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"Go away!" Sitting on the navy-and-beige couch, Kim switched the cordless phone to the other ear and turned from her little sister to face the bookcases along one wall in the den.
"But you said you would help me." Ashley stamped her foot. "I have to have it done by tomorrow."
"Just a minute, Lexie." Kim cupped the receiver, glared over her shoulder at Ashley and blew a bubble, the pop of the gum loud. "Can't you see I'm busy. I'll help you later. Go outside and play."
"I'll let you know when I'm ready to help." Kim infused into her voice all the frustration she was experiencing at her little sister's constant bugging. When Ashley didn't budge from the spot where she'd planted herself five minutes ago, Kim firmed her mouth into a frown she hoped conveyed all her feelings. "Go! Now, brat!"
"I'm telling Daddy when he comes home you've been on the phone for over an hour."
The whine hovered in the air between the two sisters.
Kim narrowed her eyes. With a glare, Ashley spun around and stormed out of the den.
The slamming of the back door echoed through the house. Kim pried her hand loose from over the receiver and put it to her ear as she pushed herself off the couch and walked to the bay window to make sure Ashley stayed in the backyard. "She's gone. I don't understand why I always get stuck babysitting. My brother should have to some of the time."
"At least your dad pays you. My mom doesn't." Her best friend's pout could be heard through the phone.
The fact she got paid didn't appease Kim at the moment. Having an eight-year-old always following her around made her wish she didn't have a little sister.
The watcher spied the little blond girl stalk out of the house. The sound of the door slamming against its frame drowned out the dog's barking a few houses down for a couple of blissful seconds.
I'll return later to take care of that dog, but right now I've got more important concerns. Anticipation surged. His daughter, so close the watcher's palms itched.
The child made a beeline for the swing set and plopped down on the seat, grabbing hold of the chains to keep herself upright.
The little girl's mouth moved. The watcher strained to hear what she was saying, but her voice was pitched too low.
No matter. After years of planning it wouldn't change what had to be done.
J. T. Logan will regret his very existence by the time I'm through toying with him. Everything's in place for the merry ride he's about to go on.
"Ashley. Kim," J.T. yelled when he stepped through the front door of his house.
Ashley was usually waiting for him to tell him the latest Kim transgression against her. Ever since his oldest daughter had turned fourteen, all the sisters did was fight. It had gotten to the point he was checking into day care for his youngest after school until he could get home from work. Being a single parent wasn't easy. He wished he had family he could turn to for help.
Maybe today they actually got along for a change. He'd certainly prayed to the Lord enough in the past months concerning his two daughters. God was probably getting tired of hearing from him, J.T. thought with a chuckle.
After the long day he'd put in at the sheriff's office, trying to pacify people who didn't want to be pacified, all he wished for was a warm dinner and a little peace. He cocked his head, realizing the place was too quiet. His youngest was so full of energy that she usually kept going strong right up to bedtime.
J.T. walked toward the den at the back of the house. Halfway down the hallway he heard Kim mumbling something he couldn't make out. When he entered the den, his oldest daughter quickly put the receiver in its cradle and bolted to her feet as though he hadn't seen her talking on the phone.
Ever since Kim had become a teenager, the phone wasn't far from her reach. Even setting limits on her phone time didn't stop her from spending half of her waking hours gabbing to her friendsnot her family. It had never been that way with his son. But girls were different. "Where's your sister?"
Kim waved her hand toward the window. "Out back playing."
"Go get her. You two can help me make something for dinner. Neil will be home from baseball practice in an hour."
"Why don't we order pizza?"
"Because we had it two nights ago." J.T. left the den and headed for the kitchen to see what was in the refrigerator while his daughter hopefully obeyed and got Ashley.
His shoulders aching, he stood before the near-empty shelves, the cold air cooling him, and wondered how he was going to pull off dinner with the few items he had. Ketchup. Milk. Three eggs. Several cheese slices. An onion that had black spots on it. A few stalks of limp celery. He would have to go to the grocery store on the way home from the station tomorrow. Being shorthanded at the sheriff's office because one of his deputies was on vacation was certainly takinig a toll on him.
Kim shuffled her feet across the tile floor and opened the back door. "Ashley!" A long pause, then his oldest daughter stepped out onto the patio, the screen door banging closed behind her, and shouted, "Ashley, you'd better get inside. Now!"
The exasperation in Kim's voice made J.T. lift his head and turn toward the back patio. By the tone of Kim's voice, he would be refereeing yet another fight this evening. "Ashley, you're in big trouble. Get in here!"
Great! His oldest daughter had alerted the whole neighborhood. He walked out onto the patio. "Kim?"
She peered over her shoulder at him, all the exasperation in her voice showing clearly on her face. "She's mad at me. She's hiding."
"Why is Ashley mad at you?" He positioned himself next to Kim and began to scan the backyard.
"I wouldn't help her with her wildflower project when she wanted."
"In other words, you were talking on the phone and didn't have time forAshley. I pay you" J.T.'s words suddenly caught in his throat when he spotted one of his daughter's black patent leather shoes on the ground by the swing set. She'd begged him to buy them and for the past two weeks they had been on her feet constantly except when she'd gone to bed. So why was only one there?
Every cop instinct in him rose to the surface, reviving for a brief moment the dark years he'd spent in Chicago as a homicide detective. There he saw a side of life most people never saw. He forced down the panic that for just an instant surged through him. She was hiding, as Kim said, probably in her fort by the trees. Or she'd gone over to a friend's without permission.
The father in him believed that.
The sheriff in him didn't.
He'd been trained to expect the worst. J.T. hurried toward the swing set, his gaze making a sweep of the large backyard. He noted a couple of places to check to see if Ashley was hiding from her sister. But it wasn't like her to continue to hide when he came out. She liked to complain too much to him about Kim's transgressions against her.
He skirted the swing set and jogged toward the stand of trees and several large bushes along the back of his property near the chain-link fence. "Call some of her friends and see if she's there." When Kim didn't move, he added in a stern voice, "Now, Kim."
I need to know that Ashley is okay. That I'm letting my cop imagination get the better of me.
Heart pounding, J.T. inspected the area behind the grouping of pines and various types of bushes where Ashley often played with her friends or by herself. The downpour earlier that day would have washed away all footprints except recent ones. His gaze fixated on a lone pair of prints in the mud near the thickest brush. Cowboy boots, size nine or ten, worn by a person around a hundred and eighty pounds.
Someone came into his yard recently.
That thought renewed the earlier panic he was trying to suppress. For what purpose? To read the gas meter? He glanced toward it, twenty feet away and on the other side of the yard, and realized that wasn't a likely explanation.
Which in his mind left all the bad reasons someone would trespass on his property. To do harm.Again the panic rushed to the foreground. He worked to keep it under control. It wouldn't do him any good in a time of crisis.
He looked at the bushes that his youngest loved to play in. Her secret hiding place, she had told him once. "Ashley, it's time to come out!" The strength in his voice conveyed all the rising doubts that she wasn't hiding in her fort. But he had to check and hope for the best.
Although there was no sign of her footprints nearby, J.T. got down on his hands and knees, making sure not to disturb the area around the ones made by the cowboy boots, and crawled into a hole in the vegetation that Ashley used as a door to her fort. Mud oozed up between his fingers. The bottom part of his tan uniform pants was soaked almost instantly. Something dripped down onto his head from above. He peered up and another raindrop spattered his forehead.
Lord, let her be inside and just playing a prank on her sister and me. Please.
He parted some branches to reveal a cleared area where his daughter had left some of her toys. But that was all there was under the large group of bushes. He backed his way out, trying desperately to keep his professional calm about him.
This just means she's at a friend's house. But as he stood, his gaze again caught sight of the two footprints of an adult who'd had a perfect view of his whole backyard from this vantage point. In his professional estimation there was only one reason someone would have been watching his house. That person had to be up to no good. In his line of work he had angered some hardened criminals who would love nothing better than to get back at him, who had in fact threatened that very thing.
And as an officer of the law, he'd been taught to assume the worst-case scenario with a missing child. It was always better to be safe than sorry. That thought sent J.T. racing for his back door. Visions of the missing children he had been involved with as a Chicago police officer flew across the screen in his mind.
Inside, Kim hung up and turned toward him. "She isn't at any of her friends'." Her gaze widened at the sight of him muddy and wet.
"Who did you call?"
As his daughter ticked off the long list of Ashley's friends, he ran his fingers through his damp hair. "Did anyone know where she might be?"
Tears welled in Kim's eyes as she shook her head. "Dad, where's Ashley?" A lone track coursed down her cheek. "I know we got into a fight, but why would she run away?"
Lord, I hope it's only that. J.T. couldn't believe he had thought that, but if she were missing and she hadn't run away, the alternative would be that she had been taken. And that chilled him to the bone. In Chicago some of those missing children cases he'd been involved in hadn't ended
Reminded of the ugliness in life he'd left behind, J.T. snatched up the phone and called the station. Time was of the essence, especially if she had been kidnapped. Twisting away from Kim to cover the trembling in his hand that held the receiver, he counted the rings.
On the fourth one, his secretary and receptionist Susan Winn finally answered. "Mercer County Sheriff's Office. How may I help you?"
"J.T. here. Ashley's missing. Send a couple of deputies to my house."
"Missing? What happened?" Susan asked.
"I don't know. She isn't in our backyard where she was supposed to be and none of her friends know where she is. It isn't like Ashley to leave without letting someone know where she's going." Ashley was his child who always followed the rules.
"Do you want to put out an Amber Alert?"
The waver in Susan's voice as she asked about the alert forced J.T. to dig deep for the mantle of professionalism he wore in cases like this. But his secretary's question underscored the situation. He couldn't afford to fall apartnot with his daughter's life at stake.
"I'll call you back in a few minutes and let you know. I want to check with the neighbors first." Please, God, let her be at one of their houses.
He lowered his voice so Kim wouldn't hear. "She's okay. She's probably next door or across the street. Got to go." Dear Lord, I hope that is all it is.
When he hung up, his hand lingered on the receiver for a few seconds as he composed himself for Kim. His heartbeat thundered in his ears. He drew in a deep, fortifying breath. He'd been involved in many cases where nothing had been wrong.
But the few
He shook the thought from his mind and pivoted toward Kim. "I'm going to check with the neighbors. You need to stay right here and wait for my deputies. Don't open the door to anyone else. Understand?"
With tears still streaming down her face, Kim nodded. "Daddy, I didn't want "
Hearing her call him Daddy tore at his fragile composure. She'd stopped using it several years ago when she'd informed him she was too big to call him Daddy. He pulled her to him for a quick hug. "Everything will be all right, honey." When he opened the back door, he said, "See if you can get hold of Neil at the baseball complex and have him come home."
"Hey, maybe Ashley went to see Neil practice." She grabbed the phone.
"Maybe. If so, I'll be next door. Lock the door after I leave."
He waited on the patio to hear the lock click into place. J.T. hated to quench Kim's theory. But Ashley disliked anything to do with sports and didn't even like to go to her brother's baseball games. So Ashley going there didn't seem likely.
At a jog he headed toward his nearest neighbor whose view of his backyard was blocked by his sixfoot wooden fence down both sides of his yard that the previous owner had erected because he had wanted some privacy. That very privacy could have made it easier for someone to come onto his property undetected.