The Dream

I HAD that dream again. The one where Carmen was still alive. You would think I would know it by heart; I’d had it so often. Yet, in my dream, I was always surprised to find myself walking among the gray monuments that stuck up from the sand like stone teeth. I looked up at the graceful palm trees that cast their long shadows over the graves, and it all came rushing back to me. The faint scent of the ocean wafted above the tarry smells from the streets, and I knew I was at the Angeles Rosedale Cemetery. That’s when I remembered that this was where they’d held Carmen’s funeral.

But in my dream, Carmen was still alive, standing by her own graveside, the groves of palm trees forming a surreal backdrop behind her. She looked glorious, as usual, in her little black dress and spiky heels—the same outfit she wore when she was murdered; the same outfit she wore when they buried her.

Her mourners huddled together in the shade of the palm trees, whispering among themselves and staring down at her coffin, but I was not with them. I was alone on the other side of her grave, facing her. She was looking straight at me with an expression so forlorn it would have broken anyone’s heart, but my heart was already broken.

I wanted to call out to her, but when I opened my mouth to shout, no sound came out. The world around me was deathly quiet, with a silence so profound it made my ears ring and filled me with dread. All I could do was gaze back at her from the other side of her grave and wonder.

Strangely, it was always daytime in my dream, with the bright sun of a Los Angeles spring day shining through the palm trees around me. But of course, it had been a day just like this when they held her funeral. The daylight kept my dream from being spooky in any traditional way. The horror I felt now was the horror that came with the knowledge that Carmen was really and truly dead, that her coffin was really down there, lying at the bottom of her grave, even though I could not bring myself to look at it. I only wanted to gaze at her beautiful face forever.

One of the most peculiar aspects of my dream was that, in real life, on the day of Carmen’s funeral, I never actually made it to the gravesite. I couldn’t face it. I stayed huddled alone in my car, weeping, until it was all over. I knew I couldn’t endure the graveside speeches or the crowd of onlookers, and I certainly couldn’t have endured the sight of her casket being lowered into her grave.

My dream of Carmen by the graveside haunted me in a way a ghost could never have, for I could not forget that desolate look in her eyes nor shake the feeling she was imploring me to do something. I couldn’t be certain, but I figured she wanted me to find her killers. This was something I wanted to do with all that remained of my heart.

Still, I awoke from that dream with a start, shaken and terrified, in the way you do when you dream you were falling, as if I were falling into Carmen’s grave.

Chapter 1

Ten Minutes

IT ONLY took ten minutes. That was all. Ten minutes and our lives were changed forever.

It was Wednesday afternoon, and Carmen and I were supposed to meet after my tutoring session with Wendy, my dumb friend from down the block. She’s the great dancer who was also incredibly stupid, but whose movie director father wanted her to get into a good college, so I tutored her in algebra in exchange for dancing lessons. She actually was an amazing dancer. She’d been taught by some of the best choreographers in Hollywood, and she had a natural talent for it anyway.

The plan was for me to meet up with Carmen after I finished with Wendy, and then we’d drive down to Santa Monica and visit our favorite hangout, Shakespeare’s. We already had a cover story worked out. We told our moms we were going to work on our world history project at the Santa Monica library, which everyone knows is open late on Wednesday nights.

But it was April and a beautiful spring day. It made Carmen feel restless. She told me that the afternoon was so lovely, she would walk down the hill and meet me at 6:00 p.m. on the corner next to that famous old telephone booth, the one where Frank Sinatra Jr. telephoned his dad for his ransom when he was kidnapped back in the sixties. That was a pretty sad story, but this one was sadder.

She rang me on her cell at ten minutes to six. “Hey, it’s me.” She had a rich contralto voice with just the slightest trace of a Southern accent. It would be impossible not to know it was her, especially as her smiling face flashed up over her name on my cell phone screen. “Are you almost ready? I’m leaving now and heading down the hill. You won’t be late now, will you?” And she laughed her sultry, musical laugh, because she knew I couldn’t wait to get away from Wendy.

She also knew Wendy would be listening to my side of the conversation, so when I said, “Don’t worry, I won’t be late,” she knew I meant it.

So at 6:00 p.m. on the dot, I said good-bye to Wendy, hopped into my little red Mazda, and scooted down the hill to the corner and pulled up beside the empty telephone booth. But Carmen was nowhere in sight. There was a low guardrail around the small parking area that we always sat on when we had to wait out there, but no one was sitting there now. There was no one around at all. All I could see was the scrub brush and the empty telephone booth, and all I could hear was the sound the cars made on the 405 freeway nearby, a sound like the ocean. I called Carmen’s name, just for the hell of it, but my voice was lost in the smog and the sound from the freeway. No one answered.

I called her cell, but it went straight to voice mail. That was odd, I thought, but maybe she was talking to her mom or something. I texted her and then gave myself five minutes before I tried calling again. It was the longest five minutes I’d ever spent. I sat on the guardrail and listened to the traffic and stared at my phone, praying for it to ring. I watched the clock slowly tick over; then I dialed Carmen’s number. “Pick up, pick up, pick up,” I kept saying, but it went straight to voice mail again. I left a message anyway. “Hi, Carmen, where are you? I’m down at the phone booth. Call me back!”

Then I rang Wendy, just in case we had our wires crossed somehow, and Carmen had stopped at Wendy’s instead. Wendy picked up right away, completely surprised by my call. “Hi, Lucy, did you forget something?”

“Oh, I was wondering if Carmen showed up at your house.” I tried not to sound concerned.

“Wasn’t she going to meet you at the phone booth?”

“Yes, she was, but she’s not here yet, so I thought maybe she stopped by your house on the way down.”

“No, she’s not here. She probably got held up by her mom or something. I’ll call you if she shows up here.”

No, I thought to myself, of course Carmen wouldn’t be there, but where was she?

I called her home phone. Her mom picked up after about ten rings, already three sheets to the wind.

“Hi, Mrs. Caruso, is Carmen there?”

“No, dear, isn’t she with you?”

“No, she was going to meet me down on the corner by the phone booth, but I guess she’s just late. I thought she might still be at your house.”

“She left here fifteen minutes ago.”

That was when I really got worried. “Oh well, I guess she must have stopped to talk to somebody. Bye, then.” I said cheerfully and hung up, but I was overcome with fear.

There had to be something wrong. Carmen and I had met at this phone booth countless times. Where could she be? I suddenly felt as if my heart was on fire, and my lungs forgot how to breathe. I walked around the little parking area in front of the guardrail and scanned the brush along its edges, but I didn’t see anything. Everything seemed peaceful and ordinary. A warm breeze carried the drone of the traffic, but nothing else, nothing that would explain where Carmen was.

I got back into my car and drove slowly up the hill, calling and texting Carmen the whole way and searching the hedges and lawns of every house I passed. There was no sign of her. She had disappeared. It took all my strength to keep from crying, but I decided to go straight to her house, just in case something weird had happened and she’d gone back home for something she’d forgotten. Maybe she had left her phone in the bathroom. That was possible.

I zoomed into their driveway, scrambled out of the car, and ran through their little gate and up the steps. Mrs. Caruso answered the door before I had even pressed the doorbell. She looked mystified, but I could see she was beginning to sober up.

“Has Carmen come back?”

“No, honey, I’m sure I would have heard her.” She held the door open, and I walked into their familiar foyer. “I don’t understand, dear. She’s always with you.”

“I don’t understand either, but maybe she came back for something, and you didn’t hear her come in. Have you looked in her room?” I started running down the hall to Carmen’s room, yelling her name, with Angela following close behind. I burst into her room. “Carmen?”

But her room was empty, her bed made tidily with its mauve-and-black comforter. I checked her bathroom, but she wasn’t there either.

“Oh, honey, she’s not here. There’s no one else in the house at all.”

Angela sat on the edge of Carmen’s bed and watched me as I tried calling her cell phone again. Once more, it went straight to voice mail, and this time I knew for certain something was really wrong.

I found out later they had thrown her cell phone out of the window almost as soon as they had her in the car. The police would find it a week later in a ditch full of old Coke cans and used hypodermic needles about half a mile from the telephone booth.

My fear must have gotten through to Angela, because she suddenly laid her head in her hands and started to cry. “My poor child, my poor child…,” she kept repeating over and over.

“We have to call the police,” I told her. “I’m going to do it now.” And I stood by the bed and called 911—my mom had made me set it on speed-dial in my phone. It took me a while to get through to the right department. And then it took me a while to get through to the idiots on the end of the phone. They didn’t believe it was an emergency. I had to get Angela to speak to them, to convince them this wasn’t a schoolgirl prank, that this was a completely out-of-the-ordinary situation, and it didn’t look good.

They finally put her through to Missing Persons, but the officer Angela spoke to said there was nothing they could do right then, that we would have to wait for twenty-four hours before they could file a missing persons report. Angela hung up the phone, and we looked at each other in disbelief. We both knew waiting was useless.

I sat down on Carmen’s bed next to Angela. Then I called my mom. She was home, thank God, and she picked up right away. “What’s the matter, Lucy? You sound like you’ve been crying.”

“I think something has happened to Carmen. She was supposed to meet me down at the phone booth after I finished at Wendy’s, but she’s not there, and she’s not answering her phone either.”

“She’s probably gone back home for something. Don’t worry.”

“No, she hasn’t. I’m there now. With Angela. She’s not here either. She isn’t anywhere. We called the police, but they say there’s nothing they can do. We have to wait for twenty-four hours before they’ll even file a report. I’m so worried.” I began to cry again. “Will you come over here now? We need you.”

“Oh, of course I will. I’ll be right over.”

My mom was a shrink. Maybe she would have some magic words that would make all this worry go away. All I knew was that I didn’t want to leave Carmen’s house. And who knows? Maybe my mom could come up with a plan. She knew how to handle cops. Maybe she could get them to take us seriously.

Angela stood up then, swaying a little, and walked to the door, more slowly than I had ever seen her walk. “Well, I had better put the kettle on,” she said, “if we’re going to have company.” As if this was going to be just a pleasant social call.

Even then, I knew something terrible had happened to Carmen, and there wasn’t going to be a happy ending. I could feel it in my stomach and I could feel it in my heart.

There was an exit from the 405 freeway that came pretty close to that corner where the telephone booth was. Anyone could have seen Carmen standing there in her little black dress. She would have looked like an easy target. She was an easy target.

I stayed where I was, sitting on Carmen’s bed, and I took another long look at all her things, her jewelry lying in neat little bowls on the dressing table, the photograph from our dance recital pinned up next to the film poster from Mulholland Drive. I breathed in deeply, just to get the scent of her inside me; then I stood up and followed Angela down the hall. But all the while, my heart was beating so slowly I thought it might just stop. I wanted it to stop, but it kept on beating anyway.