Authors as people.
I thought I'd share a little with those who have dabbled with idea of becoming an author of fiction. When I finished Dead Dreams, Book 1, I was excited about the plot and the possibilities of expanding the story to eventually evolve into a series. However, as a fellow human being, with emotions (readers sometimes forget this, I think), I was discouraged that even though most had enjoyed the book and even read through the night (possibly meaning they couldn't put the book down) eventually some gave me a one or two star rating on Amazon primarily because they couldn't wait for Book 2.(It's ready now, though--see below cover.)
Perhaps our impatience in society is the outcome of us all living in the cyber age where everything happens at the press of a button. Viola! As the French puts it.
But, alas, the creation of a story is not so automatic. Stories are created, crafted and carefully edited developmentally as well as grammatically. Typos abound when there are over 80,000 words in a manuscript! If you've so much as written a two-page letter I am sure you can appreciate suddenly noticing the typo right after you punched the word "send" on your email. Yikes! Imagine if your letter was 85,000 words long--about 350 pages!
So, even though I had the story of Gone Missing down for the last six months it had taken another six to seven months to weed out those errors and grammatical inconsistencies.
Also, formatting can be quite a headache. Sending the manuscript to a third party formatter is no sure thing. The manuscript itself may be flawless but the formatter might just have to move the text around for it to sit nicely on a page, and before you know it you'll get back a formatted version so-called ready for print and Kindle--except when you fine tooth-comb the entire document again--oh no! a whole paragraph had been omitted by the formatter. Back to square one. Back and forth.
For those of you who have been patiently waiting for Book 2 (Gone Missing) I applaud you for your kindness--to be able to silently wonder what on earth happened to that teenager, Brie O'Mara, and not give me flack--worse to give Dead Dreams Book 1 and poor rating because of the wait, and hence affect the sale of the book and its future. I promise you it will soon be on Amazon--as soon as the Amazon side approves the cover. (Yes, even that could be an issue!)
Before I leave, I just wanted you to know that there will be a Dead Dreams, Book 3, even though Book 2 concludes Brie's adventure--or maybe I should say, misadventure.
Below I have the first few chapters as a bonus for those who are just dying to know what happens next. Until, the next book, (which would take me a whole year to write, edit and format,) thank you for reading, my friend!
That I could be accused of murder hit me hard. I slipped the envelope Jim had handed me out of my backpack. If someone was out to gun me down, perhaps I needed to write something to clear my name. I placed the envelope on the steering wheel and jotted the incidents that had led to my sorry state.
To whoever who finds this, please take this to the police if I am found dead.
Here are some background facts:
A girl named Sarah McIntyre answered my Craig’s list advertisement to share my apartment two months ago. I didn’t know she had a trust fund or that she was to inherit millions soon after she was to move in. She was the one who approached me, asking to switch identities with me, as she was afraid her uncle, Stu, or brother, Todd, might kill her. She told me that switching identities would confuse them and buy her time until she could claim her inheritance.
I wouldn’t have believed her except that two days before she told me her plan, a burglar broke in. Sarah claimed it was one of her relatives and her cover was blown. If I didn’t help her, she might have to move away, but eventually, her enemies would catch up with her and kill her. She couldn’t go to the cops, as she was afraid this would jeopardize her claim to the inheritance. Her best option was to remain hidden for a short while, and this was possible only with my help—especially since Sarah trusted no one.
But now, here I am sitting in the car, with Sarah missing. I had nothing to do with the blood spattered walls in my bedroom, or with Sarah’s murder, if she was even killed.
Also, if I am found dead, please locate the private investigator who tried to help us. His name is Jim Salazar. He has a brother, Peter Salazar, whom I’d worked with at Stay Fit. Jim was the one who passed me this package on Jackson, Sarah’s ex-attorney. I believe Jim might have some proof to clear my name. But, he seems to have disappeared.
P.S. Please tell my mom and dad I love them. And I’m sorry.
I slipped the envelope under the seat of the Jag.
I peered out the Jaguar’s window. Four more hours to my scheduled flight to Mexico. I had to find a way to clear my name. Murder was a charge not taken lightly anywhere. If I missed the noon flight, a sure incarceration awaited me. Could I even survive life behind bars?
Seeing the coast was clear, I pulled out of the underground lot. Not a star twinkled in the sky. Was this the omen of what lay ahead for me? Life without a sparkle of hope? How had I gotten myself into this mess? Some teens were accused of lying, or being tardy, or of being irresponsible, all three of which I was never guilty. I was associated with murder.
I could kick myself a million times, but it wouldn’t erase what I’d done. In life, a tiny slip can have irreparable consequences. How I might have actually committed a crime worse than bank fraud was beyond me. Murder! Stupidity and greed had blinded me.
It was almost five. The sky was lightening. If I didn’t get away, someone would spot me. My brother Keith might be rounding a corner to the apartment building where I lived. I’d thought about driving my Mini Cooper—hardly a typical getaway car—but had decided to take Sarah’s Jag instead. If there was going to be a police chase, I could at least do it in style. Besides, the four suitcases fit better in the Jag. I’d texted Keith, pretending I was Sarah, his partner in the scheme.
“Unexpected turn of events—visitor,” my message said. “Can’t say much. Understand? Do NOT come over. Will let u know when ready.”
Would my cryptic message convince Keith? Did I sound enough like Sarah? If he was in on the plot, he might fall for it. It might buy me an hour, maybe two.
I sped up Burgess Drive and headed toward the El Camino for the safe deposit box. I’d found the card key—of all places—in the glove compartment of the Jag. It was just like Sarah to dump valuables into a glove compartment. Convenient, I supposed. Her life was so full of deception she had to resort to shortcuts so as not to overload her system with things to keep track of.
A truck rumbled by and the driver hooted. My heart lurched. Was it the red truck?
I glanced at the driver, who glared at me. Perhaps I was driving too slowly for the time of morning, but the El Camino Real was a 35-mile-per-hour zone, and fear stopped me from going even a hairline over. I fingered the brass keys dangling heavy on my chain as I turned onto Waverly Lane.
Moments earlier, I’d opened Sarah’s suitcases and rifled through her belongings—items she’d deemed suitable to take on our escape mission. Surprisingly, she’d packed light. Going through Sarah’s things sent a shiver up my back but it also gave me an idea. I might find answers to my plight, answers to point me in the right direction.
I stopped by a side street and slipped into her blouse and shoes and re-did my makeup hurriedly in the car. The Jag’s rearview mirror wasn’t big, and the lighting was far from adequate for a makeover, but the practice at the bank was fresh in my memory. Hands shaking, I glued on false eyelashes, something Sarah always had on during the day. I teased my bangs to resemble the style she wore. A quick glance might allow me to pass as Sarah—provided the security camera didn’t capture my image and incriminate me. My gut tightened at the thought.
If I were to be stopped at reception, I’d be caught as the imposter trying to get her hands on more of Sarah’s fortune. This would give the law more basis to prosecute me, provide the cops with harder evidence, and maybe even convict me as a cold-blooded murderer.
Who’d believe that switching roles with Sarah wasn’t my idea? That when I’d interviewed her to be my roommate, committing a crime had never crossed my mind? Her supposed immense wealth hadn’t been my motivator to accept her into my life.
A photo stuck in Sarah’s wallet confirmed that it wasn’t fate that had brought us together. It was a scheme. My brother, Keith, and Sarah had set me up. The cops wouldn’t believe I was a victim, though who’d believe that a straight-A student from Montgomery High could fall prey to such a plot? I could hardly believe it myself. Yet, here I was, driving like a mad duck to search for any crumb of evidence to clear my name, if that was possible.
As I drove, I groped for the phone inside my backpack, the Louis Vuitton Sarah had bought me that was similar to hers. Had Keith replied?
Three more minutes, and I should reach Home Storage. I’d Google-mapped Portland Avenue on my own Samsung phone.
Finally, I came to a small two-story building with Roman columns flanking the entry porch. By the looks of it, this was no ordinary storage facility. Security cameras would abound. I parked on the curbside and killed the engine.
The Burberry coat Sarah always wore when the winds picked up here in the San Francisco Bay Area sat in the back seat of the Jag. Dawn was as good a time as any to throw on an overcoat. It would make me look Sarah-like. Good thing she always tottered on high heels, too. I had on my flats, which meant I wouldn’t seem obviously taller than she was.
But, just as I was about to step out of the car I noticed that everything seemed dark inside the storage building. The facility was still closed. Another idiotic miscalculation!
But, an idea hit me.
The sky was lightening, but Portland Avenue was off the main thoroughfare in Atherton, secluded on a boulevard lined with giant oaks and hundred-year-old redwoods. Anyone approaching me would stand out like a sore thumb. I grabbed my cell and punched Pete’s number. He might have his mobile off, since Stay Fit, where we’d once worked together, gave its staff a bad rap for personal calls during our shift, but I had to try.
Three rings, and the call went to Pete’s voicemail. I stared at the phone, willing it to communicate with him somehow. I needed a friend. My family was already burdened by my dad’s hospitalization. Please, Pete, answer. I called again. Again, voicemail.
I started the engine, backed out of the lot, and headed toward Stay Fit, taking side roads just to avoid cops cruising at this early hour. I was only five minutes away.
Pete’s old station wagon his mom had given him sat on the street outside Stay Fit. I pulled up behind it. A couple of fitness fanatics marched up the pathway toward the entry. Pete would have been behind the reception counter, but when the front door swung open I couldn’t make out his familiar figure.
I sucked in a breath and got out of the Jag, glancing over my shoulder. Pete’s brother, Jim, a PI Sarah had hired, was the best ally I had against the evidence stacked against me. Evidence that might lead me to my execution—the lethal injection—in California. Unfortunately, Jim had disappeared a few days ago. Now, evidence that I’d committed murder and fraud that would break my parents’ hearts was piling up against me. I needed Peter to locate him.
Heart pounding, I kept my head down, and stepped forward. Just then a police cruiser slowed down as it went by. Quickly, I ducked and slipped back into the Jag’s front seat. I redialed Pete’s number, my eyes below the level of the steering wheel, peering out for more cop cars coasting. The phone rang, and this time someone picked up.
“Pete?” I said before I heard his voice.
“Brie?” His voice was low, gravelly, as if he had a bad throat or had been crying. “Where are you?” I sensed the tension in his tone.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
“Hold on. Let me get to the locker.” Someone’s muffled voice was in the background. A pang of homesickness hit me, even though I’d complained too many times that Stay Fit was a dead-end job and I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
Was Pete buying time to report me to the authorities that might already be searching me out? That couldn’t be. Pete was a friend, I reminded myself. Like I thought Sarah was? My mind raced, and my pulse jacked up to overdrive mode. I kept my gaze on the road in front.
After a few moments, Pete spoke. His voice was hushed now, as if he had his mouth close to the speaker. “Do you realize what you’re up against?”
When in doubt, always listen. My mother always said God gave us one mouth and two ears so we should talk less and listen more. “Whad’ya mean?”
“Jim. Someone’s threatened him. They said to stay away from you and Sarah unless he wants his son…killed. They want him to lie low till they say when. I’m not even supposed to talk to you. We’d better hang up. Trevor’s life’s at stake. I’m sorry.”
“Wait….” The line was already dead. It wasn’t like Peter to be scared. Was the phone bugged?
I stared at Stay Fit’s front doors. No one entered for some minutes, so I heaved in a deep breath, got out, and sprinted for the entry. If I could signal Pete to slip out he might be more willing to tell me more. I glanced at the street to check if anyone lurked about in a parked vehicle, perhaps taking down my every move. The coast seemed clear.
Before pushing the door open, I peered in through a small gap. Pete was handing a locker key to a male patron. Suddenly, someone from behind grabbed my arm. I sucked in a breath, swiveled around, and came face to face with Thao, my ex-manager.
“Hey, change of heart? Coming back to work already?” she said. I was even more surprised that she actually wore a friendly smile, as if she were hoping I’d say yes.
“Good to see you, too.” I gave her a quick hug.
From the corner of my eye I caught Pete coming toward us. Dark circles ran under his eyes, and his gaze flitted about.
“Hey, Pete,” Thao said. “Come give Miss Stuck-up here a hug.” She gestured with her chin at me. “She has a new hairstyle, new coat, new look. Very nice. Struck lottery?”
Peter came over and awkwardly wrapped one arm around my shoulder casually, but he whispered in my ear. “You must get away. Hide somewhere. I don’t know where.” He slipped a paper into my hand.
I nodded slightly, too overwhelmed by things spiraling out of my understanding. The crumpled note in my grasp felt like a reminder that I still had a friend in him. I blinked rapidly to stop tears threatening to burst out.
“I’ll catch up with you another time,” I told Thao. “It was awesome working here.” I tried to sound businesslike, although my voice cracked, and the burning sensation behind my eyelids intensified.
“You fine?” Thao asked, and she gripped my arm in a concerned manner. It was funny how I’d never seen Thao as a person, a fellow human being with the potential for deep relationships, instead of just as an employer, a boss who evaluated my every skill. She could have been a friend—a better one than Sarah who had ulterior motives.
“I’m well, thank you,” I lied. “I’ve got to go. I was in the neighborhood.”
“So nice of you to drop in. Don’t forget us,” she said and she turned and breezed in through the double doors.
Pete stalked after her, in an obvious hurry to avoid my company. He never turned back to wave good bye. Who was he afraid of? And, what had he written in the note? I pulled Sarah’s Burberry collar up to hide my cheeks. The security camera behind me might have caught some of the action, but my back was to it. I could’ve very well passed for Sarah or a guest with a similar coat. Not Brie, the possible murderer.
Back in the Jag, I opted to drive off before reading the note. Better find a less conspicuous spot on one of the inner streets. If whoever had threatened Jim was after me, Stay Fit would be a place to start. That, and my parents’ home. My dad’s hospital was another red flag. What if they hurt my family on account of me? I shuddered at the thought. They’d threatened Jim, enough for him to hide. Whoever “they” were, they had to be tied to Sarah’s disappearance.
My eyelids drooped with sleepiness, and my mind fogged up, but I slapped my cheeks a few times to keep alert. It was already six thirty, and I had to hurry to Home Storage, since my flight was at noon. Questions shot through my mind like poison darts. What would I find in Sarah’s storage shed?
I pulled up behind a blue BMW parked a dozen paces away from the Home Storage building. My fingers shook as I unfolded Pete’s crumpled note.
His writing was scrawled, and his letters leaned forward as if he’d written in a huff. He’d probably scribbled everything in that minute I was untangling myself from Thao.
“B, Jim sounded scared when he called, and nothing much fazes him. I have Trevor living with me now. J said my phones might be bugged. He sent an image, and I looked it up. Looks like a hospital in Switzerland. I’m taking Trevor to my grandma’s this weekend. Call me Sunday from a payphone. 650-772-0992. I think her phone won’t be bugged. Take care. Trust no one. J warned. P.”
I reread the message, studying every word. Was this information I should rejoice at, or did it show that my invisible enemies were always three steps ahead? Only one thing jumped out and made my heart miss two beats. Switzerland. How did Jim know? And, why was he there—assuming that was where he was or wanted me to go?
The morning after Sarah had laid down the switch identities plan and warned me not to contact anyone, I’d had a moment of weakness. I’d wanted so badly to know where Drew, my high-school boyfriend, was that I’d Facebooked a mutual high-school friend who’d said Drew was in Switzerland.
Did Jim know about Drew being there? Provided it was really Jim who’d spoken to Pete. What if Pete had been fooled? Some of the voice-altering technology could fool anyone. My mind reeled with possibilities.
Pete might know more than he was letting on—like why Jim had contacted Drew. It couldn’t be random coincidence Jim had gone there so soon after Drew had been admitted into the Berne Institute. Drew’s parents, desperate to find a cure for Drew’s paralysis, had dragged him there. Sarah could be right about private information leaking out once it was set on Facebook. Someone keeping tabs must have read my posts asking about Drew. Should I go to Switzerland and locate Jim, who might be my only ally? Or was this a trap?
I resolved to call Pete when I reached England. For now, I had to scour Sarah’s storage to look for clues that would help me survive. I had too little to go on to make sense of the puzzle.
Before going into the building, I spent a few minutes reading my e-mails—mostly notifications from Facebook and tons of promotional banter from stores. Sarah’s warning rang in my ears. “Toss your phone! You don’t want it acting as a beacon, signaling your whereabouts.” But, I needed to check on things—like how to get to Switzerland. I used Firefox as my browser. Hopefully, it was more secure than the other ones.
I was becoming as paranoid as Sarah, my once-upon-a-time friend. Or, maybe she never had been. I absentmindedly brushed the back of my hands across my eyes. My lids weighed so heavily that if I closed them I’d doze off…something that might cost me my life.
My web search told me that Switzerland was nestled in a mountain range, five thousand feet above sea level. Berne had a population of just over 100,000, out of Switzerland’s fewer than eight million. The country’s density was made up of travelers from all over. As a tourist, I could snoop about without arousing suspicion. There couldn’t be too many American teenagers with a broken back seeking treatment at the Institute in Berne. I could seek Drew out. Maybe Jim had contacted him.
If Jim was trying to communicate with me, my pursuers might never think to link Drew to me. Maybe Drew could convince his parents to harbor me as a fugitive as we gathered evidence to clear my name. But, would Drew want to get caught up in my mess?
When a familiar red truck grumbled past me and rounded the corner, my heart plunged. Was its driver on his way to check out Sarah’s things here, too? Had she given a key to that red truck guy? Perhaps taking Sarah’s green Jag hadn’t been such a brilliant move. It stood out more than the thousands of Mini Coopers zipping around in the Bay Area.
I slid out of the car and edged close to the bushes that lined one side of the pathway. I pulled up the collar of the coat and trudged toward the front porch with the Roman columns. If Red Truck Guy came into view I could slip between the shrubs—something I hoped I wouldn’t have to resort to. Black widow spiders loved to hide in Bay Area plants.
My heart felt as if it were thumping in my throat as I eased up to the building. From there I checked who’d parked near the facility: two vehicles other than my own, but no red truck. My breathing calmed.
Fingers gripping the storage card key in my coat pocket, I kept my head low and continually scanned my peripheral vision. Up two steps, and I pushed down on the brass door handle, polished so shiny my face reflected in it.
The interior of this place was nothing short of posh. Checkered black and white granite tiled flooring and wood-paneled walls stained cream greeted my eyes. It wasn’t the typical self-storage. The high ceiling in the entry hallway was coffered, and an elaborate crystal chandelier hung in the center. My flitting gaze landed on a lady behind the glossy black marble counter. She stood and smiled when our eyes met.
“Miss McIntyre, I wasn’t expecting you so early.”
She must have noticed the Burberry coat and LV handbag—Sarah’s signature. I sucked in a short breath and pulled my head up high the way Sarah carried herself, her neck always almost straight up from her back. A ballet posture, really. I realized I knew so little of Sarah’s background. Had she also taken ballet, as I had? Questions I could never ask her if the blood splattered in my bedroom was hers spun in my mind.
Think Sarah. Be Sarah. I flashed my teeth at the receptionist.
Now that I was closer to her, I saw she was young, maybe my age—eighteen. Blue eyes, a dazzling smile, a friendly face.
It was a good thing Darlene wore her name badge. “Hi, Darle-ne,” I said, imitating the way Sarah always drawled at the end of a name.
“I got the bigger storage for you,” she said. Her eyes jumped to a device on the side of the countertop. A card reader of some sort, I was guessing.
I slipped my hand out of my pocket and swiped Sarah’s card key along the device’s groove. It gave a shrill beep and announced, “Sarah McIntyre,” in a feminine, robotic tone. I hoped no retina scan or fingerprint detector awaited me through the glass door Darlene now sashayed through. Her stilettos clicked on the checkered granite, and her blond ponytail swung in a girlish manner. Perhaps her youth didn’t take in the subtle differences between Sarah and me. I hoped so.
“So,” Darlene went on without turning around, “when will you be back from your Hawaii trip? I heard it’s beautiful there. Was it Maui you were going to?”
At least that part of the scheme seemed to gel with what Sarah had told me. We were to fool acquaintances so they’d think we were vacationing in Hawaii. I “a-hemmed” at Darlene’s query the way Sarah did when she didn’t want to drag the conversation.
“Be sure to take lots of pictures,” Miss Chatty continued as she walked down the hallway. Evenly spaced sconces lit our path. “Too bad you don’t Facebook. I’d love to ‘friend’ you on it if you ever change your mind.”
I a-hemmed again. Hopefully, she got the message.
“What’s,” I asked by way of conversation, “your Facebook name, Darlene?”
“Darlene Zschech. Similar to the Australian singer.” She punctuated this with a giggle. “Not that I can sing or anything.”
We reached a closed door with a strange black box machine by the door jamb. Darlene stepped aside and waved at the device. “This is where I bid my adieu, until you’re ready to leave.” She stood to the side, and I awkwardly stared at the machine she’d gestured at. What was I supposed to do? Put my thumb on it, or speak into it? Was it a voice analyzer? Where could the card pass through? If I asked, it would rouse Darlene’s suspicion for the real Sarah must know.
Before Darlene turned, she said, “When you’re ready, I’ll show you the new room we talked about, if you have time. If you need anything, just press the speaker buzzer in the safe room.”
“No hurry. Darlene, I have to use the restroom real quick.” I could Google this device. Something on the Internet might clue me in. A Youtube “how-to” would be useful, but I couldn’t risk Darlene hearing me.
“Sure.” Darlene, who had already begun her sashay back to the reception, swiveled on her heels and glanced about the hallway. She then motioned her hand to the right at a door that melded with the wall. I hadn’t noticed it before. Would she think it weird that Sarah, who’d been here many times, it seemed, would have forgotten the location of the restroom?
“The door blends so well, it always throws me off,” I said confidently, and shook my head as if it was the door’s fault I’d glossed over it.
“Me, too. I guess once I’ve worked here a few months I’ll get used to the sleek look. But I can see how some of our patrons don’t get used to seeing it, even if they turn up here every week.” She giggled nervously.
So, Darlene hadn’t worked here for long. This explained why she so easily took me for Sarah, even though Sarah had apparently been a regular visitor.
Alone in the spankingly clean restroom, complete with a spring bouquet in a cut crystal vase, I searched out the features of this facility and saw the exact device. It was called “The Cube.” The instructions said to flip the cover and press the series of numbers that the individual patrons had privately pre-programmed.
I ran through numbers Sarah would have used. Keith’s birth date again crossed my mind. If that didn’t work? I’d be doomed.
If Darlene was looking at the security camera she might think it strange that I had to try more than once. What if the machine was wired to sound an alarm if more than one set of numbers was attempted? There was no way I could make a getaway. Still, I had to get into the safe room. Something in there could clear me, or tell me what to do. If I gave myself up to the cops now every piece of information painted Brie O’Mara as the opportunist who’d done away Sarah, her kind benefactor.
Once back in the hallway, I flipped up the cover of The Cube and stared at the metallic numbers, only slightly raised. It definitely looked sleek.“Crafted for elegance and high security,” the website had claimed.
I rubbed my sweaty palms on the side of my coat and squeezed my lids shut for a second. One shot. That was all it would take to land me in prison. Everything rode on whether Keith had ranked high on Sarah’s totem pole when she’d first programmed her code.
A furtive glance up confirmed that the security camera, though not directly focused on the keypad for obvious reasons, was trained to capture the image of those entering and leaving the safe room.
I held my breath and typed in Keith’s birth date—MMDDYY—as Sarah had sequenced it for her iPhone. Three beeps sounded, as if giving a warning that a bomb was about to explode. The high-pitched beep intensified into a screech. If the alarm rang, I could consider myself fried.
A loud click came from the door and told me my attempt was successful. So, Sarah was indeed smitten enough to have Keith’s vitals as the code for two different devices. But, what waited on the other side of the door? Hopefully, it was my ticket to testify my innocence.
As I thrust the heavy door open, an auto light brightened the passage before me. My feet sank into red carpet as I trod down the hallway. White doors that contrasted with the chocolate-colored walls were on either side. Maybe twenty doors were spaced evenly on each wall. How was I supposed to know which of these doors belonged to Sarah? I brought the key card I’d used originally and turned it over. The sconce lighting was dim but I made out a “23” faintly etched on the corner. The doors were indeed numbered. I’d just passed door 23.
I pretended to sneeze, then fumbled in my Louis Vuitton, pretending to look for a tissue to wipe my nose. I was still being watched by some hidden camera, I was sure. Then I did a double-take and stepped toward Sarah’s safe room door.
My nerves felt as though someone had ice skated on them. This endless exercise of one security measure after another made my head spin. But, the tension was not over. Another punch pad was by this door.
“Third time’s a charm,” I mumbled.
Sarah had stayed true to herself. Keith’s numbers worked again. I wasn’t too surprised. Having lived with her for two months told me that although she was bright, she tended to take the easiest path to most things. Whatever was convenient was her motto.
I pushed the door open, and an auto light turned on. My gaze quickly snapped up what lay before me. A plush armchair stood in the middle of the safe room, its velvet seat and back a deep scarlet. If I sank into the chair, I might doze off.
Stay alert. No slip-ups.
Next to the chair sat a bureau with many drawers. Two black chests, possibly made of metal, sat side by side, pushed against the wall. As I stepped inside the room, the door clicked shut behind me. I went to the bureau and pulled open a drawer. Documents of various sorts, similar to the stock certificates I’d seen in the safe at our apartment, lay scattered in the drawer. Sarah must have sent them here. Some had the words, “Bearer bonds.” I stuffed a few of these into my backpack and studied the other papers in the drawers below.
These were glossy cardstock certificates with names like Tiffany, Cartier, Hermes. They were definitely in keeping with Sarah’s image.
I noticed a folded document fitted into a velvet sleeve bearing the brand Patek Philippe. It was the recent high-ticket item Sarah had purchased before the break-in at our apartment two weeks back.
I was about to turn to the two metal chests when something tucked all the way inside the bottom drawer caught my eye. It was a strange, rectangular device. It could have passed off as a high-tech remote control, but something told me it wasn’t.
I stared at the raised blue, red, and green buttons. The screen was blank. Did it open a garage door? An antenna stuck out on one side. I pressed some of the buttons randomly, until a red button blinked to life. Was it a bomb detonator?
Gently, I placed it back inside its resting place and shut the drawer without causing too much movement. I prayed I’d not blown up a building somewhere. What was it, and who was Sarah mixed up with?
Thankfully, Sarah hadn’t padlocked the two chests. Perhaps the key to her Louis Vuitton antique suitcases I’d placed in the Jag were in one of them. I thrust the chest open, expecting to see items that came with the certificates, but my eyes could hardly believe my luck.
Bricks of cash. I grabbed a wad and riffled through the notes. The smell of new money wafted toward me. Twenty-and hundred-dollar bills filled the entire chest. I could live off this for the rest of my life. I could even sponsor several poor children in Africa, a ten-year education and living expenses in the process.
Sarah’s paranoia must have led her to stash cash here. The receptionist had mentioned the bigger safe room. Was Sarah expecting more loot? There were still not enough pieces for me to make sense of what her true plan had been, but this newfound treasure promised a sliver of hope.
I shoved in as much cash as my LV bag could hold without arousing suspicion from the receptionist later. How much had Darlene noticed about the backpack? Would she think it curious I was skipping out with a bag looking like an overstuffed sausage and alert the cops? It was a risk I’d have to take.
After closing the first, I heaved open the second trunk. What looked like albums, yearbooks, and other memorabilia greeted me. Was this the past Sarah was running from? I dropped to my knees and gingerly took out the topmost tome. It was a yearbook from the boarding school she’d attended.
“River Rock Academy for the Gifted,” the gold words on the deep red cover announced. Below that was written, “West Sussex, England, 2007.”
Sarah had boarded at River Rock Academy finishing school her last two years of high school. I flipped through the pages, and after the first half, which was filled with candid shots of students in navy blue uniforms typical of private schools in the UK, rows of student photos followed the announcement of the class grade.
I scanned the faces and the names below them. When I caught the name “Sarah McIntyre,” I blinked. My throat constricted, and my head spun. I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand and steadied my breathing. My fingers trembled as I put my finger on the name and re-read the information below the headshot, unable to believe my eyes.
“Sarah Grace McIntyre, Year Eleven, Distinction Award.”
The girl in the photo with Sarah’s name was not the Sarah McIntyre I’d known. It wasn’t just her hairstyle or that I’d known her as an adult. Perhaps growing from an innocent adolescent to an adult filled with fears and scheming had taken a toll and matured her features differently. But, still, it was as if this were a different face altogether. Was the Sarah I’d roomed with an imposter? Had the imposter killed off the original Sarah and stolen her identity before she’d tried to steal mine?
Quickly, I lifted out the other school yearbooks and leafed through these. Sarah’s brother was three years older than she was, and he might have his picture in one of the older volumes. Sarah had never shown me any photos of him, even when I’d asked.
I found a 2004 yearbook, even though Sarah claimed she’d only gone there for two years. I held my breath as I turned the pages that had begun to yellow at the edges, scouring the faces and names below each shot.
From the second to last page Todd Jeremy McIntyre stared at me, his young face trapped in a time where greed and malice had not prevailed. Provided the Sarah I knew was really his sibling. Youthful innocence had no doubt evaporated, replaced by the devious Todd McIntyre, I’d heard of: a brother who wanted to drive his sister into nonexistence just so he could get his hands on her wealth or some such demented scheme. Was there any truth to any of the rivalry stories Sarah had fed me the past two months?
In a class of about twenty, Todd’s light eyes appeared bright and presented him as a smart young man. He had a head of tow-colored curls cropped close at the sides but longer at the top. There was a strong resemblance to the Sarah McIntyre in the 2007 school book. If these were shots of the true Sarah McIntyre, who was the Sarah I’d let into my life? Obviously, she had access to wealth. But, whose? To whom did the wads of cash belong?
Before I could dwell on this, a loud buzzer shook the entire room, and Darlene’s voice crackled over the intercom.
“Sorry, Miss McIntyre. I hate to trouble you, but a tow truck’s by your Jaguar. Mr. Trounson just happened to drive up and noticed the towing man hitching it up. He tried to stop him, but you’d better come out soon. I don’t know if he’ll be able to stall.”
I pressed the intercom button and thanked Darlene in as calm a tone as I could manage. “I’ll be right out.” I wanted to continue the search for the suitcase keys, but that was now out of the question.
How long had I been in the safe room? I glanced at the cell phone time—already eight fifteen. But, as I peered into the chest I noticed something that had slipped my search: a gold charm bracelet with six precious stone icons dangling from it. I picked it up and studied the beautiful jewelry. Each charm looked like an item—a car, an arrow, and a few other things I didn’t recognize at once. Identical initials marked each of the charms. “EBS.” Was this a brand name? The initials of a person? Once again, a piece of mystery that shrouded Sarah’s secret life crossed my path.
I’d already overstayed my visit. Afraid I’d missed something else, I tilted the remaining books in the chest to see what else was under them. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw the gun tucked away in the corner. I picked it up and turned it over. It was the same Glock Sarah had showed me that night the first burglar had supposedly attacked her in her bedroom. Why had she hidden it here? Was it because the burglar was no longer visiting us since his job of scaring me, enough for me to submit to Sarah’s plans, had succeeded?
With the bottom of my dress I wiped my fingerprints off the gun and dropped the Glock back into its corner in the chest.
“Miss McIntyre?” Darlene’s voice sounded higher-pitched, more urgent, over the intercom.
I slipped the charm bracelet onto my wrist, dropped all the albums and books into their resting place in the chest, jerked the cover back shut with the toe of my shoes, and grabbed my bag. I kept the two yearbooks with the pertinent headshots. If I could prove to the cops that the Sarah I knew was an imposter, they might believe that I was just a victim of the entire scheme. But, now was not the time to seek out the police. First I’d better make sure the Jaguar didn’t get impounded. It could complicate matters.
Just before I scooted out to the car my cell phone beeped, which meant someone had texted me. I hoped it wasn’t bad news about my dad’s condition.
With the two hefty albums tightly pressed under my arm and the collars of the Burberry up so my face wouldn’t look so obviously un-Sarah, I pulled the safe room door shut behind me and scampered out toward reception. Darlene’s expression showed obvious distress.
“I’m so sorry,” she began. “Mr. Trounson tried to talk the towing man to delay, but…”
I raised my hand to gesture a farewell and hurried out. Had the cops called in the towing company? I was unfamiliar with this Menlo Park area and felt like kicking myself for not checking where I’d parked.
I rounded the pathway that would lead to the Jag, assuming it was still around, and noticed a tall man with a French-type chapeau perched on his head. I assumed this was Mr. Trounson, since he was standing with his hands on his hips next to a tow truck. My car, already with wheels clamped and hitched to the yellow truck, was still there. How familiar was Mr. Trounson with Sarah? Would he notice I was not her? He still had his back to me, and I had a sudden urge to swivel on my heels and run the other way. That was when I had a breeze of an idea. I shrugged the Burberry off and tossed it behind a nearby bush. I could always retrieve it when the coast was clear.
Sarah never wore her hair in a ponytail. That was more my thing. Quickly, I groped for a hair-tie in the side pocket of the LV and scrunched my hair into a bun. Fortunately, Mr. Trounson was still heatedly arguing with the sandy-haired towing man, who glanced up as I got closer.
“Hi!” I said breathlessly. “Sarah told me to get here. We came together. She’s inside.” I gestured at the storage facility behind me.
Mr. Trounson turned and stared at me, eyes beady and curious, cell phone in hand, still held up to his ear. I hoped he’d not bothered to check with Darlene that Sarah was on her way to meet him. Would he take me for Sarah? I had to play my cards right and test the waters.
“I’m sorry,” he said slowly, sizing me up and down. “But who might you be?”
“Sarah’s sister, Brie,” I said without thinking.
“Oh. About the parking… I’d like to apologize for this unacceptable inconvenience. Is she on her way out?”
“Sure. Maybe you can see if she’s ready to leave.” My eyes shot to the front of the building. I hoped this would encourage Mr. Trounson to award me some privacy with Mr. Tow Truck.
“I wasn’t aware Ms. McIntyre had a sister,” Mr. Trounson went on slowly, ignoring my suggestion.
“We’re practically twins,” I said. “Joking. We’re good friends, too.” I gave a giggle.
His eyes traveled up and down my attire. “Of course. You do look alike, Miss…McIntyre.”
“Sarah should be out soon. We came in separate cars.”
I edged closer to the tow truck and motioned to the clamp. “Can you undo that? Since we’re already here?” I said to the towing man. His name tag read, “Jeff Goodwin, Able Towing.”
Jeff shook his head. “I’m sorry, but once the clamps’re on, I have to tow it back to the…”
“But!” Mr. Trounson boomed out, “I told you she—they—would be out in a minute before you put that thing on.” He wagged his pointy finger at the clamp.
“That’s okay.” I laid a hand on Mr. Trounson’s arm. “I can handle it. I think Sarah wants a word with you. We’re in a hurry.”
“She came in another car?”
I waved to the street beyond. “Her boyfriend drove her.”
He nodded knowingly and trudged back up the path toward the building, muttering something under his breath. From the corner of my eye I caught him glancing at me. Had he noticed anything suspicious? Had the Burberry coat in the bushes caught his attention? How was I to retrieve it? I had to, in case he called the cops. My fingerprints were definitely on it.
I rummaged inside my LV and counted out four hundred dollars. “How much would it cost to unclamp the car if you brought it in?” I hurriedly asked Jeff.
“It’s a hundred-and-fifty dollar fine. Sorry, I don’t want to get into trouble with my boss.”
“No problem. What say I pass the money to you now and add a little bonus for the inconvenience I’ve caused? Your boss-I’m sure he’d appreciate it.”
The sky had lightened considerably, and I needed to rush off. Who knew what or who else might turn up here? Was Keith privy to this storage space and the bundles of cash in the chest? And what about those in cahoots with whoever had broken into our apartment and possibly hurt Sarah? Had they realized their mistake? Was it was a mistake that Sarah got hurt? Questions to which I had no answers popped up and swirled constantly in my skull.
I shoved the bills into Jeff’s hand and said, “Please. I have a flight to catch. You don’t have to bother to give me an invoice. I just need to drive off soon. See? I even have my suitcases in there.” I tried to look as pathetic as possible, which wasn’t difficult, considering the abyss into which I’d fallen. The dark circles under my eyes must surely have worked in my favor.
Jeff tilted his head toward the car and peeked inside the back window where the suitcases sat. “What about your sister?”
“She’s made other arrangements.”
“Sorry about all this.” He reached out and took the cash from my outstretched hand. “I can undo the clamp in two minutes.”
“I appreciate it.” I flashed him my teeth. Time was slipping by.
Jeff began the unclamping process, which didn’t look too involved. Still, if he didn’t hustle, Mr. Trounson could stomp back out and demand explanations. He might even bring Darlene out as a witness.
As I twiddled my thumbs waiting, a plan brewed in my head—something that could help my investigation.
Jackson Anderson might have passed away, but the why and how of his demise could shed light upon my case. Perhaps his secretary—Martha—could identify the photos of Sarah in her iPhone. I’d spoken to Martha twice on the phone but never introduced myself. How would she react if I turned up at the office with some flowers to pay my respects?
As Jeff bent down to work on the clamp, I scurried to the bushes where Sarah’s coat was hidden. Furtively, I glanced at the front door, hoping Mr. Trounson wouldn’t reappear. He might demand to know where Sarah had gone and question me about the Burberry in my clutches. Or, Darlene might accompany him and identify me as the Sarah who’d invaded Sarah’s safe room.
A loud clang vibrated the ground as the Jag was unhitched and lowered to road level. I hurried to it and calmed my breathing.
Quick! Everything took longer than expected.
“You’re set,” Jeff said, wiping his hands on the sides of his greasy jeans.
“That’s it?” I wasn’t sure if there were paperwork to sign. I hoped not.
“Yup! Just be aware where you park next time. Residents here don’t approve of stray cars on their streets.” He shrugged as if apologizing for this.
Had someone called him in? “So, it wasn’t that you were driving by and saw my car here?” What if it had been a cop? Or someone tailing me. My eyes flitted to the corner where there was now a roaring traffic since it was almost nine.
“Someone called and reported about a loiterer parked illegally on this street. Your Jag.” He nodded as if to show his sympathy. “Tough luck, huh?”
I didn’t believe in luck, especially when it seemed bent on putting me in the slammer. But it could have been a coincidence that someone random had complained. Every town had its fair share of stuffed shirts.
I nodded at Jeff and thanked him as he drove off
As I stepped out on to the street to get into the Jag, an engine rumbled so loudly I practically jumped. The tailgate of a red truck swerved around a corner at the end of the block. It must have been parked on a side street ahead of me. Was it the same one I’d seen earlier? I sprinted toward the disappearing truck. If it was the mystery man Sarah hung out with and I got the license plate, I could trace him. By the time I’d reached the corner, the red truck was gone. I bent over and caught my breath, heaving and puffing like the bad wolf. Sleepless nights had taken a terrible toll on my young body.
It took me longer to trek to my parked car, as I was catching my breath. Precious time had been wasted, and Mr. Trounson might have even called the cops!
The sun filtered through the heavy foliage of oaks and redwoods. It was going to be a warm spring day.
I reached into the LV to get my car keys, and as I straightened up a hand clamped over my mouth. I struggled to free myself and noticed an expensive watch on the man’s wrist. The Patek Philippe! I struggled even more, and my lungs filled to bursting, unable to breathe.
“Shh! Shut up!” the man hissed when I tried to scream. There was no one around. Not even Mr. Trounson had returned. I hoped there was a security camera nearby that could take a picture of me in the grasp of my attacker, but I’d purposely parked where traffic was sparsest and no cameras perched on lampposts to capture my image.
I bit into the man’s palm, and he twisted my neck. I was sure it would snap in two.
“Stop!” He breathed into my ears. “You’re making things worse for yourself.”
From the corner of my eye I glimpsed the red truck parked two car spots away. I kicked my assailant in the shin and slumped backward toward him, making full use of my dead weight. That caught him off guard. I broke free and sprinted away.
Behind me, he called out. “I can help you. I’m Sarah’s friend.”
I stopped and, despite my terror, swiveled around. “Why were you trying to kill me?” I rubbed my neck and chin where his grip had tightened. “Where’s Sarah?” A good ten strides stood between us. And it didn’t look like he had a gun.
“I’m trying to find out. They’re after me, and I need to give them the cash she promised.”
“I don’t know.” He trudged toward me, and I backed away. “Sarah owes them, and I don’t have that kind of money.”
“Who’s them?” He wasn’t making sense. Was he high?
“We can help each other. I know it’s because of those photos.”
“Sarah’s. She’s supposed to meet me this morning with the cash. I saw the Jag leaving the apartment and followed you, thinking you were Sarah. I need to pay those guys, man. I don’t know much. I was just her courier.”
“Courier for what?”
“She had those photos mailed to the UK, and I helped her send them.” He stood in front of me now, and I eyed him warily. Suddenly, he reached forward and grasped my wrist.
“Here.” He shook my wrist so Sarah’s charm bracelet I was wearing showed more clearly. “This was Sarah’s. EBS. That’s where the envelope with the photos was addressed to. She showed me this before.” He jiggled my wrist.
“EBS?” He let go of my arm and I studied the trinkets on the bracelet. “You sure scared me.”
“I needed to talk with you, but I was afraid you’d run off.”
He was right about that. “What’s EBS?”
“The address is in London. England. That’s all I know, I swear upon my mother’s grave.”
“Did Sarah pay you with the Patek Philippe for your services?” I pointed to his watch.
“That’s just a token, she said. She’d give me more.”
Expensive token. “Who’re in those photos?”
“I don’t know, I swear. Sarah wanted me to pay off those guys who wanted them. But they want a lot of money, not just ten thousand. I mean a lot. I s’pose the photos must be worth a lot. The other side made them an offer.”
“What other side? Do you have a name?”
“The people she’s keeping the photos from. M’name’s Terry, Terry Nathan. I don’t know who those guys are. I met them earlier this morning. They seemed all panicked. I don’t know why. They said they’d need a million bucks if I want them off my back. I can find out more, but you have to promise you’ll pass me the cash today.”
A million! Today? Perhaps that was what those stacks of cash in the storage place were for. Sarah knew she had to pay these people off for a large sum. But, to do what? To get them off her back, because they were pestering for some photos? What photos? Had they found out she was an imposter?
“I’ll get the money,” I lied. “I need some time, and you need to find out who these people are. How can I contact you?”
Terry glanced over his shoulders as if he were afraid someone might have tailed him, and he rummaged in his pocket. “Give me your number.”
“Whatever you do, don’t give them my number. Or tell that you met me.”
We exchanged information, even though I’d need to get rid of my cell. He said he’d contact me when he found out more. I kept a close eye on his hand, making sure he didn’t try to grab my neck. Thankfully, he trudged to his red truck.
I drove the Jag around to another side street and killed the engine. I needed time to process. I tilted my head back against the headrest to close my eyes. My conversation with Terry buzzed like mosquitoes trapped in my head.
Photos? Who wanted them so badly? Maybe enough to kill?
If I could just sleep for thirty minutes, it might clear my thinking. But, what if I overslept and missed my noon flight? I intended to get to the UK. Maybe Sarah meant for us to visit this EBS place in London to retrieve the photos. I needed to find out about EBS. Perhaps the photos held the key to clearing this mystery and my name. I felt sorry for Terry, but he was a big boy, and a murder one charge on me might kill my parents, especially my dad. Not to mention, myself, too.[contact-form][contact-field label='Name' type='' required='1'/][contact-field label='Email' type='' required='1'/][contact-field label='Comment' type='textarea' required='1'/][/contact-form]