Excerpt: Death’s Door

Prologue and Chapter One
April, Twenty-three years earlier: Des Plaines, IL

Death’s DoorCarol Sandinsky stood on the stoop of her apartment building staring at the spot where her daughter was last seen. Smoking a cigarette, she seemed not to notice the chill winds that whipped past her.

“When was the last time you saw Ashley?” the reporter from the Chicago Times asked.

“Like I told the cops, Friday, around seven. I was just getting ready to make dinner. I looked out the window to check on her. She was over there by that tree.” She pointed to a leafless tree near the curb.

“About forty minutes later the boys straggle in. Hungry, you know. I says to them, ‘Where’s Ash?’ But none of them knew.” She pushed back a strand of brown hair from her face. “I just had this strange feeling, and I said to my husband Mitch, ‘Mitch,’ I says, ‘I’m calling the cops.'”

“Can you give me a description of Ashley? What was she wearing when she disappeared?” the reporter asked.

“Ashley’s fourteen. She’s five-five and weighs about a hundred and fifteen pounds. She has long blond hair, curly-like, and blue eyes. That day she braided it and tied it off with one of them rubber bands with those glass balls. Purple colored. She likes the purple ones. She was wearing a light blue T-shirt, dark blue jeans and white sneakers.” Her voice had gone flat with the recitation.

“Did anyone else see her after you?”

“My husband, Ash’s daddy. He said he saw her sitting in her uncle’s car out front there by the tree. He told her to come in for dinner.”

“Was there anyone else around at the time? Her uncle, maybe?”

“Bill, that’s her uncle, my brother. He was inside watching a baseball game. No one else was out there.”

“What about your husband? How do he and Ashley get along?”

She crushed the cigarette out with the toe of her sneaker before she answered. “He loves his daughter. That answer your question?”

The reporter shifted from one foot to the other. “What were, are Ashley’s interests, outside of school?”

“Ashley’s real involved with sports—basketball, soccer. She’s also a member of the school choir. And she’s a straight-A student. Make sure you put that in. She’s a real good girl. I want people to know that about her. She’s never any trouble.”

“Sure. I’ll do that. Do you have any ideas what happened?” the reporter asked.

“It’s like she was sucked up into the sky. I’m just waiting here, hoping she’ll fly back.”

 

May 20, Saturday, Present

When the phone rang at 4:49 a.m., I knew it was bad news. For one minute I debated letting the answering machine get it, then reached for the phone. Bad news didn’t get any better replayed.

“Leigh, it’s Marge. Sorry to call so early, but we got a missing kid.” Marge Lindquest was the Door County Gazette’s production editor, office manager and Jane-of-all-trades. Her versatility was only matched by her dedication. “Jake didn’t happen to come by your place this morning?”

Though it was common knowledge at the newspaper, in Egg Harbor, and probably on the entire Door County peninsula that Jake Stevens, editor of the Door County Gazette, and Leigh Girard, the new reporter, were sleeping together, some sense of village propriety kept most people from saying it to my face. “As a matter of fact, he’s right here.” I nudged Jake, holding the phone out to him. He mumbled something and pulled the covers up over his head.

“It’s Marge.” I said, lifting the covers. “There’s a kid missing.”

He emerged from under the covers and took the phone. “Who’s missing?” he asked, sitting up, suddenly all business. “Wait a minute, let me get a pen and paper.” He shouldered the phone to his ear and picked up the pen and notepad I kept on the bedside table.

“How long has she been gone? Yeah, okay. What’s that side road? ZZ till Margate. Got it. I’ll be there in a few.”

Jake hung up the phone and threw back the covers, causing me a moment of panic, as I quickly managed to pull the top blanket over my nakedness. “Get dressed,” he said, leaning over the bed to search for his jeans.

“What’s going on?” I sat up, careful to keep the blanket over my chest. Already the bedroom was filling with early morning light. And though Jake and I had been lovers since last fall, when he’d convinced me that the absence of my left breast didn’t matter to him, I still hadn’t let him see the six-inch scar that cut across my left side from underarm to sternum in full daylight.

As he stood, yanking up his jeans, he looked briefly at my hand clutching the blanket, a strange expression on his face. “The Margarises’ fifteen-year-old daughter disappeared late yesterday. They got a summer home on the Mink River. I want you over there. Talk to the parents. Kid’ll probably show up before noon. Happens at least once every tourist season. Kid runs off, then turns up the next day. But just in case, we need to cover it.”

“What about tonight’s meeting?”

There was a town meeting at 6:30 p.m. in Sturgeon Bay. Next Monday the Door County sheriff’s department was releasing a list of registered sex offenders living on the peninsula. The list would be distributed as a pullout sheet in the Door Resort, the Peninsula’s free advertising weekly. To minimize the fallout from local businesses that wanted the police to wait until after tourist season, the meeting was a public relations ploy. Deputy Chet Jorgensen told me the list was going to be published on Monday, no matter what.

Although this was supposed to be the kind of thing that made a journalist go all sweaty, I wasn’t looking forward to the meeting. Not that I don’t enjoy spectator sports, but I had a hunch it was going to turn into the Jerry Springer Show with lots of incoherent shouting and maybe some chair tossing. It’s hard to get a good quote when chairs are flying.

“If something else turns up on the Margaris girl, call me. I’ll get Martin to cover the meeting. If not, I want you there.”

“Hope there’s no connection between the missing girl and one of the sex offenders,” I offered.

“Leigh, don’t go there,” Jake cautioned. “Just do your job. Not the police’s. Interview the parents. Get the story. Attend the meeting. Write it all up and go home. Like I said, kid usually shows up the next day.”

“Don’t I always,” I said, bristling at his bossy tone. “Get the story, that is.” For the past week Jake had been unusually distant. I’d chalked it up to cabin fever. We’d weathered a particularly long and brutal winter that had everyone on the peninsula out of sorts. According to the police stats, domestic violence was up ten percent from last winter.

He stared again at my hand clutching the blanket, then threw on a navy sweatshirt and started for the door. His graying hair rippled down past his shoulders—in defiance of any fashion trend. As far as I could tell, he hadn’t cut it all winter. He’d also grown a goatee. He was looking less and less like an editor of a small-town newspaper and more and more like the poet he professed to be. Both personas made me nervous.

Salinger, my Shetland sheepdog, stirred from her bed by the window and followed him, snapping at his bare feet. To Salinger, Jake still bore watching.

“Jake,” I called after him. “Are you going to tell me what’s going on with you?”

He turned around. “You still moving into Joyce Oleander’s place next week?”

I had one week until the snowbird who owned the cottage I rented reclaimed it. With the return of the summer people and tourists, and with them escalating prices, the only place that accepted dogs, wasn’t booked, and even came close to my meager housing allowance, was a town house in Egg Harbor where Joyce Oleander had died. I hadn’t known Joyce, but she had figured in two murders last fall. The vision of her bloodstained carpet still haunted me.

“It’s not the dead you have to worry about, Jake,” I said with more conviction than I felt, “it’s the living. Is that what’s been bothering you lately? My moving into Joyce’s place?”

He shoved his hands in his front pockets and stared at his bare feet. Not a good sign.

“Look, I’ve got to take off for a while. I’m not sure when I’ll be back.”

I waited for him to elaborate. For all our bed time, Jake didn’t talk much about himself or his life before Door County. He’d made it clear from the start that he didn’t want to discuss his past, which I’d learned from Marge included an ex-wife and a nineteen-year-old daughter. Since I wasn’t keen on discussing my past, which included an estranged husband back in Illinois, I’d let sleeping dogs lie, so to speak.

“There’s something I’ve gotta take care of,” he added, as if that explained everything.

“Okay. Well, thanks for letting me know.” I leaned over and swiped my silk nightgown from the floor where Jake had thrown it last night. Keeping the blanket against my chest, I slipped into the nightgown one arm at a time.

“C’mon, Leigh, it’s not like you’re very forthcoming about yourself,” he paused. “There’s that husband of yours you never talk about.”

I stood up and faced him, crossing my arms over my chest. For some reason, his mentioning my husband had ticked me off. “You know, Jake, all you had to do was ask.”

He looked around the room as if he was seeing it for the first time. When his eyes came back to me they were tight with anger. “I thought by now I wouldn’t have to.”

“Yeah, well, I guess you were wrong about that.”

When he didn’t respond, I walked past him toward the bathroom, slammed the door, and turned on the shower, not sure why I was so angry. He had every right to take off and not tell me where he was going or why.

I slipped off the jade nightgown and stood in front of the medicine cabinet mirror. Over the winter the six-inch scar that cut across my left side from underarm to sternum had faded to a pale pink like the inside of a seashell. I ran my finger along the smooth suture line. Its shiny surface was numb to my touch.

A few seconds later I heard the front door slam. I continued staring at the flat, empty expanse where my left breast once was. Finally the steam rose, clouding everything.

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