By Joyce Strand
PR Executive Jillian Hillcrest is having lunch with a reporter colleague when a woman enters and begs him not to print anything she's told him because they will kill her if he does. A few days later, the reporter tells Jillian that the woman was killed in a car crash in his hometown. The police ruled her death an accident caused by driving under the influence of alcohol.
Although Jillian is busy promoting her Silicon Valley biotech company, the reporter draws her into an investigation of his hometown's police department, located in California north of the Napa-Sonoma wine region. Coincidentally, Jillian's neighbor Cynthia Anderson wonders about the untimely death of her policemen husband years earlier as part of the same police department. Meanwhile, Jillian's ex-husband hovers over her to reverse the "ex" status. Unfortunately, none of them anticipates the frightening events that follow.
Jillian did not like the idea of going anywhere with the large, overbearing cop. However, she didn’t seem to have a choice. “How about if I just follow you out there, and then I can leave to go home from there?”
Harry lit a cigarette, which Jillian wanted to point out was illegal in California in public buildings like the police department. However, Chuck said nothing, so Jillian held her tongue. As he blew smoke toward her, he said, “That’s fine. I can go home from there, also. I’m parked right next to you, so just follow me.”
Jillian was nervous about going with Harry, but Chuck had already turned to go back into whatever room he had emerged from and was waving good-bye. “I hope everything works out all right, which I’m sure it will. Tell Cynthia I said hello.”
Jillian headed out to her car just behind Harry. She noticed a medium tall, barrel-chested man dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt across the street in front of a hardware store who seemed interested in her. But he turned his head away the moment Harry looked his way. Jillian murmured to herself that Harry seemed to have a similar impact on everyone he encountered.
Harry peered at Jillian with an irritated look. “This is a monumental waste of time. Miles Smith is fine. He just doesn’t want to talk to anyone.”
Jillian was becoming truly angry, something she seldom felt. She responded in a tone as elevated as she could muster without losing control. “Well, then, let’s go prove that. I’ll follow you. It’s you or the County Sheriff.”
She detected out of the corner of her eye that the man across the street hurried back into the hardware store, as if he were trying to escape Harry’s glare. However, she was sure he heard what she’d said and responded by looking toward her and Harry with interest. Nonetheless her primary focus was on Harry, who continued to glare at her over the smoke from his cigarette. “All right. You asked for it. Let’s go.”
Harry got into his car and started it immediately and proceeded to pull out of his parking place without waiting for Jillian. She didn’t mind-she could easily find Miles’ place without his help, given that she had just been there and had it programmed in her GPS. As she drove by the hardware store, she noticed that the man in the plaid shirt was standing by the door watching her intently.
Jillian arrived at Miles’ house a few minutes behind Harry. He was waiting by the front door drawing on the ubiquitous cigarette. Jillian grabbed the paper with the lockbox code and headed for the front door-with some apprehension that she would have to walk right by the reprehensible Harry. Her anger had dissipated and she was now more apprehensive than belligerent. However, she could not turn back at this point, so she headed for the front door. When Harry refused to get out of her way of blocking the lockbox, she said firmly, “Excuse me.”
“Sure.” He stepped aside slowly and made sure that he touched her shoulder on the way. Jillian decided to ring the doorbell just in case Miles had returned. She also pounded on the door. Harry just stood by and watched, puffing on his cigarette periodically. Jillian reprimanded herself for thinking gleefully that the disgusting man would die an early death from lung cancer.
When there was still no answer, Jillian moved to the lockbox and punched in the code. It opened easily to reveal a key. Jillian took the key and opened the front door of Miles’ house.
On the left was the kitchen and to the right was a living room with a fireplace. The living room appeared orderly, and there was certainly nothing overtly suspicious about it.
Harry went immediately to the kitchen. “There’s no water running here. Nothing moldy either. Just a half-eaten sandwich. Looks like he left it in a hurry. And look here. Lots of empty beer bottles.”
Jillian went to the kitchen, where Harry was pointing delightedly at the full trashcan. Jillian made a mental note to ask Cynthia if Miles drank beer. When Jillian had met him, he either ordered sparkling water or a glass of wine. However, he never had more than one glass, and he had never ordered a beer. That he had a trashcan full of beer bottles seemed out of character.
Jillian really didn’t care that she’d been caught in a small white lie, especially by Harry Blako. “I couldn’t see in too easily through that window. It looked like the water was running, and the food looked moldy to me.”
She headed down a hallway to check out the rest of the house. Harry was right behind her. The first room she came to appeared to be an office. Books, notebooks, and papers cluttered the desk and the floor. The glass-covered doors of the floor to ceiling bookcases were open and it looked like books had been removed and tossed about the room. Although there was a power cord for a laptop computer, there was no computer on the desk. Jillian started to go through the papers, but Harry commented, “We can’t be looking at his stuff. He isn’t missing as far as the police are concerned. We’re just looking to satisfy you that he’s all right.”
Jillian was incredulous. “But surely you can see that someone has searched this room?!”
Harry didn’t move a muscle as he blew smoke in her direction. “I know no such thing. As a police officer, all I know is that Mr. Smith was a bit of a slob and didn’t pick up his stuff.”
Jillian was beginning to share Cynthia’s sense of urgency for Miles’ well being. The room had definitely been torn apart by someone, yet this sorry excuse for a cop was not going to do anything about it. She decided that despite Miles and Cynthia’s friendship with Chuck-who seemed to agree with this oaf-she was going to report Miles’ disappearance to the Sheriff or whoever. (She decided she would start with Inspector Sherwood. He could guide her.) However, at that point she just shook her head and decided to look through the rest of the house while she had the chance. Harry continued to stare at her, and Jillian really didn’t want to know what he was thinking.
She saw a notebook that she knew Miles had used at the Long Beach conference. She really wanted to look at it, because he might have made some notes in it that would be useful. However, she was aware that Harry was not about to allow her to take anything out of the house-just to be obnoxious, if for no other reason. So she complied with his request and headed for the next room, which appeared to be a guest bedroom. The bed was made and there was no clutter. However, something caught Jillian’s eye on the floor next to the bed. She noticed that Harry was still in the office-it sounded like he was making a phone call-and she decided to risk checking it out. Just as she got to it, she heard him coming so she quickly picked up the small notebook and thrust it into her back jeans pocket just in time to be able to stand and take a few steps before Harry entered the room. Again, he stood in her way, making it difficult for her to leave and explore the other rooms. Again, she firmly and defiantly said, “Excuse me.”
Harry made her wait as he lit yet another cigarette and then he moved slowly out of her way. She moved past him quickly and went across the hall to another bedroom-obviously the one Miles used. The bed was unmade, and there were books on the nightstand next to a glass half full of water, clothes on the chair next to the bed and some on the floor, and a dresser piled high with folded laundry. The closet door was open revealing a floor full of shoes, shirts of all colors on hangers, and a shelf stuffed with a variety of boxes. Jillian moved toward the nightstand with Harry right behind her, but she didn’t see anything helpful. Miles appeared to be reading one of the Stieg Larsson novels, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which was on his nightstand with a bookmark about half way through. Maybe he bonded with the author, given that he was a fellow reporter.
Jillian did a cursory review of the bathroom, which was not the cleanest she had ever seen. But there was nothing that would scream out that anything was amiss. Basically-with the obvious exception of the unkempt office and the half-eaten sandwich in the kitchen-the house appeared quite normal. Jillian pushed past Harry and headed back into the office. She wanted one more look at it, and quickly pulled out her phone to take a photo before Harry could catch her. She took several quick photos and just glared at him to try to stop her. She continued to look at items on the desk. Harry, however, was ready to go. He remarked, “He must have taken his computer with him.”
“Perhaps, but if so, why didn’t he take the charger?”
Harry smirked. “He probably has more than one, lady. I do. I keep one in my car even.”
“Of course. You’re probably right.”
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