Cursed
An Excerpt From
Cursed

CHAPTER ONE

You’ve seen one dark, rugged werewolf, you’ve seen them all.

That’s what I told myself the first time I laid eyes on Zack Armstrong. I was wrong. Dead wrong. And now that presumption has come back to bite me in the ass.

I interrupt my best friend, Liz, in the middle of—something. I realize I’d lost the thread of our phone conversation the minute I spied Zack weaving his way through the maze of indistinct gray cubicles that make up the bull pen of the San Diego FBI Field Office. Save the hair and nine a.m. four o’clock shadow, the man is all spit and polish. Tailored dark blue suit, starched white shirt, blue and gold silk tie, and gleaming black shoes. The hair gives him a distinct edge—dark brown, slightly longer than regulation, no part. It’s swept straight back, accentuating the lines of his square jaw.

I resist the urge to crawl under my desk. “I’ll call you back later. New partner’s here. I’ve got to go.”

“Not until I hear the details. What’s he look like?”

Liz is forever trying to play matchmaker. Ironically, I rely on her spell casting to make sure a match will never happen.

I turn around and lower my voice a notch. “Remember the guy from South Carolina I told you about? The one I was partnered with on that missing person’s case in Charleston last year?”

“Really?” New interest sparks in her voice. “He looks like him?”

“It is him,” I say. “Which you’d think Johnson would have mentioned.”

“So what’s the problem? I’ll tell you now what I told you then. You shouldn’t write off the possibility of a good romp with a guy just because he goes furry a few days every month. Weres have amazing stamina. Hey, did I ever tell you about Walter?”

You name it, Liz has dated it. Being a witch with serious magical talent puts her in contact with a wide variety of supernaturals. A strong advocate for equal opportunity love, she’s currently dating a vampire.

But Walter the werewolf was decidedly not one of her success stories.

“Yeah, Liz. A few dozen times. The problem isn’t Zack’s nature.”

“The FBI has rules about fraternization?”

“No.” I wish they did. I wish it could be that easy. Not that getting involved with a partner is encouraged.

“What, then?”

My eyes squeeze shut. I shouldn’t have given Zack Armstrong a second thought in the last thirteen months, seventeen days. But I have. I’ve thought of him often. Too often.

Gooseflesh appears on my arms; the hair on the back of my neck rises. A sense of dread washes over me. That’s why he’s here. This isn’t a coincidence. It’s a test the Olympians have their hands in. Or, more specifically, one particular Olympian. Demeter. I’m a Siren—one of three. We were banished by Zeus and cursed by Demeter thousands of years ago for failing to protect her daughter Persephone—for failing to rescue her before she was dragged by Hades to the Underworld. It’s for this I atone. For this I pay.

And pay. And pay.

I’m tempted to make something up, but this is Liz. She deserves the truth. “I liked him. More than liked him.”

Her tone turns serious. “You never mentioned that. This could be bad.”

The understatement of the year. Guys I get into meaningful relationships with tend to end up dead, courtesy of my favorite vindictive goddess. Partnering with Zack Armstrong and risking a rekindling of whatever was between us could prove exceedingly dangerous. Even lethal.

For him.

“I’ve got to go.”

I click off, the sound of Liz’s protests ringing in my ear, and concentrate on the familiar six-foot-plus werewolf coming toward me. Deputy Director Jimmy Johnson emerges from his office. “Here’s the memo I promised you about your new partner. Better late than never.”

He may be chronically behind with paperwork, but otherwise Johnson’s tenacious about his job, a real pit bull. And, despite being only five foot six, he’s one of the toughest guys I’ve ever met.

I snatch the sheet from his hand and drop it on my desk. “Why didn’t you tell me it was Armstrong?”

“I thought I did.” His look is quizzical, but it doesn’t stay that way for long. “Zack! Good to see you again.”

The two men greet each other with a hearty handshake.

“Good to see you again, Deputy Director.” The Southern accent is smooth; the cadence of his voice is, as I remember, low and lilting. It was the first of many things that got to me about Zack Armstrong.

Johnson dives in without preamble. “Emma Monroe’s your new partner. I don’t have to waste time with introductions. What’s it been, a year since you worked on that case together?”

“Just over,” Zack answers, flashing a sideways glance in my direction.

What Johnson couldn’t possibly know is that we share more than a past case. We both have secrets—supernatural powers we’ve managed to keep hidden from the Bureau, the world, and, as far as Zack is concerned, each other. Unbeknownst to him, I sensed what he was the instant we met. We never discussed it. He’s never revealed it. But of course he wouldn’t, not to an outsider.

And then there is the other secret we share. Zack and I slept together.

Once.

It was during our last night in Charleston. We’d celebrated wrapping up the case, indulging in a good meal and too much wine. The attraction had been building for weeks, the sexual tension as thick as the South Carolina air. I wish I could say that one thing led to another. That I was impulsively swept away. But I’m not impetuous when it comes to sex. I can’t afford to be. The potential consequences are too high.

We agreed that after, we’d go our separate ways. There would be no telephone calls. No texts. No emails. No contact. Period. With twenty-four hundred miles between us, it seemed safe.

Johnson startles me with a slap on the back. “Show him the ropes. He’s all yours.”

I offer my hand. “Good to see you again.”

Zack takes it.

A woman can tell a lot about a man from his handshake. Zack’s hasn’t changed. It’s confident, firm, and friendly. It’s the handshake of a man who has nothing to apologize for and no regrets.

Johnson is already on his way back to his office. Zack doesn’t seem to notice. His eyes are on me.

“I’m pleased to be working with you again, Agent Monroe.”

Is he? The handshake. The demeanor. Both seem genuine. But, despite the old-world charm, I can’t shake the feeling that something is off.

Maybe coming here isn’t something he wanted at all. Maybe it’s strictly a Bureau-initiated transfer. Maybe he’s merely worried about how I’m going to react. My curiosity has gone into overdrive. The possibilities ricochet through my mind like bullets in a steel barrel. I want to know how he feels. To taste the truth, whatever that may be. And I could. All it would take is lowering the dampening spell that keeps my powers in check. But giving in to temptation like this would be uncharacteristic. Using my gift comes at a price.

“I thought we’d moved past you calling me Agent Monroe,” I say finally. “Emma or Monroe will do fine.”

Zack releases my hand, then subtly breathes in my scent before stepping back to continue his appraisal. His gaze, now cool and calculating, sweeps the length of my body. He’s searching for a reaction, sizing me up. He sees what I want him to see, what he saw when we worked together before, a no-nonsense professional who is dedicated, capable, all about the mission. Denying my powers and disguising my beauty has become second nature to me.

Over the centuries I’ve become an expert at blending in. My dark hair may be long, but it’s never loose. I wear sunscreen. No mascara. No lipstick. No makeup. Period. Today’s suit, like all of my suits, is black and tailored. The white cotton twill blouse is classic, conservative. I don’t accessorize. I don’t wear jewelry. I don’t wear silk where a man can see it.

Zack’s eyes, an intense dark brown, ringed with gold, linger a fraction of a second too long on my collarbone. I can’t help myself. For one, fleeting moment, I remember the feel of his mouth there. Suddenly I’m conscious of the rise and fall of my chest. My throat is dry. I push the memory aside. The last thing I need to be doing right now is dwelling on what happened in Charleston. I know I should say something. I just have no idea what. Zack breaks the ice.

“It’s been a while,” he says.

“Yeah. So, how are you?” Before he has a chance to answer, I add, “I should introduce you to the others.”

Zack lifts his hand in the air and shouts out, “Zack Armstrong, new guy.”

There’s a collective “Hey, Zack.”

He turns back to face me square-on. “I’m itching to get started. What have you got for me?”

I take a step closer and lower my voice. “That’s it? You have nothing else to say to me?”

He matches my tone. “I was hoping to postpone the awkward ‘what are you doing here?’ conversation for as long as possible. At least until lunch?”

Since I’m not anxious to go down that road, either, I gesture to the desk facing mine. “Have a seat. This one’s yours.”

When he sits, I check my reflection in the window behind him. The glamour I rely on is firmly in place. The lock on my powers under control. He shouldn’t be able to see through the wholesome “plain Jane” facade, to discover what’s underneath, what’s real. Thanks to Liz, no one should.

“You heard what the man said.” He leans back in his chair and spreads his arms wide, giving me a glimpse of what I know to be a well-muscled chest under the fabric of his shirt. “I’m all yours.” His look is serious, expectant. “What can I do?”

A thousand possibilities rush through my mind. Not one of them has anything to do with the case.

Focus, Emma.

I pull a sheet from the file and give Zack the rundown. “Amy Patterson has been missing for two weeks. She’s thirty years old, an artist. She lives alone. We got the case this morning.”

Zack pulls a pen and a small notebook from his inside coat pocket. “What kind of artist?”

I quickly scan the report. “Painter, Expressionist, mixed media mostly.”

“Kidnapping gone bad?” he speculates.

“Could be. She’s successful. But there’s no known family and, according to her manager, no request for ransom.”

Zack sets the pen and notebook down, centering them deliberately on the empty desk. “Who reported her missing?”

“The manager, Bernadette Haskell. She’s known Amy for years. Haskell owns the gallery in La Jolla where Amy’s art is exclusively exhibited and handles Amy’s gallery bookings and commissions worldwide. I spoke to her earlier this morning. She said Amy rarely leaves her apartment. She both lives and works there. Plus, she has a huge show coming up in New York. And before you ask, yes, she called there to see if Amy might have gone ahead to check the space out.” I shake my head. “She’s not in New York, either.”

His brow furrows. “Why is the FBI involved in a straightforward missing person’s case? Shouldn’t the local police be handling this?”

I nod. “They should. They are. But Haskell has a friend in the District Attorney’s office and he’s calling in a favor. The relationship between Haskell and Patterson was more than purely business. Over the years Patterson became like a daughter to this woman. SDPD hasn’t made much progress. Officially, we’re just reviewing the casework.”

“Unofficially?”

“The fact that she’s missing hit the papers yesterday. The story is getting a fair amount of press. The DA wants us to close the case. It’s an election year and he’s out to win the hearts and minds of the voters. Something with this amount of visibility, if handled right, could cinch what is sure to be a close election.”

“Politics as usual. Where do you want to start?”

“SDPD already covered the usual stuff. They checked the psych wards, hospitals, and morgues. There haven’t been any recent credit card charges or bank withdrawals.”

“What about login access for things like email, social networks, and other accounts?”

“Nothing for a couple weeks.”

“I almost hate to ask, but could this be a publicity stunt of some kind?”

I remember the sense of urgency and concern in Haskell’s voice when we spoke. “My gut says no, but I don’t think we should rule anything out.”

Zack nods.

“According to Haskell, it’s not unusual for Amy to go incommunicado when she’s finishing a project. But it’s highly unusual that she’d up and leave town without telling her. And Patterson’s car is still in the building’s parking garage.”

“I assume they checked local taxi and car services?”

“Yup. That turned up zip, too.”

“No signs of a struggle in her apartment?”

I push back from my desk. “Not according to the police report. I haven’t personally searched the place yet. It hasn’t been declared a crime scene. No sign of foul play. Haskell said she couldn’t get away from the gallery this morning. She’s the only one there. But she’ll give us the keys so we can check the place out on our own. She’s expecting us.”

He rises. “Want me to drive?”

“Sure. The Haskell Gallery is on Prospect Street. I can give you directions.”

Zack follows me toward the elevator. “I know where Prospect is.” He punches the call button. The doors slide open instantly. He holds them and waits, allowing me to enter first.

He did most of the driving in Charleston, which made sense. We were in his territory. San Diego is mine.

“You aren’t one of those guys who pretends they know where they’re going because they’re too stubborn to take directions from a woman, are you?”

We face forward. The doors close.

“Do I look like one of those guys?”

The elevator makes its descent. Our reflections stare back at us in the polished steel of the panel door. Zack’s expression remains neutral.

“Looks can be deceiving. Sometimes you think you know a person, and then you realize you don’t really know him at all.”

He nods. “I suppose that’s true.” There’s a hint of sadness in his tone. Zack’s shoulders tense—a reaction so brief I doubt he’s even aware he reacted at all. “Everyone has secrets.”

He makes his way toward the exit and I wonder again what really brought him to San Diego. I wonder why he left his pack behind in South Carolina. I wonder if he’s joined one here. Mostly I wonder if he’s been wondering about me.

We walk through the foyer of the FBI building into the light of day. I pause, close my eyes, and tilt my face up toward the sun. How many more days will pass? How many more women will I have to save? I silently recite the same words I do every time I go out on a new case. Redemption could be one rescue away.

“You coming, partner?”

Zack has passed me and is waiting next to one of the Bureau’s many black Chevy Suburbans parked near the entrance.

Before I can answer, a silver BMW convertible pulls into the lot. It whizzes by, making a sharp right turn and pulling up to the row of SUVs directly in front of Zack. The car’s curves are sleek, its paint job gleaming. A woman steps out of the driver’s side. Zack’s eyes are glued to her. I can’t blame him. Her long legs emerge first, toned and sporting a pair of expensive red heels that boldly accentuate her black-and-white dress. As she approaches Zack, she removes her dark designer sunglasses and the silk scarf covering her head. She’s pretty, even-featured. Her makeup is meticulous. Long blond hair spills out and hangs loose in waves that brush her shoulders.

The tension in Zack’s body tells me the woman is more than a stranger stopping to ask for directions. He knows who she is and he’s not happy to see her. His shoulders bunch, his mouth turns down. I can’t quite make out what she says to him as she approaches, but his response is clear. He shakes his head and motions her away. The gesture is understated, discreet, but it carries with it a sense of finality. He looks past the woman, at me.

Her head turns, following his line of sight. Her eyes connect with mine briefly before she dons the glasses once again. The fraction of a second is all she needs to convey a warning. All I need to determine that she, too, is Were. One intent on marking her territory? I resist the urge to let my hand slide to my hip, where my gun rests securely in its holster. I choose instead to annoy her further by smiling and waving.

“You waiting for an invitation, Monroe?” Zack calls out before climbing into the Suburban and closing the door, effectively dismissing Miss Fancy Pants.

As I approach she turns on her heel. A confident toss of her head in Zack’s direction says she’s gotten her message across. Now that she’s seen me, now that she’s convinced I’m not a threat, she doesn’t bother to spare me a second glance. By the time I reach the Suburban, she’s returned to her car, climbed inside, and fired up the engine. With a squeal of tires, she’s gone.

But not before I notice the license plate. South Carolina. It’s reflex to store the number away in the back of my mind.

I open the car door. “I get the feeling she doesn’t like me.”

Zack is waiting behind the wheel, hands at the ten and two o’clock position, knuckles white. He avoids looking me in the eye. “She doesn’t like the fact that we slept together.”

He says it casually.

“You told her we slept together?” I ask, sliding into the passenger seat.

His gaze meets me head-on. “Would you have preferred I lied?”

“She your girlfriend?”

He throws the car into reverse and steps on the gas. “Ex.”

I wonder if the status came before the revelation and how long they were together. I’m guessing a few months, a year at most. The breakup seems fresh. In the month we worked together, he never mentioned being involved with anyone. There were no calls to apologize for having to work late and no women showing up at the office. But I did come to know Zack’s moods well enough to interpret this one. With one single syllable, he’s effectively closing the door on that subject.

It’s okay.

Zack can have his secrets.

I certainly have mine.


 

CHAPTER TWO

Zack wasn’t bluffing. He gets us from our office in Kearney Mesa to the Patterson Gallery on Prospect Street in La Jolla without a single hesitation or wrong turn. We’ve managed to miss the early morning rush hours on both Highways 15 and 52, so it only takes about twenty minutes.

La Jolla is an enclave of the rich and famous. Prospect Street is aptly named. It’s the mother lode. A street lined with boutiques, a luxury hotel, fancy restaurants, and galleries of all sorts, the connecting artery to the center of town. Zack scores a spot right in front of the gallery.

He’s been uncharacteristically quiet on the ride over. I don’t recall Zack being one to hold back. I suppose he’s still thinking about the unexpected visit from his ex. I am, too. What’s she doing here? It’s not exactly an afternoon’s joy ride from South Carolina. Or he might be bracing himself for lunch and what he anticipates is going to be a major confrontation.

We sit for a minute, facing the gallery. It’s located in the middle of a block built of gray cut stone, arched entryways separating one business from the next. We could be in the center of a European village, the intent of the architects who planned La Jolla’s exclusive shopping areas. The gallery is not the largest storefront. In fact, some of the businesses on either side are bigger. There’s a simple banner reading Haskell Gallery above the door, and adding to the old-world charm, flower-filled clay pots sit on either side of the entrance.

“Ready?” Zack says.

He has a notebook and pen in his hand.

I nod and push open the car door.

We enter into an airy open space broken only by partitions displaying what I presume are Amy’s works. The walls are painted dove gray, the floor is an oak hardwood, and the partitions are stark white—colors picked to emphasize the brilliant hues in Amy’s paintings. They shine like jewels under the subtle lighting.

“Abstract Expressionist.” It’s more of a statement than a question as Zack steps to take a closer look at one of the canvases. It’s about three feet by six feet and ablaze with the golds and crimsons of a fiery sunset, all intertwined until the canvas looks more like a piece of woven cloth than a painting. “Reminiscent of Jackson Pollock, only more controlled, purposeful, less chaotic, more deliberate. I like it.”

Before I can react with surprise to Zack’s adept appraisal, a voice calls out, “Very good.”

The reply comes from just behind the partition we’ve paused in front of. A woman steps out. “Amy was most definitely influenced by Pollock’s techniques. Incorporating her own individual style, of course. She also studied many of the Impressionists. Notice the short, intense brushstrokes.” She holds out a hand. “I’m Bernadette Haskell.”

Zack grasps it. “Agent Armstrong. This is Agent Monroe.”

Haskell gives us both the once-over. “I’m glad to see the DA has taken me seriously.”

It’s not hard to understand why he might. Haskell’s presence screams no-nonsense career woman. I’d guess her to be in her early fifties, dressed in an expensive tailored suit made of black lightweight wool. Under the jacket is an open-necked shirt of white poplin. The cuffs of the shirt are adorned with black onyx cuff links, matching her earrings. Black suede loafers and frameless glasses complete the ensemble. Her hair is silver, feathered at the sides to accentuate piercing blue eyes.

She fixes those eyes on me. “My office is in the back.”

We follow her through the gallery to a door at the very back. Her office is ultramodern, all polished chrome and glass. She motions us to sit in two white leather chairs across from her desk. When we are settled, she starts right in.

“Something has happened to Amy. I know it. She would not have left town without telling me. And before you ask, she didn’t have a boyfriend she ran off with, either.” She opens her top desk drawer and retrieves a set of keys. “These are the keys to her apartment. I haven’t touched anything since the police conducted their search.”

When I take the keys from her hand, she slumps back in her chair. “The police went through everything on her computer, checked her phone records. They didn’t find one single item to shed light on Amy’s disappearance. But I’m certain someone’s taken her.”

“What makes you so certain?” asks Zack.

“Look around the gallery, Agents. Amy’s career is flowering. She gets so many inquiries regarding new commissions we have to turn some away. She has a show opening in New York in two days. Her reputation is growing. She wouldn’t walk away from it. It’s what she’s worked for all her life.” She draws a quick, sharp breath. “And, quite honestly, I can’t bring myself to consider the alternative—that something worse has happened to her.”

“You seem very close to Amy,” Zack says.

“We are very close, Agent Armstrong.” She waves a hand. “Amy is reclusive. Doesn’t make friends easily. Her work really is her life. I am the only person Amy has let share that life since her parents died two years ago. I do more than manage her gallery. I am her friend, confidante, personal assistant, and, dare I say it”—she smiles here—“biggest critic. She looks to me to keep her grounded, on track.”

“When did you realize Amy was missing?” I ask.

She answers without hesitation. “March twenty-ninth. She had an appointment here at three that she missed. I called her cell, her home number. There was no answer. I left messages, spent the next two hours checking my voice mail. As soon as the gallery closed, I went over to her apartment. That’s when I really started to worry. Her car was there, but no Amy. By that time, my calls to her cell started to roll straight into voice mail. Either Amy had turned it off or she’d let it run out of battery. Again, uncharacteristic.”

Zack leans forward, listening intently. “Is that when you called the police?”

Haskell nods. “Yes. They told me I had to come to the station if I wanted to file a report. I was torn. I wasn’t sure I should.”

“Did you?” he asks.

“Not that night. The police suggested I call the local hospitals, the coroner’s office, the morgue. By daylight I was frantic. I called a friend in the District Attorney’s office and begged her to convince the police to help. She promised she’d get SDPD to come, told me to stay put. It waited for hours. They took my statement, gave the apartment a quick once-over, then left. They’ve done nothing. Nothing. Someone needs to take this seriously. It’s been almost two weeks. I had to get you involved.”

To Haskell, it would appear that the police have done nothing. But we have their case records to show they had done all the requisite background checks. Small comfort, though, to someone waiting for concrete news of a missing loved one.

I let a beat go by before saying, “You mentioned Amy having missing an appointment. Do you keep her schedule?”

“I do.” Haskell punches up something on her laptop, turns the screen so I can see. “Here are last week’s appointments. I keep it week to week.”

“Can you print it out for us?” Zack asks. “Not only the most recent entries, but for the last two months?”

Without replying, Haskell hits a key and the printer on a credenza behind her begins to whir. It spits out a dozen sheets of paper, which she takes from the printer, taps on the desktop to align, and hands to Zack. “You will see that Amy never missed an appointment before—” Her voice drops. “I’ve managed to put off most of what she’s missed. But now that her disappearance has become public knowledge. . . .” One manicured fingernail taps a copy of the San Diego Union-Tribune. It’s open to the Arts page where a headline reads Local Artist Missing.

I rise. “We’ll head over to Amy’s apartment.” I take a business card from my pocket and hand it to her. “We’ll be in touch as soon as we finish there. We may have more questions for you.”

“Anything,” she replies. “Just bring Amy back.”

Her telephone rings and she glances down. “I expect I’ll be busy today answering this damned thing.”

Zack has risen with me. “We’ll leave you to it. We’d appreciate if you didn’t mention our involvement just yet. Gives us a little time to work without the interruption of inquiries from reporters.”

“Of course.”

She reaches for the telephone and Zack and I take our leave.

“Patterson lives downtown in a high-rise at the corner of Kettner and A Street.” I’m reading from the police report. I look over at Zack. “I suppose you don’t need directions there, either.”

Zack is back behind the wheel. He smiles. “Nope.”

His manner is more relaxed. He seems to have shaken off the effects of his encounter with the woman in the parking lot.

“So, how do you know your way around San Diego so well?”

“Long story. I’ll tell you about it sometime. Right now I want to know your reaction to Haskell.”

“Smart. Efficient. All business. But her feelings for Amy are real. She’s worried. And it goes beyond her own self-interest in a business that appears to be doing very well.”

“We should look into the gallery’s financials, as well as Amy’s and her own.”

I put in a call to the office and let Johnson know what we need. He says he’ll get the warrants and put one of our people right on it.

I disconnect. “How do you know so much about art?” I ask when I’ve slipped my cell back into my handbag.

“I know a little about a lot of things,” he answers.

“Did you really like Amy’s paintings?”

“You didn’t?”

By now we’re making good time. Zack has navigated his way out of La Jolla, and Interstate 5 is wide open.

“Give me Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus or Heda’s Breakfast.” I sigh. “That’s art.”

He laughs. “You realize most people our age don’t even know who the Old Masters are?”

Our age? I stifle a snort.

“Age has nothing to do with preference.” It’s what I say, but actually, it does. I was living in Europe during the fourteenth through eighteenth centuries. While the art was magnificent, living conditions were decidedly not.

Ten minutes later we’ve pulled off the highway and I sit quietly with my thoughts as Zack winds through the maze of one-way streets downtown. We’re not so lucky in finding a parking spot this time. It takes several turns around the block before we spy a driver pulling out of a metered space. Fortunately, we manage to snag it before anyone else.

I look up at the building while Zack feeds quarters into the meter. “Nice digs.”

It’s an upscale condo complex, lots of glass, very modern in design. We let ourselves in through a locked entry with one of the keys on the ring Haskell gave us. There’s a concierge desk, unoccupied at the moment, so we walk straight to the elevators. Amy lives on one of the top floors, requiring use of another key to gain access.

“Secure building,” I note.

“Maybe not secure enough.”

The elevator opens and we realize there are only two residences on the floor. Amy’s is to the left. Zack unlocks the door. We pause for a moment to don gloves, then step inside.

My first impression is that Amy must make a good living with her art. The layout of her apartment is open, airy, with windows overlooking the city and the bay beyond. I take mental inventory. There’s a small kitchen and a dining area just to the left of the entryway. There are no dishes in the sink, nothing on the table or on the counters. I open one after another of the cupboards. A few cups and glasses. A set of dishes. No food. Not even crackers or a box of cereal. The refrigerator contains bottled water.

Zack is looking over my shoulder. “She must order in a lot.”

Like me, I think.

I look for and find a trash can under the sink. It’s empty with a fresh liner.

“Someone tidied up.”

“Haskell?” Zack asks. “She said she hadn’t touched anything.”

I move on to the living room. Amy’s furniture is plain, functional. A couch and a love seat arranged to take advantage of the views. No television or other electronics. I wander over to the windows. There are no curtains or screens. The bay sparkles in the distance and I watch a plane dip into position to land at the airport just visible to the right. The streets below are dotted with houses and other apartment buildings. The city lights must be spectacular at night.

Zack joins me, follows my line of sight across the street.

“You thinking what I’m thinking?” I ask him.

Zack nods. “There is one building across the way that looks into this apartment. Maybe someone saw something the day Amy disappeared.”

There’s a remote lying on a small table near the windows. It seems out of place since there’s no television or stereo in the room. I pick it up, press a button. The window brightens, as if a shield had been lifted.

“So much for interviewing the neighbors,” Zack says. “I’ve heard of these windows. Highly energy-efficient. And impossible to see in from the outside. Appears Amy really did value her privacy.”

I step toward a closed set of doors. They open onto a bedroom. There’s a queen-sized bed, dresser, walk-in closet. The top of the dresser is bare except for three pictures in silver frames. I recognize Amy in one of them—the one the police copied for her missing person’s report. It’s an outdoor shot, probably professional judging from the way the background has been blurred to emphasize a pretty thirty-something redhead with laughing green eyes and an impish smile.

The second is a picture of an older couple taken on what looks like the front porch of a comfortable suburban home. I hold the picture up to Zack. “Her parents?”

“Probably. And this one.” He points to the third picture. It’s an informal shot of Haskell and Patterson. They have their arms around each other’s waists and are grinning into the camera. In the foreground is a birthday cake, ablaze with dozens of candles. “Seems to lend credence to what Haskell told us about the two of them being friends.”

I cross the room to peek into the bathroom. Towels are hung neatly, cosmetics lined up in orderly fashion next to a toothbrush holder.

“What woman goes on a trip without her makeup or a toothbrush?” Zack asks. He’s rejoined me and is looking over my shoulder into the bathroom.

From the way she looked this morning, certainly not his ex, I want to say. Instead I keep my mouth shut and shake my head.

There’s one room left and we check it out together.

Amy’s office is the only room that reflects more personality than orderliness. This is the room where she undoubtedly spends the bulk of her time. In it are two computers, a laptop and a desktop. Her desk is covered with unopened mail and stacks of magazines. The nearby floor-to-ceiling bookshelves contain everything from Nora Roberts to Nietzsche.

“A woman of eclectic tastes,” Zack says.

There are double doors at the back of the room that I assume is a closet. When I pull the doors open, however, I reassess my opinion that her office is where she spends her time.

This is the heart of Amy Patterson’s home.

It’s her studio.

Zack pushes past me. “Look at this,” he says with obvious appreciation. “North light, high ceiling, expansive windows. It’s the perfect setup.”

“For what?”

“For a studio.” Zack stops in front a large canvas spread in the middle of the floor. “The northern exposure means the space is bright, but the light is even. Not shining directly onto the canvas or in the artist’s eyes.”

“So you know a little about art, huh?”

“This must be the last project she worked on.” He squats down for a closer look.

I join him. All I see is an explosion of red in a pattern that resembles poppies, intertwined with blotches of bright blue, orange, and dribbles of yellow.

“It’s beautiful,” Zack says. “Primitive and alive. Soulful.”

“Yeah. Just what I was thinking.” I stand back and let Zack continue his rapt study of the canvas. I move around the room looking for anything that might give us a clue as to what became of Amy. I stop in front of a credenza covered in plastic and topped with cans, bottles, and tubes of paint. There are brushes soaking in jars of some kind of oil. Others are standing upright in an old ceramic vase. A couple have been left to dry on the top of the workspace.

I pick one up. The bristles are stiff with red paint. The other one on the credenza is caked with orange.

Zack has come up behind me. He takes the brush from my hand. “Remember when I asked what kind of woman would go on a trip without her makeup and toothbrush?”

“Yeah.”

He turns the brush slowly in his hand. “Well, what kind of artist walks out of her studio and leaves an expensive brush to dry without cleaning it first?”

“I’m guessing the answer’s the same.”

He returns to the painting. The canvas is stretched out on the floor, a taut plastic tarp underneath, anchored on the four corners with tacks. There’s a heavy blotch of bright red paint that bleeds from the corners of the canvas onto the tarp as if in her exuberance, Amy overshot her target. It’s at these places that Zack focuses his attention. I remember what Haskell said about those short, intense brushstrokes. What Zack said about Amy being controlled and deliberate.

He looks up at me. “I’m going to call Forensics. I think there might be more than paint here.”

Cursed

Cursed

A Fallen Siren Novel