For you my loyal readers:
Here's another exclusive sneak peek of the latest novel in the Detective Jack Stratton Series
And Then She Was Gone
Chapter 2 - A Bright Future
Stacy sat in her stiff office chair and listened to the quiet. All was silent around her little cubicle; the last of her coworkers had gone home over an hour ago. But to be sure, she raised herself up on the arms of her chair to peek over the cubicle wall at the maze of cubbies that surrounded hers. Only when she was certain she was alone did she dare to break one of the standing rules at H.T. Wells Financial: she slipped her aching feet out of their high-heeled prisons. Wiggling her toes, she settled back in her chair and let herself enjoy her mini-rebellion.
Her phone’s beep announced yet another text from her mother. She glanced at the screen. Her mother had forwarded her an advertisement for a Taser. In the picture, a white-haired grandmother posed like Rambo. Personal Protection Guaranteed, the ad promised in giant type.
Stacy didn’t reply. It was the fourth similarly themed text in the last few days: pepper spray, guard dogs, even a gun safety class. This had all started after her mother read an article about a rash of purse snatchings in Fairfield. In spite of Stacy’s insistence that her new home was in a quiet bedroom community, her mother still worried.
“Stacy.” A man’s deep, slightly irritated voice broke the silence.
Startled, Stacy jumped out of her chair, banging her knee on the desk drawer in the process. So she wasn’t alone after all.
“Do you have a second?” her boss called out.
She peered over the cubicles toward his office. “Yes.” She tried to smile instead of wince. “Do you need something, Mr. Chambers?”
Leland Chambers, director of finance, stepped out of his posh corner office. Like a boorish customer flagging down a waitress, he summoned her over. “Come here. I need to speak with you.”
Scrambling, Stacy jammed her feet back into her shoes and rushed down the corridor of the empty office, her hurried response fueled by her need for this job.
“Here.” Leland dumped a stack of folders into her arms, then sat down in his high-backed leather chair behind his wide mahogany desk. “I’m taking a long weekend on the Vineyard. I’ll need those done by Wednesday.”
“Yes. Certainly, Mr. Chambers.”
“Call me Leland.”
Stacy nodded, but she had no intention of honoring the request. Leland Chambers was upper management and she was a worker bee. At H.T. Wells, the haves and have-nots didn’t mix—if they wanted to keep their jobs.
Stacy Shaw was a mid-level financial analyst. Everything about her dress matched her position—plain and practical. She wore a gray silk blouse, classic black pants, a narrow leather belt, and simple black heels to compensate for her diminutive stature. Her makeup was light and natural, her blond hair neat, and her only jewelry was a pair of pearl stud earrings. All compliant with HR’s dress code.
“Do you need anything else?” she asked. “I had planned to work late tonight.”
“Won’t your husband be upset?”
“He’s out of town on business.” Stacy self-consciously held the pile of papers to her chest.
Mr. Chambers swiveled slightly in his chair and sized her up. “I’m surprised he leaves your side.”
Stacy pretended to read the top folder in an attempt to hide her disgust at the shallow come-on. “He has to for his job.”
Mr. Chambers snapped his fingers. “That’s who you look like. I’ve been trying to nail it down since you came on board.”
“Who?” she asked, but then immediately regretted doing so, fearing who she was about to be compared to.
“Jennifer Lawrence. A lot shorter, but your smile is spot on.”
Stacy lowered her eyes as her hand tucked an errant strand of naturally blond hair behind her ear. “Thank you,” she mumbled, and made a hasty exit from his office.
“Hey, wait a minute.” Mr. Chambers jumped up and followed after her. “I’m heading down to O’Flaherty’s.” He pulled his office door closed and strode over to her cubicle. “Accounting just wrapped up the end of the quarter, and they’re celebrating.”
Mr. Chambers stopped with one foot inside her cubicle and angled his shoulders. There was something different about his stance; Stacy couldn’t put her finger on what it was until the words “strike a pose” jumped to mind. From his tasseled leather loafers and pleated khakis to his fitted white shirt and perfectly groomed goatee, Mr. Chambers’ style seemed carefully lifted from a GQ magazine. Even his fingernails were expertly manicured.
His gaze surveyed the empty office before it settled on her. “Would you care to join me?”
Stacy shook her head. “Thank you, but I want to finish up a couple of things.” She sat down.
“That works out well for me.” A confident smile spread across his broad face. “I’m going for a quick run around Hamilton Park first, while it’s still light out. It’s a beautiful park—during the day.” He twirled the keyring to his Porsche Carrera 911 around his long finger. “That gives you an hour. By that time, Accounting will have had enough drinks in them that they won’t be so stiff. Is that enough time for you?”
“You’ve already done enough time in the mine for one day. Besides, the buck stops with me. I’ll adjust your time card.” He gave her an over-the-top, slow-motion wink.
“I couldn’t let you do that.” She slid her hand under her thigh and scrunched up in her chair.
“You can’t—but I can.” He leaned against the cubicle wall. “Think of it as a ‘welcome on board’ bonus.”
She crossed her arms tightly. “I’ve been here almost three months now.”
“Happy anniversary.” He opened his hand as if he were giving her a gift. “It’s only an hour, and really, you’re doing great work. I believe in rewarding a job well done.”
Maybe it was his choice of words—happy anniversary—but as her thoughts shifted to her beloved husband Michael, she was certain he would warn her not to go anywhere near this kind of guy. “Thank you,” she said, “but I really have to be heading home. I’m just going to finish up the Right-A-Way Shipping report and call it a night.”
She wiggled her mouse and tried to change the subject. “I noticed they were spending a large amount of money on insurance.”
“The Right-A-Way Shipping report?” Mr. Chambers repeated.
“Yes. At my last job, this same level of coverage was a quarter of this amount—”
“That report is done.” Mr. Chambers’ tone changed. He stepped forward and glared at her monitor. “What’re you doing with it?” He pressed against her chair, pinning her in place.
“I’m supposed to review the report and—”
“No,” Mr. Chambers snapped, “you’re supposed to review your section of the report, and you assured me that you had. Are you changing what you submitted?”
His sudden change in demeanor caught her off guard. She’d gotten a glimpse of Mr. Chambers’ “other side”—as they called it in the break room—before, but it had never been directed at her. She cleared her throat. “No. But I found a discrepancy with—”
Mr. Chambers scoffed. “You should have nothing to do with that. I’ve already reviewed and approved the report myself.”
“Umm…” She shuffled some papers around on her desk, unsure what to say next.
“Is this why you’re working late? When I approved your overtime, I thought you were catching up on tasks, not just making busywork for yourself so you can get paid time and a half.”
“I’m not! I was just—”
He thrust a finger at the monitor. “Close the file and send me what you’ve done to it.”
Stacy nodded. She pressed a few buttons on the keyboard and opened the mail program. “I haven’t changed anything.” She swallowed.
Mr. Chambers spun his keys around his long finger like an outlaw gunslinger twirling his pistol. “I’ll take a look at it in the morning.” His voice had softened somewhat, but he stood with both feet planted wide just behind her chair. “You couldn’t know, but once these reports are submitted, it’s a nightmare to make corrections. I’d rather get a public flogging than have to request to change it.”
Despite his new tone, she kept up her guard. She sat rigidly, focused on the monitor. “I’m sorry. I…” She wanted to bolt, but he hovered so close to her chair that it was impossible. “I only highlighted the line. I didn’t alter the report.”
His keys chimed as they spun round again. “I’ll review it later. I’m sure it’s fine. No harm, no foul. Like you said, you didn’t change anything.”
Stacy nodded demurely, but didn’t turn around.
“Are you sure you won’t reconsider? O’Flaherty’s makes a heck of a Long Island Iced Tea.”
Mr. Chambers’ Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality frightened her. “No thank you.” She opened up her calendar. “Have a good night.”
“I’m sure we’ll be at O’Flaherty’s for a while if you change your mind. If not, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Feeling like a prisoner in a cell, Stacy sat there and listened to his keys jingle as he walked away, tapping each cubicle wall as he passed it. Her heart thumped in her chest and her hand trembled as she moved the mouse. She closed her eyes and tried to calm her breathing. She wanted to call Michael, but she wasn’t sure whether he was having dinner with clients. He had called earlier from his hotel room to let her know that he’d arrived and that their old car had held up on the long journey. And considering nothing had really happened, she thought there was no reason to get Michael upset, too.
She pushed the incident with Mr. Chambers aside and got back to work. The requests in her inbox were dealt with quickly, and it took only another forty-five minutes for her to finish her reports. After clicking the last report closed, she triumphantly sent it off.
She shut down her computer and sighed as she studied the framed picture on her desk: her and Michael honeymooning on a beach in the Bahamas. Had it really been seven years already? A wave of emotions washed over her. Everything was changing so fast. New house, new job, and now… she gently laid a hand on her stomach. “It keeps getting better,” she whispered. “My little miracle.”
She grabbed her favorite tan handbag off the floor, and realized it was damp. She sniffed and smelt the pungent scent of carpet cleaner.
On her way out, she passed by her coworkers’ cubicles, filled with photos of happy families, smiling kids, and hugging couples. She was starting to know her new coworkers, and the more she did, the fonder of them she became.
A shudder ran through Stacy’s body, but not because she was cold. The air conditioner had already turned off for the evening, and the heat of summer had quickly warmed the office. No, it was the thought of the silence, the cold stillness, she faced at home without Michael that made her wince. She had grown up a latchkey kid, in a quiet house with no brothers or sisters, and parents who were always gone. But instead of conditioning her to enjoy being alone, the experience had done the opposite. She hated being alone.
An industrial vacuum cleaner that looked like a small Zamboni rounded the corner up ahead. At first, the burly custodian kept his eyes focused on the area in front of the machine as he pushed it down the hallway, but then he noticed her and switched the vacuum off.
“Hello, Mrs. Shaw.” His eyes darted all around the office, never meeting hers.
“Hi, Jeremy.” She always tried her best to make polite conversation with Jeremy; he had few friends but he was a sweet young man. She spoke carefully so the mentally challenged man would understand her. “You’re working late.”
“Like you.” Jeremy smiled lopsidedly. He spoke deliberately, but his speech was slurred and hard to understand. He wiped his hand on his coveralls. “It’s not raining out.”
She nodded. Even though Jeremy towered over her, she wasn’t frightened. “Jeremy, did you clean my carpet again last night?”
His eyes brightened. “You saw?”
“Yes. But… didn’t you just clean it on Monday?”
“I cleaned your office extra.” Jeremy looked at the ceiling. “You like it? It smells nice?”
Stacy sighed. She didn’t want to hurt his feelings. “Yes. But next time maybe you can just vacuum?”
“Okay. T’ank you. I’ll do that.”
“Well, have a nice night, Jeremy.”
Jeremy awkwardly offered his hand to shake. As she shook it, she struggled not to recoil at the touch of his rough, callused skin.
“See you tomorrow,” Jeremy said.
Jeremy watched her until she disappeared through the door. Then she heard the vacuum cleaner turn back on.
Outside, the warm, moist summer night air felt wonderful on Stacy’s face. The sun had set, and faint stars peeked out from behind dark clouds that were rolling in. Away from the office, Stacy felt free. She wanted nothing more than to discard her heels, take off her bra, slip into one of her husband’s t-shirts, and curl up on the couch with a pint of ice cream.
A voice behind her made her jump.
“Is the job making you crazy yet?”
Stacy’s hand flew to her chest.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you.” Betty Robinson snuffed out her cigarette with her heel and walked over. “Did Mr. Happy Pants chain you to the desk, or are you working late, fixing one of his mistakes that he’s blaming you for?”
Stacy chuckled. “Chased me around the desk would be more accurate.”
Betty was on the north side of fifty and seemed as though she’d probably had the same tough exterior since college. She was tall for a woman, and her heels made her even more imposing. When they first met, Stacy wondered why Betty wore outfits that drew attention to her thick, broad frame—but after she came to know her, she realized that Betty liked to be intimidating.
“You haven’t asked any questions for a few days,” Betty said. “Does that mean the torch has been passed?”
“Hardly,” Stacy said. “I think it’ll take me another three months to get the hang of everything you did. How’s upstairs?”
“Living the dream.” Betty smiled coyly. “Make sure you keep up on the Henkle filing or the end of the summer will be killer for you.”
“I will.” Stacy cleared her throat. “Hey, did you work on the Right-A-Way Shipping report for Mr. Chambers?”
Betty took out a cigarette. “I still work on it. Don’t tell me something’s wrong with the report or I’ll scream.”
“You work on it now?” Stacy asked, confused.
“I approve the PO section. Leland does the insurance.” Betty’s tone became terse. “Is there an issue?”
“No. But I did notice we overpaid the insurance premium again, and from my records check, it was at least the second time it’s happened.”
Betty let a stream of smoke drift from her mouth, then exhaled in a huff. “It happens. They’ve shifted the payment dates before. As long as the insurance doesn’t lapse. That would be a total crap storm. Do me a favor and forget about it. If you touch it now, five people have to sign off on it again, including me.” She looked down at Stacy’s stomach. “You’re going to be showing soon. When are you going to make the announcement?”
“Soon. My obstetrician says everything looks good, but please don’t say anything. Michael wants us to wait until after the first trimester just in case something goes wrong. You’re the only one that knows.”
“I won’t say a word. But no complications?”
“None. My own little miracle.”
“With everything that happened before that’s wonderful news.”
An older blue BMW came flying down the road and pulled up to the curb in front of them. Betty strolled over to it. “Do you need a lift?”
“No. My car’s out in the company lot.”
“Bruce and I would love to have you two over for dinner again,” Betty said as she opened the passenger door. “Wouldn’t we, Bruce?”
Her husband leaned across the front seat and smiled. He was a tall man with a friendly grin that softened his square face. “We’d love to. We can get something delivered and I’ll get a decent meal. How about tomorrow?”
“It’ll have to be next week. Michael is coming home tomorrow,” Stacy said.
“Michael’s out of town?” Betty asked.
“Oh, is he…” Bruce said.
Bruce and Betty exchanged a quick glance.
“If you’re free,” Bruce kept his eyes on his wife until she nodded, “then why not just come tonight?” He reached a long arm over the seat back and pushed open the back door. “It’ll be a low-key, intimate dinner for three. How does Chateau de Mama Mia’s Pizza sound?”
“If you want the company,” Betty added.
Stacy was appreciative of the offer, but said, “Not tonight. Actually, I’m trying to take advantage of the time to myself. I’m looking forward to doing some tidying up before Michael comes home.”
“The job has made you crazy,” Betty quipped as she got into the car. “Or you’re nesting. Don’t overdo it.”
Stacy waved as they pulled away from the curb. She walked around the corner of the building to the company parking lot. There were only a couple of cars in the lot, and she walked straight to her Civic.
The driver’s door squeaked as she opened it. She mentally added lube the car door to her honey-do list. Michael had suggested they get her another car, but Stacy knew they couldn’t afford it. Right now, every penny they had was going into the savings they would need in a few months.
She sat down in the driver’s seat, cranked the window down, and turned the key.
Absolutely nothing happened. Not even a click.
She turned the key again. Nothing.
“Oh, no. Not now.” She pushed the gas down and turned the key again. The engine didn’t so much as sputter.
She fought back tears and laid her head on top of the steering wheel. Her phone rang, and she jumped. When she saw the caller ID, her smile returned. “Are you psychic?”
“Yes, I am. You’re about to tell me that you love me,” Michael joked.
“I do love you. I’m so glad to hear your voice.”
“Why? Is everything all right?”
Stacy hesitated. No, she wanted to say, but she knew that would only worry him, and he was already a bundle of nerves because of the pregnancy. “Everything’s fine.”
“Oh, okay. You sounded a little upset. Rough day?”
She chuckled. “Nothing that I can’t handle. Really, I’m fine. You’re the one with a big day tomorrow. Is everything ready for your presentation?”
“Yup. I just spent an hour at the copy store making handouts,” Michael said. “I’m hoping between those and a few boxes of donuts and coffee, they’ll stay for the whole presentation.”
“I’m sure you’ll knock their socks off.” Stacy took the keys out of the ignition. “You sound tired.”
“Actually, I am. The long drive was brutal,” Michael admitted. “It’s been an exhausting day. Tomorrow looks like a beast too.”
“Then go get some rest. I’ll see you tomorrow night. I love you.” Stacy blew a soft kiss into the phone.
“Love you too. ’Night.” Michael hung up.
Stacy slumped back into the seat. She crossed her hands over the steering wheel and stared across the road to the park. A warm breeze blew through the open window; it was a beautiful night. She took a deep breath, enjoying the balmy summer air.
She knew if she cut through the park, it would be only a short twenty-minute walk from here to home. And she had gone to the park a few times with Michael during her lunch break, and thought it was a lovely place. She could leave the car overnight, then Michael could fix it when he got home and they’d save the money for a tow.
Satisfied with her plan, Stacy grabbed her handbag, closed the window, locked the car door, and crossed the street.
The entrance to Hamilton Park was marked by a beautiful stone archway. Modeled after Roman architecture, its twin stone columns towered fifteen feet high on each side, suspending a rounded arch between them, and thick, pitted iron gates were welded eternally open.
Inside the park, old-fashioned streetlamps lit the paved main paths. A web of smaller unlit paths crisscrossed the park, but Stacy elected to stick to the lighted areas. As she walked, she made plans in her head of all the things she would need to buy over the next few months: nursery furniture, baby clothes, and one of those instant baby thermometers. Her shopping list grew longer with each step. While she hurried along, she spoke aloud to herself. She didn’t care; no one was around, and she had no one else to talk to.
“Perhaps in a little while, we can buy an affordable car. Reliable. Maybe a mini-van. If we get used, then I might be able to stay home—for a little while at least.”
She looked up, and suddenly realized that beyond the sporadically lit path, the park was dark. Completely dark. Her happiness dissipated like the breeze as Mr. Chambers’ words from earlier suddenly struck her: “It’s a beautiful park—during the day.”
During the day…
Stacy was passing by a monument—a neoclassical column of marble that stood twelve feet high. The top of the column was decorated with four stone faces of older men, one facing in each of the four compass directions. Stacy felt as if those faces were scowling down at her in silent judgment as she passed. She shuddered and turned away.
The park now felt different. The rolling hills and groomed grounds no longer reminded her of families walking and children playing. Now, unnervingly, they reminded her of a cemetery.
She sped up.
The faster she walked, the louder her heels rang on the tar. The tap-tap-tap of her shoes matched the rapid pace of her heart. A bench ahead drew her focus. At first it looked like her couch on laundry day, covered in a mound of clothes. But as she drew closer, the mound moved.
A homeless man sat up and glared directly at her. He had apparently laid two filled trash bags over himself, and as he rose, the contents of one of the bags spilled onto the walkway.
Instinctively, Stacy moved to the far side of the path. The man crouched low over his bags, looking like a rabid raccoon protecting his spilled trash. He glared at her, his eyes barely visible behind bushy eyebrows, his yellow teeth poking out from his unkempt beard. He cursed under his breath as he watched her pass.
Stacy took a deep breath and upped her pace. Her mother’s words of warning now filled her with dread. She clenched her bag to her chest and hustled on.
The lovely park’s tall oaks and flowering shrubs had turned ominous. A dead tree’s branches clawed at the sky like skeletal fingers. Just a few yards off the path, everything was shrouded in the murk, and dark shadows played tricks on her mind. Every sound now took on a foreboding tone: branches groaned and creaked; leaves rustled; an unseen creature scurried along the undergrowth. Goose bumps crawled across Stacy’s skin. Her shoulders hunched inward as she marched forward like a hiker in the winter woods, her body leaning forward against an invisible storm.
She was almost jogging now. The heel of one of her leather shoes had dug a deep blister into the back of her foot.
As she crested a hill, she stopped suddenly. Up ahead, the path dipped down again—into darkness. Peering, she could just make out another of the old-fashioned streetlights, but it was unlit, as lifeless as a dead tree. And without it…
Stacy looked around like a startled bird. The heat of the night now felt thick and oppressive. She took a deep breath and tried to marshal her resolve.
She started forward, her skin prickling as the night air wrapped around her. Like a child, she found herself holding her breath as she hurried through the darkness. With every step, a shiver crawled down her spine. But when she heard the rush of water from a fountain up ahead, she knew she was almost out of the darkened area. And when she saw the next streetlight through the trees, shining like a welcome beacon, she breathed a sigh of relief.
“I can make it,” she reassured herself.
A muffled sound made her turn to the side. Not far away, along the tree line atop the hill, a darker shadow stood apart from the others—a hulking silhouette emerging from the woods.
The figure rushed toward her.
Stacy shrieked incoherently and bolted.
Her pursuer’s footsteps rang loudly off the tar behind her. They were heavy and fast. Tears blurred Stacy’s vision, but she cast one fleeting glance over her shoulder. Like a bear crashing down from a mountain, her pursuer was gaining on her fast.
The figure was still shrouded in darkness, and the only detail Stacy could make out clearly was that they wore a ski mask.
As she ran, Stacy rifled through her handbag, searching desperately for her phone. Tight bands circled her chest as she gasped for air. Her heart thumped and thrashed like an unbalanced washing machine.
Her fingers found the phone. She began to dial. But just then her heel caught on a broken edge in the paving stones, and she stumbled and pitched forward.
She would have fallen if her assailant hadn’t caught her. Long fingers seized her belt around her waist. The leather dug into her stomach as she was yanked back.
“Let me go,” she pleaded.
Hoping they were just after her money, she flung her handbag as far into the woods as she could. “Take it. Just take it!” she screamed.
Her scream turned into a guttural wail when the attacker ignored the bag and kept hold of her.
Her hands clutched at the air. She felt like she was swimming through a riptide, desperate to make it to shore.
She darted a glance at her attacker. The front of the ski mask was painted with a skull—a skull with a twisted, evil grin. She recoiled and tried to pull away.
If they don’t want money…
She fought back as hard as she could. She raised her leg and drove her heel down onto her attacker’s foot. A growl of pain emerged from beneath the mask, and the fingers grasping her belt let go.
Stacy took off.
“Help!” she cried out into the stillness of the night. But no one answered.
The light was still too far away, and there was no reason to believe mere light would protect her now. Her only chance was to lose her attacker in the darkness. So she kicked off her heels and ran off the path, the wet grass slick beneath her bare feet.
She still had her phone in her hand, and once again she tried to dial. But her attacker had recovered quickly, and now closed the distance, fast. She felt herself pushed from behind, and she pitched forward and landed hard on her chest. The phone flew from her hand and landed softly in the grass in front of her, the numbers 911 illuminated on the screen. She just needed to press the call button.
But it was too late. A hand grabbed the back of her neck. Long fingers wrapped around her belt and yanked her up.
She screamed and grabbed at the hands, but the thick fingers only tightened their grip. A muscular arm circled her waist from behind and dragged her toward the woods. Her arms thrashed, but she could only beat helplessly at the air. She kicked backward, and her foot struck flesh, but her attacker didn’t slow.
Fear turned into abject terror. “No,” she wept.
She dug her feet into the ground as she was yanked backward, trying to slow their progress. A rock sliced deep into her heel and blood flowed, but still she struggled.
Finally her attacker must have decided they were far enough from the path, as Stacy was flung roughly to the ground, face up.
The attacker’s full weight dropped down on top of her.
Something brushed against her thigh. Stacy shoved her palms into the ground and pushed up as hard as she could. “No!”
With one last burst of strength, she clawed at her attacker’s face. Grasping the ski mask, she wrenched it off.
Her eyes went wide. “You?”
A fist struck her violently. The blow cut her lip. She tried to think, but her mind fogged. “No…” she mumbled.
Then the fist struck again, and everything went black.