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Authors: Daniel Palmer

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BOOK: Forgive Me
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“What about Nadine? Did she feel like she was under a lot of pressure?”

The distant look in Carolyn’s eyes suggested that it had never occurred to her to ask that question. “Maybe. I don’t know. Look, the past is the past. I don’t know why any of this even matters. What I want to know is what you’re going to do to find my daughter. She’s been gone a month.”

It mattered on many levels, Angie knew, but she wasn’t about to debate the point. Nadine was well past the danger zone. More than three quarters of kids who ran away returned home after a week. The longer Nadine was missing, the less chance they had of finding her.

The technical difference between a runaway and a thrownaway child meant nothing to Angie. One left voluntarily and stayed away from home for consecutive nights, while the other was told to leave the house—alone and without money. Runaway or thrownaway, both types of kids were on the streets, where they attracted dangers like wounded fish in a sea of hungry sharks. Drugs, gangs, human traffickers, muggers, rapists—a gallery of perils loomed every minute a runaway stayed away from home.

“Are you still in regular contact with the police?” Angie asked. “I saw that Nadine’s been entered into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database. Sometimes this can be difficult because of bureaucracy and backlog, but it’s done and that’s a good thing.”

“The police haven’t been helpful at all,” Carolyn said with venom in her voice. “Especially after they figured out Nadine packed her belongings and called the school pretending to be me.”

“Not really a surprise,” Angie said. “They’re working murders, serious crimes. Runaways are not treated with the same urgency as, say, an abduction case.”

“I’m sure the level of urgency from the police would have been higher if it had been one of their kids who ran away.”

“I don’t disagree,” Angie said. “But the problem is too many kids go missing. I promise you, it’s not like they forget that for a parent, a missing child is a very big deal. It’s simply that they don’t have enough resources to track all the kids down. That’s where we come in.”

It was a constant complaint from parents of runaways and hard for Angie not to get frustrated and vocal. She needed law enforcement to be a friend. At the same time, as Carolyn had found out, they could do little to help.

“When did you last speak with your contact at NCMEC?” Angie asked.

“Sometime last week.”

“So you know they printed new posters? The old ones typically get taken down after a while.” Angie reached behind her and peeled away one of the posters from a printed stack. She’d gotten a copy of the poster from NCMEC when she’d learned of Nadine’s disappearance. The word
missing
atop the poster in bold red lettering caught the eye. A QR code on the side would connect anyone who scanned it with a smartphone to the NCMEC website. Below that were two recent photos of Nadine. She was a pretty girl with straight brown hair and friendly smile. Even with Carolyn’s drinking, Angie could see that someday Nadine would grow up to be the spitting image of her mom.

Carolyn studied the poster intently but did not seem impressed. “So basically I have an entry in a database and a damn poster I could have made myself.”

Angie had heard this response before. “She’s part of the system. It’s a start.”

“What’s next?”

“Have you been to your daughter’s bedroom? Gone through her belongings? Did she leave behind anything that might tell you where she’d gone? A cell phone, a camera, a notebook, something that might detail her plans.”

Carolyn winced. “The police searched her room but said they didn’t find anything useful. I trusted them. Honestly, I was glad they went through her things and not me. It’s hard to go in there now. It’s just too painful.”

“I understand. The bedroom is where we’re going to start.”

Carolyn’s face brightened. “We have plenty of money to pay you. I heard you were the best at this.”

“I’ll do what it takes to find your daughter. I want to meet Nadine’s friends if at all possible. Chances are she’s not hiding out with one of them, not for this long anyway, but they might know where she’s gone. Did Nadine have any relatives she was close with?”

Carolyn shook her head. “I don’t keep in touch much with them.”

“You haven’t shut off her phone have you?” Angie grimaced slightly, hoping the answer would be no.

“No. I’m still paying the bill.”

“Good. I need you to keep calling her phone. Don’t shut it off. That’s the worst thing you can do. We’ll monitor Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat and other social media sites where your daughter may have a presence. Meanwhile, I want you to write down any places where you think she may have gone. I want every one of them. Places you visited that she liked or someplace she’s talked about always wanting to go. Think hard on this because we’re going to search them all.”

Tears flooded Carolyn’s eyes. “It’s my fault—my damn fault. You must think I’m the worst mother ever.”

“I don’t think that for a minute,” Angie answered.

“I should have come to you sooner. I just thought the police—” Carolyn could not finish her sentence.

Parents’ responses to a runaway child were as varied as the circumstances. Some blamed themselves and were consumed by guilt. Others were defensive. Some were openly angry, and all too often Angie heard plans to punish the child after all was resolved.

“What about the posters?”

“Well, I’ve got a stack, and I’m making my own with my contact information on them. Between my team and the team at NCMEC we’ll see that they’re in as many spots as possible. They will be geo-targeted too, based on the information we supply.” Angie reached across the table to take Carolyn’s trembling hand. “Trust me when I say I’m going to do everything possible to find your daughter.”

CHAPTER 4

Four weeks earlier

 

N
adine caught up to Stephen Macan after a brief sprint. In a semi-breathless voice, she explained her change of heart.

He seemed genuinely pleased. “Can you come now?”

“Now?” Nadine replied.

“Well, I have some time and we can get the headshots done. This is a very fluid, fast-moving business. You have to be able to stomach that sort of thing.”

Nadine barely gave it a thought. It made sense that things happened quickly in this business. She’d heard the term
overnight success
plenty of times, and now it had new meaning.

“Sure. I guess.”

“You have nowhere you have to be for a few hours?”

Nadine shook her head. “No. Nowhere.”
Really nowhere,
she thought.

“Well, let’s get going then. Time’s a-wasting. Is your car here?”

Nadine wanted to place Stephen’s accent, but it was hard, something she’d never quite heard before. “I don’t have a car.”

That was no trouble at all for Mr. Stephen Macan. “Fine, then. Mine is nearby. I’ll drive you to the studio and get the headshots done, then take you wherever you want to go.”

He was all smiles, but Nadine felt uneasy.
Where exactly was this studio?
Her mother certainly wouldn’t approve of her getting into a car with a strange man. A ripple of anxiety coursed through her body, but what could she do? She didn’t want to offend Mr. Macan. She had already said she’d do it. She felt committed. Besides, he looked so pleased, happy with her—finally someone was happy with her—that she hated the thought of disappointing him.

Nadine pushed aside her doubts. She would have the stomach for this sort of thing, just as he asked.

They walked in silence to the garage where he’d parked his Cadillac Escalade. It was an impressive car, but even more impressive was the tall man who emerged from the driver’s seat. He was a lot younger than Stephen Macan—Nadine put him in his mid-twenties—but he had that same star quality. Not just handsome, but beautiful. He had chocolate eyes and gorgeous olive skin. His hair was dark, thick, and lustrous, cut over the ears, and his chiseled jaw was splendidly accented by the perfect amount of scruff. He wore a blue blazer with a white oxford shirt underneath, dark pressed blue jeans, and expensive-looking cowboy boots on his feet.

“Nadine, this is Ricardo. Ricardo, Nadine. She’s getting the full workup. Headshots, marketing package, glossies, the works.”

“Sounds good, boss.” Ricardo opened the rear doors of the Escalade and Stephen motioned for Nadine to get inside.

He has a driver?
She felt even more relaxed about her decision now that another person was present—a driver, no less. Mr. Stephen Macan was indeed a very big deal.

“Mark my words, this one is going to the silver screen.”

Ricardo slipped Nadine a conspiratorial look that said she was lucky, and his boss was seldom wrong.

Soon enough, Nadine was seated beside Stephen in his roomy and plush Escalade. It was a luxurious ride, something her father might drive, or at the very least, envy. A bottle of water was in the cup holder, and the console held a bag of peanut M&Ms that she devoured.

Stephen was looking at his smartphone. Nadine took out her phone and did the same. She went right to Facebook and her stomach turned over as she read the posts her friends had written on her wall.

 

Nadine we miss you and love U!! Please come home. Xoxo It’s not the same with you gone. Where u @ girlfriend?

 

One of her friends, Sophia, even wrote a poem.

 

My heart is broken
My friend is gone
To where I do not know
I miss her so

 

The short poem got seventy-eight likes and a bunch of really sweet comments.

Tears came to Nadine’s eyes. She missed her friends terribly. Hard as it was to read all the posts, she still believed she had done the right thing by leaving. She couldn’t stand one more minute in that house and didn’t want to burden her friends with her problems. Leaving was better. Leaving gave her a chance to get back at her mom and dad. She wanted her parents to feel guilt, shame, sadness, and regret. She wanted it to hurt.

Her plan was working, to some extent. To Nadine’s surprise, her mother had miraculously figured out how to use Facebook, and had taken the time to write something. It wasn’t the most incredible message ever written, but it was something.

 

Honey, please come home or call and let us know you’re all right. We miss you and need to hear from you. Love you so much, Mom.

 

Nadine checked twice, but her father hadn’t written anything. No surprise.

“Do you mind if I ask exactly how old you are?”

“Eighteen, almost nineteen,” Nadine said, answering Stephen Macan, finding the lie came easy. Her shirt was tight-fitting against her chest, and even with a jacket on she looked developed, mature—maybe almost nineteen instead of sixteen, her true age.

“Are you in school?”

“No,” Nadine said.

“Did you drop out or something?” Stephen’s curiosity came across as genuine.

“Or something.”

“Just not for you, eh? Wasn’t for me, either. But look at me now—never went to college, and I’ve done all right. Hey, you won’t even need to get a GED if I think what’s going to happen to you happens.”

Nadine caught another flash of Ricardo’s million-dollar smile in the rearview mirror. She was more than inclined to believe Stephen.

With Ricardo driving the speed limit in the middle lane, they got onto I-695 heading south. Nadine wondered where they were going. She wanted to ask, but worried that it might sound pushy or unsure. She wanted Stephen (and Ricardo) to think she was confident and fine with whatever happened next. That was how she was going to play it, how she wanted to come across.

Instead of asking questions, Nadine went back to her phone and those messages on her Facebook wall. It felt good to read them. It felt so good to be missed. Nadine was glad she was gone.

At last they left the highway. They drove through a business district, then through a residential neighborhood, and then into a quieter, darker business district. The coming sunset was a rich tapestry of pinks and yellows stretched across a faded blue sky.

Nadine thought about getting back to Washington in the dark. Where was she going to sleep that night, and the next night, and the next? She’d left nothing in the motel room, and didn’t have a reservation to return. She was living day-by-day. Everything she owned, she carried on her back.

Brick buildings and warehouses made of corrugated steel cast tall shadows on quiet streets. Most people would think twice before walking alone in that part of town.

They kept going. Nadine was relieved that Stephen Macan did not keep his photography studio there. She was completely turned around, and wouldn’t have known she was in Maryland if it weren’t for the GPS app on her phone.

“Are you hungry, Nadine?” Ricardo asked from the driver’s seat. “We got sandwiches up here. Turkey and Swiss. It’s good.”

Stephen looked upset with himself. “I have good instincts for talent, but I sometimes miss the mark on the obvious. I can’t believe I didn’t offer you something. I’m sorry, Nadine. Please. Eat.”

From the center console Ricardo produced a small portable cooler and passed it back to her. She was famished and ate the sandwich in a few large bites.

“So how are you feeling about this?” Stephen asked.

Nadine’s eyes went to her phone. “I guess I’m a bit nervous,” she admitted.

Stephen gave Ricardo a nod. The next thing the driver handed Nadine was a flask.

“Take a few long drinks. You’re going to want something to help take the edge off before your shoot.”

“Thanks,” Nadine said, taking the flask from Ricardo’s hand. She gave a hard swallow and felt the burn rip down her throat. It was straight vodka. She had been unprepared for the sensation, but managed to keep it down. She didn’t even cough, and felt proud of the accomplishment.

“Can I ask you something?” Stephen said.

“Yeah?” Nadine liked how he spoke to her, like an adult, like she mattered. She took another swig from the flask. They were on I-295, still headed south.

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