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"Hey, buddywe're here now. Let's go inside."
Texas Ranger Caige Dawson unfastened his son's seat belt so he could get out of the car. Even at eight years old, it was clear Josh was going to be tall like Caige. On cue, his boy started to cry and hugged him for dear life before clutching his hand.
Since the accident three years ago, which had turned the Dawson family inside out and resulted in divorce, Caige went through this ritual with Josh anytime they had to be separated. Usually a special school bus picked him up and brought him home, but an incident on the bus last month had scared him and he didn't want to ride it or go to school anymore.
For the past few weeks Caige had been working closely with Josh. He'd gotten him to the point where Josh didn't have to be carried inside the school to his classroom in order to get him to stay. Lately he'd made it through a whole school day and had accepted driving home with Elly, Caige's housekeeper and Josh's caregiver, in her car. This was an encouraging sign according to Dr. Sweeney, the neuropsychologist, who said that pretty soon they'd reintroduce him to the bus.
Caige opened the school door. "Everyone's going in."
Josh's tear-filled blue eyes, light in color like his mother's, fastened on his father in panic. This was the moment when Caige had to harden himself against that look. It begged his dad to take him back home.
"See? There's Mrs. Wright."
The special-education teacher smiled. "Come on in, Josh. We've been waiting for you." She gave Josh a warm hug that, Caige noted thankfully, was reciprocated before she led him to his desk. Caige turned away quickly and headed out of the school to the parking lot.
He decided some angels came to earth disguised as people. Mrs. Wright was one of them. Now wasn't the time to worry that this was her last year of teaching, or whether Elly would tell him she'd made up her mind to move to Lubbock so she could be near her daughter and grandchildren. Caige had a good system going with Elly. To change anything in the routine would cause a major earthquake for his son.
Although Elly hadn't said anything specific, she would probably make the decision any day now. Her daughter and son-in-law were begging her to spend Christmas with them while they found a place for her to live that was close by.
Christmas... only three weeks away. Caige had been contemplating getting Josh a dog. He'd discussed it with Dr. Sweeney. A dog would provide stimulation and love, but would take a team effort to train. Until he knew Elly's plans, he couldn't think of adding a pet to their household.
As for Josh's mother, he had no idea if Liz would
make an appearance. Last Christmas had turned into a nightmare. She'd come to spend part of the day with Josh, but she was still in denial about his brain injury. It was a struggle for her to face him.
Caige had seen the horror in her eyes as she regarded her special-needs son. Josh had to have seen it, too. He was an intelligent boy who clung to his father the whole time. When Liz left before the day was out, Caige was secretly relieved.
Liz never seemed to notice their son had been making progress. The moment he exhibited any kind of atypical behavior, it frightened her, and she fell apart.
Since the afternoon three years ago when Josh had been hit by a car in front of their house, Caige had been forced to slow down and take life a second at a time. He'd graduated to minutes, and later, hours at a time.
Liz was convinced Caige blamed her because she'd been in the house and hadn't realized their five-year-old had tried crossing the street. Nothing could have been further from the truth in his mind. Accidents happened. But he couldn't talk her out of her guilt.
If anything, he blamed himself. Their marriage had already been going through some rough stages because of his unconventional work schedule. Sometimes he had to be away for several weeks on a case. This put a heavy load on Liz.
Obviously it had been more than she could handle. When she realized Josh would never be the same again, her breakdown had been so severe, she'd moved in with her parents and filed for divorce. At the precari-
ous moment when Josh needed both parents more than ever, Liz wasn't emotionally or physically available.
In February of this past year she'd married a divorced businessman from Austin who kept nine-to-five hours. Her visits to see their son had grown fewer and further apart. Little by little Caige was losing hope that she would ever come to accept Josh's condition and show him the love he needed from his mom.
And now, Caige was thankful he'd gotten to the point at work where he could breathe somewhat normally for the length of Josh's school day. Provided there were no incidents like an illness or another student's sudden meltdown, that is.
A few minutes later he pulled into the underground parking of headquarters in downtown Austin and took the elevator to his division's suite on the second floor. Before he reached his own office, his superior, Mac Leesom, gave him the nod to join him and another man in the conference room.
"Caige? You haven't met Agent Tim Robbins with the FBI in Fort Worth. He and I go way back."
The older man, wearing a suit and tie, shook Caige's hand. "It's a privilege, Captain Dawson. I've been wanting to meet the Ranger who headed the task force that brought in the most wanted felon in Travis County in a decade."
"Thank you. It took a massive manhunt and was a case of being in the right place at the right time to capture him."
Mac patted Caige's shoulder. His boss was close to retirement and treated Caige like one of his own
sons. "Tim's here because of an unsolved case he was overseeing before he was transferred from the Austin bureau. He knows you're the best and would like you to take a look and see what you can do with it. To make this a more palatable job, he's already spoken to Judge Harkness at the third district court. He'll cooperate with you and issue warrants to help in your investigation at your request."
So this Robbins was shrewd. Caige chuckled. Hark-ness was the presiding judge and a tough old bird. "You're right. That's one big headache out of the way."
"Amen," Mac murmured. "I'll leave you two to talk. Buzz me if you need anything."
Caige had a stack of cases waiting on his desk, but you didn't turn Mac down when he was asking a personal favor. Once he left the room, the agent eyed Caige with a sober expression.
"This is a missing-person case. It was high-profile at the time because it was indirectly connected to the University of Texas here in Austin. Anytime something happens affecting a college student, the publicity escalates, especially when there's a beautiful woman involved. You know what I'm talking about."
Caige was afraid he did.
"Nathan Farley, a finance graduate from UT Austin, worked for the campus branch of the Yellow Rose Bank of Texas. This branch deals with a lot of student accounts. On the day in question, he finished his work, left for the day at five o'clock and was never seen again.
"His car was still parked at the bank when his wife started making phone calls. Blaire Farley, an under-
graduate student at UT Austin at the time, was at home waiting for him. They lived in an apartment on East 32nd near the campus. That was five years ago, but various detectives assigned still haven't turned up anything."
Which was nothing new, Caige mused. There were dozens of missing-person cases over twenty years old now throughout Texas. Some forty, fifty, even older.
They sat down opposite each other. Agent Robbins reached in his briefcase for a file and slid it toward Caige. "Before I say more, take a look inside."
Caige opened it and scanned the first police incident report dated Wednesday, November 15. There were photographs. Some were of the then twenty-six-year-old missing man. Others showed his then twenty-four-year-old wife, Blaire. Both were dark blond and blue-eyed. Oddly enough, the good-looking pair could almost pass for brother and sister.
Married on March 14 of the same year. No children. Only married eight months.
Caige glanced through the forensics report. A double-action Ruger GP100 revolver and ammo were found on the premises of the apartment near the campus that the couple were renting at the time. It had been a gun Mr. Farley had purchased at a gun show on June 3, six months prior to his disappearance, and showed evidence of recent firing. The fingerprints on the gun matched the husband's.
The rest of the information in the file revealed exhaustive searches into morgues, hospitals and national and international DNA data banks had produced no
shred of evidence that Nathan Farley was either alive or dead. Caige read through the depositions of the wife, other family members, coworkers, friends, acquaintances; in five years no one had shed any light on the man's disappearance.
He closed the file. "This is a cold case, all right."
Agent Robbins nodded. "Two days ago I received a call from the Koslovs, Blaire's parents. Her mother particularly begged me to do something to find out what happened to their son-in-law. Her family has suffered anguish."
"What about Farley's parents?"
"They're dead. His grandparents raised him here in Austin. The grandfather died when he was ten. The grandmother was well-thought-of in the neighborhood, lived on a fixed income and passed away when he turned sixteen. After that he had to make it on his own. From all I've gathered, he was an attractive, affable self-starter. The Koslovs loved him and have grieved over him.
"When they came to me, I told them I'm assigned elsewhere now, but I would see what I could do. They're devastated for their daughter, whose life might as well be over. Those are their words, not mine."
"All understandable," Caige murmured. Without a body, alive or dead, the spouse was always the first person of interest to the police. This woman, Blaire, had been that person for five years. With no family members implicated, it was a long time to be at the center of a nightmare where she would remain suspect until there
was a break in the caseto prove either her innocence or her guilt.
Whether she knew where he was and wasn't telling, or had nothing to do with her husband's disappearance and had loved himor whether she'd plotted to do away with him and had committed the perfect murdershe couldn't get divorced or married yet. She was neither fish nor fowl. Since her parents had approached the FBI again, maybe their daughter was involved with a new man and wanted closure so she could move on.
"You've met and talked with Mrs. Farley," Caige said. "What's your gut feeling about her?"
The agent shook his head. "I've been in this business too long and don't have one. We both know the most appealing person might have a criminal mind."
"The Koslovs helped me bring the file up-to-date with new phone numbers and addresses. These days she goes by her maiden name, Blaire Koslov, and lives in a town house in Great Hills. At present she works for the Texas Forest Service. Here's the sheet with all the contact information, including my private number."
"Let's hope a certain legendary Ranger can pull off another miracle and solve this case regardless of how it breaks. What a Christmas present it would be for that family!"
Caige lowered his head. He could wish for a miracle for all those needing one. His son, Josh, had survived the accident and was doing better than expected. That was a miracle in and of itself.
"The Koslovs are positive their son-in-law was a victim of foul play and they fervently believe in their daughter's innocence. Off the record, I'd like to believe in it, too." On that note Agent Robbins pushed himself away from the table. "Call me anytime."
"You can count on it." Caige got to his feet and shook the agent's hand.
"I'll see myself out."
After the man left, Caige moved to a side table and poured himself some coffee. He already knew how he was going to proceed, but before he did anything else, he phoned his friend and favorite source of information at police headquarters.
"Caigecongratulations on nailing that lowlife! You're a hero around here. What can I do for you?"
He smiled. "I'm glad you asked. How about pulling any files of unsolved shooting crimes within Travis County between June 3 and November 15 of the year Nathan Farley disappeared."
"You are kidding me, right?"
"Not all of them. I only want those cases where the weapon was a double-action Ruger GP100."
"Oh. Is that all"
The mother of two was fun to tease. "For now."
If any of the detectives on the case had tried to establish a link between Nathan Farley's gun and a shooting in the county between his purchase of the gun and his disappearance, Caige found no evidence of it in the file.
On the outside chance there could be a matchup of ballistics reports proving Farley had been involved in
criminal activity prior to his disappearance, the case could take off in a whole new direction.
If Caige couldn't make a connection, then he'd go county by county throughout the state, checking shooting ranges from the time Farley first purchased the gun to the day he disappeared. It was entirely possible the guy was alive and living somewhere else under an assumed name. Caige would pass pictures around and hope to find out if Farley had ever done any target practice. Someone might have seen him.
"I'll be by at ten with breakfast for you, Gracie."
"You can take it as a given." He hung up, needing to run his plan past Mac before he left headquarters.