The black waters of the lake sucked the air out of the car as it rolled from the shore to the depths beyond. Two men stood on the rocky beach, watching. They could have brushed their hands in satisfaction. But they didn't. No smile arched their faces; no congratulatory words passed their lips. A woman was dead.

"All for nothing," one of them said.

The other lit a cigarette and blew smoke in the direction of the sinking car. The white fumes faded just as the hood of the convertible sank. "There are always innocent victims..."

"This path has no winners." There was nothing to see but regret across the calm waters of Lake Michigan. "May God have mercy on your soul."

As he turned away, the other was left to wonder if the prayer was for the dead, or for him…

~***~

Chapter 1

Click, click, click…

Each press of the enter key advanced a page in the news archives. Facts flashed on the computer monitor like Christmas lights, and Scott Crawford sat at his desk watching the display. The reporter's instinct was running hot, but so far, his fingers and brain weren't finding anything inspiring.

He was bored.

No fires, police corruption, or kidnappings came over the wire. Even gossip on the internet didn't spark his interest. That left Scott with the archives. He needed an idea, a story to throw on the editor's desk before 5 p.m. so that he could go home, grill a steak and sleep. Hunger kept him clicking.

Fingers paused—a missing person from a month ago—the daughter of a wealthy Chicago restauranteur. Scott leaned forward, his nose moving closer to the monitor. He refused to put on his glasses, preferring the vanity of squinting.

As he read the article, he noticed an annoying fragrance. Some combination of lavender and citrus. It could have been her shampoo or something else; most days he tried not to get close enough to tell. Leaning to his left, Scott looked across the cubicle dividers in the bullpen office to see Tessa Morgan at her desk; one leg tucked under her small frame, the other pulled tight to her chest.

Scott stood and walked over. Tessa's office was not homey; no plants, no cute little personal items, nothing that made you want to enter, let alone stay. The senior writer didn't glance in Scott's direction as he entered, finding the focal point of her office, the computer, of more interest.

"Hey," Scott said, flashing his best smile.

In the past week, he'd beaten Tessa to two bylines. Their competition was becoming gossip in the newspaper office, but he didn't really care. It wasn't that he really considered her a rival; she was just fun to play with. His voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper, "What are you working on?"

"The usual," she said, tossing a long auburn curl from her shoulder.

The cool tone caused Scott to raise an eyebrow. "You're not still mad, are you?"

With more force than necessary, she scribbled a note on the pad of paper beside her. The pencil tip snapped; Scott took that as confirmation. He put his hands in the air in mock surrender, cringing when her ice blue eyes lifted to his. "Look, it was nothing personal."

"You've been here five weeks," she said, her tone implying he lacked the knowledge and experience for the Tribune. "I've been here five years."

"I earned my stripes at the Post." He barely stopped himself from adding more, forcefully clamping his own jaw closed to hold the thoughts unspoken.

"New York," she scoffed, as though it couldn't hold a candle to Chicago. "You should have stayed there."

Tessa sighed and shook her head in exasperation. "What do you want, Crawford?"

"Darla Perelli," he said Her eyes narrowed in guarded recognition. Scott wasn't deterred by the attitude. "You wrote an article a while ago—did she ever turn up?"

"Like a piece of lost luggage?"

Scott didn't think he'd been insensitive, but he felt slightly embarrassed by her question. When Tessa set down the pencil she was holding and it rolled across her desk, he picked it up and twirled it, trying to appear casual. "That's not what I said."

Tessa stood. She barely reached the height of Scott's shoulder, but was an intimidating package all the same. "Must you?" she said, grabbing the pencil from his toying hands.

Words slipped out as his fingers lost their grip. "I read your piece and was thinking about doing a follow-up."

"Why? She was just a waitress from a nearby spaghetti house. Hardly the type of person you'd choose to profile. You're more into politics and scandal."

"So are you."

Tessa avoided the question by opening a drawer in her desk and produced a half-emptied mickey. Bringing the silver flask to her full lips, she took a sip.

Seeing Scott's startled look, she said, "It's chocolate milk. I couldn't find my thermos this morning."

Tessa's private life was a bit of a mystery; even those who claimed to know her well, revealed few conclusive facts. With a blink, Scott said, "Maybe if you drank something stronger than dairy products, you'd relax a little."

Her eyes shifted to the side to peer at Scott but she didn't turn her head. Drawing in a short breath, she stated firmly, "I don't drink!" and as if to accentuate the point, with her hand still a good foot above the desktop, Tessa brought the bottle down hard.

The sound echoed in the small office, the force vibrating across the desk. The office area was open, the cubicle walls short, and Scott could see a few co-workers taking an interest in their exchange.

"So," she said, her voice almost a growl, "what has your research on this Perelli woman shown—anything interesting?" There was a charged silence, "Something you need help with?"

The lazy smile on his face was less bright, but it still masked what he was truly thinking. For a second he almost said 'maybe' just to see what kind of reaction he would get. His fingers raked through his short sandy blond hair as he counted to ten. "Nope," he said, glancing at the watch on his wrist, "I should be going."

With a nod of decision, Scott stood and headed out of the cubicle without a backward glance.

Tessa watched as he left; her mouth dropped open in an apparent attempt to speak but with a second thought, she chose not to. She leaned against her desk. Dropping her head to her chest, she thought about what just happened, silently cursing. Why can't you learn to play nice?

When she lifted her head, she spotted a few co-workers looking her way. Her voice had risen during their exchange while Scott remained the man of Teflon. It was always Tessa who got the curious glances after their legendary exchanges—while the golden boy could do no wrong.

Tessa grabbed her bag and jacket, and left her cube. Across the aisle was Scott's empty workspace. Brazenly she walked in; her hand hovered over the computer mouse as she stared at the blank monitor. Her hand moved closer and then stopped. After a second, she pulled it back sharply as if burned.

She turned, forcing herself to leave, and hurriedly took the stairs to the main floor. Bursting out the front doors of the Tribune, she shook her head in disbelief. Even her thoughts betrayed her. Invade his privacy, all in the name of ego.

Tessa would have to find comfort for her nervous energy and curiosity elsewhere.

~***~

It was only a four-block walk to Gino's Restaurante from the Tribune. The decor was traditional Italian, and Scott's eyes took a minute to adjust to the dim lighting.

"Is the owner around?" Scott asked.

The woman who'd come to take his order smiled. "I am the owner, Maria Perelli."

Scott had planned to question Gino Perelli, Darla's father, but he was just as happy to speak with her mother, acknowledging this was a family run establishment.

"I'm from the Tribune, writing a follow-up story about your daughter." He glanced around the nearly empty restaurant. "Can you spare a moment?"

Darla's mother joined him, but she knew little more than had already been written in the paper. Scott sipped his coffee and asked questions. The facts were simple. Her daughter simply vanished one night.

"Any contact after March 19th? A ransom note? Anything?"

Maria's voice was soft, like the glow of the tiny tea candle in the middle of the table. "We were asked for $100,000. The police advised us not to pay."

Scott couldn't afford to let empathy touch him, but he put a hand on hers across the table, offering a token gesture of comfort. "So, you haven't heard anything else one way or the other?"

She stared off into the distance and shook her head.

"What are your plans now?" he asked.

"I love my daughter. I pray that she is alright, but each day my hope fades a little bit more. Shaking her head, she added, "My husband would not want me to tell you so much, but..."

"But what?"

"Darla is not the only one. Gino thinks I see conspiracy in everything, and yet…" Maria Perelli stood as though she could run from the possibilities. You are not a private investigator or the police, perhaps you can…"

Dropping his eyes, he silently agreed to what she was asking. He lifted his pen and prepared to write. "What are the names of the other women?"

"Only one. Gail Lorence. She was a waitress like my Darla."

"What happened to her?"

"We don't know. About a month before Darla, she also went missing."

"Ransom?"

"The Lorence's won't speak of it."

Scott replaced his empty coffee cup in the saucer. "Thank you for your time," he said, "I'll see what I can do."

As Scott stood and prepared to leave, he happened to glance into the attached bar. His gaze fell on the back of a red haired woman dressed in blue seated on one stool. Her voice carried to him in the arched doorway.

A smile formed on her lips as she spoke, teasing the bartender about the service. "Che cosa devo fare per un po' di servizio?"

Apparently she'd just arrived. The bartender raised his voice in an excited greeting. "Tessa, che bello di verderti!" Gino said, "Sei cosí magra!Ti porto qualcosa di buono."

One of her hands rose, absently dismissing his assertion that she was too thin. Begging off the invitation to dine, Tessa said, "Gino, all I need right now is a drink."

The middle-aged man furrowed his brow, the creases pronounced under his receding hairline. It was unclear at first whether he was going to fill the order, but with a disappointed shake of his head, he complied. Gently placing a Manhattan in front of the young woman, he commented again that it was good to see her, then moved to the opposite side of the counter and busied himself, leaving Tessa with her thoughts and him with his.

Scott debated about dismissing the coincidence of her presence in the same restaurant. He could leave to pursue his leads, but he hesitated. In the end, he walked forward. "Fancy meeting you here," he said quietly, noting the drink in the glass and the twenty-dollar bill on the counter. Hardly chocolate milk. Silently he wondered what else she might lie about if pushed.

Grabbing a fistful of nuts from the common bowl, he met her eyes in the mirror behind the bar and said, "We're not going to chase the same story again, are we?"

"There is no story here." Tessa said. "Leave these people alone."

Scott nodded. "The police advised them to be cautious, but I'm not convinced."

It didn't take her long to catch up. "You talked to Maria?" she asked, her voice low.

He matched her whisper, "Yes."

"The last time I tried to broach the subject of Darla's disappearance, Gino told me to leave it. I have to honor that request."

Looking down the aisle at the bartender, Scott said, "Maybe I should go then, before he asks the same of me." Her use of the Perellis' first names wasn't lost on him. "How well do you know the family?"

Silence was the answer.

"Wouldn't finding out what happened be a better plan?" he asked.

"Maybe," she admitted, "but it's been two months. The odds are not in their favor."

There was a swizzle stick on the bar. Scott picked it up and twirled it much like he'd done the pencil earlier. The small black stick spun first to the right, and then the left. "Yes, but closure can be a good thing."

Tessa turned her sharp eyes on him. "Not if you don't like the answer."

He didn't flinch. There was a story here; he could tell by his tingling fingers that wanted to write. "Maria gave me a clue. Want to hear it?" he taunted.

"No. Don't you have some politician to dog? This is hardly your beat."

"I like a mystery."

"Butt out, Crawford."

The warning tone in her voice only sparked his interest. He stood to leave and the lazy grin reappeared. "You know me better than that," he said, before he offered a wave and walked out.