my heart, my love, always
About the Author
C H A P T E R
This time when it started, I so totally wasn't expecting it.
You would think I'd have figured it out by now. I mean, after all this time. But apparently not. Apparently, in spite of everything, I am just as big an idiot as I ever was.
This time when it started, it wasn't with a phone call, or a letter in the mail. This time it was the doorbell. It rang right in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner.
This wasn't so unusual. I mean, lately, our doorbell? Yeah, it's been ringing a lot. That's because a couple of months ago, one of my parents' restaurants burned down, and our neighbors—we live in a pretty small town—wanted to show their sympathy for our loss by bringing over beef Stroganoff and the occasional persimmon pie.
Seriously. As if someone had died. People always bring over gifts of food when someone has died, because the grieving family isn't supposed to feel up to cooking, and would starve to death if friends and neighbors didn't come over all the time with lemon squares or whatever.
Like there was no such thing as Dominos.
Only in our case, it wasn't a person who had died. It was Mastriani's, an Establishment for Fine Dining—the choice for pre-prom dinner, or catering local weddings or bar mitzvahs—which got burned down thanks to some juvenile delinquents who'd wanted to show me just how much they didn't appreciate the way I was poking my nose into their business.
Yeah. It was my fault the family business got torched.
Never mind the fact that I'd been trying to stop a killer. Never mind that the folks this guy had been trying to kill weren't just, you know, strangers to me, but people I actually knew, who went to my school.
What was I supposed to do, just sit back and let him off my friends?
Whatever. The cops nailed the guy in the end. And it wasn't like Mastriani's wasn't insured, or that we don't own two other restaurants that didn't get incinerated.
I'm not saying it wasn't a terrible loss, or anything. Mastriani's was my dad's baby, not to mention the best restaurant in town. I'm just saying, you know, the persimmon pies weren't strictly necessary. We were bummed and all, but it wasn't like we didn't feel like cooking. Not in my family. I mean, you grow up around a bunch of restaurants, you learn how to cook—among other things, like how to drain a steam table or make sure the perch is fresh and that the fish guy isn't trying to rip you off again. There was never a shortage of food in my house.
That Thanksgiving, in fact, the table was groaning with it. Food, I mean. There was barely room for our plates, there were so many serving dishes stacked with turkey, sweet potatoes, cranberry relish, two kinds of dressing, string beans, salad, rolls, scalloped potatoes, garlic mashed potatoes, glazed carrots, turnip puree, and creamed spinach in front of us.
And it wasn't like we were expected to take, you know, just a little bit of everything. No way. Not with my mom and dad around. It was like, if you didn't pile your plate sky-high with stuff, you were insulting them.
Which was a very big problem, you see, because I had a second Thanksgiving dinner to attend—something I hadn't exactly mentioned to them, on account of how I knew they wouldn't exactly be too thrilled about it. I was just trying to save a little room, you know?
Only maybe I should have said something. Because certain people at the table observed my apparent lack of appetite and felt obligated to comment upon it.
"What's wrong with Jessica?" my great-aunt Rose, who was down from Chicago for the holiday, wanted to know. "How come she's not eating? She sick?"
"No, Aunt Rose," I said, from between gritted teeth. "I am not sick. I'm just not that hungry right now."
"Not that hungry?" Great-aunt Rose looked at my mother. "Who's not hungry at Thanksgiving? Your mother and father slaved all day making this delicious meal. Now you eat up."
My mother broke off her conversation with Mr. Abramowitz to say, "She's eating, Rose."
"I'm eating, Aunt Rose," I said, sticking some sweet potato in my mouth to prove it. "See?"
"You know what the problem with her is," Great-aunt Rose said conspiratorially to Claire Lippman's mother, but in a voice still loud enough for the guys working down at the Stop and Shop on First Street to hear. "She's got one of those eating disorders. You know. That anorexia."
"Jessica doesn't have anorexia, Rose," my mom said, looking annoyed. "Douglas, pass the string beans to Ruth, will you?"
Douglas, who in the best of circumstances does not like to have attention drawn to him, quickly passed the string beans to my best friend Ruth, as if he thought he could ward off Great-aunt Rose's evil death glare by doing so.
"You know what they call that?" Great-aunt Rose asked Mrs. Lippman, in a chummy sort of way.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Mastriani," Mrs. Lippman said. I gathered from her slightly harassed tone that, in accepting my mother's invitation to Thanksgiving dinner, Mr. and Mrs. Lippman had not known what they were getting themselves into. Clearly, no warning had been issued about Great-aunt Rose. "I don't know what you mean."
"Denial," Great-aunt Rose said, snapping her fingers triumphantly. "I saw that on Oprah. I suppose you're just going to let Jessica pick at that dressing, Antonia, and not make her eat it, just like you let her get away with everything. Those disgraceful dungarees she goes around in, and that hair … and don't even get me started on that whole business last spring. You know, nice girls don't have armed federal officers following them around—"
Thankfully, at that moment, the doorbell rang. I threw my napkin down and got up so fast, I nearly knocked over my chair.
"I'll get it!" I yelled, then tore for the foyer.
Well, you would have run out of there, too. I mean, who wanted to hear that whole thing—about how I'd been struck by lightning and consequently developed the psychic power to find missing people; how I'd been more or less kidnapped by a less-than-savory arm of the government, who'd wanted me to come work for them; and how some friends of mine sort of had to blow up a few things in order to get me safely back home—again? I mean, hello, that subject is way tired, can we change it, please?
"Now, who could that be?" my mother wondered, as I rushed for the door. "Everyone we know is right here at this table."
This was pretty much true. Besides Great-aunt Rose and me and my mom and dad, there were my two older brothers, Douglas and Michael, Michael's new girlfriend (it still felt weird to call her that, since for years Mikey had only dreamed that Claire Lippman might one day glance in his direction, and now, flying in the face of societal convention, they were going together—the Beauty and the Geek), and her family, as well as my best friend Ruth Abramowitz and her twin brother Skip and their parents. In all, there were thirteen people gathered around our dining room table. It sure didn't seem to me like anyone was missing.
But when I got to the door, I found out someone was. Oh, not from our dinner table. But from someone else's.
It was dark outside—it gets dark early in November in Indiana—but the porch light was on. As I approached the front door, which was partly glass, I saw a large, African-American man standing there, looking out onto the street while he waited for someone to answer the bell.