Authors: Lynette Eason
Tags: #dpgroup.org, #Fluffer Nutter
randon’s phone rang as he turned onto the Bradleys’ street three hours later than their original appointment. When he’d called to tell the Bradleys what had happened to Sonya at the hospital, Don Bradley had expressed his concern, but made it clear that he didn’t care how late it was; he and his wife wanted to see Sonya. As long as she felt up to it.
She’d assured him she did.
Brandon grabbed his cell on the third ring. “Hello?”
“Got some information for you.” Hector Gonzales, his partner. Brandon had called him shortly after the attack on Sonya and asked him to help with the investigation. His boss, Sergeant Christine Adams, had given them the green light.
“Let me have it.”
“We reviewed the hospital security video footage. Basically, it tells us nothing. Everyone who entered looked like they were supposed to be there. There’s no one running away except for when he pushed his way out of the locker room and disappeared in all the chaos.”
“Down the stairwell that was right next to the locker room,” Brandon muttered.
“But how did he get in the locker room without anyone noticing?”
“He wore a wig. We found it in the trash on the next floor. Holt has it and will test it for any stray hairs from the attacker’s head. I’m hoping for some DNA to match up to any suspects we’re able to haul in. I think I’ve found the guy in the security video. He wore that nondescript brown wig and was dressed in blue scrubs.”
“Just like everyone else in the building.”
“And the other cameras?”
“Not much. If I’ve got the right person, on his way out, the figure was dressed in black with a hood pulled up obscuring his face. If that’s not him, we’ve got nothing. I’ve checked and double-checked the footage of people leaving the hospital shortly after the attack, and other than that one possibility, there’s nothing. I mean, people are leaving work and they carry large bags. He could have stashed a bag somewhere, went to it and stuffed his clothes in there.”
“Or he ditched them.” Brandon paused as he thought. “Okay, so the attacker either got rid of the clothes and left looking totally different or...”
“...he didn’t leave right away,” Hector said.
“But he might have still tossed the clothes.”
“I have a team still going through the trash.” He sighed. “And I’ll have the hospital send out an emergency email to be on the lookout for blue scrubs in a trash bin.”
“With orders not to touch, but call us immediately.”
“Exactly. I’ll be in touch.”
He hung up and found Sonya watching him. He filled her in on the conversation and she nodded. “I didn’t expect it to be very easy to catch this person.”
“No, not easy. But not impossible. No one is perfect, and as soon as he makes a mistake, we’ll get him.” He tapped his fingers against the wheel, his brain whirling. “Are you sure it was a man?”
She blinked at him. “Yes, pretty sure. If it was a woman, she had a pretty deep voice.” She rubbed her head. “And when he had me held against him, he felt muscular. Like he worked out. His chest was like a brick.” She paled and swallowed hard. “I couldn’t move, he was so strong.”
He could see the memory shook her. Brandon parked in front of the Bradleys’ house. He reached over to grasp her fingers in his. “It’s okay. You’re safe now.”
She nodded. “Right. For now.” Her eyes flicked to her surroundings. He’d pulled to a stop at the top of the horseshoe-shaped drive. Brick with white columns, the front porch ran the length of the home. White rockers and a swing gave it a comfortable appearance. Homey. The manicured yard glistened from the sprinklers that had shut off as they drove up the drive.
Their wealth didn’t take him by surprise. He’d done his homework, but Sonya’s openmouthed stare said this wasn’t what she’d expected. “They have money.”
“A lot of it.”
“Ann’s family owns a textile business that’s employed by the government. Don works for her father. Their company supplies a lot of the thread that makes uniforms for the armed forces.”
“Yeah. What’s really wow is that they live very much below their means.”
The front door opened and a man with sandy-blond hair stepped onto the porch. If he had any gray, Brandon couldn’t see it. Don Bradley’s wide smile clearly displayed his pleasure that they’d arrived. The sun still hung low in the sky, but in another fifteen minutes it would be dark.
“I’m ready.” He saw her pull in a deep breath, and then she opened the door and stepped out.
Brandon did the same. Deep breath and all.
Mr. Bradley headed for them, hand outstretched. “Brandon Hayes?”
“Yes, sir. Nice to meet you.”
The men shook hands and Brandon was impressed with the man’s firm grip and eye contact. “Thanks for coming.”
And then he turned to Sonya. The two locked eyes and studied each other. Brandon swallowed hard.
Even he could see the resemblance.
Same dark eyes, same blond hair. Or maybe he was just seeing things. Just because they both had blond hair and dark eyes didn’t mean she was the man’s daughter.
Don Bradley held out his hand to Sonya, who took it. “Hello, Sonya.”
“Hello, Mr. Bradley.” Her voice shook slightly and Brandon wondered if she was seeing the same thing he was. Possibly.
“It’s Don. For now. Come in, come in.” He waved them toward the front door. Brandon gripped the brown bag that held the baby items Sonya had given him when she’d first hired him and followed the two of them inside.
The foyer held a grand crystal chandelier that illuminated the area. The staircase to the left led upstairs. Don led them into the living room to the right. “Have a seat. My wife should be here soon. She went to the gym to work out.” He shook his head. “World War Three could break out and she’d still be at the gym. She never misses her workout. She texted and said she was about ten minutes away.” He eyed the bag in Brandon’s hand and swallowed. “Is that it?”
He nodded. “Might be best for me to take a look before she gets here anyway.”
Brandon handed him the bag.
The man clutched it and took a deep breath. A fine tremor ran through his fingers. He looked up. “You know, I never gave up hope that she would come home. I figured anyone who would kidnap an infant wouldn’t kill her.” His Adam’s apple bobbed. “So, I’ve always believed she was still alive, still out there. We finally adopted. We have a son who’s twenty-two. He just graduated college last year and is working as an accountant in Texas.”
So, if she was Heather, she would acquire a brother. Brandon’s eyes met Sonya’s. Her lashes fluttered as she blinked back tears.
Then Don’s face hardened. “We’ve had people who claimed to be Heather, you know. People who’ve actually knocked on our door and said they were our daughter.” He cleared his throat. “Can you believe there are people who go looking for unsolved missing-children cases? Children who belonged to wealthy families and were never found? They take that case, research it, learn it and build an entire story about how they are the missing child?” He shook his head. “It’s unbelievable. We investigated each and every one, of course, but they were all frauds.”
“That’s awful. I’m so sorry,” Sonya whispered.
He nodded and opened the bag. When he pulled out the brown Gucci baby tote he gasped. His eyes widened and he stared at Sonya. “It’s her bag.”
Brandon frowned. “I told you it was.”
“I know, but I mean, you really have it. I didn’t expect—” He spun it around. “And the pen mark is even there,” he whispered. “I was writing a check and juggling Heather at the same time. My pen slipped and I hit the bag.”
The front door opened and a woman in workout clothes stepped into the foyer. She dropped her gym bag on the floor and slipped off her tennis shoes. Her ponytail swung around her head. Brandon thought she looked amazing for being in her mid-fifties. In fact, she really didn’t look a day over forty.
She turned to see them in the living room and gave them a smile. “Hello.”
The smile faltered as she caught sight of the bag in her husband’s hands. She paled and actually swayed. Brandon moved fast and caught her by the upper arm. She let him lead her to the sofa and help her sit. And still she never took her eyes from the bag. “How?” she whispered. “Where—”
“My mother had it in her closet,” Sonya said.
The woman’s stunned gaze turned to Sonya. “And you think you’re Heather?”
“Actually, no. I don’t.”
That seemed to take Mrs. Bradley by surprise. Her perfectly arched brow lifted and some of the shock slid from her face. “You don’t?” Suspicion clouded her gaze and she scowled. “Well, that’s a new approach.”
“Ann—” her husband cautioned.
She ignored him. “Do you know that you’re not the first person to come to us and claim to be our long-lost daughter?”
Sonya swallowed hard. “I’m sorry. But I’m not claiming to be your daughter. If anything, I’m here to prove I’m not. My parents were wonderful and I had a lovely childhood, but ever since I’ve started looking for Heather Bradley, I’ve been attacked and threatened.”
“What?” Mrs. Bradley jerked. “What happened? Attacked and threatened by who?”
Brandon filled them in on the incidents. Mrs. Bradley paled even more if that was possible. “Oh, dear. That’s simply awful. And you’re sure all of that happened because you’re looking for our daughter?”
Sonya shrugged. “The person was pretty specific about how I needed to stop looking for Heather Bradley.”
Mrs. Bradley lifted a hand to rub her forehead. “This is giving me a headache.” She sighed and brushed away a tear. “Of course, no one wants Heather found more than I do, but I’m afraid you’re wasting your time. We’ve looked for her for years and have come up with nothing. What makes you think you can find her now?”
Sonya stared at the woman and pondered her question before it hit her. “Because someone who knows we’re looking for her feels threatened enough to lash out and tell us to stop.”
The room fell silent. Mrs. Bradley nodded and ran a hand over her messy ponytail. She picked up the bag she’d dropped upon entering the foyer. “I’m going to take a shower. I can’t deal with this right now.” Her voice cracked and she cleared her throat. “I’ve tried to accept that she’s gone, and every time someone brings her up, it just opens up that old wound. It’s like pouring alcohol over it. And I can’t do it anymore. I just can’t,” she whispered and ran up the stairs.
Sonya winced. “I’m so sorry.”
Mr. Bradley shook his head and she caught a glimpse of his own tears before he blinked hard. “It’s all right. I suppose I shouldn’t have gotten her hopes up by telling her you were coming. I should have just found out for sure before saying a word.” He looked at Sonya. “But you do look a little like me. I wonder if there’s a reason for that or if it’s just dumb luck.”
Brandon clasped his hands in front of him. “There’s one way to find out.”
Mr. Bradley lifted a brow. “How’s that?”
“DNA testing. We can test you and Mrs. Bradley against Sonya or if you have something of Heather’s from when she was born. A lock of hair or—”
Mr. Bradley shook his head. “No. I don’t have anything.”
“Yes, we do.” Mrs. Bradley had returned and now stood at the bottom of the steps.
“What?” Don asked.
“A lock of hair taken the day she was born.”
“But—” he started to protest, and then his eyes widened and he nodded. “I know what you’re talking about. I’ll get it.”
“No. I’ll do it.” She jogged up the stairs.
“I can take it over to my buddy at the lab and see what he comes up with,” Brandon said to Mr. Bradley. “It may take some time depending on what he’s working on now, but it would give us a definite answer as to whether it matches Sonya.”
“Fine. We’ve waited this long. I don’t suppose a few more days—or weeks—will matter much.” He looked toward the stairs and frowned. “Let me check on her. Whenever she starts going through Heather’s baby book, she gets so upset.”
“That’s understandable,” Sonya murmured, sympathy etched on her face.
“I’ll be right back.” He ascended the stairs and Sonya met Brandon’s gaze.
“Maybe this was a bad idea,” she murmured.
“No, I don’t think so. If you’re Heather then you need to be reunited with your family. If you’re not Heather, I’d really like to know why someone doesn’t want her found.” He paused. “I’d actually like to know that regardless.”
“I would, too. But did you see Mrs. Bradley’s face? This is really painful for her.”
He drew in a deep breath, then let it out through his nose. “I saw. And I hate it for her, but—”
“Here we are.” Mr. Bradley stepped into the living room and held out a small envelope. He glanced up the steps. “I gave it to them, dear. Go on and take your shower.” Sonya heard receding footsteps. “Ann isn’t coming back down. It’s simply too much for her.”
Brandon took it, held it gently. “I’m sorry this is bringing your pain back.” He tapped the envelope. “This isn’t all of it, is it?”
“No, no. I kept some.” He gave a sad smile. “Heather had a head full of hair when she was born.” He studied Sonya’s head. “Lighter than yours. But your eyes—” He held out a hand as though to touch her, then fisted his fingers and dropped his arm. “Your eyes—”
“What about them?” she asked.
“It doesn’t matter.” He forced a smile and Sonya exchanged a confused look with Brandon. He shrugged. Then Mr. Bradley blurted, “Your eyes look just like hers.”
“Do you have a photo?”
“Of course.” He walked to the mantel and pulled a small photo from behind another picture. “We don’t keep pictures of Heather on display. It’s just too painful for my wife.” He handed the picture to Sonya. “That’s Heather. She’s sleeping in that one. If you want one of her awake, I’ll have to go find an album.”
Sonya stared at the picture, sucked in a breath and let it out slow. The baby looked a lot like some of the pictures she’d seen of herself as an infant. Of course, a lot of babies looked similar when that young. She forced a smile and handed the photo back. “Thank you.”