Authors: Daniel Palmer
Books by Daniel Palmer
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
Table of Contents
Books by Daniel Palmer
For Matthew, Ethan, and Luke
Thanks for having my back all these years.
And for the team at NCMEC and people like Nadine Jessup.
One victim is too many.
he sat at her writing desk in her home’s spacious first-floor office, dreading this moment that came every year on this date. The dainty desk was a replica of a
, a piece of furniture from the eighteenth century made specifically with a woman in mind. The name, “good hour of the day,” referred to the time of day when women took pleasure from opening, reading, and writing letters. She was there for that purpose, but took no pleasure in the task.
Gazing out a bank of windows, she saw the empty garden beds. They would blossom beautifully in springtime, as they always did. But spring was several weeks away. The grass around the beds was brown, and her mood was somber and gray as the overcast sky.
From one of the desk’s lacquered panels, she removed her checkbook, then fished a ballpoint pen from the desk’s main compartment. Out of habit, she checked the balance in the check register—plenty of money in the account, as there always was. The simple observation summoned a familiar feeling of guilt, followed by profound sadness.
She wrote out the check for the same amount as always. Her handwriting was impeccable. The loops, curves, and lines formed perfect, beautiful letters, properly spaced, neat and elegant, almost like calligraphy. She’d loved writing in school, and dreamed of one day writing a novel. She felt she had so much to say about love and relationships, the big questions of life. But that was a long time ago, a different lifetime, and she had since become an entirely different person.
From the living room next to the office she could hear the television. The sound of some sporting event in progress—basketball, she thought. What did she know? Watching sports on TV was her husband’s pastime, not hers. And yet, this was her dream—a husband resting on his lazy chair; a child reared and off on her own; a fine house kept tidy and organized, thanks to her fastidious nature; gardens in need of tending—everything as it should be.
But some dreams come at a price.
She knew that now.
From one of the little drawers across the back of the desk, she removed an envelope and addressed it from memory. Her tears began to fall. The words turned to smudges. She crumpled up the envelope, took another, and started anew. From the same drawer, she got a blank piece of paper and wrote
With gratitude for your efforts
. She signed her name and folded the paper around the check. Then, she slipped both items into the envelope and licked it closed. The glue tasted extra bitter on her tongue. She slipped the envelope into her purse. She would drive to a mailbox tonight, so it would go out first thing in the morning. She closed her eyes and took inventory of all she had, all her good fortune.
In a whispered voice, she uttered the same phrase she spoke every year on this day, at this exact moment. “May God forgive me.”
adine had thought about running away for years. She lived in a nice colonial house in Potomac, Maryland, but home was hell. She was supposed to be the child, so why was she the one taking care of her mother? It wasn’t fair. No, not right at all. Her mother had always loved to drink, but it was different after Dad left. Wine used to make her giddy, but now it just made her slur her words.
Nadine had begged her father to let her come live with him, but he was too busy with work to look after her, or so he’d said. She’d be better at home with Mom, he’d said. Ha! He should come and see what Mom had become since he’d left them for that bitch.
She tried to tell her father what it was like living with Mom. Weekends spent in bed. Often there was no food in the refrigerator, and Nadine would have to do all the shopping (driving illegally, but always carefully, on her learner’s permit) and the cooking, not to mention the cleaning. Mom walked into walls, tripped over her own feet.
Somehow her mother still had a job. She worked for Verizon, doing something in customer service. How she got to work each day, given her evening’s alcohol consumption, was nothing short of a miracle. Her get-ready ritual involved a lot more than a shower, some makeup, and breakfast. Her mother needed half the Visine bottle to get the red out. She often turned on bathroom faucets full strength to mask the sound of retching.
She’d come downstairs, cupping what looked like a handful of aspirin in her palm, and bark something unpleasant at Nadine. “Turn down that TV. I have a headache.”
Of course you do,
Nadine would think.
“Is that what you’re wearing? You look like a tramp.” It never failed. Mom’s mouth would open and something cruel, something cutting, would spill out.
“I made the honors list,” Nadine announced on the fifteenth day of March, the day she finally ran away.
Her mother rubbed at her pounding temples as she poured a cup of coffee flavored with Kahlúa. Something to take the edge off, she would say.
“You better, for what we pay that private school,” was her mother’s reply.
Nadine’s chest felt heavy, throat dry, while her eyes watered. She would not give her mother the satisfaction of seeing her cry again. Her mother would pounce if a single tear leaked out.
“Toughen up, Nadine,” she’d say. “The world is a brutal place, and you’d best have a thicker skin.”
Her mother’s jabs always held a hint of truth, which made them hurt even more. Nadine’s school was expensive, that was a fact. But her father paid most of the tuition.
Money, it seemed, was the only thing that wasn’t a problem in Nadine’s life. Dad sent them plenty. He said he was happy to support them, but Nadine knew the truth. He was assuaging (an SAT word she’d recently learned) his guilt.
He didn’t want her in his life. He wanted his new, young wife and no kids to hassle them. He wanted to travel and go to all the fancy restaurants he posted on his Facebook feed. One look at her dad’s profile page and it was obvious a kid didn’t fit into the picture. After the divorce, her father had moved to Philadelphia—Bryn Mawr East, to be exact—with a new executive position at an insurance company and a new woman in his life. He posted a few photos of Nadine, but those were all recent. No “Throwback Thursday” posts (#tbt in Facebook parlance) on her dad’s page. No pictures of Nadine aged infant to tween; no evidence of his former life, aka his great mistake as he’d called his marriage during an epic pre-divorce blowout.
That was how he viewed his family. That was all Nadine was to him—a great mistake.
Apparently her mother felt the same way.
Nadine’s last meal at home was chicken casserole, which she prepared using a recipe she got off the Internet. Her mother downed a bottle of wine with the meal. In her drunken stupor, she failed to notice the shoes Nadine had left in front of the closet door. Her mother tripped over the shoes and fell to the floor, twisting her ankle on the way down.
Nadine apologized. She had meant to put the shoes where they belonged, but was preoccupied with school, and dinner, and her too many responsibilities.
Her mother was hearing none of it. She went to the couch and applied ice to the injury, then poured herself another glass of wine, allegedly because it helped with the pain.
“Sorry again, Mom,” Nadine said. “Are you okay?”
Her mother’s eyes were red as her nail polish. “You’re so thoughtless, Nadine,” she slurred. “How am I going to go to work now? I can’t even walk. Sometimes I wish your father would let you go live with him. I know that’s what you want.”
That was it. That did it. Enough was enough. Her father didn’t want her. Neither did her mother. The choice was made not
. Nobody wanted Nadine, so nobody had to have her.
After her mother slipped into drunken sleep, Nadine took all of the money they kept in the house—$400-some dollars—and her mother’s jewelry and walked out the door with a school knapsack filled with clothes instead of books. She walked to Montgomery Mall, about four and half miles, then took a Metrobus downtown. She had plenty of money to spend, plus whatever a pawnshop would give her for the jewelry.
Pretending to be her mother, Nadine had called in sick to school. It was that easy. Her mother would take the day off to nurse her injured ankle—she’d already sent the e-mail to her boss. She’d wake up late and hung over, and think Nadine was at school. She’d think that until five o’clock rolled around.
Then she’d wonder. Maybe she’d call some of Nadine’s friends. It would be seven . . . and then eight . . . and then panic. Maybe panic. Or maybe not. She’d probably be happy. Relieved to be rid of Nadine once and for all.
Nadine didn’t know what her mother was thinking. She’d been gone for three days without calling home. She’d found a motel on the far side of the city that didn’t bother to check ID, didn’t care that she was a sixteen-year-old girl out on her own.
The question was what to do with all the time on her hands. She enjoyed school and did her homework diligently. She loved English especially, loved to escape into other people’s happy or miserable lives and forget about her own for a while. She found a used bookstore off Dupont Circle and bought several books, including the entire Testing Trilogy by Joelle Charbonneau. She devoured all three volumes in the span of two days. But something was missing. Idle time to read had in some ways diminished the pleasure.