"Kinsey Millhone, you've got competition. This firecracker of a series starter is a perfect summer read. It introduces Fina Ludlow, the in-house private investigator for her family's ethically shaky lawfirm. What starts as a search for her missing sister-in-law uncovers bombshells and twisted family secrets. "
— Entertainment Weekly
The Ludlows are a hard-charging family, and patriarch Carl Ludlow treats his offspring like employees—which they are. But his daughter, Fina, is a bit of a black sheep. A law school dropout, her father keeps her in the fold as the firm’s private investigator, working alongside her brothers.
Juggling her family of high-powered (and highly dysfunctional) attorneys, the cops and Boston’s criminal element is usually something Fina does without breaking a sweat. But when her sister-in-law disappears, she’s caught up in a case unlike any she’s encountered before.
Carl wants things resolved without police interference, but the deeper Fina digs, the more impossible that seems. The Ludlows close ranks, and her brother Rand and his unruly teenage daughter Haley grow mysteriously distant from the family. As Fina unearths more dirt, the demands of family loyalty intensify. But Fina is after the truth—no matter the cost.
This was her punishment. She was sure of that. There was no other explanation for the hell she was in. Being tied up and blindfolded had been bad enough. Then she’d heard the engines come to life and begun rocking against the walls of the small space. That could only mean one thing: They were going somewhere, probably out to sea.
For days she had struggled to remain strong and optimistic, but now she gave in to her fear and sobbed uncontrollably. This was hard to do with tape over her mouth and a blindfold over her eyes, but every ounce of her energy was directed toward her outpouring of despair.
Minutes passed. She didn’t know if it was six or sixty. The engine seemed to shift, and the boat slowed. A loud grinding sound prompted her to tighten her aching back muscles. The noise stopped after a minute, and she heard footsteps overhead.
When they pulled her out of the hole, she struggled to fight them, but it was useless. She was too weak, and they were too strong. Fresh air skipped across her skin, and she felt something like hope for a moment. But the hope died when the heavy, thick chain swung into her shins and around her calves. Hot urine trickled down her leg and raised goose bumps on her chilled skin.
Her arms and legs were cinched together tighter, and she was picked up off of her feet.
Then it was air.
“We can’t find Melanie.”
“What do you mean, you can’t find her?” Fina asked.
“What I said. We can’t find her.”
Fina steered with her right hand and ate a hamburger with her left. She needed a third hand so she could flip the bird to the asshole who’d just cut her off on Storrow Drive.
“What do you want me to do about it? She’s probably buried under a stack of clothes at Nordstrom.”
“Just get over here,” her father grumbled.
The elevator doors slid open to reveal the forty-eighth floor of the Pru, and Fina pushed through the glass doors etched with the words Ludlow and Associates. There were three receptionists behind the enormous granite counter, all thin, young, and pretty. Fina ignored them and followed the hallway through a series of turns. At the end, she found a blond woman she didn’t recognize serving as the gatekeeper outside her father’s door. Fina strode past her and walked into his office, where he was sitting behind his desk in a large swivel chair, his back to the view, a phone pressed to his ear. The blonde flapped into the room, and Carl shooed her away. He shot Fina an annoyed look and gestured to the phone. She shrugged and admired the view; Boston and Cambridge spread out before her, the Charles River a thick snake between the two. The grid of Back Bay looked orderly from this height, belying the disorderly Boston drivers darting through its narrow streets. It was the end of May, but they’d had a few days of heat that made the landscape appear fuzzy and blurred.
Carl Ludlow, Fina’s father, was the king of personal injury lawsuits. He’d built an empire on attorney referrals, connecting the injured and wronged to the people who could squeeze the balls of every insurance company, doctor, and business owner across the land. He once told Fina—with relish—that one of his television ads ran somewhere in the United States every thirteen seconds. In the ads, he stared straight at the camera and proclaimed, “I’m Carl Ludlow, and I can make it better.” Funny, that hadn’t been Fina’s experience growing up.
After a couple of minutes, her father put down the phone, and she plopped down in a leather chair in the sitting area of his office.
“Where are your manners, Fina?”
“I don’t know. Ask my parents.”
Carl was dressed as if he had a nontraditional awards show on the docket—the Grammys, maybe. He was wearing a beautifully cut silk suit in dark blue, which he’d paired with a slightly lighter blue shirt. His tie was a tonal match with his shirt, and bejeweled cuff links winked from his neatly pressed cuffs. His outfit was just this side of flashy, but stylish at the same time. Carl was handsome, in an alpha male kind of way: strong features, slicked-back dark gray hair, an even tan. You could tell from his broad shoulders and thick chest that he didn’t slack off at the gym.
“You called, Father?”
“Melanie is MIA.”
Rand, Melanie’s husband, was Fina’s brother and a partner in the firm along with their two other brothers, Scotty and Matthew.
“He’s coming. Did you finish the Williams investigation?” Carl asked.
“Almost. I’ll have the info to you by the end of the day.”
A decade earlier, Fina had been slated to join the family business as an attorney, but flunking out of law school derailed that plan, for which she was eternally grateful. Carl punished her with a to-do list of menial tasks at the firm, but his strategy backfired when she got nosy and discovered that the most interesting work at Ludlow and Associates was being done by the lead investigator, Frank Gillis. Fina learned the trade from Frank and had taken over his role when he left the firm. Private investigation was an ideal fit for her: She could keep her own hours, roam the streets, and carry a gun.
Rand walked into the room, a phone glued to his ear. He was about five feet eleven, trim, with thick, wavy hair. He looked like a younger, slimmer version of Carl. He had full lips, a family trait, but rarely used them to smile.
“Okay, okay. I’ll let you know.” He tossed the phone onto the coffee table and lowered himself onto the couch. “Patty hasn’t heard from her,” he said, referring to their brother Scotty’s wife. “Any ideas?” he asked Fina.
“Does she have a regular Thursday appointment?”
Rand shrugged. Fina waited and glanced between her father and brother.
“Look, Rand, I know your marriage has been dicey for a while,” Carl snorted. “But she’s still your wife.” For Rand and Melanie, marital drama was like oxygen, and they had flirted with divorce on more than one occasion.
“Remind me why I’m still married to this woman?”
“Beats the hell out of me,” Carl grumbled.
“You can file for divorce the moment she shows up,” Fina said. “That should comfort you.” Rand glared at her. “In the meantime, I need more info.”
Carl leaned back in his chair and motioned for Rand to speak.
“Melanie didn’t sleep at home last night, and she isn’t answering her phone.”
“When did you last see her?” Fina asked. She reached into her bag and pulled out a notebook and pen.
Fina made a beckoning motion with her hand.
“We had a meeting at Grahamson,” Rand said. Grahamson was the pricey private school that their daughter, Fina’s fifteen-year-old niece, attended.
“I assume the meeting was about Haley.” Fina made a note. “Is she in trouble?”
“She’s fine,” Rand replied. “Then Melanie was going to have dinner with Risa.”
Risa Paquette was Melanie’s best friend and had a long history with the Ludlows. She’d grown up a couple doors down from the family and had attended school with Rand. Risa and Rand had lost some of their fondness for each other as they matured, but by that time, Risa and Melanie were as thick as thieves. Risa’s connection to the family was solidified through their tight friendship, and Fina was used to seeing the Paquette family at most Ludlow celebrations and gatherings.
“Wait. Back up. Why were you at the school if everything is fine with Haley?”
Carl drummed his fingers on his desk. He was barely able to conceal his frustration when it came to Haley. The only kid in a family that would have benefited from more, Haley had been spoiled as a young child and had evolved into an entitled, impulsive adolescent. Fina had dragged her out of nightclubs and house parties on more than one occasion and knew that she dabbled in a variety of drugs and boys. Carl seemed to think that he could tame her if only given the chance, but Fina wasn’t so sure. In her experience, teenagers were closer to wild animals than humans.
“There was a misunderstanding with her teacher. That’s all.” Rand and Melanie were the kind of parents who made teaching unbearable. They viewed Haley’s private school education as a business transaction, one in which the customer was always right.
“So Melanie had dinner with Risa?” Fina asked.
“I don’t know,” Rand said, walking over to the window.
“You haven’t checked with Risa?”
“You know I’m not her biggest fan, and the feeling’s mutual. She’s nosy and is always giving Melanie advice—bad advice. I’d rather keep her out of it.”
Fina looked at her father and then Rand. “That’s not going to be possible. I have to figure out who saw her last.”
Rand started to protest, but was silenced by Carl. “Be discreet.”
“Thanks for the tip, Dad. I assume you haven’t contacted the police yet?”
“It’s too early to file a report,” Carl said.
“I realize that, but I could make some calls to see if anyone has heard anything.”
“There’s no point in involving the police unless they’re actually going to do something. As soon as you tell them, it will leak to the press. We’ll look like idiots when Melanie shows up.”
Given their line of work, the Ludlows were disliked by entire populations in the city, including the police and blue-blooded Brahmins. Their wealth and the privileges it afforded were suspect to many, and Carl went to great lengths to avoid bad publicity. If he wasn’t winning a huge settlement or making a donation to a worthy cause, he didn’t want to read about the Ludlows in the Globe or the Herald.
“I don’t want the police involved,” Rand said.
“Fine,” Fina acceded. “What makes you think she hasn’t just taken off to the spa for a few days? She’s done it before.”
“I called her usual place. They haven’t seen her,” Rand said.
“She could be someplace new,” Fina ventured.
“And if she is, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding her,” Carl said impatiently. “Do you want me to call Frank?”
“What? Dad, give me a chance to look before you decide I’m not up to the job.”
“I thought you might want help, that’s all.”
“No, thank you. If I need help, I’ll call Frank myself.” Even though Frank had left the firm and was semiretired, sometimes he worked with Fina as a subcontractor. Fina loved working with Frank, but she resented her father’s implication that she needed her mentor to get the job done. Frank had taught her well, and she managed just fine on her own.
“What about Haley? Has she seen Melanie?” Fina asked.
“I don’t know. I haven’t talked to her today,” Rand said.
“Where is she now?”
“School?” he said.
Fina glanced at her watch. “It’s four thirty. Isn’t school out already?”
Rand shrugged. “So she’s home.”
Fina looked at Rand and blinked. “Rand, you don’t know where your kid is?”
“Really? The spinster aunt is going to critique my child rearing?”
“You’re right, of course. I have to squeeze a watermelon out of my lady parts before I can ask a child-related question.”
Carl threw his hands up. “I don’t want to hear about your lady parts!”
“Great! I don’t want to talk about them. Did you see Melanie after the meeting?” Fina asked Rand.
“No. I was working late, and then when I got home, I worked in my office and crashed on the couch. I didn’t realize she wasn’t home until I went upstairs to shower this morning.”
“Is her car in the garage?”
Fina tucked the notebook into her bag and pushed herself out of the chair. “I’ll be in touch.” She stopped at the door and turned to face her brother. “How are things with you two? Any worse than usual?”
Rand’s face was blank. “Nothing to report.”
Nobody said anything.
“Got it,” Fina said, and left.
He couldn’t bring himself to pack the junk drawer in the kitchen. Everybody has one—the drawer that holds batteries and extra keys, sunglass repair kits and Scotch tape. His also held a hospital ID, a Phillips-head screwdriver, and refrigerator magnets with pictures of sushi. It was all the stuff you always need and never need, but he couldn’t foresee the day when he would wrap a present or bring a remote control back to life. He definitely wouldn’t need the hospital ID. Even if they let him back, who would want to see him?
He left the junk drawer open and wandered into the now empty living room. He slid down the wall onto the floor and stared at the indentations left in the carpet by the furniture.
They had taken everything.
Bev congratulated herself every time she approached the condo. It was a stroke of genius buying a place smack-dab between two college campuses; no one questioned the young ladies who stopped by her place on a regular basis.
She climbed the broad staircase leading to the front door and slipped her key into the lock. Once inside, she followed the hallway toward the rear of the building and let herself into unit 1B. She glanced in the mirror hanging next to the front door and ran a hand through her silver hair. It was layered and fell to her collar, more short than long. Bev didn’t think long hair was appropriate on women over fifty.
Satisfied with her appearance—that frosted apricot lipstick really was lovely—she proceeded into the condo. It was small, but the high ceilings and period details gave the space a sense of airiness despite its square footage. The living room area had a large fireplace and butter-colored walls. Yellow-and-white houndstooth fabric covered the club chairs and pillows on the white couch, and elaborate sconces flanked a large seascape painting on the wall. The bay window overlooked the parking area, but beyond, the green of the Esplanade peeked through. The galley kitchen led to a small bathroom and a bedroom that Bev had set up as an office. The only window in the office looked out on the alley, but Bev was glad for the privacy.
And the setting matched her high-end product: pleasure provided by beautiful, sophisticated women for discerning gentlemen. Bev would have been happy confining the business to the one enterprise and the one office, but these days, Prestige wasn’t paying the bills. At least not the medical bills. Luckily all the new technology in the industry promised a wealth of opportunities, and Bev diversified and headquartered her new endeavors in a larger, cheaper space. She didn’t involve herself in the details of the operation; no need to offend her delicate sensibilities. She knew what was going on in the basement of the main office—every good manager should know what their employees are up to—but she didn’t dwell on it. Instead, she spent her time tweaking her business models and grooming the young ladies who worked for Prestige. She had no interest in the girls who worked for Gratify.
Except, that is, for one.
A couple years back, Nanny, Fina’s paternal grandmother, sold her house in Natick and moved into Fina’s parents’ house in Newton with disastrous results. Fina wasn’t surprised that an eight-thousand-squarefoot house wasn’t big enough for Nanny and her mother, Elaine, to peacefully coexist; Elaine was a challenging personality on her best days. Out of desperation, Carl bought a condo overlooking Boston Harbor and shipped Nanny to the big city. He even provided a highpowered telescope, and she spent most of her waking hours watching the boat traffic in and out of the harbor and the air traffic in and out of Logan. Her floor-to-ceiling windows were the modern-day equivalent of a front porch—minus the interaction with the neighbors—and her purview was more global than local; if British Airways flight 238 to London was running late on any given morning, Nanny knew it.
But Nanny had died six months ago, and Elaine hadn’t packed up the condo. When Fina’s lease ran out on her cramped, furnished apartment in Back Bay, she grabbed a duffel bag and some boxes and made the move.
After leaving Ludlow and Associates, Fina drove home and plopped down at Nanny’s maple dining room table with her phone and her computer and started the search for Melanie. Everybody leaves a trail in their wake as they navigate the world on a daily basis. You fill up your car with gas, which leaves a receipt and maybe a brief interaction with the attendant. You drive through a toll booth, which captures your license plate and transponder number. Maybe you stay home all day, but renew your library books online. It takes work to move through the world undetected.
Fina had an advantage in this search since Melanie wasn’t a stranger. First she left a message for Haley and then called her sister-in-law Patty, who generated a list of Melanie’s friends and their contact info. From those contacts, Fina identified her frequent haunts: the gym, nail salon, favorite stores and restaurants. She left a message for Frank Gillis asking him to keep his ear to the ground, and Rand’s secretary provided credit card and banking information, car registration, and cell phone accounts. Some of this information Fina could track legally, and some required her to dip into the shady world that always operated under the surface of everyday life.
Just like there are people dying in the hospital while everyone else frets about losing those last ten pounds, there’s a world of morally ambiguous and outright criminal activity that is always pulsing and known to few—just the criminals and the cops and attorneys who orbit their world. Over the years, Fina had built up a network of contacts, and she found it useful to tap into those contacts even if the missing person seemed far removed from that world. She’d learned the steps to a weird dance where she provided tips to shady characters and, in turn, they knocked loose helpful bits of information.
Her investigative tentacles unfurled, Fina stripped down to a sports bra and boy shorts and roamed around the living room waiting for her guest. Nanny had been a doting grandmother, and her love for her grandchildren was evident in the plethora of pictures that decorated the condo. There were baby pictures and graduation photos, shots from weddings and other celebrations. Fina didn’t particularly like living under the watchful eyes of her siblings, but so far she’d been too lazy to do anything about it. She walked over to the sideboard and studied one photo in particular. A baby with shiny brown hair and dimples gazed back at her. Josie, Fina’s sister and the firstborn, had died at the age of two and a half, before Fina was born. Fina had been named Josefina after her, and she was supposed to be her replacement, but that didn’t exactly work out. Children were like NASA rockets: You poured money and time into them, but there was no guarantee they wouldn’t veer off course seconds after blastoff.
A knock at the door brought Fina back. It was one of her regular visitors, someone special enough to be on the doorman’s “send him up and don’t bug the tenant” list.
Fina let her visitor in and spent ten minutes bending, walking, and contorting. Milloy, her masseur and best friend, assessed the situation, after which she hopped up on his massage table and he got to work.
The two had become fast friends during freshman year at Boston University while commiserating about their horrible roommates. Like soldiers in the trenches, they traded war stories of stolen breakfast cereal and hairballs in the sink (Milloy), and noisy couplings on the other side of the room (Fina). They had dated briefly, and now Milloy’s ministrations occasionally concluded with a happy ending for both of them. But not always. Whatever happened, happened. Fina liked a friendship that was free of expectations and disappointment, and the arrangement suited Milloy just fine. He liked his life just the way it was.
An hour later, Fina rolled off the table like a wet noodle.
“You’re a miracle worker. Masseur doesn’t do you justice; it makes you sound like a gigolo,” Fina called over her shoulder as she threw on some sweats and went to scrounge up some dinner.
Milloy collapsed the table. “Have you been talking to my mother?”
“Hah! One of these days she’ll come to realize that you’re a healer. I’m living proof.”
In the kitchen, she washed the dirty dishes in the sink and doled out the leftovers she’d unearthed in the fridge. Fina didn’t understand the point of washing dishes, putting them away only to take them out again. Why not wash dishes on an as-needed basis? She wouldn’t have even bothered with dishes, but Elaine had ingrained in her that company called for fancy.
“This place is weird,” Milloy commented when they sat down at the table and started to eat.
“What do you mean?”
“There’s crap everywhere. An archaeologist could dig down through the layers. The first layer is old lady circa 1940, and the second layer is slob circa 2012.” Fina took the same approach to home organization as she did dishes: Why put things away when you would need them again?
“Makes it easier to find things.”
“How’s that?” Milloy surveyed the scene. “It’s a mess in here.”
“Because I can see everything at once. Like there.” She pointed at a small bundle of sheer fabric on the sideboard. “My thong is right there in plain sight.”
“Why would your underwear be on the sideboard anyway?”
“Why wouldn’t it?”
“You could keep your underwear in a drawer like most people do.”
“Who has the time?”
“Everybody, apparently . . .”
While they ate, Fina filled Milloy in on Melanie’s mysterious absence.
“You don’t seem that worried,” Milloy remarked.
“She’s done this before, stomped off to Canyon Ranch in a fit of pique. If I lost sleep every time someone in my family had a hissy fit, I’d be exhausted.” They continued eating and chatted about the Sox. A year in Boston could be marked by its sports teams.
Fina was happy to leave the dirty dishes in the sink, but Milloy insisted on stacking them in the dishwasher and wiping down the counters. He stretched out on Nanny’s blue velvet couch, and Fina entered her notes into her laptop, keeping one eye on the baseball game. The only addition she’d made to the space, other than her clothes and general mess, was a fifty-one-inch TV with a paper-thin flat screen and a surround sound system that rivaled most movie theaters. There was no way she was going to watch sports on Nanny’s old box.
Her phone rang.
“Any luck?” Carl asked.
“Not yet, but I’m on it.”
Fina could hear ice clinking on the other end. “Just find her.”
“Aye, aye, captain,” Fina said to a dead line.
"Kinsey Millhone, you've got competition. This firecracker of a series starter is a perfect summer read. It introduces Fina Ludlow, the in-house private investigator for her family's ethically shaky law firm. What starts as a search for her missing sister-in-law uncovers bombshells and twisted family secrets. "
— Entertainment Weekly
"What starts, in Thoft’s dazzling first novel, as a missing-persons case for Boston PI Fina Ludlow—the search for her sister-in-law, Melanie—swells through layers of familial secrets, lies, and betrayals to something approaching Greek tragedy....Readers will be eager to see more of smash-mouth Fina, a hard-boiled throwback equally comfortable shooting from the hip or the lip."
— Publishers Weekly (starred)
“Thoft’s promising debut introduces a significantly flawed but tough new PI and offers up compelling suspense, while the smooth prose keeps things moving right along….This mystery wrapped in family drama should please fans of contemporary suspense of the more hard-boiled sort.”
— Library Journal
“(Fina) Ludlow has the shrewdness of her parents and siblings but she has compassion, too. Fans of the Kinsey Millhone mysteries will enjoy this engaging debut.”
"LOYALTY's Fina Ludlow is my hero. If I were in a bad spot, I'd want her at my back. Don't miss it."
— # 1 New York Times-bestselling author Catherine Coulter
"In her debut novel, Ingrid Thoft gives us Fina Ludlow, the newest private eye to prowl Boston's mean streets. Fina returns the female detective to the heart of the hard-boiled tradition: hard-drinking, hard-loving, moody. Writer Ingrid Thoft has given her a dysfunctional extended family that rivals the Ewings of Dallas fame, which adds a dimension not often seen in the PI novel."
— New York Times-bestselling author Sara Paretsky
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