Matthew Dane collected change from his pocket as the elevator settled into place on the sixth floor of the Bismarck Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia. The doors slid open to a quiet hallway. Most attendees at the conference were still in sessions on the main level. He stopped in the vending area and bought a cold soda.
He felt satisfied with how his presentation—Best Practices in the Dialog between the Police and Victim Families—had gone. He thought his opening section had been too long—most at this national law-enforcement symposium had heard him speak before and didn’t need the background—but the overhead slides designed to lighten the tone had gotten spontaneous laughter from the audience. He’d made his points without beating anyone over the head with his advice. Now that his part was over, he could relax and enjoy the last two days as an attendee.
Married friends had invited him to join them for a late dinner. Inevitably, they would also invite a woman to make up the numbers. His friends were predictable that way. He’d need to spend part of the evening putting whoever she was at ease. He’d deal with the situation with some grace—he just hoped she already knew his life story so he didn’t have to tell it again over a meal. His wife Jessica had died young. He’d get married again—he knew Jessica would want him to—and he thought about it occasionally. But he’d be forty-two this year and his life already had enough open chapters.
A young woman was sitting on the floor in the hallway outside his hotel room. She didn’t rise when he drew near, just looked up at him. She looked… tired. And mildly curious. Her white shorts showed off long, tanned legs and the sandals dainty feet with painted toenails. The contrasting pink top was remarkably sedate, blousy and pretty. The look suited her and reminded him of his daughter. For that reason more than any other he simply offered a casual, “Looking for me?”
She opened an envelope, pulled out a newspaper clipping, and held it up. “Is this you?”
He accepted what she offered. The newspaper article with accompanying photo was old, well worn, and crumbling at the fold. From the Boston Globe, he thought, recognizing the photo and knowing the date it had been taken. He was holding his daughter, her head lowered under the hood of a police sweatshirt, walking with her down the police station steps. She had just turned sixteen—shy, scared, gangly and thin. The photo had been snapped late on the day of her rescue as he had been taking her home. It had been the best day of his life since her disappearance when she was eight years old. “My daughter and I,” he confirmed.
That image had captured the start for the two of them of a journey that had pushed them together into a father-daughter relationship that was to this day still hard to explain. Becky had been, in alternating waves, suicidal and angry, terrified and manic, overjoyed with freedom, so determined to rebuild her life and push away what had happened in those missing eight years and have a life back. He’d been there for his daughter, getting her through those years and beyond to something now remarkably healthy, happy, and if not whole, at least wise and wonderful and able to deal with the past in a sane way when others brought it up.
“She’s finishing her first year in college,” he mentioned, smiling as he said it, remembering Becky as she had been this last weekend, straddling a stool in the kitchen of their Boston home on a flying visit home from college to grab more clothes and different posters, munching on a carrot and arguing the fact he just had to get a haircut and please, please, please could he remember to lose the old leather jacket before he came to meet her new roommate’s family? They already thought he was a Spenser-type tough guy with credentials as a licensed private investigator. Introducing himself as a retired cop would be okay, but a PI implied he liked to snoop.
He’d laughed at her request and fed her clam chowder that night, promising to be on his best behavior when he met the roommate’s family, pleased with the fact his daughter was moving from a single room to a double and acquiring that roommate. He had in fact done a bit of snooping. He knew more about her new roommate than the girl’s parents probably did, and concluded his daughter would be safe with her. The roommate loved to party and be out and about town, but she refused to drink or do drugs and was exclusive in her choice of boyfriend. She was the extrovert to his daughter’s more reserved nature, and, Matthew thought, a very nice girl. One of the reasons he’d agreed to come speak at this Atlanta conference as a last-minute replacement was the fact his daughter truly was now settled at college, with plans to stay on campus to take summer classes.
Matthew took a final look at the article and photo, then refolded it. He wondered why this woman would have such an old clipping. He offered it back to her.
“Can I show you something else?”
She pulled another clipping from the envelope. Tired of towering over her, he hunkered down beside her, one arm resting casually on his knee, drink in hand. He took the second clipping. A missing-person case out of Chicago, picked up by the Associated Press, this also from the Boston Globe. Shannon Bliss, age sixteen, missing along with her car, she had not arrived home after visiting friends over the three-day Memorial weekend; a reward of twenty-five-thousand offered for information. The photo looked like it came from a high-school yearbook. A pretty girl, he thought. He looked at the date on the clipping…this had happened eleven years ago. He studied the woman who had offered it. He could see a good resemblance.
He didn’t work many missing person cases anymore. Becky had asked him to give those up for a few years, to consider going back to being a cop working robberies, or teach at the police academy—let his company, Dane Investigations, be run by his staff, at least the day-to-day. A missing sister could explain why this woman had sought him out, and he did know some people in Chicago that might be able to help her. A few of them were at this conference, and he could make some calls and introductions on her behalf. “Your sister?” he asked.
“That’s me.” Silence lingered after her quiet words. “I’d like to go home,” she whispered.
He watched her knuckles turn white where she gripped the envelope, her other hand flex against the carpet; her eyes avert from his to stare down the empty hall. A stillness settled into his muscles. “Did you run away?”
She was quiet for so long he wasn’t sure she would answer.
“No.” More a breath than a word, but he heard it.
He felt his heart begin to crack on her behalf. The nuances mattered now, seeing them, hearing them, and he didn’t have history with this woman to fall back on to help him understand her. “What name do you go by now?”
“Have you spoken to the police?”
She shook her head swiftly. He didn’t let himself show a reaction to that news, just absorbed it. There were things his job had taught him, experiences with his daughter, an awareness that came from so many he had talked with over the last decade, and it all coalesced and settled in his mind. He couldn’t afford to project or assume the wrong thing here. The odds she was in fact Shannon Bliss were small, but they were real enough to pursue. She looked like she was telling him the truth as she knew it. God, help me. The quiet prayer went straight to his Father, and he took a deep breath, let it flow out. A hallway wasn’t the place for this conversation, but a pause would give her time to change her mind about talking with him, so he stayed where he was. There were things he had to know simply to not hurt her further, and he selected his next words with extreme care. “Eleven years is a long time. When did…?”
Her hand settled very lightly, very carefully, on his arm as she shook her head. “Please don’t ask.”
Her gaze shifted back to hold his. He could literally see an enforced poise reasserting itself, see the strength of will it took on her part to slide that calm back in place. It would make his job particularly hard, having her choose silence rather than spill out the details of what had occurred in an emotional wave—he needed that story. But she was coping, and she was giving him the first parameters which defined how she was coping. He had to respect that.