My spirits fell faster than the plane as it descended toward the runway. Failure had not been a consideration when I left, fresh out of engineering school for a job with NASA. Then, I had soared to Houston on my dreams. Liz Crawford—small town Kentucky girl turned rocket scientist. Now, I was headed home, the fantasy ended by two long years at Gatesville.
The plane touched down and rolled to the gate. It was on time. I was two hours and forty-four minutes late, having missed my connection in Atlanta. I’d left that information for my sister, Sara, before I boarded. I called her again while I waited for the rows in front of me to clear. I got her voice mail this time, too.
“Hi. Liz again. It’s three-fifteen. Just landed, and I’m headed for baggage claim. Really looking forward to seeing you.” I tried to sound cheery, hoping it would be contagious.
Sara didn’t always pick up when she was peeved, like if she’d been at the airport for three hours, waiting. I sent a text, just in case, then retrieved my bag from the overhead bin and shuffled toward the exit, already questioning the wisdom of my decision to return.
Sara was not at the baggage carousels or in the pick-up area out front. I walked the length of the terminal and back, then stood at the curb, scanning approaching traffic for her truck. As my fellow travelers caught their rides, the vehicle flow petered out. I gave a weak smile to a security officer who held a watchful eye on me, and with a sigh, took a seat on my largest bag. Busy or upset, either way Sara would get done or get over it and come for me. Bluegrass Field was a small airport; I wouldn’t be hard to find.
Another rush of passengers arrived and departed. Sara hadn’t driven up or called or answered her phone. Even angry, it wasn’t her habit to ignore me. I sensed a different sort of problem had led to my abandonment—perhaps the rapture of a new boyfriend too hot to be left alone, or more likely, I feared, a late Friday that turned into Saturday and left her in no state to notice.
A familiar twinge of anxiety fluttered in my stomach. From her first breakup to her missed periods to her alcohol-induced blackouts, I’d spent my share of time fretting about Sara. I was older by five years and was supposed to look out for her. That’s what sisters do. The worrying part I was good at; actually helping her often seemed beyond my abilities. But that had never stopped me from trying.
An hour passed. My patience ebbed. I reluctantly punched my stepmother’s number. She was Sara’s mama, not mine, and although I called Sara my sister, I never referred to Carol as my mother. Put simply, we were not close and had not shared many conversations since my father died four years ago. We’d shared even fewer since I’d gone to prison. Still, Carol was the best person to help locate Sara. And finding her was essential: Sara’s apartment was to be my home, too, until I found a job.
Carol’s phone rang: nine times, ten, eleven. Pressure eased from the part of me that hoped she wouldn’t answer, and I could avoid the embarrassment.
My throat tightened at her voice as though a bucket of gravel had lodged there. I coughed, twice, before I could force out a word.
“Carol, it’s Liz.” I coughed again. “Sorry. I’m in Lexington. Sara had said she’d pick me up. Do you know where she is?”
There was a pause from Carol’s end.
“Sara didn’t mention you were coming. How are you?”
I might have owed her an honest answer, but I could not sum up my present status in a simple reply. I was thirty-one. Three years ago, I’d been an engineering manager on the fast track, so sure I would bust through the glass ceiling. Instead, I collided with the law, family loyalty, and the very real threat of retribution should I make the wrong choices. I’d spent the next two years in a Texas prison, the one following on parole. I’d lost my job and any chance for working again in my field. I had little money, few friends, and had just been stood-up by the sister who had been the cause of my downfall.
“Life’s what you make of it,” I said.
“I spoke with Sara on Thursday. She said she’d be over tomorrow with a surprise. I guess that would be you.”
“Sorry I didn’t call.”
“Then you never do. If I hear from Sara, where should I say you’ll be?”
Carol could have been pleased I’d come home, offered to fetch me herself, suggested dinner while we waited for Sara. But when it came to me, Carol struggled for even a few civil words. Hospitality would be unimaginable.
“At her apartment.” I had no place else to stay, and I wasn’t going to spend the night on the sidewalk, waiting for her.
“Elizabeth . . . . I do hope everything works out for you.”
I disconnected and waved to a taxi. I tried Sara again as we drove along Man o’ War and once more after we made the turn onto Route 68. I stared out the window as we moved south. The boundless fields I had known as a child were largely gone now, replaced by vast rows of homes more densely packed than the vanished bluegrass.
The taxi dropped me at the entrance to Sara’s building. Her truck sat two spaces over, in the shade of an ornamental maple. I touched the hood. It was cool, suggesting she hadn’t driven to the airport and waited for me in vain. For that, I felt relieved. It was better that she had forgotten.
I bounced my bags up the concrete stairway to the second, and top, floor, reaching a covered hallway that was open on both ends above waist-high iron railings. Sara’s apartment was on the left. I reached her door and knocked.
I wasn’t angry with Sara—disappointed, but not angry. She’d tell a story I’d pretend to believe: she’d overslept, the truck wouldn’t start, she’d lost her phone. She always told stories; she was never to blame. And neither Carol nor I ever called her on them. It was long past too late, but I wished I’d done a thousand things differently. I knocked again, louder this time.
After the third try, I concluded that despite the presence of her truck, Sara really wasn’t inside and hiding from me. Nor should she have been. She knew I was coming and had agreed to pick me up. We had discussed at length that I would stay with her only until I found work. She seemed okay with the plan, even a little excited. Her mood could have changed, as it often did. I’d have to read her reaction to my presence to be sure. Sara wouldn’t ask me to leave, but the fear I’d made a mistake continued to grow.
Years ago, Sara had kept a spare key tucked in the dryer vent on the back wall. I stepped up on the metal railing, then glanced at the concrete walkway below. Peering down thirty thousand feet from the plane hadn’t bothered me, but somehow the twenty feet from this perch did. I took a firm hold on the wall-mounted spotlight above as I stretched around the corner and probed the vent. I felt the key taped to the underside of a louver and pulled it out. It was much easier to locate than the last time I’d needed it—late at night, with Sara slumped against her door after I’d practically dragged her up the stairs.
I climbed down and let myself in.
I stepped through the short entryway and called her name again. I passed the living room, glancing in at a patterned couch and matching armchair, a table with a lamp between them, a television tucked into the far corner. The room seemed unchanged from my last visit, like a display case she rarely opened.
Her bedroom in back had a more lived-in look: a wrinkled spread thrown over the bed, jeans draped over a chair, shoes strewn on the closet floor, an overflowing laundry basket beside her dresser. I was relieved Sara wasn’t passed out on the bed.
I moved on to the second bedroom. Several boxes of sports gear littered the floor where a bed should have been. I guessed that made the living room couch mine. I might be welcome, but wouldn’t be made too comfortable. I passed the bathroom, empty and neat, on the way to the kitchen, up front, opposite the living room.
Stepping through the archway, I turned up my nose at the stale beer and cigarette smells that drifted from the empty bottles on the table and counter. Sara had never been overly tidy, but I hoped she hadn’t left this mess expecting I’d pick up after her—as I’d so often done when she stayed with me. I bit my lip. Questioning her motives wouldn’t make my time in the apartment more pleasant.
I tossed the bottles in the trash and wiped the table. I opened a few windows, stopping in the living room to stare out at the city/county park, wondering where I’d finally find Sara. I tried her phone again and listened to it ring—this time, behind me.
I followed the sound to her purse, hung on a chair behind the half-wall separating the entryway from the living room. I cancelled the call and fished her phone from the bag.
My view of the situation changed. Sara had left her apartment many hours ago, without her pocketbook, phone, or truck. That meant either she had gone for a very long walk, or that whoever had helped her with the beer had taken her somewhere—and had so far failed to bring her back.
I scrolled the logs on Sara’s phone. The process triggered memories of the frantic search through her diary when she’d run away from home at thirteen. I’d been taken aback by her tightly scripted words lamenting the unfairness she saw in her life, much as I would have depicted it in my own.
Our reactions to those hardships, though, were polar opposites. I dug in, worked harder, ground out a solution. Sara folded. Her diary had provided my first insight into her internal frailty. It helped me understand why she’d left but offered no clues as to where she’d gone.
Her phone records were not nearly as private or revealing, but they still told a story. Sara’s first missed call, other than mine, had been at eleven that morning. There were two more calls from the same number before my airport calls joined the list at three. Carol’s name appeared between my calls, apparently wanting answers after she’d spoken with me.
Tammy Grimes had called, too. She had been Sara’s friend since elementary school. I called her back.
“Hi Tammy, Liz Crawford. I’m looking for Sara. Have you talked with her today?”
“I called, but she hasn’t gotten back. I thought it was because she was with you. She’s not usually this slow.”
“We’ve had a mix-up. She was supposed to meet me. I’m at her apartment. She’s not here, but as you can see, her phone is. Guess that’s why she didn’t get back to you.”
Tammy seemed to think about that. “Then she can’t be far. Probably out getting things for your visit. You know her, always last minute.”
I didn’t feel the need to tell her Sara’s truck and purse were still here, and she’d apparently been gone for some time.
“Well, if she calls, tell her I’m here.”
My worry mode reached stage two. I didn’t believe Sara had gone out before my first call at nine. It seemed more likely she hadn’t made it home from the night before. That in itself didn’t surprise me. Sara had grown older, but as far as I knew, she still drank, did drugs, and was sometimes fond of all-night partying.
Because of that, I had to be careful with what I did about my concerns. Sara would not take kindly to my poking into her affairs. Worse would be calling the police unnecessarily. Her friends would not appreciate visits from the law. Such contact could be life changing, even for the innocent, as I well knew.
My stomach gurgled like a percolator, a reminder my last meal had been a bagel on the run twelve hours earlier. I pushed away thoughts of the law and searched for a snack. The refrigerator yielded nothing fresh or interesting, but in Sara’s cabinets, I found peanut butter and crackers—staples for people too busy or tired to cook. I put a plate together and popped a cracker into my mouth. Before I reached the table, Sara’s phone rang. I chewed quickly while I checked the display. It was the same number that had appeared twice on her call log. I swallowed and mumbled a “Hello”.
“No. Liz. Who is this?”
Silence. “Sara’s sister?”
“Paul Morrison. Sara said you’d be visiting Could you put her on?”
“She’s not here. I haven’t had much luck getting hold of her. Do you have any idea where she might have gone?”
“No.” He let the word out on a long exhale. “Would you ask her to call me when she gets in? I’ve been trying to reach her all day.”
I told him I would.
Sara had mentioned a Paul in our last conversation. She’d made mention of many men over the years, but Paul was a recent addition. I wished I’d asked him a few questions, but since he was looking for Sara, too, he wasn’t likely to shed much light on her whereabouts.
I moved to the living room and flipped on the TV. I found a blanket and pillow and lay on the couch. I thought about the last time I’d been in the apartment, four years ago at Christmas. I’d chattered on about my new house and my work for NASA. I was full of myself then—the excitement, the long hours, the camaraderie. I was wide-eyed and zooming my way up. The sky itself was not even a limit.
I woke at dawn and checked Sara’s bedroom. She hadn’t returned, and I entered stage three worry: the inner acknowledgment that something has gone very wrong, and all I can do is wait for the inevitable unwelcome news.
Carol agreed we should report Sara’s disappearance. She also agreed to pick me up, with only a sigh to mark her protest. It was hardly out of her way—my stepmother lived a few miles south in the house where I’d grown up on ten acres in the county.
I’d been sure she’d sell the house after my father died and Sara moved into her apartment. She hadn’t. Even after her twenty-one years with my father, I still saw Carol as an outsider and expected her to act that way. She apparently had a different view.
I tromped downstairs to wait, intent on not putting Carol out further. Killing time, I stepped to Sara’s truck and peered in the window. There wasn’t much to see. Four strands of Mardi Gras beads hung from the mirror. A mug with a UK logo filled a holder below the radio. A small stuffed cat slept in the open ashtray.
I tried the door. It opened and I took a closer look from inside—not that I expected to find a clue to her whereabouts. What I did find seemed perfectly in character: a canvas bag with a change of clothes, a dirty pair of leather work boots next to a pair of shiny, three-inch black heels, and lastly, under the driver’s seat, tied with a piece of green yarn to the seat slide was a small leather holster containing a handgun. I looked but didn’t touch, then backed out and locked the door.
I wasn’t surprised Sara had a gun. Daddy had given one to me when I left home, and he probably figured Sara needed a lot more protection. My Smith & Wesson had ended up in a police impound in Texas—seized when they searched my house. They’d held on to it, not as evidence, simply as something they wouldn’t return to a convicted felon.
“Elizabeth. Are you going to pretend you don’t see me?”
Carol spoke through the open car widow. She had pulled up in a Lexus so quiet I hadn’t noticed. It was new since I’d seen her last—Daddy’s insurance money put to use. I walked around and climbed in.
Carol was eighteen years older than me but still took great pride in her appearance. She hadn’t gained a pound since the day my father brought her home. Her ash blond hair was carefully coiffed and without even a hint of gray. She’d taken the time to make herself up before driving over, but her work was already smudged. Hastiness or tears?
“You cut your hair,” she said.
“Too much bother.”
“It was always your best feature.”
Carol wasn’t being purposefully mean. She had a habit of stating the obvious. She had no way to know this statement hit at me in so many ways. She hadn’t been there as my world fell apart. What difference would pretty hair have made?
“Shouldn’t we call some of Sara’s friends first?” I said, though we were already moving.
“I did. The ones I know. You have her phone. Didn’t you check her address book?”
“I spoke with Paul and Tammy. They didn’t know where she might have gone.”
“Morrison. A man she was friendly with from work.”
Carol didn’t say anything, which made it clear she was put out that I knew something about Sara’s life that she didn’t. I didn’t view it as a contest.
“He called, looking for her. I didn’t know him. I thought you did.”
Carol’s pout faded. “She’d been seeing Roger Boland, but that broke up. I don’t think she has a steady right now.”
“Did you bring a picture?” I asked.
We sat in a dull gray room on opposite sides of a desk from officer David Blakey of the Nicholasville police. He had our report and stared at the picture of Sara as though he knew her, or wanted to.
“You last spoke with Sara on Friday?” he said. “You don’t know if she came home that night, but she didn’t last night. Is that correct?”
“She’s been gone two days,” I replied. “She didn’t meet me at the airport and didn’t visit her mother as she said she would this morning. She’s definitely missing.”
“We don’t normally list an adult as missing until they’ve been gone seventy two hours. Where Sara’s a young woman, lives alone, and is gone for the weekend, I’ll put the word out locally, but I won’t send it in to the state. You give me a call Monday morning if she’s not back.”
“Sara’s in trouble,” Carol said. “I can feel something has happened to her. She needs help. You need to find her.”
Carol was fond of giving directions. Blakey didn’t seem accustomed to taking them from civilians. He stared at Carol. She began to cry.
“I’ll list her as someone we’d like to talk to. It will get to the news, and you’d be surprised how fast someone’ll call and say where she is. It might be embarrassing.”
He looked at me as he said the last part, maybe expecting I’d suddenly ask him not to do it. I didn’t.
Sara’s picture made the evening news along with a report she was missing and a request from the Nicholasville police to help locate her. After the broadcast, Sara’s phone chimed several times as word spread and friends sent texts informing Sara she was missing.
At nine, Paul Morrison called again.
“I saw the news. Have you heard anything?”
“Not from the police. A few texts to her phone. People don’t give us much credit for looking.”
“Would you mind if I came over? It’d be better than waiting alone.”
I wasn’t sure who he thought it would be better for—him or me, but after a short deliberation, I decided I could do with a little company. “Why not? If you have some beer, you could bring that along, too.”
Paul arrived a few minutes later. He had apparently been nearby when he called, perhaps in the parking lot. Eyeing him in the doorway, my first impression was that Sara had chosen well. Paul stood a little taller than me, maybe six-one or two. He was lean, dark-headed, somewhere in his thirties, and decidedly good looking. His connection to Sara had led me to expect a younger man.
We made quick introductions, then I guided him to the kitchen, where I’d been sipping cold coffee and staring at Sara’s phone. He placed a sack on the table, pulled out two bottles, and handed me one. They were Bud Light Platinum. The same brand as the empties I’d found on the table when I arrived. Maybe it was just Sara’s brand d’jour, and he’d bought it in anticipation of seeing her. Then, maybe not. I slid the phone off the table and slipped it into my pocket. The danger alarms were not loud, but I didn’t want to lose access to 911—just in case.
Paul took a long pull on his beer but never took his eyes off me. I found the stare disconcerting and realized, he’d been giving me that same look since he walked in. I wiped a hand across my face, wondering if I had food stuck to my chin. The move failed to break his gaze.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
He let out a breath. “Were you at West Jessamine?”
“Fourteen years ago.”
He smiled. “You hung out with Carlene McCracken.”
“We ran together. She was captain of the cross country team my first year.”
“She’s my cousin. I saw you and her run at State. You were a freshman?”
“ ’Fraid so.” I’d gone to the state tournament four times but only once with Carlene, who was three years ahead of me. That made it seventeen years ago. Paul had a remarkable memory, but I didn’t want to talk about my high school days.
“Sara said you worked with her.” I opened my beer, took a sip, and waited for him to fill in the blanks.
He slid into a chair, facing me. “Not exactly together but in the same factory.”
“When did you last see her?”
“Friday. I watched her go out the door at three.”
“Were you planning to see her that night?”
“She said she was meeting a girlfriend. If she got back early enough, she’d give me a call.”
“No. I called in the morning, but she didn’t answer.”
What he said agreed with the phone log. If he’d been looking for her Friday night, he hadn’t called. Then again, if he’d been with her, he wouldn’t have had to.
“When was the last time you were here, inside the apartment, I mean?”
His lips did an involuntary pucker. “That’s kind of a funny question. What makes you ask?”
“I want to find my sister. For all I know, you were the last person to see her.”
My voice was a little hard. But his intentions remained unclear. He needed to know the only reason I was willing to let him in was to get information. And what I wanted to know now was if he had helped drink the beers I had found on my arrival.
“I was here Wednesday.”
“You spent the night?”
“We drank beer, listened to music, and talked some.”
That wasn’t an answer. I appreciated his discretion but wondered why he felt the need for evasion. I looked for a wedding ring, but there wasn’t one. “That talk didn’t include her plans for Friday night?”
He picked up his beer. “She was going to meet up with Nikki Hall.”
“And you didn’t tell me this in the beginning because . . . ?”
He finished the beer and smacked the empty on the table. “How well do you know Sara?”
I supposed that was a fair question from his point of view. Some women might be surprised by the activities of their sisters. I wasn’t one of them. I’d fetched Sara when she couldn’t walk, cleaned her up when she was sick, and covered for her in as many ways as was imaginable.
“I know she likes to party,” I said. “Where did she go?”
“You’ll have to ask Nikki. I really don’t know.”
I thought probably he did. Sara wasn’t secretive. She would have said more than she was going out with Nikki, unless of course, “going out with Nikki” was a euphemism for a particular illicit activity. I was still irritated Paul hadn’t told me this in our first conversation, but at least now I had something to work with. I found “Nikki” in Sara’s phone and punched the number. Paul stared at me while I listened to her message.
“Nikki, this is Liz Crawford, Sara’s sister. Please call me at Sara’s number as soon as you get this message.”
I turned back to Paul. “Is there anyone else I should be checking with—before the police start knocking on doors?”
“Dewey Wright. He’s Nikki’s boyfriend among other things. When Sara goes with Nikki, he’s usually around.”
I searched the phone but didn’t find his name. “Do you know how to get hold of him?”
Paul shrugged a “No.” “Someone at work will have his number. I’ll get it to you in the morning.”
“Is there a way you could get it tonight?”
Paul didn’t look happy, but he made a call to the factory and spoke with the night supervisor. After a brief explanation, Paul jotted down a few phone numbers and thanked the woman.
“I didn’t get Dewey’s number, but these folks know him. They work the six o’clock shift, and they’ll be sleeping about now. It’ll be awkward, me calling about Dewey.”
Causing a few minutes lost sleep balanced against a chance to find Sara was not a hard choice for me. I grabbed the list and picked up the phone. Paul put his hands on mine and took the list back.
“You wake folks you don’t know, asking for Dewey, they aren’t likely to help. I don’t care to make the calls. I don’t want them thinking I’m looking for drugs.”
“Dewey’s a dealer?”
Paul didn’t answer.
“Why not try the truth, then. You’re looking for Sara and thought she might be with Dewey.”
“That’s not going to make me look a whole lot better.”
“Please, just do it.” I didn’t understand his reluctance, unless he was married and didn’t wear a ring. But that was Sara’s worry, not mine.
Paul dialed the first number. I moved around the table and sat beside him, staring at the names on his list. I didn’t know any of them. Then, I wouldn’t have expected to. Sara’s work world was separate from the outside world that I knew about.
No one answered at the first number or the second. The third, however, proved a charm. Ada Brewer not only had Dewey’s number but information on half his family and apparently his itinerary as well. Paul scribbled notes, rolled his eyes, and managed to thank Ada when she finally finished her recitation.
Paul tried the number for Dewey. He didn’t answer on repeated tries, nor did Nikki.
“I’ll check his house on the way home,” Paul said. “Hers, too. I turn my phone off at night. They probably don’t want to be bothered either.” He paused, letting his eyes drift around the room, his thoughts seemingly elsewhere. Then his gaze worked back to me, and he pushed back his chair. “Feel like taking a ride?”
I considered it. Maybe if I’d known Paul better I might have gone pounding on doors with him at midnight. As it was, I felt safer alone in the apartment.
“Call me if you find them,” I said.
He stood, ready to leave, and second thoughts hit me. If Nikki and Dewey were at home, I wanted to hear what they had to say firsthand. The words, nuances, and expressions could be important. Letting Paul tell me about it tomorrow and over the phone wasn’t close to good enough. I picked up my bag, glanced back at the beer bottle strewn table, and followed him out.
Nikki’s apartment sat a block off Main Street on the second floor of what had likely been a single family home in its prime. Now, even in the dull glow of a single security light, I could see missing vinyl siding, an unpainted door, and scuffed dirt inside a wire-fenced yard where grass should have been.
Paul seemed familiar with the place, leading me around the corner of the house then up an unlit, wooden stairway to a covered porch. He knocked, and we waited. He tried again, calling “Nikki” several times, low at first, then growing progressively louder. A dog down the street responded with a series of yelps, but no lights came on at Nikki’s.
“I don’t think she’s home,” I said.
Paul hadn’t been loud enough to wake the whole neighborhood, but unless Nikki was passed out, she should have heard him.
“I’d like to make sure.” He fiddled with his key chain, aiming a tiny fob-flashlight at the lock. “Hold this.” He handed me the light then worked the blade of a pocketknife between the latch bolt and the strike plate.
“What are you doing?” I asked, though it was pretty obvious he intended to break in.
“I’m going to see if she’s home. These locks aren’t much account.” He wiggled the knife and pushed the door open.
“You can’t go in there. What if the police come?” That was a kind of trouble I really didn’t need. “I’ll wait in the car.”
He stepped inside and pulled me with him, shutting the door behind us. “The neighbors won’t know it’s not Nikki coming home, unless you stand on the porch gabbing about it.”
He had a point. I slid the back of my hand along the wall, probing for the light switch. I flipped it on to reveal Nikki’s kitchen. It had the usual appliances, all old, worn linoleum, white painted cabinets, and a tiled counter with dirty dishes next to the sink. The round glass-topped table looked new and out of place. It had three metal framed chairs, but only two place mats were on the table.
“Nikki.” Paul waited a few seconds then crossed the room. He called again as he turned the corner into a hallway and disappeared.
I didn’t like being left alone. I stood tight by the door, not touching anything, and considered what I’d say to Nikki if she happened to walk in at that very minute. The scene didn’t play well in my head, and I decided to rejoin Paul. He at least knew her and could handle that situation better. I ventured to the doorway through which Paul had vanished.
Light from the kitchen spilled into the upper portion of the hall. Beyond that, it faded into darkness with only a pencil thin line of moonlight slipping under a doorway to the left. I felt for a light switch as I moved along, wondering how Paul had found his way, and better yet, why he hadn’t turned on a light. I reached an open doorway on the right and heard muffled movement farther down. Then, a toilet flushed.
My heart went to double-time. The thought of surprising Nikki in the kitchen as she returned home had been bad enough. To be found standing in the dark, in her bedroom doorway when she came out of the bathroom was worse. If she didn’t freak, she was a better woman than I was.
I started toward the kitchen and a possible quick exit—a better choice than stepping into her bedroom and hiding in a closet. The bathroom door creaked open. I leaped for the kitchen doorway.
Paul’s voice. I turned and saw his outline, backlit from a nightlight in the bathroom.
“Nikki’s not here.”
I caught my breath. “So you just make yourself at home?”
He shrugged. “The beer.”
I didn’t feel like telling him how much he’d scared me, so I returned to why we came. “Did you see anything to say she’s been here recently?”
“Like what? Today’s newspaper? A dated note addressed: To Whom It May Concern?”