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Authors: Elle Cosimano

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BOOK: Nearly Found
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Reece guided me down a corridor of white walls and fluorescent lights that felt entirely too familiar, past small square rooms. Hard, claustrophobic spaces, like confessionals. Like the room where I’d first met with Lieutenant Nicholson last spring.

Do you know the person who wrote these ads, Miss Boswell?

A jarring, hostile voice rose from one of the rooms: “But I filed a missing persons report!”

“At eighteen, she’s legally an adult. You can file all the reports you want, but I’m not under any obligation to open a search unless you can give me a reason to believe she’s in immediate danger.”

The yeller lowered his voice. It was scratchy and familiar. Lonny Johnson.

“She hasn’t answered her phone in three days,” he said. “She was supposed to call. She didn’t. Her mother hasn’t seen her. She left with a . . . guy. No one knows where she is.”

“Does her mother know who she left with?”

“No.”

“Did she mention who she might be meeting? Do you have a name?”

“She doesn’t ask their names.” Lonny’s reply was low and angry, ground between clenched teeth.

“Let me see if I got this straight. She left with a buyer and never came home with your cut of the drug money. So now you want us to go out and find her for you.”

No answer.

“Lieutenant Nicholson made you a pretty sweet deal back in June. If he finds out you’ve been dealing—”

“I’m not dealing,” Lonny snapped.

“No, you’re having your girlfriend do it for you—”

“It doesn’t matter what she was doing!” he shouted back. “She’s missing. That’s the point. She’s just a kid. Someone should be out looking for her.”

“She’s an adult,” the officer corrected in a firm tone. “An adult with a history of substance abuse. She’s probably shacked up with some other dealer across town. This kind of thing happens all the time—”

“This is bullshit!” A chair screeched and toppled over. “If she lived on the golf course in Belle Green, I bet you would be out looking for her. But a girl from Sunny View is a waste of your time?”

I froze, pulling Reece to a stop. Sunny View was a small neighborhood. Forty trailers or so. Someone was missing, and chances are, it was someone I knew.

“Thanks for nothing.” A dark figure stormed through the open door. In one hand Lonny clutched a photo. His other hand scrubbed hotly over his white-blond hair. He muttered to himself as his Doc Martens ate up the hall. Then he looked up and his steely eyes met mine.

Lonny’s gaze warmed as it moved, top to bottom over me. It dropped a few degrees by the time it got to Reece. “Look what the cat dragged in,” he growled, coming to a stop in front of us. Lonny tucked the photo of a blue-haired girl in his pocket, but not before I got a look. I knew her—her hair used to be bleached blond, but her kohl-black eyes hadn’t changed. She lived a few doors down from Lonny. Went to his parties. Hung out on his porch. She’d been partying with Reece—had been flirting with him—the last and only time I’d really bothered to notice her. That was almost three months ago, before school let out for summer break.

If Reece remembered Adrienne Wilkerson, he didn’t let on. He reached for my hand, his fingers brushing mine, and I instinctively moved away from the acrid taste of his hatred for Lonny.

“Boswell,” Lonny said, tipping an imaginary hat to me. “Be careful out there,” he said. And then he was gone.

The “sweet deal” the officer had just mentioned to Lonny was a trade—keep the secret of Reece’s identity as a narc and stay out of trouble—in exchange for dropped drug charges.

“I hate that guy,” Reece said.

“He’s not so bad.” He could have left us in that cemetery to die. He could have let TJ kill us, but he didn’t.

“Yeah, well, he’s not so good either. I don’t trust him.”

“He promised Nicholson—”
Nicholson
. I checked the time on my phone. “We should hurry. I’m going to be late for my meeting.”

We rounded the corner and I took a moment to compose myself outside the lieutenant’s office, straightening my internship papers and smoothing out my hair. It was tangled from the bike helmet, and there was a tiny stain on my T-shirt. I should have worn the clothes Gena bought me, but there hadn’t been time to change.

“Miss Boswell. Are you going to come in, or are you waiting for a formal invitation?” Lieutenant Nicholson spoke in the same gruff voice that had made me bristle the first time we’d met.

I took a deep breath and walked into his office. Nicholson looked over the rims of his reading glasses, toward Reece.

“How was your first day across town, kid?”

“Fine,” Reece answered.

“Officer Delgado says she filled you in on what we’re looking for. Think you’ll have something worth sharing by next week?”

Reece leaned back against the wall. “I’m working on it.”

Nicholson turned to me.

“Officer Delgado says you want to work in the lab?”

“Yes, sir.” I cleared my throat and stepped forward. My face flushed hot. “I was hoping for an internship in forensic science.”

I handed him my paperwork and he thumbed through it. “Is this GPA for real?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What’s that SAT score mean?”

“It’s almost a perfect score, sir.”

I watched as he scrutinized my transcripts and my mother’s signature of consent.

“We’ve never offered an internship to a high school student before, and quite frankly, I’m not sure why we’re offering one now, except that Officer Delgado felt strongly enough about your qualifications to send the request up the chain.” He tapped the papers with end of his pencil, thinking. “I have to ask you one thing before I put my name behind this. Background checks are standard procedure for anyone who’ll have access to sensitive information. Have you had any contact with your father in the last five years?”

I swallowed, my throat suddenly dry. “No, sir. I haven’t had any contact with my father since he left.”

Nicholson looked at Reece. Then at me. Then he picked up a pen in his stocky fingers and signed his name. My breath rushed out.

“Your orientation is on Thursday. Be at the forensics lab at four o’clock. Take these forms with you. Doc Benoit will be expecting you.” The lieutenant slid a lanyard containing a card key and an ID badge across the desk. Unlike Reece’s card, this one had a logo on it . . . a microscope over a star. A lump tightened in my throat. The badge bore my name, and the lanyard said “Virginia Department of Forensic Science.”

The lieutenant extended his hand. When I shook it, his touch was uncertain and slightly acidic.

“Make us proud, Boswell,” is what he said.

But in my head, all I heard was,
Nearly, don’t screw this up.

3

A
T 3:53 ON
T
HURSDAY AFTERNOON,
I stood in front of the forensics lab and ran my key through the card reader, the way I’d seen Reece do to get into the police station a few days ago. Nothing happened. I swiped the card again.

“You might want to turn it over,” said a voice behind me. I turned to see a young guy, probably not much older than I was. He didn’t look like a lab geek. His hair was too long. He pushed it from his eyes to look me over, starting at my white button-down and khaki pants. He raised an eyebrow. “You must be the new kid.”

Kid? I scrutinized his faded jeans and his untucked Star Wars T-shirt, then I noticed the lanyard draped over it.

“Raj Singh. Lab technician,” he said, noticing the direction of my stare.

“Leigh Boswell. Intern,” I replied cautiously.

Raj Singh, lab technician, juggled a thermos and a lab coat in one hand, and swiped his ID with the other. A lock snapped and he opened the door, bracing it with an elbow. “I’d shake, but . . .” He shrugged, grinning as the door started to shut between us.

“Do you know where I can find Dr. Benoit?” I grabbed the door and slipped in behind him.

“Follow me.” Raj walked in long, bouncy strides, pointing things out with a jut of his chin. “Bathroom’s down that hall. Vending machines and break room are to the left. Supply closet’s around the other side, but you’ll need a key. Veronica can hook you up. She’s upstairs on the Administration floor.”

My new flats were conspicuously slick on tile, making me feel clumsy and off-balance. I scrambled to keep up. “Sounds like you’ve been here a long time?”

“Since I graduated last spring.”

I inched forward, trying to catch another look at his face. As if he could feel me trying to guess whether he meant high school or college, he clarified, “BS in Forensic Science from George Mason. I’m taking classes in the mornings. Working toward my master’s.” Raj interrupted himself, tipping his chin toward a set of double doors. “Deliveries come in there. The Fridge is down that hall too. But Doc should be in the Bone Locker this afternoon.”

I fell back a step. “The Bone Locker?”

He laughed. “Come on. I’ll show you.”

Raj stopped at a door marked “OSSUARY—authorized personnel only.”

“Here, let’s try your card this time and make sure it works.” I swiped my key, but nothing happened. Raj took it from me to study the magnetic strip at the back. “Hm. Sometimes they crap out for no reason. I’ll take it upstairs while you meet with Doc and see if I can get you a new one.” He used his own card and popped open the door. “He’s in the stacks.” Raj pointed into a cavernous room with rows of floor-to-ceiling shelves. When I turned around, he was already gone.

The door clicked shut and the room was eerily quiet, the sound echoing back at me from the dim corners where the dome lights didn’t quite reach. I called down the empty rows, “Dr. Benoit?” The hard floors seemed to magnify the sterile, cold feel of the place.

“Third stack from the left,” a voice came back to me. “Femurs. Just past the clavicles.”

The stacks were full of cardboard boxes and plastic containers. All marked. Numbers, dates, body parts. I snuck a glance into a clear plastic bin and two empty eye sockets stared back at me. A skull. Not the bright white flawless kind that hung from a hook in the biology lab at school. This one was moss-colored, rough and pitted. Most of the teeth were missing or cracked.

“Don’t worry.” I jumped at Dr. Benoit’s disembodied voice. “They don’t bite.”

I hurried toward the sound, careful not to look at the boxes too closely. At the end of the stack, a man in a lab coat perched on a ladder, digging through a cardboard box. Dr. Benoit withdrew a long rod and handed it down. “Here, hold this.”

I took it, balancing the ladder for him with my other hand while he descended. He appraised me over the rim of his glasses. “You must be Nearly Boswell.” Instead of reaching for my hand, he reached for the rod I’d been holding, then frowned. “Gloves, Miss Boswell. We wear gloves when handling human remains.”

I grimaced at the thing in my hand. Then quickly handed the leg bone over and wiped my palms on my pants.

“Lieutenant Nicholson’s told me quite a bit about you. Some of the most interesting cadavers we’ve ever seen in our lab came out of that case you were involved in. Mr. Wiles had a rather creative spirit.” He was talking about TJ. The people he’d killed. Marcia and Teddy and Posie and Kylie. My eyes drifted to the stacks, to the names on the boxes, and Dr. Benoit pursed his lips, as if only just realizing that the cadavers he was referring to had been my friends.

“Not these.” He cleared his throat, following the turn of my head. “These are all unsolved cases. John and Jane Does. Bits and pieces of remains that have yet to be identified or connected to a specific crime. Like the odd pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. These are the ones we’ve yet to figure out.”

I nodded numbly.

“Every skeletal piece in this room tells a story. From this bone alone, I can make a fairly reasonable estimation of the person’s height, age, and sex. Maybe even how or when they were killed. Do you see this?” He held the bone out for me, and pointed at a set of markings with a gloved finger. “These marks are indicative of carnivore scavenging.”

“You mean they’re teeth marks?” I looked closely at the deep scratches. “Is that what killed him?”

“No, these marks were made postmortem. Probably by a raccoon.” He held the bone closer, letting me look but not touch, gauging my reaction. I peeked into the surrounding bins, curious about the stories they contained. “I don’t normally take on interns. I find it takes a certain strength of stomach to work in this kind of environment. But given your grades, and your experience with . . . well . . .” He held the femur at eye level, and shut one eye, examining the length of it, then he blew off the dust. “Let’s just say I was willing to give you a shot.” Doc Benoit looked over my shoulder. “Where’s Raj?”

“He went to see Veronica about getting me a new card key.” I stared absently at the bone in his hand, still unsettled by his professional distance from all this. His “strength of stomach.”

“Good. You’ll be reporting to him.”

“To Raj?” My attention was now fully on the doctor’s face. The tight graying curls at his temples. The stern rims of his glasses.

“Raj has a heavy course load this semester and he can use the help.” Dr. Benoit set the femur on a tray and stripped off his gloves. “Let’s get you squared away in the Administration office. I’ve got a delivery coming that I need to sign for anyway. We can meet up with Raj there.”

I followed Doc Benoit out of the Bone Yard, still trying to wrap my head around the fact that I’d be reporting to a lab tech who wore Converse high-tops and carried a Darth Vader thermos to work. I picked at my shirt collar, pulling it and smoothing it, frantically thinking back to the first moment we met, wondering if I’d done or said anything stupid.

Doc Benoit deposited me in Veronica’s office. Raj perched on the edge of her desk, chatting her up. I’m pretty sure he was trying to look down her shirt.

“This must be your new intern?” Veronica smiled, standing to introduce herself. She wore a blouse like mine, only hers was filled out. Raj looked annoyed at my interruption.

“That’s what Doc says,” Raj grumbled.

Veronica extended her hand and I tried not to cringe. I hated introductions, but there was no way to avoid shaking her hand without seeming rude. I pasted on a smile, but it wasn’t so bad. Her touch was warm and tasted like cinnamon rolls. She was pretty and polished, her hair pulled back in a stylish twist. She reminded me a little of Gena and I liked her right away. But there was something else, something gooey and sweet I’d detected when her eyes drifted to Raj. I wondered if Raj even knew . . .

I pushed away the thought. It was none of my business. I handed her my paperwork. She gave the transcripts and letters of recommendation a cursory glance, raising an eyebrow at my test scores.

“I believe this is yours, then.” She winked at me, and handed me a new access card. Then she thumbed through the rest of the papers I’d given her. “Looks like everything’s in order, except we seem to be missing a few standard forms. I’m getting ready to leave for the day, but you can fill them out when we take your fingerprints next week.” She was all business when she turned to Raj, no trace of the crush I’d tasted moments ago. “The internship description says she’ll work a minimum of two afternoons, or eight hours per week.”

Raj thought for a moment and said, “You’ll work with me on Tuesday and Thursday after school. We’ll start with eight hours and see how it goes. If I like you, maybe I’ll let you help out on the weekends. You can usually find me in the Latent Prints lab upstairs.” His gaze dropped to my blouse, which he clearly didn’t find as interesting as Veronica’s. “Word to the wise? When you come back next Tuesday, ditch the duds.”

Veronica shot him an annoyed look. “You look nice, hon. What Raj means is you should probably wear something you don’t mind getting dirty. Things don’t stay new around here for long.”

• • •

The sun was low in the sky when I got off the city bus at the end of Sunny View Drive. I stopped at the mailboxes and began thumbing through a stack of bills, until I was startled by the thwack of a hammer nearby. Lonny Johnson stood at the corner, holding a sheet of paper flat to the post of the streetlight as he tacked it in place. One hand partly obscured the word
missing,
but I could clearly make out the photo of a girl with blue hair. Adrienne Wilkerson. I guessed she hadn’t come home yet.

Lonny finished hammering. He wiped sweat from his brow and bent to pick up a stack of flyers from the ground.

I could understand why he was worried, even if the police didn’t seem concerned. Lonny’s girlfriend had been killed by TJ back in June. Kylie’s murder had been gruesome and violent. The haunting kind of brutality that burns itself into your brain and plays over and over in your head and makes you imagine terrible things. “I can help,” I heard myself say before I realized the words were out.

Lonny turned at the sound of my voice. He smiled around the nails he held in place between his teeth. Or at least, I think it was a smile. With Lonny, I was never quite sure. He handed me the flyers and I walked with him to the next post.

“I didn’t see you in school this week,” I said, making small talk. In all the years we’d been neighbors in Sunny View, we’d never had a single class together.

“I got my GED over the summer. I am officially a high school graduate at the ripe old age of nineteen.”

“Congratulations,” I said, sincerely happy for him. Lonny was smart. The “doing” kind of smart that didn’t have time for textbooks and lectures. Or small talk.

He began tacking up the next flyer. “You know her?”

I nodded.

“She went missing five days ago. The cops aren’t lifting a finger.”

I looked at the photo while he nailed it in place. Her eyes were glassy and ringed in dark circles. Maybe the police were right, and she was just on a bender. “Maybe she’s just—”

“I need a favor,” he said, cutting me off.

I swallowed. “A favor?”

“I want you to keep an eye out for her. Let me know if you see anything that might give me some idea where to find her.”

“Okay,” I said. That seemed easy enough. “I’ll keep my eyes open in Sunny View. I’ll ask around at school. Maybe someone will know where she—”

“Going back to the crime lab anytime soon?” Lonny’s eyes shot straight to my lanyard, then bored into mine. I’d forgotten to take off my ID.

A knot tightened in my gut. “Tuesday. After school.”

“Good. Poke around a little bit. You’ve got my number. If you hear anything that might have to do with Adrienne I want you to call me.”

I had that slippery feeling. The kind that fired off warnings in every nerve cell, right before I did something wrong. “But I can’t. What if I get caught?”

A cool smile crept over him. “This, from the girl who stood on the hood of my car and threatened me with a baseball bat? Come on, Boswell. I know you better than that. You don’t scare that easy.”

Back in June, I’d asked Lonny for help, and he’d come. He’d saved my life that night. Reece’s and Anh’s too. And if that wasn’t enough, he’d come forward to testify as a key witness against TJ. This was not a choice he was giving me. He was collecting on a favor. Not begging for one. He put his hands in his pockets and leaned against the pole.

I nodded and handed him back his flyers.

“I knew I could count on you.” He chucked me softly under the jaw with tattooed knuckles covered in thick silver rings. He tasted like relief and determination, with sharp metallic undertones. I watched him walk away. He would not let this go. He would find Adrienne at any cost, even if I had to be the one to pay it.

I headed for my trailer, kicking up loose stones in the street. There had to be another way I could pay off my debt to Lonny. Maybe Adrienne would turn up before next week.

“Flavor of the month? You sure know how to pick ’em.” Jeremy stood in the shadow of my trailer. His voice was so thick with disdain, it took me a minute to place it in the dark. He’d been watching my conversation with Lonny.

“He’s a friend, Jeremy. But you’re right, I thought I knew how to pick those too. What are you doing here?” My stomach knotted to see his dad’s BMW parked alongside my trailer.

He pushed up his glasses and gestured to the dingy gray aluminum siding where the words
trailer trash
had been sprayed in big red letters. “Your mother called my father about the lovely artwork someone painted on your trailer.”

My face grew hot.

“Do you think it was Vince?” he asked, assuming the holier-than-thou tone he’d used to speak to me in computer class all week.

“Maybe. Or maybe one of his friends. It wouldn’t be the first time,” I mumbled, heading for my front porch.

I felt Jeremy’s eyes, heavy on my back. I stopped and turned to face him. “If you have something to say, then just say it.”

Jeremy shook a slip of paper at me. I didn’t reach out to take it, so he pushed it closer to my face. Close enough for me to see the dark blue ink that formed crisp bold letters.

BOOK: Nearly Found
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