Four days ago
Even the most perfect life can shatter in seconds, and Brook Connor’s nightmare began approximately two minutes after she walked through her front door. For some reason she’d had an ominous feeling in her gut on the drive home, which was an unusual occurrence for her. As a child she’d been plagued by bad dreams – often recurring ones – and had grown up with a deep, irrational sense of doom that could manifest itself in periods of anxiety, especially when things were going well for her. Brook had learned, through long practice, to control those bleak, self-destructive thoughts, so she was surprised by the way this one had sneaked up on her.
It had been a long day. A round of newspaper and radio interviews in San Francisco to promote her second book, Release Your Inner Warrior, had taken up the morning. These had been followed by two ninety-minute back-to-back private client visits at her office in Santa Cruz, both of which had been utterly exhausting. The first client was a twenty-seven-year-old dot-commer who had designed an app that had made him a multimillionaire overnight, but who’d developed a crippling addiction to internet porn, which made it impossible for him to develop normal relationships with women. Unfortunately there was no shortage of cases like his and, as far as Brook was concerned, he was part of a ticking time-bomb that was going to have huge ramifications over the next ten years.
The second client was an equally wealthy married housewife from San José who had completely the opposite problem. She couldn’t stop developing relationships with the opposite sex and was having numerous encounters with men she met through various hook-up apps, even though she’d been happily married for more than twenty years to a man she claimed to love more than any other.
Brook considered herself a life-coach, not a sex therapist, and indeed both her books were guides to helping people create better lives for themselves by learning to deal with the stresses of the modern world. But it seemed that a lot of people’s life goals revolved around sorting out issues with their love lives. Take sex out of the equation and she’d probably be broke.
It was just short of nine o’clock when she closed the front door behind her, already frowning at the heavy silence inside, and called out to no one in particular that she was home. Seven p.m. was Paige’s bedtime. That was when her bedside light went off, after the two stories she was read every night (usually by Brook), so she’d be long asleep by now.
However, there was almost always some noise in the house at this time in the evening. Even if Logan wasn’t home – and it didn’t sound like he was – Rosa’s Honda was in the driveway, so she should be around somewhere. She always kept the TV on in the kitchen, where she liked to sit in the evenings after she’d fixed dinner, trawling through Facebook so that she could find out what all her friends and relatives were up to, back home. And Rosa, who was what might best be described as a larger-than-life woman, was incapable of being quiet when she moved about. She banged; she crashed; she grunted with exertion; she cursed in Spanish. Logan, Brook knew, would have preferred someone prettier, because that was what he was like; but Paige loved Rosa, and so did Brook, who found her a warm, comforting and lively presence within the family – and that was why she picked up on her absence now.
‘I’m home, guys,’ she called out again, throwing down her purse and kicking off her heels. All the lights were on and it had only been dark for half an hour, so there had to be people here somewhere. Brook checked her cellphone. No missed calls, so there was no emergency she should know about. Maybe Rosa had broken her usual habit and fallen asleep, or taken an early night.
Brook hurried up the stairs, forcing a smile as she pushed away the ominous feeling and looking forward to the prospect of seeing her daughter. Paige always looked so angelic when she was asleep, surrounded by her teddy bears, her breathing so soft it was almost inaudible. Sometimes Brook would kneel down beside her bed and watch her for minutes at a time, relishing their closeness.
As quietly as possible, she pushed open Paige’s bedroom door and peered inside, knowing she shouldn’t wake her daughter, but secretly hoping that she’d stir.
The bed was unmade and had been slept in. It was also empty.
Brook’s heart lurched and she suddenly felt nauseous. What was going on?
She raced back down the stairs and headed straight into Rosa’s bedroom, not even bothering to knock as she called out Rosa’s name and switched on the light.
But Rosa wasn’t there, either. Unlike Paige’s bed, Rosa’s was made and hadn’t been slept in. Everything else in the room was scrupulously neat, as always. Rosa had worked for them for two years and never once had she not been here when she was meant to be. And she was definitely meant to be here tonight to look after Paige, because she’d known Brook’s last appointment didn’t finish until seven and that she was going to be late.
Brook checked her cell again, just in case somehow she’d missed a call. But she hadn’t. No one had phoned.
She immediately phoned her husband, opening Rosa’s wardrobe as Logan’s cell rang and rang incessantly. Rosa’s clothes were all there, so it was clear she hadn’t decided to quit, out of the blue. But then of course she wouldn’t do that. She was well paid and well-treated. She was part of the family. She was happy here. And, most importantly of all, her car was still in the driveway. There was no way she or Paige had gone anywhere on foot. They were three miles from the centre of Carmel, on an unlit road with no sidewalk.
Logan’s cell went to message. ‘Call me as soon as you get this,’ Brook said, striding back through the house. ‘It’s urgent. Paige and Rosa aren’t here, and I don’t know what’s happened to them.’
Brook ended the call and focused on her breathing to calm herself down. There was almost certainly a logical reason why they weren’t here. She just hadn’t thought of it yet. She called Rosa’s cell and almost immediately heard it ringing. For a second she couldn’t pinpoint its location, then she realized it was coming from the living room.
Frowning, she strode inside and saw it vibrating on the coffee table. It was an old iPhone 5, and Rosa never went anywhere without it.
Except, it seemed, tonight.
Brook ended the call and paced the house, cell in hand, waiting for Logan to call her back, frustrated because right now she had no idea what was going on, and there was nothing she could do about it. She was a woman used to being in control. She’d worked for herself for most of the last fifteen years; had built up everything she had, through her own efforts; and when she saw an obstacle, she found a way around it. That was why she was successful and why people read her books. It was her unique selling point.
Her throat felt dry and she went into the kitchen to get a glass of water.
And that was when she saw it. A cellphone on the kitchen island with a charger attached, sitting on a folded sheet of A4 paper. The cell, a cheap Nokia handset that she didn’t recognize, looked brand new. She put it to one side, unfolded the sheet of paper and, as she started reading, felt her whole body tighten.
The words, in a large, bold typeface, were cold and unrelenting:
We have your daughter. She is unharmed. If you want her back alive, you will do exactly as we say. If you call the police, you will never see her again. We can see you and we will know. We will call you with instructions on the phone next to this note. Keep it with you at all times. Now look in the cutlery drawer. We have left you a gift to show you we are serious.
Remember. We can see you.
Brook put down the note, her breathing much faster now. It felt like some kind of sick joke. And yet she knew straight away it was far more serious than that. She looked down at the cutlery drawer, put her hand on it, but held back from pulling it open. Somehow, while the drawer stayed shut, reality was kept at bay.
She hesitated a long time, wishing that Logan would just call her back and tell her everything was okay.
But he didn’t. She was on her own. And finally. . . finally curiosity got the better of her and she placed her fingers around the handle and slowly pulled.
Sitting in the knife tray was a tiny cardboard box decorated in a flower pattern, with a red ribbon wrapped around it.
Brook felt a deep sense of dread as she looked at the box, her curiosity fighting with a desire to run right out of the room. She knew she ought to put on a pair of gloves before she opened it, in case whoever had put it there had left fingerprints behind, but instead she steeled herself and, in one quick movement, picked up the box, pulled open the ribbon and lifted the lid.
It was then she realized that, without a doubt, this nightmare was real.