Authors: Thomas H. Cook
Thomas H. Cook
Open Road Integrated Media ebook
For Neil Nyren
“Long is the night to him who is awake.”
rank stared at the photograph the man had just handed him. The woman was posed against a high stone wall, and just over it, Frank could make out the gray-white tumble of a windswept sea.
“I took it at our house on Cape Cod,” the man said. He smiled quietly. “We've always had such good times up there. We'd just gotten back from sailing when I took that picture.”
Frank nodded silently, his eyes still on the photograph. Just behind it, he could see the camera he'd used on his last job, its parts spilled out over the desk. He would have to get another one when he took another case. “How old's the picture?” he asked.
“Just a few weeks. It's the most recent photograph I have.”
Frank fingered the edges of the photograph. “I'll need to keep it,” he said.
The man nodded. “Yes, I know.”
Frank glanced back down at the picture, noted the way the woman's eyes looked somewhat distant, as if, at the moment the picture had been taken, she'd been thinking of another world. It was the sort of look he'd seen in other women: It always meant there was about to be a change.
“You won't have any trouble recognizing her from that picture,” the man assured him. His eyes darted toward the photograph, then shot back up to Frank. “She's a very beautiful woman, don't you think?”
Frank concentrated on her face, the long blond hair, the light-blue eyes. It was a beautiful face, but not the kind that looked unreal, unlived-in. The blushing innocence was gone, and the eyes looked as if they'd seen a few things along the way.
“What you have to understand,” the man went on, “is how very concerned I am about her. That's why I would like for you to get on it right away.”
The man's name was Phillips, and he'd come into Frank's office only a few minutes earlier. He looked to be in his late forties, but well preserved, with sleek grayish hair and just enough lines around his eyes to give him an air of indisputable dignity. He was dressed with the typical Wall Street reserve, even down to the acceptable flair of paisley suspenders, but when he talked about the woman, his manner seemed less secure. His hands fidgeted, and there was a line of perspiration just above his upper lip.
“Her name is Virginia,” he said, almost wistfully, as if something about her had already been lost. “She's from the South, actually, like you. I mean, I assume that â¦ from the accent.”
Frank nodded slowly as his eyes drifted over to the window. In his mind, he saw granite canyons, winding creeks and lonely stands of pine, the raw South of his raw youth. Then the South dissolved like powder in a dense gray liquid, leaving only the cement stairs that led up to Forty-ninth Street.
“The thing is, I think she's going through some sort of personal crisis,” Phillips said emphatically. Then he shrugged. “It happened to my first wife,” he added reluctantly.
“What happened to your first wife?”
“She had a nervous breakdown,” Phillips said. “It came on slowly, then it just got worse. She ended up in a sanitarium. I don't want that to happen to Virginia.”
“How long have you been married, Mr. Phillips?” Frank asked.
“Nearly a year.”
Frank noted the silvery hair that lay perfectly in place on Phillips's head and compared it to the shimmering blond of his wife's. “How old is your wife?”
“Where did you meet?” he asked.
“At a party,” Phillips said. He looked at Frank sheepishly. “I never expected to marry again, not after what I went through with Clarissa. And, of course, Virginia's young enough to be my daughter.”
Frank thought of his own daughter, Sarah. She seemed to be dissolving slowly, like his pictures of the South. He never saw her face anymore. Only what the animals had done to her hands after she'd walked into the woods, stretched out by the river and taken a handful of pills she'd brought with her from his house.
“I'm sure that Clarissa â¦ her condition,” Phillips went on, “I'm sure that's why I'm so worried about Virginia.”
Frank drew his eyes over to him. “When did you get worried about her?”
Phillips looked slightly unnerved. “Well, there are really two things. The first is just the way she seems, distant, preoccupied. That's the way it's been the last few months. As if all the time she's with me, she's really someplace else entirely. She won't talk about it. I'll ask her if there's something wrong, and she'll say no, she's fine. But it's like she's a million miles away.”
“Has anyone else noticed that? Her friends?”
“She doesn't really have any friends,” Phillips said. “She'd just come to New York when I met her, and I'm not much of a social person.”
“How about relatives?”
“There are no relatives,” Phillips said. “Virginia was an only child, and her parents were killed in a car accident only a year or so before she came to the city.” He smiled softly. “I think that's part of what made her so attractive to me. That she was all alone, vulnerable. That she needed to be protected. That's how she seemed when we met.”
Frank took a deep breath and pulled out one of his little green notebooks. “And you said that this was about a year ago?”
Phillips nodded. “Just over a year.”
Frank wrote it down, giving in reluctantly to the idea that he would take the case. It didn't sound that exciting, but he did need the job.
“As I said,” Phillips added, “we've been married for almost a year now.”
Frank sat back slightly. “You said there were two things. What's the second one?”
Phillips glanced away, his face somewhat stricken. “I've noticed that a few things are missing. Things that she should have cared about.”
Frank leaned into the pencil, pressing its lead point against the plain white paper. “What things?”
Phillips returned his eyes to Frank. “Jewelry. Brooches and pendants. Pieces that I've given her over the last year or so.”
“How much are they worth?” Frank asked.
“Several thousand dollars, I'd say,” Phillips answered. “I haven't really kept track of what's disappeared.”
“When did you first notice it?”
“Probably last October was the first time.”
“Tell me about it.”
Phillips ticked off the vanishing items one by one, and as Frank listened, his eyes wandered back toward the window. The old woman who slept at the bottom of the steps had left an empty bottle of Wild Rose behind. Its metal cap rested beside it, faintly blue in the half-light of late afternoon. A few feet away, a crumpled potato-chip bag fluttered briefly, then came to rest. Barbecue-flavored, the old woman's favorite.
“So, it comes to almost a dozen pieces,” Phillips concluded. Then he leaned back in his chair, and the sound of its squeaking hinges drew Frank's attention back to him.
“Worth several thousand dollars,” Frank said. “And you have no idea what she's done with them?”
Phillips shook his head.
“Do you have a safe in the house?”
“Yes,” Phillips said. “That's the first place I looked. But none of it was there.”
“How about a safety deposit box? Does she have access to one of those?”
“She has access to several,” Phillips told him. “I checked them all.” He shook his head. “But it's not the jewelry,” he said worriedly. “It's Virginia, the way she seems to have gone offtrack.”
Frank glanced at the picture again, this time noting the intensity of her light-blue eyes, the way her lips formed a thin, red line across her mouth, the radiance of her hair in the light. Then there was the way one gloved hand squeezed determinedly at the other. She didn't look like the sort of person who went offtrack very easily.
“What about drugs?” Frank asked. “Could she be feeding a habit?”
Phillips looked offended. “Absolutely not.”
“Gambling,” Frank suggested. “People can get squeezed.”
Phillips shook his head.
Frank let the most ominous possibility drop last. “When people have suddenly come into money, there's always the chance of blackmail.”
Phillips looked astonished. “Blackmail? For what?”
“Well, that would be the whole point,” Frank said. “That you would never find out.”
Phillips shook his head determinedly. “That would be absurd.”
“Maybe not,” Frank said. “Did you ever have a background search done on her?”
“No,” Phillips blurted. “And I don't want you to do one, either. I'm not hiring you to dig into my wife's past. I want to know what's happening to her now.”
“Well, they're often related. It has to be something,” Frank said bluntly. “And you're ruling the most likely things out.”
Phillips started to speak, then hesitated.
Frank looked at him sternly. “I need to know what you're thinking.”
“Well, my worst thought is that she wants to â¦ run away or something,” Phillips told him.
“Do you know of any reason she might want to do that?”
“Before you,” Frank asked cautiously, “was there someone else?”
“No one she's ever mentioned.”
“And as far as you and her, it's â¦”
“A happy marriage,” Phillips said firmly.
Frank looked at him doubtfully. Sheila, his ex-wife, had always claimed that happy marriages existed, and he still thought that it was possible. It was just that he'd never seen one. “I have to ask these questions,” he said.
“I know,” Phillips said. “I don't mean to take offense, but it's just that I know things are fineâ
fineâbetween us, and that's why I think that she just wants to get some point across, and, perhaps because she's young, she doesn't know how to do it.”
“That she's unhappy,” Phillips said, “that she wants to leave New York.”
“Where does she want to go?”
“Back to the South,” Phillips said. “She's mentioned that several times, about moving away from New York. But I can't do that. All my work is here.” His voice tightened. He fought to control himself. “And then, there are times when I think she might just want to get away from life in general.” He looked at Frank intently. “People get like that, too, don't they?”
Frank nodded. “Yeah, they do.” Instantly, he did an inventory of all the things he'd gotten tired of during the last few years. He remembered the times he'd wanted to get away from Karen, from remembering her sister's murder in Atlanta, from the whole story of how he'd finally fallen in love with her while he'd worked on the case, then followed her to New York and fallen out of love as quickly and decisively as he'd fallen into it in the first place. After that, it was only a matter of time before he'd moved out of her Park Avenue apartment, and into the dank little office where Phillips sat now, eerily backlit by the grayish light which shone through its single dusty window, and where the inventory now abruptly ended.