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San Joaquin County, California
August 7, 1980
Friends Reggie Sanders and Pat Moorehouse walk along a path parallel to a concrete channel filled with slow-moving water. There isn't a cloud in the sky, and the sun reflects off the steel-gray surface, making visibility into the water impossible. Between them, the two men are carrying fishing poles, tackle boxes, portable lawn chairs, and a small cooler. The cooler currently contains only a six-pack of Schlitz, though the men hope it will be full of striped bass when they make this walk in reverse in a few hours.
"Are we there yet?" Pat asks, his forehead beaded with sweat.
"Almost," Reggie assures him. "It's just up here. I'm telling you—I saw all kinds of fish in there. You won't be sorry."
A few weeks ago, Reggie and his wife had taken an evening walk along the canal, and he'd spotted a section where dozens of fish were swimming. The deeper water is nearly opaque, but in the right light, the top foot or so is translucent enough to allow for glimpsing what's floating around down there. As soon as Reggie saw how many fish there were, he told Pat they needed to come throw some lines in and try to land a few—though it's taken the men, who both work at the nearby Altamont Speedway, until now to find time in their schedules to go fishing.
The waterway—technically named the Governor Edmund G. Brown California Aqueduct, though most people simply call it the California Aqueduct—is a series of canals and tunnels carrying water throughout the state. Its four hundred miles of waterways also happen to be full of fish, at least in this twenty-foot-wide section outside the city of Tracy.
It's morning, but the temperature is already warm. The day is only going to get hotter, so the two friends will probably knock off by early afternoon. There isn't any shade out here.
"Here it is," Reggie says. "The spot I was telling you about."
He sets down his tackle box and lawn chair, and takes the teardrop-shaped fishing net dangling from his belt and drops it in the dirt.
"I don't see any," Pat says, squinting down at the water. It's hard to see anything because of the angle of the sun reflecting brightly off the surface. "You said the water was so thick with them that you could practically walk across it."
"That was a figure of speech," Reggie says.
The men set up their lawn chairs and open their tackle boxes. Reggie has also brought a Styrofoam container of live night crawlers, and the two men bait their hooks with squirming worms and then cast their lines out into the water.
"Want a beer?" Pat asks.
"Does the pope shit in the woods?" Reggie laughs as Pat tosses him a Schlitz. "It's nice and quiet out here, ain't it?"
It's hard to believe that to the east, the bustling San Francisco Bay Area is not far away. But here, among the beige sandy walkways along the canal and the fields of golden hay stretching in all directions, the crowded metropolitan world feels very distant.
"Hey," Pat says, sitting up in his chair and pulling on his pole. "I think I got one."
His rod curves sharply as he tries to reel in whatever is on the end of the line.
"Nah," he says, disappointed. "It ain't no fish. I'm snagged on something."
"Huh," Reggie says. "Wonder what it could be."
One benefit of fishing in the aqueduct is that it's relatively free of debris. Compared to a river or lake, there are few logs, branches, and rocks. Snagging a hook on something is relatively uncommon.
"Whatever it is, it's gonna break my line if I'm not careful."
Reggie picks up his fishing net and kneels down at the edge of the slope.
"Get it close to the surface, and I'll try to get the net on it, whatever it is."
Reggie reaches with the three-foot-long handle and dips the teardrop-shaped loop down into the water. He feels something large—maybe a log—and gets the net over it. He heaves and is surprised by the weight. He can't believe Pat's line hasn't broken already.
"What is it?" Pat asks.
"Can't see it." Reggie groans with the effort of trying to pull the thing up without falling into the water.
What soon surfaces from the water, Reggie's fishing net all tangled around it, is a human head, with the rest of the body visible just below the surface of the water. The face belongs to a man, its skin ghoulishly pale, its eyes sunken and milky inside cavernous sockets. A tongue pokes from the mouth like a swollen purple leech.
"Holy shit!" Reggie shouts, letting go of the net's aluminum handle as if it has suddenly become scalding hot.
Pat jerks his pole in terror and the line finally snaps. The body bobs at the surface for a moment before it begins to sink again. Before it disappears back into the murk, pulling the fishing net down with it, they can see that a heavy chain, like a vehicle tow cable, is wrapped around its shoulders and torso.
Reggie and Pat stare at the surface of the water, their chests heaving.
"Did I just see what I thought I saw?" Pat says.
"I'm afraid so," Reggie says.
"What do we do?"
"What do you think? We get the hell out of here and go call the police."
September 19, 1980
Kate Wright is holding her son, six-week-old Jeremy, at the kitchen table when her husband, Eric, comes into the room for breakfast. The baby boy fell asleep while nursing, and as Kate rises to put him in his crib, Eric kisses her on the forehead, careful not to jar the baby awake. He stands there for a moment, looking at his son cradled in his wife's arms.
"What an angel," he whispers, smiling.
Kate loves Eric's smile—it lights up his whole face with an expression of pure joy. That's one reason she fell in love with him—he's always happy, always smiling.
As Kate settles the baby into his crib in the bedroom, Eric pours himself a bowl of Kellogg's Frosted Mini-Wheats. Kate's tired from being up with the baby, but she comes back out to sit with Eric while he eats; she wants to spend a few minutes with her husband before he heads out for the day.
"I'm so glad you don't work for the sheriff's office anymore," she says.
"Me, too," Eric agrees.
"I worried all day long," Kate says. "I kept thinking something bad was going to happen."
"Nothing bad was going to happen to me," Eric says, taking a bite of his cereal.
Eric resigned from the sheriff's office last year. At thirty-one years old, he'd been a lieutenant—the youngest person ever to achieve that rank in Alameda County—but he'd claimed the job had become "too boring."
Although that's his usual excuse, Kate suspects he really quit to assuage her fears. Plus, they had the baby on the way—and Eric already has two older children from a previous marriage to help support—so she figures he wanted to find a more lucrative career anyway. Maybe he called police work boring to protect his reputation, or his own ego, but whatever the reason, she's genuinely thankful that he changed careers.
After he resigned from the sheriff's department, Eric took a job in a precious metals firm. He surprised Kate with his enthusiasm for the job, learning everything he could about the gold and silver business. She wouldn't have thought a man like her husband, always craving adventure, would have found learning about metals more exciting than police work, but Eric genuinely seemed to think so. As far as she could tell, he loved his new job and didn't have any regrets about giving up law enforcement.
Personally, she can certainly breathe easier now that he has a more ordinary nine-to-five job.
"Gotta go," Eric says, rising to put his empty bowl in the sink.
Kate walks him to the door and kisses him at the doorstep. The mid-September air outside is cool and pleasant.
"Are you working late again?" she asks.
"Nope," he says. "I'll be home in time for dinner."
He climbs into his Honda Civic and pulls out of the driveway. He sticks his arm out the window to wave at her, and she blows him a kiss good-bye.
She heads back to their bedroom and lies down, hoping to get a little more rest while the baby is asleep. As she drifts off, she thinks about how she'd never be able to relax this way if Eric was still working as a cop—she'd be anxious all day.
When the phone jars her awake a while later, it wakes the baby, too. She lifts the crying infant into her arms.
"Shhh. Shhh," Kate says, rocking Jeremy in her arms. Then she plucks the phone out of its cradle and tucks it into the crook of her neck. "Wright residence," she says, finally getting the baby calmed down.
"Hi, Kate. It's Dale over at the office. Is Eric there?"
Why would Eric's boss be calling? thinks Kate, her mind still foggy from sleep.
"No, he's on his way to work. He'll be there any…" She trails off because her eyes have found the clock hanging on the wall.
It's almost noon.
"Wait," she says, shaking her head to try to clear it. "Is Eric not at work this morning?"
"No," Dale says. "I figured he came down with something. But I need some information about one of our accounts."
Kate stares at the clock, now fully awake.
"Um, Dale," she says. "Eric left for work four hours ago. Are you sure he's not there?"
"Huh," Dale says. "That's strange. I hope nothing bad has happened."
Kate Wright paces the house for twenty minutes. She's afraid if she calls the police, they'll tell her it's too soon to open a missing person investigation. But she has another idea. She'll call her father, an Alameda County Municipal Court judge.
Her fingers tremble as they work the rotary dial.
"Dad," she says, "Eric's disappeared. I'm worried."
She explains the situation and is prepared for him to tell her not to be concerned about it. To her relief, he takes her worries seriously.
"I'll call the sheriff," he says. "I'll get them looking for him."
Her father tells her to try not to worry.
"He probably just had a flat tire or something," her father says.
Kate spends the day trying not to fall apart every time the baby cries. She calls a couple of friends and asks them to come over and sit with her, but they can't. One woman has to go into San Francisco for an appointment. The other has friends visiting and they're going to Alcatraz.
For much of the day, she sits on the front porch. She keeps the door open so she can listen for the baby and for the telephone. But she keeps an eye out, hoping that Eric's Honda Civic will pull up to the curb and he'll step out with an embarrassed smile on his face. He'll apologize for worrying her and have an excuse for why he was missing all day.
Every time a car approaches, she feels her heart swell with hope and then deflate from disappointment when it's not a Civic but a Ford pickup or a Chevy Nova or a Volkswagen Beetle. Occasionally a car that looks like his will approach, and the anticlimax is even more crushing.
His car never comes. Nor does the phone ring.
Finally, at close to five o'clock, her father's Mercury Grand Marquis pulls up in front of the house. Her dad steps out, still wearing his shirt and tie, his sleeves rolled to the elbow. Her father has always had a good poker face—as a judge, he's well practiced at hiding his emotions. But in her gut, Kate knows he's here to deliver bad news.
If it was good news, he would have called.
"Kate," he says, "let's go in the house."
"What happened?" she says, already feeling her knees go weak.
"I'll tell you inside," he says. "Where's the baby? Is Jeremy okay?"
"He's sleeping," she says, nearly shouting. "Tell me what happened."
"They found Eric's car."
"His car? Not him?"
"It was at the BART station at El Cerrito Plaza," he says. "I don't know how to say this, so I'm just going to give it to you straight. There was a bullet hole in the driver's side door and blood on the front seat."
From inside, as if he heard his grandfather's news, six-week-old Jeremy begins to wail.
While Kate couldn't get anyone to come over on the day Eric disappeared, now she can't get people to leave her alone. For the next two days, a steady rotation of friends and family stop by to check in, keep her company, and help with the baby.
Everyone keeps telling her that Eric could be okay. To keep her spirits up. To try not to worry until they know more. But Kate knows her husband is dead. Everyone else is just fooling themselves.
Her father, who took the day off, is at the house when the sheriff's vehicle pulls up. A fresh-faced deputy steps out along with a veteran detective named Billy Horvath whom Kate recognizes from when Eric worked on the force.
"Ma'am," says the detective, "may we speak to you? Judge, you're welcome to join us."
"Have you found him?" Kate says.
"No," Horvath says, "but we do have some news."
When her father showed up with his news, she insisted on hearing it right away. But this time, Kate feels certain she knows what's coming, and she doesn't mind putting it off for a moment. She invites the men in and offers them coffee. They decline, and when Kate is finally seated across the table from them—with the baby sleeping soundly in the nursery—the detective gives her the update.
"The blood in Eric's car wasn't his," Horvath tells them. "It was animal blood."
"What?" Kate says, trying to make sense of what he's just told her.
"The crime lab confirmed the blood belonged to an animal," he says.
Before Kate has a chance to process this news, Horvath adds that the police searched Eric's office at work and found a book called The Paper Trip.
"Jesus Christ," her father says, smacking the table and shaking his head in disbelief.
But Kate feels lost. What's significant about the book?
"The Paper Trip," Horvath explains, "is a notorious book about how to change your identity. It gives step-by-step instructions on what to do if someone wants to start a new life. How to obtain a new driver's license, Social Security card, birth certificate."
Kate stares at the detective, her emotions warring inside her. At first, she's relieved to think Eric might still be alive. But that relief quickly turns sour and bubbles into anger.
Did he abandon me and his infant son?
What kind of person would do that?
Kate expects her father to argue with the detective—to defend his son-in-law—but he says nothing to object.
"Ma'am," Horvath says to Kate, "we'd like your permission to search your residence. We want to see if we can find any additional evidence that supports our theory."
"Your theory?" Kate says, still confused and seeking clarification.
Horvath clears his throat, as if he didn't want to come right out and say what he's about to.
"Ma'am, we believe your husband faked his own death so he could run away and start a new life somewhere else."
Thirty-year-old Kathi Spiars speeds to work through the streets of Englewood, Colorado, just a few miles south of Denver. She expects this to be one of the last warm days of fall, and she has the top down on her Chevy Impala convertible. The wind whips her blond hair around her. The song "Renegade" by Styx is blasting on the radio. She taps her fingers on the steering wheel and sings along. To the west, the Rocky Mountains are visible, the peaks white with snow.
What a great day to be alive! she thinks.
Too bad she has to go to work.
She skids into the parking lot of a bar and restaurant called Mr. Greenjeans. Before she can turn the key to shut it off, the engine coughs and the car shudders. The engine backfires loudly—like a rifle shot—and the vehicle dies.
The damn thing runs like a charm…when it's actually running. But starting and stopping it is a challenge, and every time she catches a red light, she worries that the engine will fail on her. She hopes she can make enough in tips tonight to pay for a trip to the mechanic next week.
Kathi steps quickly through the parking lot; she's wearing high heels, a short denim skirt, and a black short-sleeved sweater. She prays that her manager, Frank—a gruff, no-nonsense Italian guy who looks a lot like the character Clemenza from The Godfather—won't give her a hard time about being late.
As she pushes through the front door, she's relieved to see that Frank is distracted. He's sitting at a table with a guy she doesn't recognize. One glance and she can tell what's happening: Frank is interviewing the stranger for a job.
She makes eye contact with the man, and he flashes her a big, almost goofy smile. Kathi can't help herself—the corners of her mouth curl up and she returns his smile with just a hint of her own. His eyes follow her as she walks behind the bar to punch her time card.
"You listening to me?" Frank says to the guy.
"Yeah, sorry," he says. "Got distracted."
"Well, try not to get distracted when you're on the clock. You're going to be working with her."
Fifteen minutes later, when Frank is holding the staff meeting to go over the table rotation and the night's specials, he introduces the stranger.
"What's your name again?" Frank asks.
"Steve," the guy says, looking right at Kathi as if the two of them are the only ones in the room. "Steve Marcum."
"Steve's going to be busing tables and doing other stuff to help out," Frank says. "Running meals. Cleaning up. If somebody clogs the toilet, let Steve here know and he'll plunge it."
This gets a laugh from everyone. Throughout his introduction, Steve keeps smiling. He has an expression on his face that's so wide-eyed, it's almost off-putting. Kathi doesn't know what to make of him. The guy's gotta be thirty-some years old, and here he is about to start a job as a busboy—yet he's got a look on his face like he's on some great adventure. What gives?
After the meeting breaks up, Steve approaches her and asks her name.
When she tells him it's Kathi, his smile broadens as if he's just gotten a great piece of news.
"Beautiful name," he says, clapping his hands together and laughing. "Kathi with a K?"
"Yes, with a K," she says, turning away.
"I've got a good feeling about you, Kathi with a K," Steve calls after her. "I think we're going to be great friends."
What a weirdo, she thinks as she walks away.
Throughout the dinner rush, Kathi keeps seeing Steve. It's as if he always senses when she needs help. He's there to clear her tables, fill her customers' water glasses, empty their ashtrays. It's a busy night, but she has to admit he's helped make her life easier. She's sure he helps her more than he helps the other waitresses, and she finds herself flattered by the attention. He's starting to grow on her.
He's not bad-looking. At first, she hadn't given his appearance much thought. But the more she studies him, the more she realizes he's kind of cute. His hair is a dirty blond and his hairline is starting to recede. He has a square jaw and looks as though he could handle himself in a fight. But it's his perpetual grin—his constant good humor—that makes him attractive. He always has a look on his face that suggests he's in on some big private joke.
As the night goes on, the dinner crowd clears out, leaving customers lingering to drink cocktails and beers. After midnight, when business really starts to slow down, Frank invites the new guy to join him behind the bar in order to teach him how to mix drinks.
"You don't want to be a busboy forever, do you?" Frank says.
When Kathi approaches the bar and relays an order for drinks, Steve takes it as an opportunity to flirt with her.
"What are you doing here?" he asks.
"Getting drinks," she says, stating the obvious.
"No," he says. "I mean what are you doing here? In this bar. You should be on TV."
Kathi rolls her eyes, but secretly she's pleased.
"You should be on Charlie's Angels."
Kathi makes a pfft sound with her lips.
"I'm serious," Steve says, setting the drinks on her tray. "You're as pretty as Cheryl Ladd. Prettier."
"Do these lines normally work for you?" Kathi asks, turning to leave.
"I've never used them," Steve says. "I've never seen a woman like you before."
Kathi struts away, keeping her back to him. She doesn't want him to see how much she's smiling.
She can't help herself.
At the end of the night, Kathi heads out to the parking lot. The cool air feels good on her skin after being cooped up in the stuffy, smoke-filled bar all night long. She decides to drive home with the top down.
Inside the car, she takes off her shoes—her toes are killing her—and presses the clutch with her bare foot.
Of course, the car won't start.
The engine sputters and stalls. The clutch whines loudly as she tries again.
"Can I help?"
She lifts her head and sees it's the new guy, Steve, approaching her car. He's wearing the same shit-eating grin he's had on his face all night. But as soon as he arrives at her door, the engine roars to life.
"Got it," she says, and can't help but return his smile with a smug one of her own.
She feels a small swelling of pride. See? she thinks.
- On Sale
- Jan 19, 2021
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Grand Central Publishing