The voice on the tape was thin and quavering. Lydia Strong had to rewind the tape and turn up the volume. In the background, she could hear the wet whisper of cars passing on rain-slick roads and, once, the loud, sharp blast of a semi's air horn.
"It's Tatiana," the message began, followed by a nervous little noise that was somewhere between a giggle and a sob. "Are you there . . . please? I can't believe she's doing this to me." The girl in-haled unevenly, holding tears back from her voice. She went on in an-other language, something throaty and harsh, Eastern European-sounding. Then she switched back to English. "I'm not supposed to call anyone. I don't have much time. I'm somewhere in-" The connection was broken.
The package had been sitting beige and innocuous in the pile of mail that had collected in Lydia's office during the two weeks she had been gone. The small, soft envelope mailed to Lydia care of her publisher and forwarded was just one item in a mound of mail she had received from what Jeffrey Mark called her "fan club." Prisoners, families of murder victims, aspiring serial killers, and miscellaneous psychotics drawn to her because of the books and articles she wrote about heinous crimes and the people who committed them. Winning a Pulitzer Prize and solving a few cases along the way as a consultant with the private investigation firm of Mark, Hanley and Striker, Lydia had become an icon of hope, it seemed, for the world's most desperate and its most sick and twisted.
She was about to toss the envelope into the trash with the rest of the letters, but when she lifted the pile, the Jiffy, heavier than the other items, fell to the floor with a dull thud and the slightest rattle. She looked at the package for a second, then reached down to pick it up. There was no return address, though it had been postmarked from Miami more than three weeks earlier. Written in capital letters in the lower-right-hand corner was an urgent plea: "please read me!"
She observed the moment where she could choose to open the package or choose to throw it away, never the wiser to its contents and the impact it might have on her life. But something about the smallness of it, the innocence of its soft beige form and the slight rattle that indicated to her a tape cassette piqued her curiosity, lit a tiny jolt of electricity inside her.
Lydia extracted a pair of surgical gloves, a letter opener, and a pair of tweezers from her desk drawer. She opened the package with the letter opener, careful not to disturb the seal, then removed a tape cassette and a handwritten note with the tweezers. The note was written with big loopy letters in a faltering cursive hand.
Dear Miss Strong,
You are a good woman of strength and honor. And you must help Tatiana Quinn and all the other girls who are in need of rescue. There are too many who are already past helping. But if you begin with Tatiana, you may be able to save so many more. I cannot tell you who I am or how I know this, or we will die. But I beg you to come to Miami and see for yourself. Nothing is as it seems here, but I know that you will see the truth and make it right. I pray that you will.
It was like a thousand other letters she had received over the years, and she felt the familiar wash of anxiety, resentment, and curiosity that generally overwhelmed her when someone asked for her help. But there was something different about this letter. Maybe it was the child's desperate voice, or the earnest tone of the letter, or maybe it was the implication that Lydia was responsible for the lives of the young girls supposedly in danger . . . and the fact that part of her believed that. Or maybe it was the haunting memory of Shawna Fox. But whatever it was, she didn't crumple the letter or destroy the tape. She just sat staring at the youthful handwriting, with its loopy letters full of hope.
Lydia leaned her head back against the black leather chair, closed her eyes, and released a long, slow breath. She felt two weeks of fatigue pulling at her muscles and her eyelids, even as the excitement of "the buzz" made her heart race a little. Images danced through her head: a girl alone on a street corner, huddled in a phone booth, staring nervously around her; the crowds that had gathered at Lydia's book signings during the media tour she had just conducted to promote Blind Faith; a murderer's face as she straddled him in a burning church, her gun inside his mouth; Jeffrey's smiling eyes. The tape player by her computer gave off a blank hiss for a few moments before she noticed and reached over to click it off. As she picked up the phone, she heard the elevator door that opened into their apartment. She realized that she was still wearing her jacket, still had her bag slung over her shoulder.
She jumped eagerly from her chair, moved quickly from her office, and walked across the bleached hardwood floor of the foyer and into the tight embrace of Jeffrey's arms.
"Hey, you," she said, leaning back to look at his face. His brown hair was damp from the light rain outside, and she caught the slightest scent of his cologne.
"God, I missed you," he said, kissing her, tasting her.
"Umm, me, too," she answered. She was amazed by the exuberance she felt, the sheer excitement of seeing his face and feeling his body.
"How did it go?" he asked, taking her bag and helping her off with her coat.
"You know, the usual. Inane interviews, packed book signings, bad hotel rooms. I'm never doing another book tour. It's torture."
"I've heard that before," he said, rolling his eyes. "You love it."
She smiled at his knowledge of her. "I didn't love being away from you," she replied.
They walked from the foyer to the kitchen, where they embraced again, Lydia looking over his shoulder at the view out their window. She missed the view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from her Santa Fe home, but nothing excited her like the New York City skyline at night. The possibilities were endless. She had to wonder what was happening behind each lighted window. She knew it was all happening-love, death, sex, drug abuse, loneliness, happiness, despair, even murder. But these days, it was what was happening in her own kitchen that excited her most of all. The buzz she had felt before Jeffrey came home, listening to the tape, had almost disappeared from her mind. Almost.
Jeffrey had coined the term the buzz, inventing a word for Lydia's unique ability to perceive what others did not-her ability to know when something was wrong, or not what it seemed, or needed investigating. Sometimes the truth left only a footprint in the sand, a scent on the wind. And Lydia had an uncanny ability to detect the most fleeting clues. Listening to the girl's voice on the tape, she'd felt it. She got a lot of crazy mail, a lot of false leads, a lot of desperate pleas. But listening to that tape, she'd heard the unmistakable pitch of fear, of need. A year ago, she would already have been researching. She'd have been on the Internet, looking for articles on a missing girl named Tatiana Quinn in Miami. But instead, she was now immersing herself in the happiness of being home with Jeffrey.
In their friendship, they'd been apart more than they'd been together. They met when she was just fifteen years old. At that time, he was an FBI agent working a serial-murder case; her mother was the thirteenth victim of the killer he hunted, Jed McIntyre. There had been a bond between Lydia and Jeffrey since the first night they met, a bond that had grown stronger over the years. Her mentor, her colleague, her friend-he had been all these things to her. And then last year, as together they worked a serial-murder case in Santa Fe, they had finally surrendered to the feelings that had always been just beneath the surface.
When they'd captured the killer, and Lydia had healed from her injuries, they'd returned to New York City. Lydia had turned in her manuscript and then, instead of jumping right into a new case, she had, maybe for the first time, relaxed as she waited for her book to be published. She took up yoga at a trendy East Village studio where Willem Dafoe studied. She went to Washington Square Park and watched the chess bums play their speed rounds, and wrote poetry. She searched for gourmet recipes on epicurious.com and cooked elaborate meals for herself and Jeffrey. She did not scan national newspapers and the Internet for new story ideas, waiting for something to seize her. She went for walks, talked on the phone, and visited with her grandparents in Sleepy Hollow, realizing she'd seriously neglected them over the last few years. She did not discuss with Jeffrey the cases he was working on with his private investigation firm, Mark, Hanley and Striker, Inc., for which she worked as part-time consultant. She was surprised to find one day, as she strolled down Fifth Avenue, looking in shop windows, that she had never been happier.
The thoughts that had obsessed her since the death of her mother were echoes of another life. It wasn't as though they had disappeared entirely, but she found she wasn't as driven to know what motivated killers, how their minds worked. She didn't feel any longer that she was somehow responsible for caging all the evil in the world like some hopeless superhero. She remembered her life before Santa Fe as feeling like she was running on a treadmill, full speed, but never getting further from what haunted her and never getting any closer to what she imagined might be the cure. She had finally given herself permission to turn it off and stand on solid ground. She now experienced moments of true inner peace.
On the other hand, old habits die hard. And, truth be told, in spite of her happiness, she had been getting a bit restless and was excited when the book tour began. But after a few days on the road, the hectic schedule, the sleeping away from Jeffrey, the forced remembrance of the events in Santa Fe started to wear on her . . . and she just couldn't wait for it to be over. She had to laugh. She had always despised dependence in herself. Now she welcomed it, as she did all the new things she was discovering, all the emotions she had suppressed for so long. Happiness, sorrow, fear, longing, joy, and, most of all, of course, love were powerful forces within her, reminding her for the first time since her mother had died that she was alive. As if she had killed herself emotionally because she blamed herself for her mother's death and then resurrected herself, as well.
Now she sat with her elbows leaning on the glass kitchen table, legs folded beneath her, watching Jeffrey make her a cup of tea. She had always loved to watch him in the kitchen, all broad shoulders, chiseled jaw, and big hands-occupied not with guns and fistfights but pot holders and teakettles.
"We haven't been apart like this since we've been together," he said, sitting next to her. He placed a steaming cup of chamomile and Grand Marnier in front of her, and the smell was heaven.
"I know. It was torture. I've never had a home before that I missed when I was away. Every place, even the house in Santa Fe, which I loved, was just somewhere I kept my things," she said, looking into the cup, tracing the rim with her finger. "But this place . . . our home. I hated being away from it. I hated sleeping without you."
"Let's not make a habit of it." He placed a warm hand on the back of her neck and began working the tension he found there.
She looked around the kitchen, lighted by the orange glow of three pendant lamps hanging over the black granite island, the terra-cotta tile floor, the bleached wood cabinets with their stainless-steel fixtures. It was a warm and cozy room, ground zero for all conversation. Like everything in the apartment, they had designed it together, paying attention to every detail of the home they would share. They'd gotten rid of most of their old furniture and belongings, keeping only what meant most to them.
"New beginnings demand new objects," Lydia had declared. And Jeffrey had agreed. He'd never developed attachments to things anyway. He'd never had much of a home life, so he'd never spent much time on the East Village apartment he'd owned since he left the FBI. He'd started his private investigation firm from there, sleeping on a pullout couch in the back bedroom. Now the firm of Mark, Hanley and Striker employed over a hundred people and filled a suite of offices on the top floor of a high-rise on West Fifty-seventh Street. But his apartment had remained almost empty of furniture. He found the only possessions that meant anything to him were his mother's engagement ring, his father's old service revolver, and a closet full of designer clothes.
Lydia's apartment on Central Park West had looked like it belonged on the cover of House Beautiful: sleek, modern, impeccably decorated, but, Jeffrey thought, totally cold and impersonal. "You live in someone's idea of the most gorgeous New York apartment," he'd commented once. She'd sold it as is, furniture and all, to some software designer just months before the dot bomb. Jeffrey had sold his apartment, too, throwing in the pullout couch and rickety kitchen table and chairs. They'd both made a killing and then bought a three- bedroom duplex on Great Jones Street, downtown.
A metal door with three locks opened from the street into a plain white elevator bank. A real Old New York industrial elevator with heavy metal doors and hinged grating lifted directly into the two- thousand-square-foot space. By New York standards, it was palatial. The cost was exorbitant, of course, as it was New York City ultrachic, shabby-cool. But Lydia had declared it home the minute they'd stepped off the elevator and onto the bleached wood floors. The private roof garden, which was at least a story higher than most of the other downtown buildings, sealed the deal. From the garden, they could see the whole city. At night, it was laid out around them like a blanket of stars, which was a good thing, since you rarely can see any actual stars in New York City.
Now it was home, the place in the world they shared. But it had seemed empty, a shell of itself when she was gone. Lydia was his home, Jeffrey had realized while she was traveling. He'd had her all to himself since Santa Fe and he'd grown used to that. But he had sensed her restlessness even before she left on the book tour, and he knew she would be getting back to work soon. In fact, he knew the second he had walked into the apartment and saw her come out of her office with her coat still on that something had caught her interest. It made him sad and tender for her, but he knew her well enough to know that he had to let her go in that way if he was to share her life at all.
"So, what were you doing when I came in?"
"Oh," she said, standing, "come with me. I want you to hear something."
"That's what I was afraid of," he said with a small laugh.
"It might be nothing."
"But first . . ." he said, pulling her into his lap and pressing his mouth to hers.
"Yes . . ." she answered, "first things first." She led him upstairs to their bedroom.
Excerpted from The Darkness Gathers by Lisa Unger writing as Lisa Miscione. Copyright © 2011 by Lisa Unger. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.