Authors: Debra Webb
For the first time in seven years Jenna understood something about Paul's feelings. He really believed this was his fault.. .his and his alone. "You weren't the only one who was wrong." She squeezed the big hand holding on to hers. "It's time we stop laying blame and find our daughter. She's out there, Paul. I really believe I've found her this time."
"And if you're wrong?"
Misery swept through her like an icy wind. "I guess I'll have to deal with it and move on to the next lead."
"We'll do it together."
His arms went around her and they held each other. It felt good. It felt right.
And, for now, it was enough. But with every part of her that made her a woman, Jenna wanted more.
Soon, she promised herself. Soon.
May 5, 8:50 a.m.
Paul's words kept echoing in her head as she drove to the institute that morning.
Be careful, Jen. I don't want to lose you again.
Her heart fluttered at the memory. After the way he'd held her last night and then his desperate words this morning, Jenna understood that he hadn't wanted to sign the divorce papers. He'd really thought it was what she wanted.
What she'd actually craved was his attention. She realized now that she had needed him to see how badly she wanted his help. Tragedy had torn them apart and she hadn't figured out how to put their relationship back together. Filing for divorce had been a cry for help he hadn't recognized. And neither had she, not the way she understood now.
As determined as she had been to come to Alabama and follow this lead, a part of her had known that going it alone was less than brilliant. But she'd felt it was the only way.
A smile trembled across her lips. He'd come without her asking. Like her own personal knight in shining armor.
How had her mother found out where she was? That part still bothered her. She hadn't told Deidra. Not unless she'd really lost her mind as well as her memory and simply didn't remember telling her.
Jenna had a few more minutes before she arrived at the institute's gate. She decided to call her mother; solving at least one mystery surrounding the past couple of days would be something, anyway.
Deidra answered on the third ring. Never the first or the second. Jenna was pretty sure she identified the caller before taking the call, which took a couple of rings.
"Jenna, where are you? Did Paul find you?"
In an attempt to be a good daughter for a change, Jenna filled her mother in on things here and Paul's arrival—at least the parts she wanted her mother to know. Since it was early, her mother's head would be as clear as anyone's—anyone who'd downed a bottle of wine most nights for years on end. "You think this child really is our Sophie?"
Her mother's voice trembled and the sound put another crack in Jenna's already battered heart. "I think it's a strong possibility. Why else would Mr. Waters have come to me? There's just no other logical explanation."
Paul had other ideas. Like maybe the whole business related to Jenna and not to Sophie. He feared that somehow Jenna was going to be some sort of scapegoat, but that scenario didn't add up to her. Reginald Waters had been too convincing. The Colby Agency had discovered additional information about the institute that indicated its activities were not on the up and up. The house of cards was about to come tumbling down. That only made Jenna even more convinced she was on to something here.
"You could be right," Deidra agreed. "I was really thankful Mr. Waters told me about what you were doing so I could let Paul know. This was much too dangerous for you to do alone."
Wait. "Did you say Mr. Waters told you I was here?"
"He sure did. He called me and practically insisted I get you some help down there. He said you might be getting in some serious trouble and you needed Paul's assistance."
"Waters told you to send Paul?" That made absolutely no sense. If he thought Jenna needed backup, why not tell her up front? He hadn't mentioned anything like that.
"He strongly suggested I contact Paul. Yes. That was the phrase he used. I won't ever forget. He scared me half to death."
Jenna slowed for the turn to the institute's gate. "Mom, I have to go. I'll call you as soon as we know something." It felt surreal having this conversation with her mother after all this time. Their relationship had been strained for so long that even the most ordinary conversation typically turned into a screaming match.
"I love you, Jenna. You and Paul bring our girl back home, please."
"Love you, too, Mom. We'll do our best."
Jenna ended the call, her heart squeezing, her eyes burning. She reached for calm as she slowed to a stop at the guard shack. She blinked, wiped at her eyes to ensure they were clear. The crossing bar that blocked unauthorized traffic from entering the premises was in the raised position. Strange.
She peered at the guard shack but no one moved inside as far as she could see. No one stepped out to check her ID.
"Hello!" She waited for a moment and still no one appeared.
Mumbling to herself, she put the vehicle in Park and got out. "Hello?" The eight-byeight room that made up the guard shack was deserted.
Jenna climbed back into her SUV and drove to the personnel parking area behind the building. The lot was empty.
Her heart lunged into her throat. They couldn't be gone. Not this fast.. .not
She didn't bother closing the car door. She may or may not have shut off the engine. Getting inside the institute was the only goal on her mind.
The personnel entrance was locked. Jenna pressed her face to the glass and looked for anyone who might be inside. She saw no one.
Okay, think, Jenna!
There was always a receptionist in the main lobby who checked everyone in. Jenna ran around to the front of the building where towering glass doors allowed her a full view of an empty lobby and a vacant receptionist's desk. The doors were locked.
That was when the panic set in. She banged on the doors and screamed at the top of her lungs for anyone who might be inside. Nothing. No sound, other than the echo of her rants. Nothing moved. Even the air around her felt still and forbidding.
Jenna beat on the door a few more times before realizing the effort was futile. They were gone. Waters had disappeared. Now the Hancocks and the children. Her heart fractured.
What did she do now?
Call Paul. Where was her cell? She felt her trouser pockets. She must have left it in the car.
She ran for the vehicle.
As she suspected, she had left the engine running. She grabbed her phone and hit the necessary buttons to make the call. He answered on the first ring.
"You have to come over here." Her voice shook hard.
"What's happened, Jen?"
She heard the fear in his voice, as well. "They're gone. Everyone. The employees.. .everyone."
"I'm on my way."
Jenna meant to say goodbye or something thoughtful, like
but her attention snagged on a second-floor window on the rear of the building, above the personnel parking lot. Something was written on the glass, but the letters were faint and difficult to make out, as if someone had written them with crayons, tracing over and over the large letters in hopes of ensuring they showed up. If not for the closed drapes providing a contrasting background, she wouldn't have seen the message at all.
That window looked out from one of the classrooms. Had no one been watching the children before they were taken away?
What if the children were still inside? Surely they wouldn't have been left alone.
Fear tightened like a noose around her neck. Unless they were no longer of any use to those who ran.. .and maybe they were a liability.
She was going inside.
Before her mind could ask how, an image formed there.
She could do it.
Jenna drove around to the front of the building, snapped her lap belt into place while tucking the shoulder restraint behind her. Then she set her foot against the accelerator. Just before impact, she ducked down in the seat.
Her car crashed through the glass doors and came to a rocking halt.
When she was sure it was safe to raise her head, she shut off the engine and gingerly made her way out of the car. Bent metal and shattered safety glass lay scattered on the shiny marble floor.
As soon as she was clear of the mess, she started to run. She burst into the stairwell and bounded up to the second level. She slowed at the door that blocked her path to where the children were housed and schooled, and she realized something else was missing.
She had driven through the front doors and the security alarm hadn't sounded.
She reached for the keypad to enter the code but it didn't work. There were no lights either. Had someone cut the power to the building?
"Damn it." She fiddled with the handle and the door opened.
Stunned but not about to question her good fortune, she rushed into the corridor and went in search of the children. She checked the viewing windows of the classrooms that faced the rear parking lot until she found the right one. But the only child in the room was Diamond and she was restrained in a chair and gagged.
Jenna rushed into the room and started to remove the gag.
"It's okay, sweetie," she said softly. She wanted to ask where the other children were but she didn't want to upset the girl. With autistic children it was important to remain calm. The disruption to her routine and being restrained would already have made her incredibly upset.
Those blue eyes, wide with fear and confusion, stared up at Jenna as she removed the gag. "Let me get you loose and we'll go find the other children," she assured her softly.
Don't let her see the fear, Jenna.
The little girl screamed.
Jenna stepped back, ignored the panic that tightened in her chest.
"You really are quite the bothersome little bitch," Dr. Hancock said cruelly, his words directed at the little girl.
Jenna whirled to face him. Diamond stopped screaming and Jenna wondered if it was because her attention had settled on the weapon in the doctor's hand, as hers had done.
"This entire exercise was utterly pointless," he continued, speaking to the child.
"What're you doing?" Jenna demanded.
Hancock flicked a glance in her direction. "What I should have done weeks ago when the little bitch started her rebellion." He leveled the weapon on the child.
Jenna jumped in front of her. "Why are you doing this?" She wasn't sure how close Paul was, but if he didn't get here soon, they were in big trouble. Hancock had obviously gone over the edge.
"She can tell you all about it on the way to hell."
The girl screamed. More screams echoed from the corridor. The other children!
"You should go while you still can," Jenna urged. "I called the police when I got here and found the gate unsecured and everyone missing. They'll show up any minute now."
Hancock snickered. "It takes fourteen minutes for the police to get here. By that time you and all these freaks of nature will be dead and the institute will be gone." He made a sweeping motion with his free hand. "Boom. Nothing but bits and pieces left. And I will be gone. The authorities won't know for months who was killed in this tragic attack by a devastated mother who had been wrong one time too many. You saw a photo of Diamond on the internet and you grew obsessed with her. Tsk-tsk, what a horrible thing you've done."
Jenna wanted to ask why she had been targeted, but there was no time. When he checked his wristwatch she knew the assessment was all too correct.
"Seven minutes. Time to go." He sighed. "Since I can't trust you to stay put, this — " he shook the weapon at her "—is necessary."
Jenna stared straight into his eyes. If she was going to die she needed to know one thing. "Is this little girl my daughter?"
He laughed. "I guess he told you that, didn't he?"
"Who?" Jenna feigned confusion.
"The man who recommended you." He tightened his grip on the weapon. "I should never have trusted him. I guess you'll never know if what he told you is the truth."
Hancock leveled his aim. Jenna braced for the impact of the bullet.
A blur of movement and then a blast. Jenna blinked, then watched as two bodies rolled on the floor.
She quickly pulled the duct tape free from Diamond's wrists and ankles, biting her lip in empathy, until the little girl was free. Then Jenna held out her hand. The child stood and looked from Paul, who had restrained Hancock on the floor, to Jenna. To Jenna's surprise, she reached out and took her hand.
A new wave of terror hit Jenna in the gut. "Paul! There's a bomb. It's going off in under seven minutes." She relaxed her grip on the child's hand. She didn't want her freaking out.
"The other children are in a room down the hall," Paul explained in a rush. "Get them out of here. I'll take care of Hancock."
"Hurry, Paul," Jenna urged as she rushed out of the room, the little girl in tow.
The other six children stood huddled in the middle of one of the classrooms Jenna had looked into when she'd arrived. Apparently they had been hiding.
She motioned for them. "Come with me, kids. We have to go outside." If she took them out the back entrance, they wouldn't see her car parked in the front lobby.
The children stared at her without uttering a word or moving.
She didn't have time for this, but it was the nature of the beast when it came to autism. "Please," Jenna urged, "we have to hurry."
No one moved.
Something Hancock had said to her reverberated in her brain. She turned to the girl at her side. "Will you help me? We have to go now."
A moment passed and then the child released Jenna's hand. She walked over to the huddle, reached for one of the children's hands and then led the group out of the room.
Jenna hurried to get ahead of her so she could guide them in the right direction. She glanced back once before exiting the corridor and prayed that Paul would be coming soon. She didn't know how he'd gotten here so fast, but he'd saved their lives.