Little Lamb Lost

Little Lamb Lost

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by Margaret Fenton
     
 

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Social worker Claire Conover honestly believed she could make a difference in the world until she gets the phone call she's dreaded her entire career. One of her young clients, Michael, has been found dead and his mother, Ashley, has been arrested for his murder. And who made the decision to return Michael to Ashley? Claire Conover.Ashley had seemingly done everything

Overview

Social worker Claire Conover honestly believed she could make a difference in the world until she gets the phone call she's dreaded her entire career. One of her young clients, Michael, has been found dead and his mother, Ashley, has been arrested for his murder. And who made the decision to return Michael to Ashley? Claire Conover.Ashley had seemingly done everything right-gotten clean, found a place to live, worked two jobs, and earned back custody of her son. Devastated but determined to discover where her instincts failed her, Claire vows to find the truth about what really happened to Michael.What Claire finds is no shortage of suspects. Ashley's boyfriend made no secret that he didn't want children. And Ashley's stepfather, an alcoholic and chronic gambler, has a shady past. And what about Michael's mysterious father and his family? Or Ashley herself? Was she really using again? Amidst a heap of unanswered questions, one thing is for certain: Claire Conover is about to uncover secrets that could ruin lives-or end her own.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Fenton puts her experiences as a social worker to good use in her promising debut. After toddler Michael Hennessy dies of a drug overdose, Claire Conover, of the Birmingham, Ala., Department of Human Services, doesn't believe the boy's mother, Ashley, spiked his sippy cup. Ashley, who has a history of hardcore drugs and booze, had been working too hard to get clean in order to regain custody of Michael. Determined to find the real killer, Claire sets out on a course that could cost her career or even her life. Fenton paces her straightforward plot well, but her real strength is in the way she develops her characters' relationships. A number of secondary players-an investigative reporter and a guy who knows his way around a computer-pave the way for a sequel. With her fine ear for regional speech, Fenton may do for Birmingham what Margaret Maron has done for rural North Carolina. (June)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Devastated by the death of a young boy and the arrest of his mother for his murder, social worker Claire Connover cannot let the case go and finds herself in danger when she learns too much. Well done.


—Jo Ann Vicarel

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781933515519
Publisher:
Oceanview Publishing
Publication date:
06/01/2009
Pages:
264
Sales rank:
750,165
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

Little Lamb Lost

A Novel


By Margaret Fenton

Oceanview Publishing

Copyright © 2009 Margaret Fenton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-933515-51-9


CHAPTER 1

I believed I could make a difference in the world until the day Michael Hennessy died. Maybe I inherited this crazy conviction from my father. Decades ago, he defied my grandfather, a White Citizens Council member, and became a Freedom Rider. Or maybe it came from my mother, who, before I was even the proverbial twinkle in her eye, marched with Dr. King from Selma to Montgomery. Their passion for social justice guided me, inevitably, to my career in social work. Make the earth a better place, Claire, they'd said. That was their legacy.

It wasn't an easy legacy. It took fifty-hour work weeks, endless paperwork, and a lot of difficult choices. I'd worried myself out of many a good night's sleep, questioning whether I'd made the right decision to leave young victims in a certain home, with certain people. Wondering whether or not mommy and daddy had squandered the food money on booze, cigarettes, and drugs. Hoping the kids would go to bed without fear, hunger, or bruises.

Over the years I'd developed a sense for recognizing the families that weren't going to make it, the parents who couldn't hold it together. Usually I was able to get the kids out before the situation totally derailed and anyone got hurt. I was good at reading people. And I'd never lost one. No child under my care had ever died.

Until that Tuesday in June.

My cubicle mate, Russell, and I were taking calls while the secretary for our unit went to an early dentist appointment. The phone, as usual, was ringing nonstop.

"When did Jessica say she was going to be in?" I asked over my shoulder. Russell and I worked a foot apart, back-to-back, every day. We were close — not only in proximity.

"I think she said nine thirty."

"One more hour. What a morning."

The phone rang again, and Russell let out a noise of frustration. "Damn, I'm never going to get this form done."

"I'll get it." I punched the appropriate button on my phone and answered, "Jefferson County Department of Human Services, Child Welfare Division."

All I heard was breathing. Hard, deep breaths that turned into wracking sobs. Then, "Cl ... Claire ... He ... he ... I don't ... I didn't ..."

"Hello?" I didn't recognize the woman's voice. "Hello? Who is this?"

The sobs grew fainter as aman came on the line.An authoritative voice. "Claire Conover?"

"Yes?"

"This is Detective Ed Brighton. Birmingham Police Department. You're the caseworker for Ashley Hennessy and her son, Michael?"

"Yes." A tingle of fear radiated through me, starting in my stomach.

"I'm sorry. Michael's dead."

"Dead?" The tingle exploded into full-blown panic.

Behind me, I heard Russell stop writing and turn in his chair.

"How?"

"We don't know yet. I'll need to speak with you as soon as you are available. If —"

"You're at her apartment?"

"Yes, but —"

"I'm on my way." I hung up, numb.

Russell asked, "What is it?"

"Michael Hennessy's dead. That was the police. I have to go."

I tried to think about what I needed to take with me.

I grabbed my satchel full of forms, my purse and keys, and for no apparent reason, three pens. Michael. Michael was dead. I couldn't think for all the curly blond, blue-eyed images rushing together in my mind.

"Sit down a sec. You look like you're about to pass out." Russell placed a delicate hand on my shoulder and gently pushed me into my chair.

"No," I said, rising again. "I'm going. I have to go see Mac." Mac McAlister was the supervisor of the unit. "And Dr. Pope." Teresa Pope was the county director.

"I'll get Mac. You sit."

Moments later he was back, our heavyset boss frowning behind him. Bushy white hair ringed Mac's head like a crown. At times he was my mentor, at times my worst enemy. I had a feeling this was going to be one of those worst-enemy days.

"Tell me what's going on."

"The police just called. Michael Hennessy is dead. That's all I know. I have to go. I told the detective I'd be there."

"Okay, okay. Just calm down for a second. Then we'll go. Remind me about this case."

With twelve social workers in his unit, all of us with twenty-five cases or more, there was no way he could remember them all. Not without my chart. I pulled the thick, russet case file out of the cabinet and handed it over. He flipped through it while I propped myself up on the edge of my well-worn desk.

"I got the case a little over two years ago. The first part of April. We got a report from Michael's pediatrician. He suspected the mother, Ashley, was using drugs. I went to the house where she was staying. It was a filthy crack den, really." I took a deep breath, remembering the stench of urine and the people passed out on tattered couches in the living room. "She was living with some guy. She was high as hell when I arrived, no food or milk or anything in the house. I came back to the office, filed a request for a pick-up order, went out there with the police, and got Michael that same day."

I took another deep breath, recalling Ashley's hysterics as I drove away with her baby. "We had the IM two days later." The IM was the intervention meeting, the plan for the family and the agency to work together toward reunification. "Ashley was supposed to do all the standard stuff: go into treatment, get a job, pass her drug tests, and take parenting classes. I got her into St. Monica's Home the day after the IM for drug and alcohol treatment. According to the staff there, she really worked the program. Was going to her aftercare meetings and everything. She was clean."

"And Michael?"

"He went to foster care. Ashley took about a year and a half to complete everything, and Judge Myer gave her custody again about two months ago. I really thought ..." My throat closed a little and I cleared it. "I really thought she was going to make it."

One of the few who would make it. Most of the families I worked with were angry, resentful, and unremorseful. They hated DHS and that rancor spread tome, the representative of the State, the member of the evil government that refused to stay out of their lives and let them raise their children the way they saw fit. Never mind the abuse, neglect, alcohol, or drugs.

But Ashley was different. She'd accepted my interference as the opportunity it was, hung onto the programs I'd offered like a life buoy. She'd embraced the Twelve Steps like it was her personal contract with God, sobered up, and made things right. She was one of the few clients that made me feel like I could really change things for the better, like my parents said.

"She ever beat Michael?" Russell asked.

"No! Well, I don't think so. I wouldn't say she was the greatest parent in the world, she lost her temper sometimes, but it was more yelling than anything else. She was really trying to practice the stuff she learned from the parenting classes. Time out and all that. I never saw any marks on him. She knew she wasn't supposed to spank him. I made that very, very clear. She was scared to death I'd take him away again."

Mac asked, "What about Michael's father?"

"Never been in the picture. She told me she wasn't even sure who he was."

"Other relatives? What about her parents?"

"Ashley ran away when she was fifteen. She said her stepfather physically abused her. He's dead now, but I tracked her mother down when I first got the case. From what I could gather, she was definitely not a good placement for Michael. She's on abusive husband number three. There's no other family that I know of."

Mac thumbed through the chart for a few more moments. "Let's go talk to the police. Let me do the talking. We'll have to bring Legal in eventually, but I want to get a good handle on what happened first."

That struck a nerve. A little boy was dead, and Mac was already talking about lawyers. He was worried about what this was going to do to the department and its reputation. I hadn't even had time to absorb what happened, for God's sake. I slung my purse over my shoulder and again picked up my briefcase.

Mac said, "And I'm driving. You're in no shape."

I protested while following him to his office so he could get his keys. The glass-fronted supervisors' offices surrounded the maze of cubicles where the caseworkers sat. The cubicles had started to buzz with activity. Word of Michael's death would spread like wildfire, and I could feel the stares of my colleagues beginning already.

Ten minutes later, I watched the warehouses and small businesses of the east side of Birmingham fly by. Sweat trickled down my temples as the air conditioning in Mac's car struggled to overcome the suffocating heat. More images of Michael Alexander Hennessy, aged two years and ten months, played through my mind. He was dead. And it didn't really matter how. Fingers of blame would be pointing my way. Because I was the one who was supposed to have kept him safe.

CHAPTER 2

Most of Birmingham's neighborhoods were once mining or mill towns, little communities where everything was owned by a company. Avondale was no exception, the neighborhood's name the only remnant of the long-gone Avondale Mills. Many of the houses built by the textile mill in the early part of the twentieth century still stood, although many sagged underneath rotting wood and peeling paint. Interspersed among them were newer apartment complexes that had popped up in the sixties and seventies. Ashley and Michael lived in one of these. Cheaply constructed, with vertical siding on the outside painted a deep forest green.

Ashley's apartment was on the first floor of building one. A narrow passageway led to the front door and smelled like rotting garbage. Someone had painted a gang sign in white spray paint next to her neighbor's window. Ashley's doorknob hung loosely. It had been like that ever since I could remember. Her worthless landlord was supposed to have replaced it. It locked, but she pushed a chair in front of the doorknob at night just in case.

Still, it was a home. Maybe not in the safest neighborhood, but a roof over their heads. I'd brought Ashley here the day she'd signed the lease. She'd been so proud to get a place of her own. Today it was unusually quiet. I wondered if the neighbors knew what had happened or if the presence of the cops had everyone hiding inside.

The man who answered Ashley's door was tall and tan, his muscular body topped off with a gray crew cut. He had a distinct ex-military air to him, and I half expected him to bark an order.

"I'm Mac McAlister, and this is Claire Conover. From DHS."

"Detective Brighton." He shook both our hands with a firm grip and stepped aside to let us in. The room was much as I remembered, with dingy white walls and a pervasive fog of cigarette smoke. The furniture was stuff Ashley had acquired gradually from places like the Salvation Army and the Alabama Thrift Store. An oak table with a water stain on one end. Four mismatched, scratched wooden chairs. The couch, a beige and brown plaid circa 1980, had a small tear on the arm.

Ashley slumped on the couch, her unwashed brown hair hanging past her shoulders. Her hazel eyes were swollen and red. I reminded myself, as I did every time I saw her, that she was only twenty-three. Six years my junior. Her history of hard-core drugs and booze made her look much older. Her skin was roughened, and she was missing two teeth on the right side of her mouth. In one hand she held a cigarette, in the other a wad of wet tissue. She saw me and stubbed out the smoke in an ashtray on the chipped glass coffee table.

"Cl ... Claire. I, I ..." It seemed my arrival was going to trigger a fresh wave of sobs. I put my arms around her and patted her back. She pulled it together, sniffling, and reached for more Kleenex.

"This is my supervisor, Mac McAlister."

She nodded. "I remember. He was at my first meetin' with you."

I looked at Detective Brighton. "I hope we aren't disturbing you."

"No, Miss Hennessy and I were just winding up. I've asked everything I need to for now. I'll leave you alone. We'll need to talk again when we get the results of the autopsy. "The detective placed his hand on Ashley's shoulder. "Get some rest." Genuine kindness was there, but it clashed with the sharpness of his personality. I wondered if the solicitousness would last once we knew what happened to Michael. "Miss Conover, and Mr. McAlister, can I talk to you outside?"

I answered him, "I'm afraid before I talk to you, I'll need Ashley's permission."

"Go ahead, I ain't got nothin' to hide."

I pulled a release form out of my bag. I hated to. Paperwork at this moment seemed heartless, but if there was ever a time to cross my t's and dot my i's, it was now. Mac was right to be concerned about the legal consequences of Michael's death. Especially if this case wound up getting us sued. And chances were good that it would. I fished out a pen and filled in the form. Ashley signed without even looking at it, then started to cry again.

"Okay."

We stepped outside to the passageway where the detective lit his own cigarette. "Tell me about DHS's involvement."

I deferred to Mac, who told essentially the same story I had related back at the office.

After he finished, Brighton looked atme. "When was her last drug screen?"

"Last week. I got the results yesterday. It was negative."

"She gets them regularly?"

"She's on the color system." He nodded, signaling that he knew what it was. All my clients with drug issues got tested randomly. Ashley phoned a number every day and a recording announced the day's color. Hers was aqua. If her color was named, she had to leave a urine sample at the lab. No exceptions, no excuses. In any given week, one person's color might not come up at all, or it could be called up to seven times. DHS liked to think it kept them honest.

"She hasn't had a dirty screen in a year and a half, and I haven't seen any evidence of backsliding," I said. "No suspicious behaviors, no running around with her old crowd. She hasn't been avoiding me. No new neglect or abuse reports from anyone. She never missed work and —"

Brighton held up a hand. "Okay, okay. We don't know if she's done anything wrong, so you don't have to defend her. There was no immediate evidence of physical abuse on the body, and no obvious head injury, so we'll just have to wait and see what's going on."

"What could've killed him? Did he choke on something?"

"The paramedics that responded to the nine-one-one call said he was deceased when they arrived. They didn't see anything in his mouth or throat. My guess is that he ate something that caused his death. We'll see what the coroner has to say after the autopsy."

"When will that be?"

"Probably tomorrow."

Mac and I both gave Brighton business cards, and he promised to keep in touch. We went back into the apartment where a devastated Ashley was still sitting on the sofa. I sat beside her and rubbed the back of her worn green robe. Mac perched in one of the dining chairs placed across from us.

I asked, "Ashley, can you tell me what happened? I know you just told the police, but I need to know."

There was a faraway look in her eyes. I dreaded bringing her back and making her go through it again.

"I worked last night." Her janitorial job was from five to ten. "I went to Dazzle's to pick Mikey up." Dazzle was Michael's babysitter. "I got there about ten fifteen or so. He was asleep, like he usually is, on the couch. Dazzle was in her nightgown, ready for bed, just like every night. She gave me a picture he colored for me, and we woke him so I could take him home. He slept all the way here in his car seat. I woke him up again so I could put on his pj's and help him brush his teeth. I poured him some orange juice in a sippy cup, but he was too tired to drink it. He left it on the coffee table. Then he fell asleep right here next tome," she touched a place on the couch, "with his blanky." I knew she meant the fleece blanket printed with lambs that Michael dragged everywhere. "I watched some TV. Then I carried him to bed about eleven thirty."

Her eyes filled with tears again. "And that's it. I swear. It was just like every single other night."

Now the hard part. "Then what?"


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Little Lamb Lost by Margaret Fenton. Copyright © 2009 Margaret Fenton. Excerpted by permission of Oceanview Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Margaret Fenton was born in Florence, Alabama, and grew up on the Gulf Coast in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. She received her B.A. in English from the Newcomb College of Tulane University in New Orleans, and her Master of Social Work from Tulane. A lifelong mystery fan, Margaret is married to her high school sweetheart and lives in Birmingham.

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Little Lamb Lost 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous 1 days ago
From an author who is an experienced social worker, we realize how realistic this storyline is. It makes you have more faith in the social workers who are looking out for the children in the system. We need more like her. Such a sad situation so many children are in, through no fault of their own. Makes you cry.
duane-Dshep More than 1 year ago
This book was a well written book that keeps you on your toes. The book had a lot of questions during the middle of the book that makes a reader get captured in its suspense. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes a murder mystery. Fabulous ending i have to say too. Dont want to ruin it for you, so please take the advice and get captured in this great mystery
harstan More than 1 year ago
In Birmingham, Alabama, the police arrest Ashley Hennessy in the death of her infant son Michael, who died from a drug overdose. Although the evidence seems overwhelming especially with Ashley's track record with drugs and alcohol, social worker Claire Conover does not believe her client would even accidentally kill her son. Claire also admits feeling some guilt since she persuaded the court to return Michael to his mother.------------- Convinced the woman is innocent as she worked extraordinarily hard to become clean, to be a good mother and hold two jobs, Claire investigates the crime believing someone murdered the child. The social worker knows the personal cost could be her job as she crosses the line, but does not care as guilt and justice motivate her to find the killer although she never anticipated the number of viable suspects she would uncover.--------- LITTLE LAMB LOST is a fabulous regional amateur sleuth starring a caring protagonist who goes way beyond the extra kilometers to prove her instincts re her client is right. The story line is fast-paced while also bringing out a taste of Birmingham. However, the tale is totally owned by the dedicated heroine who risks her career and her life because she believed her client had changed while the cops assumed the culprit remained a trashy drug using loser. Readers will enjoy this intriguing Alabama whodunit.---------- Harriet Klausner
KenCady More than 1 year ago
This is a pleasant little book that appears to have been written for a basic writing course. The author shows no creativity with her use of words, nor any ability to create depth in her characters. The plot is simplistic. If I were the teacher, I would have given it a B to encourage the writer to keep trying to develop her writing skills.