Monday December 7, Morning
THE SNAPSHOT TEASED at Amanda Sloane’s memory. The naked, copulating couple in the foreground wasn’t of consequence, but the painting—where had she seen it? The portrait’s primitive strokes in vermilion, chartreuse and cobalt blue reminded her of Picasso colliding with Warhol. Not a painting easily forgotten.
Enough with the picture. She refocused on the divorce petition for Veronica Thornton, needing to squeeze every drop of productivity out of the precious thirty minutes between meetings, if only to eliminate one item from the looming pile of lawsuits.
Litigation, her arsenal of spears and arrows in the crusade for women wronged.
But the painting taunted her psyche, drawing her back to the vibrant image. She cropped out the adulterer and his hooker in their unimaginative pose and printed a copy of the artwork. Certain she had seen it before, she closed her eyes and attempted to fill in the room around the canvas. A stark white wall slowly formed behind the painting. Amanda tried to recall the floor and furnishings. In her memory, the fuzzy location felt familiar but impersonal.
A Darth Vader ringtone ripped through her thoughts. Dad’s calling? Now? As the mental picture faltered, she focused her attention on the memory.
Like a bad stalker, the phone continued its rasped breathing and the image faded away.
Her father, Don Sloane, knew better than to interrupt her day. It must be something important. She growled and tossed the printout on a mound of memos and motions. Amanda searched for her phone, fumbling through the heap that threatened to swallow her.
Paperless society, my derrière. The concept had failed to penetrate the bunker-like walls of legaldom, where they documented, signed and notarized every movement. And, of course, billed. She found the phone on the edge of her maple desk, wedged beneath a pile of Illinois court bulletins on the verge of toppling over.
“Mandy, I’m glad I caught you.” Her so-called stepmother wailed in the background. “Honey, it’s okay, we’ll find her.”
“Are you talking to me?”
“No, sorry. Miriam’s a mess.”
You’re just noticing? Her assistant laid a note on Amanda’s desk: “Harding meeting in ten.” Amanda nodded.
“We’ve got a crisis down here and I need your help. Your sister’s missing. She and Trent disappeared in Cancun sometime yesterday.”
Only Trent would get Rebecca and himself lost in Cancun. Based on the few holidays Amanda had endured with “the family,” she couldn’t decide if her butt-kissing brother-in-law best resembled a slug, snail or eel, uncertain which species mankind deemed the slimiest.
“Okay…knowing your beloved son-in-law, he probably made a back alley deal on some fantabulous excursion to Tulum or Chichén Itzá that provided a one-way trip. Chances are, the two of them are making their way back as we speak.” Images of Planes, Trains and Automobiles motored through her mind. Maybe Trent incinerated the rental car.
The court bulletins slid to the floor like a deck of cards shuffled by a Vegas dealer. “You’re in Florida and I’m in Chicago,” Amanda said. “Why are you calling me?”
“We need you in Cancun to help with the search.”
She flicked on the speakerphone. “You’re kidding, right?” She knelt down to straighten out the puddle of splayed periodicals, contorted from their crash to earth. “You’re not seriously asking me to drop my caseload and jet down to the Yucatán to give Trent and Rebecca a lift back to their hotel, are you?”
“Yes. I’m expecting you to act as a part of this family and help find them.”
“My dear father, the Sloane-Adams clan is your ‘kin,’ not mine.” Amanda set the neatened pile of bulletins on an end table abutting a navy sofa. “If you recall, my family fell apart the day you divorced Mom, and then died with her.”
“Mandy, enough with the drama. We can quibble about events that happened decades ago on another day. Right now we need to focus on finding your sister and her husband.”
Didn’t he miss her mother at all? Amanda’s heart ached as if Elizabeth Sloane had died yesterday. Eighteen years hadn’t done much to dull the pain. She crossed the room and picked up the photo of her mother that watched over her from the credenza. The picture had been taken when Elizabeth still had a headful of platinum curls, before the final rounds of chemo. Amanda set the frame back in the exact spot, denying the urge to hug it.
“From what I can discern, Dad, Rebecca’s reasonably intelligent. I’m sure she’ll be able to make her way back to a phone and call you later today. They’re in one of the world’s most popular vacation spots, not hunkered down in some drug-infested border town like Juárez.”
Amanda grabbed a dark chocolate from a bowl on the conference table, unwrapped it and popped it into her mouth, letting it melt over her tongue. The thick sweetness frayed the edges of her annoyance.
“You’re refusing to help. You’re turning your back on your sister.”
“You keep referring to Rebecca as my sister.”
“Of course. She is.”
“In DNA only—I’ve barely spoken a dozen words to her. Other than the few times we’ve been together at Christmas, I haven’t seen her or communicated with her. She may be your daughter, but Rebecca Sloane-Adams is not my sister.”
“We’ll see about that, Amanda. We’ll see.”
THE HARDING DIVORCE bothered Amanda as much as the mystery painting, and her father’s audacity. Something about the case stunk like sardines in a sauna. As for Rebecca, there had to be a reasonable explanation for the couple’s disappearance. Probably a case of an overextended umbilical cord snapping like the elastic band in an old pair of undies. Worn and frazzled, it finally ruptured when stretched all the way to Cancun.
Amanda and Chad Cooper sat across the office table from Celeste Harding, their latest client and, forty years ago, Amanda’s babysitter. When Celeste’s best friend caught multimillionaire Gordon Harding emerging from a room at the InterContinental Hotel with his beguiling personal trainer on his arm, Celeste immediately called Amanda. Another divorce, no different than the hundreds before it and the hundreds after it under Amanda’s watchful guidance.
But why now? No doubt Gordo had strayed before. Rumors had him sleeping with anything wearing lipstick and heels.
The sun sifted through the wooden blinds in Amanda’s office, slivers of light striping across the wall of leather-bound law books behind the conference table, and a squinting Celeste. Amanda rose and adjusted the shutters behind her desk.
Cooper perched on the Herman Miller chair in a JCPenney suit and aviator eyeglass frames that went out of fashion with spiked hair and flipped up shirt collars. For the last six months, Amanda had endured his “wardrobe” of three cheap suits, eight shirts and six ties. She’d seen all combinations, each one worse than the last. She had hoped the guy would upgrade his attire once he noticed the dress code of his coworkers, but no luck. At some point she’d have to explain he’d need a lot of work to continue as the second lawyer on her cases. Major overhaul.
Cooper cleared his throat and looked at her.
“Go ahead,” Amanda said, noticing his hair as she sat down. He probably frequented a barbershop for his haircuts: parted on the side and combed across. The style of a balding man, although Cooper had a full mane. If it were on another man’s head, she might be tempted to run her hands through the thick, wavy mass—that is if she weren’t involved with a member of Chicago’s “pol-itterati.” More involved than she wanted to be.
As for Cooper, good thing he wasn’t bald; he couldn’t pull off the shiny pate persona. Too geeky, which made sense since he came from that foreign world of information technology. Something called a DBA. Amanda’s techie friends Lauren, Terry, and Dylan would understand what he did before he attended law school later in life. To her it translated to “blah, blah, blah.”
Based on her experiences with Dylan and Terry, Amanda assumed Cooper once lived in a world filled with computers, plaid shirts, and khaki trousers. He probably had bantered with others in nerdom about “Star Trek,” “Star Wars,” and any other media outlet that embedded “star” in its title. And yet, many of the precious memories she savored included her two favorite “dweebs.”
“Mrs.—I mean Ms.—or do you prefer Mrs.?” Cooper said.
Amanda groaned and rolled her eyes. “Ask your question, man, we don’t have all day.”
Cooper cleared his throat again. “Um, how did you find out about your husband’s affair?”
Celeste started explaining. Amanda pushed the box of tissues over to her former babysitter. She’d need them. They always needed them. Betrayal by husbands. Amanda advocated for wives day-after-day because she hadn’t been able to help her own mom when her dad walked out on them to move in with his secretary-slash-mistress and their “love” child.
“From what I understand, you hired someone to follow your—I mean Mr. Harding—to obtain proof. How did this come about?” Cooper said.
“When my friend, Georgia DuPont, told me what she’d seen at the hotel, she suggested an investigator, a Reinhold Schmidt, to track Gordon’s activity. As you’ve seen by the photographs and logs, he did a thorough job.”
Cooper paged through the file. “I agree. Mr. Schmidt provided a great deal of detailed information.”
She contemplated if Cooper would work out. Similar to Amanda, he entered family law because of personal strife. The details hadn’t interested her, but evidently it was a big enough deal that some of the other partners had wanted to hire the middle-aged fledgling. Amanda didn’t care that he, like her, had reached the half century mark. As long as he possessed excellent transcripts and impeccable references, she had been willing to kick his tires. The guy produced top-notch research and interacted well with their clients, but he seemed…preoccupied.
Cooper sported a wedding ring and her assistant, Jasmine Peters, mentioned he displayed pictures of two young kids in his office. Amanda hadn’t seen the photos; she never entered the junior lawyers’ part of the building. She concentrated on the personal details of her clients, not the law firm staff. With her caseload, she had no time for birthdays or anniversaries; Jaz took care of that, but Amanda took care of Jaz, her dear friend and personal Wonder Woman.
Celeste grabbed a tissue and dabbed at the corners of her eyes. “I can’t believe it’s come to this, but I’m finally ready to leave Gordon.”
The session was the first time they met in Amanda’s office. Previously the trio had rendezvoused in private rooms at restaurants. Mrs. Harding married a man who frequently had her followed, his appetite for control continually growing.
“Celeste, now that we’re making this official,” Amanda said, “I need to know what triggered your exodus. It could help us with the case.”
The petite, trim body beneath the herringbone Gucci suit crumpled, like a tent when the center pole is pulled. Tears rolled down Celeste’s face. “He hit Cole.”
“Your…eighteen-year-old son?” Cooper shuffled through his notes.
Celeste nodded. “Gordon waited so long for a boy. When Cole was finally born, he expected so much of him—how could any child live up to my husband’s expectations?” She wiped her nose. “Gordon constantly belittled Cole.”
“What happened?” Amanda said.
“Cole brought a friend home after school and Gordon caught them kissing.” Her chest heaved. “It was a male classmate. Gordon flew into a rage and pummeled Cole, breaking our son’s nose and bruising his kidney.”
Amanda reached across the table and grabbed Celeste’s arm. “When did this happen? How is Cole doing?”
“In September. He’s okay now, but I’ve sent him to stay with my parents. I’m afraid if Gordon sees Cole again, he’ll kill him.” Celeste patted her mascara-lined cheeks with a tissue. “He’s changed so much. With every million he’s hoarded, part of Gordon’s heart died. There’s nothing left of the man who swept me off my feet thirty-five years ago. I’m married to an ogre.”
The meeting wrapped up after running through a box of tissues, three bottles of water and a pot of coffee. As Celeste slipped on her coat, she wandered over to Amanda’s desk.
“Who owns this portrait now?” Celeste pointed at the enlarged printout of the artwork. “Gordon sold this a year or two ago—I couldn’t believe he’d part with it. This was the first Gabriel Carter work he purchased. I thought he’d keep it forever.”
The dam broke. Of course. She had noticed about a dozen such paintings at the Harding mansion. Amanda visited Celeste’s home each year to dine with the rest of the board members of Annie’s Place for Homeless Women. Celeste had started the tradition when she joined the board seven years ago.
“Tell me, Celeste, what would provoke Gordon to let go of something he deemed precious?”
Amanda studied the photo. I’m going to find out your story, if it’s the last thing I do.
AMANDA TOSSED CELESTE’S file on her desk and leaned against the corner, crossing her arms. Jaz walked in with a hot mug of coffee and handed it to her boss. “You look like you could use something stronger than Folger’s.”
“You don’t know the half of it.” She looked at her watch. “I’ve got at least an hour before my next meeting, right? Can you give me some cave time?”
“You’re free until the one o’clock session with Mrs. Briggs,” Jaz said.
“Great. Shut me down for thirty.”
“Got it.” Jasmine left and closed the door behind her.
Amanda picked up the phone and dialed Lauren Kessler.
“Calling before noon on a weekday? It’s got to be serious.”
“What do you want first, the latest run-in with my father, or the fact I’m engaged?”
The sounds of a woman choking echoed through the phone. “You? Engaged? To Matthew Baird?” Lauren said. “You? Engaged?”
“Yeah, well, under duress.”
“I can’t, in my wildest dreams, imagine a situation where you’d agree to marry. What did he do, threaten to impale you with a red-hot pitchfork? Press a razor-sharp machete against your throat?”
“He dropped to one knee last night at his grandmother’s ninetieth birthday party, in front of about a hundred of his relatives. His grandmother, who’s about to keel over at any second, looked so happy. I just, I just couldn’t refuse—stop laughing. This isn’t funny.”
“If only the other men had known, all they had to do was to pop the question over the last, feeble breaths of their family matriarch.”
“I have to return the ring before word gets out—if it made the news, I might have to wait until after the February primary.”
“And if he won?”
“No—no he can’t. I couldn’t keep on with this—and I can’t figure out why in hell he proposed. We love each other and we have a great time together, but we’ve never talked about marriage—or anything about the future beyond, maybe six months out.”
“He probably figured even mentioning the ‘M’ word would send you running.”
“I see him tonight at a fundraiser. I’ll talk to him afterward and hand over the ring.”
“Are you wearing it? How many carats?”
“It’s so big it’d make me walk lopsided,” Amanda said.
“Okay, so what’s the issue with your dad?”
“Rebecca and Trent went to Cancun and promptly disappeared. Dad wants me to fly down and help find them.”
“Disappeared? In Cancun?”
Jaz rapped on the door and flew in, tossing the Chicago Sun-Times on her desk with a big red circle around a picture of Matt and Amanda…and their engagement announcement.
“I’m going to kill him—wring his neck!” The edge of the paper crunched in Amanda’s hand. “That weasel published the announcement in today’s Sun-Times—he must have told the newspaper before he even proposed—that smug S-O-B knew I couldn’t refuse. Lauren, I have to go, I’ve a fiancé to maim.”