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"See, I didn't want to just, like, email him or something. I thought I should really go talk to him. In person. You know?" Earnest and wide-eyed, Sierra twirled one lock of indigo-blue hair around her finger. Elaborately casual, she finished, "It would be cooler if I had my driver's license, but since I can't drive myself with only a permit "
Permit. Driver's license. Email him. Him who? Lucy Malone realized, as she stared at her foster daughter in bewilderment, that her mind seemed to be scrolling backward through what had been a fairly lengthy recitation. Back to the beginning, which had been
"I found my dad." Perfectly timed, the sixteen-year-old said it again, hugged herself and did a small end-zone dance. "Is that amazing or what?"
Lucy pressed her fingertips to her suddenly aching temples. "Wait. No. You don't have a father."
Sierra rolled her eyes as only a teenager could. "Of course I have a father. What do you think? Mom managed an immaculate conception? I mean, sure, it was close, but "
Oh, Lord, Lucy didn't want to believe Sierra knew anything at all about conception, especially the kind that wasn't immaculate. Which was foolish in the extreme.
What else did girlsand boysher age think about, if it wasn't sex?
What Lucy did know was that Sierra's mother had never married and had decided to have a child on her own. She'd gone to a sperm bank; yes, the closest thing to an immaculate conception that a woman could achieve. From what Sierra said, all her mother had ever known about Sierra's father was what he'd chosen to share about himself for the women shopping for sperm. Catalog copy. And how accurate was that likely to be? No guy selling sperm was likely to admit that his IQ was really eighty-five and his best skill was belching louder than his buddies.
Lucy sank onto the stool behind the cash register. "Explain," she ordered.
Thank God there were no customers in the store at the moment, a fact that wouldn't normally make her grateful. She'd opened her gourmet pet food supply store only a year before, and although business had been steadily climbing, she still sweated through paying the bills every month. But this was definitely not a conversation she wanted overheard.
"I told you!" Sierra complained. "Weren't you listening?"
"You know me. My idea of high-tech is ultrasonic teeth-cleaning equipment. I know zilch about DNA." Lucy was a licensed veterinary technician who'd gotten tired of taking orders from other people. But if there was one thing she knew, it was animals, so her choice of business made sense.
"I sent in a swab from the inside of my cheek to a lab for DNA testing," the teenager said with exaggerated patience.
"Isn't that expensive?"
"Not that much. Anyway, I was saving all the money I made babysitting and working for you."
"Okay." Lucy closed her eyes briefly. "Then what?"
Then, Sierra said, she had compared her DNA results to millions of others on a variety of online databases.
Lucy frowned. "Surely you couldn't get on I don't know. Whatever one law enforcement uses. Isn't that the main one?"
Sierra's sky-blue eyes gave a betraying flicker. Lucy recognized it. Aghast, she whispered, "You didn't."
Her foster daughter was going through a Goth phase. Currently her hair, shoulder length and blunt cut, was dyed blue, a change from last year's jet-black. A tattoo of a dragon twined around one slender ankle. Her nose and one eyebrow were pierced. More piercings climbed the rim of each ear. Lucy had nixed the idea of a tongue piercing until, at a minimum, Sierra turned eighteen. Fortunately, she'd taken the refusal in good humor.
The thing was, she was brilliant. Scary smart. At home she was rarely without her fingers on a computer keyboard. She carried her laptop everywhere. Screens constantly popped up as friends sent instant messages. They didn't seem ever to talk; they communicated in a sort of bizarre shorthand via the internet. Lucy knew that Sierra was very, very good at hacking in to forbidden websites; she'd gotten into big trouble while in eighth grade for changing a friend's marks in the school records. When telling Lucy about it recently, she'd said blithely, "It was easy. Hey, I did them a favor! They've at least made it a little harder now."
Lucy had not pursued the subject. Had there been more recent incursions into the school district personnel or student records, she didn't really want to know about it. What worried her were Sierra's exact capabilities now, almost three years later.
Now gazing sunnily back at Lucy, Sierra said, "Um I didn't have to. I bet I could, though. It's called CODIS. Combined DNA Index System. You can do partial-match searches in it, too. Haven't you read about it? The American Civil Liberties Union doesn't think cops should be able to compare, like, some guy's brother's DNA to the sperm taken from a raped woman."
Lucy grappled with that. "You mean, if I had a brother who'd raped a woman, my DNA could be matched to his sperm?" She heard her voice rising.
"Sure. I mean, it wouldn't be a perfect match. That's what a partial match is. See, that's what I did."
She went on to explain that there were DNA databases for all kinds of reasons. Some were medical, for people trying to find a match who might donate an organ, or bone marrow. Others were for people into genealogy. DNA was a new way to track family and ancestors.
"So I found this woman in Seattle." Her pretty face was aglow with enthusiasm. "She's a really close match. Then I did more research, and I found out she and her husband had two kids. One was a girl, one a boy. He's the right age, and he went to college at the UW."
Lucy found herself nodding numbly. The University of Washington was in Seattle, less than an hour northwest of Kanaskat, where Lucy had her home and business. Sierra's mother had grown up in the Seattle area and never left, and had presumably used a local fertility clinic.
"And.this man. He's still around here."
"Yes!" The teenager indulged in another delighted dance. "It's just got to be him. I know it is."
Lucy couldn't argue on a factual basis, given her relative ignorance of DNA testing and profiling and online databases. And, heck, genealogy.
Maybe I could find my father.
A little shocked that the thought had even flitted through her mind, she almost snorted. Like she'd want to find him.
"Sierra," she said, "this man gave sperm with the understanding he'd remain anonymous. The deal was never that he'd actually take any kind of parental responsibility."
For a timeless, stricken moment, Sierra's crystal clear eyes held Lucy's. Then the girl ducked her head and her blue hair swung down to hide her face. Lucy felt cruel.
"I know," Sierra said in a small voice. "I just, um, want to meet him. And see. That's all." She lifted her face, a pleading expression on it. "He might like to meet me. I mean, wouldn't you think he'd be curious? It's not like I expect him to actually want me."
"I want you," Lucy said quietly.
Her foster daughter gave her a tremulous smile and her eyes filled with tears. "I know. I know how lucky I am. I love living with you, Lucy. It would just be nice to have family who would, like, call sometimes. Care if I get accepted into college. You know?"
A lump filled Lucy's throat. She knew.
Sierra's mother, Rebecca Lind, had died in a head-on car accident eight months ago. She'd never had any other children. She did have a brother, who lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico. When social services contacted him, he'd said there was no way he and his wife could take on a teenage girl. The social worker had privately told Lucy that his exact words had been "For God's sake, I haven't seen Becky in twenty-five years. We didn't even try to stay in touch after Mom died. It's too bad about the accident, but I can't take on some kid of hers."
The last thing a grief-stricken fifteen-year-old had needed was to be rejected by the only relative she had left in the world. At the time, Sierra had begun working on Saturdays for Lucy, cleaning and stocking shelves. After her mom died, she'd stayed temporarily with a friend. She had come by midweek to tell Lucy she wouldn't be able to make it to work anymore.
Lucy hadn't seen her since the funeral. She'd looked awful. Her hair had been dyed black at the time, but the pale roots were showing. A tall, skinny girl, she looked as if she'd dropped ten pounds in two weeks. She was gaunt, and her eyes were puffy, and her fingers writhed together while she talked.
"I'm being sent to a foster home in Midford," she said. Even her voice was dull. Her thin shoulders moved in a listless shrug. "They tried to find one here so I could stay in the same school, but I guess there weren't any."
Lucy was still in shock that the aunt and uncle had said no. Hearing that they had refused made her mad. No, worse than that. It made her ache inside for this gawky child-woman who had already been so very vulnerable, even before the only person in the world who loved her had been stolen from her by a drunk driver.
Sierra might have a little barbell through one eyebrow and a ring in one nostril, her hair might be dyed pitch-black, her clothes black and the dog collar she wore around her neck spiked, but she was a sweetheart. She was smart, and funny, and oddly innocent. Lucy had already thought that she would like nothing better than to have a daughter like Sierra.
Which was probably why, that day, her mouth had opened and she heard herself say, with no forethought whatsoever, "Would you like to live with me?"
So now here they were. Although at twenty-eight she was too young to actually be a mother to a girl Sierra's age, she'd gotten properly licensed as a foster home, and now she was Sierra's family.
Which meant, of course, that there was no way she could let the girl go by herself to see this man who might or might not be her father. Clearly, stopping her wouldn't fly. Look at all the effort she'd gone to finding him in the first place. And, face it, the chances were really good that he wouldn't believe Sierra's claim, even if he had givenor did the men sell?sperm when he was in college. If he did believe her, he probably still wouldn't want to admit he was her father.
Were she honest with herself, Lucy couldn't even entirely blame him. He probably had a wife and children. It would be more than slightly awkward for him to admit that not only was this teenager who'd appeared out of the blueand had blue hairhis daughter by a woman he'd never even set eyes on, but he might have other daughters and sons running around. Not might; probably did.
She waited until Sierra met her eyes, and then she said very softly, "Are you sure you want to do this, honey? You know he might want nothing to do with you." Especially after he took in her clothes and her piercings and her tattoo.
In Lucy's experience, men tended not to look beneath the surface.
Sierra squared her shoulders, held her head high and said, "Yes. I'm sure."
Lucy nodded. "Then I'll take you to see him."
The teenager grinned. "Cool! I already have an appointment with him. Except I made up an excuse."
"You've what?" Alarm filled Lucy. "What does he do for a living?"
"He's a cop." She made a face. "Jeez. My dad the cop. But he's one of the ones in charge, I think. He's a captain."
Alarm metamorphosed into dread. Lucy had this sudden, terrible premonition. Yesterday's Dispatch had carried a front-page article on the electoral race for county sheriff. The incumbent was retiring. One candidate was the police chief of Willis, the county's largest city, the other the captain of Investigative Services for the Emmons County Sheriff's Department. She had stared for a long time at the photo of that candidate, her attention caught for reasons she hadn't quite been able to pin down.
"Oh, no. Please tell me he's not "
Sierra nodded, as if to confirm Lucy's suspicions. "His name is Jonathan Brenner. He's running for sheriff. I found tons of pictures of him online. I look like him," she said simply.
Dear God, she did, Lucy thought. That was why she hadn't been able to look away from his photo.
Well, it was one of the reasons. The other was the disquieting fact that simply looking at him, even in black and white, had made her heart do an odd little skip and bump.
And she hadn't been able to help noticing, in the article, that he wasn't married.
As if, she'd told herself, folding the newspaper up and determinedly depositing it in the recycling bin, she would ever meet him.
"When I'm wrong," she murmured, once Sierra had wandered away to the pair of cages that held two shelter cats awaiting adoption, "I'm wrong. Really wrong."
Lucy had a strong suspicion that her role in the upcoming meeting was not going to endear her to the very upright, conservative Captain Jonathan Brenner.
"I'm not letting him back on the street until the investigation is complete," Jon Brenner said flatly. Eddie Prindle, the police union representative, said, "You don't have grounds to put Deputy Chen on suspension. At this point, you have no evidence that the incident was his fault."
They'd already said this. Several times. Jon abruptly lost patience.
"Then file a grievance." He rose, but stayed behind his desk. "I'm afraid you'll have to excuse me. I have another appointment."
Prindle didn't like him. The feeling was mutual. Jon didn't hold out a hand. After a moment the other man stood, too. "You've gone too far," he said. "Are you afraid voters will think you're colluding to excuse a deputy's malfeasance if you don't come down hard enough on Deputy Chen? Whatever the truth of the incident?"
Jon didn't allow his expression to change. "The election has nothing to do with this. Chen screwed up. I don't know how badly yet. When I do, I'll make a decision. I can tell you this. It's to his benefit for me not to make that decision prematurely. You're not doing him any favors, Prindle."
"You'll be hearing from us," the union rep said. He turned on his heel and stalked out of the office.
Jon swung away to gaze out the window. On a clear day he had a glimpse of Mount Rainier from here. Today the mountain was wrapped in puffy clouds.