Before She Disappeared – Lisa Gardner

THE WATER FEELS LİKE A cold caress against my face. I kick deeper down into the gloom, my long hair trailing behind me like a dark eel. I’m wearing clothes. Jeans, tennis shoes, a Tshirt topped with an open windbreaker that wings out and slows my descent. My clothing grows heavier and heavier till I can barely flutter my legs, work my arms. Why am I in clothes? Wet suit. Oxygen tank. Thoughts drift through my mind but I can’t quite grab them. I must reach the bottom of the lake. Where the sunlight no longer penetrates and sinuous creatures lurk. I must find . I must do .

My lungs are now as heavy as my legs. A feeling of pressure builds in my chest. An old Chevy truck. Dented, battered, with a cab roof sun-bleached the color of a barely lit sky. This image appears in my mind and I seize it tightly. That’s why I’m here, that’s what I’m looking for. A sliver of silver in the lake’s muck. I started with sonar. Another random thought, but as I sink lower in the watery abyss, I can picture that, too. Me, piloting a small boat that I’d rented with my own money. Conducting long sweeps across the lake for two days straight, which was all I could afford, working a theory everyone else had dismissed. Until . Where is my wet suit? My oxygen tank? Something’s wrong.

I need . I must . I can’t hold the thought. My lungs are burning. I feel them collapsing in my chest and the desire to inhale is overwhelming. A single gasp of dark, cloudy water. No longer fighting the lake, but becoming one with it. Then I won’t have to swim anymore. I will plummet to the bottom, and if my theory is right, I will join my target as yet another lost soul never to be seen again. Old truck.

Cab roof sun-bleached the color of a barely lit sky. Remember. Focus. Find it. Is that a glimpse of silver I see over there, partially hidden by a dense wall of waving grasses? I try to head in that direction but get tangled in my flapping windbreaker. I pause, treading my legs frantically while trying to free my arms from my jacket’s clinging grip. Chest, constricting tighter. Didn’t I have an oxygen tank? Wasn’t I wearing a wet suit? Something is so very wrong. I need to hold the thought, but the lake is winning and my chest hurts and my limbs have grown tired. The water is soft against my cheek.

It calls to me, and I feel myself answer. My legs slow. My arms drift up. I succumb to the weight of my clothes, the lead in my chest. I start to sink faster. Down, down, down. I close my eyes and let go. Paul always said I fought too much. I made things too hard. Even his love for me.

But of course, I didn’t listen. Now, a curious warmth fills my veins. The lake isn’t dark and gloomy after all. It’s a sanctuary, embracing me like a lover and promising to never let go. Then . Not a spot of silver. Not the roof of an old, battered truck that was already a hundred thousand miles beyond its best days. Instead, I spy a gouge of black appearing, then disappearing amid a field of murky green. I wait for the lake grasses to ripple left, then I see it again, a dark stripe, then another, and another. Four identical shapes resting at the bottom of the lake.

Tires. I’m looking at four tires. If I weren’t so damn tired, I’d giggle hysterically. The sonar had told the truth. It had sent back a grainy image of an object of approximately the right size and shape resting at the bottom of the deep lake. It just hadn’t occurred to me that said object might be upside down. Pushing through my lethargy now, urgency sparking one last surge of determination. They’d told me I was wrong. They’d scoffed, the locals coming out to watch with rolling eyes as I’d awkwardly unloaded a boat I had no idea how to captain. They called me crazy to my face, probably muttered worse behind my back.

But now . Move. Find. Swim. Before the lake wins the battle. Wet suit. The words flutter through the back of my mind. Oxygen tank. This is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

But in my befuddled state, I can’t make it right. I push myself forward, fighting the water, fighting oxygen deprivation. They’re right: I am crazy. And wild and stubborn and reckless. But I’m not broken. At least, not yet. I reach the first tire. Grab onto the slimy rubber to get my bearings. Quick now, not much time left. Rear tire.

I crab my way along the algae-covered frame till I finally reach the front cab. Then I simply stare. Lani Whitehorse. Twenty-two years old. Waitress, daughter, mother of a three-yearold. A woman with an already long history of bad taste in men. She disappeared eighteen months ago. Runaway, the locals decided. Never, her mother declared. And now she was found, trapped at the bottom of the lake that loomed next to the hairpin turn she drove each night after the end of her two A.

M. bartending shift. Just as I had theorized while poring over months of interviews, maps, and extremely thin police reports. Had Lani misjudged the corner she’d driven so many times before? Startled at a crossing deer? Or simply nodded off at the wheel, exhausted by a life that took too much out of her? I can’t answer all the questions. But I can give her mother, her daughter, this. Lani dangles upside down, her face lost inside the floating halo of her jet-black hair, her body still belted into the cab she’d climbed into eighteen months ago. My lungs are no longer burning. My clothes are no longer heavy. I feel only reverence as I curl my fingers around the door handle and pull. The door opens easily.

Except . doors can’t open underwater. Wet suit. Oxygen tank. What is wrong, what is wrong . My brain belatedly sounds the alarm: Danger! Think, think, think! Except I can’t, I can’t, I can’t. I am inhaling now. Breathing in the lake. Welcoming it inside my lungs. I have become one with it, or it has become one with me.

As Lani Whitehorse turns her head. She stares at me with her empty eye sockets, gaping mouth, skeletal face. “Too late,” she tells me. “Too late.” Then her bony arm thrusts out, snatches my wrist. I kick, try to pull back. But I’ve lost my grip on the door handle. I have no leverage. My air is gone and I’m nothing but lake water and weedy grasses. She pulls me into the truck cab with unbelievable strength.

One last scream. I watch it emerge as an air bubble that floats up, up, up. All that is left of me. Lani Whitehorse slams the door shut. And I join her forever in the gloom. — rumble. screech. A sudden booming announcement: “South Station, next stop!” I jerk awake as the train lurches to a halt, blinking and looking down at my perfectly dry clothes. A dream. Nightmare.

Something. Not the first or the last in my line of work. It leaves me with a film of dread as I grab my bags and follow the rest of the passengers off the train. I’d found Lani Whitehorse three weeks ago, locked in her vehicle at the bottom of a lake. After months of intensive research on an Indian reservation where my presence was never welcomed by the locals nor wanted by the tribal police. But I’d stumbled upon the case online and been moved by her mother’s steadfast assurance that Lani would never leave her own daughter. Lani might be a screw-up with horrible taste in men, but she was still a mom. Why people assumed those things couldn’t go together, I’ll never know. So I’d moved to the area, became a bartender at Lani’s former workplace, and started my own investigation. Lani’s mom hugged me the day the police finally dragged the Chevy truck out of the lake in a deluge of muck and horror.

Wailing, crying relief as Lani was finally brought home. I waited around for the funeral, standing outside the small crowd of mourners, as proving yourself right almost always means proving someone else wrong and therefore rarely wins you many friends. I did what I needed to do. Then I headed to the local library, where I booted up the computer and returned to the national chat rooms where family members, concerned neighbors, and crazy people like me compare notes on various missing persons cases. There are so many. Too many, sometimes, for local resources. So, more and more, people like me have been stepping into the vacuum. I read. I posted a few questions. And in a matter of hours, I knew where I was headed next.

Like I said, so many missing persons cases. Too many. Which has brought me here, to Boston, a city I’ve never visited. I have no idea where I am or what I’m doing, but that’s hardly new. Now, I follow the mass of humanity hustling across the train platform to the exit signs, all of my worldly possessions packed into a single piece of luggage rolling behind me. Once I had a house, a car, a white picket fence. But time erodes and now . Let’s just say I’ve learned to travel light. Out on the bright sidewalk, I stop, blink, then shutter my eyes completely. Walking straight out into downtown Boston feels like an assault on the senses.

People, shrieking horns, crosswalks. The stench of diesel fuel, fried fish, harbor brine. I’ve forgotten the crushing feel of the concrete jungle, even one with a glittering waterfront. I work on taking a deep, shuddering breath. This is my new home until I complete my mission. I exhale slowly. Then I open my eyes and square my shoulders. The last of my nightmare and travel daze falls away. I’m ready to get to it, which is good given the flood of annoyed pedestrians shoving past me. From my worn leather messenger bag, I withdraw the file filled with papers I printed out days ago.

It includes a map of Boston, articles on city demographics, and a photo of a shyly smiling girl with smooth dark skin, gorgeous brown eyes, and deep black hair cascading down in a mass of carefully groomed ringlets. Fifteen at the time of her disappearance. Sixteen now. Meet Angelique Lovelie Badeau. Angel to her friends. LiLi to her family. Angelique disappeared eleven months ago from Mattapan, Boston. Walked out of her school on a Friday afternoon in November and then . Poof. No sightings.

No leads. No breaks in the case. For eleven whole months. Bostonians will tell you that Mattapan is that kind of neighborhood. Rough. Poor. Filled with hardworking souls, of course, and a rich cultural heritage thanks to having the country’s largest Haitian population outside of Florida. But also a hotbed of gang activity and violent crime. If you want to get shot or stabbed, Murderpan, as the locals call it, is the neighborhood for it. Which is where I now plan to rent a place, find a job, and question the neighbors.

And I hope, through sheer guts, determination, and blind luck, I will find a girl the rest of the world seems to have forgotten already. I’m not a police officer. I’m not a private investigator. I have no special skills or training. I’m only me. An average, middle-aged white woman with more regrets than belongings, more sad stories than happy ones. My name is Frankie Elkin and finding missing people—particularly minorities—is what I do. When the police have given up, when the public no longer remembers, when the media has never bothered to care, I start looking. For no money, no recognition, and most of the time, no help. Why do I do what I do? So many of our children have vanished.

Too many will never be found, often based solely on the color of their skin. Maybe the question shouldn’t be why am I doing this, but why isn’t everyone looking? Angelique Lovelie Badeau deserves to come home. I consult my map one last time. I need to find the commuter rail to Morton Street. The map of Boston’s T system shows it as a purple line, which of course matches nothing that I can see. I spin around here. I spin around there. Then realize: I shouldn’t have left South Station. Back I head. I don’t mind being lost.

Or confused. Or even scared. All these years later, I’m used to it. Paul warned me I would push away everyone I loved, that I would end up putting myself in harm’s way, that I didn’t do this to save others but to punish myself. Paul was always a very smart man. I spot the giant map for the MBTA system, follow the purple line with my finger and spot my target. Once more on track, I head to Murderpan. CHAPTER 2 IT’S FOUR P.M. BY THE time I reach my first location.

Stoney’s, the sign announces out front. The red backdrop of the two-story building is peeling, with the white lettering more of a suggestion than a statement. In other words, it matches its squat, derelict neighbors jammed shoulder to shoulder down both sides of the block. The sidewalk is broader than I expected and nearly empty this time of day. After some of the articles I’ve read, I would have expected to see gangs and dealers loitering in every doorway. In fact, I see random people bustling about with their everyday concerns, most of whom eye me, the lone white woman, with curiosity. I’m grateful to get off the street, pushing open the door and wheeling my bag into the dimly lit interior. For most of my adult life, I’ve worked as a bartender. Easy job for a transplant to get, and for the past ten years a good way to pick up local intel. Plus, I like the work.

Bars are inevitably filled with the lonely and the loners. Feels like home. Now, I register the stale scent of cigarette smoke sunk deep into the pores of the old building. Before me is a cluster of round wooden tables with mismatched chairs. Four booths line the wall to my right, the red vinyl cushions cracked but still putting up a fight. Three more booths to the left in much the same condition. I make out half a dozen customers. All Black men. Sitting randomly around the small space, where their attention has been focused on the drinks in front of them. Now each one raises his head long enough to regard me.

If the locals on the street regarded me with curiosity, here I get blatant suspicion. In this neighborhood, I’m the minority. Then again, same with the past year, and the year before that, and the year before that. I’m used to the looks, though that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to take. At least midday drunks have more serious matters to tend to. One by one, they return to their individual miseries, which leaves me with the dark wood bar, straight ahead, where a lone Black man stands, drying a tray of beer glasses one by one. I head for him. A trim figure, he sports gray hair and a groomed salt-and-pepper beard. His dark eyes are lined heavily and he has about him the air of a man who’s seen it all and lived to tell the tale. “Stoney,” I guess.

“You lost?” He sets down one tall glass, picks up another. He wears a white apron tied around his waist and wields the dishtowel with practiced dexterity. Definitely the owner, and a long-term tavern operator at that. “I’m here about the bartending position.” “No.” He grabs the next glass. I park my suitcase next to the bar, take a seat on a stool. His answer doesn’t surprise me. Most of my conversations start this way. “Twenty years of experience,” I tell him.

“Plus I have no problems cleaning, brewing coffee, or working a fryolator.” Fried food is the natural partner to booze—and this close to the kitchen, the air is thick with grease. Fried chicken, fried potatoes—maybe even fried plantains, given the Haitian community. “No,” he says again. I nod. There’s a second towel. I pick it up, select the wet glass nearest to me, and start drying. Stoney scowls at me but doesn’t stop me. No business owner argues with free labor. We both dry in silence.

I like the work. The rhythmic feel of twisting a glass, buffing it with the towel. Even dry, the top lip of the glasses bears a faint white line. Years of beer foam, human lips. They are clean, though. Which makes me partial to Stoney and his establishment. Plus, he has a room above the bar to let, at a price I can almost afford. I found it posted on a community board. “I don’t drink,” I offer. The first tray of glasses is done.

Stoney removes it from the bar. Lifts a second tray of wet half glasses. “Teetotaler?” Stoney asks. “No.” “Here to save us?” “You’re assuming I’ve been saved.” He grunts at that. We both resume drying. From what I’ve dug up, a significant portion of Mattapan’s population, being from the Caribbean, speaks French, French Creole, patois, et cetera. But I hear none of that in Stoney’s voice. He has the clipped tones of most New Englanders.

Maybe he’s lived in Boston his entire life or moved here from New York or Philadelphia to open his own place. It’s always dangerous to make assumptions, and yet nearly impossible not to. “Friend of Bill’s,” I volunteer after we finish the whiskey glasses and that tray is replaced with dozens of shot glasses. We both get back to work. Quick, brisk, thoughtless. The perfect meditative exercise. Stoney doesn’t answer. He dries faster than me, but not by much. “Water glasses?” I ask when the shot glasses are done. He raises a brow.

So, not an establishment big on nonalcoholic beverages. Good to know. “You have a room to rent,” I continue, folding my arms on the heavily lacquered bar. “Go home.” “Don’t have one. So this is what I’m thinking. I work for you four nights a week, three P.M. to closing, in return for free board.” Stoney is a man who can communicate volumes with a single eyebrow.

“You’re worried that I’m white,” I fill in for him. “Or that I’m female. Or both. You think I can’t handle myself.” “I’m a local business. Frequented by locals. You’re not local.”

.

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