It had been an old-fashioned winter in that intensely suburban corner of northeastern New Jersey called Bergen County. A wet and heavy snow, laying siege on Christmas Eve, withstood the January buffet of freeze and thaw and was reinforced in early February by a blasty blizzard of snow and sleet. The neat backyards and shrub-encircled homes were sealed beneath slabs of snow with a razor-sharp glacé crust. Alpine peaks, raised by straining snowplows, overflowed the verges and encroached upon the streets, subduing the noise of suburban traffic to an unaccustomed and equally old-fashioned quiet.
At the heart of the county, bounded to the west by a frozen Oradell Reservoir, to the east by a well-sanded Knickerbocker Road, and to the north and south by lines born of the surveyor’s pencil, was the Borough of Haworth. Near the center of town, half way up steep and slippery Tank Hill, just opposite the upper exit of Haworth Elementary School, lived Natalie Joday. On many a snow-silenced winter’s eve, Natalie could be found in her tiny second-floor apartment, sitting cross-legged beneath an afghan on her sofa, diligently preparing for the next day’s work, or indulgently catching up on her reading. Either way, when lurking memories of troublous times broke the tranquil surface of present occupation, she would throw an arm across the back of the sofa, bury her chin in the bend of her elbow, and gaze out the frosty picture window as others might gaze at a crystal ball.
Below her the lights of half the borough twinkled in a snowy nighttime world of unfamiliar shapes and shadows. A double row of oversized yellow streetlights blazed along Haworth Avenue, starting atop Tank Hill and running down, extending through the center of town and over the railroad tracks before curving left and ending in a darkness that was White Beeches Country Club. Bright house-lights clustered galaxy-like around an amorphous central downtown glow. In contrast to these steadfast tokens of order and safety, flashing blue and red lights shown forth now and then, reflected by ice and snow and window glass, presaging the swoosh of a sander lurching through the slush, or the scrape of a snowplow’s metal blade on the pavement.
Whenever those skipping colored lights appeared, Natalie held her breath, and braced herself—just in case. Just in case the rotating flashes should be followed not by the muffled but homey sounds of plow, sander, and slush, but by the squeal of car brakes and the slamming of car doors and the ringing of the doorbell above the crackle and jargon of a police radio—insistent spinning lights invading her home and streaking across her walls in painful bursts of blue and red that did not go away.
Then, as sander or plow slid cautiously down Tank Hill, making its way to White Beeches and swiftly out of hearing, whisking those intrusive lights away to bedazzle other homes, Natalie would breathe again, tension would fade, and guarded winter silence would return.
Natalie sat down at her computer on the afternoon of February 11th, 1992, with a cup of French roast coffee and renewed purpose. Inspecting her kingdom, she found, under a thatch of papers, two fugitive pens and a highlighter, which she retrieved and jammed into a clay flowerpot abloom with variegated journalistic impedimenta. The papers she gathered together, patted into order, and placed in the filing cabinet beneath the window. Mind and desk thus cleared for action, she propped up her spiral notebook at a convenient angle, pulled the keyboard to her stomach, and looked at the monitor for the fifth time:
Animal Activists Against Abduction
Sandra Cappi, Harrington Park reference librarian and animal lover, has announced the formation of a nonprofit organization to combat a growing epidemic of dog and cat thefts from private residences throughout Bergen County. The newly formed Housepet Abduction Hotline will offer members a monthly newsletter, and maintain a twenty-four-hour toll-free number for the general public.
A study (available from HAH) compiled by Ms. Cappi and her colleagues, based on county-wide police reports and statistics gleaned from the files of the Westwood ASPCA, reveals that the incidence of missing housepets doubled in the second half of 1992. From July to December, 18 dogs, 9 cats, and an Angora rabbit were “missing, presumed stolen.” The number of strayed pets reunited with their owners decreased dramatically over the same period. Such information has led this group of concerned Bergen County residents to conclude…
“To conclude…” Natalie said informatively. She rested her fingers on the keys, straightened her back, and tucked in her chin. “…that,” she continued decisively. Her eyebrows puckered in studious preoccupation.
“To conclude that…” she said ingeniously. Her fingers slipped from the keyboard and her gaze wandered.
The telephone rang, and Natalie launched herself from her chair, hovering over the keyboard just long enough to hit Command S, flew to the kitchen, and placed a hand on the phone. She took a calming breath, and, after the third ring, nestled the receiver against her ear.
“Natalie Joday.” She leaned against the counter and crossed one foot in front of the other.
“Oh. I thought—I’m sorry…Is this the Joday residence?” The young woman’s rich voice, hedged in smothered emotion, conveyed in those few words a history of conflict and incident that instantly captured Natalie’s attention.
“Yes it is.”
“Is Daniel Joday there?”
“Sorry, no.” Natalie’s interest faded as quickly as it had been aroused: It was going to be one of those phone calls. “Daniel doesn’t live here anymore.” She shoved a hip against the counter and went to retrieve her coffee. If this was going to be a question-and-answer session about her brother’s character and activities, she would need material sustenance.
“Oh. Is Natalie Joday there?” “Speaking.”
“Natalie? Oh—you said that, didn’t you? I’m sorry. I’m not…. This is Sarah Dow. I don’t know if you remember me or my sister? Lydia? I…she was a friend of your brother’s? A couple of years ago?”
“Of course I remember you.” Natalie, coffee in hand, wandered into the living room, eased onto the sofa, and stretched out her legs. “I reviewed you as Millicent in Hello, Dolly at Northern Valley in, uh 1989…no, 1990. You live up on Closter Dock Road somewhere. Big house, Japanese garden, high stone wall with broken glass on the top. You sing.”
“Yeah, sure.” Natalie took a sip of coffee. “So, how’re you doing?”
“Okay. No. Not okay. It’s my sister. She’s gone. She’s missing.
Three days. Yesterday they found her car. I really—”
“Jeez…” Natalie sat up, removing her feet from the coffee table.
“I don’t know what to do.” The words came slowly, squeezed out around the edges of her fear. “The police aren’t doing anything! I mean, I suppose they are, but if they don’t tell us what it is, how do we know it’s enough? They say it’s too soon. Too soon for what? I know my sister—she would never, never just disappear like this. I know! But I can’t get them to listen to a word I say.” “Yeah,” said Natalie. “The cops have a real hearing problem with people they don’t consider professionals. Especially family.” “Really? I thought it was because I—everybody is treating me like I’m hysterical, and telling me I’m only making things worse. But I feel this terrible urge to do something!” A ripple of suppressed ferocity traveled along Sarah’s words. “I may not know anything about finding missing persons—but so what? My father thinks I’m being selfish, trying to interfere. He doesn’t… but I can’t do any harm, can I? And I can’t sit here and do nothing! I just can’t.”
“No, you can’t. You have to do something.” “You really think so?”
“Of course.” Natalie ran her fingers through her mop of brown hair, holding it off her forehead. “Can I do anything to help? Have you considered putting an ad in the paper?”
“No, I hadn’t thought of that. You mean to find out if there’s anybody who has any information about where she is? That’s a good idea. Do you still write for the Star? Could you tell me who to get in touch with?”
Natalie did so.
“Thanks,” said Sarah. “I didn’t expect you—I mean I didn’t intend to dump all this on you out of the blue. I’m sorry I’m such a wreck.”
“You don’t need to apologize,” objected Natalie. “This is scary stuff.”
“That’s it.” Sarah’s voice fell to a whisper. “That’s it exactly. I’m so afraid that something has happened to her, that someone might have hurt her. That’s why I’m trying to get in touch with Daniel.”
Natalie’s tone stiffened. “Mmm hmm.”
“Because he was her friend, I mean,” added Sarah hastily. “Someone she might have confided in. And not only Daniel— I’m trying to get in touch with anybody who knew her well. I know it’s not much, but I’m just trying to do…something.”
Natalie’s grip on the phone tightened. “I think it’s a good idea.”
Sarah sighed. “It’s the only one I’ve had so far. Lydia and Daniel were very close once, and I thought—I’m sorry to be bothering you, but this is the only number I had for him.”
“You’re not bothering me. Daniel’s not living here—hasn’t for over a year. But I’ll get in touch with him.”
“Isn’t there a number where I could reach him?”
“No.” She reached for the pad of yellow paper and pencil she kept on the shelf beneath the coffee table. “But I’ll get the message to him right away, I promise. What’s your number?”
“Okay. And, Sarah…” Natalie paused, wavering between conflicting emotions. “If things get rough, or if there’s ever anything I can do…”
“Thanks, but, that’s okay. I know you didn’t know her very well.”
“I meant if there’s anything I can do for you.”
“Me?” Again that super-charged delivery. “Thanks.” Natalie left the sofa and went to stand by the picture window.
She waited for the disturbing feelings aroused by the conversation to dissolve, leached away by the passing of time. It was another cold, blustery day. The wind picked up the loose snow from the storm and sent it swirling; skittering whirlwinds danced along her driveway and crashed into the drifts. Lydia Dow. Although Natalie hadn’t said as much to Sarah, her memories of Lydia were, though few in number, very clear. Rich, foolish, insulated Lydia Dow, unwittingly typifying a lifestyle that Natalie—raised in harsher surroundings—had learned to despise. Lydia Dow with her almond-shaped sky-blue eyes and expression of calculated dreaminess.
She recalled Daniel’s voice challenging the logic of her instant disapproval. “How can dreaminess be calculated?” Daniel had asked. “You can be dreamy, or you can be calculated, but you can’t be both. Your problem is you just don’t like her.”
“That’s not the issue,” she had argued. “It doesn’t matter whether I like her or not.” But in her heart she had known it was true; she had not liked her, not one bit. Lydia Dow. She had burst dramatically in and out of Daniel’s delicately balanced life, oozing sympathy for his past hardships, but flaunting the promise of wealth and easy living before his wistful eyes. And always dancing tightrope-style along the verge of a tempestuous scene. Lydia Dow. Blind to the feelings of those closest to her, thoughtless enough to be capable of anything.
Natalie touched the cold window with a forefinger, breaking the spell of memory. “What’s she pulling this time?” Whatever her sympathy for Sarah, she was damned if she would have anything to do with Lydia.
Her cat, chocolate-colored and silky-soft, leaped onto the sofa and rubbed his moist nose against the back of her hand. She reached out to scratch the white strip between his ears, realized she was still holding the phone, and bestirred herself to dial a number.
“Hi, it’s Nat. How are things?”
“Descending rapidly through intolerable to vile.” “Oh, sorry to hear it. Is Daniel there?” “Momentarily. I’ll get him for you.”
There was a pause, and then: “Yeah?” “Hi. Me. Have I called at a bad time?”
“A classic—you know, like in the movies when the hero says, ‘Sit down, Vanessa, there’s something I have to tell you,’ and then the phone rings.”
“Never mind. As you are so fond of saying, life goes on.
“I’ve got a message for you from Sarah Dow.” “Who?”
“Sarah Dow—Lydia’s sister?” “Oh! More melodrama.”
“Yeah, well, she would like to speak with you urgently.” “Who?”
“Do you have the number?”
“I doubt it. It’s been ages since I had anything to do with those people. You’d better give it to me.”
“Got it,” he said. “See you Saturday?” “Or die,” she said. They hung up.
The cat sprang to the floor and trotted at her heel as Natalie, with furrowed brow and pursed lips, padded back to her little office on the far side of the kitchen. Her expression did not change as she read the words on the monitor, nor did it as she looked at the cat. “To conclude,” she said, placing her hands on her hips, “there is an organized effort at pet-napping going on—right in our own backyard.”
The cat, unimpressed, took a few steps away from her, turned around, and meowed. Natalie, finally taking the hint, retraced her steps and opened the outer door. As the cat bounded down the stairs and into the wide world beyond her reach, she called, “So watch your tail, Trickster!” Then, likewise putting out the whispering warnings of human folly that murmured in her mind, she returned to her work.