Chapter One

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One

MAN, WOMAN, AND CHILD POSED IN FRONT OF A thick green Christmas tree, its branches laden with silver tinsel and gold balls. He stood behind her chair, hands resting lightly on her shoulders. Her blond hair fell in waves past the collar of her red dress. In her lap she held a cherubic toddler. They smiled at the camera, the image of a perfect middle-class nuclear family, caught forever in a five-by-seven glossy.

"When did she leave?" I asked.

"Wednesday morning," he said, his voice tremulous. He cleared his throat. "She left the baby with my mother, said she was going shopping. She never came back."

He was a slender fair-haired man of about thirty, well-dressed, with finely chiseled features. Now he put one hand to his pale face, as though to erase the lines etched by worry and strain. He sighed deeply. I waited for him to continue.

"I got home from work around six. Renee wasn't there, so I called Mom. She and Dad live just a few miles away. Mom told me Jason was there but she hadn't seen Renee since about ten that morning. Of course I was concerned."

He'd waited an hour, then two, concern giving way to worry, plagued by visions of car accidents and abductions. Finally he called the police. They asked if Mrs. Foster left on her own. Of course she hadn't, he said. Then he looked in the closet, the dresser drawers, the bathroom. Her suitcase was missing. So were clothes, shoes, the things a woman would take with her if she planned to be gone for a while. The next day the bank called him about a bounced check. Mrs. Foster had emptied the joint account.

"Can you find her, Ms. Howard?"

"Are you sure you want me to?"

Philip Foster blinked his puppy brown eyes in surprise. "Of course I want you to find her. Why would you ask a question like that?"

"Your wife apparently left on her own. She may not want to come back." He winced. I felt as though I'd kicked the puppy. But he had to know and I had to tell him. "If I find her I can't make her do anything she doesn't want to do."

"I understand," he said. "But if I could just talk to her... I'm worried about her. I have to know that she's all right."

I looked him in the eye for a long moment as I thought about this case and whether I should take it. Did Mr. Foster drink, take drugs, beat his wife or child? If that was the reason Mrs. Foster left, why didn't she take the kid? And why did I feel that Philip Foster was holding something back?

"You're from Los Gatos," I said. That's a town in the hills southwest of San Jose. "What makes you think your wife is in Oakland?"

"She was born in Oakland. But mainly it's the phone bill."

"What phone bill?" The man wasn't making sense.

"The one that came in the mail yesterday." Foster scrabbled around in the leather portfolio he'd brought with him. He pulled out the bill and shoved it across the desk at me.

"See," he said, pointing at an Oakland number circled in pencil. "I thought at first it was a mistake. I don't know anybody in Oakland. But I went back through the phone bills for the last few months, and that number appears several times. The operator told me it's an antique store called Granny's Attic on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland. Renee called that number the day before she disappeared. It must mean something."

"Did you call it?"

"Several times. I got no answer."

I picked up my phone and punched in the number. I let it ring for a full minute before hanging up. It was a quirky piece of evidence. But it was enough to bring Foster up here from Los Gatos and enough to pique my interest.

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