Mexican again. I nod. Deal. Jorge tells me to meet him in an hour, at a strip mall a few miles from here. He slides the beans closer, reaching for his spoon, and rattles off an address I commit to memory. Thats it. Meeting over. I beat a semistraight path to the door before he changes his mind. For the next forty-five minutes, I sit in my car in the restaurants parking lot, listening to the radio and killing time. People come and go in a constant stream, construction workers and folks in business attire, moms with hair like mine emerging from a minivan full of kids. Its the weirdest combination of diners Ive ever seen, and I think of Jorge, the way he shoveled in those tacos faster than he could chew. The food here must really be something. My gaze sticks to a figure at the far edge of the lot. Shes everything a woman in a neighborhood like this one is not supposed to be: alone, half-hidden behind a holly bush, completely oblivious to her surroundings. Her head is down, her thumbs flying across her phone, and even from all the way across the lot I can tell shes a perfect mark. Designer bag slung over her shoulder, a honker of a diamond on her finger. The stone winks in the afternoon sunlight, along with matching ones in each ear. A car slows alongside her, and one by one, the hairs on the back of my neck soldier to a stand. Look up, lady. Look up look up look up, I say into my empty car. No way she can hear me, but still. I say it loud and with authority, like anyone whos ever taken a self-defense class would know to do. Straight punch to the throat, knee-kick to the groin, elbow in the nose. Basic moves, simple techniques every woman should have in her arsenal, both potent and effective. But this woman doesnt look up, doesnt even glance at the car. Las Tortas Locas is apparently a hotbed for criminal activity, and she might as well have hung a sign over her head, advertising herself as easy prey. Shit, lady. Come on. The car is completely stopped now, and I spot two shadowed figures behind the opaque windows who are not here for the taco special. I know it with everything inside memy queasy stomach, my itchy skin, a cell-deep awareness that something is about to happen. Something bad. My fingers wander to my steering wheel, the heel of my hand hovering over the horn, while my brain shuffles through the scenarios. Leaning on the horn might scare off the bad guys and save the womans jewels, but it might also get me noticed. It would mean her asking my name, noting my license plate, looking at me as a hero or worse: a witness. Beth Murphys life would be over before it even began. This lady needs saving, but dammit, so do I. The passengers door swings open, and a man steps out. Pale skin, slouchy jeans, faded and ripped gray sweatshirt. No, not a man, a kid, tall and lanky, all shiny face and silly-putty limbs, probably no more than fourteen. He leaves the door open, and if thats not a getaway move, I dont know what is. He stalks straight at her, and I scream into my car, Put down the stupid phone! But as hard as I try, I cant make my hand press on the horn. And so I sit, watching from fifty feet away while the kid whips out a gun and mugs her in broad daylight. Purse, phone, diamonds, watch, braceletsshe hands over everything with frantic, shaking hands. He forces her to the ground, his body language commanding her to hurry. She sputters and sobs but she obeys, lying flat with both hands shielding the back of her head. Behind him, the cars tires squeal and smoke, and the kid lunges with his loot through the still-open door. The entire episode takes all of sixty seconds. As soon as the parking lot is quiet again, the woman clambers to her feet. Help! Somebody help me. Help! I tell myself its fine, that shes fine. Scared and shaken, maybe, her white jeans smudged where they made contact with the dirty asphalt. But otherwise, everybody is fine. Everybody but me, trapped here in this lot. The woman is standing between me and the only exit. A gaggle of sorority types push out the restaurants double doors, talking and laughing. They hear the womans cries and stop on the concrete, their happy expressions falling into surprise. I was robbed! the woman screams at them. He pointed a gun at my head and he took my wedding ring. He took everything. Oh my God, dont just stand there. Somebody call the police! A tall blonde pulls out a cell phone, and I eyeball the curb height to the street, trying to judge if its too high for the Buick to plow over without blowing out a tire. Would the women even notice? Would they jot down my license plate and hand it to the cops as a potential witness? And what if I dont leave, then what? What will I say when the police find me sitting here, hiding in my car? I glance at the clock on the dash. Less than ten minutes until Im supposed to meet Jorge. Even if I ditched my car and ran, Id never make it on time. The women are all babbling now, gesturing and talking over each other, their expressions tight with the near miss, and guilt pushes up from somewhere deep inside me. All my life, Ive believed in karma, in the universal principle of cause and effect. Do good, and good comes to you. Do bad, and. Well, you better watch your back. And today I stood by and watched a woman get mugged. What does the universe have in store for me now? The women storm inside, and I start the car and drive as fast as I dare, squealing into the strip mall Jorge directed me to a full six minutes late. I pray Jorges not a punctual guy, the type who doesnt tolerate clients who show up later than promised. Then again, I am the client, and Im guessing the black market ID business must by definition remain fluid. In the grand scope of things, six minutes isnt all that long. I step out of my car and scan the half dozen storefronts. Jorge didnt give me anything other than an address, so which one? Discount stores and carnicer?as, a cell phone shop, a smashed window covered in butcher paper. And then at the far end, I spot a single word: fotogr?fico. I slam the door and hurry to the store. Inside, the place is tinya shoebox of a room with a camera on a tripod, a register counter and not much else. Jorge is waiting for me by the register, beside a man he introduces as Emmanuel, no last name. Emmanuel demands six dollars in cash, then points me to a grubby white wall. Stand there. No smile. Emmanuel is a man of few words, but he gets the job done. Theres a blinding flash, and by the time the spots have cleared from my vision, two passport-size pictures are rolling out of his printer. While Emmanuel cuts them into tiny squares, Jorge hands me a piece of paper and a pen. Write down name, birth date, height, weight and address. You can use fake ones if you want. Do your customers ever use real ones? He shrugs his linebacker shoulders. Dont know. Dont care. I write Beths full name across the top of the paper, dredging up a middle name on the spotLouise, a character from some book I just read. I give Beth two extra years, born on February 20, 1983. Shes my height, five foot eight, but I tack on a few pounds. The best way to hide in plain sight, Ive decided, is to put some more meat on my bones with a strict pizza, doughnut, hamburger and french fry diet. Her address is the one for Morgan House. I hand the paper back to Jorge, and he holds out a meaty palm. Three-fifty, right? He grunts. Funny. I contemplate the wisdom of forking over the money now, before Ive gotten my ID cards, but Im not exactly in a position of power here. I slap the three hundred and seventy-five dollars I already peeled off my stash into his hand. Jorge counts it, then counts it again. Whats your number? he says, pulling out his phone. I open my mouth, then stop myself just in time. The only number I know by heart is my real number, for the phone sitting at the bottom of a trash can back in Arkansas. My new number, the one for the prepay phone in my back pocket, is a blank. I havent memorized it yet. I.I dont remember. Jorge heaves a sigh that reeks of cheese and jalape?o, and the look he gives me says amateur. He rattles off a string of numbers that I realize too late is for his cell phone. Hang on, hang on. I fumble for my phone, and he repeats the numbers, this time slower while I type them in. I hit Send, and his cell phone lights up in his hand. He flips it so I can see. Your number. I call you when ready. How long? He lifts a meaty shoulder. Thirty minute. Maybe more. Wait at Sonic up the road. It is seventy-three eternal minutes before a shiny black SUV rolls into the Sonic parking lot. I watch from my table by the window as a man who is definitely not Jorgetoo dark, much too skinnyslides out. He looks up and down the parking lot like a villain on an episode of Cops, then tucks a manila envelope under the Buicks windshield wiper and hustles back into his car. By the time I make it outside, the man is long gone. I pluck the envelope from the windshield and drop into my car, my fingers shaking as I slide my nail under the flap. I jiggle the envelope upside down, and two small squares drop onto my lap. One is paper, a social security card with a bright yellow sign here sticker. The other is plastic, a drivers license that looks as real as any Ive ever seen. I examine it, turning it back and forth in a shaft of sunlight, and the hologram Georgia seal brightens and fades. The signature is not mine, but its generic enough that with a little practice, I can duplicate it. Other than that, its perfect. Beth Louise Murphy is legit. My cell phone rings with a number I recognize as Jorges cell. I pick up to the sound of chewing. You get ID? I did get ID, thank you. I toss the cards on the passengers seat and start the car. They look great. Totally real. He grunts, a sound I take to mean youre welcome. Listen, you have friends who need ID, you send them to Jorge. Fifty dollar every friend. And there it is, I think as I ease the Buick into traffic. What Martina wanted from me. MARCUS The Pine Bluff Police Department is housed in a squat, one-story complex on East Eighth Avenue, blinding white stucco against a sprawling green lawn. The place is a dump, dingy walls and scuffed linoleum floors, but on a bright note, were understaffed enough that the detectives get their own private rooms. Theyre cramped and stuffy, but theyre a million times better than a desk in the bull pen they surround. Jeffrey and Ingrid arrive a full twelve minutes late, and just like yesterday, the two are practically vibrating with animosity. He opens the door for her but only because Im watching, prompting a thanks she doesnt want to give. These two people detest each other, and I want to know why. I gesture for them to follow. This way. I usher them through the rowdy bull pen to the open door of my office. Have a seat, I say, gesturing to the twin chairs across from my desk, but only Ingrid sinks into one. Jeffrey is frozen just outside the door. He pokes his head into the room, and his relief when he sees its an office is palpable. The sucker thought this was going to be an interrogation room. I raise a brow, and reluctantly, he steps inside, sinks into a chair. I round my desk and drop into mine. We found Sabines car. What? the two say in unison, their voices high and wild. Omigod, where? Ingrid says. When? And thats good news, right? It means you have some idea which way she went. I dont shake my head, but I dont nod, either. A car is not necessarily good news, especially one like Sabinesundamaged and untouched. So far, the only DNA weve found on it is hers. The car was parked at the far end of the Super1 lot on East Harding. According to the security footage, she walked through the door yesterday at 1:49 p.m. Ten minutes later, she purchased a loaf of bread, some sliced turkey and cheese, and a lemonade. She paid with her ATM card and was out the door by 2:03 p.m. The cameras dont cover the entire parking lot, unfortunately, so we lost her soon after. Ingrid scoots to the front edge of her seat. I dont understand. Youre saying she never made it back to her car? It sure looks that way. We searched the lot and trash cans for the groceries, without any luck. Somebody could have picked them up, or maybe she took them with her. With her where? Ingrid shakes her head. What are you saying, exactly? You both mentioned you talked to Sabine I flip through my notes, pausing to find the right page. Ingrid at 10:45 a.m. and Jeffrey. I look up, meeting his gaze. You didnt actually tell me a time. I was at the Atlanta airport, boarding a flight. The DL 2088, I know. Jeffrey told me he talked to Sabine as he was boarding his flight, but he didnt say which one. He didnt even mention the airline. I did a little digging. The flight left Atlanta at 11:30 a.m, I say, so boarding would have been what, a half hour earlier? He nods, shifting in his chair. Yeah, eleven sounds about right. I can pull it up on my call log if you need the exact time and duration. I ignore his offer, turning to Ingrid instead. In either of these conversations with Sabine, did she mention where she was going? Jeffrey shakes his head, but Ingrid nods. She was on her way to the office. I frown. Not the answer I was expecting. This particular Super1 is nowhere near her work. I checked with her office, and she didnt have any showings that morning. Only a staff training later in the afternoon at the office, which she missed. Oh, she had a showing, all right, Jeffrey says, his voice thick with sarcasm and something else. Anger, for sure. Disgust, too. And more than a little pain. Ingrid looks over with a frown. Sabine was coming from the hospital. His lip curls into an ugly sneer. Her lover told me she dropped by for a little conjugal visit. I lean back in my chair. By now I know about the affair. Dr. McAdams already told me, tripping all over himself in his hurry for a face-to-face, a million questions disguised as a statement. The poor guy is desperate for answers, almost too desperate to be believable. Well, if she was coming from the hospital, the route makes more sense. She could have stopped to buy herself a late lunch. And then what? Ingrid squirms on her chair, clutching her hands. Where did she go next? Well, its certainly not out of the realm of possibility that Sabine left on her own accord, that she got into a car with a colleague or a friend, but my gut says no. For one thing, she wouldnt have left her cell phone behind. We found it in the car, charging in the cup holder. I was hoping one of you could identify it for us. I pull an evidence bag from my desk drawer, holding it up to show the Samsung smartphone inside. Ingrid releases a loud, relieved breath. Thats not Sabines. Are you sure the car you found is the right one? Maybe you made a mistake. Again, not the answer I was expecting. The phone was found in Sabines locked car. Who elses could it be? Are you positive? We havent been able to check it. Not without the code. One hundred percent, Ingrid says. Sabine has an iPhone. A white one. The newest model. I look to Jeffrey for confirmation. Its true, she does have an iPhone. He stabs a finger at the Samsung. But thats probably her burner phone. Ingrids face whips to his. What the hell are you talking about? Sabine doesnt have a burner phone. Dont be ridiculous. Yes, Ingrid. She does. The one that for the past five months, shes been using to talk to her lover. Ingrid twitches, and his smile is a mix of mean and condescending. Looks like she doesnt quite tell you everything, does she? Ingrid slumps in the chair, and Jeffrey turns to me. Dr. Trevor McAdams, Chief Obstetrician at Jefferson Regional Hospital. I believe you spoke with him last night. Im guessing if you crack the code on that phone, every number on the call log will be his. Try 8-2-66-3-7, Ingrid mumbles. Its the one she uses for her iPhone. I pluck a plastic glove from the box on the sill, wriggle my hand inside, then shove it in the bag and tick in the code. The log-in dissolves into a colorful home screen with neat columns of apps. The icon for phone has a bright red number in the top right corner, twenty-three missed calls. I tap it, and theyre all from the same number, which matches the one scribbled on my pad. You were right. Its the number for Dr. McAdamss cell. Ingrid shifts in her chair with a huff. I reseal the bag, peel off the glove and drop both in my desk drawer. This doesnt explain where the iPhone is, though. Weve put out a trace on that number, but were not finding anything. Looks like wherever it is, shes turned it off. And according to her bank, the transaction at the Super1 was the last purchase she made. She hasnt used her credit card or ATM card since. There were also no big withdrawals in the weeks before, which tells me she wasnt planning on making a run for it. Of course she wasnt, Ingrid says. Sabine wouldnt run, not without telling me. Sometime in the past few minutes, shes started to cry. Her face is messy with itred eyes; mottled cheeks; swollen, dripping nose. She sniffs and swipes at it with a sleeve. So, what now? Where do we look next? Well, weve begun questioning Super1 staff who were working Wednesdays shift. Were hopeful that one of them saw something out of the ordinary, or maybe someone out of the ordinary. Ive also put out an APB for anyone matching Sabines description, which means weve got a lot more than just our eyes looking for her. Were going through her bank records, her credit card usage, anything that will help us trace her movements. Well be interviewing her friends, her colleagues, all the people in her lifeand before you ask, that includes Dr. McAdamsand well be asking them the same question Im asking youwhere were you Wednesday afternoon, from 1:00 p.m. on? An alibi. Im asking them for an alibi. The two exchange a look. Ingrid folds her arms across her chest, her expression a mixture of insult and concern. I work at home. Im a virtual assistant. People pay me to arrange their schedules, type up reports, handle their social media. Things like that. Was anyone there with you? I ask. I live alone. Okay. Is there anyone who can verify your whereabouts? A neighbor, maybe, or a client who called on the house line. No, she says, then brightens. But I was online all day. I can prove I was there with the IPs from websites I visited, and the emails in my Sent folder. You know how to do that? Jeffrey sounds dubious, like he doesnt think shes that capable. Yes, she says, slow and satisfied. I have a degree in computer science. Mentally, I shuffle the sister to the bottom of my list. Ingrid is a spinster, the kind of woman who lives alone, works alone, stays alone, but so far, everything Ive seen and heard from her seems sincere. As suspects go, shes not a strong one. Jeffrey, on the other hand. He checks all the boxes. Every single one. He clears his throat, folds his hands atop his lap. Well, lets see. I landed at just after noon or so I nod. At 12:05 p.m. Surprise flashes across his face, though it shouldnt. I already told him I looked up his flight number, which means Ill also know when he landed. Im not a small-town cop, and Ive done my homework. Your plane arrived at the gate at 12:11, I say without consulting my notes. By 12:24, everyone but the crew had deplaned. Okay, he says, thinking. But I was all the way in the back, so one of the last people off the plane, and then it took forever to get my bag. The Little Rock Airport is notoriously slow. After that I grabbed some lunch. At the airport? No. At a little Italian place near the airport. I dont remember the name. Ingrid makes a sound: convenient. What time was this? I ask. I dont know. After one, for sure. Maybe closer to one thirty. Did you use a card? I paid cash. Ingrid gives up all pretense. She blows out a sigh, long and loud, and sits up straight in her chair. Shes ready for me to arrest him, to slap some cuffs on him and cart him downstairs. What time did you get back to Pine Bluff? He shrugs. I think it was around four or so. Your neighbor, a Mrs. Ashby, confirms it to be around four ten. She remembers because she was watching a rerun of Ellen, whod just finished her dance. Mrs. Ashby was in the kitchen during the commercial break, making herself a snack. He makes a noise deep in his throat. More likely pouring herself a drink. Rita Ashby is a nosy old hag whose face is pressed to the kitchen window more often than not. Shes also a drunk. In all those years weve lived there, I dont think Ive ever seen her sober. Hes trying to distract me, buy some time. He knows the question coming next. Why so late? When he doesnt immediately answer, I add, I mean, by my math, even accounting for the baggage delay and the lunch stop and afternoon traffic, which we all know can be a real bitch, you should have been home by 2:30 p.m. at the latest. How come you were so late? What were you doing for that hour and a half? His shrug is trying too hard, as is his tone, too high and much too smooth. It was a nice day, and Id spent all week cooped up inside at a conference. Dont tell my boss, but I really didnt want to go back to the office. I stopped off at a park along the river to read. Which park? Tar Camp. A forested recreation area popular with families and fishermen, about halfway between Little Rock and Pine Bluff. Emma and I used to go camping there, back when we were newlyweds. I scribble the name on my pad. How long did you stay? An hour and a half, maybe longer. What were you reading? The CEO of one of our biggest competitors just came out with a book, Stoking the Fire at Work or some such nonsense. My boss is making everyone at the office read it. Honestly, its not very good. Did you see anybody there? Its a public park, he says, getting defensive. I saw lots of people. What I meant was, did any of them notice you? A guy in business attire sitting by himself, on a park bench It was a picnic table. Theres a cluster of them at the edge of the river. He pauses to glance at Ingrid, whose brows are bunched in a skeptical frown. And I was in jeans and a polo. Travel attire. Still. A guy all alone at a picnic table, reading a book. Id imagine you stood out. Id imagine so, but tell me this, Detectivehow am I supposed to find them? I dip my head, ceding the point. Not that it helps him any. Even if he had been at Tar Camp, its not like any of the people there would remember him, and they certainly wouldnt have exchanged names and numbers. But the bigger point is, hes lying. All the signs are there. The stare down across my desk, the way his breath comes quicker, the microscopic flashes of panic I keep catching on his face. Something about his story is not true. Help me out here, Jeffrey. I just want to make sure Im not missing anything. I lean toward him, hands folded on top of a sloppy pile of papers. According to what you just told me, you were alone all afternoon yesterday, either in your car, at an unnamed restaurant or in a public park, from around 12:30 p.m. until a little after four, when the neighbor confirms you pulled into your driveway. He nods. Thats right. Yes. Add sweating to the list. His face has gone shiny, sprouting a million wet pinpricks. And at no point during those three and a half hours, the same hours your wife walked out of the Super1 on East Harding and disappeared, can anyone but you verify your whereabouts. Hes silent for long enough I almost feel sorry for him. He sucks a breath, then two more, thirteen brain-numbing seconds, and then the best he can do is: Pretty much. I try to hold my expression tight, but the smile sneaks out anyway. Gotcha. BETH I pull to a stop in the middle of the two-lane drive, double-check the address on the Post-it note Martina handed me earlier this morning and gawk at the building before me. A church. Martina works at a church. A neo-Gothic monstrosity of beige brick and stained glass, with crimson gables and scalloped finials and lancet arches. In the very center of the main tower, a rose window stares out like the eye of a cyclops. Above it, at the steepest point of the roofline, a wooden cross reaches with long arms into a pale blue sky. The Church of Christs Twelve Apostles. Oh hell no. My hand clenches around the gearshift, jiggling it into Reverse. The Church and I arent exactly on the best of terms, not since I went to the leader of mine for guidance and he refused to unshackle me from a monster. Its perfectly normal to argue, Father Ian had told me. All couples do. But the successful couples learn to forgive. They put the resentment behind them and move on. I nodded my head in pious agreement. I understand that, Father, but he.hurts me. Hurts you how? For a second or two, I considered pulling up my shirt and showing him my cracked ribs. In the end, I settled on, With his hands. Closed or open? Im sorry? His hands, when he hurts you. Are they closed or open? The logical part of me understands Father Ians reluctance to believe you would be capable of such cruelty. Hes known you most of your life, guided you through so many sacraments. And we were together for two years before you shoved me into that hotel wall. It was two more years before you punched me, and another year after that before you punched me again. The violence came on so gradually, and then so fast. To Father Ian, to everyone but you and me, my complaints came out of nowhere. In the end, we compromised: Father Ian would counsel you on the proper ways to handle an argument, and I would pray to become a better wife. A honk comes from behind me, two friendly, rapid-fire beeps. I look up to find a pretty blonde in my rearview mirror. She waves, diamonds winking on her wrist, and I try to remember what Martina called them, these wealthy women from the northern suburbs. Betty somethings. I gesture for this one to go around, but she doesnt move, and the road is too narrow for me to turn around. With a sigh, I put the car in Drive. The two-lane road slices through a manicured lawn clotted with oakleaf hydrangeas and boxwoods sculpted into perfect circles. Before I can find a place to turn around, it dumps me into a parking garage, five-plus stories of stacked concrete. I swing the Buick into a visitors space, finally shaking off the blonde on my tail. She motors past, rounding the corner to the next level. The holy hushthats what Ive since learned its called, this brushing of allegations like mine under the altar rug, though I suppose I should give Father Ian a little credit. He lived up to his end of the bargain and talked to you. But whatever he said only made things worse. You came home looking for a fight, one that ended with a concussion and a weeklong ringing in my ears. That Sunday, Father Ian pressed the communion wafer through my split lips like nothing had ever happened. As soon as I turned away, I spit the thing into my hand. I realize that not every church operates this way. That ignorant and willfully blind priests like Father Ian are, for the most part, a dying breed. I once read an article about an abused woman who claimed church was the only thing that kept her going, the one hour each week she allowed herself a glimmer of hope. And yet I stare out my windshield at this one, and I feel nothing but dread. Martina all but guaranteed they would hire me on the spot. She said she told them that I clean like she does, powering through six toilets in the time it takes others to scrub one, even though shes never seen me work so much as a sponge. I have no idea why she has taken up the role of my protector, but Im not exactly in a position to turn her down. I do a mental count of the bills strapped to my stomach. After Jorge and groceries, its a whole lot lighter than it was just yesterday. It would take me days to find another job, which means church or not, I cant afford to walk away from this one. I brace myself and climb out of the car. The garage stairwell dumps me out at a side entrance, and I step into a hallway that smells like pine and incense. I follow it past a long line of double doors, then stop at an open one, gawking into a cavernous space three stories high. Rows and rows of plush crimson seats, thousands of them, are arranged in sections on a gentle slope around a podium hung with stage lights and two giant LED screens. And whats thatan orchestra pit? Voices come from somewhere behind me, and I continue down the hallway, following the signs to the administrative offices. Colored light trickles down from stained glass windows high above my head, painting patterns across a freshly vacuumed carpet. I cant imagine why they need another person on their cleaning staff. So far, everything Ive seen here has been spotless. The executive offices are bright and spacious and, as far as I can tell, span the entire length of the church. Theres a reception area straight ahead, with hallways dotted with doors on either side. A woman sits behind the receptionists desk, one I recognize. Prim white blouse, understated pearls, diamonds at her wrists, blond hair teased into a helmet atop her head. Up close, shes not half as pretty as she was in my rearview mirror. She greets me like shes never seen me before. Welcome to the Church of Christs Twelve Apostles. What brings you in today? Im here to see Father Andrews. Its Reverend, she corrects, turning to her computer. She punches a few buttons on the keyboard with a baby pink nail. Do you have an appointment with the Reverend? Yes, at ten. I arrange my face into a careful neutral. My name is Beth Murphy. She tells me the Reverend had a minor emergency in the music room and asked me to meet him there, then rattles off a series of convoluted directions for what is basically a trek to the basement. I thank her, then head in search of the stairwell. A few minutes later, I step into a full-on recording studio. Modern and airy, furnished with sleek black chairs and leather couches arranged in clusters around a stage. Multiple rehearsal rooms each with their own mixing panel are lined up along the wall, across from a soundproof recording booth. Behind its smoky glass, a spongy microphone hovers like a spaceship from the ceiling. Hello? A thump, followed by a muffled curse, drifts up from somewhere behind me. I turn and thats when I see them, two stovepipes of dark denim ending in orange Nikes, poking out from under one of the mixing panels. He wriggles himself out and heaves to a stand, holding out a hand. Erwin Andrews, he says, smiling behind his clipped white beard. And you must be Beth. I shake his hand, swallowing a flutter of nerves. Its been years since Ive been on a job interview, especially one for which I am so monumentally unqualified. I know how to scrub a toilet, yes, but what if he asks about prior experience? What if he asks for references? Why dont we sit? The Reverend is fit despite his age, popping off the ground with surprising speed and agility. He leads me with long, nimble strides to a matching pair of couches to the right of the stage. Hes a runner, judging by his shoes and his build. He points me to the couch, then plucks a chair from the stage and swings it around, placing it so were almost knee to knee. Not too close, but not far away, either. Relaxed and informal. I know what youre thinking, he says, clasping his hands. Why would the pastor of a place this size want to interview every potential employee? Why not let someone else do it? The office manager, maybe, or the head of the cleaning crew. Its almost word for word what I said to Martina last night, when she told me shed set up the interview. She didnt know the answer, either. Martina says that you interview everybody. I tell my nerves to shut up, but they dont listen, and neither does my body. Sweaty hands, hammering heart, the works. I clear my throat, struggling to rein myself in. I do, Beth, and Ill tell you why. Because we are a community here at CCTA, and as its leader, it is my responsibility to keep people from harm. Everyone who walks through that door needs to know that they are sheltered. Regardless of where they came from or what brought them here. That is the promise I have made, to provide a secure, positive, healthy environment where everyone, from the worshippers to the volunteers to the janitors, know that they are safe. In other words, he needs to ensure Im not a criminal. He says it without rancor, but still. Reverend Andrews is the godlier version of Miss Sally. I wouldnt want to cross him, either. I nod, plastering my most law-abiding look on my face. That makes total sense. Good. Excellent. He slaps his thighs. Now, I assume you know how to operate a mop, so we can skip the boring parts of this interview and get right to the part where I ask if you can sing. I. I blink, frowning. Im sorry, what? He waves an arm at the setup along the edge of the stage, guitars and microphone stands and a drum set worthy of Charlie Watts. Music is an essential part of worship at CCTA, an essential part of our culture. God has blessed me with parishioners who have the voices of angels, to make up for others who are.how shall I say this.not put on this earth to carry a tune. Sometimes the Lord works in mysterious ways, and other times He is painfully obvious. He sticks a finger in his ear, jiggles it around. What I want to know is which one are you? I fall in the second category, unfortunately. Another lie. I can sing, and I can read music, too. But admitting to either would mean getting shoved onto this stage or worse, the one upstairs, in a cathedral that must seat thousands. The spotlight can feel too hot, too bright, even when youre not trying to hide. No way Im letting them shine it on me. What about an instrument? Do you play anything? Pianoor I used to, until you mangled my left pinkie. No. I shake my head. Sorry. The Reverend looks mildly disappointed. What about a beat? Can you carry one of those? He taps his foot, snaps his fingers in a slow, rhythmic cadence. I cant help but smile. I can do that. Excellent! Then you can play the tambourine. We always have room for more tambourine players. And here it comes. The invitation to attend Sunday services. Reverend Andrews wants to save my soul, and he wants me to play the tambourine while he does it. I picture me in a singing, swaying crowd, joyous faces tipped to the heavens, while he holds his healing hands above us all. There will be no tambourine playing in my future. No church service, either. He swings an ankle over a knee, leaning back in the chair. Do you have a favorite team? I dip my chin, raise my eyebrows. Team? You know, sports. Football, baseball, basketball. And dont be looking at me like its a crazy question. More than half the hard-core Atlanta United fans I know are female. Fifteen-nine our first season. You like soccer? Im not really much of a sports fan. For the next twenty minutes, the Reverend wanders topics like a drunken bumblebee, bobbing from bloom to bloom. We talk about movies (I havent seen one in ages), books (I will read anything but horror), whether or not I thought the TV show did The Handmaids Tale justice (yes, absolutely). He asks me my favorite color (what am I, twelve? Fine, yellow), and what do I think about when Im alone in my car (how not to get pulled over). We touch on favorite foods (mine: french fries, his: pizza) and this place I absolutely must visit, the BeltLine, a walkable, bike-able trail that connects dozens of in-town neighborhoods, because I havent lived until Ive had the truffle fries at Biltong Bar (ask for extra mayonnaise). Our banter is more suited to a bar, or maybe a match.com chat group. I dont know what this conversation is, but its definitely not an interview. Well, Beth, he says once the topics are exhausted, sounds like youd fit in just fine around here. I blink in surprise. Thats it? Interview over? You seem surprised. Not to be rude, but dont you want to ask me about my experience? Question me about cleaning skills or ask me about. I dont know, my relationship with God or something? Your relationship with God is just thatyours. Its no business of mine unless you make it that way. And Martina already vouched for your cleaning skills. Everything Ive seen and heard from you so far lives up to what she told me. I dont ask what she told him, because Im not sure I could keep a straight face when he rattled off what must have been a string of lies and fabrications. Ive known Martina all of two days, and the longest conversation weve had was on that first night, when I bumped into her in the kitchen. She knows nothing about me other than what shes seen, and Ive made sure she hasnt seen much. And yet shes told the Reverend all about meyet another favor, yet another reason for me to question her motivations. What does that girl want from me? Theres some paperwork that needs filling out upstairs, he says, standing. The official application so we can process your paycheck, and another one so the USCIS doesnt come banging on my door with a big, fat fine. I assume Martina told you to bring some identification? Trotting out my new ID feels as precarious as walking the ledge of a cliff, but I pat my bag with a nod. Not a problem. Then welcome to Church of Christs Twelve Apostles, Beth. He sticks out a hand, and we shake, mine pressed between his two warm palms. Were glad to have you join our ranks. Thank you, Reverend. Really, this means a lot to me. To my absolute horror, my eyes grow hot, the tears welling so quickly its impossible to blink them away. I choke on a small but audible sob. I cant even tell you how much. The Reverend takes me in with a kind expression. Are you all right, child? I wipe my cheeks with my fingers, but new tears tumble down before I can mop the old ones away. Thank you, but Im fine. Or I will be. I dont even know why Im crying. I force up a throaty laugh. I promise it wont be a regular occurrence. I hate to cry. For the past seven years, my tears have been slapped, backhanded, punched, yanked, kicked, squeezed and one time, burned out of me. Tears are a sign of weakness, followed always by punishment. Only losers cry. But this man doesnt taunt me for them, and he doesnt look away. If you ever want to talk about anything, he says warmly, patiently, you should know that Im a good listener. Ask anyone. Theyll tell you I take care of my flock. I murmur another round of thanks, though the only thing I can focus on is getting out of here and into the restroom across the hall, where I can splash the splotches from my face and reapply the mascara Im almost certainly crying down my cheeks. He lets me go, and Im almost to the door when he stops me. Oh, and Beth? His lips curve into a gentle smile, and I can see how it could melt a churchful of people, hanging on his every word. What I said before, about taking care of my flock. That includes you. Whatever brought you here, whatever burdens you think youre carrying, you can lay them down. Youre one of us now. Forty-five minutes later, Im back in the church basement, where Martina is busy attaching a battery-powered vacuum to my back. Did he ask you to be in the band? Martina says, holding up the straps for my arms. The two of us stand in the center of a room that does triple duty as a kitchen, break room and cleaning supply closet. An old television is pushed against a wall in front of mismatched sectionals, and to its right, a workstation with multiple sinks for rinsing buckets and rags. Two walls are lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves that belong in a grocery store cleaning aisle, or maybe an episode of Extreme Couponing. Sponges and mops, neatly stacked buckets, every cleaning product imaginable. My uniform came from the giant Tupperware containers on the bottom shelf, khaki pants and a white T-shirt with the church logo and God Works Here embroidered in looping navy letters across the front. The getup looks ridiculous over the pleather Mary Janes I wore with my interview dress, but I didnt think to bring sneakers. He asked me if I could sing or play an instrument, yeah. I shove one arm through the loop, then another, and she settles the thing on my shoulders. For a piece of machinery, its pretty light. I knew he would. He asks everybody to be in the band. She reaches around me from behind, snaking the harness around my waist, and I stiffen. Her fingers brush over the money belt but dont linger. She smells like bleach and peppermint gum. What else did you talk about? I dont know. Lots of stuff. TV shows and books and truffle fries. It was the weirdest job interview ever. She grabs me by an arm, turns me around to face her. Did he tell you the joke? I shake my head, and she grins. Knock knock. Whos there? Jesus. Jesus who? Jesus Christ, open the door. I laugh, not because the joke is funny, but at the idea it originated from a man of God. What happened to not taking the Lords name in vain? Father Ian would lose his shit. Martina hands me the vacuum hose, shows me how to work the on and off button on the side. I flip it on, and the nozzle suctions itself to the carpet. Good gear is half the work, I say before I can stop myself, one of your favorite one-liners. I flip the switch, both on the machine and in my mind, and turn to Martina. I still dont understand. He didnt ask me one single question that was relevant to the actual job. No personal questions, either, other than silly things like whether I put on both socks before my shoes, or do one foot at a time. The whole time Im just sitting there, waiting for the bomb to drop. The Reverend says the past only defines us if we let it. He says you can let it hold you back, or you can be set free. Martina takes on that church-like expression Ive come to know so well, a combination of holier-than-thou satisfaction and wondrous, drank-the-Kool-Aid joy, and this is what Father Ian could never explain to me about organized religion. You are invited into the flock because you are damaged goods, and then you are expected to transform into a righteous follower, to throw out your doubts with your sins and just believe. In the end, after all that happened while going to that church, I couldnt do it. I lean in and lower my voice, even though were the only two in the room. He also said they needed my IDs so they wouldnt get fined by the USCIS. Thats the Citizenship and Immigration Services, Martina. Her eyes narrow. What would you know about the USCIS? The accusation in her words revives my doubt of her Grady-baby story, and what about that Spanish-tinged accent she tries to bury under a Southern drawl? If Martina were born here, in a hospital in the state of Georgia, like she said she was, what would she know about the USCIS? I know what the letters stand for, I say, but Im also assuming they have these things called computers, which will light up like a Vegas slot machine at my fake ID and social security numbers. She chews her lip. They wont, she mumbles, but I catch a flash of panic in her eyes. Jorge recycles the numbers. He only uses ones that are real. Ours wont get flagged. Whatever uncertainty I had is wiped away, just like that. Martina is a Jorge customer, too. A fugitive posing under a name she wasnt born with. Maybe Im right to guard the cash strapped to my waist. Suddenly, this room feels too crowded, too hot. I need to get away from here, away from her. I gesture to the machine strapped to my back. So where do you want me to start with this thing? Upstairs, she says, stepping to the shelves for a vacuum of her own. We start at the top and work our way down. Like a team. But Im not blind, and Im no fool. I caught her glance at my waistline. Whatever Martina is after here, Im pretty sure its not teamwork. JEFFREY When I wake up on Saturday morning, I shoot off a text to my boss explaining why Ive been MIA for the past two days, then pull the pillow over my head. It smells like Sabine, like that sweet-spicy stuff in the overpriced bottles on our shower shelf, and I shove it to the floor. I stare at the ceiling and tell myself to get up, but my limbs feel hulking and heavy, like those sandbags they pile everywhere when the National Weather Service issues a flood warning. I barely slept, thanks to the constant hum of the search boats in the waters behind my house. Theyre out there now, and I waver between worry and fury. What kind of idiot do they think I am? Like I would be stupid enough to dump my wifes body in my own backyard. Like I would ever be that reckless. I watch Dateline. I know to not pollute my own property with evidence. They could give me a little credit and search farther downstream. Then again, I havent given them much reason not to suspect me, not after my miserable performance in Detective Durands office, my nonanswers about my whereabouts Wednesday afternoon. Id blame it on being rattled, the knowledge hed been checking up on me, unsettling me enough to stumble over my answers. But the truth is, it was Ingrid. If she hadnt been sitting right there, weighting the air in the room with her huffed sighs and cheap perfume, then I might have told him the truth. The detective is a guy; he might have understood, but not Ingrid. No fucking way I was telling her. It was like when you get a Trivial Pursuit question you know the answer to, that panicked, white-hot moment before the answer rolls off your tongue. I took some deep breaths, blew them all out, but the answer didnt come. And now Detective Durand and his Keystone Cops are determined to pin Sabines disappearance on me, instead of finding the person actually responsible. Because it doesnt take a genius to figure out that though they say theyre looking for Sabine, what theyre really searching for is her body. By the time I wake again, its well past noon, and the noise of the boats is muffled by a low rumble coming from my front yard. Reporters have descended on the house like a flock of starving vultures, pecking at me through the glass. Its not enough that they ruined my front lawn with their vans, they hurl questions at the house whenever I so much as walk by a window. Yesterday I pulled all the shades, but I can still feel their presence the way you feel a tornado bearing down outside, ominous and deadly. I know from their questions that the police and their merry band of volunteers have searched everywhere there is to search. Pine Bluffs fields and patchy woods, the towns parks and hills and riverbanks. No bits of fabric to show for their efforts, no long strands of brown hair found stuck in a tree. If Sabine is anywhere close by, if shes on Pine Bluff soil or in her muddy waters, chances are good that shes dead. Anger and grief, remorse and regret, the emotions churn in my empty stomach. There are a million things I want to say to Sabine, and now it looks like Ill never get the chance. The light in the room has shifted, the afternoon sun finally climbing high enough to hit the bedroom windows. I stare up at the ceiling, listening to the camera crews on my front lawn, and a wave of anxiety drags me from bed. I need to run. To pump my legs until my heart wants to explode and my chest burns with the lack of oxygen. To abuse my body until I forget these past few days ever happened. I pull on running shorts and a T-shirt and grab my phone from the nightstand. A hundred and twenty-seven messages. I scroll through the texts and emails, variations of the same message. OMG, so shocking. Anything I can do to help? Thoughts and prayers, thoughts and prayers. Im pleased that the tide hasnt turned, but Im not naive enough to know that it wont. Ingrid is probably out there right now, alerting the world of the two-hour hole in my day. It wont be long until she tells the press, too. I peel the shade from an upstairs window and take a peek outside. Reporters stand in clumps on my front lawn, drinking coffee and shooting the shit like my life is a fucking happy hour. The Arkansas sun beats down on their heads and reflects off the pavement behind them like water. Good. I hope theyre roasting out there. Downstairs in the kitchen, I inspect the contents of the fridge, searching for breakfast. Leftover pizza, a half-empty pack of eggs, some fuzzy cheese and a gallon of spoiled milk. Sabine didnt spend any of the time I was out of town at the grocery store, and why would she? My trip to Florida was like a birthday, anniversary and Christmas rolled into one, four whole days of unmonitored time with her lover. They probably spent every free second together, especially since his wife moved out. No nagging spouses at home, asking whats for dinner. I grab the eggs and slam the refrigerator door. If Im going to hide out here all weekend, I need to go to the store. Tension creeps into my shoulders at the thought of backing my car through the throng of reporters. Maybe I should talk to a lawyer. Get him to chase them off with the threat of a lawsuit, and while Ive got him, ask what the implications might be now that Detective Durand knows about the unaccounted-for patch in my Wednesday. Then again, what is the detective going to do, arrest me? He cant do that without evidence, without a body. A two-hour window doesnt make me a murderer. Im cracking the last of the eggs into a pan when the doorbell rings, and I check the window by the garage. Somehow, my brother Derrick has managed to plow his Camaro past the reporters, and now hes out there, preening for their cameras. Shit. I drop the blinds and return to the eggs, watching them pop and hiss in the pan. To open or not to open, that is the question. The doorbell rings again, four quick punches followed by a fist pounding on the door. Come on, Jeffrey. I know youre in there. Its me, Derrick. Let me in. I poke at the eggs with a fork. Letting him in would mean uncorking a spiky, barbed ball of age-old grievances and passive-aggressive rage. Derrick resents me for my job, my house, my wifeha! jokes on memy car and my clothes, the inch-and-a-half height I have on him, even though hes the older brother. I resent him for the way he tortured me at school, bullying me with taunts and ridicule and once, a wedgie delivered in front of the entire football team. We are like Mentos and Cokeput us in a container together and its not long before we explode. I hear him clomping up the steps to the back door. He finds the spare key Sabine hid under the flowerpot and slides it in the lock. Theres a whoosh of sliding glass, a roar of rushing water, and a few seconds later, hes standing in my kitchen. Didnt you hear me? he says, tossing the key onto the kitchen counter. Ive been banging on your door. My brother is his usual, slouchy self. Faded and ripped T-shirt, cutoff jeans, flip-flops. Derrick is the high school star quarterback who never made it off the bench in college. He flunked out sophomore year, and his life has been shit ever since. I heard you. What are you doing here? Not the nicest greeting, but considering our relationship, not the worst one I could give him, either. I figured you could use the moral support, but I can just as soon go back home. He hikes a thumb over his shoulder, but its all for show. His soles are superglued to the hardwood. So I guess your wife finally had enough of you, huh? Youre a real dick, you know that, right? Jesus, chill out, will you? Im only kidding. He moves farther into the room, taking a look aroundkind of like that detective did in my foyer. Like hes cataloging all the things he cant afford and silently judging me for them. He whips off his shades and hangs them from the collar of his shirt. Seriously, man. What can I do? Nothing. I turn back to the stove. Though I really appreciate you coming over to gloat and all, but you can go now. Derrick moves closer, his flip-flops slapping against his crusty heels. Im just trying to be helpful. Jeez. Why do you always have to be such a dickwad? I dont know. I guess it runs in the family. I thought maybe we could drive around and look for her or something. I toss the fork into the pan and flip off the gas. The eggs are burned, the edges brown and papery. I dump them, pan and all, into the sink. What, do you think shes just hanging out on a street corner or something, waiting for a ride? No, but maybe she drove that fancy car of hers into a ditch. Maybe she had a flat tire. Dont you watch the news, Derrick? They found her car at the Super1. It was abandoned. His eyes go wide, and he leans a hip against the granite. Holy shit, bro. That sounds serious. What do the cops think happened, that somebody took her? I yank open the refrigerator, pull out the pizza box from the night Sabine went missing. The crust is hard as dried dirt, the cheese an orange, rubbery blob. I pick up a piece and bite into it, and it tastes as disgusting as it looks. Im pretty sure they think that I took her, I say around the pizza. You? Have they lost their minds? Why would they think you took her? I stuff my mouth with another bite in lieu of answering. Answering would mean telling him about the backhand, her affair with the doctor, the missing two hours in my daynone of which I plan to share with my brother, ever. Derrick likes to pocket my shortcomings and failures, store them in his basement-brain like dormant Molotov cocktails. Weeks or months or years from now, when the rest of the world and I have moved on, hell toss one into a conversation just to see the fireworks. What about Ingrid? He helps himself to a slice of pizza, which he shoves in the microwave for a minute, and pulls a beer from the fridge. What about her? Come on, man. Stop being so difficult. What does she think happened? I sigh, sinking onto a counter stool. That heavy, sandbag feeling is back along with a knifepoint throbbing behind my eyes. Im pretty sure she thinks the same thing. He pops open the beer and tosses the top on the counter. Well, okay, who cares what that old hag thinks? The cops are the ones you need to convince. I roll my eyes, toss the bottle top and the rest of my pizza slice into the trash. Youre a motherfucking genius, Derrick. You really are. Convince the cops I didnt do it. Why didnt I think of that? Im serious, J. I know a guy who works for Century 21, and hes always talking about the crazies who wander into his open houses. Mostly people come for the free snacks or to take a dump in the powder room, but just last month, some asshat pulled out a gun. Took my friends wallet, his watch, the keys to his car. Sabines hot. Its not unimaginable somebody saw her and got the wrong idea. I know. Ive been telling her that for ages. The microwave dings, and he reaches in for the pizza, then snatches his hand back with a hiss. He rips a paper towel from the roll and tries again. And what about those gangs over on the east side? All those break-ins on Cherry Street arent for nothing, you know. Those little shits are taking over the city. Its only a matter of time before they move their territory up this way. Maybe it was them. Maybe, I say, because for once my brother is not wrong. The gangs are taking over the city, and thanks to the soaring unemployment, the poverty, the crappy schools graduating illiterate halfwits without a single marketable skill, there are fewer and fewer people here to stop them. What used to be a hardworking American metropolis now has the dubious honor of being one of the most dangerous cities in America, second only to Detroit. The smart folks have all moved away. Maybe I should join them. He folds the slice in half, and orange oil spurts onto his hand, dripping down his fingers and onto the floor. Im just saying there are a million people it couldve been. Seems to me the cops are being lazy, focusing only on you. Dont let yourself be an easy target. Show em its not always the husband. He shoves half the pizza in his mouth in one giant bite. A long strand of melted cheese dangles from his chin like a worm, but for the first time in well, ever, I dont gripe at him for the mess. My idiot, dickhead brother has a point. I have let myself be the easy target. I pluck my phone from the countertop, pull up a number I once knew by heart. After two rings, a familiar voice hits my ear. Its about time, she says. Ive only been leaving you messages all over town. Amanda Shephard steps through my front door, looking just like she did in high school. Blonde, thin, a complicated sort of prettybig lashes and acrylic nails and long, heat-curled hair. Her face is caked under a layer of makeup Ive never seen her without, not even the summer before senior year when our entire class spent every day bobbing in blow-up tubes on the river. All the other girls had shiny cheeks pink from the sun, but Amandas makeup was like a mask, flawless and impenetrable. She pulls me into a perfumed hug. Oh, Jeffrey, you poor, poor thing. Her voice echoes in my foyer, loud and consoling in a way that makes it feel exactly the opposite. Its her television voice, the one shes cultivated for her show, Mandy in the Morning, a local daily featuring all things mundane and ridiculous. I extricate myself and give her a tight-lipped smile. How are you doing? How are you holding up? Are you eating at all? I think of the eggs in the sink, the pizza I shoved out the door along with my brother, right before she got here. A little. If I had known, I would have made you a casserole. She waves a manicured hand through the air and laughs. Oh, who am I kidding? We both know I cant cook. I would have ordered you some Chinese takeout or something. Anyway, Im so glad you called. Thank you. And please, I say, gesturing toward the living room. Make yourself at home. In the sixty minutes it took her to get over here, I cleaned up the place. I dusted and fluffed all the pillows, and I exchanged my running shorts for a pair of khaki slacks and a navy polo over loafers. Nothing too fancy. I dont want her to think Im trying too hard. She steps into the room and gasps, making a beeline to the wall of windows. She stops just beyond the desk, standing before a sheet of glass lit up by the sun. It turns her hair iridescent and makes the fabric of her dress float like a wispy cloud around her bodya cloud that is more than a little see-through. Well, well, well. Amanda Shephard is wearing a lacy red thong. Youre so close to the river, she says without turning. Like the house is floating on top of it or something. I know. The view is stunning. Yes. It is. She presses a hand into the glass, and the sun turns her skin to fire. Amanda is conventionally beautiful, but up to now, Ive never found her all that attractive. Too processed, too high maintenance. But standing here, in my cheating wifes house, Im beginning to see another side of Amanda. The side that would make a spectacular revenge fuck. I clear my throat. The view is what sold us on the house. Turns every window into a piece of artwork. Did you know the river changes colors, depending on the weather and time of day? I didnt know that until I got to look at it every day. She smiles over her shoulder. Well, Jeffrey Hardison, you sensitive old dog, you. Next thing I know, youll be reading me poetry. At the south end of the river, a black search boat motors upstream, and multiple people lean over the sides, staring into the water. Do you mind if we get started? I say, pointing Amanda to the couch before she sees the boat. When were done here, I need to get over to the police station and see if theres any update about Sabine. I just came from there, actually. She wrinkles her nose, stepping away from the window. They wont tell me anything other than that Sabines car showed up at the Super1, which in all honesty tells me nothing. Who are the suspects? What are the clues? The people of Pine Bluff deserve to know the truth, Jeffrey. I agree. She sinks onto one of the twin three-seaters, and I choose the one opposite her. The search boat has stopped in the middle of the river, the flashlights all trained to one spot. I watch as a man in full diving gear slips over the side. I really wish youd have let me bring the cameras, Amanda says, dragging a voice recorder from her bag. I shake my head. Theres an orchid in the air between us, and I shove it to the opposite end of the table. I already told you, I cant say or do anything that might get in the way of the police investigation. She freezes, one arm stretched halfway to the coffee table. So this is off-the-record then? She straightens, holds up the recorder. Can I even use this thing? I lean back in my chair and pretend to consider it. Amanda loses patience after only a second or two. You called me here for a reason, Jeffrey. Stop playing around and tell me what it is. Fine. I called you here because I want you to help me set the record straight. The thing is, Ive seen this movie, and I know how it ends. With the husband serving twenty to life. Only the guilty ones. She says it teasingly, playfully, letting it hang with obvious implication. Come on, Amanda. Weve known each other for whatfifteen, twenty years? She purses her glossed lips. I wont tell if you dont. Behind her crossed legs, a stealthy thumb presses down on the record button. I pretend that I dont notice. Long enough for you to know what I am and what Im not capable of. I may be a dick at times, but I am not the kind of guy who makes his estranged wife go missing. Im not a murderer. She tsks at the word estranged. Shelley McAdams is a friend of mine. Lets just say shes not taking it well. The doctors wife. At least Im not the only sucker. Yeah, well, no offense to Shelley, but shes one of the reasons I called you here. The police seem to be assuming this was a crime of passion, but Im not the only one with a motive. How do we know Shelley didnt. I dont know, seek out her own revenge? Because Shelley is in Chicago, interviewing divorce attorneys. Amanda flashes a sorry-but-Im-on-her-side smile. Dont be surprised if she gets full custody of the kids. Okay, so other people, then. You know the statistics on crime in this town. Sabine has money, shes gorgeous and shes often alone in some empty house. There are plenty of sickos out there. How do we know it wasnt one of them? Im sure the police are looking into it. No, theyre notthats the whole point. As far as I can tell, the only person the police are sniffing around is me. Then why dont you look into a camera and tell the world youre innocent? When I dont respond, she adds, If youre nervous, if you need some media coaching, I can help you get some. Its not that hard. Im not nervous. I just think what I have to say would mean so much more coming from someone whos not me. What do you have to say? I have.information about my wife. Information that coming from me would sound.suspicious. Coming from you, however, it would be news. Amanda straightens in importance at the last word, just like I knew she would. Amanda longs to be seen as a real journalist. She spends a lot of time online, promoting the newsworthiness of her show on social media, defending it from people who dismiss it as fluff. Calling her a journalist is like handing her a Pulitzer. It validates her. How about this? I swing my ankle over a knee, sinking deeper into the couch. You put that recorder of yours onto the table, and Ill talk into it and tell you what I know. When were done, if you like what I have to say and want me to say it all over again into a camera, we can talk about that, too. By now, Amanda is like a dog with a bone. Ive given her one with just enough meat that theres no way she will let it loose. But shes always been a bit of a drama queen, and she takes her time pretending to decide. Arms crossed, eyes narrowed, glossed lip working between her teeth. I settle in and indulge her theater. After a few seconds, she places the recorder on the table. Showtime. I walk her through what I know. That Sabine was there, in the Super1 lot, before she disappeared. That she left without her car and her burner phone, but with her iPhone, which the police have not been able to locate. That I was the one to sound the alarm, a few short hours after she was expected home. That Ive barely slept since. So what, then? Do you think someone took her? I shrug. Its possible, I guess. But there was no sign of struggle near her car, no blood on the ground or tire marks. If she got into someones car, Im guessing it was someone she knew. Then again, I think its much more possible she. I wince, looking down at the sisal carpet. Amanda scoots forward on the couch, leaning in. You think its more possible she what? I heave a full-body sigh. I feel like Im betraying Sabine by even bringing this up, but I also think if she were here, shed understand. The thing isand youre the first person Ive ever told this to, so please forgive me if I stumble over my wordsbut a little over two years ago, Sabine was going through a rough patch. Her mother has Alzheimers, and shed stopped recognizing Sabine. Not every time, but that first time was pretty devastating. On top of that, we heard the baby Sabine was carrying, the one wed spent a lot of money trying to conceive, didnt have a heartbeat. All that goes to say, things were really, really shitty. Amanda makes a sound of sympathy, but she waits for me to continue. After she lost that baby, its like she. I dont know, went to a place I couldnt follow. She stopped eating. She stayed in bed for days at a time. She was self-medicating, with alcohol and leftover painkillers and whatever else she could get her hands on before I flushed it all down the toilet. Then one day, she was fine. She got up, got dressed and went back to work like nothing had happened. She sold three houses that week and listed two more. I remember thinking thats how good a broker my wife is, that she can end three comatose weeks with deals totaling more than a million dollars. How did she do it? Amanda asks. I have no idea. It could have been a fluke, deals that she had been working on before the miscarriage that suddenly came through, I dont know. But the point is, I finally relaxed. I thought things were better, that she was better, and I stopped hovering so much. I pause, counting in my head to three. I shouldnt have stopped hovering. Amandas forehead crumples between perfectly sculpted brows. I dont understand. What does all of this have to do with what happened to Sabine? With wherever she is? Maybe nothing, maybe everything. I fill my lungs with breath, blow it slowly out. The vapid Amanda holds hers. What Im trying to say is, Sabine has done this before. Amandas eyes go wide. Youre not suggesting. I nod. Two years ago in November, the day after Thanksgiving, Sabine got on a bus and disappeared. BETH Early Monday morning, Martina shows up at my door fresh from the shower. Good morning! You look pretty. Lets carpool. Her face is bare, rosy cheeks and scrubbed skin, a fringe of dark lashes that doesnt need mascara. Two French braids snake around each ear and leave twin wet marks on her God Works Here T-shirt. The total effect is easy, youthful, adorable. I smile and reach for my keys. Good idea. Ill drive. But Ive already got mine. She holds her car keys up, jingles them in the air beside her face. Im a real backseat driver, I say, nudging her out of the way so I can step into the hall. You dont want me in your passengers seat, I promise. Ill only make you crazy, and besides, I like to drive. What I really like is to stay in control. No way Im strapping myself into somebody elses car and letting them steer me Lord knows where, not with every penny I own strapped to my middle. Im not about to relinquish my cash or my shiny new command on life that easily. At least behind the wheel of my own car, I am the one in charge. As long as things are on my terms, I wouldnt mind the company. Martina opens her mouth to argue, then becomes distracted by a door opening at the far end of the hall. Tom, the red-faced, sweaty guy who lives in the room across from mine, steps out of the bathroom in a puff of steam. Hes soaking from his three-minute session under the shower, water streaming in rivulets down his short, square body and onto the hallway runner. His hair, usually wrapped into a complicated comb-over thats not fooling anyone, hangs in thin strands onto his bare shoulders. Good morning, ladies, he says. You two are looking awfully spiffy today. Matching outfits, I like it. Better than his outfit, which is a tiny slip of ancient terry cloth slung low around his potbelly. It flaps open when he walks, providing intermittent views of something Im trying hard not to notice. Martina makes a face. Put some clothes on, Tom. Gotta dry off first. I thought thats what the towel was for. I make a sound in the back of my throat. Towel is a generous term. Nope. Towels for modesty. He stops at his door, giving us his hairy back while he works in his key. My body parts function best when they air-dry. You two have a good day, now. He steps inside and shuts the door. Martina turns to me with a concerned frown. Is that true? Am I supposed to be letting my parts air-dry? I laugh and head for the stairs. Come on. I dont want to be late. We run into Miss Sally in the hallway below, her hair wound around fat curlers the same hot pink as her silk robe, a floral kimono wrapped loosely around her body. It hangs open between her breasts, two jiggly mounds of flesh right at eye level. What is it with half-naked people in this place? Well, dont you two look like the Doublemint twins, she says, taking us in from head to toe. I see our Martina got you a job, huh? I glance at Martina, flashing her a smile. She did. For which I am forever grateful. Martina grins and bumps me with a shoulder. I hear good things about that place. A friend of mine goes there every Sunday. Sits front and center, right in front of the big cross. Hes been trying to get me to go, but I keep telling him not to bother. Miss Sallys gaze dips to my chest, and the text written across my shirt. Unlike your souls, Im pretty sure mine is doomed. Dont be fooled, I say, laughing. Im going to need more than a T-shirt to save my soul. Miss Sally laughs like were in on the same joke, even though all those things I used to believe about my inherent decency are no longer true. Ive lied, Ive cheated, and before this thing is through, I will have done much worse. Some might say that makes me just as bad as you, but I dont believe that. This is nothing like the times you held me down and spit in my face, punched me in the stomach so hard I stopped breathing, held my neck and tried to make me swallow a whole bottle of Ambien. I dont want to do these things, you told me after every instance. It must be you. You are the one who brings this out in me. I wouldnt be like this if you were a different woman. What Im doing is self-defense. For me, this is survival. We say our goodbyes to Miss Sally and head out the door. Sometime during the night, clouds rolled in, bringing with them a humidity that makes it feel like were walking through water, the air so thick it has a weight to it. The inside of the Buick is even worse. The dampness has seeped through the cracks in the windows and turned the upholstery clammy. We sink onto it, and it belches up a bouquet of scents Ive not noticed before, none of them pleasant. Cigarettes and body odor and something sour and rotten, like spoiled milk. I start the engine and hit the buttons for the windows to air out the stink. Sweet ride, Martina says, sliding her hand up and down the armrest, and I wonder if shes messing with me. Either way, it doesnt make me any more eager to ride in her car. I pull up the map app on my phone, and Martina waves it away, directing me out of the neighborhood. She chatters as we wind our way through streets that are already crowded with the morning rush, people like us going to work and school, and I wonder how we look to them. Normal, probably. Like one of them. Once were hurtling toward the highwaya route I recognizeshe settles back into her seat, kicking off her sneakers and swinging her feet up onto the dash. Her toenails are painted a bright metallic blue. So, whats the deal with you, anyway? The question is broad enough that it could refer to any number of things. I glance over, trying to judge which one, but Martinas profile doesnt give anything away. She points at the light and says, Green. I look both ways, then tentatively press on the gas. Whats the deal with me, how? Well, you insist on driving, even thoughand no offenseyoure not very good at it. You have nightmares almost every night. Screaming nightmares, and yes, everybody at Morgan House hears you. Theyre all talking about it. And any time anyone asks you anything even remotely personal, you mumble something vague and change the subject. You wont even tell me where youre from. Im from Oklahoma. Its a lie, but it matches the cars plates so what the hell. Where in Oklahoma? A town nobodys ever heard of. That, at least, is the truth. Except when it comes to crime rates, Pine Bluff isnt exactly on anyones radar. A town Im trying really hard to forget, I add, trying to shut down this line of questioning. Martina shrugs. Were all running from something, but if were going to be friends, youve got to at least give me something. Thats how this works, you know. You tell me something about yourself, and I tell you something about me. Shes right, of course. That is how friendship works, though Im not sure friendship is the goal herefor either of us. It certainly wasnt Martinas goal when she pocketed Jorges kickback without a word to me about it. And yet. God, what would it be like to make a friend in this place? In this city? Someone to laugh and share jokes with, a ride or die like the ones I used to have, before you drove a wedge into every single one of my friendships. I like Martina, and the truth is, I could really use a friend. I told you where I was from, she reminds me. I even told you about my crack-whore mom, and I never tell anybody about her. The least you can do is share a truth about yourself. Truth. The word strikes me as funny, and I bite down on a laugh, a big belly guffaw. What truth? So far, neither one of us has been willing to take that first leap and share something completely honest, and Im sure as hell not going to be the first. This new life, for as long as it lasts, depends on me telling no one the details of my past. I take a left up the ramp to I-75, which looks like a parking lot. A bumper-to-bumper sea of red brake lights. Exhaust shimmers in the air, undulating waves rising up like heat. I slow to a stop behind a souped-up truck and twist on my seat to face her. You told me you were born at Grady Hospital but in an accent that sounds like it came from Mexico. You basically admitted you were Jorges client, too. To be perfectly honest, Im not sure I believe half the stuff that comes out of your mouth. What does an American-born citizen need from a guy like Jorge other than kickbacks? She frowns. What does that mean, kickback? Like when he paid you a commission for sending me to him. Thats a kickback. And speaking of kickbacks, a real friend would have told me about it, or maybe even shared it. Friends dont use other friends to try to make a buck. What are you talking about? I didnt earn a commission from Jorge. Who told you I did? The truck in front of us rolls a few feet forward, and so do I, nudging the nose into traffic. Jorge told me. He said hed pay fifty bucks for anyone I sent him. What? Fifty dollars. Her cheeks flush and her eyes squeeze into a squint. Per person? I nod. Oh no. She shakes her head, hiking up on a hip. Oh hell no. Spouting a steady stream of angry, staccato Spanish, she wriggles her phone from her back pocket and stabs at the screen with a finger. I pick up a few choice wordsputa, cojones, mierdawhile the speaker burps a rhythmic tone. A few seconds later, Jorge answers with a curt Yeah? She switches to English, her words high and clipped. Jorge, Martina. Whats this I hear about a commission? His voice bursts from the phone speaker. Who tell you that? Beth. You offered her one when Ive sent you what, ten people at least? Dont tell me, all those checks must have gotten lost in the mail. Is that right? Jorges pause is two seconds too long. Commission is new. Just started. Uh-huh. Martina looks at me, rolls her eyes. The first wave of guilt rolls through me, nibbling its way across my stomach. This is some serious bullshit, Jorge. You owe me like three hundred bucks. Okay, okay. I pay you next time. No, you listen to me. There wont be a next time, not until I get that money you owe me. Do you understand what Im telling you? Not one more person until you pay. Theres another long pause, then a sigh. Fine. Fine, Martina barks back, then disconnects the call. She drops it on her lap with an angry squeal. I cant believe he did that to me. What a snake. What a dirty, disgusting snake. Guilt flares, heating me from the inside out. If anyones a snake here, its me. I wrap both hands around the wheel and wince. I just assumed he offered you the same deal he did with me, Martina. I never even considered. I shake my head, glancing over. I feel like such a shit. She brushes away my apology with a wave of her hand. Youre not the shit. Jorge is the shit. Hes the one Im mad at, not you. Still. Im really, really sorry. At my apology, her anger vanishes as quickly as it appeared. She turns to me, and her smile is big and real. See? This is what friends do. We apologize. We forgive, and then we do better the next time. If you have a problem, you come to me and well talk about it, okay? I nod. Okay. Great. So now its my turn. She inhales, long and deep through her nose, then blows it out in one giant huff. Okay. Fine. I dont like the way you look at me sometimes. How do I look at you? Like you think Im about to tackle you. Like you think Im after however much is in that thing hanging at your waist. But I wouldnt do that to you. She points a finger at my face, wags it in the air between us. You and I, we are friends, and I wouldnt hurt a friend that way, Beth. I wouldnt. She says it just like thatlike its decided, like its a fact. She is to be trusted. We are to be friends. She holds me in her brown stare for a few more seconds, and I cant deny her message tugs at something inside me. The thing is, I like Martina. Even though I havent believed much of what shes told me so far, I think this might be the nugget of truth I was searching for. I was wrong about her dealings with Jorge. Maybe I was wrong to be suspicious of her, too. I believe you, I say, and God help me, I mean it. I believe Martina when she says she wouldnt take my money. I just pray its not a mistake. The car behind me leans on the horn, and I press the gas and slide forward, smiling. The truth is, its nice to have a friend. Unexpected. But nice. Martina tells me shes twenty-eight as we work our way through the nave of the church later that morning, stacking Bibles and hymnals in the cubbies between the seats, dropping in bulletins for the evening service. Her family has either died or moved away, all except for a younger half brother, Carlos, a boy half her age about to start high school at Gradywhich I gather is a different place than the hospital where she claims to have been born. The two share a father, a deadbeat drifter who last she heard was playing drums in dives up and down the West Coast. Carloss mother is kind of a bitch, but she doesnt drink or forget to buy groceries, and in Martinas mind, that more than makes up for any snarky remarks. Martina talks and talks, a constant stream of words to plug the silence, and I dont interrupt. As long as shes the one talking, I dont have to do anything but listen. As were nearing the last row of a section, I step on something hard and lumpy. I reach down, pick up a babys pacifier. Its grubby and cracked, the pink face missing its ring. Should I throw this thing away? I say, holding it up. Martina takes it from my fingers, tosses it into an empty box. We never throw away anything here, ever. We take it to lost and found. Not that anybody will ever come looking for an old piece of plastic, but its not up to us. You never know what youll find. Phones, keys, gum wrappers and Lord knows what else. Once I found a diamond earring. A real one, too. How do you know it was real? Have you seen the people who come in this place? She snorts. It was definitely real. I think of Charlene, the blonde receptionist I met my first day here, with her silky dress and sparkly jewelry, and I dont argue. Anyway, waitll you see this place tomorrow morning, after the Reverend packs the house here tonight. There are eight thousand seats in this place, eight thousand bodies, and at least half of them drop crap out of their pockets for us to pick up. I reach inside a box for a fresh stack of bulletins. This place is nothing like the church I used to go to. As soon as I say the words, I wish I could snatch them back. Not that Martina seems to notice my accidental sharing. She picks up a piece of trash from the floor, tosses it into the box and moves farther down the line. Have you ever gone to one of the Reverends services? She nods. Whats it like? The services are cool. Very happy-clappy, if you know what I mean, but the music steals the show. Its like going to a concert or something. It makes the hour fly by. We can stay tonight if you want to, but I say we wait until Wednesday. Why, what happens on Wednesday? The Reverend puts on a buffet dinner after the services. Fried chicken, lasagna, mashed potatoes, more food than youve ever seen. And you should see those hoity-toity types tear into that buffet like they havent eaten for days. They hover around the tables with their plates while the Reverend blesses the food, and his Amen is like the shot of a starting pistol. They dive into that food like.like what are those people in the Bible with the famine? Canaanites? Yeah, them. Anyway, if we stay for the service and then help clean up afterward, we get to eat as much as we want, and the Reverend pays overtime. Overtime and a free meal, the two magic words. I nod, decision made. Lets wait till Wednesday then. I look to Martina for confirmation, but shes looking over my shoulder. Her spine straightens, and her brows slam together. What the hell are you doing here? I turn to see a womanno, a girlcoming down the aisle toward us. Shes somewhere around sixteen or seventeen, though shes helped along by her height, six feet and then some. Her skin is bronze and her hair is natural, a wild crown of curly ringlets over high cheekbones and big green eyes. Shes dressed like us, in the same khaki pants and God Works Here T-shirt, only hers are skintight, her shirt knotted on the side to reveal a seductive slice of coppery skin. She moves closer, and I see that shes biting back a smirk. I work here. Whatre you doing here? Martina shakes her head, and her hands tighten into fists. You cant work here. I work here. Well I do. The girl says it short and matter-of-fact. Here I am. Wheres the Reverend? Martina pushes past, almost mowing me over in her hurry into the opposite aisle. I need to find the Reverend. The girl rolls her eyes. What are you going to tell him, that you stole my money? At the accusation, Martina does an about-face, arms slinging in fury. I press myself to the chairs and get out of her way. I already told you, she shouts, I didnt take your goddamn money. I didnt even know you had any until you accused me of taking it. And its not like it was your cash to begin with. That hooker you stole it from probably just came back to claim what was hers. Theyre making a lot of noise, too much. I check behind us, scanning the rows of empty chairs, but as far as I can tell, theres nobody else here. Still. I wish they would stop yelling and cussing. The girl purses her lips. That hooker did come back, and so did her pimp. Do you know what they do to people who take their money? Youre lucky they didnt kill me. What is that, some kind of threat? Because I didnt take your stupid money, and if you know whats good for you, you wont make me say it again. Martinas accent is full-on south of the border now, all rolling Rs and short, staccato spurts. The girl lifts a brow. Your Mexican is showing. With a squeal, Martina rears back an arm, her hand squeezed into a hard fist, and I hook my hand in her elbow right before she punches the girl in the face. The move is not entirely unselfish. I like to stay out of catfights as a general rule, but seeing as Martina is the one who got me this gig, Im thinking its better to stop this one before any blood is spilled. Im too new to have established a good reputation yet. What reflects badly on Martina reflects badly on me, too. I plant my body between the two women, holding up a hand in both directions. Both of you, see that cross up there? Either shut up or take it outside. Martina opens her mouth to protest, but I beat her to it. This isnt the time or the place. She shuts up. The tall girl, too. They glare over my head at each other while Martina does a deep-breathing technique, less meditation and more trying not to explode. I open my mouth to speak, but its the Reverends voice that rings out. There you are, he says, and the three of us freeze. Footsteps sound to my left, and I turn to see him walking across the stage. He stops under a stage light, the skin of his forehead shining like wet glass. Particles of dust dance in the air above him, suspended in the beam of light. Oh good, I see youve already met Ayana. Martina tosses me a panicked glance. How much did he hear? But the Reverends a good fifty feet away, and he has to raise his voice to be heard. He watches us with a benevolent smile. If you dont mind, Id like you to work upstairs today, in the administrative offices, he says, and I dont know which one of us hes talking to. I nod, but Martina frowns. What happened to Oscar? Oscar is the unofficial head of the cleaning crew, an ancient, gnome-like man who, according to his hunched back and knobby, arthritic fingers, is somewhere between eighty and a hundred and fifty. As far as I can tell, his sole responsibility is pushing a rag over the desks in the administrative offices and shooting the shit with anybody who wanders through. Any other person could do it in half the time, but in this place, seniority comes with the benefit of a cushy job. Oscar had to go to Florida, to visit his ailing mother. Hes asked us to keep her in our prayers. I make a sound of sympathy, even though Im thinking, Oscars mother is still alive? Do you think you could take over, just until Oscar returns from his trip? Of course, Reverend, Martina says, volunteering in her best Southern Belle accent. Beth and I will be happy to help. The Reverend leans back on his heels, his gaze flitting to Ayana, looking at her like shes a child who wasnt chosen for the party. Maybe you can take Ayana, too. Introduce her around. Show her the ropes. Martina falls silent, and an angry flush climbs up her neck. I smile up the stage at the Reverend. Not a problem. Wed be glad to. Excellent. Well.see yall upstairs, I guess. And thank you. Im so happy that God brought the three of you to me. I am blessed beyond measure. He drops his hands in his pockets and wanders off, leaving the three of us standing in the aisle. As soon as hes gone, Martina swirls to face Ayana. Swear to God, if you so much as look at me wrong, Im telling the Reverend what you did. What did she do? I say. I cant help it. Now I want to know. Ayana folds her arms across her chest, her gaze dipping to Martinas collarbones. Pretty necklaces. Howd you pay for them? Martinas face blooms bright purple, two matching spots on each cheek. She sputters something that would make Jesus blush, then turns and stalks up the aisle. I look at Ayana, and shes smiling. JEFFREY PDK Workforce Solutions is housed in the center of a shabby strip mall on Sheridan Road, sandwiched between a consignment shop and a serve-yourself yogurt place on the brink of bankruptcy. The parking lot is mostly empty. Im one of the first ones here, thanks to the early bird reporters who dragged me from a dead sleep, rumbling up in their noisy vans and calling out greetings like miners punching in at the quarry. So far, they havent followed me here, though I figure Ive only got another day or two before they line up on the sidewalk outside. My boss, Eric, will lose his mind. Inside the glass door, Florence is parked behind the receptionists desk, slurping from a foam jug of Diet Coke she refills at the doughnut shop across the lot a couple of times a day. I have no idea what she does here. Up until a few years ago, she was more than happy being a housewife, and then her husband died and she needed something to keep her busy. She actually used those words on her application; I know, because Ive seen it. Eric is such a slouch that he hired her anyway. She sees me and her eyes go wide. Oh, Jeffrey, you poor, poor dear. I heard about Sabine on the evening news. She rushes around her desk to pull me into a hug. What is the proper amount of time to stand here while a colleague holds you in her wrinkly arms? I count to three, then extricate myself. Thank you, Florence. She smells like cigarettes and Oil of Olay, and now so do I. I appreciate your concern. I just cant believe it. Shes really gone? Do the police have any leads at all? Its the question I tried to ignore all weekendfrom the reporters swarming outside my windows, from friends and neighbors who blew up my phone, from my boss who texted me late last night suggesting I take the week off. Every time, the questions hit me like a brick. Are there any leads? I have no fucking idea. The search for Sabine has fizzled, the volunteers have washed the mud off their shoes and returned home to their families and their lives. For police, the investigation has morphed from find her to solve the case, though theyre holding developments tight against their Kevlar chests. If there are any leads, if Detective Durand has found so much as a hair from Sabines head, hes not shared the information with me. I havent spoken to him since Saturday afternoon, when he stopped by the house to pick up Sabines computer. Part of me wonders if hes keeping me in the dark because I am a suspect, and the other part already knows the answer. And so I spent the weekend on the couch, monitoring news of the search on my laptop while a constant stream of Netflix blared on the TV. Most of what I found was a rehashing of old facts or tabloid hacks spinning rumors into conjecture, into motive. That Sabine was taken. That she was killed, by a stranger or her lover or me, in a fit of jealous rage. That she made a break for it, sneaked out of town on purpose. That last rumor was the result of my calling Amanda, of parking her on my sofa for an uncensored airing of Sabines dirty laundry. The reality of last years disappearing act was only a little less dramatic than I made it sound. Sabine really did board a busheaded west, I later learnedbut she didnt make it very far. Halfway to the Oklahoma border, she received a call from the nursing home that her mother had suffered a fall. She was home before any of us noticed she was gone. But the point is, she intended to leave. She tried to sneak off, and for once without telling her sister. If her mother hadnt tripped over her own two feet, who knows how long she would have stayed gone. So now the seed has been planted. Sabine is unstable. She has a history of running off. The husband is innocent. All I can do now is sit back and watch it grow. I sneak a quick glance at my watch. Mandy in the Morning starts in less than an hour. Im starting to think the police are not very competent, I say to Florence, shaking my head. She makes a face, and she swats my bicep with a crepey hand. Well, of course theyre not. My house was broken into last year, and they did nothing. They didnt even come by to see the busted-up door or dust for prints. I had to go all the way over to the station just to file a police report. Their excuse was that the gangs on the east side were keeping them too busy for common house thieves, but I was like, well, who the hell do you think did this? Of course it was the gangs. I make a sympathetic sound, even though shes spouting nonsense. The gangs are a problem, yes, but theyre slinging dope, not breaking into old ladies houses to steal their tchotchkes. But Florence has always been brilliant at this, at flipping any conversation back to her and her own piddling problems. I mumble some excuse about a conference call and head down the hall. The office is quiet for a Monday morning, a few minutes before opening time. No phones ringing, no clacking keyboards, no voices muffled behind cubbies and walls. Eric must not be here yet, otherwise hed be shouting out orders from his office at the end of the hall. Make some calls! hell yell whenever the office gets too quiet, Send out some emails! As if selling his crappy software is as easy as making first contact, but I guess hes right to complain. A silent sales office is not a productive one. I slip into my office and shut the door, going through my normal morning routine. Power up the computer, plow through my email inbox. Delete, delete, delete, ignore. A knuckle raps against wood, and a second later, the door pops open. Erics head pokes around the corner. What are you doing here? I lean back in my chair, eyeing him over the top of the computer screen. Eric is dressed in his usual gearpastel button-down, lightly rumpled khakis, suede saddle bucks. He looks like a frat boy playing boss man. Working. His brows slide into a frown. I thought I told you not to come in. No, you told me to take however much time I need, but I dont need time. I need to work. That mailing I did last month is finally starting to bear fruit, and I have a million things to do. This place is set up for a roving sales department, with company-issued laptops and a VPN that can be accessed from the road. Both of us know I could just as easily work from home as from here. Easier, probably, because I could do it without ever leaving my bed. He glances into the hallway, and I catch a flash of something in his expressionsurprise? annoyance?before he looks back at me and steps inside. He shuts the door behind him. Jeffrey, people are starting to talk. What people? He makes an are-you-kidding-me face, a minuscule lifting of his shoulders. The point is Who, Eric? What are they saying? I know what theyre saying. Sabine cheated. She was in love with another man. Jeffrey Hardison is a fool. A stooge. A sucker. My desk phone buzzes, and I tap the Do Not Disturb button. The system flips the call through to voice mail. People are worried about your wife, Jeffrey, Eric says evenly. Theyre worried about you. His words toss yet another coal onto my belly-fire. I slam both fists onto my desk and lean in. Theyre worried? How do you think I feel? Today is day six. Six days since Sabine went wherever she went, and theres still no sign of her. The police think I stop myself just in time. I inhale long and slow, trying to put a damper on my tone, on my temper. This whole situation is crazy intense. Ive barely slept. Ive lost my appetite. You cant even imagine the stress Im under. I can imagine. Which is why I suggested you take some time off. Nobody expects you to be here, least of all me. I choke up a chuckle, an attempt to laugh it off. I gotta tell you, Eric, I never thought Id hear you tell me Id done enough work. I thought your motto was more is more. I barely know what to do with this laid-back version of you. He doesnt share my joviality, not even a little bit. The silence stretches, long and painful. He leans a shoulder against the door. Are you really going to make me say it? I cross my arms, lean back in my chair. Wait. He sighs, stepping to the edge of my desk. Look, if it was just the staff talking, thatd be one thing, but the clients are starting to ask questions, and not just of me. Theyre talking to each other, and already the gossip is swirling out of control. I cant have potential customers getting wind of this. Business is already bad enough. I clear my throat. So this suggestion of yours for me to take some time off. It wasnt a suggestion, really? More like an order? Both. Are you firing me? He lifts both hands into the air, frustrated. Come on, you know I cant do that. We work in HR, for craps sake. Theres a knock at the door, which we both ignore. Im placing you on paid leave so you can go home and worry about your wife in private. Just until this thing blows over. I take a deep breath. Sit here calmly, at my desk across from him, while his words boil under my skin. Until this blows over. Meaning what, until Sabine is found safe and sound, and Im proven innocent? Or that Im carted out of here in handcuffs and he has reasonable grounds to fire me? Which one? Theres another knock, this time louder. More forceful. Florences voice works its way through the wood. Jeffrey? I tried to call but your phone is on DND. I roll my eyes, but Erics gaze doesnt waver. Are we agreed? he says, his voice low and filled with meaning. I give him a brisk nod: fine. In fact, fuck this place. A paid vacation sounds like just what the doctorNope, not going there. Fuck Trevor, and fuck Eric, too. Eric steps back and opens the door, and Florence swipes the air with a knobby fist. She sees him, and her arm falls to her side. Oh. Her gaze bounces from Eric to mine. I didnt mean to interrupt. Sorry. My jaw aches from the pressure creeping up my neck and shoulders, from keeping my molars clamped together. Of course she meant to interrupt, every time she banged on my door as well as however many times she tried to call. The Do Not Disturb button exists for a reason. Its fine, Florence, Eric says. Jeffrey and I were done. Florences gaze cuts me like a knife fresh from the freezer. Theres a detective here to see you. MARCUS Jeffreys office smells like coffee and expensive cologne, but it cant disguise the stink of his panic when I step through his door. I thank the receptionist and his boss, close the door in their faces. I picture them standing on the other side, pressing their ears to the wood. A detective dropping by an office for an unexpected visit is always a showstopper. They were equal parts captivated and horrified. He watches me sink into one of the chairs across from his desk, trying to read my expression, but I dont give anything away. Let him sweat. I toss my bag and keys on the chair next to me, settling in like Im planning to stay awhile. Thanks for squeezing me in. Im sure you must be very busy. I take in the PDK poster on the wall, his whiteboard messy with sales numbers and scribbled reminders, the Every day Im hustlin desk plaque on the edge of his desk. What is it you do here exactly? PDK Workforce Solutions provides an interactive human resources management software that helps grow your business. Recruitment, performance management, workflow, things like that. Honestly? He lowers his voice to a stage whisper. Dont buy it, its a little buggy. I watch him without even a shadow of amusement. Do I need a lawyer? he blurts out before he can stop himself. His nerves are making him restless and blunt. Do you want one? Now Im amused. A smile sneaks out before I can stop it. That depends on what youre here to ask me. You want to see my list of questions? I point to the pad balanced on a thigh. Not sure you can read my handwriting, though. My wife seems to be about the only one on the planet who can. He doesnt respond, and I drop my hand. How about I just read em off to you one by one, and you tell me when I hit the magic button. Whatever remnants of the smile from his mocking of PDKs buggy software disappears. Why dont you just tell me what I can do for you, Detective. I flip through the pages of my notebook. As you know, weve been combing through the files on Sabines laptop, and we found a couple of things Im hoping you can clear up for us. Like her bank accounts, for example. His shoulders drop a good inch in relief. This is a question he thinks he knows the answer to. I assume youre not asking about our joint accounts. I dip my chin in a nod. Correct. Which one? She has three in her name only. The mortgage account, a checking and a debit Mastercard. Those last two are business accounts, by the way. I dont really have much knowledge of them, other than to help her file her taxes. Im referring to her savings accounts, actually. The two money markets, and the investment account. Jeffrey goes completely still. He gave me Sabines computer, but not before combing through it. He would have been a fool not to. But these accounts werent on that Excel file she maintained. They werent anywhere. I only know of their existence because Ingrid told me. You look surprised, I say, trying not to sound satisfied. His answer comes through gritted teeth. Since when? I consult the papers on my lap. Well, lets see. The money markets are from early January and end of March, 2013. The investment account is more recent, December of last year. Together the accounts add up to a grand total of $379,385.29, give or take, but you know how those investment portfolios go. The value changes faster than you can add up the numbers. He doesnt respond, but I see the thoughts rolling through his mind as clearly as if they were written in the air. Sabine has almost $400K squirreled away in accounts she never told him about. In accounts she hid from him. For years. I can see you need a minute to process this, so lets come back to it in a little bit. In February of last year, you transferred your share of ownership at 4538 Belmont Drive to your wife, and over the course of the next sixteen months, the monthly mortgage payment has been coming from her salary, not yours. He shrugs as nonchalantly as he can. Sabine makes a lot more money than I do. If youve been through the accounts, you know how much more. It only seemed fair. Was this her idea or yours? I dont remember who suggested it, but Sabine was picking up the slack most months anyway. I didnt want it to become an issue between us. Was it ever? Was it ever, what? An issue. Because my wife and I, we just throw everything into one pot. But believe me, I get how money can become an issue, because she used to draw a salary. When she stopped working, she felt guilty spending the money in our account since I was the one who put it there. It took me a while to convince her that whats mine is hers and whats hers is mine. She contributes in other ways, you know? But to each his own, I guess. This is me playing good cop. The witty and lets-be-buddies cop. Judging from the way his eyes go dark and squinty, Jeffrey doesnt believe it for a second. Sabine and I went in another direction, but believe me when I say there are no hard feelings between us. I may live in our house rent free, but I pay the utilities and buy most of the groceries, as Im sure youve seen on the joint household account. Thats my contribution. Sounds like a good deal. Yes, he says, nodding. A good deal for both of us. I scribble some bullshit on the pad, then flip to the next page. Since Sabines disappearance, youve discovered she was having an affair. That must have been rough. He barks a sarcastic laugh. Rough is one way of putting it, I guess. Finding out about the affair was difficult, yes, it was hurtful, but was it surprising? Maybe not so much. The truth is, Sabine and I have been moving further and further apart for some time now. Im sure her sister, Ingrid, has told you as much. According to Dr. McAdams, it wasnt just an affair. He says the two are very much in love. That theyve been making plans to reorganize their lives so that they can be together. By planning to ditch their spouses, you mean. Yes, I know about that, too. Ingrid and Dr. McAdams both told me. According to the doctor, Sabine was also pregnant. Yeah, he told me the joyful news. He says it through curled lips, and with a tone like hed just stepped in dog shit. Howd that go over? I punched him, if thats what youre asking. But Id also caution him, before he gets too excited, to take a look at Sabines medical records. You think shes lying? I think he should take a look at her medical records. Out of respect for Sabines privacy, I dont want to say more. You werent respecting her all that much when you punched her in the face. His face goes white, then beet red, fury firing through his veins. He knows that little tidbit came from Ingrid. Its the same expression he used with her in my office. He stabs a finger on his desk. Okay, first of all, I did not punch her. Not even close. It was a light slap with the back of my hand, one I regretted as soon as it happened. Thats all it was. That must have been one hell of a slap. We were arguing. Things got heated. She shoved me. I slapped her. Afterward, we apologized, and that was that. We moved on. What were you arguing about? He lifts both hands in the air. I dont know, Detective. What does any married couple argue about? Taking out the trash, dirty clothes on the floor, using the last of the shampoo. Take your pick. Would you say youre a jealous man? He narrows his eyes. My wife is cheating on me, Detective. I think Im allowed to be jealous. But again, I didnt find this out until after she went missing. I shrug. Still. Your wife certainly had her secrets. Secret bank accounts, secret lover. I wonder what else she was keeping from you. I leave the question dangling, and he doesnt pick it up. Its something hes probably wondered a million times since finding out about the doctor, but what is it they say? Never ask a question you dont want the answer to. According to Ingrid, Sabine had consulted an attorney, I say, consulting my notepad. She was going to ask you For a divorce, I know. This past weekend, apparently. He leans back in his chair. Ingrid and Trevor told me that, too. I scratch at a cheek, watching him. Waiting. For the span of a good three breaths, maybe four. Jeffrey is the first to lose patience. What? Im just wondering what would happen. If shed gotten the chance to ask you for a divorce, I mean. Who would get the house? How would you split up your assets? Come on, Detective. We both know Id get the shitty end of the stick. But okay, Ill play this game. If Sabine and I got a divorce, Id probably move away. This is a dead-end job in a dead-end town. Id have better opportunities elsewhere. I nod, satisfied for now. Lets go back to the fight. After Sabine shoved you and you punched her Slapped, he says, his voice clipped. I slapped her. Not punched. Theres a big difference. After you slapped her, then what did you do? I apologized, of course. So did she. We put it behind us and moved on. But not before you had another heated exchange via text. He pales, his body twitching before he can stop it. What happened, did she lock herself in a bathroom and refuse to let you in? My wife does that sometimes, drives me up a tree. I can see how that might make you do things you might not otherwise do. Say things you might not otherwise say. A smart guy wouldnt have put it in writing, though. I pause, two seconds of silence that add weight to my next words. Give them extra meaning. Unless, of course, you meant what you said. A smart guy wouldnt have put it in writing, but hey, maybe hes that much of an idiot. I take in his expression, all slack chin and wide, wild eyes, and Im pretty sure he thinks hes that much of an idiot, too. I flip through my notepad until I find the single sheet of paper I tucked there, and then I slide it out and slap it to the desk. A printout of a text exchange, his and Sabines. I flip it around so he can see, but he doesnt glance down. He doesnt need to. He already knows what it says. Hes the chump who wrote the damn thing. Come out of there or I will fucking kill you. Mr. Hardison, do you own a weapon? Jeffrey owns a .357 Magnum, licensed and registered in his name. If he lies now, Ill have a warrant by the end of the day. He looks sick, like he might actually throw up, and my chest goes tingly and hot. Victory. I think its time I get an attorney.

  • The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts /   :    (by Gary Chapman, 2010) -   The Five Love Languages: The
  • Beauty and the Beast /    (by Walt Disney, 2001) -   Beauty and the Beast /
  • A Christmas Carol /    (by Charles Dickens, 1997) -    A Christmas Carol /
  • 12    .   .  .. 12  +8 CD (2015-2016) 12 .
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