Authors: Jana DeLeon
Alex nodded and hurried back into the house, happy that Holt was smart enough not to bring the doll inside the house where Sarah could see it and freak out all over again.
“You’re dripping on the floor,” Sarah said, as she entered the kitchen. Her voice was flat and vacant, and she stared at the puddles collecting on the floor beneath Alex’s robe as if mesmerized.
“I’m sorry.” Suddenly Alex felt self-conscious about her thin, wet robe. “I’ll be right back.”
She hurried to the guest bedroom and threw on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, then hung her bathrobe in the shower to dry. Holt was already in the kitchen, sitting at the table across from Sarah, when she got there.
“You didn’t see or hear anything?” Holt asked Sarah.
Sarah shook her head. “Just Alex when she awakened. I came into her room to tell her I’d make pancakes. She’s always loved my blueberry pancakes. Did she ever tell you about the time we ate fifteen of them one Saturday morning?”
Sarah smiled. “We couldn’t play kickball with the other kids, our stomachs were so swollen, but Alex always says my pancakes were worth it. Right?”
Sarah looked up at Alex, the smile seemingly affixed on her face. Alex forced a smile for her cousin and nodded. “Your pancakes are the best in the world.”
She looked over at Holt, who shot her a worried look. It was as Alex had feared—Sarah seemed to be breaking with reality.
“Sarah,” Alex said. “Do you have an extra blanket? I got a little chilly last night.”
“Sure. I have some extras in my bedroom closet.”
“Would you mind getting me one and leaving it on my bed? Just in case I have to leave and you’re asleep when I get back? I don’t want to have to wake you.”
Sarah rose from the table and walked down the hall as if programmed to do so.
“This is so not good,” Alex said.
“She’s disassociating,” Holt said, as he watched her cousin walk away.
“Yes. I was hoping to keep her calm and focused, but it’s too much for her. The deal with Bobby and now Erika missing. And all the weirdness surrounding it.”
Holt frowned. “I know this is going to make you angry, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t ask…”
“You want to know if I think it’s possible that Sarah hurt Erika.”
Holt stared at her, clearly surprised.
“Part of my work is with mental patients who got commitment instead of incarceration. I’ve seen and heard horrible things. I know how dark a place the mind can be.”
Holt sighed. “I suppose you do.”
“But the answer is still no. I don’t believe Sarah hurt her daughter.”
“But you agree she’s capable of it?”
“We’re all capable of it. We’re human. But that’s not what happened here. Sarah was completely lucid when I arrived yesterday. Her condition was normal given the situation, and I saw no indicators that there was a problem with her stability.”
“I think we better find Erika before I lose two family members in one week.”
Holt started to comment, but Sarah’s home telephone interrupted him. Alex jumped up from the table, not wanting her cousin to answer any calls in her current state of mind.
“Is this Mrs. Rhonaldo?”
Alex frowned, not recognizing the voice. “This is her cousin. Mrs. Rhonaldo is ill right now. Can I help you with something?”
“Yes, ma’am. I hope so. This is Al Johnson and I own a pawn shop in New Orleans. Mrs. Rhonaldo’s husband sold me a guitar yesterday and I wanted to verify that he was the only owner. It’s worth more that way.”
Alex gripped the phone so hard her knuckles ached. Bobby owned only one guitar that was worth enough money to pawn, and the only thing he loved more than the instrument was his daughter.
“Mr. Johnson, could you hold for just a moment, please?” Alex covered the phone with her hand and repeated what the pawn shop owner had told her.
Holt jumped up from his seat and reached for the phone. “Mr. Johnson, this is Holt Chamberlain with the Vodoun Sheriff’s Department. Mr. Rhonaldo is currently missing, as is his six-year old daughter. Do you have security cameras in your shop?”
Holt nodded to Alex and she felt her pulse increase.
“Could you please pull the tape from when Mr. Rhonaldo sold you the guitar and hold the tape and the guitar until I get there? Thank you.”
Holt hung the phone up and pulled his keys from his pocket. “I’ll let you know what I find out,” he said.
“Wait,” Alex said, “I’m going with you.”
“No, you’re not.”
“You haven’t lived in Vodoun for ten years. You may not recognize whoever is on that tape.”
“You mean, if it’s not Bobby.”
“I’d bet everything I own it’s not Bobby. There’s no way he’d part with that guitar. Not if he were alive.” As the words slipped from her mouth, the reality of them sank in and Alex sucked in a breath.
“What about Sarah? Is it safe to leave her alone?”
“A group of ladies from the church are coming over to bring food and have prayer. I’ll make sure someone can keep her company until we get back.”
“If you think it’s okay…”
“Let me check on Sarah.” She hurried down the hall before her mind could whirl down a million paths she wasn’t ready to take.
Holt held the door of the pawn shop open so that Alex could step inside. A big man behind the counter waved as they entered. Holt pulled his badge from his pocket and flashed it as they stepped up to the counter.
The man looked over at a young kid working on a stereo in the corner. “Watch the counter for me, Tim. I need to speak to these people for a minute.”
The boy nodded and Al motioned them behind the counter and into an office. Alex glanced at the guitar on his desktop and nodded.
“That’s Bobby’s guitar,” Alex said. “The artwork is custom. There’s no two alike.” She pulled her wallet from her purse and showed Al a picture of Sarah and Bobby. “Is this the man who sold you the guitar?”
“Not even close,” Al said.
“You’re sure?” Holt asked.
Al nodded. “In my business, it pays to remember faces. The guy who sold me the guitar was older, his hair lighter. His eyes were wider set and his nose had been broken before, probably more than once. I used to box, so I know the look.”
Holt tried to control his excitement at the first possibility of a decent lead. “Do you think you can work with a sketch artist to get a composite of the man?”
“Ain’t no need.” Al pointed to one of the monitors on his desk. “This is the one that’s got the footage you want to see. Real up close and personal.”
Holt and Alex leaned over the desk for a closer look at the monitor. At first, it was just Al standing behind the counter, working on a broken jigsaw, then a shadow appeared on the counter and a man stepped up.
Holt struggled to contain his disappointment. “The camera only catches him from behind?”
“Wait a minute,” Al said. “They’re on rotation. The frame will switch to the camera behind the counter in a couple of seconds.”
Sure enough, a couple of seconds later, the monitor blinked and the view switched to one from behind the counter. Holt studied the man’s face, but was certain he’d never seen him before.
“Well?” Al asked.
“You gave a great description,” Holt said, “and that’s certainly not Bobby. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen that man before.”
Alex shook her head. “Me, either.”
“This Bobby,” Al said, “is he in some kind of trouble?”
“It’s beginning to look like it. His six-year old daughter went missing two days ago. Bobby and his wife are recently separated, and when someone went to question him about the missing girl, they found his place empty.”
Al frowned. “That doesn’t sound good. I got a little girl myself. Anything happens to her…well, let’s just say no man wants to be on the other end of that.”
Holt nodded. “I totally agree.”
“You can take the guitar. It’s likely stolen goods and that’s the cost of doing business sometimes.”
“I appreciate it,” Holt said. He was just about to turn away when the man selling the guitar pulled his right hand out of his jean’s pocket and reached for a pen on the counter. Holt stared at the monitor, his pulse ticking up with every second.
The man had the eye tattoo on the back of his hand.
“Can I take the video with me, too?” Holt asked. “I’d like to run this guy through the system and see if I come up with anything.”
“Of course.” Al pulled the tape from the VCR and handed it to Holt. “Hey, man, would you mind letting me know when you find that little girl? It’ll be on my mind…”
“Sure,” Holt said. “Thanks for everything.”
He left the office and exited the pawn shop, Alex trailing behind. He was trying to control his warring emotions and thought he was doing a pretty fine job of it.
“So are you going to tell me what happened in there?” Alex asked.
“What do you mean?”
“You looked like you’d seen a ghost right before Al turned off that tape.”
He held in a groan. Why did he think for one minute that Alex would fail to notice something like that? She’d noticed everything when they were kids, and now she had a PhD and a job that required her to notice the little things.
“It’s nothing,” he said.
“It didn’t seem like nothing. Look, if you know something about this man that will help us find Erika, you have to tell me.”
“It has nothing to do with Erika.”
“That’s not up for discussion.” He strode past her and crossed the street, leaving her standing on the corner, staring after him. He wasn’t ready to discuss the man yet. And certainly not with Alex. Seeing her had already brought back too many uncertainties, too many questions.
It seemed to Holt that the entire life he’d run to escape was unraveling right before his eyes.
* * *
LEX PUSHED HER SHOPPING CART
down the aisle of the Vodoun Sack-a-lot, trying to concentrate on buying food for Sarah’s house. So far, she’d picked up a tube of toothpaste, a bottle of cooking oil and matches. As long as they wanted to have good breath while setting the house on fire, they were set.
And now she was on the spice aisle, with not a vegetable or meat product in her cart to season. She shook her head and pushed the cart to the end of the aisle, determined to find something easy to fix that was also edible.
She was eyeing the meat counter when she pushed her cart out of the aisle and another shopper crashed into her from the side.
“I’m so sorry,” Alex said immediately, then looked over to see the very annoyed face of her least favorite woman in Vodoun—Lorraine Conroy, the sheriff’s mother.
“Well, I’ve always thought it,” Lorraine said, studying one of her perfectly manicured nails, “but it’s quite refreshing to actually hear you say it.”
“If I’d known it was you on the other end, I wouldn’t have apologized. I would have shoved the cart harder. Did you break a nail? Do you want me to call Care Flight?”
Lorraine shook her head, the condescending expression she wore one born of constant practice. “Your mother never did manage to teach you manners, did she?”
“My mother taught me that manners only apply in our actions toward human beings.” She smiled.
“Cute,” Lorraine said, and dropped her hand. “I suppose you’re here to fix the latest mess that trashy cousin of yours has gotten herself into.”
Alex felt the blood rush to her face. It was one thing for Lorraine to direct her hostility on Alex. That was nothing new. But she wasn’t going to let the woman disparage her cousin’s plight.
“Her daughter is missing. I would think that even you would find a missing child disturbing.”
Lorraine laughed. “Well, dear, you’ve already pointed out that I’m not human. Besides, everyone knows that foreign husband of hers took the child. Why all the fuss? She’s probably much better off with him in whatever country that is than being raised by Sarah.”
“No, what’s despicable is that trash like Sarah is allowed to live in such a nice place like Vodoun. Marrying that foreigner and bringing him here, having a child with him. She was asking for something like this to happen. Why, that sort of thing is all over the television.”
Alex clenched the handle of the shopping cart, certain that if she freed up a hand, she wouldn’t be able to stop herself from slapping the smug look right off Lorraine’s face.
here to take care of Sarah, right?” Lorraine asked. “I mean, certainly you didn’t come running back here to take another stab at hooking Holt. Because we all know how that turned out the first time. It’s one thing to embarrass yourself by throwing yourself at a man when you’re twenty, but it’s really pathetic when you’re in your thirties.”
“But throwing yourself at a much younger man at—shall we be polite and say sixty—is perfectly acceptable.” Everyone in Vodoun knew that Lorraine had taken up with a much younger man after her much older husband’s death. Lorraine claimed he was a business partner, but no one in Vodoun was buying it.
“Business is a totally different issue.” She narrowed her eyes at Alex. “But then, maybe this
business. I’m sure by now you know Holt’s trust fund was turned over to him when he turned thirty. I guess the fact that he ran off to Iraq to get away from you hasn’t deterred you from your goal.”
Alex felt the blood rush up her face, causing her temples to throb. “You have the nerve to accuse me of chasing after Holt for his money? You married a man twice your age just to double your holdings.”
Lorraine laughed. “My husband wasn’t useful for much of anything, really, but making money. Making money was the one thing he did without fail.”
“That wasn’t the
thing he did without fail, was it, Lorraine?” Her husband’s reputation as a philanderer was also common knowledge.
Lorraine glared, her face flushing red with anger. “I suppose it takes a whore to know one.”
Alex slipped one hand from the shopping cart and started to step around when a hand clasped her shoulder and squeezed.
“That’s quite enough, Lorraine,” Holt said. “I would expect a woman of your caliber to show more class than this.”