Book Excerpt: Living the Vida Lola

Living the Vida Lola

 

Prologue

When I was fourteen years old, I snapped pictures of Jack Callaghan doing the horizontal salsa in the backseat of a car with Greta Pritchard.

That’s when I knew for sure I’d grow up to be a private eye.

I’d stooped to low levels in order to spy on him: disguising myself as a substitute custodian and pushing a mop cart into the boys’ locker room as the team dressed for baseball practice; borrowing my uncle’s car and following Jack at a safe distance as he went to work at the music store where he gave guitar lessons; and even calling him up, pretending to be a girl he knew, and making a fake date with him at an outdoor café.

I had one goal: to surveil and take photos of Jack for my own personal enjoyment.

It had taken a month of steadfast determination, and at least four rolls of film, before I’d captured images of Jack that were still burned into my memory: him, messing around—no, having sex—with Greta while he was supposedly dating Laura something-or-other. My mother called him un mujeriego—a player. I didn’t care. I just wanted him to do to me what he’d done to Greta.

Back in high school, Jack and my brother, Antonio, made their way through the cheerleaders, then the Future Female Leaders of America. But Jack didn’t give me, little Lola Cruz, the time of day.

“I’ll never get to do that with him!” I’d wailed to my sister, Gracie, when I showed her the pictures I had of him and Greta.

She’d looked longingly at the photos. “Yeah,” she sighed heavily. “But at least you can look at him whenever you want and imagine.” Then she got serious. “And, more importantly, you discovered what you’re good at. Now you won’t be stuck working at Abuelita’s for the rest of your life.”

Gracie was right. If it hadn’t been for my relentless pursuit of Jack Callaghan, I might never have discovered my proclivity for surveillance and undercover work.

My favorite picture of Jack, taken that fateful night, still had a place in my dresser drawer, fifteen years later. He stood bare-chested, his business with Greta done, a look of contentment on his face. The edge of his mouth lifted in the smallest smile. He was just seventeen years old, and his smoky blue eyes seemed trained directly on me, as if he were staring straight through the shrubs to where I was hidden.

I was pretty sure Jack Callaghan didn’t know I’d been a teenage stalker, and even though I still had a secret longing to feel him pressed against me, my embarrassment at invading his privacy and my anger that I’d never be anything more to him than Antonio’s little sister had kept me far, far away from him. I avoided him at all costs so that I wouldn’t break down and confess in a moment of guilty Catholic repentance.

I’d been in and out of relationships, but those old photos of Jack reminded me of what I’d lost, even though I’d never had it. Or him. He was still my favorite fantasy, as well as a reminder of how I’d gotten to where I was now.

Still, while Jack—and his untamed libido—had never given me an orgasm (well, at least not person-to-person), he had done something earthmoving for me. I was Dolores Cruz, aka Lola, PI. Thanks to him, I’d answered my calling.

Chapter 1

Caliente. Hotter than hell. There’s no other way to describe Sacramento summers. I checked my reflection in the window as I approached Camacho and Associates, the small PI firm where I worked. I frowned and flicked at a stringy strand of hair. What the hell. Being a black belt in kung fu did not, apparently, prevent me from completely wilting. Nothing—not my ability to kick ass or even my eighty-five-dollar coppery salon highlights—could withstand triple-digit valley temperatures. And it was barely ten in the morning.

An alarm beeped as I opened the front door. Inside the office, I wiped the dust from a leaf of the sad little artificial palm that sat on the floor against the wall. It looked shabby, which was no small feat for a plant that didn’t need sun, water, or tender love and care. After four years, I would have thought my ritualistic token of attention would spruce it up.

It hadn’t.

I waved to the camera that was mounted in the ceiling corner. It was no secret that my arrival had been monitored. Neil Lashby was the video go-to guy of the operation. He owned more cameras than I did Victoria’s Secret lingerie. Sorta frightening when you thought about it.

I walked through the lobby—which really wasn’t a lobby—and passed into the main conference room. Reilly Fuller, our six-hour-a-day secretary and a full-fledged—not to mention full-figured—J. Lo wannabe, had a little table in one corner of the conference room where she spent her time typing reports, transcribing tapes, filing, and doing whatever other menial jobs the associates handed her. Being a licensed PI, I was above her on the food chain. But I liked to type my own reports and do my own filing, and as a result, she liked me. Important, since Neil Lashby, one of the agency’s associates, was a nonverbal, ex-football player, ex-cop Neanderthal-type PI; Sadie Metcalf, the second associate, was hot and cold toward me and I hadn’t yet figured out a rhyme or reason to her temperature changes; and the boss, Manny Camacho, was, well, he was just plain dangerous—hot in a dark, sinister, attractive-to-every-woman-with-a-pulse kind of way.

Reilly was a good ally.

I raised a questioning eyebrow at her as I passed her desk—as much a reaction to her newly dyed blue hair as to get the scoop on the new case we were meeting about. “Hey, Reilly.”

She did a complicated maneuver at me with her own mousy brown brows and mouthed something. I peered at her, but try as I might, I couldn’t decipher her silent words.

She bugged her eyes, clamped her mouth shut, and went back to her computer when Manny walked out of his private office. He approached the conference table, a brown file folder clutched to his side. His mouth was drawn into its typical tight line, his square jaw interrupted by a slight vertical cleft. Manny’s crew cut hair was the color of dark roast coffee, which pretty much described his personality, too. He wasn’t quite bitter, but he wasn’t smooth either. Even the scalp that showed through his close-cut hair was burnished. He was intense and needed a bit of cream to mellow the flavor. Unfortunately, he and his cream had divorced.

And that’s all I knew about his personal life.

The associates had already gathered around the conference table. “Morning,” I said, nodding to all two of them.

He checked his watch. “Cutting it close, Dolores.” His deep voice held the hint of an accent. The way he said my name—low, gravelly long o and rolling r—made my legs wobble. I couldn’t help but wonder what it would sound like if he called me Lola instead.

Breathing deeply and pushing the wayward thought away, I mustered a smile and glanced at the wall clock. The minute hand clicked up to ten o’clock. I felt my eyebrows pull together, and I pressed my fingers to my forehead to smooth the creases away. “Right on time, actually.”

His jaw was set, and I could tell he was clenching his teeth, holding his tension deep in his bones. He held out a file folder to me. Something about me bugged him—I just didn’t know what.

I took the folder from his grasp and slipped into a vacant chair at the conference table. Truth was, I didn’t really want to know.

Sadie sat directly across from me. As usual, her strawberry blonde hair was styled to perfection, a precise work of casual messiness. “Dolores,” she said. “You really should arrive a few minutes early for meetings.”

Okay, so today was a cold day for Sadie. God, she acted like she owned the place. Why did Manny put up with it? I flashed her an eat shit smile and then opened my file folder.

The agency’s standard information sheet was secured to the folder with metal prongs. I looked at the photo that was clipped to the top and ticked my observations off in my head. Female, mid to late forties, dark brown hair with a tuft of gray springing from her temple, deep eye sockets with nearly translucent irises that hinted at the color of sand, full pink lips, pale skin. Despite her tired look, she was still stunning. Exotic.

Manny sat down and slid a pile of papers to the center of the table. I snatched the last sheet from the table as he said, “Missing person.”

I shifted my focus back to the file folder.

“Emily Diggs, age forty-two, mother of three: daughter Allison, twenty-one years; son, Garrett, eighteen; son, Sean, six. Last seen on the morning of August twenty-third.”

My heart thumped. A missing mother. Getting emotionally involved in a case was Manny’s number-one taboo. It was also the first rule I always broke. After five seconds, this woman was just Emily, no last name needed. Her haunting face burned behind my eyelids.

Neil grunted before asking, “The client? Police?”

He tended not to speak in complete sentences. I’d learned to fill in the blanks in my head. Who’d hired us, and are the police involved? Two very good questions. Neil was always on top of things.

Manny gave a succinct nod. He read between the lines, too. “The police are working the case but have zero so far. Their immediate reaction is that she bolted. Walter Diggs, the brother, and our client, has temporary custody of the boy.”

Neil shifted his linebacker body in his chair. “Anything else?” “Mother and son left their P Street rental house around seven a.m. last Tuesday. Kid was stranded after school with no pickup. Emily Diggs never showed for work that day.” Manny tapped his index finger against the table, ready to field the next question.

“Kindergarten or first grade?” I asked, wanting to get in the game.

“First.” He had no need to double-check the information.

He’d already committed it to memory. What a pro.

“Maybe drugs—,” Sadie began.

I shook my head. She always thought the worst about people.

“Yup, could be into something bad,” Neil said.

Okay, maybe thinking the worst came with the profession.

I just wasn’t jaded yet. Give me another ten years.

“Too soon to tell. Our client says his sister shut everyone out of her life after her youngest son was born. They stayed in contact, but he didn’t see her often. She wanted to keep the boy to herself.” Manny looked at each of us, pausing for a second when he got to me.

I bristled under his scrutiny and studied the folder more intently. He was waiting for me to make a brilliant comment, I realized. “Have they always lived in Sacramento?”

“According to our client, yes, but they recently moved. The address in the file is the most recent residence.”

What would make a woman distance herself from her family? I couldn’t, even if I tried. They’d hunt me down. “How old is the photo?”

“Two months,” Manny said. “Client said it was taken last time they all went to the zoo.”

“She looks sad to me, not addicted.”

“Hard to tell from a photo,” Sadie said.

I ignored her. “Her kids must be devastated.”

No response. I had to stop myself from sliding down in my chair.

“I’ve broken down assignments,” Manny said, pulling out another sheet of paper.

Don’t pair me with Sadie, I willed. We’d worked the firm’s last surveillance gig together, and I was still decompressing.

“Status quo with our active cases,” he continued. “Lashby. Status?”

Neil lifted his head up from his laptop. “Two weeks, sealed tight.”

Manny nodded. “Behind the scenes here, as needed.”

Neil nodded his square head quickly and just once. “Yup.” Manny looked at Sadie next. “You go undercover tomorrow?”

“Grocery store checker at Laughlin’s.” She gave him a steely look. “Training’s this afternoon.” She paused. “Dolores should take it.”

No way. I was the only one without an active case. It was my turn. And I’d earned it after my last success. Club Ambrosía was Sacramento’s salsa dancing hot spot. A month ago, the co-owners had hired Camacho and Associates to flush out some women they suspected were using the club as a call girl meet-and-greet. I’d landed the assignment, gone in undercover, gleaned evidence of the prostitution service, and managed to infiltrate. It had taken two weeks, and some close calls, but I’d gotten one of the women to talk about how they ran their business, on tape, and the police had been able to shut them down, though sadly, the madam had escaped. Still, Club Ambrosía was free of prostitution—thanks to me.

Manny narrowed his eyes at her, looked at me, and then back to her. “You stick with Laughlin’s. Dolores will be the primary on the Diggs case. We’ll shift for backup if needed.”

Color rose on Sadie’s face like a helium balloon slowly filling. She pressed her palms against the table. “But this is a missing—”

Manny’s hand flew up, his palm facing her.

She didn’t listen—to the unspoken command or to the hand. “I’ve done dozens of missing persons—,” she started.

“Decision’s made,” Manny interrupted, his voice tight. Then he scribbled something onto the paper he had in front of him.

Sadie snapped her mouth shut. I could almost see her blood simmering.

“Questions, Dolores?” Manny asked. I shook my head. “No. I’m clear.”

“Explícamelo.”

I stifled the thread of anger that wound through me. I was a professional. I’d been working my ass off, first as an assistant under his license while I earned the mandatory PI hours for the state of California, and for the last two years as a full-fledged associate. He always questioned everything—with everyone—but at this moment, it irked me. I didn’t want to explain myself in front of Sadie. “I’m going to investigate the disappearance of Emily Diggs,” I said, sounding a bit too much like a regurgitated line from my worn PI manual.

Sadie leaned back and folded her arms, looking smug. “Right, but what’s your first move going to be, Veronica Mars?”

Oooh, she was ice cold today. My left eye started to twitch. I sat up straight in my chair and, making my voice strong and clear, looked straight at Manny. “I believe I’ll start with the last known address, talk to some people she knows, and go from there.” I wasn’t about to give away all my secrets. Anyway, a good part of investigation was intuitive, and I had to see where the clues led.

Sadie frowned. I could tell she wanted to keep me on the hot seat, but Manny said, “Fine. Report directly to me—”

Of course. Who else would I report to? But I looked at him and notched up the corner of my mouth. “Por supuesto, Manny,” I said, forcing my face to stay impassive when I heard Sadie hiss. She hated when Manny and I spoke Spanish to each other almost as much as I hated her juvenile nicknames for me. But it made the world go ’round.

“I’ll keep you up to date on the police investigation.” He gathered up his papers and stood. “That’s all.”

We were dismissed. The minute hand on the wall clock clicked up a notch. Ten forty-five. I scooted my chair back and headed out to search for Emily Diggs.

The heat outside pressed against me like a wall of fire. Shimmering panes of glass seemed to stretch across the asphalt, and the air rippled and distorted before my eyes. Flowers in the yard wilted, my hair drooped even more, and sweat dripped from my temples. Another glorious summer day in Sacramento.

I quickly cocooned myself in my car and turned up the Juanes song, “La Paga, until it roared out of my speakers. Dancing. It was at the top of my wish list—with or without a rico suave guy to partner with. It was a short drive to downtown, and I spotted Emily’s house right away, nestled under a canopy of leafy branches. Even lock-your-car areas of Sac, like this one, had spectacular trees. I found one, parked under it, and turned off my car. Juanes would have to wait.

Emily Diggs’s residence blended in with all the others on the block—a little run down with ancient geraniums sprawled in the border. I picked my way up to the old wooden door and knocked. A moment later, a small arched cutout in the door creaked open and two lifeless eyes stared at me.

“Hi.” I held my business card up to the cutout. “My name’s Dolores Cruz. I’m investigating the disappearance of Emily Diggs. Do you have a few minutes?”

But the muddy eyes just peered at me, obviously not impressed by my bright professionalism.

I regrouped, smiled, and tried again. “I’m a private investigator. Is there someone here I could talk to about Emily?”

After a few more seconds, the cutout in the door slammed shut. I stood on the stoop, slack-jawed, threw my arms out in disbelief, and stared at a lone snail clinging to the wall. “Great,” I said to it. I’d been thwarted already. “So what now?”

The snail didn’t move.

“Kick the door open?” I suggested, but then shook my head. I’d worn strappy sandals, and I was pretty sure Camacho’s wouldn’t cover the damage. “No can do.”

Still, the snail didn’t budge.

“I know,” I admitted, “Kung fu isn’t the answer to everything.”

The door squeaked open, and my hope returned. A twenty-something black woman stood there looking more refreshed than a person had a right to in this heat. “Can I help you?”

She was not the same person who’d peered at me a minute ago. Their skin had a similar brown tone, but this woman’s eyes were bronze, and they sparkled like a tiger’s.

Putting my game face back on, I said, “I’m investigating the disappearance of Emily Diggs.” I stuck my hand out to her. “My name’s Dolores.”

The young woman recoiled. Her eyes darted to my hand then back to my face. I wavered, almost pulling it back. Was offering a handshake totally uncool? Had I committed a Generation X (or was it Y?) faux pas? Dios mío, at twenty-eight, was it possible that I was no longer hip?

I swallowed and persevered, my hand dangling like a dead fish for what felt like an hour. Finally, she took it in a limp grip, gave it a quick shake, and pulled her arm back to the safety of her own space.

“And you are?” I prompted with a lilt. Ick. I sounded perky, like I was selling magazine subscriptions for the cheerleading squad. Rein it in, Lola, I told myself.

“Mary Bonatee,” she said with a touch of angst-ridden teenager. What the hell’s it to you? her tone screamed.

A name to go with the face. It was progress. “Mary, nice to meet you. Do you mind if we step inside? I’m melting out here.”

It was no lie. I was on the verge of looking like the Wicked Witch after Dorothy threw water on her. My blouse stuck to my body, my palms were sweaty, and even my sandaled feet were sticky.

I edged forward, hoping to ease into the house, but Mary pulled the door close to her side, blocking my entrance. “I don’t know—”

Once again I contemplated kicking the door in, but I wouldn’t get very much information if Mary were sprawled out on the floor. I smacked my tongue against the roof of my mouth searching for any sign of moisture. Nada. Dry as the desert. I tried another tactic. “I understand Emily has children. They must be terrified.”

A flicker of emotion passed over Mary’s face, but it was gone so fast that I couldn’t be sure it had been there at all. Suddenly, however, she opened the door and let me pass. Relief washed over me the second I hit cool air inside.

I barely resisted the impulse to rush to the nearest sink and start guzzling from the faucet.

“How’s that working for you?” Dr. Phil asked from behind curved glass. I didn’t see anyone watching the TV, but I felt a lurking presence. I cranked my head around and searched. Nadie. No one. Zip.

Mary led me to the kitchen. She was skeletal, but I envied the crispness of her appearance. She filled a glass of water from the tap and handed it to me.

“Thanks,” I murmured, my sandpaper tongue thick. I gulped it down, finally able to shake the wooziness out of my brain and focus on Mary. She stood with her bony arms crossed in front of her and leaned against the kitchen counter. Classic defiance. I went on alert. What did she have to hide?

“Can you tell me anything about Emily? Has she disappeared before?”

“The police were already here.” She frowned. “Why don’t you talk to them?”

“I don’t work for the police. I was hired by Emily’s brother.” Mary stared out the window and blinked heavily.

“Just like I told them,” she said. “I don’t know anything. She just didn’t come home one day.”

“Was that unusual for her?”

Mary shrugged her shoulders. “Yes.” She shifted her chin, kind of rolling it, as if she were loosening a tight collar around her neck. Guilty behavior. Maybe she was involved in Emily’s disappearance.

“How long have you known Emily?”

She looked off to the side, as if she was counting back days and hours. “She’s lived here a little more than a month and a half,” she said after a few seconds. “She moved in right around the Fourth of July.”

Not exactly enough time to evaluate patterns of behavior, but it corroborated our client’s story. Had something changed in Emily’s life that had made her move in here? “Do you have a prior address for her?”

She shrugged again.

I kept trying. “Employment history? Anything that could help?”

She hesitated, and then nodded. “She filled out a rental application.” She didn’t budge to find it for me.

I gave myself a mental pep talk. Slow and steady won the race. “Does she have any friends? Relatives?” I asked.

“She’s always kind of kept to herself.” Mary’s expression softened. “Never brought people around, even when I pla—” She stopped abruptly, swallowed, and continued. “Even when I told her she could.”

A red flag shot up in my mind. Mary had been about to say something else. The question was what?

“Have you seen Sean?” she asked. The youngest son.

“Not yet.”

The color of her eyes seemed to dull. She leaned forward, looking anxious. “But you know where he is?”

“He’s with his uncle.” And probably pretty freaked, poor kid.

“She was never mother of the year, but how could Emily leave Sean?” Mary’s back straightened, her lips pursing. I could sense her gearing up for a rant. “Why do parents screw with their children—that’s what I want to know. If you choose to have kids, you should think about them instead of yourself, right? They get divorced, they promise they’ll spend time with you, but they don’t—” Her eyes bugged. “—and they screw around with your friend’s—”

So one of Mary’s parents—or maybe both—had done a pretty good number on her when she was younger.

My folks, on the other hand, had done zip to damage me—unless you counted the whole relationship-with-Sergio debacle. And their total lack of support about my career choice. And the guilt. God, the guilt. But otherwise…

Okay, I gave two points to Mary. Parents could definitely make things difficult. “I’m sorry,” I said, pushing my own familial eccentricities aside, “but could we get back to Emily?”

She blinked and snapped back to reality, her eyes returning to normal size. “Sorry. I just don’t get it.”

“You really think she could have just up and left Sean?”

“Well, she’s not here.”

She crossed the room and sank into a chair at the table. Her short black hair had a hint of wave and was parted at the side and slicked across her head. She had one of those faces with perfect cheekbones and flawless skin. Short hair was attractive on her. On me I was pretty sure it would look like a helmet. “Could she be running from someone?” I suggested.

She smiled. Sort of. “Who would she run from? It’s not like this is a James Bond movie.”

No kidding. “So you think she walked out on motherhood,” I repeated, going back to Mary’s original idea.

Mary ran a hand under her eyes, sweeping away a tear that slipped down. “I’ll say it again,” she snipped. “Sean’s alone. She did walk out on him.”

“Why are you so sure her disappearance was by choice?” Something inside me screamed foul play. And, no, I hadn’t been watching too much CSI. My conviction wasn’t based on anything, but I wasn’t ready to condemn Emily without cause. Call it women’s intuition, but she looked nice in her photograph.

Mary cocked her head and looked at me. “Maybe she was just tired of being a mother.”

“Why would you think that?”

“It happens, right? Sean wasn’t planned.”

“Did she tell you that?”

Mary shook her head, her perfect hair still in place. “Not in so many words, but I picked up on it.”

Apparently I’d been wrong. A month and a half had been plenty of time for Mary to have discerned quite a lot about Emily Diggs and her deep emotional baggage. “Any idea who the father is?”

Her lips were tight, and she shook her head. “No.”

This interview was beginning to feel like slow torture, worse than slathering masa on a thousand drenched corn husks for tamales. “Even if Sean was unplanned, it’s been six years. Why leave now?”

Mary stared at me, unblinking. “Why not? Some people bolt when things get tough.”

Rule number one in the PI handbook is to be a good listener—well, after don’t get emotionally involved and protect yourself at all costs, but those were throwaways. Mary had her own personal baggage. “What was tough for Emily?”

She continued as if she were in a trance. “You get wrapped up in your own life and forget about how your decisions affect the people around you. Too bad you can’t choose your parents,” she muttered. “Or trade. My roommate, Joanie, would have taken my dad instead of hers in a second.”

Again with the parents. “But what was tough for Emily?” “Being a mother, I guess.”

I didn’t want to pour salt on whatever festering wound Mary had involving her parents, so I maneuvered the conversation in a different direction. “Did you see or talk to Emily the day she disappeared?”

“No.”

A change in the environment registered in the back of my mind. I turned and looked down the hallway. Something was different. The house was still. Dr. Phil’s voice was gone.

After popping out of my chair, I strode to the hall. “Had Emily been upset?” I asked over my shoulder, peering toward the front door.

“She was different than she used—”

I lost the rest of her sentence, focusing instead on the mysterious woman with the dead eyes. Where was she? I walked down the hallway, and not two seconds later, she burst from behind the wall as I turned into the front room.

“Beatrice!” Mary shouted from behind me. Beatrice. Score. I had another name.

An erratic tremor took hold of Beatrice’s head. “You ain’t found Emily.”

I stared at her. Give a girl a chance. I just started looking for her like twenty minutes ago. “Not yet,” I said.

Beatrice tugged her hat down over her forehead, shadowing her face. She turned and faced the wall, breathing deeply. Self-imposed timeout?

“Beatrice, why don’t you go watch your show?” Mary said, her tone placating.

Beatrice slowly turned back to us. Her eyes were crossed and her lips stuck out. She considered Mary. “No. I need to help this girl.” She looked at me, and I started. A light had come on behind her eyes. “I have something.”

I wondered if Beatrice’s elevator made it to the top floor, but I asked the obvious question anyway. “What kind of something?”

She folded her arms and straightened her shoulders. “Emily’s journal.”

Mary blinked slowly and put her hands on her hips. “Aunt Beatrice,” she scolded. “You do not.”

“Aunt?” I looked from one woman to the other, noticing a vague resemblance for the first time.

Mary nodded. “She’s my mom’s sister.”

Ah, that explained why Mary would tolerate a potentially crazy woman in the house.

Aunt Bea just nodded. “I do have it.”

“Why would Emily give you her journal?” I asked.

“She asked me to hold it for her one day. Important stuff in it, she said. So I kept it, but then she didn’t come back.”

Mary held her hand out. “Give it to me, Bea.”

“Uh-uh.” She sounded like a rebellious child.

Mary’s face grew stern. “Emily’s missing. It should go to the police.”

“I said uh-uh.” Bea was indignant.

I’d already made up my mind. There was no way I was leaving this house without that journal. “Would it be all right if I take a look at it?” I asked. “It might help me find her.”

She hesitated, shooting an uncertain glance at Mary. Finally, her eyes cleared. She swung her head and looked pointedly at me. “You think so?”

It was my turn to nod. “You never know what important stuff she may have written.”

“Well,” she said, still hemming and hawing, “I do want you to find her.”

I held my breath as she walked to the couch and pulled a spiral notebook from under a cushion. The edges were worn, and the cover was pulling away from the coil. It wasn’t much of a journal, but it had a worn look that told me Emily used it well.

Bea came back toward us and held the journal out. I wrapped my fingers around it, but she didn’t let go. My smile strained. She’d better hand it over or I’d bust a move on her. “She’d want me to see it,” I said sweetly.

Her hands trembled and she looked nervous, but she finally released it. “Thank you, Bea,” I said. And I meant it. Emily had enlisted one of her roommates to watch over the journal. Surely there would be something useful in it.

Bea gave me a wild look, and then she flicked her eyes at Mary. “She should talk to George,” she said hoarsely. Then she repeated to me, “Talk to George.”

“Aunt Beatrice!”

But Bea didn’t even blink at the indignant tone of Mary’s voice. “She should. You know she should.”

“Who’s George?” I asked, but just as quickly as it had gone on, the light in Bea’s eyes suddenly snuffed out. She shuffled over to the TV, pressed a button, and Dr. Phil’s voice filled the room again.

I turned to Mary. “Who’s George?”

“He’s the property manager,” Mary said. “And my father.”

Muy interesante. “Why does Bea think I should talk to him?”

“He has Emily’s application. Really, you should ignore my aunt. She means well, but she doesn’t always make sense.”

Ignore Bea? Not a chance. She’d given me more information in two minutes than Mary had given me in nearly fifteen. Bea might have a loose grip on reality, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t perceptive. I studied Mary. “Does your father know Emily’s missing?”

She nodded. “He’s been out of town, but I emailed him.” Sounded like a close father-daughter relationship.

“Would you give me his number?”

She hesitated and then disappeared into the kitchen, returning a minute later with a business card. I gave it a quick onceover and tucked it into my purse. Paying a visit to Mr. George Bonatee, attorney-at-law, was at the top of my to-do list. I was really rocking now. A journal and a business card. Score.

“I’d like to look at Emily’s room,” I said.

“I don’t know what good it’ll do,” she said, ushering me ahead of her and up a creaky staircase.

I didn’t either. “I’ll just have a quick peek.” We walked to the end of the long corridor. The room was bare bones. “Not much here.”

Mary perched on the edge of the bed with her legs crossed and her hands clasped. “She doesn’t have much. Sean has a few more toys and stuff outside.”

A few watercolor paintings were taped to the wall at child’s height. The papers were crooked, and the pieces of tape were at least three inches long. Sean was obviously a proud artist. I ran my finger over a length of tape stuck to the wall. “What was hanging here?”

“I don’t come in here much.” Mary paused, thinking. “A photo? Yeah, that’s right. The river, I think.” She didn’t sound like she cared. “Maybe a boat—” She stopped, abruptly looking down, twisting her fingers together. “I don’t really remember.” The angst returned to her voice. “I just can’t believe she left.”

After a few more attempts at questions, I gave up. “Anything else you can tell me?”

She shook her head. Her perfectly coiffed hair hadn’t budged. I wasn’t so lucky. A stray strand was caught on my mouth. I picked it away from what was left of my lipstick and grabbed a stuffed stegosaurus up from the bed. “I’ll take this to Sean,” I said, thinking Emily’s little boy might need some comfort from home—as strange as that home was. Setting up a time to meet with him and his uncle was also on my list of things to do.

“That’s a great idea. He loves that dinosaur.” Mary led me back downstairs. I thanked her for her time, waved to Bea, who didn’t acknowledge my presence again, and escaped into the sweltering heat.

Back at my car, air conditioner at full blast and directed straight at my face, I flipped through the journal. A bunch of scribbles and lists and doodles. It would take time to peruse. Best to do it back at Camacho’s. I was about to slap it closed again when my finger brushed over a staple. I opened to the page and saw a business card attached to the top of a sheet of paper.

My heart stopped. The Sacramento Bee logo marked the card. And there, in the center, was printed JACK CALLAGHAN STAFF WRITER / REPORTER

My Jack Callaghan? ¡Ay, caramba! I knew he’d been back in Sacramento for six months or so and was working at the newspaper. I’d gone out of my way to avoid him. He and Antonio had seen each other, but Jack hadn’t been to our house or to Abuelita’s, our family’s restaurant. Thank God. I didn’t want to rekindle my old fantasy—just to end up invisible to him again.

Jack’s name stared at me. Why would Emily Diggs have Jack’s business card in her notebook? Had he spoken to her? Did he have information on her disappearance? Oh God, I was going to have to call him.

I tried to calm my racing heart. Dios mío. After fifteen years, it looked like I wasn’t going to be able to avoid Jack Callaghan any longer.