She watched the taxi pull from the curb, then walked around the huge stucco mansion to a private walkway. Still unnerved, she passed a manicured hedge then she hurried up the tiled steps to her apartment. After unlocking the door she stepped inside the space she’d rented for the past two years. Only then did she breathe a sigh of relief.
A quick look inside told her everything was as she’d left it except that now a fine layer of dust covered the coffee tables and counters. The potted ficus tree near the slider had given up the ghost, judging from the dry leaves littering the floor. Spiders had nested near the shower and the interior was sweltering, the air stale.
She’d thought she would feel some tug on her heartstrings upon returning, but found she couldn’t grab her things and get out fast enough. The charm of this little one-bedroom unit, once a nanny’s quarters tucked into an Old California–style home with arched hallways, red tile roof, and wrought-iron accents, was now lost on her. What had once been her haven, a place where she could get away from the noise of LA and the emotional stress of her family, now appeared tired and worn with the dust and dead insects trapped in the cobwebs in the corners, months-old magazines strewn over the coffee table.
Closing the door, she had a quick flash of the last time she’d seen Trent. He’d pounded frantically on the carved panels of the door, his fist banging loudly on the heavy wood. Watching him through the sidelight, she’d actually worried that he might break the window. As if he’d read her mind, he turned his attention to the old panes, his fist curled and raised. She’d held up her phone so that he could see her, that she was threatening to call 911, intending to place the call and have him hauled away by the cops. His jaw had been set, his knuckles bleeding, his eyes sparking fire as he glowered at her through the panes, but he’d hesitated.
She’d backed up a step, put the phone to her ear, and watched as he’d sent her a hard, killing look, uttered something she couldn’t hear, then threw his hands over his head and walked stiffly away.
For damned ever.
“Good,” she said now, though her voice sounded a little uneven. She hated herself for her weakness where he was concerned, but wouldn’t even give herself the excuse of having just been released from the hospital. She’d always been a moron when it came to Trent. What kind of fool gets her heart broken not once, but twice, by the same man? What idiot marries the bastard after the first breakup and thinks things will change, that he’ll love her forever, that he won’t cheat on her? And especially with her own younger, more famous sister? “Stupid,” she muttered under her breath and spied a framed picture on the narrow table near the door. The 5x7 was of Trent on their wedding day.
Maybe she’d toss it later.
Then again, maybe not.
She was still legally married to him.
Why hadn’t she gone through with the divorce she’d threatened?
She cleared the sudden lump forming in her throat and decided she’d chalk up her inability to end an already-dead marriage to one more mental problem on her ever-growing list. Her eyes grew hot and she blinked hard rather than let a single teardrop fall. She’d cried her last tear for Trent Kittle. Her very last. Against her will she remembered that last fight, how his anger had radiated off him in waves and his fury had been etched in all the sharp angles of his face.
Shaking off his memory, she walked through the small apartment, which now seemed just an empty space with no heart, no soul. She probably should have let it go and moved months ago, during the filming of Dead Heat.
While Allie had moved to Portland and found her own place during shooting of the movie, Cassie, who was in far fewer scenes, had flown back and forth to LA or camped out at her mother’s house in Falls Crossing, or sometimes, when she was beat, rented a room in a hotel located a few blocks from the set.
When she’d checked herself into the hospital, the few things she’d left in the hotel room had been transferred to her mother’s house in Falls Crossing, to the very bedroom she’d occupied as a teenager. What had been a convenience at a low point in her life now seemed completely wrong. Uncomfortable. As soon as she figured out where she was going to end up, even temporarily, she’d get things moved, but she wasn’t certain where she’d land. Back here in this retro apartment in LA? Or somewhere else entirely. Of course it depended upon what had become of Allie.
For what had to be the zillionth time, she tried to call her sister and for just as many times she heard that the voice mailbox associated with the phone was full. She texted her again. Call me. But she figured this text, like all of the other ones she’d sent, would show on the screen of her own phone as delivered but not read.
What had she expected?
She walked into the kitchen area where a yogurt container with a spoon sticking out of it was growing mold. She rinsed them both and put them into the dishwasher. After this small nod to housekeeping, she checked the refrigerator to find two bottles of chardonnay, a few bottles of water, and a cube of butter. Not much sustenance here. Next, she gathered her things: makeup, a few clothes, the mail, and her laptop, then locked the door behind her and wondered when she’d return for the rest. Her future was unclear, but it would stay that way until she found out what had happened to her sister.
Outside, she located her car, a seven-year-old Honda Accord parked where she’d left it, in the shade of a palm tree. With over a hundred thousand miles on the odometer and a crack in the driver’s seat, the car was well used, but it didn’t matter. What did was its ability to start, and it did that without a hiccup, the smooth little engine turning over on the first try.
Her first break.
The gas tank was half full, so she took off. As she entered the main street, she turned on the window spray and wipers to clean off the dust, bugs, and bird droppings from the glass. LA was a clogged network of side streets and freeways as usual and she had to wear sunglasses against the glare from the California sun. Soon she was at Allie’s condo. The building was super-chic and modern, a direct opposite to her own residence.
She parked in an empty spot in the garage, one marked RESIDENTS ONLY, and took an exterior elevator to the third floor. Using the key she had made when Allie had once entrusted her to water the plants and pick up the mail while she was on location, Cassie stepped inside and drew a breath. The place was a mess, left so by the police as they’d searched the unit looking for clues to Allie Kramer’s disappearance. Drawers and cupboards had been left open, furniture moved, fingerprint dust covering most surfaces, closet doors ajar.
As she walked through the spacious unit, Cassie felt as if she were walking on Allie’s grave.
What’re you doing here? What do you think you’ll find? Something the police missed? C’mon . . . With their manpower, technology, skill, and expertise?
The simple truth was she was curious. Yes, she was searching for some clue as to the sister she desperately wanted to find, but there was also a morbid curiosity factor embedded inside her. She could get a closer glimpse into Allie’s life, a glamorous existence that she, Cassie, had never experienced and never would. And the writer in her wanted more information. Unwittingly Allie’s vanishing act had given her fodder for her next story and whetted her screenwriter’s appetite.
She walked through the connecting rooms. Long, low couches were huddled around a sleek tile fireplace where gas flames appeared to float upward through clear glass stones. The fire was off now, but Cassie remembered sitting near it and reading lines with Allie, in one of their few moments of civility.
The mental images came in bits and pieces, some painfully sharp, others blurred and nearly forgotten. Then there were those that were missing altogether, like the night that Allie disappeared. Yes, they’d fought—there were images o
f the struggle burned deep into her brain—but a lot of that night was foggy at best, some hours simply unaccounted for. God, how could she forget . . . and why? Usually her periods of missing hours were preceded by emotional anguish, but she just couldn’t remember, certainly not everything. She hated to think of the reasons, couldn’t go there. Even for Allie.
Her heart squeezed a little, but she carried on, noticing, not for the first time, that on every stretch of wall space, pictures of Allie were framed and mounted, the smaller photos collected together, the larger portraits dominating a wall in the dining area or hung over the fireplace. More photos were placed on side tables and shelves, to the point it seemed as if Allie were immortalizing herself in some kind of shrine—an homage to vanity and narcissism. But a few spaces on the wall were empty. Noticeably so. As if taken down. By Allie? Had her sister told Cassie that she was having some of her favorites, the bigger ones, retouched or remounted, that she needed better frames? It seemed so, though Cassie was fairly certain she’d never been in the condo since they’d been taken down. Or maybe the police had needed them, or, more likely, someone on the force had been a fan and helped himself. Whatever the reason, it made her uncomfortable, gave her a weird vibe that didn’t leave.
Down a short hallway, she entered Allie’s bedroom with its gold star pressed into the door. A joke? Allie’s wacky sense of humor?