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Lost Lake - 2005

The reviews are in!

“Like the lake of its title, Margolin's latest suspense novel is smooth on the surface with tumultuous secrets lurking beneath ... The artful arrangement of the story's episodes keeps the suspense high, and the author fills in the puzzle shrewdly, with small pieces from all over the chronology. The surprises keep coming ... a labyrinthine plot built on twists and surprises.”
-- Publishers Weekly

“Delivers the goods, with plenty of action, suspense, and danger…It’s a mystery why Margolin, the criminal-defense lawyer turned novelist, isn’t at least as big as, say, John Grisham.”
-- Booklist

“Margolin’s eleventh may be his best, with everything a thriller should have.”
-- Kirkus Reviews

It’s a beautiful summer night in Portland Oregon. Ami Vergano, a young attorney and single mother, arrives at her son Ryan’s little league game with their tenant and new friend, Dan Morelli. When the assistant coach calls in sick, Morelli seems happy to help out. But then one player roughly blocks another, and a fight erupts. Before the game ends, Ami witnesses violence that shocks and horrifies her and makes her question everything she thought she knew about Morelli.

On the other side of the continent, in a cheap motel room in Washington DC, ex-mental patient Vanessa Kohler, a reporter for Exposed, a tabloid that specializes in alien abuduction stories, watches a piece on television about the little league massacre and quickly places a call to the FBI. For years she’s been telling anyone who will listen about a vast government conspiracy to conceal a secret military unit headed by General Morris Wingate, a presidential candidate, and for years everyone has dismissed her stories. But when Vanessa sees Dan Morelli fighting, she believes she’s found the key to proving that her theories are true.

Vanessa hires Ami Vergano to represent Morelli, who is charged with attempted murder, and Ami is drawn into Vanessa’s paranoid world. Are Vanessa, a former mental patient, and Morelli, a confessed mass murder, telling the truth about one of the nation’s most respected soldiers and politicians? Or are their charges a product of two sick minds? Ami has to decide who—and what—to believe in Phillip Margolin’s most exciting and surprising thriller since his breakout bestseller, Gone, But Not Forgotten.

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Excerpt from Sleeping Beauty:

Vanessa Kohler had not chosen to conduct the interview with Terry Warmouth at the Cruise On Inn because Warmouth claimed she had been abducted from its parking lot. Vanessa had chosen to speak to the thirty-six year old shipping clerk at the tavern because she could smoke in it without getting dirty looks from her politically correct colleagues and because they served cheap scotch.

Vanessa was a hard drinking, rail-thin, chain smoker with snarled blond hair and pale blue eyes. The forty-five year old reporter paid no attention to her looks and favored baggy jeans and bulky sweaters, unless she was on assignment. Tonight, she’d cleaned up a little and was wearing a black leather jacket over a T-shirt and tight fitting jeans.

Vanessa looked at her watch. It was almost nine and Warmouth said she’d be at the tavern at eight-thirty. Vanessa decided to give her another scotch’s worth of time before heading home. Sam Cutler, her boyfriend, was out on an assignment at some rock concert anyway and there was nothing on the tube. She could think of worse ways to spend her time than drinking in the smoky ambience created by loud country music and raucous pool players.

A sudden cold draft told Vanessa that someone had opened the door. She shifted her gaze from the scarred tabletop to the front of the tavern. A heavy-set, big-haired woman wearing too much makeup was bathed in the red-green light of the jukebox. She cast anxious glances around the bar until Vanessa raised her hand. The woman hurried over.

“Vanessa Kohler from Exposed,” she said as she handed Warmouth her card. The woman’s hand shook when she took it.

“Sorry I’m late,” Warmouth apologized. She sat down and laid Vanessa’s card on the table next to a puddle of beer. “This is Larry’s bowling night, but his car wouldn’t start. He had to wait for a ride.”

“Perfectly understandable,” Vanessa said.

“I couldn’t let him know I was going out. He’d want to know where I was going and who I was meeting. I just hope he doesn’t call from the alley. I’ll be up all night getting grilled.”

She flashed a weak smile, looking for sympathy. It took Vanessa a moment to catch on. She flashed back a smile that reeked of feminine solidarity.

“Can I buy you a beer?” the reporter asked.

“That sounds good.”

Vanessa signaled for the waitress and ordered a pitcher.

“So, Terry, you ready to tell your story?” Vanessa asked when the waitress left.

“Yeah, sure,” she said, though she didn’t sound so sure.

Vanessa placed a tape recorder on the table between them. “Do you mind if I record this so I can report what you tell me accurately?” she asked, omitting the part about the recording being primo evidence whenever a fruitcake decided to sue.

Warmouth hesitated then said, “Sure, okay.”

Vanessa pressed RECORD.

“This is gonna be in the paper, right? With my real name and everything?” Warmouth asked.

“You bet.”

“Because it’s the only way Larry will believe it, if it’s in Exposed. He reads it like the Bible, every week. He says it’s the only paper he can trust.”

“It’s good to know we have such loyal readers.”

“That’s why I called you, on account of Larry being such a loyal reader.”

“Right. So, as I understand it, you’re pregnant?”

Warmouth looked down at the table and nodded.

“You’ve got to speak up for the recorder, Terry,” Vanessa reminded her.

“Oh, right. Yeah, I’m…I got…”

“Pregnant.”

“Right.”

“And this was a surprise?”

Warmouth reddened. “Yeah. I’ll say.” She looked up, her eyes begging for understanding. “Larry’s gonna know it’s not his. We tried like crazy after we was married.” Warmouth hesitated. “You ain’t gonna put this part in the paper, are you?”

“Not if you don’t want me to.”

“Well, don’t. It would embarrass him something awful.”

“What would?”

“The doctor told us I’m okay, but Larry’s sperm don’t swim real fast. I don’t understand all of it, but it made him feel terrible, unmanly, you know. So, he’ll know it weren’t his kid.”

“And whose kid will it be?” Vanessa prodded.

“The aliens.”

“The ones who abducted you from the parking lot of the Cruise On Inn?”

“Yes,” Warmouth answered in a little voice Vanessa could barely hear over the noise in the bar.

“Tell me how it happened.”

“I was here…”

“What night was this?”

“Same as tonight. Larry’s bowling night.”

“So, Larry didn’t know you were out on the town?”

“Uh, no.”

“Were you alone?” Vanessa asked, watching Warmouth carefully when she answered. Her interviewee ducked her head and turned a deep red.

“Yeah, just me,” she said.

“How come you came here? The Cruise On is pretty far from your house.”

“It ain’t so far from work.”

“Been here with some of your pals from work, have you?”

“Some of my girlfriends,” she answered too quickly.

“But that night you were on your own?”

“Yes. And it got late, so I knew I’d have to go so I’d be home when Larry got home. He doesn’t like me going off on my own.”

“Larry’s the jealous type?”

“I’ll say. He’s always going on about how guys are staring at me and accusing me of staring back, when I’m not. It’s sort of flattering, but it can get on your nerves, if you know what I mean.”

“You bet,” Vanessa answered with a nod. “So, tell me about the aliens.”

“Yeah, okay. So I went out to my car, which was over at the end of the lot, and I was just about to open the door when I heard this like humming sound, and I looked up and there it was.”

“There what was?”

“The ship. It was big and spinning and it looked like a saucer, but with lights.”

“Any special color lights?”

“Uh, green, I think. I don’t remember real well. I was pretty shook. But it did look like a lot of those alien ships you write about in your paper. So it was probably from the same planet.”

“Which planet is that?”

“They never said, but some of the other ones who got abducted knew the name of the planet and I bet it was one of those since the ship was so similar.”

“What happened after you saw the ship?”

“Well, that’s where it gets hazy. I do recall a beam of light coming down. But after that it’s like you get when you have an operation and they give you drugs.”

“Some of our abductees have said it’s like a good high.”

“Yeah, sort of like that. You know how you sort of float. Well that’s what I was doing. But I do remember I was strapped down on this table and I didn’t have any clothes on. And this tall one was on top of me.”

“Having sex?”

“I don’t know what they do. I didn’t really feel anything. And then I was back in the parking lot.”

“Naked?”

“Uh, no, the aliens must have put my clothes on.”

“And the ship was nowhere to be seen?”

“No, they must have left after they beamed me back down.”

“Made their getaway before anyone could see them?”

“Yeah, made their getaway,” Terry echoed softly.

Terry was crying. Vanessa switched off the tape recorder. She reached across the table and took Warmouth’s hand.

“Larry’s not going to buy this, Terry. I know you’re hoping he will because he likes my paper, but he’s going to know.”

Terry’s shoulders were shaking and the tears were pouring.

“Who is it? Someone from work?”

Warmouth’s head bobbed up and down for a second. When she lifted her tear-streaked face Vanessa tried to remember if she’d ever seen anyone who looked so miserable.

“But he says it isn’t his,” Warmouth said between gulps for air. “He…He says I must have been sleeping around or its Larry’s.”

“Sounds like a real nice guy,” Vanessa observed.

Warmouth wiped her eyes. “I sure thought he was.”

“So you can’t count on this guy and you can’t tell your husband.”

Warmouth’s had bobbed a yes.

“What about an abortion?”

“How would I pay for it? Larry has all the money. If I asked him for some I’d have to explain why I wanted it. He’d ask for receipts if I said I was buying something. He watches money like a hawk.”

Vanessa made a decision. She reached across the table and picked up the business card she’d handed Terry Warmouth. Then she wrote a name and phone number on the back of it.

“You call this doctor, Terry. You tell her I told you to call. I’ll clear it with her first thing in the morning, so call from work around ten. She’ll take care of you.”

“But, the money…?”

Vanessa squeezed Terry’s hand. “Don’t worry about the money. Just get this taken care of.”

“I really want a baby,” Warmouth sobbed. “I don’t know if I can do it.”

“That’s up to you. You don’t have to. Think about it. I know it’s a hard choice.”

Vanessa paused. “You could leave Larry, you know. Leave him and have the baby.”

Warmouth looked stricken. “I couldn’t leave Larry. I love him.”

“Would he accept a child that wasn’t his?”

“No, never! He’d kill me. Being a man, it’s real important to him. If he knew I cheated…and I love him. I don’t want to leave him.” She looked like she was in agony.

Vanessa stood up. “I’m going to call my friend in the morning. Then it’s up to you.” She dropped some money on the table and slipped the tape recorder back into her purse. “Come on. Let’s get out of here.” Vanessa smiled. “I’ll walk you to your car. Make sure the aliens don’t get you.”

Terry Warmouth didn’t smile back. “I wish they would,” she said.

Vanessa drove from the tavern to the offices of Exposed to finish a story about a giant rat that was stealing slum babies. The rat was supposed to be as big as a German Shepard. Patrick Gorman, Vanessa’s boss, had made up the story at the weekly staff meeting and assigned Vanessa to write it. Vanessa thought it was disgusting and had protested, finally getting Gorman to agree that she could substitute Terry Warmouth’s alien abduction tale if it panned out. But it hadn’t.

When Vanessa checked in with the security guard he told her that no one else was around. That was fine with Vanessa. After her meeting with Terry Warmouth she craved solitude. Warmouth had exhausted her. Needy people always made Vanessa uncomfortable, which was odd considering her line of work. Supermarket tabloids lived off the exotic and psychotic tales told by people who had a tough time fitting into the real world. The people she interviewed talked themselves into believing in another Earth where the strange and wonderful occurred with enough frequency to let them escape from the demands of their drab existence.

Vanessa fixed herself a cup of coffee and toiled alone in the third floor newsroom, accompanied only by the night noises that haunted the moldy old building where the minions of Exposed worked for low wages and no prestige. Vanessa’s salary at Exposed was ridiculous but she didn’t need the money. What she did need was access to press credentials and data banks so she could proceed with her research.

*****

Vanessa lived in a red brick row house in Adams Morgan. The area off 18th Northwest was funky and crowded with Ethiopian restaurants, jazz night clubs, bars and pizza parlors. Most nights, a rowdy college crowd packed the streets. Vanessa enjoyed the chaotic scene and her apartment was far enough from 18th to muffle the noise.

It was well after midnight when Vanessa opened the door to her fourth floor apartment. She could afford better but had lived in Adams Morgan for years. Her neighbors kept to themselves and there was plenty of room for her research materials, which were mostly in the spare bedroom but had started to spill out into the living room. They consisted of the Warren Commission Report and books critical of it, tomes on the Roswell cover-up, and magazines with stories about CIA covert operations and the like. If a book or article alleged a government conspiracy Vanessa had it or had read it.

Vanessa flipped on the lights. The sight of a parcel with a return address from New York made her heart sink. The package was sitting on a small table in the foyer where Sam had stacked the mail. Vanessa carried it into the living room. She switched on the lamp beside the sofa and sat down to the groan of aged springs, placing the package on top of the magazines and days old newspapers that littered her coffee table. She stared at the package for a minute before ripping off the brown paper wrapper. A letter lay on top of her manuscript, covering the title and her assertion of authorship. Vanessa stared at the letter before lifting it up. It was signed by an editor at Parthenon Press who was supposed to be open to new ideas and not afraid to challenge the establishment. He had published a number of controversial exposes of government cover-ups. A book of his about a Marine who’d blown the whistle on a training maneuver that had left two recruits dead had just fallen off the bestseller list.

Dear Ms. Kohler: I read Phantoms with great interest. Unfortunately, I have decided that your book is not right for Parthenon Press. I wish you the best of luck placing your manuscript, Yours Truly. Walter Randolph

Vanessa squeezed her eyes shut. She wanted to fling the manuscript across the room and break things. She fought to keep her rage in check and tried to dissipate her bad energy by pacing the worn carpet that covered her hardwood floor. Something was going on here. It could be as simple as the fact that her press credentials were from Exposed instead of The New York Times. Of course, that level of credibility was closed to her. No reputable paper was going to hire someone with her history. But Vanessa was certain that something darker was at work.

Vanessa was a superb researcher and she had ferreted out Walter Randolph’s unlisted home phone number as part of her background check on the editor when she was deciding to whom she would send her book. Vanessa dialed a Connecticut number and waited while the phone rang several times.

“Hello,” answered a voice groggy with sleep.

“Walter Randolph?”

“Who is this?”

“Vanessa Kohler.”

“Who?”

“Phantoms. You just rejected it.”

“It’s one-thirty in the morning, Ms. Kohler,” Randolph answered, fighting to sound civil. “Would you please call me at work?”

“Who got to you?”

“I will not continue this discussion at this time.”

“Was it my father? Did someone from the Government visit you? Did they threaten you or buy you off?”

“I rejected your book because of insufficient documentation, Ms. Kohler. There was nothing sinister about the decision.”

“You don’t expect me to believe that?”

Vanessa heard a sigh on the other end of the line. “I don’t know how you got this number, but a call at this hour is a violation of my privacy. I am going to end it in a moment, but, since you insist on knowing, not only have you failed to verify your rather dramatic claims, but your past makes it highly unlikely that any publishing house would give them any credence.”

“My past?”

“Your mental history, Ms. Kohler. And now I must hang up. I have a hard day tomorrow and I need my sleep.”

“Who told you I was hospitalized, who told you that?”

But Vanessa found herself talking to a dead line. She slammed down the phone, redialed and got a busy signal for her efforts. She was about to throw the phone at the wall when the front door opened and Sam Cutler walked in.

Vanessa was five-ten. Sam was a hair shorter but solid where Vanessa verged on anorexic. He wore a tight black T-shirt under a windbreaker and jeans. He was carrying his camera equipment. Sam’s brown hair was receding up front but he had the eyesight of a bird of prey and was one of the few men Vanessa knew who’d never worn glasses.

Sam stopped in his tracks and Vanessa froze, arm cocked, the phone a moment away from destruction. Sam saw the manuscript on the coffee table.

“A rejection, huh? I was going to hide it until I came home. Then I got a call and forgot.”

The arm holding the phone dropped to Vanessa’s side. “Someone got to the editor. I’m sure of it.”

“How do you know that?” Sam asked, keeping his voice neutral because he knew that the slightest sign of doubt where this subject was concerned could push Vanessa into an uncontrollable rage.

“He knew I was hospitalized. How did he find out about the sanatorium if someone didn’t tell him?”

Sam crossed the room. He knew better than to try for physical contact now. He hoped that standing close would calm her.

“Maybe there was something in the papers,” he suggested. “Your father is big news right now. There might have been a sidebar about the family.”

Vanessa shook her head vehemently. “They want to discredit me. There’s no way they’re going to let this get out.”

“Who is ‘they’?” Sam asked, knowing that he was treading on thin ice.

“My father, the military, the CIA. You don’t think they were all involved? Once the truth gets out, Watergate will look like a tea party. They can’t afford to let the public get even I hint of what I know.”

Sam had been down this road before. “If that’s true, why hasn’t anyone tried to kill you?” he asked calmly. “Why haven’t they stolen your manuscript? You haven’t made a secret of what you’re doing. Everyone knows about your book. You even tried to interview that guy at the CIA, and nothing happened.”

Vanessa glared at Sam. “You don’t understand how they work. They could steal my manuscript, but they know I’d just write the book again. And killing me would let everyone know that I was telling the truth.”

“Everyone who? Come on, Vanessa. I respect what you’re trying to do. I know you think you’re right, but most people who know about this…Well, they don’t believe it. And the CIA could make your death look like an accident, if they wanted to. You know that. No one would think you were killed to suppress your book. They’d think you were the victim of a hit and run or had a heart attack or something like that.”

Vanessa slumped down on the couch. “You’re right,” she said. She sounded very tired. “Randolph is right.” She closed her eyes and laid her head back. “I’m an ex-mental patient and I don’t have a shred of evidence that proves that the Phantoms ever existed. They’re all dead. There never was much evidence, anyway - just a few sheets of paper, and they’re gone.”

“You look all in, babe. Let’s get to bed. You’ll think better in the morning. You’ll figure out what to do when your mind is clear.”

Vanessa’s hands curled into fists and her eyes snapped open. There was a vivid anger sizzling in them.

“He’s going to win, Sam. He always wins and he’s going to win again. I can’t stop him, I never could.”

“Ah, Van,” Sam said, dropping onto the couch beside her and wrapping an arm around her shoulder.
Vanessa’s rage disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. She laid her head on Sam’s shoulder and started to cry.

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