Chapter 7.21 – Dire

Author’s Note: Events of this post take place after 7.19 but before 7.20
Sunset Valley mourns as the news spreads that one of its most beloved celebrities, Hope Barimen, has died.
 
Faith and Jimmy remember Hope with a small family gathering at their house. Normally, such an event would have taken place at the estate. It was built when Hope was just a teen to symbolize the Barimen’s stewardship of the land. The building still stands, but it is now a vacant reminder of how quickly reversals of fortune can happen.
 
Hope’s story represents its own reversal of fortune, but not of the monetary sort. She progressed through childhood without her father, who had gone missing while working an undercover operation overseas. Her mother tried, but could not contain the spirited, young bottle-rocket. And her grandfather had just simply given up after suffering one too many losses during his lifetime. It was a unique combination of circumstances that afforded Hope a lack of boundries. And it eventually led to trouble for the outgoing and friendly girl.
 
Hope discovered that love and lust are easily confused, and they can often have equally powerful effects on a sim. She also learned that where love was food for her hungry soul; lust was a drug that only fed a wanton craving for more. She would have succumbed to the constricting grip of her unchecked desire. But she was saved by the miraculous appearance of a sim she had once described as a guardian angel. Curiously, in the end, the product of her indiscretion had produced a love unlike anything she had ever known. Her newborn daughter, Faith, had opened her eyes and changed her life.
 
Hope’s passing punctuates a frightening turn of events for the remaining Barimen family. Amber has not checked in from her overseas trip for days, and she missed her scheduled flight home this evening. Upon reviewing her itinerary, her parents find that she left one hotel, but failed to check into the next. For all practical purposes, she has just simply vanished. So, at a time when the family should be focused on their grief over losing Hope, they are instead focused on finding Amber.
 
Ricky Nava has managed to piece together her movements prior to leaving on her trip. He knew his niece would have covered her tracks as a force of habit. But it seems that she paid extra careful attention to obscuring herself on this overseas trip. Ricky curses to himself as another telephone lead in Europe comes to a dead end. If he does manage to find her alive, he’s going to rip her a new one.
 
It has been days since her last known location. Spending time tracking her movement overseas via telephone will only waste valuable time, so Ricky decides to focus on breaking down her last few hours in Sunset Valley. Perhaps he can find some clue as to where she may have gone.
 
Maybe it’s his lucky day, or maybe Amber’s. Either way, he hits the information jackpot. Not only does he learn that Amber had visited the Beachfront Bar before leaving, but the bartender informs him that the sim she was visiting with, is now sitting alone at one of the tables.
 
He is an ordinary looking guy, and appears to be quite a bit older than Amber. By the looks of him, he’s had a few drinks and is fairly upset about something. He spots Ricky, then hesitantly motions him over to sit. It is not terribly surprising to Ricky that this guy knows who he is. He is, after all, the Chief of Police. What Ricky does find surprising, is the detailed knowledge he seems to possess about Amber’s family; himself included. And even that is only mildly surprising, compared to the tale that unfolds over the next two hours.
 
Ricky and Wendell arrive at the vacant Barimen Estate later that night. In the weeks before he left on her trip, Amber’s parents had accepted her grandparent’s offer come live with them. They had urged Amber to join them, but she refused. It is still somewhat depressing for Ricky, to see the once palatial home reduced to little more than a deserted landmark. But if Wendell is correct, they may be able to find Amber’s computer and some clues.
 
How Amber was able to hide the fact that she is the brilliant mind behind author Barbi Meerman, is a wonder to Ricky. All the clues were there for him to put together, of course. Her books were well crafted variations of the Barimen-Jones saga. Even the name Barbi Meerman was a dead giveaway. It is a clever anagram of Amber’s name. He gives credit to his neice for managing to keep the alter ego without bragging. If Wendell had not told him, he would never have figured it out.
 
The publisher’s theory, is that Amber has already begun writing her new book. If they can find any part of what she has already written, it may lead them to where she has wandered off. Wendell had also shared something else he was hesitant to divulge. He figured it might be relevant, and he was right. Amber had left Wendell a text message just yesterday. She apologized for leaving him at the beach, and told him not to worry about what he said. She understood what he had been trying to tell her, and promised she would talk with him when she returned to Sunset Valley.
 
The important part was not what she wrote, but the time she sent the message. It came days after her missed hotel reservation. If Ricky had not already been furious with Amber, he would now be absolutely furious. This proves to him that she purposefully strayed from her travel plan with intent to conceal her whereabouts. What he doesn’t know, is why.
 
It seems strange to Wendell that such a huge place could be so completely empty. The Joneses had literally stolen the shirt off of the Barimen’s backs, forcing them to sell anything of value to pay their legal bills. What little remained had gone to finance Ben and Lisa’s new music release. In the spirit of positive thinking, Wendell comments that their job of searching the home should be fairly simple. Ricky appreciates the sentiment, but finds himself oddly annoyed by the remark.
 
Amber’s bedroom is the only place in the entire building containing furniture. Even then, it is just a bed, a desk, and a chair. She had evidently been dressing herself from the pile of clothes lying on the floor by her bed. It seems almost absurd, really, living so minimally inside such an enormous structure. Ricky finds Abmer’s computer and collects it for the forensics guys to look at. Satisfied, he prompts Wendell to leave. But the publisher hesitates, verbalizing his suspicion that they are missing something important.
 
Wendell talks through his thought process with Ricky. Amber is incredibly smart about stuff like this. The computer was strategically placed to be found if somebody came looking for something in her absence. This leads him to believe there is something else that she does not want to be found. And if she wanted to hide something, it would be concealed in plain view.
 
Wendell limps throughout the estate, attempting to channel Amber’s fictional sleuth. Remembering Amber’s passion for marital arts, he asks Ricky to show him where she practices. Like all other rooms, the dojo is empty of any furnishings. Only a worn, wooden training dummy and two blocks of stone remain. Or perhaps not. Wendel eyes a dull-looking frame hanging on the wall by a straw mat. It is hanging eye-level for a sim who might be kneeling, or possibly meditating. It is mounted on a wall opposite the entrance. Wendel limps to the spot, noticing that it has been chosen for its lack of window lighting. Hidden in plain sight.
 
The man depicted in the painting exudes a charisma of his own. And Wendell can almost sense that he desperately wants to speak. Gently lifting the portrait from the wall, Wendell feels a bulge behind the frame. In his excitement, he fumbles and drops the portrait, shattering glass and breaking apart the old, wooden frame. Normally a detriment, his clumsiness may have just become the single most important asset in the quest to save Amber’s life. Because tucked neatly under the broken frame, had been a neatly folded stack of papers.
 
Wendell requires only a few moments of reading Amber’s notes to understand what she has done, and to also understand that the situation is far more dire than anybody could have imagined.
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