Saturday, January 7, 4:35 p.m.
Renee Jackson slipped out of the AA meeting a little early. She felt queasy and didn’t want to talk to anyone after it adjourned. She shouldn’t have come. The secret drinking had been going on for weeks and the meetings weren’t helping. It was time to check herself into rehab, but she couldn’t bear the thought of her daughter knowing she’d relapsed again.
Renee zipped her jacket against the cold, shuddering at the gray sky that seemed to swoop down and smother her. Christ, it was getting dark already.
Could she get away with one more shot of vodka without Ivan or anyone noticing? Probably. She kept a thermos in her car, along with a bottle of mouthwash. Her ex-husband Wade, the detective, would know as soon as she spent five minutes with him. So far she’d managed to avoid him.
She waited for the traffic to pass, then trotted across the street to her car, pumps clicking on the asphalt. She’d parked in the alley next to the vegan restaurant, not wanting anyone to see her Acura RDX near the Jesco building. Not that anyone she knew would be in the Whiteaker neighborhood. If Eugene, Oregon had a slum, this would be it.
As she entered the alley, two men stepped out from behind a large dumpster. Renee took in the details in a quick painful breath. Baggy jeans, heavy jackets, and tattooed necks. Gang members.
Her heart skipped a beat. Could she make it to her car, get in, and lock the door? Or should she turn and run? She froze, paralyzed with fear. Too late to dash to her car. Renee spun and started back toward the Jesco building. She wanted to run but was afraid to, feeling like she had a predatory animal behind her that would only be excited by the chase.
Then she saw Dave, the meeting leader, hurrying across the street toward her. Thank God. A car barreled past just as he stepped onto the sidewalk.
“Renee, I wanted to talk.” He smiled but his tone was serious as he reached for her arm.
She glanced over her shoulder. The gang members turned and headed back down the alley. Had they ever been a threat? Was the alcohol making her paranoid already? It usually took years.
“I’m sorry, Dave, but I don’t have time. That’s why I left early.”
“I know you’re drinking, Renee. Can I do anything to help?”
It took every ounce of self-control she had not to burst into tears. God, she hated herself. “I’ve got it under control. Thanks though.”
She spun and trotted to her car, unlocking it with her clicker. Guilt made the sick feeling in her gut worse. Dave was a good guy, but she wasn’t ready to talk about her drinking. Her fiancé, Ivan, was a casual drinker and she knew she had to make an impossible choice. Renee started the car and backed toward the street. In the growing darkness she heard the rumble of an engine. Was it the thugs’ car? She peered down the alley, framed by thick shrubs on one side and the back side of the restaurant on the other. Headlights came on.
Renee glanced back at Blair Boulevard, saw no traffic, and gunned her car into the street. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Dave head into the Jesco building. He glanced back at the revved sound of her car and Renee looked away. She raced to the first stoplight and grabbed the thermos of vodka from under her car seat. After a quick sip, she shoved the metal container back. Her chest warmed and her panic subsided.
An engine rumbled behind her. Definitely not a new-model car. The same sound she’d heard in the alley. She glanced in her rearview mirror. A red lowrider idled behind her. The driver wore a heavy dark jacket and had a shaved head. Why were they following her?
Renee jumped on the green light and sped through the intersection. To go home, she needed to turn right, cross downtown, and head south. She’d moved in with Ivan a month ago, giving up her apartment by the park to live in his plush, oversize home in the foothills. She wasn’t ready to face him, but had no idea where she was headed. Was she ready to quit drinking? Damn! How had she let herself get into this mode again? Would the cycle ever stop?
Instinctively, she drove toward the university area.
A quick glance in the rearview mirror told her the lowrider was still back there, but not directly behind her anymore. She gave a little sigh of relief. They were just going in the same direction. It happened all the time.
She kept driving, not knowing where, not making conscious decisions. Ten minutes later she parked a half block from Serenity Lane, an inpatient rehab center for drugs and alcohol that was tucked into a quiet residential area near the campus. The site of the building made her cringe. Renee reached for the thermos and took a long slow belt of vodka. She’d never make it through the door this sober. Grabbing her phone from the seat, she started to text Katie, but couldn’t do it. Not yet. She’d call her daughter later, after she checked in.
Renee clutched her purse and stepped from the car. Would three times be the charm? Would this be her last inpatient stay? Fortunately, she ran her own publicity business now and didn’t have to explain to any boss why she needed a month off. One foot in front of the other, she forced herself to start down the sidewalk, toward the building with the glass door she knew so well.
The lowrider was suddenly there, only five feet away on the street. In the twilight she felt, as much as saw, two guys burst from the car. Renee screamed and started to run. Her heel snapped and she stumbled. From behind, a thick hand slammed over her mouth and yanked sideways. She kicked wildly, panic driving her. She connected with a shin, and the man punched her in the neck. She choked on her cry and hot tears filled her eyes.
Another pair of arms wrapped around her torso and dragged her into the back of the car.
In six seconds, she’d disappeared off the sidewalk. Had anyone witnessed it? A student bicycling to class?
The car raced forward, away from the rehab building and student housing. Renee struggled, but the alcohol made her weak and the man shoved her to the floor. Strong, thick fingers dug into her flesh and quickly bound her hands and mouth with duct tape. A knife was suddenly in his hand and her heart missed a beat. She screamed into the duct tape but only made a gurgling sound. The man cut her purse strap from her shoulder, then rummaged through her pockets until he found her cell phone. He shoved her last little hope into his jacket pocket, then taped her ankles together and tied a blindfold around her head. Oh God, what did they want with her? Panic exploded in painful shards in her lungs and she couldn’t think straight.
A few minutes later, the car stopped, and the men dragged her from the floor of the backseat and shoved her into the trunk. They slammed down the lid and left her alone in the small dark space, trussed like an animal on its way to slaughter.
Heart pounding, all she could think was, I wish I’d finished the thermos.
Sunday, January 8, 11:48 a.m.
Wade Jackson stepped off the boat, relieved that the trip was over. He turned back and offered his hand to Kera as she climbed down after him, looking radiant. Her sun-kissed skin glowed and her bronze hair shimmered in the bright sunlight. The sight of her made him smile, despite the sea sickness that had plagued him all morning. Their snorkeling adventure had been great at moments, but he was glad to move on to something else. A flash of guilt joined the nausea in his stomach. Kera loved every minute of their time in Maui, and he was trying to be a good vacation partner. But his mind was restless and he looked forward to an afternoon of getting caught up on the stack of hot rod magazines he’d brought with him.
“Are you okay?” Kera asked, as they entered their hotel room twenty minutes later. “You’re awfully quiet.”
“I felt a little queasy the whole time we were out there,” Jackson admitted. “But it’s going away now.”
“I’m sorry. We should have bought some Dramamine.”
“Meds are for wussies.” Jackson laughed. He took his share. “I’m fine. Hungry though.”
His phone, which he’d left in the hotel room, rang for the first time in two days. A strange anticipation came over him. He’d missed the urgency and adrenaline that came with most of his calls. He looked at the screen. Why was his daughter calling him?
“It’s Katie,” he told Kera before answering.
“Dad, I’m sorry to bug you on your vacation, but Mom is missing.”
The word missing triggered a wave of emotions: fear, anger, relief. “What do you mean by missing?”
“She didn’t come home last night and she’s not answering her cell phone.”
Jackson had one thought: Renee had started drinking again and landed in jail or in the hospital. But he had to be diplomatic with his daughter. “Have you called her friends? Or possibly the hospital?”
“Ivan and I have called everyone. He even called the jail.” Katie was on the verge of tears. “I know what you’re thinking and you’re probably right. But she’s never disappeared before.”
His daughter had a point. In all the years of marriage to Renee, despite her daily consumption of vodka, she’d never gone AWOL. She preferred to drink at home where it was safe. “Don’t worry, Katie. We’ll find her. I’ll call the department and put out an attempt-to-locate. And I’ll get the next flight home.” Jackson glanced at Kera, who was raptly listening to his end of the conversation. She looked worried but not upset.
“I’m so sorry, Dad. I hate ruining your vacation. You never take time off.” His fifteen-year-old daughter burst into sobs and it tore his heart. Katie was mature beyond her years—from having an alcoholic mother and a workaholic father—and rarely cried. But her grief was not about his ruined trip to Hawaii. She was coming to terms with the fact that her mother had relapsed again, and possibly done herself irreparable harm.
“Let me talk to Ivan for a minute.” Jackson felt surprisingly neutral about Renee’s fiancé, even though she’d moved in with him after only a few months of dating.
Ivan Anderson came on the phone, sounding calmer than Katie but still with an edge to his voice. “Hello, Jackson. I’ve called the department about filing a missing-person report, but they said it was too soon.”
“Twenty-four hours is the policy for adults, but I’ll work around that and get patrol officers looking for her car.” After twenty years in the department, he was a senior detective and carried a little clout. “She was in her car, correct?”
“Yes. She left the house around three yesterday afternoon to go shopping and never came home. I’ve called her friends, her sister, the hospitals, and the jail. I don’t know what else to do.”
“It sounds like you’ve covered it, but I need her license plate number. She was driving her Acura?”
“Yes. I’ll be right back.”
After a minute, Anderson came back with the information and Jackson jotted it down. He hesitated, then said, “I hate to ask this, but how has Renee been acting lately? Any sign that she’s been drinking?”
“The other night she seemed a little slow to react to something and I wondered if she’d been drinking. But she has the Ativan prescription and it has that effect sometimes.”
Memories of his ex-wife and her intoxicated behavior flooded Jackson’s head. Renee tended to get horny and needy when she drank, but he couldn’t ask Anderson about it. He couldn’t even believe they were having this conversation and suspected his discomfort would get worse before Renee surfaced. “Sometimes when she first starts drinking again after a dry spell, she calls her mother. Have you talked to Betty?”
“No. Renee never talks about her mother.”
“You should call her just to see if she’s heard from Renee.” Jackson started to look for his return ticket. “I have to call the airline and the department. With any luck, I’ll be home tonight.”
“Thanks, Jackson. Sorry to interrupt your vacation.”
“It’s okay.” And it was. His brain was clicking and his adrenaline flowing. He’d missed the feeling. They said good-bye and hung up. Jackson turned to Kera, careful to hide his feelings. “I’m sorry about this, but I feel like I have to go back. Katie is distraught.”
“Of course. I understand.” The fine lines on her forehead scrunched up as she studied his face. “I think you’re relieved. You were getting bored here, I could tell.”
“No. It’s been great to have so much time with you.” He pulled Kera in for a hug.
She hugged him back, then lightly punched his arm. “Don’t bullshit me, Wade. You’re a workaholic, and you look engaged for the first time in days.” Kera laughed, a melodic hearty sound that always made him smile. “Don’t worry. I’m okay. We had three great days together and getting this much sun in the middle of winter was a lifesaver. Make the calls.” She smiled, shook her head, and started for the shower.
Three hours later, after securing some last-minute tickets by mentioning he was a detective investigating a missing person, they were on a flight to Eugene, Oregon.