DO NOT CROSS_edited_edited_edited.png

When an unexpected, late night visitor comes knocking, Holly is thrust into a case she isn't prepared for. Time is running out for a missing teenage girl, and as Holly tries to piece together the clues, she finds herself courting danger.

 
 

Chapter One

Flush against the wall, I peered around the corner and up the staircase at the hallway. The second floor was quiet except for muffled voices coming from one of the apartments.

     I tugged my fluffy hat further down over my red braids, as if it could do anything to mask my identity if I was spotted, and crept up the steps. My black flats were silent as I tiptoed my way to the top, but the leftover change from my hot chocolate at the café jingled like an alarm bell in my knapsack.

     Way to be stealthy, I thought.

     I pulled my lips between my teeth and looked around, paying close attention to the apartment on my right. If anyone was going to catch me . . .

     A man on his phone stepped out of a room at the far end of the hallway. “She said to meet her at the restaurant. I’m on my way now.” He didn’t even glance my way before climbing into the elevator.

I relaxed, turning to the door on my left. I had a shrinking window of time to carry out my plan, so I had to make this quick.

     I grabbed what I needed from the pocket of my bag and went to work on the lock, wincing when the clunk of the releasing dead bolt resounded in the silence.

     Someone would’ve heard that.

     Heartbeat quickening, I turned the knob and squeezed through the gap into the unlit apartment, barely managing to re-latch the door before the one across the hall groaned inward.

     The strap of my camera bag slipped down my shoulder, and I snagged it before it could knock into the table against the wall next to me. I hiked it back up, grimacing at the weight.

     Floorboards creaked beneath shifting feet, and a crackling female voice let out a suspicious “hmm.”

     Did she see me? Was she going to call the police?

     I stretched onto my toes to see through the door’s peephole and caught a flicker of pink before the door across the hall clicked shut. Releasing a breath, I lowered my bag to the floor and rubbed at my tense shoulder muscles.

I’d made it undetected.

     A quick check of the alarm panel revealed that it wasn’t armed. Someone needed a lecture about the purpose of home security systems. If he didn’t arm it, anyone could sneak in.

     Navigating around the bulky silhouettes in the living room, I fumbled with the lamp on a side table. A warm glow lit the room, and I found myself surrounded by enough open cardboard boxes to make a litter of cats giddy.

     I turned up a cardboard flap and smiled at the label scrawled across it in barely legible handwriting. Contents and room destination. Not the least bit surprising.

Most of the boxes were partially filled, and I picked up one of the movies from the media stack. WALL-E. Marx told me once that the little robot reminded him of me—lovable, socially awkward, fiercely loyal, and prone to eating junk.

     I definitely enjoyed my junk food.

     I returned the movie to the box and padded into the tidy kitchen. A fancy coffeemaker with individual pods sat on the countertop. Everything about it declared, “I entrust my coffee to no one but myself.”

     I grinned. “Such trust issues.”

     Mounting my hands on my hips, I turned in a slow circle, considering the possibilities. There was no clutter in the apartment, which limited my options. My gaze landed on the cupboard above the stove.

     Mischievous plans are best carried out with snacks, I silently reasoned.

     “Now all I need is . . .”

     Aha. The step stool was tucked beneath the peninsula. I placed it in front of the stove and climbed up, grateful for the extra eight inches of height.

I opened the cupboard doors and perused the snackables that lined the shelves. Granola bars, vegetable chips, beef jerky. I shuffled things around until a package of cherry licorice appeared.

     “Hello, tasty.” I snatched the package and hopped down.

     Tearing open the plastic, I fished out one of the sweets and popped it in my mouth as I wandered down the hall to the spare bedroom.

     This had been my room before I moved out three weeks ago, and memories, some beautiful and some painful, gathered around me as I stood in the doorway.

I had shed a lot of tears into the purple pillows on this bed, but the beautiful lining to that dismal cloud was that I felt safe enough to let down my guard and release them. I sobbed, I prayed, and I fought to pull the fractured pieces of myself back together in this very room.

     Home, my heart whispered.

     In a few weeks, I would lose this place completely, but I took comfort in the fact that I wouldn’t lose the man who made it safe and comfortable. At least I hoped I wouldn’t.

     Marx had become the father I craved since I lost my family at the age of nine, and seeing him twice a week since moving back into my apartment didn’t feel like enough.

     I suspected I would see him even less once he remarried his ex-wife and moved back into the house they used to share. Shannon and I were on good terms—I was even going to be her maid of honor in the upcoming wedding—but I didn’t imagine she would appreciate me spending the night or keeping her husband up until dawn with goofy movie marathons. And she certainly wouldn’t let me come over and bake in her magazine-cover kitchen.

     I caught sight of the perpetually crooked picture frame hanging on the wall to my right, my gift to Marx last Christmas. It needled his desire to have everything in perfect order.

     Perfect order went out the window when he let me into his life, but rather than getting upset about it, he embraced it. I smiled and tipped the frame a bit more.

Would Shannon let him hang it up at their house, or would she stuff it in the attic because it didn’t fit her style?

     A tendril of worry and sadness curled around my heart. Mending his relationship with Shannon was a good thing for Marx, but I wasn’t sure where a not-quite daughter would fit into his reclaimed life.

     I pushed away the insecurities that had been growing in the back of my mind with the wedding approaching, and tugged off a bite of licorice. I had two and a half weeks before those changes swept through all our lives, and I wasn’t going to waste them worrying.

     I returned to the kitchen to work a little mischief and then made my way into the bathroom. When I was finished, I left my calling card on Marx’s nightstand.

Considering he was a hyper vigilant police detective with an addiction to order, he would notice the changes two seconds after walking through the door. I expected a visit first thing in the morning.

     I turned off all the lights, leaving the place mostly the way I’d found it, and slung the strap of my bag over my head.

I reached for the knob on the front door, but paused at the sound of voices. The peephole revealed the self-appointed hall monitor in a pink flower-patterned housecoat and slippers.

     Mrs. Neberkins.

     She was a strange old woman, and she was always popping out of her apartment like those creatures in that whack-a-mole game.

     Pop: “Quit making so much noise.”

     Pop: “Pull your pants up.”

     Pop: “Quit being such a mary-jew-anna-selling hooligan.”

     I smiled as I reflected on all my awkward and unexpected interactions with the woman. She liked me well enough, but she was convinced Marx was evil incarnate. No evidence to the contrary could change her mind.

     She wasn’t wagging a disapproving finger or flinging insults at anyone tonight, though. She was smoothing the top buttons of her housecoat and . . . smiling. I never realized her facial muscles could do that.

     “Good afternoon, Henry,” she said, in a tone I had never heard her use before. “Are those new slippers?”

     The old man, whose back was to me, pushed a foot forward to model his blue slippers. “You betcha. Memory foam and all. It’s like walking on clouds.”

     “They make you even more handsome.”

     The edges of his ears turned pink, and he ducked his head. “You’re beautiful as always, Margie. Like a glass of ice water on a hot day.”

     I tucked my lips between my teeth, smiling at this unexpected yet adorable exchange. Mrs. Neberkins was flirting.

     She smoothed her housecoat. “Henry, are you making eyes at me?”

     “I might be.” His ears turned even pinker, and my heart melted at his bashfulness. Could he be any cuter? “I was hoping you might wanna have a date with me. Maybe a movie and . . . well, I can’t have popcorn anymore because of my dentures, but I have Jell-O.”

     Mrs. Neberkins leaned forward and whispered, “I have chocolate pudding.”

     “Even better.”

     “How does a Western sound?”

     Henry fidgeted with a hearing aid. “We’ll have to turn it up pretty loud so I can hear the talking bits between the showdowns. That won’t bother your neighbors?”

     Mrs. Neberkins waved an age-spotted hand. “The Zimmermans are on vacation till Sunday. I overheard them talking about it. And that one’s off selling drugs to school kids out of his car.”

     Henry turned and looked directly into the peephole, and I resisted the urge to drop my head against the door. There was the Mrs. Neberkins I knew, always equipped with an outlandish accusation. But selling drugs to school children? Really, what would she dream up next?

     “Isn’t he an officer?” Henry asked.

     “He’s the worst sort. A closet criminal. You remember that girl he was forcing to stay with him like some slave. I confronted him, and then she disappeared in the night.”

     Or during the day with a packed bag.

     “Probably dead,” she added, and I almost choked at the offhand way she threw that possibility out there.

     Now might be a bad time to pop out and say hello. Poor Henry’s heart might give out from shock.

     Mrs. Neberkins invited the old man inside, and as she closed the door, I heard her ask, “Did you know that drug-dealing scoundrel stole my dog?”

I waited for the snap of her dead bolt and then released a breath. Time to go.

Marx would be home from work soon, and I couldn’t be late for my weekly therapy appointment. I snuck out of the apartment and relocked the door, tiptoeing down the steps to catch the bus.

Chapter Two

Nervous energy flowed through my fingers into a foil candy wrapper as I sat in my therapist’s office.

     Verbalizing my pain wasn’t one of my strengths. Years of abuse and isolation taught me to keep it hidden, and I was only now learning how to put it into words.

Silence was easier, but to move forward, I had to surrender the skills that helped me survive in favor of the skills that would help me live, or so Annette had said. She still did most of the talking, but I offered a handful of words every now and then.

     “And then I sorta freaked out,” I said, filling her in on the incident at the library yesterday evening.

     Everything had been fine until a man brushed past me down the aisle. It wasn’t his nearness that rattled me; it was the cologne he wore—his cologne. Before I even knew what was happening, memories surged up and coiled around my rib cage, squeezing the breath from my lungs.

     “You had a panic attack,” she said.

     “Yeah.”

     The admission tasted like failure, and I couldn’t meet the eyes of the woman sitting in the chair across from me. The sympathy that always softened her face during these discussions would threaten my control over the tears pressing against the backs of my eyes.

     The bits of my story she hadn’t gleaned from the media, she’d coaxed out of me one agonizing detail at a time over the past year. She probably knew more about me than I did.

     “It’s only been two weeks since the guilty verdict in Pennsylvania. Give yourself some time to come to terms with the fact that you’re safe,” Annette advised.

     “I know he’s in prison, that he can’t hurt me anymore, but I still couldn’t breathe, and I ran out of the library like a crazy person.”

     She uncrossed her legs and leaned forward, nudging the bowl of sweets on the coffee table closer to me. “Yes, he’s in prison, but that doesn’t mean the wounds you’ve suffered are suddenly gone. What it does mean is that you’re safe enough to stop and care for those wounds properly.”

     I grabbed a few more chocolates and mounded them on the pillow in my lap. After my third visit to Annette’s office, she made note of my slight sugar addiction and made sure there were always sweets.

     “I haven’t had a panic attack in months. I thought . . . I was hoping that maybe I was getting better.”

     “Healing isn’t a straight line, Holly. Like any path in life we travel, there will be hills and valleys. There’s no reason to be ashamed about an unexpected valley.” Graying hair brushed her shoulder as she tilted her head, studying me. “But now you’re doubting how far you’ve come?”

     “Last night I felt like . . .” I searched for the right words. “Like I was back where I started.”

     “Do you remember when we first met?”

     I nodded. I had wanted to be anywhere but this office, with its shelves of stuffed animals, fluffy pillows, and warm gray walls. The soothing space and the middle-aged woman with kind eyes had been a stark contrast to the despair and anger devouring me from the inside out.

     “You were severely traumatized,” she said.

     Dying, I mentally corrected, as the foil in my hands began to take shape.

The doctors had stitched my body back together and pumped air into my collapsed lungs, but there was nothing they could do to stop my soul from bleeding out. It wasn’t long before I hit rock bottom and found myself holding a handful of pills. That was how I ended up here. Marx was terrified he was going to lose me, and he begged me to talk to someone.

     “I could barely get a word out of you,” Annette continued. “And the mere mention of Collin’s name made you physically ill.”

     I had hurled all over her carpet. Now an empty trash can sat beside the chair, waiting to catch my stomach if it decided to jump out of my throat again.

     “I worried about that girl. She was so fragile and consumed by fear and hopelessness. But I’m not worried anymore, because you, Holly, you are miles apart from the girl who curled up in that chair, paralyzed by fear and trauma.”

     “Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it.”

     Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. What about the rest of the time?”

     I bent part of the candy wrapper into a butterfly wing. “Most of the time I feel . . . more like me before he . . . took me.” Convincing my tongue to speak the other things he’d done to me was still a work in progress.

     “Good. And as you heal, those moments of anxiety will become less frequent. Sometimes will become occasionally, and occasionally will become rarely.”

     “What about never?” I asked. “Is there a never-have-another-panic-attack option? Because I like that one.”

     Deep lines crinkled around her eyes as she smiled. “I hope you’ll eventually reach a point in your healing that panic attacks will be a thing of the past, but for now let’s work toward making them less frequent. We still have a lot to process.”

     It wasn’t the answer I wanted, but Annette never told me what I wanted to hear if it conflicted with the truth.

     “When you do hit another valley, give yourself the same grace you would offer any other woman in your position. You have an abundance of love and understanding for others, and you deserve the same.”

     I set the candy wrapper on the table next to twelve other foil butterflies.

     Annette leaned forward to examine my miniature creations. “I see you’re making good use of the origami book I gave you. But I’m curious—why butterflies?”

     I shrugged a shoulder. “They always seem so free and happy.”

     She made a thoughtful noise. “I want you to try something this week. Last month we worked on a list of things you’ve longed to do but couldn’t while your foster brother was still a threat. I know you’re feeling discouraged right now, so I would like you to pick one of the activities from that list and do it. It will remind you of the freedom and happiness you’re working so hard for.”

     “Okay.”

     She smiled and made a note in her notebook, a reminder to herself to follow up on it during our next meeting.

     I pushed up from the chair and tucked my uneaten candy into the pouch of my sweatshirt for later. After all that chocolate, I had more sugar in my veins than blood.

     “Are you heading to work from here?” Annette asked.

     I nodded and scooped my camera bag off the floor. If tonight followed the trend of the past couple of weeks, it would be a slow evening at JGH Investigations, and I would have more than enough time to sort through my photos.

     “Remember to be careful,” she said, genuine concern for my well-being in her eyes. “And keep in mind that I have a few emergency hours every day. If you find yourself in another valley, come see me.”

     “Okay. Thanks.”

     We said our good-byes, and I slipped out of her office into the hall. I paused to free the hood of my sweatshirt from beneath my bag strap, and Annette’s soft voice carried through the closed door.

      “Lord, you are mightier than the waves of hardship and pain that crash against us each day. You are our shield against the world. I know that you adore Holly. Help her heal so she can burst forth from the cocoon of her past and spread her beautiful wings like the butterflies she admires.”

     I listened, captured by her prayer.

     “She has such a compassionate heart and a propensity for brightening the lives of the people around her. Wrap her in protection as she heads out into the world, Father. I pray for the next client  who  walks  into  my office, that you blanket them with comfort . . .”

     My eyes burned with moisture as I backed away from the door. I had never heard anyone pray like that for me. There was love and passion in her voice as she connected with God.

     Maybe someday I would be able to pray like that.

 

                                                              . . . .

 

Curled up in the oversized chair in my office, I nibbled on a piece of cherry licorice and clicked through the photos on my laptop.

     The overcast sky at the church today wasn’t ideal, but I still managed to snag a few beautiful shots of the couple celebrating fifty years of love. They were too cute with their white hair and matching sweaters, and adoration gleamed in the old man’s eyes as he gazed at his wife.

     Was it possible to adopt old people? I was in the market for some cuddly grandparents, even if wearing ugly blue-and-pink plaid sweaters was a requirement.

     A knock drew my attention past the computer screen to my office doorway. A tall blonde man leaned against the door frame—Jordan, my full-time friend and part-time employer.

     “Mind if I come in?”

     I waved the licorice wand in invitation.

     He straightened, his grin deepening the dimples in his cheeks. “What happened to trying to eat healthy?”

     I ignored the trash can where the carrot sticks and celery stalks had been . . . laid to rest. “I did try. It was gross.”

     Marx was a bit of a nutrition nag, and he insisted I supplement my sugar intake with vegetables and whole grains. If they would help me grow upward, I would eat carrot sticks all day long. Unfortunately, after three weeks of nibbling on rabbit food, I was still five foot two—well, almost—so I didn’t see the upside to the taste bud torture.

     “Not a celery fan, huh?” Jordan asked.

     “It’s like gnawing on a stick of dental floss.” I tugged off a piece of licorice with my teeth to chase away the grotesque memory on my tongue.

     “It’s not too bad if you stuff it with raisins and p—” He bit off the words peanut butter with a barely perceptible wince.

     I used to love peanut butter, but now it turned my stomach and dredged up memories of my abduction. It had been thirteen months since the warehouse, but sometimes the horrors that happened there still haunted me.

     “So . . .” I closed my laptop, smoothing my fingers around the edges while staring at the “Marshmallow is a food group!” sticker on the cover. I didn’t want to think about the warehouse right now. “I heard the phone ring. Do we have a new case?” As much as I enjoyed my freelance photography, my heart longed for something more fulfilling, like finding the lost and forgotten.

     Jordan slid to a crouch against the wall on my right, hands resting between his knees. “A case, yes. New, not so much.”

     “Mrs. Muriel again?”

     “Yeah. She wandered off while the family was preparing dinner, and they haven’t been able to find her.”

     Mrs. Muriel was an eighty-six-year-old woman with dementia. Occasionally, her mind slipped into the past and she wandered away in search of familiar places and people, some of whom no longer existed.

     I could only imagine how frightening and disorienting it must be for her to find herself in a different time, surrounded by unfamiliar faces and details. Her son was reluctant to place her in a nursing home, so he called us whenever she snuck away.

     “Do you think she went to the ceramics place with all the creepy garden gnomes or that bakery that makes the s’more brownies?”

     Jordan huffed a laugh. “You would remember that detail.”

     “I never forget a good s’more.” Or brownie, for that matter. I reached for one of my flats. “Should we split up to cover more ground?”

     “There’s only a handful of places she usually goes, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find her. Why don’t you stay here and finish up your photos.”

     My shoe dangled from a finger as I absorbed the unexpected suggestion. He never left me alone at the agency after dark. “Are you sure you’re okay with that?”

     “Yeah.” He checked his watch. “We’re technically still open for another ten minutes, but I’m gonna lock up. I don’t like the idea of anyone and everyone being able to walk in when you’re here alone at night.”

     I had no objections. This neighborhood wasn’t the safest, especially after dark, and I would prefer to choose who came through the door.

     His blue eyes drifted past me to the darkness seeping between the slatted blinds of the window, uncertainty churning in their depths.

     I wasn’t the only one still dealing with fallout from my abduction. Jordan blamed himself for not being there to keep me safe, and he was struggling to find a balance between protecting me from every potential threat and giving me space to stretch my wings.

     “Riley and I will be fine,” I assured him.

     Riley, my German shepherd snoring in the lobby, was my companion as much as he was my guardian, and he would attack anyone he perceived as a threat to me.

We had been taking care of each other for over a year, but he had only officially become mine a few months ago. His original owner passed away from a heart attack, and Marx finally managed to get in touch with the man’s only living relative—an estranged son who lived overseas and wanted nothing to do with anything that belonged to his father.

     Jordan pushed to his feet and shuffled his keys between his hands. “I won’t be far away if you need me.”

     “Okay.”

     After he closed and locked the front door, I tucked my fuzzy-socked feet between the edge of the cushion and the arm of the chair, covered myself with a throw blanket, and wiggled into a more comfortable position before reopening my laptop.

That was all the further I made it into my task before the business phone on my desk trilled. I frowned at it. I really didn’t feel like getting up now that I was cozy.

      Stretching, I pawed at the receiver with my fingertips, but I was too far away to wrap my fingers around it. With a sigh, I climbed out of my chair and snatched the phone from its cradle.

     I adopted the professional voice I had begun practicing when Jordan hired me last spring. “JGH Investigations, this is Holly speaking. How can I help you?” Dead air stretched, and I tried again. “Hello?”

     An older woman’s voice filled the silence. “Are you even old enough to be answering a business phone?”

     I squinted at a splotch of purple paint on the white ceiling and tried to tamp down my indignation before replying.  “Yes, can I help you with something?”

     If she asks to speak to an adult, I’m hanging up.

     “Is the manager or supervisor available?”

     “He’s not in right now, but I can take a message and have him give you a call as soon as he’s back in the office.”

     “I suppose that’s fine.” She gave me her information, and I jotted it on a sticky note before disconnecting.

     I practiced my phone greeting as I carried the note to Jordan’s office, trying to deepen my voice and enunciate my words. Maybe I should mimic my friend Sam and answer the phone in monotone, using as few syllables as possible. “JGH Investigations. What?”

     I snickered as I stuck the note to Jordan’s desk calendar, but the amusement faded when I saw one of our bills peeking out of the manila folder by his half-empty coffee mug.

     Past due.

     He hadn’t mentioned financial troubles, but clients had been scarce. Opening the folder, I sifted through a few more loose leaves of paper—water, electric, insurance. They were all overdue, and the meager check from Mrs. Muriel’s family wouldn’t come close to covering these expenses.

     I reached into my back pocket and pulled out the paycheck Jordan had given me today. If he couldn’t pay the business expenses, then he was paying me out of his personal savings.

     I spread out the bills to compare the amounts due. My paycheck would cover at least one of them. Jordan would argue with me, but I had my photography and monthly percentage from my father’s bookstore as income. Neither would sustain me for long, not unless I picked up more photography clients, but it was still more income than Jordan had right now.

     Lord, I don’t know what the plan is here, but please help us through this. I trust you.

     I placed my paycheck in the folder and closed it. I would have to be more cautious with my money, but that was better than watching my friend struggle.

     As I left his office, I turned off the lobby lights to save on electricity.

I snuggled into my chair with my laptop and clicked through the remaining images, adding the best ones to the print folder. Typically, I provided digital samples for my clients, but the elderly couple would appreciate hard-copy samples.

     My printer groaned and clunked to life, as grouchy and disagreeable as my friend Jace in the mornings. Maybe if I poured three shots of espresso into it, it would perk up too.

     An odd clicking sound grew louder as the printer chugged out images. I’d never heard it make that noise before. Was it struggling to grab the paper, or was the clicking coming from—

     Something smacked the outside of my office window, and I jumped, nearly falling out of my chair onto the floor. I gaped at the blinds, one foot on the carpet and the other still tangled in the blanket.

     What was that?

     Heart slamming against my ribs, I placed my laptop on the desk and shifted onto my knees, parting the blinds with two fingers. Darkness between our building and the business behind us glared back.

     Maybe it was the wind. It could’ve blown a stray piece of garbage into the window. Our neighbors never did secure their trash bags properly. They seemed to think the drawstrings were there for decoration.

     But there was something on the glass. Wrapping fear-chilled fingers around the string, I tugged up the blinds, revealing several oily smudges.

     Was that part of a handprint?

     Who would be running through an unlit alleyway in this neighborhood at night? I leaned forward to see as far as I could, but there was no one.

     The telltale rattle of a locked door snapped my attention toward the front of the building, and my window blinds crashed back to the sill, startling a squeak from me.

I fumbled off the chair and wrapped both hands around the hockey stick propped against the wall. I didn’t play hockey, but I couldn’t bring myself to touch a baseball bat. Not after . . .

     Well, I just didn’t like bats.

     The hard rattling came again, followed by a rumbling growl from Riley. Someone had circled the building and was trying to force their way in.

Chapter Three

There had been a robbery at one of the businesses down the street last week, and visions of a masked gunman ricocheted around in my head as I tiptoed toward my office doorway.

     The hours posted on the front window made it clear we were closed, and with no cars in the lot and the main lights off, the place was a prime target for burglary.

     Except we had nothing worth stealing.

     The rattling gave way to pounding, and I leaned forward to peer past the reception desk, a fixture from when this building had been a private doctor’s office, toward the wall of windows at the front of the lobby.

     A girl stood on the sidewalk, her details shrouded in shadow. She pounded her palm on the door one last time before dropping her forehead against it.

     Concern chased away my lingering fear.

     Was she hurt? In danger? Stranded?

     Riley gravitated to my side, and together we walked toward the front door. Our unexpected visitor was a young woman, barely more than a child, and not much taller than me.

     She had pink-blonde hair styled in a feminine cut around her ears, which sported a row of silver studs and hoops. The scant clothing she wore, which would do nothing to shield her from the chilly bite of the spring night, emphasized her overly thin frame.

     I grabbed the dead bolt, prepared to twist it, when instinct whispered, She could be the bait to get you to open the door. And the real threat is lurking in the shadows, waiting.

     Life had taught me to be cautious and distrustful of other people and their motives and tactics, but I couldn’t let fear smother my compassion. I scanned the dark parking lot to make sure she was alone, and then unlocked the door.

     Her head snapped up at the clunk of the dead bolt, and her coffee-brown eyes, outlined in pink glitter, widened when she saw the large German shepherd by my side.

     I took in the stiletto heels dangling from one hand, the bloody scrape on her knee, and her bare feet on the cold sidewalk as I opened the door. “Are you okay? Are you hurt?”

     “Tripped and broke a heel in the alley.” She scrutinized Riley and then me. “You don’t look like an investigator.”

     I followed her gaze to my feet. Right . . . my fuzzy toe socks didn’t exactly scream “professional.” But in my defense, I thought she was a burglar, so I didn’t take time to change into my flats.

     She gestured to my weapon of choice. “What’s with the hockey stick?”

     “I wasn’t expecting anyone this late.” I leaned the stick against the window and flipped on the interior lights so I could see her better.

     “I know you’re closed and all, but I saw the light coming through the blinds back there, so I was hoping someone was still around.” She smoothed a hand over her jean skirt, tugging at the frayed hem, as though trying to make its miniscule length stretch to cover more of her.

     She had to be cold. I was covered from collarbone to toes, and I could still feel the thirty-something chill nipping at the skin beneath my layers.

     I crossed my arms for warmth. “Is everything okay?”

     “You guys find missing people, right?” She dug through the phone-sized purse slung across her body. “I found this on a sidewalk.”

     She held up our business card, which had been reduced to a kissing stamp—the edges decorated with wild shades of lip prints.

     Across the bottom, in between pumpkin-orange and burgundy lip prints, was our slogan: “We find missing people.” Simple and to the point. It might need a little more flare to lure in customers.

     “I need you to help me find someone.” She thrust a folded picture toward me. “My friend Cami’s been missing since last night.”

     I took the picture, straightening it out. On the left side of the crease was the girl in front of me, and on the right was a girl with a blend of African American and Asian features. While the girl on my doorstep looked young, her missing friend was definitely under eighteen.

     “Why don’t you come in for a few minutes. I’ll make some hot tea and you can tell me what happened.”

     She scratched around the sparkling stud in the side of her nose. “I work the night shift, and time is literally money for me, so I can’t stay.”

     “I can’t help unless you tell me more. Like the rest of her name, what happened, where it happened.” Riley pressed forward to catch a scent on the air, and I snagged his collar. “Does she have family she might’ve gone to stay with?”

     She dragged her fingers through her hair, leaving tufts of it poking in every direction. “Her name is Camilla Chen. She got a raw deal in the family department, like most of us, you know? She ran away, and here we are.”

     A runaway, like I had been at seventeen. I wasn’t on the streets long before the sharks started circling, trying to draw me into the nightlife. With this girl’s clothing, her comment about working nights, and the “time is literally money” remark, I had my suspicions about why she’d come here instead of going to the police about her missing friend.

     “Were you with Cami around the time she disappeared?” I asked.

     She folded her arms over her bare stomach and nodded. “We were working like we do every night over on Brush. We try to stay close to each other, but I was . . . busy when it happened.”

     Brush must be short for Brushwick Avenue. The street was full of warehouses, repair shops, and pawnbrokers, but after those businesses closed down for the night, an entirely different business filled the streets. I had stumbled across it once when I was homeless and then made a point to avoid it.

     The girl’s expression hardened as she braced for judgment and disgust. My heart ached at the thought of how badly she must be treated on a daily basis, if she needed to steel herself against cruelty.

     “You two look out for each other,” I said.

     The defensive stiffness in the girl’s shoulders softened. “Yeah. Usually we get a feel for who’s crazy. Most guys are fine, but some come there looking to hurt somebody. Cami and me, we watch each other’s back.” Light glinted off the moisture gathering in her eyes. “I knew something was wrong when she didn’t come back after an hour and didn’t answer my texts. That ain’t like her. Something happened to her.”

     Riley’s posture tensed, his attention fixed on something in the distance, but all I could see were pockets of shadow between street lamps. What did he see that I couldn’t?

     Trying not to dwell on my growing unease, I asked, “Did Cami get into a car with someone, or did she leave on her own?”

     “Dorina said the guy pulled up around midnight in a fancy car with darkish paint, and Cami got in.”

     And the guys thought I was a bad eyewitness. This Dorina was even more vague than I was when it came to vehicle descriptions. At least I listed the number of doors and a color group. What did darkish even mean?

     “License number?” I asked doubtfully.

     “Nah.”

     “I don’t suppose you told the police you think something might’ve happened to Cami.”

     Her upper lip curled away from her teeth in a sneer. “Cops don’t care if a hooker goes missing. We don’t matter to them. If we turn up dead in a gutter, the city’s that much cleaner.”

     Her impression of cops wasn’t too dissimilar from mine before I met Marx and Sam. I wanted to tell her that none of the cops I knew would think of her as less, but divulging my police connections might spook her.

     “I don’t got a lotta money,” she said, tugging a wad of crumpled bills from her purse and offering it to me. “If it ain’t enough, I’ll have more by morning, and I’m sure I can work out some sort of payment arrangement with the boss man. As long as he ain’t into anything too weird.”

     My stomach twisted as I realized what she meant. “You don’t have to—”

     “I’ll do whatever it takes. Cami is one of the few people who cares about me, and I care about her, and no one else is trying to find her. That creep . . . he took her, and I don’t want her to end up dead. Please.”

     I’d been that missing person no one was looking for, the invisible girl society didn’t care about. I wanted to assure her that I would find her friend, but that wasn’t a promise I could make.

     “Keep your money. At least until I figure out what we can do.”

     Anger snuffed out the flicker of hope in her eyes. “Fine.” She stuffed the bills back into her purse. “If you decide you care, come find me on Brush. Ask for Pixie.”

     When she turned to leave, I stepped outside, the cold leeching through my socks. “Wait. You can’t walk around the city without shoes.”

     She shrugged the hand with her broken high heels. “Ain’t a lotta shoe stores open at this hour, so I don’t got much choice.”

     “Give me one second.” I fetched my black flats from my office. She would need them more than I did tonight. “Here.”

     She eyed the offering. “Schoolgirl shoes?”

     They weren’t as stylish and flashy as the red pair of heels she’d intended to wear, but it was these or a night of dodging broken glass and filth. “They should fit. We’re about the same size, and they’re better than nothing.”

     Her tongue piercing poked between her top teeth. “How much you want for them?”

     “Nothing, and there’s no strings attached. Promise.”

     After a moment of skeptical hesitation, she took them. “You’re a strange sorta person, Nancy Drew, giving a hooker your shoes.”

     “My name’s Holly, and I’m giving my shoes to a woman who needs them. What she does in them is her business.”

     She slipped  them  on  and  wiggled  her  toes.  “A little tight,  but  they’ll  do the job.” She readjusted the strap of her purse and considered me. “Word of advice. If you do come by Brush tonight, bring some muscle. Some of the guys that hang around . . . they ain’t the nice sort.”

     I folded my arms against the chill that curled around my spine. “Got it. Be safe out there.”

     “Safe is for the rich. I just try to make it home in the morning.” She walked away, turning down the alley between our building and the abandoned one next door.

     A familiar feeling crept along my skin like a swarm of ants as I watched her go, and my focus shifted to the gaping black window of the empty building.

     Was someone inside?

     It wouldn’t be the first time troublemakers set up shop. But it was quiet tonight—no chattering voices or blaring music.

     I visually scanned the parking lot. A Styrofoam cup rolled over the blacktop in the breeze, catching up with a pair of napkins that escaped from a crumpled fast food bag, and a utility pole wire bobbed above the sidewalk.

     I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, but after being stalked by my twisted foster brother for over a decade, I had learned never to dismiss my internal alarm.

     I locked the door and grabbed my hockey stick, clutching it tight. Riley remained alert, nose fogging the glass as he stared at the darkness. Someone or something was out there in the shadows.

......... TO BE CONTINUED IN THE PAPERBACK OR E-BOOK ........

 
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