Coastal Los Angeles County
The cab driver honked his horn and reluctantly I locked the front door behind me. I'd finished the final sweep; I was pretty sure I wouldn't be enjoying the lovely home Paul had found. After stowing my luggage in the trunk, I hopped in the back seat and gave the driver the address I'd been given for the rental car agency.
After handing over a pretty hefty chunk of cash and letting the lady verify my face with my driver's license, I was cleared to rent the car for a day. The identification was in my real name but there wasn't much else I could do. The fake birth date and new identification probably was less than worthless now. It wasn't like the Hagen family didn't already know where I lived, given Michael's appearance on my door. But I figured my credit cards were definitely tagged, and at least if somebody was still out there looking for me, there was no need to make it easy.
In theory, the driver's license shouldn't rippled on any computers until the next day if at all because those things didn't usually get downloaded until the close of the business day for the most part, and the cash deposit assured it would be a lower priority. If it even hit the system. I had noticed that the gal hand wrote the entire rental contract instead of putting it through the company's computer system so she was probably stealing cash right off the top. That would work out good for me. I nearly laughed at how the car rental agent nastily smirked when counting out my deposit after barely glancing at me. This further supported my notion the theory that this car rental transaction would be probably 'lost', which was fine by me. She'd probably already spent whatever she was going to steal after splitting it with the lot boy who also had a huge grin on his face.
Satisfied at the level of corruption, I got the keys from the lot kid and I found the sporty blue mid-sized car they gave me to my liking. The trunk easily had room for all my luggage and I headed out of the city towards the Hagen family home. Disregarding the speed limit, like any normal Los Angeles native, I made good time on the lengthy drive. There weren't any major wrecks only some of the usual bumper 'meet and greets' that city traffic is known for during the off hours. Rush hour bumper-to-bumper accidents tended to look more like horrific stock car races with a mashing of monster trucks and small environmentally correct plastic toy cars. The usual travel time was an hour and a half but with the speeds I was flying up the highway I made it in little over an hour. The kidnapper said I had only four hours from two-thirty and it was now four-thirty, I'd used up half my allotted time on an instinctive hunch that I hoped was right.
As I rounded the street to the Hagen driveway I noticed the grounds had been extensively landscaped in a trendy, shaggy overgrown way. Not really sloppy but far less rigid than in the past, I thought it was disturbing, but didn't know why I would feel that way much less care. Somehow I'd never pictured it changing from how my memory had frozen the grounds in my head. That was unrealistic, yet I was still disconcerted. My brain superimposed my last visit over the new scenery, and I was stunned when I noticed that Randolph's car was in the garage and in perfect condition.
Impulsively I walked to the carport and heard the distinctive ticking sound of a cooling engine. Once I placed my hand on the hood I could feel the heat pulse through my hand. This car had been driven fairly recently! Only Randolph drove it -- I ran to the door and pounded my fist for entrance.
A pinched-faced woman opened the door. Unlike Rachel's past help, she appeared to be middle aged and tired. Her uniform wasn't as tight as the ones the maids used to wear but appeared more comfortable while still giving the clear message she was the help.
"Where's Rachel? Randolph? Marge?" I demanded.
Bewildered the woman answered in broken English. "She is -- how you say -- in the -- " words failing she indicated back towards the den. The woman's accent was from somewhere in Central Europe I noticed like Prague or possibly Budapest. In the past the maids had been from Mexico, South America and the Caribbean. I brushed past her, ignoring her half-hearted attempt to keep me contained in the foyer.
"Lady -- stop -- lady!" Ineffectually she continued to try to hold me back with mere words. I was beyond reason.
Her pleas fell on deaf ears and I broke into the room. Thinking of the call and the car outside my mind was set. I knew at once.
"Randolph isn't dead!" I proclaimed in near desperate sorrow while moving into the room. I felt my face drain of blood as I uttered my rationalization for the idea, "He's alive. I saw his car. Its hood is still warm!"
Like I thought the maid understood me much less cared what I said. I could tell by her broken English that her command of the language was basic and I know I spoke too quickly in my growing fear. I confronted Rachel seated on the couch where I'd last remembered her and Marge snipping at me.
Rachel responded despondently, "No, Alanna, he's not alive. I buried him. He's most assuredly dead. The car was used by my maid, Beyla." She half lifted her head to look over my shoulder to the woman fluttering behind me.
"Beyla, you may go now." Rachel's dismissal wasn't rude or brisk but more automatic.
I heard the deep sigh and felt the woman fly from my back to go to where ever it was she hid from Rachel. I walked further into the room and slid onto the chair that was nearest the doorway. I was jumping to conclusions, naturally, but it seemed to be the only one possible. How else could everything have occurred?
Yet it registered in my mind that Rachel seemed unsurprised by my barging into her house. Her face was motionless as tears streamed wetly in shiny paths down her cheeks. She deftly produced a handkerchief and ineffectually dabbed at her tears. But even in the sight of her mourning I was glad to hear her proclaim he was dead. I winced at my unnecessarily cruel thoughts. I could see that Rachel was obviously in pain and still grieving at her son's suicide. At a loss for words, not wanting to sound insincere by expressing any sorry or regret at Randolph's death, I remained silent.
Without Marge or Randolph hovering by Rachel's side I noted she seemingly took up a less substantial space. Also, I saw that she had aged horribly since our last unforgettable meeting shortly after Randa's funeral. She no longer had any power to menace me. I hastened to break the silence, as it threatened to make me care what Rachel was feeling.
"Maybe Randolph just abandoned you and had someone else take his place?" I bitterly bit out. This fell into the room and echoed rudely back in my head. In her grief, she didn't answer.
I visually reacquainted myself with the surroundings while Rachel quietly composed herself. The large room had been thoroughly cleaned and revamped in the recent past. The somewhat shabby carpet of before had been removed and the flooring had been stripped down to the hardwood layer and sanded and heavily waxed to a smooth rich shine. Nearly all of the furnishings were new but not overly so. I would guess only two or so years ago the entire room had been furnished. Speculatively I perused the fine-grained pieces and splendidly arranged drapes with covered valance. The cherry wood bookshelves were no longer laid bare and their contents arrayed over the side tables and floor like the last time I'd been here. Noting the contrasting soft sheers to be of the finest quality, the remodel cost more than most people would immediately guess. Casual elegance only achieved through a ridiculous amount of money, I had in the past, priced the materials they'd used for the window treatments and balked at spending such an outrageous amount of money. The room's overall image was of opulent, luxurious comfort. Rachel's ever-present floral arrangements were arrayed in Waterford vases -- not just any cut glass.
"I'm sorry, Alanna, you are seriously mistaken. Randolph would never do such a thing to me. How dare you come in here and desecrate his memory with your vicious implications and accusations?" she maintained her bearing and regally swept out of the room.
"Shut the door behind you on your departure," Rachel called out over her shoulder while continuing away from my questions and me. Vaguely impressed by her bearing, I stood slowly and looked over the room. There was definitely something going on around here. Wasn't it Shakespeare who had his Queen Gertrude utter the words, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks?" ironically sealing her own fate with her son Hamlet?
Rachel was upset. But all of this tied directly back to Randolph. He could be cruel enough to fake his death and not tell his mother if he wanted. Of this, I had no doubt. Besides, she had sent Michael to me. There had to be more to all of this than the misplaced grief of a mother.
Glancing once more around the room, I wanted to imprint everything into my memory. I stopped and shuddered. Carefully I approached a side table I'd merely glanced over earlier in my appraisal of the cost of the remodel. A hardwood handcrafted cigar box featured prominently on the surface. In my haste I had failed to notice this carefully framed exhibit.
Randolph had such a box since his late teens. Last time I'd laid eyes on it was over four years ago in my house. Mistakenly I had assumed it was burned with all my belongings. After the initial ransacking of my home, before the fire, I recalled specifically placing it back on an end table in the office once the police had left. I was positive that it had to have been there the night of the fire. In the phone call earlier the riddle had mentioned missing, "What was never lost, but missing?"
Chilled I fingered the inlaid rosewood pattern on top. This was the box I recalled; there had been a small chip on the bottom front corner of Randolph's prized possession. Fingering the doppelganger my hand strayed to the remembered mark. Cautiously I eased the lid open. Bay rum spiced the air. I knew this was the same box. Randolph's father had originally owned the handcrafted showpiece. One year, as a birthday gift, his father had given Randolph the box in lieu of buying his son anything.
Randolph told the story to me as if it was a tradition to be continued for generations. When I had heard the tale, I thought his father rather uncaring. The story made me understand that the senior Hagen paid little attention to his son. I quickly pieced together the real story, upon coming home one day, Randolph's dear old dad discovered a dinner party being given to celebrate his son's birthday. He retreated to this very room and called to Randolph to join him. Thus he bestowed the 'prize' as a gift to be cherished when in reality it was the only token gift immediately at hand. Ironically it remained unmentioned by either of them the basic fact that Randolph had abhorred cigars and pretty much any kind of smoking. Randolph continued to see it as a symbolic link to his father. I saw it as a thoughtless, meaningless, empty gesture.
The sight of the box confirmed Randolph's hand in the torching of my home. Any lingering doubts vanished with the tobacco-scented box. Inside the box was a set of keys, Randolph's passport, a piece of ribbon, a stone and terrifyingly enough my picture. The snapshot was worn from unseen fingers handling the photo endlessly. I gave it to Randolph years ago during a Valentine's Day dinner. The pose was unremarkable. A photographer had taken some headshots of me for an article published in a throwaway mini-magazine in which I'd advertised my catering service.
This particular picture was one of the proof shots remaining from the photography session. As an afterthought I'd popped it into a card so Randolph would have a wallet-sized picture. Numbly I looked at the old photo of myself from a me long gone.
Something in this box was possibly the needed 'key is in your past'. Picking up the entire box I simply dumped the contents into my purse. Hopefully the box wasn't the key because I wasn't willing to steal that to free Michael. I did check the box for any hidden parts or words engraved before I set it back on the table. There was nothing else that jumped out at me. The keys did seem important but I figured the "key" being such an obvious word it would be an easy test to see if that was all I needed. Hopefully subtlety wasn't needed and the key was in fact just the key. Freud aside, I thought about the warm hood of the car as I went outside to check the obvious.