Author: Linwood Barclay
Title: Fear the Worst
Publisher: Bantam Books
Your daughter doesn’t come home one night from her summer job.
You go there looking for her. No one’s seen her. But it’s worse than that.
No one’s ever seen her. So where has she been going every day? And where is she now?
In Linwood Barclay’s riveting new thriller, an ordinary man’s desperate search for his daughter leads him into a dark world of corruption, exploitation, and murder. Tim Blake is about to learn that the people you think you know best are the ones harboring the biggest secrets.
Tim is an average guy. He sells cars. He has an ex-wife. She’s moved in with a man whose moody son spends more time online than he should. His girlfriend is turning out to be a bit of a flake. It’s not a life without hassles, but nothing will prepare Tim for the nightmare that’s about to begin.
Sydney vanishes into thin air. At the hotel where she supposedly worked, no one has ever heard of her. Even her closest friends seem to be at a loss. Now, as the days pass without word, Tim must face the fact that not only is Sydney missing, but that the daughter he’s loved and thought he knew is a virtual stranger.
As he retraces Sydney’s steps, Tim discovers that the suburban Connecticut town he always thought of as idyllic is anything but. What he doesn’t know is that his every move is being watched. There are others who want to find Syd as much as Tim does.
But they’re not planning a Welcome Home party.
The closer Tim comes to the truth, the closer he comes to every parent’s worst nightmare—and the kind of evil only a parent’s love has a chance in hell of stopping.
“We’ve also been looking at the Mazda,” the woman said. “And we took a—Dell, what was it called? The other one we took out for a test drive?”
Her husband said, “A Subaru.”
“That’s right,” the woman said. “A Subaru.”
The woman, whose name was Lorna, and her husband, whose name was Dell, were sitting across the desk from me in the showroom of Riverside Honda. This was the third time they’d been in to see me since I’d come back to work. There comes a point, even when you’re dealing with the worst crisis of your life, when you find yourself not knowing what else to do but fall back into your routine.
Lorna had on the desk, in addition to the folder on the Accord, which was what Lorna and Dell had been talking to me about, folders on the Toyota Camry, the Mazda 6, the Subaru Legacy, the Chevrolet Malibu, the Ford Taurus, the Dodge Avenger, and half a dozen others at the bottom of the stack that I couldn’t see.
“I notice that the Taurus has 263 horsepower with its standard engine, but the Accord only has 177 horsepower,” Lorna said.
“I think you’ll see,” I said, working hard to stay focused, “that the Taurus engine with that horsepower rating is a V6, while the Accord is a four-cylinder. You’ll find it still gives you plenty of pickup, but uses way less gas.”
“Oh,” Lorna said, nodding. “What are the cylinders, exactly? I know you told me before, but I don’t think I remember.”
Dell shook his head slowly from side to side. That was pretty much all Dell did during these visits. He sat there and let Lorna ask all the questions, do all the talking, unless he was asked something specific, and even then he usually just grunted. He appeared to be losing the will to live. I guessed he’d been sitting across the desk of at least a dozen sales associates between Bridgeport and New Haven over the last few weeks. I could see it in his face, that he didn’t give a shit what kind of car they got, just so long as they got something.
But Lorna believed they must be responsible shoppers, and that meant checking out every car in the class they were looking at, comparing specs, studying warranties. All of which was a good thing, to a point, but now Lorna had so much information that she didn’t know what to do with it. Lorna thought all this research would help them make an informed decision, but instead it had made it impossible for her to make one at all.
They were in their mid-forties. He was a shoe salesman in the Connecticut Post Mall, and she was a fourth-grade teacher. This was standard teacher behavior. Research your topic, consider all the options, go home and make a chart, car names across the top, features down the side, make check marks in the little boxes.
Lorna asked about the Accord’s rear legroom compared to the Malibu, which might have been an issue if they had kids, or if she’d given any indication they had any friends. By the time she was on to the Accord’s trunk space versus the Mazda 6, I really wasn’t listening. Finally, I held up a hand.
“What car do you like?” I asked Lorna.
“Like?” she said.
My computer monitor was positioned between us, and the whole time Lorna was talking I was moving the mouse around, tapping the keyboard. Lorna assumed I was on the Honda website, calling up data so I could answer her questions.
I wasn’t. I was on findsydneyblake.com. I was looking to see whether there’d been any recent hits on the site, whether anyone had emailed me. One of Sydney’s friends, a computer whiz—actually, any of Syd’s friends was a computer whiz compared to me—by the name of Jeff Bluestein had helped me put together the website, which had all the basic information.
There was a full description of Syd. Age: 17. Date of birth: April 15, 1992. Weight: approximately 115 pounds. Eye color: Blue. Hair: Blonde. Height: 5 feet 3 inches.
Date of disappearance: June 29, 2009.
Last seen: Leaving for work from our address on Hill Street. Might have been spotted in the vicinity of the Just Inn Time hotel, in Milford, Connecticut.
There was also a description of Syd’s silver Civic, complete with license plate number.
Visitors to the website, which Jeff had linked to other sites about runaways and missing teens, were encouraged to call police, or get in touch with me, Tim Blake, directly. I’d gone through as many photos as I could find of Syd, hit up her friends for pictures they had as well, including ones they’d posted on their various Internet sites like Facebook, and plastered them all over findsydneyblake.com. I had hundreds of pictures of Syd, going back through all her seventeen years, but I’d only posted ones from the last six months or so.
Wherever Syd might be, it wasn’t with extended family. Susanne’s and my parents were dead, neither of us had siblings, and what few relatives we had—an aunt here, an uncle there—we’d put on alert.
“Of course,” said Lorna, “we’re well aware of the excellent repair records that the Hondas have, and good resale value.”
I’d had two emails the day before, but not about Sydney. They were from other parents. One was from a father in Providence, telling me that his son Kenneth had been missing for a year now, and there wasn’t a moment when he didn’t think about him, wonder where he was, whether he was dead or alive, whether it was something he’d done, as a father, that had driven Kenneth away, or whether his son had met up with the wrong kind of people, that maybe they had—
It wasn’t helpful.
The second was from a woman outside Albany who’d stumbled onto the site and told me she was praying for my daughter and for me, that I should put my faith in God if I wanted Sydney to come home safely, that it would be through God that I’d find the strength to get through this.
I deleted both emails without replying.
“But the Toyotas have good resale value as well,” Lorna said. “I was looking in Consumer Reports, where they have these little charts with all the red dots on them? Have you noticed those? Well, there are lots of red dots if the cars have good repair records, but if the cars don’t have good repair records there are lots of black dots, so you can tell at a glance whether it’s a good car or not by how many red or black dots are on the chart? Have you seen those?”
I checked to see whether there were any messages now. The thing was, I had already checked for messages three times since Lorna and Dell had sat down across from me. When I was at my desk, I checked about every three minutes. At least twice a day I phoned Milford police detective Kip Jennings—I’d never met a Kip before, and hadn’t expected that when I finally did it would be a woman—to see what progress she was making. She’d been assigned Sydney’s case, although I was starting to think “assigned” was defined as “the detective who has the case in the back of his or her desk drawer.”
In the time that Lorna had been going on about Consumer Reports recommendations, a message had dropped into my inbox. I clicked on it and learned that there was a problem with my Citibank account and if I didn’t immediately confirm all my personal financial details it would be suspended, which was kind of curious considering that I did not have a Citibank account and never had.
“Jesus Christ,” I said aloud. The site had only been up for nearly three weeks—Jeff got it up and running within days of Syd’s disappearance—and already the spammers had found it.
“Excuse me?” Lorna said.
I glanced at her. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Just something on my screen there. You were saying, about the red dots.”
“Were you even listening to me?” she asked.
“Absolutely,” I said.
“Have you been looking at some dirty website all this time?” she said, and her husband’s eyebrows went up. If there was porn on my screen, he wanted a peek.
“They don’t allow that when we’re with customers,” I said earnestly.
“I just don’t want us to make a mistake,” Lorna said. “We usually keep our cars for seven to ten years, and that’s a long time to have a car if it turns out to be a lemon.”
“Honda doesn’t make lemons,” I assured her.
I needed to sell a car. I hadn’t made a sale since Syd went missing. The first week, I didn’t come into work. It wasn’t like I was home, sick with worry. I was out eighteen hours a day, driving the streets, hitting every mall and plaza and drop-in shelter in Milford and Stratford. Before long, I’d broadened the search to include Bridgeport and New Haven. I showed Syd’s picture to anyone who’d look at it. I called every friend I could ever recall her mentioning.
I went back to the Just Inn Time, trying to figure out where the hell Syd was actually going every day when I’d believed she was heading into the hotel.
I’d had very little sleep in the twenty-four days since I’d last seen her.
“You know what I think we’re going to do?” Lorna said, scooping the pamphlets off the desk and shoving them into her oversized purse. “I think we should take one more look at the Nissan.”
“Why don’t you do that?” I said. “They make a very good car.”
I got to my feet as Lorna and Dell stood. Just then, my phone rang. I glanced at it, recognized the number on the call display, let it go to message, although this particular caller might not choose to leave yet another one.
“Oh,” said Lorna, putting something she’d been holding in her hand onto my desk. It was a set of car keys. “When we were sitting in that Civic over there”—she pointed across the showroom—”I noticed someone had left these in the cup holder.”
She did this every time she came. She’d get in a car, discover the keys, scoop them up and deliver them to me. I’d given up explaining to her it was a fire safety thing, that we left the keys in the showroom cars so that if there was a fire, we could get them out in a hurry, time permitting.
“How thoughtful,” I said. “I’ll put these away someplace safe.”
“You wouldn’t want anyone driving a car right out of the showroom, now would you?” She laughed.
Dell looked as though he’d be happy if the huge Odyssey minivan in the center of the floor ran him over.
“Well, we might be back,” Lorna said.
“I’ve no doubt,” I said. I wasn’t in a hurry to deal with her again, so I said, “Just to be sure, you might want to check out the Mitsubishi dealer. And have you seen the new Saturns?”
“No,” Lorna said, suddenly alarmed that she might have overlooked something. “That first one—what was it?”
Dell was giving me dagger eyes. I didn’t care. Let Lorna torment some other salespeople for a while. Under normal conditions, I’d have tolerated her indecision. But I hadn’t been myself since Syd went missing.
A few seconds after they’d left the showroom, my desk phone trilled. No reason to get excited. It was an inside line.
I picked up. “Tim here.”
“Got a second?”
“Sure,” I said, and replaced the receiver.
I walked over to the other side of the showroom, winding my way through a display that included a Civic, the Odyssey, a Pilot, and a boxy green Element with the suicide rear doors.
I’d been summoned to the office of Laura Cantrell, sales manager. Mid-forties with the body of a twenty-five-year-old, twice married, single for four years, brown hair, white teeth, very red lips. She drove a silver S2000, the limited-production two-seater Honda sports car that we sold, maybe, a dozen of a year.
“Hey, Tim, sit down,” she said, not getting up from behind her desk. Since she had an actual office, and not a cubicle like the lowly sales staff, I was able to close her door as she’d asked.
I sat down without saying anything. I wasn’t much into small talk these days.
“So how’s it going?” Laura asked.
I nodded. “Okay.”
She nodded her head in the direction of the parking lot, where Lorna and Dell were at this moment getting into their eight-year-old Buick. “Still can’t make up their minds?”
“No,” I said. “You know the story about the donkey standing between two bales of hay that starves because he can’t decide which one to eat first?”
Laura wasn’t interested in fables. “We have a good product. Why can’t you close this one?”
“They’ll be back,” I said resignedly.
Laura leaned back in her swivel chair, folded her arms below her breasts. “So, Tim, any news?”
I knew she was asking about Syd. “No,” I said.
She shook her head sympathetically. “God, it must be rough.”
“It’s hard,” I said.
“Did I ever tell you I was a runaway myself once?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“I was sixteen, and my parents were ragging on me about everything. School, my boyfriends, staying out late, you name it, they had a list. So I thought, screw it, I’m outta here, and I took off with this boy named Martin, hitched around the country, saw America, you know?”
“Your parents must have been worried sick.”
Laura Cantrell offered up a “who cares” shrug.
“The point is,” she said, “I was fine. I just needed to find out who I was. Get out from under their thumb. Be my own self. Fly solo, you know? At the end of the day, that’s what matters. Independence.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Look,” she said, leaning forward now, resting her elbows on the desk. I got a whiff of perfume. Expensive, I bet. “Everyone around here is pulling for you. We really are. We can’t imagine what it’s like, going through what you’re going through. Unimaginable. We all want Cindy to come home today.”
“Sydney,” I said.
“But the thing is, you have to go on, right? You can’t worry about what you don’t know. Chances are, your daughter’s fine. Safe and sound. If you’re lucky, she’s taken along a boyfriend like I did. I know that might not be what you want to hear, but the fact is, if she’s got a young man with her, already she’s a hell of a lot safer. And don’t even worry about the sex thing. Girls today, they’re much savvier about that stuff. They know the score, they know everything about birth control. A hell of a lot more than we did in our day. Well, I was pretty knowledgeable, but most of them, they didn’t have a clue.”
Linwood Barclay is a former columnist for the Toronto Star. He is the author of several critically acclaimed novels, including Too Close to Home and No Time for Goodbye, a #1 bestseller in Britain. He lives near Toronto with his wife and has two grown children. His website is www.linwoodbarclay.com.