The dream was remarkably vivid─a golden pool of lamplight spilling across the polished surface of a Hepplewhite-style writing table; a slender, long-fingered hand clutching a vintage brass-and-marble pedestal telephone receiver; a woman’s voice quivering with urgency. Her words were but a soft susurration, impossible to understand. Nevertheless, they conveyed a sadness and fear that was impossible to deny. Maddie was deeply moved.
Her bedside phone rang, and the dream faded. She fumbled for the receiver, knowing before she put it to her ear that she would hear the same voice saying through the static of a long-distance trunk line, “Madeline Blake, please.”
Instantly awake, she said, “Speaking.”
“I apologize for the late hour. You don’t know me. My name is Caroline Hallowell. Mrs. Reece Hallowell. And I’m calling from Seattle.”
Maddie hitched up so she could see the bedside clock. Two-seventeen in Chicago, which meant it was after midnight Pacific Standard Time.
The woman continued, “I was given your name by a friend who tells me you have special…” An awkward pause. “…skills for helping people in trouble. I need that help.”
As she had in the dream, Maddie found herself reacting to the note of terror so close beneath the surface of the genteel voice.
“Tell me more, Mrs. Hallowell.”
“My twenty-year-old daughter has been missing since last Friday. The police have done all they can, and although they haven’t said so, I know they think she’s dead. Perhaps─” A hitch of emotion. Then, “Perhaps she is, but I have to know for certain. Please, Ms. Blake. You are our only hope. We’ll pay you well.”
Thanks to a large inheritance from her maternal grandmother, money was not an issue for Maddie. It had been several months since her last case─peaceful months filled with reading and music─and she wasn’t sure she was ready to shatter that serenity with the turmoil and uncertainties that always accompanied her work. On the other hand, she knew that it was only by exercising her unique gift from time to time that she was able to achieve whatever intervals of contentment her solitary life allowed her. Was this an opportunity she could afford to pass up?
She felt the familiar quickening deep inside as she said finally, “What were the circumstances under which your daughter disappeared?”
“A lot of it is still conjecture because she was alone in her apartment at the time it happened. But some things are known. It appears she was preparing dinner for a guest. When he arrived, he found the back door open, water boiling on the stove, and the receiver of the wall phone dangling as if she had just dropped it and run out. The police─”
“That’s enough,” Maddie interrupted. “I happen to be free just now. I’ll be glad to come.”
Relief flooded the woman’s voice. “I was hoping you would say that. I even took the liberty of making a reservation for you on United Flight One Forty-Three leaving O’Hare Airport at ten o’clock tomorrow morning. Can you make that?”
“Ten o’clock? That should work for me.”
“Wonderful! I arranged for your ticket to be waiting for you at the United counter. I’ll meet you at the arrival gate here in Seattle. I’ll be wearing a light-blue raincoat.”
“That sounds straightforward enough. But I’d better take down your address and phone number just in case I need to get in touch with you before I arrive. Hold on while I get a pen.”
She turned on the bedside lamp, sat up, and reached for the pad and pen she always kept at hand. “Go ahead,” she said.
She wrote out the information, and they said their goodbyes. Just before the line went dead, however, she heard a faint click, more an echo than a separate entity. A cold frisson traveled down her spine. Someone else had monitored the call. Who? And why?
Wide awake now and more than a little agitated, she got up and walked barefoot into the hallway, past the darkened door of her office, and into the apartment’s living room. The floor-to-ceiling windows looked down nine stories to Lake Shore Drive, where a surprising amount of traffic still streamed. In daylight, her view took in the green strip of Lincoln Park with the vast waters of Lake Michigan beyond; at night, it was a black void barely touched by the reddish glow from the Chicago Loop to the south.
She sat at the piano, a Steinway grand. Her fingers caressed their way through the early measures of a Chopin etude, paused, then struck up a lively tarantella. Playing was her stock-in-trade remedy for the restlessness that often afflicted her. This time, however, the soothing magic didn’t work. She got up and went to her office.
She took out a fresh manila folder, marked the tab Diane Hallowell Case, and sat at the desk to write out her first entry, a summary of the just-completed phone conversation. She placed the sheet in the folder, reached for her briefcase and slid the folder inside. Next she collected the additional tools of her craft and put them into the briefcase: paper, pencils and pens, and her cassette tape recorder with spare batteries and tape cassettes. She opened the file drawer that contained her collection of maps and took out the one of Washington State. She had several maps of the metropolitan areas where she had worked but none of the City of Seattle. She made a mental note to pick one up at the airport when she arrived. Finally, she went to her safe and took out several packets of travelers checks. She closed the briefcase and sat back down at her desk.
Her calendar showed a dental appointment she would have to cancel, and she scribbled a note of reminder for the following morning. She noticed a half-finished letter to her parents that she had set off to the side. She drew it to her and took up a pen, but the words wouldn’t come, and she gave it up. She sighed, ran a hand through her short, chestnut-brown hair and slumped back in the chair.
She glanced around the room, her tidy, self-contained little nerve center with its library on psychic research and professional investigative techniques, its file cabinets and other utilitarian furnishings, and finally the framed certificate issued by the Department of Registration and Education making it all legitimate. Her eyes came to rest on the two framed photographs that sat side by side on the back corner of her desk.
The child was smiling, her long heavy braids pulled over her shoulders to exhibit the perky bows at their ends. Her blue-gray eyes, too large for her scrawny face, weren’t fixed on the cake with its eight lighted candles but stared straight into the camera with the clear, penetrating gaze her elders had found so disturbing. She lifted the photo and pulled it toward her until the protective glass reflected her own adult visage directly over the child’s. It was the same face, now filled out to a soft oval contour but still too dramatic for beauty, the eyes too large, the dark brows and lashes too abundant, the mouth too wide, each feature rivaling the next for dominance. She smiled, remembering the simple, uncluttered happiness of that long-ago birthday, the last day of her innocence, and her left cheek dimpled. Then other, later memories crowded in, bringing with them the inevitable doubts, and the smile faded.
Why risk her hard-earned, sometimes fragile sense of well-being? It was so safe, so insulated here in her self-made little world. Outside, she would have to cope with the curious glances, the whispered conjectures, the implication that she was a sideshow freak. Could she rely on the constancy of her gift? Would it come as it always had? Or would it fail her as she sometimes feared.
She returned the picture to its place and looked at its mate. She didn’t need a photograph to remind her of the calm blue eyes and gentle smile of her brother Tom. Not even the memory of that hideous black wave curling over him and carrying him away could erase his image from her heart. Blond, carefree, radiating a marvelous infectious confidence. Tom. If it hadn’t been for him…
She looked down at the red-flecked, deep-green stone in its gold filigree setting on the fifth finger of her right hand. She touched it, and the old glow of warmth and assurance spread through her. Yes, things would work out as they always had.
She was suddenly very tired. She got up, switched out the light, and went back to her bedroom, surprised to find sleep ready and waiting for her.
She rose early the next morning. After a light breakfast, she telephoned the limousine service and arranged to be picked up at eight o’clock. She packed her suitcase and put last- minute affairs in order, including the cancellation of the dental appointment. At ten minutes before eight, she locked the apartment and took the elevator to the ground floor. The doorman nodded and smiled with just the right blend of familiarity and deference. He said,
“Your limousine is here, Ms. Blake. The driver came in to say he’d wait around the corner on Hawthorne.”
Ten minutes early? That was a first in a city known for its crazy rush-hour traffic. Maddie thanked him and hurried out into the crisp, clear October day. The early sun glinted off the cars already jammed along Lake Shore Drive. She turned the corner and saw a uniformed driver lounging against the hood of a shiny, shorter-style black limousine.
“You’re early,” she said as she handed him her suitcase.
“Yeah, well, I was in the neighborhood so the dispatcher sent me over.” He reached for her briefcase as well, but she shook her head. He shrugged and held the back door open for her.
She settled back in the plush seat, her long legs stretching toward the glassed-in barrier between the driver and his passengers. She heard the trunk open and close. Then he came around and took his place behind the wheel.
“Headed to O’Hare, right?” he asked through the open window behind his head.
“Yes,” she said.
He nodded and slid the window closed before starting the engine and pulling out into the southbound traffic of Sheridan Road. The saffron-topped trees of Lincoln Park slipped by on the left. Beyond, the yachts and sailboats not already moved to winter storage rode the sparkling waters of Belmont Harbor. They turned onto Diversey Parkway and moved fitfully westward. At last, the limousine entered the Kennedy Expressway and picked up speed.
Maddie watched the spires and smokestacks of the city give way to the square little row houses of the northwest suburbs, her mind skipping ahead to Seattle. Most of her cases involved missing persons, and the outcomes varied from happy to heart-wrenching. In the former cases, she experienced a euphoria it was impossible to describe; in the latter, she could take solace from providing closure to the grieving survivors. She had no way of knowing which awaited her in this case, and she felt her inner resources stirring in the old familiar way, very like a banked fire responds to the addition of oxygen and new fuel. But that fuel needed to come in a particular way. Which was the reason she had stopped Mrs. Hallowell from expanding on the particulars of her daughter’s disappearance. Nor would she solicit any further information until she had had a chance to examine matters for herself through the medium of her psychic gift. Experience had taught her that facts simply cluttered her mind and made it more difficult for the impressions to flow freely. Later, after she had plumbed the depths of her own reactions, she would revert to the more traditional methods of investigation.
The limousine stopped at a toll plaza to pay the toll, then picked up speed again. Maddie looked around her with a frown. They were coming to the Des Plaines exit, which meant they had missed the turn to the airport. She stretched forward and rapped on the glass window. The driver slid the panel open, and she demanded,
“Where are you going?”
It happened so quickly she had no time to react. The man threw a small metal canister onto the floor at her feet and snapped the glass closed. A hissing cloud with a strong sweet odor began to fill the space around her.
Maddie understood with sudden, ice-cold clarity. She pounded on the glass even though she expected and got no response. She slipped her fingernails into the crack at the side of the panel and pulled, breaking her nails but not the locked seal. She tried to open the car doors. They wouldn’t budge. Neither would the electronically-controlled windows. She was trapped.
The fumes began to take their toll. Her lungs felt as if they were on fire. There was a roaring in her ears. Her vision blurred. She felt as if she were being swallowed by a vast, numbing fog. Her arms and legs grew heavy, and she no longer had the strength or will to move them. In the end, it was an overwhelming relief to close her eyes and surrender to encroaching oblivion.
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