She shouldn’t have ignored the phone call.
Lilo stared out the window of the taxi as it made its way through rush hour traffic. Her flight from Omaha had been delayed due to heavy snow in Nebraska, and the plane had touched down in San Francisco well after sunset. Anxious, she tapped her fingers on the smooth leather of her handbag and replayed Hannah’s pleading message in her mind.
“Lilo, you have to call me back. I have nobody to talk to about this. I need your help. You always know what to do.”
A faint smile stole over her lips, and involuntarily she shook her head. Her best friend since high school had such confidence in her. As if she could fix anything. But what if she couldn’t fix this? What if it was already too late?
Hell, she didn’t even know what there was to fix. Hannah was gone. Vanished from the face of the earth.
Mrs. Bergdorf’s call the previous evening had confirmed it. “Hannah never called me for my birthday. Lilo, you know she always calls. She’s not answering her phone. I’m worried about her.”
And so was Lilo. Because despite all her faults, Hannah had always been a considerate daughter. If she hadn’t called her mother with birthday wishes, it meant she hadn’t been able to get to a phone. Had Hannah fallen ill and wasn’t aware of the important date she’d missed? It was unlikely that a flu or cold would make her so delirious that she’d forget her mother’s birthday. Perhaps Hannah had had an accident and was unable to communicate. But even if she’d been taken to a hospital, the hospital staff would have notified her mother and Lilo, too, because both were listed as Hannah’s emergency contacts. No, something was wrong. She could sense it: something terrible had happened to Hannah.
Guilt surged through Lilo. She’d been under deadline stress, having had difficulty finishing her latest mystery novel. Her editor had been breathing down her neck, so she’d hunkered down and shut out the outside world to finish the damn book. But at what cost? She’d broken her promise to Hannah, a promise they’d made in ninth grade: that they would always be there for each other. But instead of calling her friend to find out what was wrong, she’d finished her book so she wouldn’t miss her deadline.
Lilo sighed. What kind of friend did that? She’d heard the pleading tone in Hannah’s voice message when she’d called only a few days before her mother’s birthday. Hannah had sounded tense, worried. Lilo wished she hadn’t let the phone call go to voicemail and instead picked up and talked to her friend. What if Ronny, that no-good loser she was dating, had hurt her? Why else would Hannah say she couldn’t talk to anybody but Lilo? If only she knew more about Hannah and Ronny’s relationship, but her friend had been very tight-lipped about it, never revealing much about what Ronny did. As if she was ashamed of him in some way.
The only thing she knew was that Ronny was very possessive, and that was a trait Lilo had never liked in men. It was one reason why her relationships never lasted long. She needed to be independent, and trusting somebody didn’t come easily. Maybe her mystery writer brain had something to do with it. She simply knew the darkness of the human psyche, and was more aware than others what could lurk beneath the surface.
After Mrs. Bergdorf’s call, Lilo had booked the first flight out to San Francisco, determined to find Hannah and figure out what had happened. And she wouldn’t go home until she’d accomplished that task. She only hoped that she wouldn’t have bad news for Hannah’s mother when she did.
“This is it,” the cab driver said, as he came to a stop in front of a three-story apartment building. “Number 426.”
Hannah had raved about the neighborhood when she’d first moved in, but now, at night and with few streetlights to illuminate the area, Lilo couldn’t understand the attraction of this steep street in North Beach. She was only glad that the cab driver had stopped directly in front of the garage, so she wouldn’t have to haul her suitcase up the hill.
After paying for her ride, Lilo walked up to the front door. There were six door bells, one for each apartment. Bergdorf was written on one of the bells. She rang it. As she expected, there was no reply. But she wouldn’t let such a small obstacle stop her. She wasn’t a mystery writer for nothing. And she knew Hannah better than her own sister. After locking herself out of her new apartment and paying an exorbitant amount for a locksmith—a story that her friend had recounted in minute detail—Hannah had been determined never to get caught without a key again, and together they’d figured out the best hiding place for a spare.
Lilo let her eyes wander around the entrance. A bougainvillea snaked up one side of the wall along a trellis. It wasn’t in bloom. Even in San Francisco, where it was a balmy fifty degrees outside in early January, it wasn’t warm enough for the plant to flower. The leaves hid most of the wooden trellis, but Lilo knew what she was looking for: a brown string with a key tied to the end of it, blending perfectly into the wall. She pulled on it. The key emerged from its hiding place, a deep crack in the foundation, probably caused by an earthquake.
Key in hand, Lilo let herself into the building and found Hannah’s apartment on the first floor. She listened for sounds coming from inside the unit, but it was quiet. As she pushed the door open and stepped in, she crinkled her nose. It smelled of rotten food.
She flipped the light switch and closed the door behind her.
The place was nothing special, a one-bedroom apartment with a large living room, a separate kitchen and a small bathroom. Despite its size, Hannah’s touch was everywhere. The funky furniture and decorations from around the world were quintessential Hannah. This was her home.
Lilo shrugged off her coat and placed it over a chair, then walked to the open doorway from which the strong odor emanated. It was the kitchen. The under-the-counter light was on, and the cause of the smell was immediately evident: a half-eaten can of dog food sat on the kitchen counter. She glanced around. There was another door, leading back into the small hallway that connected to the bathroom and bedroom on one end and the living room and front door on the other.
On the floor near the refrigerator stood two bowls, one filled with water, the other empty, but not clean. A dog had eaten from it recently. Frankenfurter.
“Frankenfurter?” she called out to Hannah’s terrier, but got no reply.
Lilo grabbed the spoiled can and tossed it in the trash, then opened the kitchen window to let in some fresh air, before returning to the living room.