CHAPTER 28

Stevie was applying the last touches of blush when her name was called over KSTV’s public address system. She called reception as requested, one eye fixed on herself in the large mirror surrounded by dazzlingly bright lights that mimicked the brightness of the set. Her guest was identified as Daphne Matthews-Seattle Police. The woman from the cemetery who had tried to protect her.

An intern delivered the woman to Makeup. Without the raincoat and hood, Matthews came off as quite pretty. Dark features on olive skin. Her presence put Stevie on guard. She was conditioned not to trust the cops.

Daphne had a job to do. She lived for the fieldwork the way Boldt did, and the fact that he had asked her to do this made it all the more important to her to succeed. He still had this effect on her, this unintentional yet underhanded control that for years she had fought to overcome. Struggled, was more like it. She could point her life this way or that, redirecting it as far away from him as possible-her on-again, off-again engagement to Owen Adler the most overt example- but inevitably her emotions returned to him. Comfort. Home.

She saw in his eyes that these feelings were reciprocated, though it went unmentioned between them. No hot glances. No teasing. Those days were behind them. He with his family and his wife, as passionate a father and husband as one could ask for; she, like a sailboat without its keel, pointing strongly into the wind but endlessly sideslipping and losing her course.

It was some kind of horrific joke, the way she tried to throw it away only to have it come boomeranging back at her. Those emotions for him. The desire that wormed hot like an infection deeply within her. If she heard his voice, she turned to look. If his name was spoken, she listened in-all the while wearing the mask of indifference. She understood that she had to move on. She believed it. But accomplishing it was something altogether different. All the education in the world could not explain this to her. Nothing seemed to help.

And so when he asked her to see McNeal for him, she responded immediately like a child eager to please the teacher-and she hated herself for it.

‘‘I’m on the set in a minute,’’ Stevie said, giving herself a way out.

‘‘This won’t take long.’’

‘‘We met at the cemetery, right?’’

‘‘Yes.’’ Daphne took a seat in one of the two padded swivel chairs that faced the bright mirror, but she turned to face Stevie, who in profile continued working with the blush. ‘‘I wanted to talk about Melissa. Anything you can provide us. . It’s all a help to the investigation.’’

‘‘Such as the videotapes?’’

‘‘Evidence is LaMoia’s department. I’m more interested in her habits, lifestyle, friends, relationships-that sort of thing.’’

‘‘You’re a shrink?’’

‘‘A psychologist.’’

Stevie nodded, congratulating herself. ‘‘I didn’t have you pegged as a cop. This is making a lot more sense to me.’’

‘‘The thing about a missing persons case, Ms. McNeal, is that there are often leads that don’t get pursued for one reason or another. We know this from hindsight. From the-’’

‘‘-cases where they don’t come back. . are never found,’’ Stevie completed.

‘‘We believe Melissa is still alive. That she’s either in hiding, or has been abducted, but that she’s alive.’’

‘‘And you base this on?’’

‘‘The fact that we haven’t found her body,’’ Daphne said bluntly, stunning the other woman. ‘‘They’re using violence to make statements. Why would they treat Melissa any differently?’’

‘‘Because she’s a reporter.’’

‘‘Is that what you think?’’ Daphne questioned. ‘‘You think it’s a passport of some sort? Don’t believe it, Ms. McNeal. They don’t make those kinds of distinctions. They’re sending messages. The easiest way to send you a message is to deliver Melissa’s body.’’

‘‘Maybe they know me better than that,’’ she said, leaning back and turning her face to the mirror. ‘‘It would only incite my wrath.’’

‘‘It’s not incited already?’’ Daphne said, suspiciously. ‘‘I don’t believe that. You know what I think? I think you’re not sleeping, not eating well. I think you’ve probably been looking long and hard at a bottle of wine, maybe drinking a little more than usual. You lie awake thinking about all the ‘what ifs.’ You blame yourself. You blame her. You blame us. And none of it goes away.’’

Stevie blinked furiously, trying to discourage the tears that threatened. She took a deep breath trying to contain herself. ‘‘You’ll excuse me,’’ she said, ‘‘I have to be on the set.’’ She averted her face while she returned the blush brush to the Formica countertop.

‘‘Tell me I’m wrong.’’

‘‘What is it you want?’’ Stevie said, stopped at the door, her back to Daphne.

‘‘You’ll blame yourself even more if you withhold information from us. I can help you deal with the grief, Ms. McNeal. It’s what I do. You may be convincing yourself otherwise at the moment-the police are incompetent; the police don’t play fair-all the arguments neatly worked out. Professional ethics. Or maybe you think the case isn’t ours to give away, that it’s the INS, only the INS, who can help you. So you put your eggs in that basket.’’ She paused. ‘‘How am I doing?’’

‘‘You think too much.’’

‘‘Professional liability. What’d you have for dinner last night? Breakfast, this morning? When was your last glass of wine? It’s red wine, isn’t it? Expensive, I bet. But you’re drinking alone. And how’s that feel? Not very good, I bet.’’

‘‘We’re done here.’’ She couldn’t will her arm to open the door. She stood there, her back to the woman. Frozen.

‘‘You find yourself missing people-not just Melissa, but your family, your last relationship, anyone and everyone who’s gotten close.. who is close.’’

Stevie shook her head violently.

Daphne continued, unrelenting. ‘‘The INS oversees illegal immigration-no question about it. But a missing persons investigation? That’s us. Would I hand you a sports story? And what about the INS? If you’re the one running illegal aliens into this country, into this port, who’s the first person you need on your payroll, the first person you must compromise? Do you think we missed that? Do you think we’re sharing every lead with Coughlie and Talmadge? Why should we do that until we know more about them? And that takes a while, believe me.’’

‘‘Turf wars? This is supposed to be news to me? You people fight your petty games while the investigation stagnates. I’ve seen it a hundred times from the other side of that anchor desk. That adoption ring last year-same thing happened there, right? One hand not washing the other. Same old story.’’

‘‘Not turf wars, Ms. McNeal. Cautious is all. We’re careful about to whom we go volunteering information. Are you?’’

Stevie turned then and faced her. ‘‘I’ll tell you what-let’s just do our jobs: You find Melissa; I’ll report it as news when you do. End of discussion.’’

‘‘We have a solid lead we’re pursuing,’’ Daphne said. ‘‘The woman in the grave. In death, she told us something.’’

As tortured as Stevie felt, she remained alert, hanging on Daphne’s every word. The lack of sleep. . the loss of appetite. . she knew too much, this woman. It felt invasive-a violation. And yet it also made her feel like someone actually understood what she was going through. Finally someone who understood. Tricks? It had to be a trick. The cops were full of them.

Daphne said, ‘‘Our first hard evidence. We think we’ve established a time line that suggests this woman is an earlier victim-a first victim. Do you know the significance of a first victim in a crime, Ms. McNeal? The first victim is generally the one who is handled carelessly. It’s only later the criminal mind thinks to start making better preparations, thinks to plan more carefully. This was sloppy. Hasty. This woman was handled poorly. That’s in our favor.’’

‘‘What evidence?’’

‘‘The thing is, we can work with you. We would like to work with you. But it would have to be in an exclusive relationship-we would have to trust each other to the point that you would not air nor share certain information, and that we, likewise, would not work with other reporters or news agencies until giving you first dibs on what we have.’’

‘‘And if we work this out?’’ Stevie inquired.

‘‘We’d want to see the videotapes-yes, of course. We’d want you to name your sources. We, in turn, would open up the autopsy prelim on Jane Doe to you. We’d share, Ms. McNeal. We’d give Melissa the best shot at coming home. The way we’re working now-well, it’s not working. . that’s just the point.’’

A knock came on the door. Stevie jumped. ‘‘Ms. McNeal?’’ a voice said from the other side. ‘‘You’re wanted on the set.’’

Daphne offered, ‘‘I can help you find sleep. I can work with you on the loss of appetite. That offer comes without precondition.’’

‘‘Who said I can’t sleep?’’ Stevie barked defensively.

‘‘No strings attached.’’

‘‘I’m wanted on the set.’’

‘‘You can’t do this alone.’’ She added, ‘‘And the INS can’t clear a missing persons case. If they’ve represented themselves otherwise, it’s unfair to you.’’

Stevie felt and looked paralyzed.

‘‘The name is Matthews,’’ Daphne reminded. ‘‘The switchboard will put you through. My voice mail has my pager number. I’m available to you around the clock.’’ Daphne placed one of her cards next to the cosmetics. ‘‘I’m hoping you’ll call.’’

‘‘I’m wanted on the set,’’ she repeated. She pulled open the door and left.

But when Daphne looked down, she noticed her business card was gone.

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 269 DAYS MISSING

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