D E A D R I N G E R
Charlotte Gray's world has been turned upside down. Her husband has disappeared, and now FBI agents inform her that he is a wanted international terrorist. But before Charlotte has a chance to absorb these shocking revelations, a dangerous chain of events completely shatters her perceptions of good and evil. Kidnapped by a mysterious stranger, she is warned that things are not what they seem, and that the true danger lies deep within the most trusted of place.
But Charlotte is not afraid. She's mad as hell. She will escape, and she will get even...
At ten-thirty PM on Christmas night, Charlotte Gray and her husband, Dan, arrived home from her parents' house in West Des Moines. They'd spent the previous eight hours celebrating the holiday with the usual happy-go-lucky crowd of Leone relatives. Her three older brothers had been there, too, along with her sisters-in-law and a cluster of young nieces and nephews. Miscellaneous cousins, part of the sprawling Leone clan scattered across the suburbs of Des Moines, had dropped in to sample Eleanor Leone's famous cookies and to exchange Christmas greetings.
Charlotte and Dan had overdosed on eggnog, played with her nephew Billy's cool new train set, and threatened dire punishments for any adult who flipped the hidden switch on Singing Barney's back, thus subjecting everyone to the horrors of yet another squeaky rendition of the I Love You song. In the car on the way home, Dan laughingly told Charlotte that there was nothing like a stuffed dinosaur singing about universal love and brotherhood to make him feel homicidal.
Later, she would wonder if he'd been serious.
At ten-thirty-three -- it took them only a couple of minutes to race upstairs and tear each other's clothes off -- Charlotte and Dan tumbled on top of their king-size bed and made passionate love. Then, for good measure, they started over more slowly and made love again. They'd been married less than seven months and they were both still hungry for each other's bodies. Even so, their lovemaking on this special night seemed extraordinary to Charlotte in its tenderness and intensity.
Shortly after midnight, Dan remembered that garbage pick-up was scheduled for the early hours of the morning. Charlotte, sated with sex and already half-asleep, groaned and suggested they should forget about garbage until next week. Dan snuggled up against her, then sighed and said that he'd better take care of it. He reminded her that their garbage cans were overflowing with discarded Christmas wrapping and the debris of holiday cooking.
Dropping a kiss on Charlotte's forehead, and pointing out that he was earning major Brownie points by freezing his ass off in the cause of trash control, Dan pulled on a pair of jeans, and muttered something rude about Christmas cookies when he couldn't fasten the snap. The he tugged on the new sweater she'd given him with the polar bear on the front, and trekked downstairs. He looked good in the sweater, Charlotte thought. The dark color brought out the blue in his eyes, and complimented his light brown hair.
Drifting off to sleep almost before Dan left the room, she heard the garage door go up and the clang of garbage cans being dragged across the concrete floor.
Those were the last sounds she ever heard from her husband. Setting the dark green cans tidily on the frozen grass that separated the sidewalk from the road, Riordan Michael Gray, affectionately known as Dan, disappeared into the snowy night, never to be seen again.
When Charlotte finally realized Dan hadn't returned to their bed it was four AM on the morning after Christmas. Alarmed, but not yet panicked, she ran downstairs to check on his whereabouts, and discovered the garage door was closed again. Puzzled, she wondered if Dan had decided to tackle some other minor chore and then fallen asleep in his favorite couch potato chair.
But Dan wasn't in their tiny den, or the living room. Their home was part of a new townhouse complex, and it was modestly sized with no nooks and crannies. It took very few minutes of searching to reveal that Dan was nowhere in the house or the attached garage, and that his down jacket was missing from its hook by the back door, along with his snowboots. Checking the den for the second time, Charlotte quelled a surge of rising dread. Where could Dan be? Her husband wasn't an athlete, but he wasn't prone to pratfalls either, although she supposed it was possible he'd encountered a patch of black ice and slipped on the frozen sidewalk.
Refusing to give way to the fear nipping at her heels, she dragged on a ski jacket over a pair of sweats and ventured outside, teeth chattering in the frigid night air of Iowa in winter.
When she could find no trace of her husband in the area that fronted their townhouse, terror washed over her in a giant wave. My God, where was Dan? Something dreadful must have happened to him while she lay sleeping. Had he suffered a heart attack? Been mugged and left for dead? Stomach heaving, she pushed that awful thought away and started to run up and down the sidewalk, screaming his name, peering behind bushes, expecting to find his limp body beneath every parked car.
She hadn't realized -- hadn't cared -- how much noise she was making until her neighbors, Alan and Lisa, came out of their townhouse and tried to lead her back inside. Frantic to find Dan, Charlotte refused their offers of help, pulling away from them and sobbing out Dan's name. In the end, Alan and Lisa had to forcibly restrain her and carry her into their house.
Alan dialed 911 while Charlotte wept onto Lisa's shoulder, rambling incoherently about kidnappers and carjackers and drive-by shootings. Lisa and Alan were sympathetic, or at least not openly skeptical, but the police officers who responded to the emergency call soon pointed out to Charlotte that there was no evidence -- none -- that her husband had been kidnapped. Or carjacked. Or shot. Or brutalized in any way. Until she started crying out for her husband, nobody had reported hearing any suspicious sounds. No gunshots, no squealing tires, no screams for help had disturbed the peaceful night. The garbage cans still stood neatly on the sidewalk. The icy winter grass betrayed no hint of a struggle. There was no dropped item of clothing. There was, in fact, no evidence that any crime of any sort had been committed.
Slowly, with a growing sense of incredulity, it dawned on Charlotte that the police believed Dan had grown tired of their marriage and had voluntarily walked away. That he'd gotten up from their bed and literally walked to freedom, deliberately disappearing into the darkness, not even bothering to take his wallet and credit cards with him.
Only the fact that both their cars, her blue Saturn and Dan's new silver Toyota, were parked safely in the garage, provided some slight contradiction of the police theory that Dan had chosen to leave home entirely of his own free will. She did manage to get one of the cops to concede that it was strange her husband had walked into falling snow, with a temperature ten degrees below freezing, when there were two perfectly good cars available for him to use. That, however, was as much of a mystery as the cops were prepared to allow.
The officers promised to put out a state-wide alert for hospitals to be on the look-out for an unidentified male with concussion or memory loss or any other inability to identify himself. Charlotte had the impression that the cops dutifully took down her description of Dan more to pacify her than for any other reason: white male, brown hair worn rather long, grayish-blue eyes, exactly six feet tall, average build. No distinguishing features except a tattoo of a rose on his butt with the name Julie written underneath.
The first time she'd seen that tattoo, Dan had grinned and told her no man should be held accountable for acts of sheer folly committed when he was seventeen. And that was all Charlotte had ever known about Julie. The niggling thought flashed across her mind that Dan had been awfully good at using humor to turn away questions, but she banished it almost before she had time to register what she was thinking.
At one surreal point in her conversation with the police, Charlotte even grasped the incredible fact that they were considering the possibility that she might have killed Dan herself and disposed of the body in some snow-covered corn field outside of town. Fortunately, both car engines were cold, and there wasn't a spot of blood in the house, or any sign of a struggle. Otherwise Charlotte wondered if she might not have greeted the dawn from the vantage point of a police interrogation room.
As soon as the cops satisfied themselves that she probably hadn't murdered her husband, they left, telling her they'd be in touch once they'd checked the local hospitals. A day later they kept their promise and called to let her know that no unidentified male matching Dan's description had been treated in any hospital in the state of Iowa over the preceding twenty-four hours.
If not for the fact that her father was a successful building contractor, a fixture in the local community for more than thirty-five years, Charlotte suspected that would have been the end of any police interest in Dan's disappearance. The cops would have filed a Missing Person report and turned their attention to more urgent business, at least until the next time an unidentified dead body turned up. But Chuck Leone was a councilman and just a bit too important to ignore, so the police handed the case over to a couple of detectives, and promised Chuck that they would come out to interview his daughter in depth if seventy-two hours passed and there was no word from Dan.
Charlotte's parents tried to persuade her to come and stay with them while they waited for news, but she was adamant in her refusal. Even though each hour passed without producing any trace of her missing husband, she still expected to pick up the phone at any minute and hear kidnappers delivering a ransom demand. She couldn't understand why nobody seemed to grasp how important it was for her to stay close to home, right by the phone, so that she could rescue Dan from whatever disaster must have befallen him.
In response to her frantic plea, her father agreed that when the ransom demand came through, he would help her to raise the necessary money. Despite the fog of misery that blurred her grasp of other people's emotions, Charlotte realized that her father didn't believe he would ever have to make good on his promise.
Her family and friends weren't quite as obvious as the police in voicing their skepticism, but as day faded into night and back to day again, they tried to probe gently to discover if there were any stresses in her marriage, any hidden reason why Dan might choose to walk away from a relationship that had seemed so superficially perfect.
Charlotte could barely wrap her mind around the questions, let alone provide answers. She knew with every fiber of her being that she and Dan had loved each other and that they'd been blissfully happy in their life together. Therefore, Charlotte knew he couldn't have left the marriage voluntarily. Therefore it followed logically that he must be a prisoner somewhere. From her perspective it was quite simple. She and Dan were madly in love, which meant Dan had been forced to leave home against his will. He was being held in a basement dungeon, unable to communicate with her. There was absolutely no other way to explain his absence.
Since Charlotte refused to leave her house, her parents, protective as always of their youngest child and only daughter, quietly instituted a system whereby they made sure she was never alone. She told her brothers that she didn't need baby-sitting but, insofar as she could feel anything beyond terror over Dan's disappearance, she was grateful that they didn't listen, and that at least one member of her exuberant, interfering, loving family was always on hand, doing their best to keep her from flying apart at the seams. It was good to know that in a world gone mad, her family was the same solid anchor it had always been.
Another night passed in a blur of sleepless torment. When the seventy-two hour mark had come and gone, a detective called to make an appointment to come out to interview her with his partner. Charlotte waited for the cops to arrive, trying not to jump out of her skin in the process.
Her mother, Eleanor, had failed to persuade Charlotte to eat any breakfast, but she hadn't given up hope and kept popping into the living room to offer bagels, or cornflakes, or scrambled eggs. Charlotte had finally agreed to drink something, simply to put her mom out of her misery. Now Eleanor was puttering around the small kitchen, trying to maintain the illusion that preparing a pot of Charlotte's favorite Constant Comment tea would somehow set the world magically to rights.
Her father, Chuck, wasn't quite as good at pretending. He sat in the leather armchair -- Dan's chair -- unable to disguise the fact that he hadn't a clue what to do or say next to comfort her. His hands, gnarled and arthritic from years of work on building sites, rested awkwardly in his lap. He'd always been a man who found deeds easier than words, and for the past few days, words seemed to have deserted him completely.
A knock at the front door made them both jump. Chuck, relieved to have a chore, sprang up and returned to the living room bringing two middle-aged men with him. The men introduced themselves as Detective Rob Wexler and Detective Sergeant Hank Diebold.
What kind of a name was Hank, Charlotte thought wildly. Nobody was called Hank anymore. After introducing himself, Hank didn't seem to have much to say, even though he was presumably the senior officer. He retreated to a corner of the living room and watched the proceedings in a silence Charlotte found nerve-wracking. But then, for the past three days, she'd found almost everything nerve-wracking. Having spent the first thirty years of her life as the beloved daughter of two good people, who'd stayed happily married to each other for forty-one years, she wasn't well prepared for marrying a husband who up and vanished six months after the wedding.
Detective Rob Wexler was short and overweight with a bristling mustache. He reminded Charlotte of Hercule Poirot, and she wanted to laugh with Dan about how old-fashioned the guy's handlebar mustache and slicked down hair looked.
Except that Dan wasn't available to share the joke. Charlotte fought a fresh wave of panic. Panic that curdled into a feeling of nausea, an unwelcome counterpart to the headache that had been throbbing and pounding at her temples ever since she woke up and found that her husband had slipped away into the ether.
"We're sorry to bother you, Mrs. Gray." Detective Wexler didn't manage to inject much sincerity into his disclaimer. "I know how upset you must be by what's happened."
"I'm upset that nobody seems to be making any serious effort to find my husband." Charlotte tried to stop pacing and found that she couldn't. It was as if her legs functioned on some non-stop motion command from a part of her brain that refused to switch off. "I know what everyone at police headquarters thinks, but there's no reason why Dan would have left home voluntarily. We weren't unhappy together. We didn't have a fight. I don't understand why nobody except me believes he's been kidnapped, or ...or worse."
She was at the point where she was baffled enough to consider anything, up to and including the possibility that Dan had been abducted by aliens. Being sucked up into an inter-galactic spaceship seemed a lot more credible than the alternative, which was that Dan had chosen to leave her. He loved her, she loved him. She would never, ever believe that he'd walked out on her.
Copyright 2000-2015 Jasmine Cresswell | Email Jasmine at firstname.lastname@example.org
Design by Tammy Seidick Design