For someone who has had thirteen consecutive New York Times bestsellers, including five in a 20-month span, it's not surprising that author Tami Hoag has been hailed "the Queen of the crime story" by the New York Post and "one of the hottest names in the suspense game" by People. Interestingly, Hoag began her career as a romance writer before turning to suspense fiction books with such best selling books as Still Waters, Night Sins, a novel that was made into a television miniseries, and Dust to Dust, featuring homicide detectives Sam Kovac and Nikki Liska. The inspiriation for plot lines in Tami Hoag books often come from her assiduous study of real-life crimes, as well as research into criminology and law enforcement. When asked if the characters in her suspense fiction books are based on herself, Hoag acknowledges that some share her attitudes. She also maintains that she doesn't follow plot outlines, and the killers in her many New York Times bestsellers are rarely decided until the story is well underway. But what is never in doubt is that Tami Hoag books become New York Times bestsellers because of a devoted fan base who consider her suspense fiction books the gold standard. Wherever author Tami Hoag, who has homes in Los Angeles and Palm Beach County, Florida, chooses to write her best selling books, the devoted equestian finds the best way to combat writer's block is to saddle up.
Down the Darkest Road
Once upon a time I had the perfect family. I had the perfect husband: handsome, loving, successful. I had the perfect children: Leslie and Leah—beautiful, brilliant, precious girls. I had the perfect life in the perfect home, in the perfect place. We were one of those sickeningly perfect families with matching monograms. The Lawtons: Lance, Lauren, Leslie, and Leah. The Lawtons of Santa Barbara, California.
And then, as in all fairy tales, evil came into our lives and destroyed us.
I remember when Leslie was small and loved to have us read to her. Fairy tales were the obvious choice. Our parents had read fairy tales to us when we were children. I remembered the books as being filled with beautiful pictures and happy endings. But fairy tales aren’t happy stories. Only from a distance are they beautiful. In reality they are dark tales of abuse, neglect, violence, and murder.
Cinderella is held as a prisoner and treated as a slave in her own family home, abandoned by the death of her father to the physical and psychological torment of her stepmother and stepsisters.
Hansel and Gretel are abducted by a sadistic maniac who holds them captive in the woods, fattening them with the intent of roasting them alive and cannibalizing them.
Red Riding Hood goes into the forest to visit her elderly grandmother only to find the woman has been savaged and eaten alive by a wild animal.
These are fairy tales.
So is my story.
Leslie was—is—our firstborn. Headstrong and charming, a little rebellious. She loved to dance, she loved music.
Who would ever think a person could be tormented by the choice of verb tense? Past? Present? A choice of little consequence to most people, that choice can bring me to tears, to the point of collapse, to the brink of suicide.
Leslie was. Leslie is. The difference to me is literally one of life or death.
Leslie is alive.
Leslie was my daughter.
My daughter went missing May 28, 1986. Four years have passed. She has not been seen or heard from. I don’t know if she is alive or dead, if she is or was.
If I settle on the past tense, I admit my child is gone forever. If I grasp on to the present tense, I subject myself to the endless torment of hope.
I live in limbo. It’s not a pleasant neighborhood. I would give anything to move out, or at least to remove the pall of it from my soul.
I crave some kind of cleansing, some kind of catharsis, an elimination of the toxic waste left behind in the wake of a bad experience. The idea of catharsis sparked me to begin this book. The idea—that by sharing my experience with the world, the poison of these memories might somehow be diluted—was like throwing a lifeline to someone being swept away by the raging waters of a flood.
The catch, however, is that I can’t escape the torrent no matter how strong that lifeline might be. I am the mother of a missing child.
Reprinted by arrangement with Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from DOWN THE DARKEST ROAD by Tami Hoag.
The house stood by itself back off the road in a field of dried golden grass, half hidden by spreading oaks. An amalgam of styles—part Spanish, part ranch—the once-white stucco building was weathered in a way that made it seem a part of the natural surroundings, as if it had grown up out of the earth and belonged there as much as any of the hundred-year-old trees.
The scene was a plein air painting, soft and impressionistic: the golden grass, the dark trees, bruise-purple mountains in the background, and the whisper-blue sky strewn with long, thin, pink-tinted clouds; the small white house with its old tile roof. On the other side of the mountains the sun had begun its descent toward the ocean. Here, the day seemed to have paused to admire its own perfection. Stillness held the landscape enraptured.
Nothing gave away a hint of what lay within the house.
The driveway was a path of dirt and crushed rock with grass and weeds sprouted up the middle like the mane of a wild pony. Falling-down fences the color of driftwood created the lane between two overgrown pastures that had once been home to cattle and horses.
A vintage Woody station wagon well past its glory days was parked at a casual angle near an open shed full of rusted farm equipment. An old Radio Flyer red wagon had been abandoned near the front porch with an orange tabby cat sitting in it, waiting for a ride. On the porch two kittens played peekaboo among overgrown pots of parched geraniums and kitchen herbs. One propped herself up on the screen door and peered into the house, then squeaked and leapt and dashed away, tail straight up in the air.
Inside the house nothing moved but flies.
A horrible still life had been staged on the Saltillo tile kitchen floor.
A woman lay dead, her hair spreading out around her head like a dark cloud. Her skin was the color of milk. Her lips had been painted as red as a rose—as red as her blood must have been as it drained from the wounds carved into her flesh.
She lay discarded like a life-size broken doll—made up, torn up, and cast aside, her brown eyes cloudy and lifeless.
Beside her lay a smaller doll—her child—head resting on her shoulder, face streaked with the last of her mother’s life’s blood.
The flies buzzed. The wall clock ticked above the sink. The telephone receiver dangled near the floor, stenciled with small bloody fingerprints. The last words spoken into it were a whisper still hanging in the air: “My daddy hurt my mommy . . .”
“The victim is Marissa Fordham, twenty-eight, single mom. An artist.”
Sheriff’s detective Tony Mendez rattled off the facts as if unaffected by what he had seen inside the house. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
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