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Searching for a crack house had not been in Erica James's plans for the evening. However, Detective Katie Randall had uttered the one sentence that could send her into one of the worst neighborhoods in the city.
"We've found new evidence in Molly's disappearance."
Erica let the words ring through her mind as she drove, looking for the address of the crack house that had been raided two days ago.
New evidence. New evidence.
"It's been three years," Erica exclaimed. "What possibly could have come to light now?" she'd asked, hating the shakiness in her voice, the desperate hope that she knew was carved on her face.
Detective Katie Randall had shown her a photograph of a crime scene. Even now, Erica's fingers curled around the steering wheel as she remembered the little outfit clearly pictured amidst the trash and rubble.
The outfit three-year-old Molly had been wearing when she'd disappeared from the day-care field trip to the zoo. Erica touched the picture with a shaking finger.
"That's her hair bow."
"We got a fingerprint from it. A girl by the name of Lydia Powell. Her prints are in the system for a shoplifting charge two years ago."
"So what does she say? Did you ask her about Molly?"
"We haven't been able to find her," Katie admitted.
"Then I will."
Now, two days later, on a cold Tuesday evening, Erica glanced at the sky. The sun would set in about ten minutes and she still hadn't found the address.
In this dark, dank part of town.
Drug deals on one corner, the selling of bodies and souls on the other. Her heart shuddered at the thought of her child being in the middle of all of this. And yet at the same time, her heart ached for the innocents trapped in this cycle of crime and abuse. For those who wanted out, but didn't know how to accomplish that. Or were too young to try.
Narrowed, suspicious eyes followed her progress down the trash-strewn street. The sun crept lower and her pulse picked up a notch.
As daylight disappeared so did the people on the street. One by one, everyone in a yard or on a porch made their way behind a closed, locked door.
She hadn't counted on it being dark by the time she got here. Then again, she hadn't counted on the place being so hard to find, either. Her GPS had led her down one street and up another until she was so twisted around she'd never find her way back out.
For the first time since Katie had told her the news, fear started to replace the hope she'd allowed herself to feel. She'd taken the information and run with it. Straight into one of the most dangerous parts of town.
What was she doing? Was she crazy?
After another hesitant second, she picked up the phone and dialed her brother, Brandon. Nerves on edge, she watched the street as she waited for him to answer. Finally, she heard,
"I think I've gone and done something stupid."
"Who, you? You're kidding." He didn't sound concernedor surprised.
With good reason, she had to silently admit. She bit her lip. "No, Brandon, this time I'm serious."
That got his attention. "What is it? What's wrong?"
The mechanical voice from the GPS told her, "Turn left and your destination will be on the right." Erica rolled to a stop and looked to her left.
Brandon said, "Where are you?"
"Five sixty-seven Patton Street."
"Patton Street! Are you crazy?"
Now she heard the concern. "Yes, I think so. If I stay in my car and wait, will you meet me here?" Uneasy and on alert, she glanced around, felt unseen eyes watching her every movement. "Because while I'm not comfortable here, I'm not leaving yet, either."
She heard him muttering and thought she heard the words "crazy woman" in there somewhere. "I'm getting you home and then you're going into a safe occupation like accounting or"
As Brandon continued his tirade, Erica chewed her bottom lip and tuned him out. Brandon worked with her at Finding the Lost, an organization dedicated to finding missing children she'd started after Molly disappeared. Erica, Brandon and JordanBrandon's best friend who'd needed a job and came highly recommendedworked together to find children who disappeared either through criminal activity such as kidnapping, or because they ran away.
Erica glanced in the rearview mirror and saw two rough-looking characters headed her way. Her stomach flipped. She whispered, "Oh, yeah, bad idea. Bad, bad idea." She had her self-defense training and her weapon, but
"Bad idea is right. What made you decide to go there?" he demanded.
"New information about Molly's disappearance," she said with her eyes still on the rearview mirror.
Brandon paused then sighed, a small breath of understanding. "Ah."
Erica had to admit having a good working relationship with several police officers afforded her information she'd otherwise have trouble getting. Katie was her friend and Erica had proved herself trustworthy over the past couple of years. Which was why she now found herself in a possibly very bad situation.
A police cruiser rolled past on the street perpendicular to hers and the two figures behind her took off. She blew out a relieved breath, looked at her GPS one more time and turned left. And there it was.
"Give me about fifteen minutes," Brandon said. "Stay put."
The house she wanted loomed ahead on her right. She pulled to the curb two houses down and cut her engine, then her lights. The street lay empty, quiet as a tomb. She had a perfect view of the front of the house.
Night approached, sneaking in as though even it was reluctant to be found in this area of town.
"Erica? Did you hear me?"
"I heard you. I'll be waiting. A cop drove by and scared away the riffraff."
"If you're determined to stay, stay in the car with the doors locked. I mean it."
She had every intention of staying hunkered down in the front seat and waiting for Brandon to get there.
Until she caught a glimpse of a slim figure in a hoodie, hunched over and slinking down the street toward the deserted house.
Erica's stomach twisted. She reached for the weapon she'd earned the right to carry in a concealed holster, but on second glance, the person didn't look to be a threat. Male or female? She couldn't tell.
Erica glanced at the clock, then back. The figure shot a look over a thin shoulder every so often. Finally, under one of the few working streetlights, Erica caught a glimpse of a pale face and scared eyes that flicked in every direction, watchful and jumpy. She looked to be about fifteen or sixteen and walked with quick jerky steps, shoulders bowed, arms crossed protectively across her stomach as though she wanted to make herself as small as possible.
Excitement spun inside Erica. This girl looked familiar. Could it be Lydia?
Did she need help? She kept looking over her shoulder.
Was someone behind her? Following her?
Erica watched for a few minutes until the girl disappeared around the side of the house. She put her hand on the door handle. If that was Lydia, she couldn't let her get away. She started to get out of the vehicle and stopped when she caught sight of another figure who had emerged from the shadows. He trailed the young girl, his steps quick and hurried.
Dread centered itself in the middle of her stomach. This didn't look good. Her fingers tightened on the handle, everything in her wanting to leap from the car. But she'd promised Brandon she'd wait.
When a shrill scream rent the night air, she could wait no longer. Erica threw open the door and raced toward the dark house.
Private investigator Max Powell shifted his eyes toward the older-model Ford Taurus parked on the street and leaned forward over the steering wheel as though that would give him a better view.
The car's open door and empty driver's seat set his nerves on edge. That didn't bode well. His gut tensed. Was his sister in that house? He'd gotten word from one of his street sources that she'd been here last night and would probably be back tonight. Max had rushed over to see if he could intercept her.
Max got out of his truck and peered inside the empty Ford. Relieved to see no evidence of foul play, he walked toward the house, his head swiveling in all directions, trying to discern whether there was a threat nearby or just someone who'd broken down and went looking for help.
Neither was a good option for the owner in this neighborhood.
Two feet away from the front porch steps, he stopped and checked the area one more time. The hair on the back of his neck stood at attention and adrenaline shot through his veins. He didn't have a good feeling about thisat all.
The brief thought that he should call one of his cop buddies flashed through his mind. But he wanted to find Lydia first, have a chance to talk to her before they found her.
He'd take his chances on going in alone.
He pulled his weapon and headed toward the front door.
Erica turned the corner around the back of the house and stopped. The door hung on one hinge, the darkness yawning beyond it now silent. In fact, it was so quiet, Erica wondered if it was possible she'd imagined the scream.
No. That had been real enough. Erica pictured the young girl she'd seen walking down the street. Her destination had been this house. Had that been her scream?
Her heart kicked into overdrive, pounding hard enough to make her gasp.
She swallowed hard and looked around. She couldn't just stand here waiting for Brandon. Where was he? What if the girl needed help?
Nausea swirled in the pit of her stomach as she looked back at the house and thought about her precious baby being held in such a place.
A crack house.
One that kept its secrets hidden, maybe forever lost, her daughter's whereabouts never to be revealed. Had Molly cried for her, expecting her mama to come rushing in to save her?
The girl in the hoodie was someone's baby. And she might need help.
Tears clogged her throat even as she put one foot in front of the other to enter the black hole of a doorway. She hadn't been able to save Molly, but maybe she could help someone else's child.
She slipped just inside and moved to the left. The kitchen. The rancid smell of unwashed bodies, rotten food and other odors she couldn't identify assaulted her.
Doing her best to ignore the offense to her nose, she listened. And heard nothing but her own ragged breathing. Erica moved farther inside. The moonlight sliced through the kitchen window to her left, casting shadows on the walls. Shadows that danced and mocked her. Should she call out?
Just as she opened her mouth, a creaking sound reached her ears. A thump sounded from down the hall, a scuffle. A muffled curse.
"Help!" a high scared voice called.
Erica dashed through the kitchen and into the hall. She tripped over the debris on the floor and managed to catch herself before she fell. Glass crunched beneath her feet, but she didn't stop. Light pierced the darkness behind her, illuminating the filth surrounding her.
"Hey! Who's in here?"
The deep male voice coming from behind her penetrated Erica's fear even as she rounded the corner into the nearest bedroom only to come to a screeching halt.
A male in his midthirties had the girl by the throat with his left hand, a knife in his right. The girl's fingers clawed at his hand.
"Stop it!" Erica yelled. "Get away from her!"
Running footsteps sounded behind her. Erica moved and placed her back to the wall so she could see who entered the room, but she didn't want to take her eyes off the scene in front of her.
The attacker froze then shoved the crying young woman away from him and stepped toward Erica, knife raised, his eyes darting toward the door then back to her.
Adrenaline flowed, fear pulsed and she swallowed hard as she felt for the weapon in the holster just under her left arm.
In all the situations she'd found herself over the past three years, never once had she been forced to pull her gun.
It looked like tonight might be the night.
In the moonlight, she could make out the man's harsh features: glittering dark eyes and a scar that curved from the corner of his right eye to his jaw.
She shivered, notched her chin and demanded, "Leave her alone!"
"Stay outta this, lady, or you'll be sorry," he snarled.
"Drop the knife! Now!"
Erica whirled to see a man, weapon drawn and aimed at the young man in the torn jeans and black sweatshirt.
Blue lights flickered and flashed against the walls as backup arrived. The attacker licked his lips, shifted his feet.
"Drop it!" the man yelled again. The knife clattered to the floor. Erica nearly wilted with relief. "Up against the wall!" he shouted.
More footsteps sounded in the hallway as the man spoke into his cell phone. Erica's head spun as she watched the young girl's terrified eyes snap to the man then to the window.
Before Erica could call out, the young teen ran to the window and climbed out.
"No! Lydia! Come back."
The man's shout hung on the empty air. Erica raced for the window, the breeze blowing back her blazer. "Police! Hands in the air!"
She spun, shocked to see an officer's weapon trained on her.