Better Left Behind


Melinda Di Lorenzo

When no one is who they seem, the only person you can trust is yourself.

Detective Trinity Calhoun‘s closest friend was due back weeks ago from his undercover operation, and the last thing she wants to do is take a trip. Not even to attend a high-profile conference at a swanky hotel on a beautiful island with all expenses paid. But with her boss counting on her, Trinity sets aside her misgivings and goes.

Except from the moment she sets foot on the ferry, something feels…off. First comes a man who’s far too interested in her. Then Trinity swears she’s spotted her late-to-return friend. And someone—who could be an ally or a foe—is definitely planting breadcrumbs for her. Is a little girl missing or is that, too, a misdirect?

Quickly, Trinity realizes the danger is closing in. And she’s trapped. Hemmed in by a storm that’s cut off both digital and physical access to the mainland. Her survival depends on her ability to differentiate between clue and bait. Because someone wants to help—and someone wants her dead.

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There’s something a little dissatisfying about abruptly—angrily—ending a call on a cell phone. Maybe it’s because I can still vividly recall the rotary phone in my childhood home. The device had been ancient, even when I was a kid. It was off-white and heavy. Clunky. The long cord between the receiver and the cradle was always getting twisted up and tangled around things nearby. Once, when I was maybe six or so, a neighborhood dog came barreling through the house, got his tail twisted in it, and ran out the back door with the phone dragging behind him while my mom screamed obscenities in his wake. The cord took a beating. The phone stayed anyway.

What I remember most, though, about that phone, is the sound of it being slammed. That jarring, furious noise. Not quite metallic enough to be a clang, but not quite mild enough to sound entirely plasticky. It wasn’t nice. It didn’t need to be. Thoroughness was the goal. Satisfaction.

I get none of that in the current moment. The smack of my finger on the tiny screen as I cut short the conversation has zero emotional impact. Maybe my boss on the other end is unimpressed. But it matters little to me right now.

“Goddammit,” I nearly yell.

I toss the cell hard into the couch, where it thumps dully and with zero oomph. Normally, I’d roll my eyes at the anticlimactic result. But I can’t muster up the effort. Not today. For forty-eight hours, I’ve been getting the best stonewall of my life. Or the worst. Depends on how I’m looking at it, I guess. Either way, I’ve exhausted pretty much every favor, tried to exploit pretty much every connection, and I’ve gotten nowhere. All I have are the same questions and no answers. And the truth is, as much as irritation is the dominant emotion at the moment, underneath that is a bad feeling.

Where are you, Gabe? asks a little voice in my head.

My eyes flick around as though I’m going to find him hidden somewhere. Behind the TV, maybe? Or in between the couch cushions? Shaking my head at the absurdity, I blow out a breath and tell myself that I’m being ridiculous. Because I am. No, I don’t know where he is—not exactly. But there’s an existing explanation—a good one—for why he isn’t here in his house. He’s just out doing his job. A two-month undercover position at the moment. It’s something that was a big part of his career before settling into the role of homicide detective just a short while ago, and for which it’s not entirely surprising that he was asked to revisit. Professionally, I can respect and understand his choice to go. I might even applaud it some.

For all of ten seconds, the logic sticks in my brain. He’s well-trained, experienced, and so damn effective at his job. He should be fine. I should be fine. Watering his plants. Checking the locks. Generally making sure his place is taken care of while he’s away.

Then rationality slips away again. Because what has me riled up isn’t that I don’t know where Gabe is; it’s the fact that he should’ve been home several days ago. When he took the assignment, there’d been no indication that it might run over. No hint that the end date was up in the air.

In and out, he’d said, winking at his own corny double entendre.

So much for that.

My pulse does its best to rise up, and in return, I do my best to tamp it down.

This time when I ask the question, I do it out loud. “Where are you, Gabe?”

I step over to the couch, grab my phone, and plop onto the corner seat. With my lower lip sucked in under my teeth, I scroll to his name. My thumb hovers over it. I don’t know why. It’s not as though there’s any point in putting a call through. All of Gabe’s identifying personal belongings—including his own phone—are stowed in the small safe under his bed. I watched him lock them there. And if I got up and walked across the room, turned left, and went in the next room, I could open that safe and look at them right now. He’d made sure I was able to. Just in case of an emergency, he’d said. Does this qualify, I wonder? Did he know somehow that something would go wrong, leaving me no choice but to do it?

I close my eyes again, drop my thumb away from my phone, and replay those moments.

Gabe sets down his wallet soundlessly. He lays his keys next to that worn leather, and they make a small jingle. Lastly, he puts his cell phone beside the rest of the items. He looks up at me. My breath does a funny catch in my throat. His eyes are the same warm brown as always, but the rest of his face is different.

His cover story is some time in the Caribbean, so he’s been hitting the tanning bed, and it’s turned his skin from ruddy to a deep olive. His hair and eyebrows have been darkened. A scruffy beard covers his cheeks and chin. It’s the same dark brown as the rest, but it’s flecked with a bit of natural gray that stubbornly refused the dye. It’s disconcerting. Especially the beard. He occasionally lets a bit of stubble grow, but mostly he’s clean shaven. Something about the thick scruff makes him look…threatening. Which, of course, is the point. He has to blend in with a whole host of dubious characters. He needs to look the part he’s going to be playing—a criminal.

“Trin?” he says, and I realize he’s spoken before that as well.

I make myself smile. “Sorry. I missed that. I guess I was distracted by your new ‘bad boy’ looks.”

“Oh, yeah? Is that your thing?”

“Hardly. What kind of cop would I be if that was my thing?”

“You sure? Cause I can keep it when I get back.” He scratches at the facial hair and waggles his darkened eyebrows.

My forced smile becomes a genuine laugh. “Thanks. But I think I’m better off with the real you.”

“Good.” He bends in and brushes a kiss on my lips before leaning back again. “What I was saying before is that you already know the safe combo, so if you need to get in for some reason, you can.”

I frown. “I don’t know your safe combo.”

“Yes, you do.” The statement is soft.

He swings the safe shut and waits in silence. And I realize that I do know. I reach around him, punch in the date that we found my best friend’s—his sister’s—body twenty years ago. The safe whirs open.

The familiar ache of losing Savannah pushes against my heart and pulls me back to the present. I swallow the lump in my throat and open my eyes. Solving her homicide provided some closure. But the sorrow over her murder will be with me forever.

I bring my hand to my chest and press my palm flat, letting the throb there last for a few seconds more before pushing it aside. Sliding into my grief isn’t going to help in the current moment. I drop my hand and sigh. There’s also nothing in the memory of Gabe showing me the safe code that makes me think he had some premonition he was trying to communicate to me. It should be reassuring. But it doesn’t settle my mind.

My eyes drop to my phone. I consider calling my boss back. Possibly starting with an apology for the dissatisfying hang-up. Definitely followed by yet another request for information.

She doesn’t know where he is either, Calhoun, I remind myself, leaning back and closing my eyes.

It’s a fact that’s unlikely to change. Primarily because there are only three people who do know his whereabouts. His old boss. His handler. And whoever is his target. And the last person on that list doesn’t count. Secrecy is key, both for Gabe’s safety and for the integrity of whatever case he’s working on. Cracking that secrecy is a futile hope. Realistically, chances are good that even he didn’t know where he was going when he left. The fact that I got to see his undercover transformation is probably a minor miracle.

Of course, none of that has stopped me from trying to get at least an inkling of what’s causing the delay. I’ve been combing through all of my most recent conversations with him on the off-chance that he did know and inadvertently left behind some clue about his destination. Repeatedly. Three times a day since the dinner I had ready for him went cold.

At this point, I just want some reassurance that he’s doing fine. Almost anything would help to ease my mind a little. But I’m not fooling myself into thinking I’m going to get it. Any tidbit to come my way would be sheer dumb luck. Or a result of something sneaky on my part.

Do not start getting sneaky, Calhoun.

Frustration elicits a sigh. I have another problem, too. And that’s that I’m supposed to be going away. Today. In twenty minutes. I toss a glance toward the analog clock that sits on Gabe’s bookshelf. Make that eighteen minutes, actually.

At least we’ll get almost a week together before you take off, he’d said to me. Unless…maybe you can beg off and just stay home? And I’d rolled my eyes at his hopeful, pouty expression. Because he was the one leaving for two months, and my trip—also for work—was two nights. How about you stay home instead? I’d asked, and he’d laughed and kissed my nose.

Now, I wish I had backed out. But my two ferry rides are pre-booked. The conference tickets are bought, and the hotel stay is paid for, all courtesy of our mutual employer, the Vancouver Police Department. Which means I’m going to have to get my ass in gear if I want to make it. And I do want to make it. I’ve been waiting on this police procedures seminar for a long time. But I still don’t move from my position. I open my eyes and stare up at the swirling texture of the ceiling, my mind filled with nerve-racking thoughts. There isn’t anyone on the planet more equipped to come up with worst-case scenarios than an experienced detective like me. And my brain won’t stop tossing them out.

Kidnapped. Killed. Chopped into pieces and—

“Okay,” I say. “That’s about enough of that.”

Gabe is a skilled detective, too. It’s practically an insult to him to assume he can’t take care of himself. And if something really bad has happened, someone higher up would’ve told me. Or so I assume. Or at least hope. After all, our closeness over the preceding months, along with our shared past and mutual hometown, have become common knowledge. And who knows? Maybe this little bit of separation will even turn out to be a positive thing, by reminding me that I’m okay on my own, too. Or at least that’s what I’m going to keep telling myself.

Still. Where the hell is he?

My eyes drift to the clock again. “Shit.”

Time appears to have sped up. I’m quite suddenly down to fourteen minutes. At this rate, I’m going to be running out the door. Possibly literally.

Motivated at last, I stand up and swing a look around for the suitcase I’d brought with me. I don’t see it. And for a second, I’m puzzled. Then I remember walking through the door, pulling the bag along, and dumping it in the spare bedroom. Automatically. Like I’d been preparing to stay here without even knowing it. And it’s silly, but realizing what I’d done pulls some heat to my cheeks. And for the first time in days, I’m mildly thankful that Gabe’s powers of observation aren’t focused on me. Whenever I sleep over—something that happens with more frequency that I care to admit right now—I always camp out on the double bed here. Gabe has never suggested that we change that arrangement. Whether we’re going over evidence late into the night or cuddled up and watching a movie…climbing under the sheets together isn’t a step we’ve taken. Not yet.

You regretting that now, Calhoun?

“Shut up,” I tell my subconscious.

But the mild embarrassment is enough to prompt me to get going again, and I give my shoulders a quick straighten, then step from the living room to the hallway. I don’t get far. Only to Gabe’s closed bedroom door, in fact. There, my feet stall. And they won’t go any farther. How can I leave? What if he comes back over the weekend while I’m gone? He knows about the conference. But I want to be here when he walks through the door. I want to throw my arms around him in relief, then curse at him for making my heart seize up like this.

My fingers tap a beat on my thigh. I’m about to make an ill-advised decision. I’m unsure what it is, but I can feel it in every part of my body. My skin is prickling. And I know I can’t stop myself, so I don’t try.

I blow out a small breath and open his bedroom door, where I pause for a second. Just long enough to acknowledge that I have no real desire to rifle through Gabe’s things. Not that I think he would care. It barely fazed him when I’d searched his house back in our hometown under suspicion that he might be a suspect in the disappearance of three young women. What holds me back for the extra moment now is simply not being sure what I’m looking for.

“The basics,” I mutter. “It’s not like I have time for anything else.”

I move in and start with a simple look around in search of some sign of disturbance. I flick quickly through the books on the nightstand. I open the single drawer there, then the drawers on the dresser. I pause and peer into the en suite bathroom. When I’m done—and I’ve found nothing—I roll my shoulders and spin in a small circle. Everything appears exactly as it has since Gabe walked out the door. No disturbed belongings. No unexpected smears of dirt or dust. Nothing noticeably missing.

What did you think you’d find, Calhoun? A readymade explanation? Flashing neon sign? Evidence of a break-in and kidnapping?

I wrinkle my nose. I’ve been by every other day, and I’ve been meticulous about locking up when I leave. My two decades on the force have made me well-acquainted with crime, and I don’t leave things to chance. The windows are all secured. I double-check the door, every time. With all my coming and going over the last days, I’ve noticed nothing that would make me think the house has been compromised. Even if it was a plausible explanation for Gabe’s continued absence. Which it isn’t.

I give the bedroom a final visual sweep, then turn to head to grab the bag—for real this time—but before I can take more than a step, I remember that I haven’t looked in to the safe yet. Eyeing the closet that houses it, I shift from foot to foot. He did give me the code, after all. And now that I’m thinking about it, it occurs to me that his phone likely holds the personal number for Gabe’s former sergeant from vice. Something I wouldn’t mind having in my possession. Just in case. Especially since I’m going to be away.

I look over to the clock on the nightstand. Five minutes left.

“Long enough,” I murmur.

I step to the closet and open the door. Then I plunk myself down in front of the safe, and—with almost no guilt at all—I key in the code. I’m just about to yank the lever and pull open the weighted door when I hear the muffled sound of my cell phone’s familiar ringtone. It’s coming from where I left it on the coffee table.


Safe and its contents forgotten, I jump to my feet. Poorly tamped hope surges through me as I rush to the hall. But I don’t quite get there in time to answer. Right when my fingers close on the phone to scoop it up, the ringing has already cut off. The screen, though, is still alight.

Blocked Number, it reads.

As I stare down at the cell, unease crawls across my shoulder blades. It could be Gabe. After all, it’d be odd if he called from a number I know. But the fact that it’s blocked rather than just unknown makes me second-guess the likelihood. I’m about to tap to check for a message when the phone comes to life once more, startling me so badly that I fumble and almost drop it.

Blocked Number, it says again.

I inhale, tap the screen, and lift the device to my ear, issuing an even-toned greeting as I do it. “This is Detective Calhoun.”

There’s no response. But I don’t repeat myself. Not right away. No need to give whoever it is the satisfaction of knowing they’ve unnerved me. Ten full seconds tick by, though, and still the person on the other end says nothing. At last, I open my mouth to speak again. But then a noise carries through. Breathing. Heavy breathing. And the line beeps twice, then goes silent.

End of Excerpt

Better Left Behind is available in the following formats:

ISBN: 978-1-957748-44-3

August 30, 2022

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