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The vision came without warning, a door bursting open in her mind.
Frightened blue eyes, red-rimmed from crying. Freckled cheeks, smudged with tears and dirt.
Red hair, tangled and sweat-darkened.
A terrified cry. "Daddy, help me!"
Lily Browning pressed her fingers against her temples and squeezed her eyes closed. Explosions of light and pain raced through her head like arcs of tracer fire. Around her, a thick gray mist swirled. Moisture beaded on her brow, grew heavy and slid down her cheek.
She opened her eyes, afraid of what she would see. It was just an empty schoolroom, the remains of the morning's classes scattered about the space — backpacks draped by their straps over the backs of chairs, books lying askew. The kids were still at recess.
"Lily?" A woman's voice broke the silence. Lily jumped.
Carmen Herrera, the assistant principal, stood at the entrance of the classroom, but it was the man behind her who commanded Lily's attention. His dark hair was crisp and close-cut, emphasizing his rough-hewn features and hard hazel eyes. His gaze swept over Lily in a quick but thorough appraisal.
The door in her mind crept open again. She stiffened, forcing it shut, her head pounding from the strain. Pain danced behind her eyes, the familiar opening salvo of a migraine.
"Headache again?" Carmen asked, concerned.
Lily pushed herself upright. "It's not too bad." But already the room began to spin. Swaying, she gripped the edge of the desk.
The man in the charcoal suit pushed past Carmen to cup Lily's elbow, holding her steady. "Are you all right?"
Lily's arm tingled where he touched her. Raw, barely leashed power rolled off him in waves, almost as tangible as the scent of his aftershave. It swamped her, stole her breath.
He said her name, his fingers tightening around her elbow. Something else besides power flooded through her. Something dark and bitter and raw.
She met his gaze — and immediately regretted it. "Help me, Daddy!" The cry echoed in her head. Fog blurred the edges of her sight.
Swallowing hard, she fought the relentless undertow and pulled her elbow from the man's grasp, resisting the urge to rub away the lingering sensation of his touch. "I'm fine."
"Lily gets migraines," Carmen explained. "Not that often, but when they hit, they're doozies."
Lily heard a thread of anxiety woven in the woman's usually upbeat, calm voice. A chill flowed through her, raising goose bumps on her arms. "Has something happened?"
Something passed between Carmen and the man beside her. "Lily, this is Lieutenant McBride with the police. Lieutenant, this is Lily Browning. She teaches third grade." Carmen closed the classroom door behind her and lowered her voice. "One of our students is missing. Lieutenant McBride's talking to all the teachers to find out whether they've seen her."
Lily's head spun.
Lieutenant McBride pulled a photo from his coat pocket and held it out to her. She shut her eyes, afraid to look.
"Ms. Browning?" He sounded concerned, even solicitous, but suspicion lurked behind the polite words.
Lily forced herself to look at the picture he held. A smiling face stared up at her from the photo framed by red curls scooped into a topknot and fastened with a green velvet ribbon.
Lily thought she was going to throw up. "You haven't seen her today, have you?" McBride asked. "Her name is Abby Walters. She's a first-grader here."
"I don't have a lot of contact with first-graders." Lily shook her head, feeling helpless and guilty. The sandwich she'd eaten at lunch threatened to come back up, and she didn't want it to end up on the lieutenant's scuffed Rockports.
"You've never seen her?" A dark expression passed across McBride's face. Pain, maybe, or anger. It surged over Lily, rattling her spine and cracking open the door of her mind.
Unwanted sounds and images flooded inside. The lost girl, now smiling, cuddled in a man's arms, listening to his warm voice tell the story of The Velveteen Rabbit. Red curls tucked under a bright blue knit cap, cheeks pink with —
Cold. So cold.
Grimy tears streamed down a face twisted with terror, hot and wet on her cold, cold cheeks. Panic built in Lily's chest. She pushed against the vision, forcing it away.
"We have reason to believe that Abby Walters may have been taken from her mother this morning," he said.
"Where's her mother?"
The words sent ice racing through Lily's veins. She swallowed hard and lied. "I haven't seen this little girl."
McBride gave her an odd, considering look before he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a business card. "If you think of anything that might help us find her, call me."
She took the card from him, his palpable suspicion like a weight bending her spine.
Carmen had kept her distance while McBride talked to Lily, but once he turned back toward the door, she moved past him and took Lily's hand. "Go home and sleep off this headache. I'll send Linda from the office to cover for you." She glanced at the detective, who watched them from the doorway. "I can't believe something like this has happened to one of our kids. I'm working on a migraine myself." She returned to McBride's side to escort him from the room.
Lily thrust the business card into her skirt pocket and slumped against the edge of her desk. Sparks of colored light danced behind her eyes, promising more pain to come. She debated trying to stick out the rest of the afternoon, but her stomach rebelled. She barely made it to the bathroom before her lunch came up.
As soon as Linda arrived to cover her class, Lily headed for the exit, weaving her way through the groups of laughing children returning to their classrooms, until she reached her Buick, parked beneath one of the ancient oak trees that sheltered the schoolyard. She slid behind the wheel and closed the door, gratefully shutting out the shrieks and shouts from the playground.
In the quiet, doubts besieged her. She should have told the detective about her visions. She couldn't make much sense of the things she'd seen, but Lieutenant McBride might. What if her silence cost that little girl her life?
Lily pulled the business card from her pocket and squinted at the small, narrow type made wavy by her throbbing head. The scent of his crisp aftershave lingered on the card. Lily closed her eyes, remembering his square jaw and lean, hard face. And those eyes — clear, intense, hard as flint.
She knew the type well. Give him the facts, give him evidence, but don't give him any psychic crap.
Lieutenant McBride would never believe what she'd seen.
BY MIDAFTERNOON, when Andrew Walters called from a southbound jet to demand answers about his missing daughter, McBride realized he faced a worst-case scenario. Less than one percent of children abducted were taken by people outside of their own families. Most child abductions were custody matters, mothers or fathers unhappy with court arrangements taking matters into their own hands.
But there was no custody battle in the Walters case. From all accounts, Andrew Walters had no complaints about the custody arrangement with his ex-wife. Over the phone, at least, he'd seemed genuinely shocked to hear his ex-wife had been murdered.
When he learned Abby was missing, shock turned to panic.
"Did you check her school?" he asked McBride, his voice tight with alarm.
"Yes." The memory of Lily Browning's pale face and wild, honey-colored eyes filled McBride's mind, piquing his curiosity — and suspicion — all over again.
"Is there any reason to think Abby might..." Andrew Walters couldn't finish the question.
"It's too early to think that way."
"Are you sure Abby was with Debra?"
"As sure as we can be." When they'd found Debra Walters dead on the side of Old Cumberland Road, a clear plastic backpack with Abby's classwork folder and a couple of primary readers had been lying next to her. Furthermore, neighbors remembered seeing Abby in the car with Debra that morning when she'd left the house.
Her car, a blue Lexus, was missing.
They'd held out hope that Debra had delivered her daughter to school before the carjacking, but McBride's trip to the school had turned up no sign of Abby.
McBride looked down at his desk blotter, where Abby's photo lay, challenging him. He reached for the bottle of antacid tablets by his pencil holder and popped a couple in his mouth, grimacing at the chalky, fake-orange taste. "We've set up a task force to find your daughter. An Amber Alert has been issued. Her photo will be on every newscast in Alabama this evening. We've set up a phone monitoring system at the hotel where you usually stay when you're in Borland, and a policeman will be within easy reach any time of the day or night. If you get a call from anyone about your daughter, we'll be ready."
"You don't have a suspect yet?" Walters sounded appalled.
"Not yet. There's an APB out on the car, and we've got technicians scouring the crime scene —"
"That could take days! Abby doesn't have days." McBride passed his hand over his face, wishing he could assure Walters that his daughter would be found, safe and unharmed. But she'd been taken by carjackers who'd left her mother dead. McBride didn't want to think why they'd taken her with them instead of killing her when they'd killed her mother.
In the burning pit of McBride's gut, he knew he'd find Abby Walters dead. Today or tomorrow or months down the road, her little body would turn up in a Dumpster or an abandoned building or at the bottom of a ditch along the highway.
But he couldn't say that to Andrew Walters. Walters's voice was tinny through the air phone. "Nobody's called in with sightings?"
"Not yet."A few calls had come in as soon as theAmber Alert went out. The usual loons. McBride had sent men to check on them, but, of course, nothing had panned out. "Come on — when something like this happens, you get calls out your ass." Anger and anxiety battled in Walters's voice. "Don't you dare dismiss them all as crackpots."
"We're following every lead."
"I want my daughter found. Understood?"
"Understood." McBride ignored the imperious tone in Walters's voice. The man was a politician, used to making things happen just because he said so. And God knew, McBride couldn't blame him for wanting his daughter brought home at any cost.
But he knew how these things went. He'd seen it up close and personal. The parent of a lost child was desperate and vulnerable. A nut job with a snappy sales pitch could convince a grieving parent of just about anything.
"We're about to land," Walters said. "I have to hang up."
"One of my men, Theo Baker, will meet you at the airport and drive you to your hotel," McBride said. "I'll be by this evening unless something comes up in the case. Please, try not to worry until we know what it is we have to worry about."