Authors: Daniel Palmer
“Are you a runaway or something? Be honest. In my many years of doing this business, I’ve seen it all.”
Nadine bit her lip, unsure how to respond.
“Look, you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to. But there’s no judgment here.”
“It’s just that it’s hard out on your own. I mean, if this doesn’t work out—and I’m not saying it won’t—I can be your friend. You look like you could use one.”
Do you have any other words in your vocabulary, you moron?
Nadine couldn’t believe how idiotic she sounded, how juvenile.
“You’re really pretty,” Ricardo said from the front seat. “I think he’s gonna be right about you.”
“Yeah. I do.”
They drove for a bit in silence. Nadine gazed out the window at the unfamiliar landscape. She’d never been to that part of Maryland before and still had no idea where they were headed.
“I ran away,” Nadine said.
Stephen’s full lips crested into a pleased-with-himself smile. “I knew it. Mom or dad?”
Nadine understood the subtext of his question. “Both,” she answered.
“Yeah, well, you’ll show them, right?”
“Right,” Nadine said.
“You got any talent, like can you sing? Done any acting?” Ricardo asked.
Nadine gave a shrug. “I can sing some. I wanted to audition for
, but my mother wouldn’t let me.”
You’ll embarrass yourself
were her mother’s exact words.
“Yeah? Let’s hear something,” Stephen said.
“Yeah, do what you were going to do for your audition.”
Nadine could hardly speak, let alone muster up the courage to belt out a tune.
“Take another drink. Work up to it.”
Nadine did just that and another. She was feeling more courageous with each sip, but also a little sleepy. Just a little.
“You tired, Nadine?” Stephen asked. “You can close your eyes if you are. We’ve still got a ways to go.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I’m a little tired.” Her voice slipped out dreamily. Her words sounded far away, as if they had bubbled up from a deep well. She put her phone in her backpack, shut her eyelids, and that was that.
When her eyes opened, she felt woozy and disoriented. They were in some city neighborhood with brick stores, plenty of neon, lots of people. White skin was the minority—nothing like Potomac, that was for sure. Nadine’s mouth felt dry. Her stomach roiled, but she wasn’t going to puke or anything.
They had stopped in front of a three-story brick building, an apartment building perhaps.
Stephen saw she was awake and gave her some water. “We’re here”
Nadine’s legs felt heavy on her way up the front stairs. Ricardo unlocked the outside door and she followed him into a dark foyer with Stephen close behind. The floor was covered in tile with inlaid geometric patterns. Nearby a wood staircase snaked up into the darkness.
Ricardo unlocked a door at the end of a narrow first floor hallway. Nadine didn’t notice a sign for a photography studio, but that didn’t mean anything. Studios could be anywhere, even in apartment buildings like this one.
She still wasn’t feeling herself when she followed Ricardo into the apartment at the end of the hall. It was a relief to see a camera set up and some kind of a lighting rig. But it was also just an apartment with a leather couch, some IKEA-style furniture, and a kitchenette. A short hallway led to a bathroom, with a bedroom off to the side.
“You okay?” Stephen asked. “You look a little funny.”
“I think I drank too much vodka,” Nadine said.
Stephen Macan did not look surprised. “Look, I have some work to do nearby. Ricardo can do the shoot after you take a nap. There’s a bedroom, nice and comfy. You need to feel fresh and perky for the camera.”
Nadine’s head was buzzing. She needed to feel better than this, that was for sure. “Is this a studio?” Her tongue felt thick in her mouth, swollen, and she could hardly understand her own question.
“Yeah, it’s one of them.”
Ricardo escorted Nadine to the bedroom. Shades were drawn. It was dark at first, but Ricardo turned on a light.
To her relief it was a nice-looking bedroom. It had a small TV, an area rug, and a couple well-cared-for houseplants. Hanging on the walls were framed posters of pretty girls with the words
at the bottom—publicity shots, she assumed, like they were going to do for her.
Ricardo lowered the futon and got a blanket and pillows out from the closet. Nadine was so tired she wanted to vanish beneath that blanket and sleep for days. She slipped off her backpack and went right to the bed.
Ricardo covered her with the blanket. “Sleep it off,” he said as he closed the door behind him.
Nadine was going to do just that, but after she checked those Facebook messages once more. She wanted to see if any more people missed her, not that it would change anything. She wasn’t going home until she had a reason, until she was somebody. But it still felt so good to know she was missed.
She unzipped her backpack and rummaged through the contents, looking for her phone. Her hand felt around the main compartment. Her journal and pen were there, some clothes, but not what she was looking for. Then she checked all the zippered pouches. Panic welled up. She emptied the contents on the floor. Nothing.
Her phone and her wallet were gone.
ngie had spoken with Greg Jessup by phone, which completed a piece of the puzzle. She had asked all the questions of him she had planned to, except for the one that troubled her the most
. Why didn’t you take the time to drive down from Philadelphia to Virginia and meet with me in person
He’d said he would do it, of course he would, but something came up at work and, well, he just couldn’t seem to get away. He’d made it sound as if Nadine needed a wake-up call. He said it would build character for her to learn how hard life on the streets could be. She was always coming down on him for never being around, but that was because she didn’t understand what it meant to have a work ethic. She’d come home, he believed, a changed person.
Angie didn’t deny that, but she doubted it would be changed for the better. It took restraint not to call Greg Jessup an asshole, but speaking the truth would do nothing to help Nadine. Over the years, Angie had been exposed to all sorts of dysfunction. It never got easier to understand or accept.
Disgusted as she was with Nadine’s father, Angie didn’t press the issue. If it were absolutely necessary, she would drive up to meet Mr. Jessup in his home, where he was living with his new young wife and printing money thanks to a new corporate executive job. But it wasn’t necessary, at least not yet. And while it was comforting to know Greg’s checks would clear, Angie cared a hell of a lot more about finding the missing girl.
Bryn Mawr was a very affluent village and home to many of Philadelphia’s business leaders. Angie figured Greg Jessup was nesting, getting ready for Family 2.0. That could have contributed to Nadine’s feelings of abandonment and her decision to run away. Daddy’s lack of compassion aside, Angie trusted her radar. She didn’t get a creepy vibe from Greg. That didn’t mean he had never sexually assaulted his daughter. It happened plenty of times, in plenty of cases. Any evidence of it would turn up in Nadine’s bedroom, in a journal, on her computer. Angie didn’t get a list of Nadine’s closest friends because Daddy was too out of touch with his daughter to know them.
From elementary school right through college, Kathleen DeRose could list everybody Angie had been close with, including the posse who’d hung out with Sarah Winter before she’d disappeared. Being a good parent took more than just a checkbook. It took caring enough to ask questions and get involved even when your kid couldn’t think of anything worse you could do.
Carolyn more than compensated for Greg’s deficiencies. Her drinking problem aside, Nadine’s mom compiled a list of her daughter’s closest friends, boys and girls, including Sophia Kerns, who was apparently the best friend. Angie had names, addresses, and phone numbers. She would speak to each kid on the list. But first she had to go through Nadine’s bedroom.
Angie was in a spitfire mood—cranky, short-fused, and jacked up as if she’d had Red Bull in her coffee. It was the energy of the hunt. Her blood buzzed and she felt all her senses come to life. No detail could be overlooked, no lead ignored. It was day two of Angie’s investigation and already new cases came in—the phone didn’t stop ringing on account of Nadine—but she farmed out those jobs to her
. Finding Nadine would take focus and a team effort.
Accompanying Angie was a Vietnamese semi-pro skateboarder and computer expert named Bao Johnson. He was twenty-two, had long dark hair, plenty of piercings and tattoos, and wore flannel as if grunge was still the music of the day. Angie had met Bao when she’d tracked him from Washington to Boston after he’d fled his foster home. She’d met him again after she’d tracked him from a new foster home in Delaware to a rundown motel in Jacksonville, Florida. She’d met him again when he ran from a foster home in Maryland to a skate park in Newark, New Jersey.
He’d stopped running at age fourteen when Angie introduced him to a couple she knew who later agreed to adopt him. The dad was an accountant, mom a schoolteacher, and the perfectly normal home life provided Bao with what all these kids wanted. Bao had run because the foster families Child Services had placed him with wanted the payday more than they wanted the kid. Didn’t happen all the time, but it happened with enough frequency to make Angie’s business a profitable one. Truth be told, she’d gladly give up the income to make the problem go away.
Bao’s adopted family had rules, of course, and expectations he’d had to meet, grades and such. They’d asked the hard questions. They didn’t change a
just because he got angry, just because he told them that he hated them and was going to run again. It wasn’t easy, but Bao’s parents knew every kid he hung out with, where he went, who he went with, what time he’d be home—and surprise, surprise, he never made good on that threat to run.
A few years later, just after he’d turned twenty, he went to work for Angie as a certified computer forensic consultant. He was incredibly helpful, not only because of his skills and expertise at the keyboard, but also because he knew how runaway kids thought.
Sitting at Nadine’s desk, Boa was looking at her PC, mumbling to himself, which Angie took as a good sign. While he worked, Angie scoured the bedroom, looking for a journal or anything that might reveal more about Nadine or give a clue where she might have run.
As far as bedrooms went, Angie didn’t think anyone would pin this to a Pinterest board, but it was nice enough. Compared to a lot of the bedrooms runaways abandoned, this one was practically palatial. The color scheme was white with a splash of fuchsia. Cutouts from magazines of the “it” celebs of the day were taped to poster board, so they could be replaced with a new contingent of “it” when the fashions changed. Books stood in the bookcase, clothes hung neatly in the closet, a collection of stuffed animals too precious for the trash lined the bed.
She was rummaging though Nadine’s dresser when Carolyn entered carrying a laptop computer. It used to be, long before Angie’s time, that the photographs she had asked Carolyn to gather would have been put into a shoebox or displayed in photo albums. Now they were mostly in pixel form.
“I made a digital album of all the recent pictures of Nadine that were on my phone. Some of them Greg sent me, but he didn’t have a lot.”
“This will be helpful,” said Angie.
“I did get a bunch e-mailed to me from Nadine’s friends.”
Angie stopped what she was doing to shift through the collection of photos. She ignored the booze on Carolyn’s breath. Finding Nadine would be only half the battle. Angie might locate the missing girl, but without big changes in the Jessup family, Nadine might not stick around.
If the photos were any indication, they had a lot of fence mending to do. The pictures of Nadine with her parents were somber, her brown eyes heavy with sadness, but not all the photos were gloomy. Some showed Nadine laughing with her friends, making goofy expressions, looking like a kid who had a place in the world, who fit in, who wasn’t lonely and alone.
Angie began to believe that life with her alcoholic mother and disinterested father was the main reason, if not the only reason, Nadine ran. It was a show of defiance, a way to teach them a lesson. On the poster board of cutout celebrities, Angie recognized one of Anna Kendrick from the movie
. The “Cup” song from that film featured the line, “You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone.” Angie wondered what those lyrics meant to Nadine.
“What are you going to do with these, anyway?” Carolyn’s words came out a little sloppy. She wobbled slightly on her feet.
Two in the afternoon and the woman already had her drunk on. This job made it easy for Angie to appreciate her good fortune, to be ever grateful to her parents for her upbringing.
“Bao is going to create a Find Nadine Jessup Facebook page,” Angie said. “We’ll list my phone number, but we need as many recent pictures as we can get. This goes up today. Then we’ll e-mail all of Nadine’s friends and ask for their help linking to the page.”
Bao was hunched over Nadine’s laptop, but listening. “I’ve already created the e-mail address, Find Nadine Jessup at gmail dot com,” he said without peeling his eyes from the screen.
“Not saying it will go viral,” Angie added, “but it could, and it’s an important step in the process.”
“Have you found anything helpful on Nadine’s computer yet?” Carolyn asked.
Bao spun around the small wooden desk chair to face Carolyn. “She wanted to cover her tracks. She deleted her browser history before she ran. This was a planned event.”
Carolyn looked crestfallen.
“Don’t worry,” he said, pushing his long black hair from off his face. “Nothing is ever deleted on a computer. She must have read something about deleting the cookie file, but there are other ways to get at the data. Right now, I’m running a system restore and I’m also parsing the log files. We’ll know soon enough what she was looking up online. Chances are, that’s where she headed.”