CA 50.7 Little Girl Lost (4 page)

BOOK: CA 50.7 Little Girl Lost
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He hadn't meant to say the last part. The agony in her eyes tore at the unhealed wound in his heart. But what he said was the truth.

She stood there, looking at him for a moment that seemed to last forever. "She is here and I intend to prove it. If you get in my way, I will never forgive you, Paul.” She gestured to the door. "Just go and let me do what I have to do. I don't need you to rescue me."

He wanted to be angry. They'd been through this so many times. But he couldn't. Whether it was her fragile condition or the photo.. .or her relentless belief in miracles, he couldn't just turn his back and walk away. He had tried that this past year, and it hadn't worked.

He lowered himself back onto the lumpy sofa in hopes of gaining a reprieve. "Tell me about this anonymous source—this man who contacted you. How did he find you? What was his reason?"

For a moment he wasn't sure if she would give him any more information. She chewed her bottom lip the way she always did when she weighed a situation. Then she sat down on the coffee table facing him.

"He's a very wealthy older man. He's been donating large sums of money to research for years. Recently he lost his wife and his only child, a grown daughter. All that loss so close together made him rethink some of the things he'd helped finance in the name of research."

Paul worked at keeping an open mind. This was sounding more and more like a scam. "How is our child related to his epiphany?"

"She and six other children were taken from their families for a top-secret research project. The masterminds behind the project were convinced the only way the research would lead to what they wanted out of these children was if they were separated from their parents. No interference. Apparently similar projects in the past had failed for that reason. So they took the kids—like they were pieces of property that could be replaced or would scarcely be missed."

"Why these particular kids?" He wanted to believe she was on to something. He really did. But she had to face the facts.. .their little girl was likely dead.

"I saw the other children, too, Paul. They're all there at this Wallace Institute just like he said and they're like Sophie."

"By 'like Sophie,' I assume you mean autistic?”

Jen nodded. "Remember we suspected she was. All the testing wasn't complete but even her pediatrician felt she might be."

"And you believe the tests put her on the radar of this radical or fanatical research group?"

"That's what he told me." She shrugged. "What else could it have been?"

"Jen." Paul struggled to keep his voice calm. "I want you to think about how this sounds. I've seen bad movies with a better plot."

"I thought the same thing at first," she admitted. "But then I did my research. The six families he told me about all lost an autistic child the same year we did. All the children just disappeared. And the police found nothing. Not a single clue to this day."

Now she had his attention. "Your source could have found that same information in his own search. He could be using coincidence to lure you into some sort of trap." The idea that some bastard would do this made him want to tear something apart. But what would be the motive? And why lure in someone like Jen from all the way across the country? Unless, of course, her searching put her on this guy's radar.

She stood. "I don't have access to an age-progression specialist, but I'm not blind to the similarities. This can't be coincidence." Jen returned to the cupboard and then came back to sit in front of him with a stack of photos and folded up pages she'd printed from the computer and, obviously, stashed in her coffee can.

"These are the photos he gave me." She passed him the small stack. "I saw all six of those children as well as our daughter today."

Paul shuffled through the photos, then waited for her to continue.

"These are the photos I found on the internet of the families who lost their autistic children that year. See." She put a corresponding recent photo of the child with the printed image from seven years ago. "There are similarities beyond coloring. The jawlines, the noses. Some look undeniably like one parent or the other."

He couldn't refute her assessment. She was right. He rested his gaze on hers. "Where is this contact now?"

She shook her head. "I don't know. After he got me an alias and the interview at the institute, he disappeared."

"He set up an alias for you?"

She nodded. "ID, everything."

What the hell was going on here? He leaned forward so that she couldn't miss the urgency in his eyes or his voice. "I need you to start at the beginning once more. Take your time, Jenna, and tell me everything."

Chapter Four

Hogan's Diner, 8:17 p.m.

He'd gotten her to eat, that was a step in the right direction. She'd given him the story from the beginning with a timeline and, most importantly, names and descriptions.

Paul had sent a text to Ian Michaels, the second in command at the Colby Agency, to see what he could find out about this Reginald Waters, Jen's seemingly benevolent benefactor, and Dr. Stuart Hancock, the Wallace Institute administrator.

She sipped her iced tea, her dark eyes searching his, before asking, "You think I'm crazy, don't you?"

God Almighty. How did he make her understand he cared more for her than any words would convey? He understood that awful place she was in and wanted to help her more than he wanted to draw in his next breath. He did not for one second believe she was crazy. Desperate, devastated, yeah. But not crazy.

"Jen, I know you're not." The diner was far from crowded and the booth they'd chosen gave a bit of privacy, so a frank conversation was possible. Still, he couldn't help glancing around before he continued. "I think someone, this Waters character for one, has an agenda that maybe isn't as simple or as pure as you'd like to believe."

She moved her head side to side, frustration setting her lips in a grim line. "I knew you'd see it that way. All those years in Homeland Security jaded you, Paul. You don't see the good anymore, only the bad or the potentially bad." Her gaze shifted to the row of windows that fronted the establishment. "Can we go now? I have to get ready for tomorrow."

The one thing that was crystal clear in all this was that Jen was determined to go through with her plan. Part of him wanted to take whatever steps necessary to put an end to this charade here and now.. .but the image of the little dark-haired girl in the photo kept haunting him.

She could be Sophie. The hair and eyes
—his
hair and eyes—were undeniable. And the nose definitely resembled his mother's. Emotion constricted his throat. He refused to set himself up for that kind of emotional damage. The odds of that little girl being theirs were slim to none. Whatever this Waters guy had set in motion, Paul had to ensure that Jen didn't lose more than she could recover this time.

He'd almost lost her last summer. And though she would soon officially be his ex-wife, at least she was alive. If he could somehow make her see that Sophie was gone, maybe she would wake up and he'd have his wife back. He cursed himself. Selfish bastard. But he missed her. He wanted Jen to see that it was time to return to the land of the living...to him.

Since there was no way on earth he could change her mind, he would protect her through this and maybe, just maybe, she would finally see what he'd accepted more than a year ago.

Their little girl wasn't coming back to them.

"You mind showing me the home where you met this Reginald Waters?" The longer he kept her cooperating, the more time he would have to figure out how to talk her into accepting his help on this one. Without her cooperation, it would be very difficult to protect her.

She searched his face, looking for the deception. Her trust was another casualty of last summer. "Why are you doing this, Paul? We both know you don't want to. And we also know you think I'm a fool for believing I can find Sophie. Why pretend otherwise?"

He turned his hands up. "I'm here. I might as well do what I can, right?"

"Sure." Jen slid from the booth and headed for the door.

He dropped a couple of bills on the table and did the same. Hustling to catch up with her, he managed to get the door for her exit. The bell jingled overhead and a "Y'all come back" from one of the waitresses followed them into the parking lot. The sun had taken the spring day's warmth with it as it disappeared behind the mountaintops. Reminded him of the cool Southern California summer nights.

Part of him wished they were back in L.A. and that he could turn back time and change the events of that spring seven years ago. If he hadn't answered the call from work that evening.. .if Jen hadn't agreed to dinner and a movie with her girlfriends after three years of being a totally focused mom. If Deidra hadn't fallen asleep in the patio swing after that second glass of wine.. .Sophie wouldn't have been taken from the fenced yard in a neighborhood where nothing bad ever happened.

Jen waited at the passenger-side door of his SUV. Paul shook off the haunting memories and hit the unlock button. She had the door open before he could reach her. He needed to get back on his game. She deserved his full attention. His boss, Jim Colby, had insisted Paul take as much time as he needed to work this out. But he wasn't sure there was enough time in the world to make this right.

"When did you trade in your car?" she asked as he slid behind the wheel.

"Last winter." He chuckled, remembering the season's first big snowstorm. "Chicago winters are way different from southern Cali's."

She made a sound that was almost a laugh, and his heart reacted. With every fiber of his being he understood how tired, how very desperate she was.

"We can drive by the address he gave you. Even stop and knock, if you'd like. It can't hurt. If Waters is not there, he's not there."

"I told you he's gone." She stared out her window, determined to ignore him and his suggestions.

"Then it won't matter if we do a drive-by."

Rather than argue further as he'd feared she would do, she gave him the directions. The home wasn't far from the diner. A few short minutes into the downtown area's historic district and the lavish Franklin Street address came into view.

"The lights are on." Paul eased the SUV to the curb on the opposite side of the street. He shut off the headlights and the engine.

"I didn't say no one would be here," she said, her voice weighted with frustration and all the other emotions no doubt eating at her. "I said he wouldn't be here. He's gone."

"So you've talked to whoever is here now?" She was going to make every step a challenge. He understood the battle. This wasn't about reason or rational thinking. This was about desperation. She didn't want to see what he saw so clearly.

Someone had chosen her for a painful game or maybe even a deadly one. Jen spent a lot of time on the internet surfing for missing children and unsavory crime patterns. With the websites she visited, she was an easy victim of cyber stalkers with more than emptying her bank account in mind.

Granted, this current business seemed a bit bizarre even for some of the whack jobs who scanned the net looking for trouble.

"Yes," she relented. "I spoke to a Mr. and Mrs. Lanier, they own the house. They've lived here for thirty years. They were away in Australia all last month. They don't know any Reginald Waters and his description matched none of their friends or associates."

The silence thickened around them. Paul didn't have to point out that if that aspect of the man's story had been a scam then the rest could be, as well.

"If he lied about his identity," she said softly, breaking the awkward silence, "then how does Dr. Hancock know him? Why would the administrator of the Wallace Institute offer me a job based on the recommendation of a man who doesn't exist?"

Anger lit in Paul's gut. How could anyone take advantage of another's grief? The idea made him want to tear this bastard Waters apart. But he had to find him first, and finding him had to wait until Paul was certain Jen was safe.

The dark-haired image of a ten-year-old girl flashed through his head. Yeah, and he wanted to know about those kids. Maybe that little girl wasn't his and Jen's, but she belonged to someone. All of them did. Maybe Jen wasn't the only one who needed his help.

***

Jenna unlocked the door, but before she could cross the threshold into her run-down duplex, Paul was ushering her aside. He was doing that protector thing again. The thing that had failed their daughter. Neither of them had been able to protect Sophie.

After he'd flipped on the lights and searched all eight hundred square feet of her place, he turned and gave her the okay. Just a single firm nod that assured all was as it should be. And why wouldn't it be? She had nothing here worth stealing. The only personal

belongings she'd brought with her were clothes and one framed photo of her baby. Her gaze instantly sought the five-by-seven resting on the bedside table.

Mommy will bring you home, baby.

Clearing her mind, Jenna closed the door and locked it. She was exhausted and needed to mentally prepare for tomorrow morning. Dealing with any more of Paul's doubts and questions was not on her agenda.

Might as well get this part over with. She squared her shoulders. "Thank you for coming to check on me." His gaze searched hers, disappointment already flickering in his. "But, as you can see, I'm fine. I have a lead and I'm following it. I'm unarmed and sober. You can go back to Chicago now. I've got this under control."

He planted his hands on his hips in that stance that warned he intended to argue the point.

"We've been through this," she said before he could launch that campaign. "We don't see this the same way. I have to do what I have to do and so do you."

He gave a vague nod of acknowledgment. "If you're determined to do this, at least let me do some checking up on this Wallace Institute, Hancock and this Waters guy."

"I've done my research." She'd been married to Paul Thompson way too long to not have a few tricks up her sleeve. She knew the right ways to do an internet search. The best calls and visits to make to gather information available to the public, like the hall of records at the courthouse. "I know all I need to."

BOOK: CA 50.7 Little Girl Lost
13.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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