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Missing Persons Excerpt

     A girl was missing.
     In any other town it would have been local news. Even here, on any other day, it might have been just local news.
     But it wasn't any other town.
     It was Boulder.
     It wasn't any other day.
     It was Christmas.
     And a girl was missing.
     Again.
     God
.

Chapter One

     The fact that I was sitting with Diane behind Hannah Grant's office at 6:30 on a mid-December Thursday evening meant that I'd already lost the argument we'd been having since she yanked me out from behind my desk five minutes earlier. She killed the ignition on her Saab and summed things up for me anyway. "We can't leave in the morning if we can't reach Hannah. It's that simple."
     She was right.
     With only nine shopping days until Christmas, Diane Estevez and I were scheduled to make the short flight over the Rockies to Las Vegas for a weekend professional workshop—Diane, I suspected, was pretending to be much more enamored of EMDR than she really was—and Hannah was generously providing coverage for our clinical psychology practices while we were away. Without coverage, we couldn't go.
     Diane had switched our Frontier flight the next day from noon to the cusp of dawn so that she could cram in a few additional hours getting intimate with some dice, and Hannah needed to consent to the slight change in plans. But Hannah—whose adaptive lassoing of her myriad OCD symptoms typically dictated that an unreturned phone call caused her a degree of psychological discomfort equivalent to the physical distress of a sharp stone in her shoe—had failed to return three different messages from Diane since breakfast.
     "Is that her car? Do you know what she drives?" I asked. The only other car in the tiny lot was a silver Volkswagen Passat.
     "Looks like hers." Diane offered the comment with a slightly sardonic lilt, and I assumed that she was referring more to the car's pristine condition than to either its make or model. In stark contrast to the spotless Passat, Diane's Saab was covered in the gray-beige film that adheres to virtually every moving vehicle in Colorado after any slushy late fall snowstorm, like the one we'd had the previous weekend.
     I stepped out of Diane's car and peered into Hannah's. No clutter on the console. No errant French fries on the floor. No empty Diet Coke can in the cup holder. In fact, the only indication that the vehicle hadn't just been hijacked from a dealer's showroom was a copy of Elle, still in its plastic sleeve, on the backseat.
     The mailing label on the magazine read "H. Grant," and was addressed to the Broadway office. The code in the corner indicated that the subscription would terminate the following April. "It's hers," I said.
     Diane had joined me beside the Passat. "Hannah reads Elle?"
     My own reaction was a little different; I was thinking, Hannah leaves magazines in her car? Shame! I said, "I think you're missing the point. It means she's inside with a patient. She'll return your call when she gets a minute."
     "I don't know about that. I'm getting a feeling," she said. "And not a good one."
     "About Hannah?"
     "A little, but more about Vegas." Diane's tone was somber. She took her craps seriously. "Let's go inside," she said.
     Hannah was a clinical social worker and her therapy practice was in one of the old houses aligned on the side of Broadway closest to the mountains, only a few blocks from the Pearl Street Mall. The cumulative force of more than a decade of migration by psychotherapists had allowed mental health types to usurp most of that particular urban habitat from sundry lawyers and accountants who had previously set up shop in the houses—some grand, some not—in the row. The uprooted professionals had moved to less charming but eminently more practical spaces in the modern buildings recently erected to fill parking lots a few blocks away on Canyon Boulevard.
     The back door of the single-story house was locked. Diane and I followed a flagstone path down the side past a hedge of miniature lilacs that stood naked for winter. We made our way to the front of the building and strolled up a few stairs into a waiting room that had probably been the home's original parlor. On the far side of the lamp-lit room a thirties-something woman with an astonishing quantity of frizzy hair was sitting on a green velvet settee reading a copy of Yoga Journal while munching from a bag of Cheetos. I noted that she checked her wristwatch after she glanced up at us.
     I also noted that her fingertips were almost the exact same color as her hair.
     "Which office is Hannah's?" I whispered to Diane. I'd never been in the building before. Hannah was one of Diane's close friends; I had no doubt that Diane knew which office she occupied.
     "Down that hall on the left. The one on the right is Mary's."
     "Mary" was Mary Black, M.D., a psychiatrist who without benefit of fertility concoctions had given birth to triplet boys only a few weeks before, on Thanksgiving eve. Both Mary's extended maternal adventure and her extended maternity leave were in their earliest stages, which meant that Hannah was without doubt going to be working alone in the building for a while.
     Diane stepped down the hall toward the offices. "Look," she said.
     Stuck into the jamb of Hannah's office door were four folded notes. Two were addressed to "Hannah," one was addressed to "H. Grant," and one was intended for "H. G." Diane picked the one addressed to "H. Grant." It appeared to have been written on the back of a page from a daily calendar of unintentionally humorous quotations by the second President Bush.
     "What are you doing, Diane?" I blurted. "Those are probably from patients. You can't read them."
     Without even a microsecond of indecision Diane rejected my protest. "Of course they're from patients. That's the point," she said. She glanced at the first note, handed it to me, and said, "Look, Hannah missed her one o'clock." Next, she grabbed the paper that was addressed to "H. G." "And see? She missed her 4:30, too. How come she's missing all her appointments if her car's here? Huh? How the hell do you explain that?"
     I didn't know how to explain that.
     The other two notes were from patients whose therapist had stood them up earlier in the day. Hannah had apparently been missing her clinical appointments since at least nine o'clock that morning.
     The woman with the orange Roseanne Roseannadanna hair appeared behind us in the narrow hallway. Despite the fact that she was balancing on tall, chunky heels, she still had to gaze up at an acute angle to look Diane in the eyes. "Are you here to see Hannah?" she asked. "I have a 6:15 appointment. Every Thursday. She's never late."
     The woman's voice was part annoyed, and part something else. Concern? Fear? I wasn't sure. But her point about Hannah's reliability was well taken. Hannah's obsessiveness was legendary among her friends and colleagues. She was never late.
     Never.
     I'd begun tasting acid in my throat; I had a bad feeling, too. Though, unlike Diane's, mine had absolutely nothing to do with dice. I tapped lightly on Hannah's office door with my knuckles. My cautious incursion was apparently way too timid for Diane; with an NHL-quality hip-check she moved me aside and grabbed the knob.
     The door slid right open.

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Missing Persons paperback

Signet Paperback 2006, ISBN:  0451215753

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