For feisty Los Angeles crime reporter Molly Blume, life is good. She is newly married (to the adoring and adorable Rabbi Zack), and her latest true-crime book is a hot seller. However, when an overardent fan’s attentions arouse Molly’s suspicion, her thoughts turn uneasily to stalkers.
But the fan, Reuben Jastrow, swears that he desperately needs Molly’s help in finding his eighteen-year-old daughter, Hadassah, who has run away from home to be with a man she met on the Internet. Molly hesitantly agrees–and immediately has regrets. For Reuben hasn’t told her the whole truth. The more Molly looks for clues to the missing girl’s fate, the more she wonders: Is Hadassah a random victim of a predator, or is the girl a pawn in a scheme of revenge against her family?
It’s a long, deadly path that stretches before Molly, a path mined with hidden passions and festering secrets. And it ends with a final twist and an unnerving truth: What we don’t see can lead to danger . . . and tragedy.
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Rochelle Krich is the author of many acclaimed novels of suspense, including Blues in the Night (which introduced Molly Blume), Dream House, Shadows of Sin, Dead Air, Blood Money, and Fertile Ground. An Anthony Award winner for her debut novel, Where’s Mommy Now? (which was adapted as the TV movie Perfect Alibi), Krich lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their children.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
On a Sunday morning in November, a day before the Monday Hadassah Bailor never came home, her alarm rang at five-fifty. She shut off the alarm within seconds, but her older sister, Aliza, who had returned late from a date, groaned, "C'mon, Dass," even before she saw the clock radio's green liquid crystal numbers, eerily bright in the dark room. Like cat's eyes, Aliza would say, though that was probably an afterthought inspired by the Harry Potter novel lying on the nightstand between the two beds.
Aliza jammed a pillow over her head. Later, with some prodding, when insignificant details assumed urgency, she remembered hearing the splash of water as Hadassah, using the white plastic tub and two-handled laver that she'd kept at her bedside for most of her eighteen years, rinsed her hands and eyes before she murmured her waking prayers. Also with some prodding, Aliza was able to recall the hum of the computer and the staccato clicking of Hadassah's fingernails on the keyboard, and the muffled drone behind the closed door of the bathroom, where Hadassah dried her long curly strawberry-blond hair, which she liked to wear loose but had secured with a black velvet scrunchy.
At seven-forty Hadassah roused her three younger brothers. She helped Yonatan, the seven-year-old, find a tennis shoe and a yarmulke, both wedged between the bunk bed and the wall. While they dressed, she put snacks into brown paper bags (she almost forgot to decorate Yonatan's with a smiley face) and handed the bags to the boys as they tore out the side door to their waiting carpool.
Hadassah put on a buttery yellow, cable-knit hooded sweater and a gray wool skirt that revealed a few inches of slim legs encased in gray tights too warm for what promised to be an unseasonably balmy day. After prayers and breakfast (two rice cakes, sliced red pepper, a glass of nonfat milk), she returned to her computer, muting the volume in deference to her sister's restless tossing.
Two hours later she shut the computer and went downstairs. She had slipped her black backpack, heavy with books, over her black quilted jacket and was hoisting the strap of her overnight bag, which, if anyone had checked, was packed with more than her school uniform and a change of underwear, when her mother, one hand stifling a yawn, padded into the kitchen.
Nechama Bailor didn't think her daughter had seemed different that morning. "In a rush, maybe," she said on reflection, "but teenage girls are always like that, aren't they?" Nechama was almost certain Hadassah had kissed her good-bye.
"Dassie always kisses me before she leaves," the mother said, using the present tense from habit and hope and touching her cheek gingerly, as though she didn't want to disturb the airy brush of her daughter's lips.
Wednesday, November 17, 7:42 p.m. Melrose Avenue near Spaulding. A man approached a 14-year-old boy and grabbed his left shoulder from behind. The suspect said, "Do you want to die of AIDS?" before producing a syringe with a long needle. He then fled the scene.
"The face," my grandmother likes to say, "tells a secret." It's an old Yiddish proverb that I have found to be true more often than not. But you have to really see a face to read its secrets. And some faces are like masks, hardened by misery or guile to reveal nothing, or like mirrors, reflecting what you expect or want to see.
If you had looked at my face that Wednesday, you might have detected loneliness. I was on an overnight book tour, and a tour, even one that's only a two-hour drive from home, can have lonesome moments. Not during the reading, when you're caught up in the thrill of sharing your words with people who know your name even if you don't know theirs. And not immediately afterwards, when you may cherish the solitude and anonymity. But at some point--when the euphoria has evaporated, when the people who came to hear you are in their homes, chatting with family or friends about the day's happenings, and you're in your hotel or in a restaurant and everyone around you seems to be part of a couple or a group, sharing drinks or laughter--at some point you're filled with melancholy, with a sense of being disconnected, invisible.
I was in San Diego that night, in a hotel room that, though not the Del Coronado, was more than adequate, but I missed Los Angeles and the comforts and contours of my house and my bed. Mostly, I missed my husband of eight months, especially since this was the first night we'd been apart since our wedding. So when I saw a familiar face in the lobby of my hotel, my spirits lifted.
He was sitting on a sofa opposite the elevator I'd just exited. I smiled, ready to greet him, unable to place him. His eyes were lowered toward the magazine on his lap, and he was wearing gunmetal-framed bifocals and a black cap that obscured his forehead.
I knew him. Where did I . . . ?
It took a moment for his identity to register (the other times, I realized, he'd worn a yarmulke and no glasses), another for surprise to twist into shock, then alarm.
He was following me.
I had first noticed him Monday at my publication party for Sins of the Father, a true account of a man who had injected his son with the AIDS virus. More than half of the people at the Dutton's Brentwood event were friends and family and, like me, Orthodox Jews, so his black suede yarmulke had been one of many. He was in his midforties, I'd guessed, judging from the dusting of gray in his thinning light brown hair. He had kept his distance while I greeted guests and steered them to the chocolates and wine I'd set out in the courtyard. Inside the store, he listened intently while I read from the first chapter of Sins, his dark brown eyes narrowed in concentration, his nods punctuating my sentences and making me flush with pleasure at his approval--or maybe it was the wine. Later, he joined the advancing queue of people holding books for me to sign. I was certain he would comment on the book or my reading, but he set a copy of Sins in front of me, said, "Signature only" in a low voice, and slipped away before I could ask his name.
Tuesday afternoon he was in the back row of chairs in a Thousand Oaks mystery bookstore. He listened with that same flattering concentration while I spoke about the research I'd done for the book, about the people I'd interviewed, the conclusions I'd reached. After my talk he was the first to approach me, a copy of Sins in his hand.
Maybe he was a collector, I'd thought. Collectors often buy two copies of a hardcover--one for their collection, another to read--though they generally buy both at the same time. Or maybe he was picking up a copy for a friend.
"It's nice to see you again," I said, smiling warmly as he handed me the book. "Do you live in the city or the Valley?" I continued when he didn't reply. His was the only yarmulke in the room, and I admit I felt a kinship.
"City." His curt tone didn't invite conversation.
So much for "kinship." Uncapping my pen, I turned to the title page. "What's your name?"
"Signature only, please."
With someone else I might have quipped that it was an odd name, but I didn't think he'd appreciate the humor. He sounded somber. Nervous, too, now that I look back.
"Would you like me to write the date?" I asked.
I wrote "Morgan Blake" (my pseudonym for my true crime books), "November 16," and the year. In my byline--I'm a freelance reporter and pen a weekly "Crime Sheet" column for the local tabloids--I use my real name, Molly Blume. (Molly Blume Abrams since I married Zack, my former high school sweetheart, who is now a pulpit rabbi.)
He showed up that night at the Mystery Bookstore in Westwood. From my stool behind the tall black desk at the rear of the store, I saw him hovering near a front table, leafing through books and darting glances in my direction. On some level I was flattered, but I kept my eye on him while I chatted with people and signed copies of Sins.
Minutes later he was standing in front of me.
"Signature and date only, right?" I opened the book he handed me. "I take it you're a collector?"
He seemed surprised by my question. "No."
"Then you really are a fan. I wish I had dozens like you." I wondered if he was giving the copies as gifts for Chanukah, which was only weeks away, or for Christmas.
"I admire your work. Your passion for truth, your determination, your integrity. It all comes through in the book."
"Thank you." It was the most he'd said since we'd met--practically a speech--and I was struck again by the gravity of his tone. "What's your name, by the way?"
"Reuben." He stepped closer and leaned over the desk. "Can I buy you a cup of coffee when you're done?"
I assumed he wanted advice about getting published, or a critique of his work, or both. I try to repay the kindness others have shown me on my road to publication, but the man's intensity made me cautious.
"I wish I could, but my husband is waiting for me," I said, grateful for the excuse and the man who provided it.
"What about tomorrow morning?" he said with an urgency that confirmed my wariness. "I need to discuss something with you. It's important."
"I'm sorry, I can't. My schedule is really hectic." I smiled to soften the rejection.
"I know, but--" He stopped, then scribbled a phone number on a slip of paper that he pushed towards me. "In case you change your mind," he said, and turned to leave.
"You forgot your book." I held it out to him.
His third copy.
I love devoted fans, but I read Misery and saw the movie. So in spite of the yarmulke--no guarantee of character, and for all I knew it was camouflage; anyone could buy one--I asked the store manager to accompany me to my car, and I didn't fully relax until I was home.
"Three signings in two days, and two on the same day?" Zack said after I'd told him about my new fan.
"He probably wanted writing advice, or a referral to my agent. Or a blurb." My caution seemed silly now that I was nestled in the crook of Zack's arm, a position that after eight months had lost its novelty but not its appeal.
"Did you keep the phone number he gave you?"
I found the scrap of paper in my purse and handed it to Zack. He dialed the number, listened, and hung up a moment later.
"No name, just a recorded message. Three books, huh?" The expression in his gray-blue eyes had turned pensive.
"I think he was trying to butter me up."
"Maybe. So are you going to call the guy?"
"No." Zack was trying to sound casual, but I could hear his concern. My ex-husband, Ron, would have told me what to do--or, in this case, not do. "Now if he'd bought four books," I said, and we both laughed.
I didn't feel like laughing now. Less than a minute had passed since I'd stepped out of the elevator, and the man still wasn't aware of my presence. Common sense told me to return to my room and contact security, but anger and the safety net of potential rescuers propelled me across the marble floor.
The clacking of my heels echoed loudly in the high-ceilinged lobby. His head whipped up from the magazine, and he jumped to his feet, smoothing his startled expression and his navy sports coat. He was about four inches taller than my five-six, but my Jimmy Choos erased the difference.
My heart was thumping. "You're stalking me," I said, raising my voice to attract the attention of the guests in the next bay of sofas. "I want to know why."
Color worked up his neck like a spider's web. "I'm really sorry. I didn't mean to frighten you, Miss Blume. As I told you last night, I need to talk to you. It's urgent."
"Well, you did frighten me." I wasn't surprised that he knew my real name--practically everyone at the Dutton's signing had called me Molly. But I wasn't thrilled. "Since you know my name, what's yours?"
"Show me some ID, Reuben Jastrow."
Tucking the magazine under his arm, he removed a wallet from the pocket of his gray wool slacks and handed it to me. I examined his driver's license. Same name, same face, a little less gray in the hair. He was forty-eight, several years older than I'd guessed.
I fished a pen and pad out of my purse and made a show of writing down his name, driver's license number, and an address in Beverlywood, an upscale neighborhood near Beverly Hills.
"Why are you stalking me?" I repeated after I returned his wallet.
"I wasn't--" He glanced around. "Can we talk somewhere private?"
My heart was still racing. My stomach muscles were knotted. "I don't think so. Right now I find crowds really appealing. Why the disguise, Reuben?"
He looked confused. "The disguise?"
I pointed to his head. "A hat instead of the yarmulke. The glasses. You weren't wearing them the other times."
He lifted his cap and revealed a black suede yarmulke. "My contact lenses are monovision. One is for reading, the other for distance," he said, replacing the cap. "They're okay, but not perfect, especially at night, when I'd be on my way back to L.A."
His explanation rang true--my mother wears monovision contacts and complains about their limitations. But that didn't mean it was true. "What shul do you go to, Reuben?"
He named an Orthodox synagogue in Beverlywood.
"Who's the rabbi?" I asked, testing him.
He told me that, too. "You can ask around about me, although I'd prefer you didn't. We don't want talk."
"We?" The word had a vaguely conspiratorial sound.
"My family. This is a delicate matter."
I raised a brow. "Stalking me is delicate?"
A beefy man standing nearby had been watching us. Now he approached and folded his arms. "Is this guy bothering you?" he asked me, glowering at Jastrow and the magazine, which Jastrow had twisted into a tight roll.
Hardly a lethal weapon, even if words can kill. "No, I'm fine," I told my defender. "Thanks, though."
"Okay, then." He seemed disappointed and gave Jastrow a long warning look before he walked away.
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