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"You got someone here wants to report a missing person, Lieutenant."
Lieutenant Karen Toller looked up from her paper-cluttered metal desk and caught the smirk on the face of the Dallas Police Department sergeant who'd spoken. He was staring down at a pubescent girl he had trapped in front of him in the doorway to her tiny office. Karen was in charge of missing persons for the Dallas P.D. and didn't usually do intake interviews, but she could see why the sergeant had brought the girl to her.
She did a quick survey of the complainant—curly red hair, leaf-green eyes dominating a freckled face, approximately five feet tall, maybe ninety pounds. The girl was wearing a gray pleated skirt a half inch above her knobby knees, a white button-down shirt and a maroon jacket Karen recognized as the uniform of a nearby Catholic school, alongwith high white socks andMary Janes. As she reached out to catch her lower lip in her teeth, she exposed a mouthful of metal braces.
Karen rose and came around her desk. "Thank you, Sergeant Peters. I can take it from here." She approached the girl, who was trembling slightly, and said in a soft voice, "Please come in and sit down."
She gestured to one of the two battered metal chairs with well-worn padded seats in front of her desk. The girl hesitated, warily eyeing the hundred or so posters of missing children—boys and girls of all ages, sizes and ethnicities—that covered every available inch of Karen's office wall. Then she crossed and sat in the chair on the left, setting a book bag on the floor beside her.
Karen eased carefully into the chair on the right, as though the girl was a wild bird that might take flight at any sudden movement, and asked, "What's your name?"
"How can I help you, Miranda?"
"I want to report a missing person," she said earnestly. "Something's happened to my best friend, Jackie Kirkland. She wasn't at school today."
"What makes you think Jackie's missing?" Karen asked.
"She texted me this morning that she'd see me in homeroom, but she never showed up," Miranda said in a rush. "And she hasn't texted me all day."
"Maybe her phone is—"
"She would have texted. She would have called. She would have gotten in touch. Jackie would know I'd be worried," the girl said in an anguished voice.
"Have you checked with Jackie's parents?" Karen asked gently.
"Her parents are divorced. I went to Jackie's house after school, but Mrs. Kirkland said she and Jackie had another fight this morning and Jackie ran out of the house yelling that she'd come home when she was good and ready."
That sounded about right, Karen thought. Especially for a hormonal teenage girl. "You don't agree?"
"Jackie wouldn't go this long without texting me or letting me know where she is," Miranda said. "We're like sisters. We share everything. Something bad has happened. I just know it. Something—or someone—has to be keeping her from contacting me."
"Maybe she doesn't have her cell phone with her," Karen suggested.
"She'd call from a pay phone," Miranda insisted. "Jackie's my best friend. Ever since my mom died—" The girl suddenly choked up and tears welled in her eyes. "I can't lose Jackie, too."
Karen looked at her watch. "It's still early." It was barely six o'clock, but in mid-October, it would soon be dark. "Maybe we should trust Jackie's mother to know—"
"Her mother's a drunk and she doesn't care and I think Jackie went with this girl from the mall to meet some older boy and my dad's busy with work and he thinks we should let Jackie work this out with her mom and if you won't help I don't know what I'm going to do!" the girl wailed, all in one breath.
Karen noted the drunken mother and the dad who was busy with work, but homed in on the middle sentence. "A girl from the mall?"
"Jackie and I met this older girl named Susan a couple of weeks ago at the food court at the mall. She kept trying to get Jackie to take a ride with her to meet this friend of her boyfriend. Susan said he'd probably buy her all sorts of nice clothes if he liked her. Jackie would have gone with her last Saturday except I talked her out of it."
"Take a deep breath, Miranda," Karen said.
But the anxious girl kept talking. "Jackie texted me this morning before school that her mom told her not to come home until she was ready to say she was sorry. But it wasn't Jackie's fault!"
"What wasn't her fault?" Karen asked.
"Jackie found a bottle of gin her mom had hidden and tried to pour it down the sink. But Mrs. Kirkland caught her and got mad and told her she was being a bit—" Miranda stopped herself and substituted, "Bad. But Jackie just wants her mom to stop drinking. She's not going to say she's sorry for pouring out her mom's gin, because she's not!"
"So Jackie wasn't planning to go home tonight?"
The girl nodded. "I texted her that we'd work something out. She texted me that she'd see me in homeroom. But she never showed up."
"Is there any chance Jackie might have decided to run away?" Karen asked gently.
Miranda's brow furrowed in thought. "Jackie's told me before that she wanted to run away, but I know for a fact she doesn't have money for a bus ticket or anything like that."
"Do you think she might have tried to hitchhike?"
The girl chewed on her thumbnail while she considered that possibility. At last she said, "I'd be too scared to do that. I think she would be, too. That's why I think maybe she went to the mall to try to find Susan."
"Why do you think she'd do that?"
"Because Susan kept promising her some boy she knew would buy Jackie nice stuff, like a necklace and a purse and a sweater," Miranda retorted.
"But you don't believe her?" Karen asked.
The girl was thoughtful again. "Jackie's really pretty. She's got long blond hair and blue eyes and she…She's the exact opposite of me," the girl said, gesturing awkwardly at a bosom that hadn't yet developed. "But she's the same age as me—thirteen—and Susan's sixteen or seventeen, at least. Which means her boyfriend's friend is going to be older, too. I'm afraid of what he might want in exchange for all that nice stuff," the girl finished in a rush.
She was right to be concerned, Karen thought.
"Jackie's in trouble," Miranda said. "Please believe me."
"I believe you," Karen said.
"You do?" Miranda said, amazed.
"Yes, I do." Karen recognized the modus operandi the girl had described as one used by sex traffickers, villains who ruthlessly deceived young women and turned them into sex slaves for profit.
What Miranda had described was a variation on the "Lover Boy" con, in which an older man would act benevolently toward a young girl to entice her away from the safety of home and family. But once the girl got into his car…
Karen's heart sank. If Jackie Kirkland had gone with the girl from the mall, she was probably locked in a shabby motel room somewhere, stripped of her phone and perhaps her clothes. She might already have been beaten. She might already have been raped. In cases like this, time was of the essence.
"I'm going to call your father and ask him to come down here to the station," Karen said.
"No! He'll be mad if he finds out I left the house without telling him where I was going."
"I'd like you to look at some photos, Miranda, to see if you can identify the girl who called herself Susan. That way, we might have a better idea where to start hunting for your friend. I need your father's permission to have you do that."
"Oh. All right. His cell phone is 555-1733."
Karen knew several motels where Jackie might have been taken temporarily, but the men who stole young women to turn them into street prostitutes made a point of moving them far away from their homes as quickly as possible. If Jackie was still in Dallas, she wouldn't be for long.
"Jackie is lucky to have a friend like you," Karen said as she dialed the number Miranda had given her.
The girl's eyes glistened with tears. "Please promise me you'll find her."
Karen couldn't make that promise. Too often, children went missing and were never found. She gave the only promise she could. "I'll do the very best I can to find your friend."
"Please don't be mad, Daddy."
"I'm not mad. I'm just glad you're okay."
Karen watched as Seth Burnett hugged his daughter tight. He'd shown up at Karen's office a quick thirty minutes after she'd called.
"Thanks for coming, Mr. Burnett," Karen said as she stood up behind her desk.
"Call me Seth, please."
Karen didn't offer to put them both on a first-name basis by sharing hers. She sympathized too much with his situation, and she was more physically attracted to him than she wanted—or had expected—to be.
Miranda's father was maybe six foot two and 190 lean and muscular pounds. He wore faded jeans and a black T-shirt under a black leather jacket. Burnett had sandy blond hair, striking blue eyes and a small scar on the right edge of his mouth. Karen guessed his age in the mid-thirties.
He was young to be a widower.
It was something they had in common. She was an even younger widow. She'd married another cop, who'd gotten shot in a traffic stop six months after their wedding. It had been barely two years since John's death, so she had some inkling how much Burnett must still miss his wife.
While they'd waited for her father to arrive, Miranda had revealed that her mother had died in a one-car accident a little over a year ago. Her parents had been arguing about whether Miranda should take a class trip to Washington, D.C., when her mom had discovered that her dad hadn't picked up the milk she'd asked him to bring home the night before.
Her mom had slammed the refrigerator door, grabbed an umbrella and disappeared through the door to the garage. She'd never returned.
The girl had wistfully explained that her father used to smile a lot and tease her and her mother. Now he was "kind of sad" and "worked all the time."
Seth's daughter had been wrong about one thing she'd said in her earlier interview. Her father very obviously cared deeply about his daughter. Love and concern were evident on his face as he searched his daughter's features for any signs of harm.
"You're sure you're all right, Miranda?" he asked, putting his hands on his daughter's shoulders to hold her at arm's length, so he could take a good look at her.
"I'm fine, Daddy. Really." She eyed Karen and shrugged to free herself from his apparently embarrassing hold.
He let his hands drop, took a step back and said,"You scared the life out of me. I decided we should go take a look for Jackie at the mall, but when I came to find you, you were gone."
The girl lowered her eyes contritely. "I'm sorry, Daddy."
"You should have told me you were leaving the house. You know better."
Karen heard the brittle edge in his voice, a remnant of the fear he must have felt when he couldn't find his daughter.
"I had to help Jackie," Miranda said, tilting her chin up defiantly and meeting her father's gaze.
Burnett grimaced, conceding his daughter's point. "Fine. But you can't just take off like that without telling me where you're going. It isn't safe."
Seth was right to worry about his daughter, Karen thought. The world wasn't a safe place. There were monsters out there preying on innocent girls like Jackie and Miranda.
A moment later Karen found herself the focus of Seth Burnett's intense gaze. He held out his hand and said,"I appreciate your help with this, Lieutenant Toller. I was about to organize a search for Jackie myself." He smiled ruefully and added, "You can imagine my feelings when I suddenly realized my own daughter was nowhere to be found."
His hand was large and warm and strong, and Karen felt a distinct—and distracting—tingle before he let go. She cleared her throat and said, "Your daughter's very concerned about her friend. Has Miranda told you about the girl she and Jackie met at the mall?"
Burnett nodded. "Susan. No-Last-Name."
"It's possible this woman, this Susan, was in the mall specifically looking for girls like Jackie to recruit for—" Karen glanced at Miranda and realized she couldn't—probably shouldn't—speak frankly in front of the girl. It was up to Miranda's father how much to tell his daughter about what Karen intended to tell him.
"For what?" Burnett prompted.
Karen called out, "Sergeant Peters?"
The sergeant who'd first brought Miranda into her office showed up in her doorway. "Would you please take Miranda to the cafeteria and get her something to drink. Then bring her back here."
"Will do," the sergeant said.
"I'm not thirsty," Miranda said.
Karen shot a look at Seth, who said to his daughter, "Go with the sergeant, Miranda. Bring me back a soda, will you?"
"All right, Daddy." She turned and followed the sergeant down the hall.
When she was gone, Karen said, "Men in the sex slave trade—sex traffickers—use women like Susan to recruit young, vulnerable women like Jackie to become street prostitutes. Susan herself is likely being forced to recruit girls by a pimp behind the scenes. The recruits are enticed away from friends and family, then locked up in a motel room somewhere and beaten and raped into submission."
Karen saw the shock in Seth's eyes. And the realization that his own daughter might very well have been a hairbreadth away from the same fate.
"Are you saying that's what's happening to Jackie right now?" he asked, horrified.
Karen shook her head. "We don't know for sure that Jackie contacted Susan. She might be hanging out at the mall. She might be with another friend, although the fact she hasn't contacted Miranda is a bad sign. I called Jackie's mother, but she hasn't seen her daughter since this morning."
"If this Susan character did take Jackie, what's going to happen to her?" Seth asked.