The lovely folks at Kensington Publishing gave me the green light to include an excerpt from my upcoming suspense novel, The Last Time She Saw Him, the first in a new series, that officially comes out on June 28 (not that I’m counting the days or anything, but holy cow, people, I’m excited!). Here’s a look:
THE LAST TIME SHE SAW HIM
All around us, they descended for one last brilliant summer hurrah.
The Detroit summer refugees invaded our beaches like the Allies swarming Normandy on D-Day and claimed the best our town of Sparrow had to offer during its shining season. My older brother, Ben, and I had watched them all summer long from the top step of the bandstand at the end of Grand Haven Avenue or perched along one of the white wooden boardwalk benches if we were lucky enough to nab an empty seat on what was considered prime Lake Huron real estate.
Our parents couldn’t afford a TV, let alone the rent most months, so Ben and I depended on the out-of-towners for our entertainment. Ben and I would share a skinny carton of Dolle’s caramel corn and look on with rapt curiosity as men in hideous Hawaiian shirts scanned the beach with metal detectors for lost treasure while their wives padded up and down the shore in high-waisted two-piece bathing suits. They occasionally glanced over with detached interest at their sunburned-crisp children, who dug furiously for mole crabs in the damp sand. The teenage crowd always set up camp near the jetty. Maybe it felt more dangerous there. They smoked cigarettes and drank Tab from a can as their boom boxes belted Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band’s “Night Moves.”. And the days of summer along the eastern Michigan shore slowly slipped by.
On Labor Day weekend, the final surge of tourists arrived en mass, but Ben and I didn’t need them anymore. We were ready to reclaim our town. With twenty whole dollars in our pockets, guilt money Daddy had given us, Ben and I wove through the crowd, which was fifty people deep, our feet slapping against the wooden planks of the boardwalk in the cheap sneakers Mom had bought us at the A&P. I watched Ben’s suntanned lean arms and legs fly in front of me as seagulls screeched overhead, the scavengers searching to pluck a stray, plump French fry from a careless hand, and the cloying aroma of suntan lotion clung to the sticky September air. A patina of sweat glistened on my skin and made my thin jumper feel tacky against my reed-thin frame. My long, dark hair, flecked with strands of red from the sun, was caught in a ponytail and thumped against my back as I tried to keep up with Ben.
Even though I had just turned seven the week before, I already wondered whether, if I could will something hard enough, the universe would budge ever so slightly and things would shift in my favor. On that afternoon, I truly believed my desperation did just that.
In that one perfect moment, Sparrow was ours again. We didn’t care about the start of another school year come morning or recent memories of last spring, when Ben, our older sister, Sarah, and I were forced to jockey for a comfortable spot to sleep in the backseat of my Dad’s rusted-out Chrysler, the one he would simultaneously swear and pray would “son of a bitch, dear God, please catch!”
Ben and I silently ached for something good to finally happen, and there it was, shimmering in the heat just a block away: Funland, the Holy Grail of all that was wonderful in our fragile, young lives. The amusement park was housed in a modest wooden building on the beach block of Great Lakes Avenue. Funland didn’t look like much on the outside, but as soon as Ben and I heard its welcoming chorus of tinny carousel music, we knew pure spun magic awaited us inside.
Ben raced into Funland ahead of me and flashed me his trademark crooked grin. He held a string of tickets so long it curled to the cement floor.
“Julia, here are five tickets for the carousel,” Ben said as he snapped off five paper tokens.
“You won’t come with me?”
“Nah, the carousel is for little kids. You have fun though,” Ben answered and began to make his way over to the bumper cars. Ben was nine, and I wasn’t yet old or tall enough to reach the marker needed for admittance to the big-kid cool rides.
I watched Ben disappear behind the skee-ball booth and reluctantly climbed onto my favorite brown pony with the white star saddle. I stood up in the stirrups and peered over the crowded heads for Ben. When I couldn’t spot him, I could feel the sting of tears begin to start.
As the panic grew inside me, there was my brother, a streak of jet-black hair and his favorite red shirt flashing through the crowd. Right before the ticket taker closed the gate, Ben leapt onto the carousel platform.
“No crying, kid. I’ll be on the carousel bench where the grown-ups sit,” Ben said. “Don’t worry. I won’t let you fall off. You’ll be fine.”
“You’ve got to stop being a scared baby all the time.”
“I’m not a baby. And I’m not scared when you’re around.”
Ben leaned toward me and brushed away a tear that had started to slip down my cheek. “I promise I won’t ever let anything bad happen to you. Not ever.”
“Swear to God?” I asked.
“Cross my heart and hope to die. Now stop crying already. We’re supposed to be having fun for once, remember?”
The music of the carousel started, and I eased my steel grip around the pony’s neck. I looked out at the crowd as it began to slowly spin around me. The tourists waved madly as their children passed and a line of kids began to snake back toward the spin paint booth for the next ride. As the carousel turned faster, I spotted a blur of a man who popped up from behind the ticket booth. He wore a black baseball cap and pointed his Polaroid camera in my direction. A flash of light blinded me for a second. When the ride circled the crowd again, the man with the Polaroid camera was gone.
I thought of telling Ben about the man with the camera on our walk home from Funland and later, before we went to sleep that night. But I didn’t want Ben to think I was a scared baby. My decision would later haunt my every day, leaving me to desperately wonder whether, if I had told Ben about the stranger, it could have saved him.
“911, what is the nature of your call?”
“My brother. He’s gone! Someone took him. Please, you’ve got to come here quick!”
“What is your brother’s name?” the female 911 dispatcher asked.
“Ben. Ben Gooden. Please hurry!”
“Okay. It’s going to be all right. What’s your name?”
“Julia. Julia Gooden. I live on 18 Snug Harbor Road.”
“Is your mother or father there? Can you put them on the phone?”
“My dad’s not here, and my mom won’t get up.”
“Is your mother hurt?”
“No. She’s just drunk.”
“Okay, Julia. Is there anyone else at home with you?”
“My sister, Sarah. She’s fourteen. She doesn’t believe me. Sarah said I was an idiot baby and told me to get out of her room.”
“Did you check the house for your brother?” the dispatcher asked.
“I looked all over. I swear. Ben was in his bed when I fell asleep. I woke up in my mom’s room. I don’t know how I got there. When I went back to our room, Ben was gone. Please, you need to help me!”
“Does it look like someone broke in?”
“The courtyard door to our bedroom is open. I wanted to make sure it was locked before we went to sleep, but I didn’t want Ben to think I was scared.”
“Okay. We’re sending an officer over right now. Do you think your brother wandered outside?”
“No. I looked in the courtyard and the driveway too. Ben wasn’t there. I found his baseball on the sidewalk. It’s his favorite New York Yankees ball. Ben sleeps with it every night. He’d never leave it behind.”
“Okay. You stay on the phone with me, Julia, until the officer gets there. I’m sure everything is going to be just fine. You’ll see.”
“You’re right. Ben would never leave me. He promised.”
I became a reporter because I never found out the ending to my own story. Thirty years after Ben’s abduction, the only answers I could find were for others, the victims, or those they left behind. The crime beat is a natural for me. The people I write about are the most fragile, the most broken, and they need the most answers. I piece together the frayed strands of their lives. I have to tell their stories. I feel like I owe the victims at least that.
Five p.m. in the newsroom, and I am in the zone. I stare at my half-written follow-up story on the Boyner boy until a blast of static crackles from the scanner above my desk. “Shots fired on the two-hundred block of Rosa Parks Boulevard,” the female 911 dispatcher calls out in a staccato monotone.
I turn back to my story and listen with trained detachment to hear whether there’s anything more I need to chase on deadline. More likely, it’s a drug deal gone bad or a gang-related drive-by. Just another rush hour in inner-city Detroit.
The scanner goes silent for thirty seconds. Nothing further. No follow-up required, for now anyway. I go back to my article on Donny Boyner when my e-mail chimes and the new message alert flashes across the right side of my computer screen. It’s from Bob Primo, the metro desk editor. Primo has been my middleman boss for the past ten years, and he’s been consistent, a certified Grade-A solid prick throughout. Primo thinks I owe him for successfully pitching my story for the front page during the big bosses’ three o’clock editorial meeting. But it wasn’t Primo’s pitch. It was the story that sold it, an eight-year-old boy who disappeared on the way to the bus stop. With no new news on day two of the story, it’s my job to make the little boy real to the readers. And Primo and his bosses know I will deliver.
I ignore Primo’s interruption and glance down at my reporter’s notebook. It’s filled with quotes I got two hours prior while sitting in the living room of the tidy row house Donny Boyner shared with his grandma, Laveeta, a seventy-year-old whisper of a woman who stared intently at the velvet picture of a black Jesus that hugged the entirety of her living room wall as she recounted stories about her grandson. When I asked about the last time she saw Donny, Laveeta tore her gaze away from Jesus and cast her eyes downward to the scuffed gold vinyl floor. Ever since he started kindergarten, Laveeta said she walked Donny to the bus stop, just one block away. But yesterday she caught a cold—more than a cold, she said, a flu bug that made her body sweat and burn through the night. By morning, she was worse. Donny wanted to stay home so he could take care of his grandma, but Laveeta insisted he couldn’t miss school. His grandma knew school was Donny’s only ticket out of the projects. So Donny grabbed his backpack, promised Laveeta he’d take care of her when he got home, and kissed her on the forehead before he headed out on his journey: one short block alone to the bus that would safely deliver him to his third-grade class at Gardner Elementary School.
Just one short block.
I throw my reporter’s notebook into the top right drawer of my desk and write from memory. The city editor at my first paper told me the best reporters write from both the head and the heart.
I stare at the third-grade class picture of Donny on his missing-persons flyer. I pinned it to my desk when the Amber Alert first went out after Donny didn’t get off the bus at the end of the school day. In the photo, Donny wears a short-sleeved blue and white striped shirt buttoned all the way up to his collar. He peers hesitantly through his thick glasses at the camera as though he is uncomfortable being the center of attention even on school picture day.
My eyes flick to the other photo on my desk. It’s a framed picture of my sons, Logan and Will, taken down by the lake last summer. Logan is eight, just like Donny.
I turn my concentration back on the article about the missing boy, but I already know how this story will ultimately end. There will be bad news, the kind that decimates the living. Or no news at all. Not ever. Good news in child abduction cases is a bona fide miracle. And I stopped believing in miracles when Ben never came home. Miracles are like Santa Claus, just stuff kids believe.
Hey readers, it’s Jane here. Sorry to stop abruptly and not include the rest of Chapter 1. But, hopefully, you’ve liked what you’ve read so far. I personally am a massive mystery/thriller/suspense book junkie, and I know there are so many great books in this genre, but I hope, now that you’ve had a sampling of The Last Time She Saw Him, you’ll want to read more.
Thanks for coming by!