Authors: Elicia Hyder
"Hey, Daddy." I smiled over at him. "How was work?"
"Exhausting." He groaned and parked his briefcase by the wall. "I had one patient break a hip in my waiting room, and another dementia patient wandered into my office and fell asleep on my sofa."
He sighed. "I should've gone into pediatrics."
My mother helped him pull his coat off and laughed as she folded it over her arm. "Then you could've had babies spitting up on your sport coat and toddlers peeing in your office."
He gave her a soft peck on the lips. "I missed you today." My mother was still a nurse, and she worked in my dad's office.
She patted his chest. "I'm sorry, honey. I don't know what I was thinking. I completely planned my days wrong this week and forgot you said you needed me today. I hope you weren't too shorthanded."
The sound of the news station anchorwoman caught my attention.
"Breaking news in Buncombe County…"
Dad gave me a side hug. "How was your day, Sloan?"
I held up my hand to silence him and then grabbed the remote. I turned up the volume on the television. "Just a sec, Dad."
The man's photo from the press release was splashed across the screen.
"The body of missing BB&C executive Byron Milstaf was found today at his sister's lake home in Tuxedo, North Carolina. Milstaf has been missing since Saturday from his home in Asheville. Police say it was an apparent suicide, and no foul play is suspected. In other news…"
"Are you all right?" My dad was peering down at me. "Did you know that man?"
I looked out the back window toward the mountains. "Sort of."
* * *
A few times during the week, I had briefly considered making up an excuse to visit the sheriff's office so I could bump into Detective McNamara again. However, those urges were overridden by my fear of the jail. I had also considered phoning in some sort of detective-necessary issue but couldn't justify missing pens from the supply closet as a reason to call the police. So, I was pleasantly surprised when I came into work the following Monday to find Nathan leaning against my office door with a stack of paperwork in his hand.
"Good morning, Detective. Are they still sticking you with the office grunt work?" I batted my eyelashes up at him as I fumbled for the key to my office.
"No," he said. "I came on my own. I was hoping to talk to you."
When the door was opened, he followed me inside and closed the door behind us. I eyed him suspiciously as I walked around my desk and placed my briefcase on the floor. He wore black cargos and a dark gray t-shirt with his badge on a chain around his neck. His American flag ball cap was pulled down low over his eyes. He wasn't doing office work that day. His rigid stance made me a little nervous.
"Talk to me about what?" I sat down in my chair and pressed the power button on my computer.
He folded his arms across his chest, tucking the papers against his side. "How did you know that Byron Milstaf was dead?"
It was my hope to never revisit that conversation.
I turned my palms up. "I told you. It was just a guess."
He shook his head. "I don't believe that. I'm an interview and interrogation specialist. I know when people are lying."
Laughing, I cocked my head to the side. "Are you planning on interrogating me, Nate?"
A muscle worked in his jaw. "No ma'am. I would just appreciate you telling me the truth."
I pointed to the chairs and narrowed my eyes. "Have a seat, Detective." Any flirtatious desire was suddenly quelled.
My icy tone caused his eyebrows to lift. He sat in the chair and rested the ankle of his tactical boot on top of his knee. His stare was expectant, and his perfect lips were shut.
Leaning forward, I rested my elbows on the desk. "First of all, I don't appreciate being clotheslined at my office door with accusations about being dishonest. I especially don't like it when it comes from a detective who is apparently suspicious about a deceased victim. Don't barge in here and shut my door and demand answers from me without telling me why you're here." I splayed my palms face down and leaned toward him. "I may be young and I may be a woman, but I'm not going to be bullied by anyone. Not even you."
For a moment, he was speechless.
His tense shoulders relaxed a bit. He leaned forward and dropped his stack of papers on my desk. On the top was a report sheet with a photo stapled to it. It was a picture of a child, a little girl. She had blonde ringlets and a bright, cheerful smile. Her eyes were captivating; one was blue and one was bright green. My stomach twisted in knots.
"What is this?" I looked at him instead of at the photograph.
He tapped his finger on the picture. "This is Kayleigh Marie Neeland. Last night, there was a raid on a suspected meth operation in Leicester. Her mom's boyfriend, Ray Whitmore, panicked when the cops busted down the door. He grabbed Kayleigh and held a Taurus 9mm to her head, using her as a shield to escape. At 3:19 this morning, we found his abandoned car in Haywood County with blood on the back seat."
I was horrified but determined to keep a clear head. I sat back in my chair and turned my hands up in question. "What do you want from me?"
I could tell he wasn't sure exactly what he expected to find out in my office, but it was obvious this wasn't an excuse for a social call. "I guess I just want your opinion," he replied.
I pushed the papers back toward him. "My opinion is that you should do your job, Detective McNamara, and stop wasting your time in the office of the department publicist."
He let out a frustrated huff and stood up so fast his chair threatened to topple backwards. He reached into the velcro pocket on his thigh and slammed down a business card before picking up the stack of papers. He cut his eyes at me. "Kayleigh is about to turn six. For her birthday she wants a Prince Charming to go with the Sleeping Beauty doll she got from her Nana at Christmas. She hasn't put down that doll all year until she dropped it in the driveway as she was being dragged away. If you think of anything, Sloan, give me a call." Without waiting for a response, he turned on his heel and stormed out of my office.
I picked up his business card and flicked it against my fingertips as my brain scrambled to make sense of what had just happened. Why had he come to my office that morning? What did he think I might know? The bigger question was, what was I going to do?
Kayleigh Neeland was still alive and I knew it.
ADRIANNE AGREED TO meet me for lunch on her break from her job at the Merrimon Avenue Salon. My head was throbbing as I sat in the corner booth waiting for her at the Mellow Mushroom. She walked in with fresh new highlights and pink high heels that were so tall I wasn't sure how she cleared the doorway without ducking. She slid into the bench across from me and pushed her sunglasses up on top of her head. "Hey weirdo," she said with a wink.
I forced a smile and rubbed my temples. "Do you have anything for a headache?"
She retrieved a bottle of ibuprofen from her purse and slid it across the table toward me. "You all right?"
I grimaced. "Rough day."
She glanced down at her silver watch. "It's only eleven."
I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose. "I know."
The waiter appeared and took her drink order. When he was gone, she scanned the menu and then looked up at me. "What's up? You sounded really stressed on the phone."
I sighed. "I've got a big problem at work." She waited expectantly, and I leaned on my elbow to support my throbbing head. "There's this new guy, a detective, at the department. I sort of slipped up the other day and told him I knew that a missing person was dead."
She straightened in her seat. "Who was dead?"
"Some random guy he wanted me to do a press release about."
"How did you know he was dead?"
I just glared at her with a raised eyebrow.
"Well, I played it off, and he hasn't said another word about it. But today he met me at my office asking questions," I said.
Her lips sank into a frown. "Uh oh."
The waiter returned with her water and we ordered a pizza to share.
"What did he want to know?" she asked.
I thought that was obvious. "Well, the guy turned up dead in another county, and the detective wanted to know how I knew."
"And what did you say?"
"I played dumb. I insisted it was just a guess," I said.
She shifted uneasily in her seat. "Does he think you were involved? Like, are you a suspect or something?"
I shook my head. "No. It was a suicide. But he suspects something because he came to my office asking me about a little girl who was kidnapped at gunpoint. They think she might be dead."
"Is she dead?"
She raised an eyebrow. "Do you know where she is?"
I shook my head. "It doesn't really work like that. I can't find people."
"But people can find you," she said. "What's her name?"
"Kayleigh Neeland." I knew what Adrianne was trying to do. She wanted to see if I could summon the girl. "I don't think I can summon someone I don't know. If I could, I would have found my birth mom years ago."
"I heard about that kid on the news this morning. What are you going to do? Are you going to tell him you know she's alive?" Adrianne was mindlessly tearing her straw paper to bits.
I had been asking myself the same question all morning. "It's only going to make him ask more questions that I just can't answer. Adrianne, I think I have seriously screwed up my perfect job."
She thought about it for a second. "Or maybe you've just found a way to really do your job well." She lowered her voice. "Sloan, what's the purpose of being… whatever you are, if you're not supposed to use it to help people?"
"This isn't exactly the kind of news people process well. I can't even get my parents to believe me. You know that, Adrianne."
She nodded. "But what do you do? Keep your mouth shut when you're the only person who knows this little girl is still alive?"
I squeezed my eyes closed. "That's why I have a headache."
Her eyebrows scrunched together. "Not to sound like a bitch or anything, Sloan, but I think you're being pretty selfish. This is a little kid we're talking about. You have the power to help her, but you're worried what questions about you that it might raise."
She was right.
"I know. It's completely selfish. There's just going to be a whole lot of blowback from this that I'm not sure I'm ready to deal with," I said.
She smirked. "Poor you." She leaned forward. "Are you ready to deal with the guilt you're going to feel if that little girl winds up dead, and you didn't say anything?"
I hated it when Adrianne was right.
After lunch I took the rest of the day off and went home to the stillness of my house. I stretched out on my white sofa from Pottery Barn that was trendy and stylish but absolutely uncomfortable. In an attempt to relax, I kicked off my black heels and covered my eyes with my forearm.
The details of Kayleigh's abduction replayed over and over in my mind. I envisioned that Sleeping Beauty doll discarded in the driveway and realized Nathan McNamara was a better manipulator than I could ever be. I picked up my cell phone, punched in his phone number, and sent a one line text message.
She's alive. - Sloan
A reply came less than ten seconds later.
Where are you?
When I didn't respond, he tried to call me.
I hit ignore and tapped out another message.
I can't help you any more than that. I promise, that's all I know.
I hadn't lied to Adrianne. I had no way of finding the girl even if I wanted to. I wasn't omniscient, and I couldn't see anything that a detective couldn't. The only thing I had to offer was more confusion, and that was exactly the reason I chose to stay out of the affairs of others. I wasn't hero material.
The little bit of help I could offer obviously wasn't enough for the good detective. Twenty minutes later, my doorbell rang.
The hardwood floor was cold against my bare feet as I trudged across the room to the entrance foyer. I pulled open the front door and leaned my head against it. "You looked up my home address?"
"Can I come in?" Nathan's ball cap was still pulled low over his eyes, but I could still see they were bloodshot from stress and lack of sleep.
Rolling my eyes, I stepped out of his way. "Be my guest."
This wasn't exactly what I had in mind when I dreamed of Nathan McNamara's first invitation into my house. I felt like a criminal watching him wipe his boots on my welcome mat. "Nathan, I told you I can't help you with anything else. All I know is that, yes, Kayleigh is still alive."
He followed me to the couch and sat down next to me. "Do you know where she is?"
I folded my arms across my chest and narrowed my eyes. "Do you not understand the version of English that I speak?"
He tightened his hand into a fist, clenched his jaw, and squeezed his eyes closed for a split second before throwing both hands in the air in frustration. "Can you not, for one second, put yourself in my shoes here?" He was almost shouting.
"You?" I spat back at him. "You keep pushing and prying into things that aren't any of your business!"
He jabbed his thumb into the center of his chest. "This is my job!"
I held my hands up. "I'm not your witness! I'm not involved in this thing at all, and I don't want to be! You're pinning all your hopes and dreams of finding this kid on a feeling I have that I can't explain to myself, much less to you or a judge or the freaking media!" Tears were beginning to prickle my eyes.
He dropped his head and took a few deep breaths before he finally placed his hand on my knee. He blew out a slow sigh. "I'm sorry."
Nervously raking all my fingers back through my hair, I tried to exhale all of the anxiety and adrenaline that was pumping through my veins. After a few beats of awkward silence, I looked over at him. His head was down, but his face was bent toward me.