(UNCORRECTED PROOF: please excuse typos and grammatical errors.)
No More Secrets Bonus Content
These scenes are in Sophie’s point-of-view and best enjoyed AFTER you read No More Secrets.
With her back to the wall and the entrance within view, Sophie Renau watches the foot traffic outside the window to Glenny’s Café as she waits for her two o’clock appointment. Her choice of seat was deliberate. Nobody can surprise her from behind and all exits are in her line of sight.
By all appearances, with her legs loosely crossed and the warm Americano within reach, she’s relaxed. One of many patrons waiting on a friend to join her for coffee. Inside, she’s anything but.
She can describe in detail a passerby from ten minutes ago, from the brand of his loafers to the way he walked with an uneven gait as if his legs were different lengths. She can recite verbatim the conversation two tables over as two women heatedly argue the merits of online vs. in-person class instruction.
Sophie never stops watching. Never ceases to listen. Never relaxes her guard.
The one time she had several years back, a young girl died. Alma had put her trust in her, and Sophie had let her down in the worst way. It had cost Alma her life. And Sophie’s questioned her judgement since.
She also changed careers. Rather than obtaining new identities for and re-homing kids with angels in her adoptive mom Murielle’s network, an off-the-books witness protection of sorts for teenage runaways escaping abuse, she went legit as a licensed bounty hunter. Now she hunts the assholes who wouldn’t think twice about harming an innocent child.
Sophie stirs her coffee, glancing at her watch. The entrance door swings open and in walks Jenna Mason. Right on time. Sophie plants an elbow on the table, nudging aside her coffee. She twists one of the five gold studs stacked up her ear shell, waving her fingers when Jenna spots her.
Jenna is a sister of sorts. Murielle brought her into the network when Jenna, who used to go by the name of Lily Carson before Sophie obtained new papers for her, was sixteen and pregnant and running away from her parents. Now she’s famous, what with the release of two Tabby’s Squirrel children’s books in six months, both hitting bestseller lists their release weeks, and an upcoming movie that’s been hyped as the animation blockbuster of the summer. She was popular among her fans before, but after Jenna came forward with her story about going into hiding when she was younger for a murder she hadn’t committed, her popularity catapulted to celebrity status.
Following through on paying-it-forward, Jenna is now one of Murielle’s largest benefactors, a network Sophie refuses to be a part of going on several years now.
“Hey,” Jenna says when she reaches Sophie’s table. Sophie stands and hugs Jenna, towering over her. Though almost everyone does. Jenna’s smile is bigger than she is by a thousandfold. “You look great.”
Sophie touches her tight auburn-brown curls and looks down her length. Plaid blouse with sleeves rolled to her elbows, charcoal skinny jeans, and Doc Marten combat boots she can easily run in. Or chase skips, all depending on the day. She left her pistol locked in the glove compartment.
“So do you, flower girl.” An endearment that stuck when they first met over fourteen years ago when Sophie was in her early twenties. But the woman formerly known as Lily isn’t the same naïve, frightened girl she was before. Jenna moves with more confidence, making eye contact with the people in the cafe who recognize her. She smiles at a young girl who can’t stop staring at her.
“You’re quite the celebrity around here,” Sophie says.
Jenna rolls her eyes as she settles into the chair across from Sophie. Sophie slides the black coffee she ordered for her across the table.
“Thanks,” Jenna says with the enthusiasm of someone who’s been waiting all day for a caffeine hit. She rips open two raw sugar packets.
Sophie’s tinted brow lifts. “That’s new.” Jenna always took hers black.
“So’s that.” Jenna nods at the tattoo inside Sophie’s forearm.
Sophie tilts her arm and reads the script as she does a hundred times a day. I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Isaiah 44:22. She prays for redemption.
Jenna stirs her coffee. Her face softens. “Alma wasn’t your fault. Neither was Ryder.”
Sophie’s jaw tenses. She’d been tasked to place the twelve-year-old sexually abused runaway hiding from her father in a home, give her a safe space to heal and flourish. Murielle extensively vets her angels, and they’d never had a problem before with Bailey, the woman who owned the house with the spare bedroom she donated to the network. The woman who’d home school Alma and help the girl rebuild her confidence, teach her life skills so she could eventually live on her own and support herself. Give back to the network.
But Bailey had a new boyfriend. Sophie met him briefly in passing at Bailey’s house—he was leaving as she was coming, delivering Alma to Bailey—and immediately sensed something off about him. She should have trusted her gut, run a background check. Insisted Murielle relocate Alma. But the network didn’t have another house available, and Murielle was convinced Alma would be fine when Bailey promised Derek would never be allowed in the house so long as Alma lived there. She trusted her angels implicitly.
Sophie left her there. Left her in the exact situation they’d helped her escape from.
Derek used Alma so brutally that he killed her.
She later learned Derek was a fugitive, hiding from the bounty hunter on his tail. He’d jumped bail, missed his court date. Bailey swore she didn’t know he was being tried for sexually assaulting a minor. But she did let Derek stay with her a night.
One night. That’s all it took to extinguish Alma’s light.
As for Ryder, if she’d found him sooner, he never would have reached Jenna, and Jenna wouldn’t have the pinkish scars on her wrists from the zip ties Ryder used to restrain her before he tried to drown her.
“We can agree to disagree.” Sophie will never forgive herself. She’ll never be able to make what happened to Alma right. And she’ll never forget.
Jenna’s smile doesn’t reach her eyes when she changes the subject. “How was traffic?”
“Not bad.” She lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Redondo Beach, a two-plus hour drive from here. “Why?”
Jenna glances at her phone before looking over her shoulder toward the entrance. “Curious. Livy’s joining us. She left SLO this morning and might be stuck.” Her phone beeps. She reads the text with a relieved sigh. “She’s here. She’s looking for parking. What?” she asks when she catches the look of reproach on Sophie’s face.
“Don’t expect me to be nice.” Jenna’s older sister Olivia is one of the reasons Jenna ran from their father. So was their brother Lucas. Not once did they come to their younger sister’s aid. Olivia has since apologized. She and Jenna have made amends. But Sophie hasn’t mustered any respect for the bestselling graphic novelist.
“She’s changed,” Jenna defends. “And she’s in therapy. Go easy.”
Sophie lifts her hands. “Someone else’s thin skin isn’t my prob.”
“Then be civil. You can be civil, right?”
“I can be.” Sophie smirks and sips her coffee.
Jenna once mentioned Olivia took after their mom Charlotte, that their mom was beautiful, never losing her looks as she aged, despite her dirty smoking habit and nightly Manhattans. Regular nips and tucks kept her looking young. Sophie hasn’t yet met Olivia, but she recognizes Jenna’s sister the instant she enters the café. Even though they’re half-sisters, their likeness is evident. And even though Olivia is a year or so younger than Sophie’s thirty-seven, she appears older. There’s an edge to her demeanor Jenna doesn’t have, a confidence Jenna never possessed. Sophie wonders if the difference arose from being raised by parents who actually loved you. Or if Olivia is as narcissistic as their father.
Olivia notices them immediately and waves. She points in the general direction of the bathroom, and after she uses the facilities, she orders a drink before joining them at the table. Jenna hugs her sister, moving her purse from the spare chair. Olivia settles beside Jenna and across from Sophie. She smiles, offering a hand. “I’ve heard much about you,” Olivia says after she introduces herself.
“All good, I hope.”
“Always good. I don’t think Jenna has a mean bone in her body.” Olivia affectionately squeezes Jenna’s hand.
“Unlike other members in her family,” Sophie says through a tight smile and Jenna shoots her a warning glare. Olivia watches her steadily, her expression circumspect. Sophie’s mouth twitches. “I’m kidding.”
“No you’re not.” Olivia cuts through the bullshit. “For what it’s worth, I’ll be the first to admit we’re a family of assholes. Some of us are trying to do better.”
Sophie’s brows lift. Jenna jumps in before she can ask Olivia if she’s talking about herself. “Which brings us to you.” Jenna touches Sophie’s hand. “We need your expertise.”
“And your connections,” Olivia adds. “Jenna mentions you have resources.”
“What do you need me to do?” Sophie’s gaze swings between the sisters. Jenna only asked to meet her. She didn’t explain about what over the phone or mention that Olivia would be joining them.
That’s on Sophie. She should have asked for details. She might not have made the drive. She has no interest wasting time with a woman who wouldn’t give the time of day to her own sister. Besides, Sophie has a bounty she’s pursuing.
“Find Lucas,” Jenna says.
She nods. “He’s been missing for eight months.”
Sophie blinks. “Missing-missing, or did he take off?” There’s a broad difference between someone leaving on their own accord—people disappear every day, all the time, for all sorts of reasons—as opposed to someone held against their will.
“He took off,” Oliva explains. “He has a history of doing so. He gets moody and splits, sometimes for weeks. But he’s never been gone this long.”
“We’re worried something happened to him. Or that he’s done something to himself.”
“Like what?” Sophie looks between them.
“I think he’s suicidal,” Olivia solemnly admits.
There’s a beat a silence.
“So you want me to find a body?”
Jenna eyes widen. Olivia’s face darkens. “We believe he’s still alive. But he’s not stable.”
Olivia and Jenna share a look. Jenna nods and Olivia leans forward. “He tried to take his life once before. Lucas was sentenced to juvenile detention while he was in high school. Something happened while he was incarcerated. He’s never told us what, but ever since he’s kept to himself. When he can’t deal, he disappears.”
Sophie looks at Jenna. “Why do you think he left? Think it has anything to do with you?”
“If he knows we found her, it wasn’t until after he left. I texted him about her,” Olivia speaks for her sister. Sophie’s eyes narrow. She doesn’t trust Olivia, but she’ll listen for Jenna. “He left right after he learned Lily—Jenna. Still getting used to saying that name—was our half-sister, that she had a different father than us, and that ours, Dwight, died in a car accident. Now the—”
Jenna touches Olivia’s hand. Olivia stops mid-sentence.
“What?” Sophie asks and Jenna shakes her head. Sophie leans back in her chair, arms folded. “You do know I can look up his records.” And uncover whatever they’re withholding from her.
Jenna’s hand falls into her lap. “I know.”
Sophie suspects Jenna’s hoping she won’t go digging. Her mouth twists to the side. “I’d think you’d be happy he was gone.” She looks straight at Jenna. “You want him back in your life?” Lucas was the guy who let her take the fall anytime he got them into trouble.
Olivia folds her hands on the table. “Lucas doesn’t know how to ask for help. We’re the only family he has. He won’t admit it, but he needs us.”
And Sophie speculates they need him if any of them want to put their past behind.
“He’s not a skip.” A fugitive who’s skipped town and missed a court date who a bondsman has hired her to track down. “I won’t have the legal authority to bring him back. And I doubt I can convince him to return. He doesn’t know me.”
“This is a no contact request. Don’t approach him, don’t talk to him. If he gets the slightest hint we’re looking for him, he might run again. Just find him,” Olivia says. “We’ll take it from there.”
Two kids around the ages of six or seven, each holding a book, approach their table. They slide the books, Tabby’s Squirrel Takes on Dax, the neighborhood dog, toward Jenna. Her latest book.
“Can you sign this?” the little girl asks. “Puh-leeze?”
The boy, younger and shier, tugs at his shirt hem.
A glorious smile lights up Jenna’s face. “Of course I will.” She gets a Sharpie from her purse. Olivia watches with admiration, chin tucked in her hand, and Sophie feels a spark of envy. She’s never had a sibling, not one by blood, or a parent, not one who’s loved her unconditionally. Murielle is… well, Murielle. And their relationship has been rocky since Sophie left the network.
Jenna asks the kids their names, what they loved about the book, and if they plan to see the movie this summer. She signs the title page, adding a squirrel doodle underneath her name.
The kids leave happy and Jenna returns her attention to Sophie. “Will you do it?”
Sophie thinks of Murielle, her desire to make amends, her wish Murielle understood why she could no longer support her passion project. Her own dreams of having a family.
Sophie taps a finger on the table, gaze darting from Jenna to Olivia and back. “I’ll do it. I’ll find your brother.”
Jenna smiles with relief and Olivia gets down to business. She share’s Lucas’s contact information as well as that of his close friends. They might know where he went, although Olivia hasn’t been able to get anything out of them. She tells Sophie about the haunts he frequents and where he’s run to in the past, those that she knows of. Lucas, apparently, doesn’t share much with her, let alone anyone.
After Sophie tells them she has enough information to get started, she stands. “Give me a couple days. I’ll be in touch.”
Olivia rises. Jenna follows. “How much do we owe you?”
Sophie lifts a hand, shaking her head. “You’re family. This is on me.”
Jenna’s head tilts. “You don’t owe me.”
For failing her when it came to Ryder, she does. “It was good to see you. Give Josh and Kavan my love.” Jenna’s son and fiancé. She kisses Jenna’s cheek and leaves the café.
That night, Sophie sits at the desk in her one-bedroom apartment, the room illuminated by the glow of her laptop and a single lamp. The day had been long after the drive to Oceanside. She’d spent her evening in Tustin sipping tepid coffee staking out her subject’s apartment. Jai’s bondsman hired her after Jai skipped, but his brother, Sophie’s snitch, had collateral on the line, his house in Orange. He didn’t want to lose that house. It didn’t take much convincing for him to tell her Jai has been slinking back to his apartment under the cover of night to see his wife, the woman who had him arrested for domestic violence and sexual battery.
It was an easy nab. Jai strolled back to his place around ten-thirty. He didn’t try to bolt when Sophie stepped from her car and arrested him on the sidewalk, his wife screaming obscenities at her from the apartment complex’s second story balcony to let him go.
“You missed your court date, Jai.” She cuffed his wrists.
“Fuck you.” He spat on the sidewalk. “And fuck you,” he hollered at his wife.
His wife shrieked.
“You’re a match made in heaven,” Sophie said, pushing his head down so he didn’t clip his forehead getting into the backseat of her car. While it’s hard to accept why women let their abusers back into their lives, at the same time she understands how hard it is to leave the relationship. She doesn’t like it, but she gets it. Her biological mom tried to leave Sophie’s father several times but took him in whenever he came groveling back.
Sophie’s snitch was waiting for his brother outside the station. He punched Jai as he exited Sophie’s car with enough force to send Jai reeling into her. Jai’s thick skull knocked into her lip as he stumbled, trapping her between him and the car, bruising her back.
“Goddammit.” Two officers witnessed the altercation and arrested Sophie’s snitch on the spot for assault and battery. She wiped the blood off her mouth and followed them inside the station.
Sophie retrieves the napkin Olivia gave her from her front pocket, running her tongue along her swollen bottom lip. She smooths the crumpled paper on her desk. Olivia had written Lucas’s address, phone, email, birthdate, and social security number along with the name and number of the friend she’s seen hanging around Lucas’s apartment. Someone Sophie can ask about Lucas’s whereabouts. A risky call to make. If his friend knows where Lucas is, he could tip him off. Lucas could run again. Olivia warned he would if he wasn’t ready to return home.
She’ll have to resort to other means if she wants to locate him.
For as much as Olivia wants her brother found, and as often as she saw him before he left, she doesn’t know him that well. They aren’t close, that was obvious to Sophie. Lucas started his day with a row on the bay, worked as a commercial painter, then ended with a workout in his garage gym and a few beers. He rarely went out that Olivia knew of, except when he met up with his friend or went to Olivia’s for Sunday dinner.
There has to be more to him, despite the PTSD Sophie suspects he suffers from. What happened to him? She wonders about his time in juvenile detention. But more to the point, what’s he running from?
Olivia had wanted to tell her more but Jenna stopped her. What’s Jenna holding back? Is she afraid Sophie would have turned down their request if she knew whatever it was?
Jenna knows Sophie’s troubled history with Murielle and her rough start in life. She knows Sophie’s determination to rid the streets of abusers and her passion to protect the innocent. Give voice to the weak, those who’ve lost their strength and courage to speak up. In that regard, she and Murielle are the same. They just go about it in different ways.
“What’s your story, Lucas Carson?” Sophie murmurs to the room.
She begins her search with the obvious, web browsers and social media accounts. He doesn’t have any, and when she Googles his name, only a couple hits come up on top, his commercial painting company and a public records listing which is scarce. He has a third ownership of the house he and his sisters received from their mother Charlotte and that’s it, which rules him from camping out at another family property.
She digs deeper, tripping across old articles in a local paper. There’s a photo of him and another player reaching for a football. Seaside Cove High won the game, thanks to Lucas and the team’s defense. He won a design competition through the community art works his sophomore year. His name is mentioned in the article about Wes Jensen’s death along with a few pieces about Dwight Carson when he campaigned for Congress. Basic information that tells her nothing about the man he is today, what makes him tick.
She runs a series of background checks: criminal, credit, driving, and civil. All are uneventful. If Lucas has a criminal record, it happened when he was a minor and those documents are sealed.
Olivia asked if she has a guy. She does. Lincoln “Linx” Barnes, ex-FBI and Navy Seal. He’s now a private investigator with plenty of undisclosed resources and works exclusively for politicians and celebrities. He and Murielle never legally married, but he practically raised Sophie until they separated when Sophie was nineteen. Linx is the closest thing she has to a father. She spent her evenings with him on the mat at his Dojo and nights learning how to pick locks and disarm alarm systems. Sophie didn’t have a typical childhood, but it was safe and more enriching than the one she was born into. Murielle worked on her confidence and self-esteem. Linx worked on her strength and skill. They armed her with tools to survive. Never again would she be a victim.
She calls Linx. His voice is thick with sleep when he answers.
“Sorry to wake you,” she says.
“For you, anytime.” He yawns. “What’ve you got?”
Straight to business. Why else would she call him at three in the morning?
“This one’s off the books.” She gives him Lucas’s info and basic stats. “It’s Jenna’s brother. She wants me to find him.”
“What exactly are you looking for?”
“He spent six months in juvenile detention when he was sixteen. I want to know why and what happened when he was there. Also check if there are any open warrants.” Another motivator to skip town. She isn’t sure Lucas should be found if he has warrants and convictions stacked against him. Would Jenna want a guy like that around her son? Not exactly the type of uncle you’d want to come visit.
“I can get the warrants tomorrow, Wednesday at the latest. The juvie charge will take longer.”
“Several days give or take. You in a rush?”
“Jenna’s anxious to find him. She’s like a sister to me.” And Sophie wants to do right by her after failing with Ryder. Even if it means convincing Jenna not to invite Lucas back into her life.
“Speaking of family…”
“Don’t start.” Sophie turns away from her desk and goes to the open window. The beach is several blocks away, a straight shot down her street. She can’t see it, but the air smells of salt and brine.
“She’ll never shut down her network.” Linx helped Murielle built her network of angels. Its framework mimics the witness protection system. After everything he’d seen with the cases he handled, even Linx saw the value in an off-the-books underground system for abused and at-risk runaways.
“I know.” Sophie doesn’t expect her to, but she can disagree with how Murielle vets her angels. One more level of cross-checks wouldn’t hurt, but sometimes there are more runaways than beds and Murielle gets anxious to place them. There’s always the risk of discovery.
“At least talk to her.”
She hasn’t in eight months, not since Murielle solicited her help to locate Josh and track down Ryder.
“I can’t. Not yet.” She isn’t ready. She has to get past how Alma’s death was handled. Murielle called in an anonymous tip to the police so Alma’s body would be found, then she convinced Sophie to relocate the angel, Bailey, and give her a new identity. If the authorities discovered they were harboring Alma, the network could fall. Murielle wouldn’t risk the network. But in Sophie’s mind, the cost was high. Derek got away, and a young girl lost her life.
“Let me know when you dig up Lucas’s info.”
Linx sighs. “Sure thing, firecracker. Get some sleep.”
Sophie puts down her phone and turns back to the computer screen, tapping her chin. On a hunch, she searches Dwight’s date of death, comparing it to the date of Lucas’s disappearance. There’s only forty-eight hours’ difference. That can’t be coincidental.
Olivia unlocks Lucas’s apartment and steps back so Sophie can enter. The space is sparsely furnished, the air stale with dust motes. Her nose twitches.
The first thing she notices is how neat the place is, especially for a thirty-three-year-old bachelor technically still living at home.
Sophie would say he’s a failure to launch, but who’s she to judge?
“Did you have this place cleaned?” She wonders what clues could have been mistakenly tampered with. A sticky note with a phone number. A magazine opened to a destination. Little things that look ordinary to anyone else are loaded with information for her.
“No.” Olivia pulls up the blinds in the main room. She slides open the window to let in the cool spring air heavy with the scents of saltwater and eucalyptus. The trees behind the main house tower over the roofline. “Lucas has always been a neat freak.”
He cares about his things.
“Shame he didn’t care enough for Jenna as much as his stuff.”
Olivia folds her arms over her chest and hangs back by the door. “Your point?”
Sophie tilts her head and listens. The Carson’s one-story ranch spread is near the end of a cul-de-sac in a gated community. The backyard view is Morro Bay with the ocean off to the left past the breakers. Lucas’s apartment is above the detached three car garage. She can hear the wind rustling the leaves, kayakers shouting to each other on the bay, and the crash of waves behind. Sound carries. Unless Lucas wasn’t home or his music was blasting, he would have heard Jenna screaming for help the night Wes died and she ran away. Even with the windows closed, he would have heard her.
“Why didn’t he help her?” Sophie cried for help numerous times when she’d lived with her parents in a third-floor apartment in Chicago. She could hear the radio from the apartment above. The Johnsons next door were always fighting. Surely they could hear her as well as she’d heard them. But they always looked the other way when her father walked her down the hall then out the building to the bus stop for school, giving her a stern warning to keep silent or he’d cane her again. There were nights she wished he’d lost his leg rather than blown out his knee in the accident at the manufacturing plant where he worked. He would have been stuck in a wheelchair, not walking with a permanent limp and a cane he used to beat his hatred of the world’s unfairness out on her.
People just don’t care. They don’t want to be bothered, or to get involved.
But Sophie has a habit of making other people’s business hers.
“I don’t know. He didn’t tell me,” Olivia admits.
This shocks Sophie. “Why? I’d think that’s the first thing you’d ask of him after Jenna ran. How come you and Lucas never tried to find her?
Olivia’s mouth pinches. “Jenna’s right. You are blunt.”
“To the point of rudeness, I know.” Her mouth widens into an off-kilter smile, about as much of an apology she’s willing to muster.
Olivia’s chest heaves with a resigned sigh. “Our mom told me a different story from what really happened. Charlotte went through all the motions. Put up fliers, filed a missing person’s report. Mourned. She even cried in front of the reporters. It was all an act.” One Sophie realizes Olivia believes she should have seen through given the way she looks at the keys in her palm. “But that’s aside from the point. I didn’t help and I could have. I’ll always regret that.” Her gaze swings around the small apartment. “I’ve been up here a few times since he left and haven’t found anything worthwhile.” She tosses the keys onto the kitchen table. “Lock up when you’re done. I’ll be down at the house.”
Sophie watches her leave before turning back to the apartment. It’s small, no more than a bedroom, bathroom, and kitchenette, all off the main room, the room she’s in. A black leather sofa is pushed up against one wall, the TV and stereo console against the opposite wall. The electronics are newer and higher end, which tells her he appreciates nice things. There’s a drafting table in one corner, a desk and chair in another, the only places in the apartment with anything on the walls. Framed sketches cover the textured whiteness.
She starts with the kitchen.
The table where Olivia left the keys is an antique. Sophie runs her fingers along the surface on her way to the fridge. The wood is smooth, polished. Loved and cared for. She wonders who it belonged to. A grandparent, perhaps. Jenna never talked about hers, only that they’d died when she was young.
The fridge is empty except for a few chilled Coronas. A half-empty bottle of tequila is in the cabinet above the fridge, some dry goods and soup cans in another cabinet, and that’s it for food.
She can’t help but think he’s a lonely man.
She moves on to the bedroom. The bed is made with military precision. No partially opened drawers or clothes out of place. No evidence that he left in a hurry and what he might have taken when he did leave. Trace scents of amber and vanilla linger on the clothes hanging in his closet. A half-empty Costco-sized box of condoms, handcuffs, and toys she wishes she didn’t see fill the nightstand drawer.
She slams it shut.
She’ll have to ask Olivia about his hookups. He could be shacking up with someone.
Moving on to his desk, she studies the framed sketches. Home elevations, floor plans, city skylines, limit and zoning maps, all hand drawn with intricate detail, cover the adjoining walls. If anything, Lucas is talented, and he’s passionate about architecture and design. He has dreams. He planned an entire city based on what she sees.
He also rides.
Sophie removes a photo of Lucas astride a dirt bike pinned to the wall. He’s in full Motocross gear, his helmet tucked under an arm, hair damp with sweat. A dirt landscape and hazy sky stretch behind him.
She flips the photo and penciled on the back is 9/18 CC MX Park. A quick search on her phone brings up two motocross parks in California: Chahuilla Creek and Cal City.
She twists the gold stud in her earlobe. California City, a failed experiment. Paved roads to nowhere. A perfect foundation for a dreamer. She opens Google maps and compares the city to the grid plans framed on the wall.
Well, well, well.
They’re the same.
Settling at his desk, the surface clear except for a Mac monitor and lamp, she rifles through pens, bills, and sticky notes in the center drawer. She gathers the paper scraps and spreads them across the table. They’re covered in letters and numbers. Combinations?
“Passwords,” she murmurs to herself.
Her phone buzzes.
“Got a location for your guy’s phone,” Linx says. “Last ping was eight months ago southeast of Bakersfield along Highway 58.”
Sophie puts him on speaker and looks at the map. Highway 58 spans the southernmost section of California City’s limits.
“I’m texting you some photos. I think they’re passwords. See if one of them logs into an iCloud account. If Lucas set up his devices in the Find My app, we might be able to pinpoint his location. I’m guessing he took his laptop with him.” She eyes the detached cable on the desk.
“You’re assuming he’s using it.”
“If he logged in at least once after he left, it can get me closer to him than the phone I’d bet he dumped along the highway.”
“I’ll do it on one condition. Call Murielle.”
“Linx.” Sophie plants her elbows on the desk, the phone face up between them. Her forehead drops into her hands. “Blackmail’s beneath you.”
“No it’s not. Not where you and your mother are concerned. She knows we talk, and she’s riding my ass to get you to call her.”
She can guess why. Her “gotcha” anniversary is coming up, the day Murielle found her abandoned in a Chicago alleyway, barefoot and filthy, naked except for an adult-sized windbreaker. She was six, malnourished and short for her age.
“She’s worried about you. Tells me she wants to talk.”
And she’ll keep pressuring Linx who’ll hound Sophie until she calls.
She groans. “All right. I’ll think about it.”
“Good enough for me. I’ll let her know. I’ll call back in a bit about what I find.”
“Thanks, Linx.” She ends the call and snaps photos of the sticky notes. She sends them off.
Locking up the apartment, she seeks out Olivia.
Olivia is on the back deck with an open bottle of wine and two glasses. It’s just after one-thirty in the afternoon. She’s watching a kayaker glide past as Sophie settles across from her.
Olivia pours her a glass of Burgundy and slides it toward Sophie before she can decline.
“Thanks, but I don’t drink.”
“That’s right.” Olivia’s hazel eyes meet Sophie’s brown ones. “Jenna mentioned that. Alcoholic parent?”
“My father.” Sophie leans back in the chair and folds her hands over her waist.
“My mom’s an alcoholic.” Olivia pours Sophie’s wine into her own glass. “I’d call her a social drunk. She always stayed in control, but wow, she could put it away. She loved a good vintage.”
“Probably. He worked in the industry.” Olivia scratches the corner of her mouth. “He liked to drink but liked sex more. That was his addiction.”
Sophie thinks of what she found in Lucas’s nightstand. “Seems to run in the family.”
“You found his stash.” A faint sorrowful smile appears as Olivia runs a forefinger along the rim of her glass. “I think Luc’s an alcoholic, too.”
“And you?” Sophie nods at the bottle. It’s not even 2:00 p.m.
Olivia smirks. “I’m on anxiety meds. I have to monitor my intake. But Mom left quite the selection behind. I’d hate for it to go to waste.
“The wine cellar.” Sophie recalls the stories Jenna told her. Charlotte and Dwight used to lock her in the windowless shelter that resembled a deep pit underneath the house. Nothing about it was built to code.
“I used to hate Lily… Sorry, Jenna. Dad was very convincing that she was behind everything he ruined of mine just so I’d blame her.”
Sophie can’t hold her tongue. “Shame on you for believing him.”
Olivia stares at her for a cool minute. “I’ll be the first to admit I was naïve. Dad adored me, and I let his affection blind me. I knew he treated me better than Lucas and Lily, but I never asked him why. I thought if I did, he’d treat me the same as them.” This time she doesn’t apologize for using Jenna’s birth name.
Olivia gulps the wine that probably costs more than Sophie earns in a day. “I hated that wine cellar, absolutely abhorred it. But whenever they locked her in there, I came up with an excuse to get inside. I might have hated her, but I hated what they did to her more.
“So you see, Sophie,” Olivia leans forward to make her point. “My family is messed up and so am I. But I’m working on it. Think what you want of me, I don’t care. But I was never heartless, not completely.”
Sophie feels the jab and glances away. She wonders how much Jenna told Olivia about her.
“I’m glad she had you,” Olivia says.
“What?” Sophie asks, surprised. Did she hear correctly?
Olivia doesn’t repeat herself. She corks the wine. “Tell me what you found out about Lucas.”
“Not much.” She’ll hold off mentioning where she thinks she is until she has confirmation. “He likes to draw, ride, and fuck.”
Olivia huffs a laugh, pocketing the key Sophie drops on the table. “You forgot weightlifting and kayaking.”
“Has he ever told you about his sketches on the wall, what he’s drawing?”
Olivia shakes her head. “I hadn’t been up there in years. He never invites anyone up, except well… you know. His one-nighters. He isn’t into commitment. I didn’t realize he was still drawing until I saw his work. Honestly, I was shocked he displays it.”
Sophie tilts her head. “That makes you happy.”
“That something does? Yes. Before everything happened, Lucas was a prankster. He was always laughing, or trying to make us laugh. He once tricked me into eating a raw onion by convincing me it was a peeled apple. See? Naïve. I’m still pissed about that one.” She smirks. “He taught Lily the alphabet before she started preschool. A-B-F-U-C-K-D-E-S-H-I-T.”
“Oh, my god.”
“I don’t think she remembers. But imagine the teacher’s surprise when she bragged she knew her A-B-Cs. I also doubt she recalls when Luc put cayenne pepper in a squirt gun. That stuff burns when it gets in your eyes. We were at the lake house with my fiancé Blaze and Josh’s dad, Tyler. Blaze pummeled the crap out of him after he got the sting out of his eyes.”
Sophie laughs. “How old were you guys?”
“Ten, eleven? I can’t remember exactly. Luc had to have been eight or nine. Lily would have been five or so. Those were good times. We did have them once. Lucas had the best laugh.” Olivia looks across the bay. “He’s made mistakes. We all have. He was starved for our dad’s affection and intimidated by him at the same time. I think Dwight smacked him around occasionally. He could get away with it. Mom didn’t care, and when he was young, Lucas was afraid to stand up to him. He let Lily take the fall whenever he screwed up, and I know that bothers him.
“He may not seem like it, but he’s a good guy. He didn’t hear it enough from our parents. Definitely not from me.”
Sophie looks down at the hands folded over her waist, feeling a tightness swell in her throat. She thinks of Murielle and their falling out. Despite their disagreement, she was a good mother. Is a good mother. Sophie hasn’t told her that enough.
“He’s going to be angry when he finds out we’re looking for him,” Olivia says, quietly. “He hates when I drag him home. But I’d have his anger over the indifference that’s consumed him any day.”
Sophie’s phone pings with a text from Linx. An address. Another text follows. Laptop last used this morning. He’s there.
Sophie starts to rise. Time to clear out and put this case to bed so she can get on with her real job.
“One more thing before you go.” Olivia rises with her. “I want you to find my mom.”
“I thought she was out of the country.”
“Jenna might think so, but I know our mom. Charlotte has a grandiose sense of self-importance. She’s brilliant, beautiful, and powerful, and she knows it. But she also wants recognition and admiration. A woman like her doesn’t disappear into obscurity. No.” Olivia shakes her head. “Charlotte isn’t hiding. She doesn’t think she’s done anything wrong. She also doesn’t believe her children would have the audacity to go after her.”
“Where do you think she is?”
Olivia lifts her hands. “No clue. But I bet she’s living the life my father couldn’t give her.”
“Which is what?”
“One that gives her what she craves.” Her face hardens with determination. “I’ve lived my entire life denying the type of people my parents were. Dwight met a terrible end. But as long as my mom is out there, there’s still the chance she can hurt Lucas and Lily. She’s hurt them enough.”
Sophie crosses her arms at the mention of Dwight. “Is this the real reason you want Lucas found? Or is something else going on?”
“It’s one of them,” she admits after a pause. “I can’t rule out he won’t harm himself. As for the other reason.” She drums her fingers on the metal chair back. “It has to do with our dad, and I’ll leave it at that.”
A chill moves over Sophie. “Where was your brother the night Dwight died?” she asks, recalling the hours between his death and Lucas leaving town.
“I think you already know the answer to that.” Olivia holds her gaze. “As for what you do with that information, all I ask is that you think of Lily. Our parents put her through hell. She wants her brother home, and I’ll do anything to make that happen.”
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