Fresh from a tour promoting her last case, reclusive true crime writer Lydia Strong receives an anonymous cry for help, begging her to find and protect Tatiana Quinn, ""and all the other girls in need of rescue."" Maybe the plea strikes close to her heart; maybe her investigator's intuition starts buzzing. She takes it on. But this simple case of a missing teenager soon becomes much more. Someone wants Lydia to drop the case, someone powerful, someone anxious enough to engineer the reappearance of one of Lydia's first--and most dangerous--adversaries. Now, in addition to tracing the roots of Tatiana's disappearance on a trail across the country and eventually overseas, Lydia must find the man who wants her dead, his unfinished business from years ago.
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November 01, 2011
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Excerpt from The Darkness Gathers by Lisa Unger
The voice on the tape was thin and quavering. Lydia Strong had to rewind the tape and turn up the volume. In the background, she could hear the wet whisper of cars passing on rain-slick roads and, once, the loud, sharp blast of a semi's air horn.
"It's Tatiana," the message began, followed by a nervous little noise that was somewhere between a giggle and a sob. "Are you there . . . please? I can't believe she's doing this to me." The girl in-haled unevenly, holding tears back from her voice. She went on in an-other language, something throaty and harsh, Eastern European-sounding. Then she switched back to English. "I'm not supposed to call anyone. I don't have much time. I'm somewhere in-" The connection was broken.
The package had been sitting beige and innocuous in the pile of mail that had collected in Lydia's office during the two weeks she had been gone. The small, soft envelope mailed to Lydia care of her publisher and forwarded was just one item in a mound of mail she had received from what Jeffrey Mark called her "fan club." Prisoners, families of murder victims, aspiring serial killers, and miscellaneous psychotics drawn to her because of the books and articles she wrote about heinous crimes and the people who committed them. Winning a Pulitzer Prize and solving a few cases along the way as a consultant with the private investigation firm of Mark, Hanley and Striker, Lydia had become an icon of hope, it seemed, for the world's most desperate and its most sick and twisted.
She was about to toss the envelope into the trash with the rest of the letters, but when she lifted the pile, the Jiffy, heavier than the other items, fell to the floor with a dull thud and the slightest rattle. She looked at the package for a second, then reached down to pick it up. There was no return address, though it had been postmarked from Miami more than three weeks earlier. Written in capital letters in the lower-right-hand corner was an urgent plea: "please read me!"
She observed the moment where she could choose to open the package or choose to throw it away, never the wiser to its contents and the impact it might have on her life. But something about the smallness of it, the innocence of its soft beige form and the slight rattle that indicated to her a tape cassette piqued her curiosity, lit a tiny jolt of electricity inside her.
Lydia extracted a pair of surgical gloves, a letter opener, and a pair of tweezers from her desk drawer. She opened the package with the letter opener, careful not to disturb the seal, then removed a tape cassette and a handwritten note with the tweezers. The note was written with big loopy letters in a faltering cursive hand.
Dear Miss Strong,
You are a good woman of strength and honor. And you must help Tatiana Quinn and all the other girls who are in need of rescue. There are too many who are already past helping. But if you begin with Tatiana, you may be able to save so many more. I cannot tell you who I am or how I know this, or we will die. But I beg you to come to Miami and see for yourself. Nothing is as it seems here, but I know that you will see the truth and make it right. I pray that you will.
It was like a thousand other letters she had received over the years, and she felt the familiar wash of anxiety, resentment, and curiosity that generally overwhelmed her when someone asked for her help. But there was something different about this letter. Maybe it was the child's desperate voice, or the earnest tone of the letter, or maybe it was the implication that Lydia was responsible for the lives of the young girls supposedly in danger . . . and the fact that part of her believed that. Or maybe it was the haunting memory of Shawna Fox. But whatever it was, she didn't crumple the letter or destroy the tape. She just sat staring at the youthful handwriting, with its loopy letters full of hope.
Lydia leaned her head back against the black leather chair, closed her eyes, and released a long, slow breath. She felt two weeks of fatigue pulling at her muscles and her eyelids, even as the excitement of "the buzz" made her heart race a little. Images danced through her head: a girl alone on a street corner, huddled in a phone booth, staring nervously around her; the crowds that had gathered at Lydia's book signings during the media tour she had just conducted to promote Blind Faith; a murderer's face as she straddled him in a burning church, her gun inside his mouth; Jeffrey's smiling eyes. The tape player by her computer gave off a blank hiss for a few moments before she noticed and reached over to click it off. As she picked up the phone, she heard the elevator door that opened into their apartment. She realized that she was still wearing her jacket, still had her bag slung over her shoulder.
She jumped eagerly from her chair, moved quickly from her office, and walked across the bleached hardwood floor of the foyer and into the tight embrace of Jeffrey's arms.
"Hey, you," she said, leaning back to look at his face. His brown hair was damp from the light rain outside, and she caught the slightest scent of his cologne.
"God, I missed you," he said, kissing her, tasting her.
"Umm, me, too," she answered. She was amazed by the exuberance she felt, the sheer excitement of seeing his face and feeling his body.
"How did it go?" he asked, taking her bag and helping her off with her coat.
"You know, the usual. Inane interviews, packed book signings, bad hotel rooms. I'm never doing another book tour. It's torture."
"I've heard that before," he said, rolling his eyes. "You love it."
She smiled at his knowledge of her. "I didn't love being away from you," she replied.
They walked from the foyer to the kitchen, where they embraced again, Lydia looking over his shoulder at the view out their window. She missed the view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from her Santa Fe home, but nothing excited her like the New York City skyline at night. The possibilities were endless. She had to wonder what was happening behind each lighted window. She knew it was all happening-love, death, sex, drug abuse, loneliness, happiness, despair, even murder. But these days, it was what was happening in her own kitchen that excited her most of all. The buzz she had felt before Jeffrey came home, listening to the tape, had almost disappeared from her mind. Almost.