- Published: 3 November 2020
- ISBN: 9781780899510
- Imprint: Century
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 368
- RRP: $32.99
Three Women Disappear
DETECTIVE SEAN WALSH
“LET’S KILL him again in slow motion,” I said.
I took a coffee cup from the sink, started the faucet running.
“Assume for a second that it was a female killer,” I began. “I’m Anthony Costello, accountant to the mob, nephew of top dog Vincent Costello. It’s early in the morning, and either the help’s asleep or they haven’t arrived yet. I’m probably ticked off at having to do my own dishes.”
“As ticked off as I am right now?” Detective Heidi Haagen asked.
I ignored her. This was my wife we were talking about. I wasn’t going to let the department pin a murder on her—especially not when it was me who sent her to work for Costello in the first place.
“The lady assassin approaches me from behind,” I continued, “as I’m rinsing my mug. I’ve got the water running full throttle because I’m Anthony Costello and I never do anything halfway. The sound makes for nice cover. Lady Assassin tiptoes up behind me and plunges a big old kitchen knife deep into my left shoulder. Probably she’s aiming for my neck or spine, but she’s no pro—that’s obvious from the mess she left behind. Her hands are sweating, and she closes her eyes at the last second.”
“We’ve been over this,” Heidi said.
Heidi, my onetime partner, now boss. She was the one who shut me out of this case. Now I was trying to claw my way back in.
“I know,” I said. “I know we have, but bear with me. Costello’s a big guy. About my height, but a hundred pounds heavier. That first blow brought him down, but it didn’t kill him.”
I spun away from the sink, dropped to my hands and knees. Heidi rolled her eyes.
“Lady Assassin sidesteps, gets me in the center of my back, but not as deep this time. I drop to my belly and start crawling, trying to get away, maybe headed for the living room, where I keep that Glock stashed in the coffee table drawer.”
I pulled myself forward on the tile mosaic floor, grunting and grimacing, playing the part.
“This isn’t necessary,” Heidi said.
But it was. I had to make her understand—Sarah wasn’t capable of killing Anthony Costello.
“She keeps coming at me, again and again, but she’s out of breath, losing force. These are just puncture wounds she’s inflicting now. I’m Anthony Costello. I’m not going to be done in by my own chef in my own kitchen. So I reach for a chair and pull myself up. Maybe I manage a threat: ‘It’s my turn now’ or ‘You’re a dead woman’—some stock phrase to make her tremble. I start toward her, then stumble, brace myself against the sink. And now it’s me who’s scared, because I’m looking at her eyes, and it’s clear a switch has flipped. She charges, stabbing wildly. I shield my face with my forearms. The blade finds my gut, my ribs, my thighs. And then she lines up for the kill shot, the tip of the knife pointed at my sternum. In a final burst of energy, I hurl myself out of the way, then stagger and drop. Her final thrust hits the countertop. Here.”
I pointed dramatically to a deep gouge in the polished oak. Heidi yawned.
“Sean,” she said, “Sunday mornings are sacred. I told you when you called that you’d better have something—”
“Solid and irrefutable, I know.”
I went over to the knife block and found one with the same make and model as the murder weapon. Heidi took a step back, which almost made me smile. I held the knife out to her, handle first.
“Just take it.”
“I know you’ve seen the photos,” I said. “I know there were measurements taken, and I know those measurements suggest that the killer was ‘above average in strength.’ Here’s the thing: I asked you to meet me at the scene today because I want you to try it.”
I gestured to the stray hole in the counter.
“You’re about five foot ten, right? You hit the gym daily. Bench your own weight. Hell, you could probably bench my weight. I challenge you to take the same knife and, with just one thrust, make a hole that deep.”
She was less than enthusiastic.
“Even if the department would allow a—”
“Half as deep,” I said. “The same gouge, half as deep. Forget what’s allowed: I’m fighting for my wife’s freedom here.”
She glared at me.
“This isn’t going to prove anything,” she said.
“Just make sure you grip the handle tight. I don’t want the blade sliding up your palm.”
She gave in. She repositioned the handle in her fist, switched her weight to her back foot, and lunged with everything she had.
Not even one-quarter the depth of the original. The hole was barely noticeable when she pulled the knife back out. We stood staring at the counter. No words were exchanged, no meaningful glances. Then she dropped the knife in the sink and started for the door.
“We’re leaving,” she said.
“I told you: it doesn’t prove anything.”
I followed her outside, onto the wraparound porch of what had begun as a plantation house, rebuilt and renovated over time into a multimillion-dollar mansion. Drive time to either Tampa or Orlando was roughly an hour, but the immediate area looked like the land that civilization forgot. Nothing but kudzu, palm trees, and now police tape in every direction. Heidi lit a cigarette, probably just so she could blow smoke in my face.
“Sarah Roberts-Walsh is a small-boned diabetic who couldn’t lift a twenty-pound barbell off the floor,” I said. “She couldn’t have made that gouge in the counter.”
Heidi turned to face me.
“Open your eyes, Sean. Stop ignoring the obvious.”
“Your wife disappeared the same day Anthony Costello was murdered. Maybe the same hour.”
“She isn’t the only one who went missing that day.”
“Yeah, and maybe when we find her she’ll have a real good story.”
She walked down the porch steps and started toward her car, then turned and came striding back.
“Just what exactly was the wife of a homicide detective doing working for a mob accountant?”
“She was his chef.”
“I’m not talking about her job title. How did she meet him in the first place?”
I didn’t say anything. I was surprised it had taken Heidi this long to ask the question. I’d had run-ins with the Costello family before. A little over a year ago, I’d arrested Nicholas Costello, Anthony’s nephew, for holding up a liquor store on the outskirts of Tampa. After the arrest, evidence went missing, witnesses recanted. It looked bad. It made me look bad. And then Sarah started working for Anthony. Rumors were flying around the squad room: Detective Sean Walsh on the Costellos’ payroll. Me, who’d given fifteen years to this job.
“That’s your story?” Heidi asked. “Silence?”
“She isn’t involved,” I said.
“Maybe. Either way, I don’t want you anywhere near this.”
I watched her drive off, then took out my cell phone and speed-dialed Sarah.
“Hey, it’s me again,” I told her voice mail. “I’m praying you can hear this. It’s been two weeks now. I miss you. I need to know you’re okay. I need you to come home. Whatever happened, you need to come home.”
I hung up, headed for my car. My phone rang just as I stuck the key in the ignition. I grabbed it off the dashboard without checking the caller ID.
“Sarah?” I said.
“Next best thing. You got something to write with? ’Cause I got an address.”
It was Lenny Stone, ex-cop turned PI. I’d hired him to track down Sarah.
“Where?” I said. “Where is she?”
“About a hundred miles south of the middle of nowhere. Nearest town is Kerens, Texas. Time to dust off that Stetson, partner.”
Interview Room C
“FORENSICS FOUND traces of Costello’s blood on your clothes, so why don’t you tell us what happened?”
We were sitting in a plain white room with a drop ceiling and a mirror I assumed was two-way. Me and Detective Heidi Haagen. She leaned across the metal table.
“This is serious, Sarah,” she said. “Your own husband brought you in.”
“Where is Sean?”
They were the first words I’d spoken since we sat down. My voice cracked like a teenage boy’s.
“Doesn’t matter,” Haagen said. “He can’t help you.”
“But I didn’t do anything.”
“Then just tell the truth.”
“Where do you want me to start?” I asked.
“That day. Everything you remember. Begin at the beginning and don’t hold back. No detail is too small.”
All right, I told myself. You can do this.
I gripped the sides of my chair, took a breath, started talking. I kept my eyes pointed straight ahead, away from the mirror. I knew damn well who was standing on the other side.
The morning of Anthony Costello’s murder, I woke up to find myself lying on a moss-covered boulder, surrounded by kudzu. I had no idea where I was or how I’d gotten there. I made to stand but my legs were wobbly and my feet kept slipping on the moss. I felt my pockets: no phone, no wallet. For a long while I just sat there, trying to think things through. Maybe I’d gone camping with friends, wandered off by myself, and gotten lost. Maybe I’d forgotten to bring my insulin with me, which would explain why I’d blacked out.
“You’re diabetic?” Haagen interrupted.
“That’s right,” I said. “If I miss an injection, life can get real fuzzy.”
She jotted something in her notebook.
“Go on,” she said. “What did you do next?”
I yelled for help. I figured if I’d come here with friends, they couldn’t be too far away. I shouted and kept shouting, but no one shouted back. I took a deep breath, ordered myself not to panic.
“Anybody hear me?” I tried again. “Please, I need help.”
Silence. Nothing but birds fighting off in the woods.
All right, Sarah, I told myself. It’s up to you.
I lay on my belly, slid down the boulder, and landed ankledeep in a thick patch of marsh grass. The front of my blouse was stained green. I started to brush myself off, looked down, noticed for the first time that there was blood on my sleeves, blood on my jeans, blood all over my white sneakers. Not wet, but not dry, either. Had I fallen? Been attacked? I scanned my body for any hint of a wound, felt the back of my head for lumps or abrasions. Nothing. The blood wasn’t mine.
So whose was it? I struggled to push my mind back but came up empty.
I wasn’t wearing a watch, had no idea how long I’d been unconscious. I looked up at the sky. The light seemed to be growing stronger. I figured it was somewhere between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m. Where would I normally be between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m.? I couldn’t remember. I could remember my name, my age, my weight, the fact that I was a diabetic—but where I lived and what I did all day were gone.
I felt dizzy and a little nauseous. Assuming I was right about the time, my last insulin injection would have been late last night, maybe eight hours ago. Eight hours wasn’t the end of the world. If I’d passed out atop that boulder all on my own, it might have had more to do with dehydration than blood sugar.
I needed water. I needed insulin. I looked around for a path or a landmark. Nothing. The boulder was lodged at the summit of a small incline. If I was looking for civilization, then downhill seemed like the best bet. I started to walk, then run. The running set off a sharp pain in my right calf. I stopped, knelt down in the grass, and rolled up my pant leg. There was a gash, maybe an inch wide. Something had pierced the thick denim of my jeans. I was wounded after all, though this cut didn’t begin to explain all the blood.
“Keep moving,” I told myself.
The morning was cool by Florida standards, but my forehead and the small of my back were soaked. I’d been walking for what felt like hours when I passed through a wooded area and emerged in a wholly different world: a painstakingly landscaped and manicured world. Palm trees instead of kudzu, a freshly mowed lawn instead of swamp grass and weeds. And at the other end of that lawn, a house. More than a house: a mansion. An old-fashioned plantation manor refurbished to look as though it were built yesterday.
I’m on someone’s estate, I thought. I have been all along.
“Hello?” I yelled.
Once again, no answer.
There was a fence along the back of the house separating the lawn from a colorful maze of perennials and fruit trees. I hurried over to the back gate, feeling I’d made it to safety, only to find something that brought me up short and made me wonder if I’d ever be safe again: there was blood on the handle, blood spotting the gate’s white wooden planks.
Little by little, then all at once, my memory came alive. I’d been to this house before. I’d been here every day for the last year. I was personal chef to a man named Anthony Costello and his wife, Anna. This was their house. This was where I made three meals a day for them, where I’d made breakfast for Anthony as recently as this morning.
My legs wanted to buckle, but I kept moving forward, through the gate and up the steps to the wraparound porch. The sliding back door was open. I stepped inside.
“Anna?” I called out. “Anthony?”
Nothing. The silence scared me more than waking up on that rock. This time of day, the place was normally bustling. Serena, the maid, would be singing to herself as she polished the dining room table; Anna would be watching Good Morning Florida with the volume turned full blast; Anthony would be pacing the marble hallway, cursing into his phone.
“Serena?” I tried.
Still no answer. Something was seismically wrong. I crept like a cat burglar through the dining room, the laundry room, the family room, the living room, the parlor, Anthony’s office. Ten thousand square feet of real estate and not a whiff of life.
“It’s Sarah,” I called upstairs. “Anyone home?”
I’d climbed a handful of steps when the dizziness hit me hard.
Water, I reminded myself. You need water.
I made my way to the kitchen. And that was where I found him. Anthony, facedown on the floor, outlined by a pool of his own blood, a kitchen knife lying not three feet away.
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