Read Last Look Online

Authors: Mariah Stewart

Last Look

For Dennis

Acknowledgments

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, those wild, wacky, and totally wonderful readers who hang out at Adwoff.com opened their generous and loving hearts with a drive to raise money to be donated to the Habitat for Humanity (donation matched by Nora Roberts). When they asked if I’d donate autographed books for their raffle, I threw in an offer to name a character after the drawing winner, who could chose to be a villain, a victim, or a vixen.

The winner—the always delightful Ms. Edith Chiong—decided to throw caution to the wind and chose for her namesake a character who was the absolute polar opposite of the real Edith. And so Edith the hooker was born.

However, the softhearted real-life Edith was concerned about the future of fictional Edith, and wondered if by the end of the book the character might be redeemed. I think she’ll be pleased with the path her character chooses to follow. Just as I think she’ll be pleased to know that the entire story grew from fictional Edith’s refusal to allow her friend’s disappearance to be ignored by the authorities—that she was the catalyst that began the search for the truth—and that, in the end, her desire to do the right thing indirectly led to the unraveling of a very tangled web of lies and deceit.

Prologue

February 25, 1983

“Tell me what you did with her body.”

The broad shadow of the FBI agent loomed large over the teenager seated at the pockmarked table. His head down, eyes closed.

He leaned in from behind, his breath going down the neck of the boy’s shirt, his mouth close to the boy’s ear.

“Where is Shannon Randall?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Sure you do.” The agent leaned in a little closer.

“No.” The boy stared straight ahead. “I don’t know where she is.”

“We know she was with you on Wednesday night. Tell me what happened to her.” He inched even closer, his voice a flat whisper. “Tell me what you did to her.”

Eric Louis Beale, eighteen years old and scared to death, shook his head side to side in an uneven motion. “I didn’t do anything to her, I swear.”

“You picked her up in your car. You took her out to the lake…”

“What?” Beale frowned. “I didn’t drive to the lake.”

“Oh, come off it, Eric. We both know you’re lying.”

“I’m not lying. I didn’t take her to the lake.”

“We have a witness who saw you driving out of town in the direction of the lake with Shannon in the front seat next to you.”

“No, that’s not true.”

“Why would someone make that up, Eric? Why would anyone lie about that?”

“I don’t know, but I know I didn’t drive to the lake. I never left town.”

“Next thing you know, you’ll be telling me you didn’t see her on Wednesday.”

A long silence followed. Eric Beale’s gaze darted around the room.

“Look, Eric, we know you had a thing for her. Her girlfriends already told us how you followed her around. Always offering to drive her places. To school in the morning, home again in the afternoon. To the library. Any place she wanted to go.” Special Agent Matt Ranieri stood with his hands on his hips, his jacket unbuttoned. He walked casually from behind the chair in which the suspect sat to the front of the table, so the kid could see the harness that held the gun just out of view under the jacket.

Ranieri stopped and turned toward Beale. “Where did you take her on Wednesday, Eric?”

“Nowhere,” Beale whispered.

“Are you going to try to tell me she wasn’t in your car on Wednesday?” Ranieri stared at the kid, his eyes boring into him. “Because we both know that would be another lie, don’t we?”

Beale went still as a stone, his eyes no longer flitting around the room but focused now in a rigid stare.

Ranieri sat on the edge of the table, his eyes still on Beale’s face, returning the stare.

“Want to know what we found under the passenger seat of your car, Eric?”

When no response came, Ranieri said, “A shirt—I’m thinking it’s yours—with blood on it. Quite a bit of blood, in fact—I’m thinking that’s Shannon’s—front and back. The tests we’re running right now will tell if I’m right. I’m betting I am. What do you think?”

Beale continued to stare.

“Now, you’re probably thinking how you’re going to explain that. You’re thinking, hey, they can’t prove that the shirt wasn’t there a week ago. Even if it is Shannon’s blood, they can’t prove it wasn’t there before Wednesday. They can’t even prove she was in my car on Wednesday. That what you’re thinking, Eric?”

Ranieri crossed his arms over his chest.

“Well, guess what, loser. We sure enough can prove it. We can because Shannon left us a little something to let us know she was there. On Wednesday.”

From his left jacket pocket, Ranieri took out a small notebook. He slapped it on the edge of the table to make the kid jump, to put him even more on edge than he already was.

“Shannon’s homework assignment book, Eric.”

He flipped through almost to the last page, then read, “Wednesday, February 23.” He paused and looked at Beale.

“You know what Wednesday’s date was, Eric?”

Beale nodded slowly.

Ranieri continued to read.
“History. Read pages three hundred and two through three hundred fifty-two and be ready to discuss economic reasons for westward movement. English. Read act one,
As You Like It,
and write a short—”

“I didn’t hurt her, I swear to God I didn’t. She was already messed up when I saw her.”

“Saw her where, Beale?”

“On Edgemont. She was running…” He swallowed hard.

“Tell me right from the beginning.”

“I was driving home from work, I was—”

“What time?”

“It was just after five. I got off work at the gas station at five o’clock.”

“And you left right at five?”

“I…I got a drink, a can of Pepsi, from the case there in the office. I talked to one of the mechanics, Billy, for a few minutes.”

“What did you talk about?” Special Agent Matt Ranieri already knew what they’d talked about. He’d interviewed Billy Tomlinson earlier that afternoon. He wanted to hear it from Beale. There was no reason for the boy to lie about this part of his story. The agent merely wanted to see how the boy’s eyes read when he was telling the truth, so that maybe, if the kid kept lying, Ranieri would be able to tell the difference.

“Conan the Barbarian.” The kid looked slightly embarrassed by the admission.

“Conan the Barbarian,” Ranieri repeated flatly. Then once more for good measure. “Conan the Barbarian.”

“Billy got this poster—from the movie?—and he’d hung it up in the garage just for laughs. Big poster of that guy, Schwarzenegger, whatever his name is.”

“And you talked for how long?”

“I don’t know—ten minutes, maybe. Then we talked about the Rocky movie that came out last year. Billy’s into those action flicks, you know?”

This jibed with what the mechanic had related, so the agent let it go.

“So you leave the gas station at ten after five or so, then what?”

“Then, like I said, I started home. Up Edgemont Avenue toward the pond.”

“But you live on Taylor, right?”

Beale nodded. “Yes.”

“Isn’t the pond on the other side of town from Taylor?”

“I had things on my mind. I wanted to just be alone for a few minutes.”

“Things like what?”

“Just…stuff.” He shook his head wearily. “There was a dance that was coming up, I was waiting to hear from a college, I was—”

“You wanted to be alone, but you picked up Shannon Randall?”

“She came running down the road, where it dead-ends by the library. She’s my friend. I stopped to see if she wanted a ride.”

Ranieri leaned in again. The movement was intimidating, as it was intended to be.

“She wasn’t just your friend. You had a crush on her. You followed her around, didn’t you? Followed her after school? Kept tabs on her…”

“No, I—”

“You were thinking about the dance because you were thinking about asking her to go with you, isn’t that right?”

“Shannon’s only a freshman, I’m a senior. No way would her folks let her go to the dance with me. Besides, some other girl had asked me but I’d pretty much decided not to go because I need the money for the deposit for college. To save my spot for next year.”

“You’re not going to have to worry about where you’re going to be living next year, pal.” Ranieri stood up again and walked around to the front of the table, where he could look the kid in the eye. “That money you saved for tuition? I don’t think you’re going to be needing it.”

Beale broke then, and started to cry.

“Did Shannon cry, Eric? Did she cry when you hurt her?”

“I swear to you…I swear to you, I did not hurt her.”

“Where’d the blood come from, Eric?” Ranieri stood across the room, his arms folded over his chest. “Why was her blood on your shirt?”

“I told you, she was messed up when I picked her up. Her mouth was bleeding. Her eye was swollen. She asked me to take her to the park so she could go into the ladies’ room and wash off her face. And I did. I gave her the extra shirt I had in my gym bag so she could clean her face.”

“What did she say happened to her?”

“She didn’t say.”

“Wait a minute. You see this girl, your ‘friend,’ running down the road, her face bleeding and swollen, and you don’t ask her what happened?”

“I did ask. She wouldn’t tell me.”

“What time was that?”

“I don’t know. Five thirty or so, I guess.”

“Tell me about taking Shannon to the park.”

“I just drove in, the gate was still open. I parked in the lot near those log buildings where the bathrooms are. She jumped out of the car and ran in. She was in there for maybe ten minutes or so. She came out, her face was cleaned up, but I could see she was going to have a black eye and her mouth was going to be all swollen the next day.”

“Did you beat her up there in the park?”

“I didn’t beat her up.” Eric Beale looked pale and defeated.

“Right. So then what happened?”

“She got back in the car and gave me back the shirt and said she was sorry she got blood on it. I told her it was okay, to just toss it in the back and I’d take care of it. I asked her again what happened, asked her who hurt her, but she just shook her head and looked out the window.”

“And she didn’t say anything? You’re telling me that someone beat her up, you helped her, but she wouldn’t tell you who?”

“All she said was, it didn’t matter. She just kept saying that over and over. ‘It doesn’t matter.’ I started to drive her home, but when we got to Montgomery, she asked me to stop the car, so I pulled over. She picked up her book bag and thanked me for the ride and for helping her, but she said she had to get out there.”

“In the dark? Three blocks from home?”

Beale nodded.

“And you let her?”

“I couldn’t stop her.”

“You know what I think, Eric? I think you picked her up there on Edgemont, and I think you drove her to the lake, not to the park. And I think she was just fine when she got into your car, Eric. I think you took her out to the lake and you—”

“No!”

“…tried to get it on with her, that’s what I think. And then I think you—”

“I never would have done anything like that! Shannon was my friend!”

“…slapped her around a little when she wouldn’t put out.”

“Don’t even talk about her like that!” Beale’s hand slammed the table defiantly. “Shannon’s a good kid. I would never treat her like that!”

“Where is she, Beale?” The FBI agent’s eyes narrowed. “Where is Shannon Randall? What did you do with her? Is she at the bottom of the lake? In one of the caves, maybe, or dumped into one of the ravines out in those hills outside of town? Why don’t you just tell us, save everyone a whole lot of time?”

“I swear, I didn’t do anything to her. I swear it.” Beale was sobbing now. “It’s all like I said. I took her to the park like she asked, so she could clean herself up. I asked her and asked her, but she wouldn’t tell me who hurt her. She got out of my car at Montgomery Avenue and that was the last I saw of her. I swear to God I haven’t seen her since.”

“How do you explain that someone saw you—
you
—driving on Lakeview, headed out of town with Shannon after seven o’clock?”

“I don’t know.” The boy was shaking now. “I don’t know why someone would say something that isn’t true. There has to be a mistake.”

“The mistake, Eric, is lying to me.”

Matthew Ranieri remained standing, his arms still folded across his chest, thinking of the pain the Randall family was going through at that very minute, certain in his heart that this eighteen-year-old punk not only knew where the girl was, but had been responsible for whatever happened to her.

A cold fist closed around his heart. His own daughter was just two years younger than Shannon Randall. What would he do if someone took off with her and she never came back?

He’d do exactly what he was doing now. And he’d make certain the son of a bitch paid.

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