Read an Excerpt
DECEMBER 27, 1991
A little girl walked alone through the fading winter light on Salisbury Drive. She was wearing her Santa Claus earrings, a pink nylon ski jacket, purple pants, and white sneakers trimmed in pink. They were bright colors against the gray landscape of her middle-class Fairfield, California, neighborhood.
Amanda “Nikki” Campbell scuffed along like any four-year-old, oblivious to the chill and the light rain. She had come outside between three and four o’clock to play with some of the other kids, and it was getting late now. Her mother would be home from work soon.
Her friends still played elsewhere on the streets. She might have heard their voices—sound carries on the moist air—but she couldn’t see them. And they didn’t know where she had gone. One minute she was there, and then she wasn’t.
DECEMBER 27, 1991
Rain. There had been days of rain. And when it wasn’t raining, fog.
Christmas lights wore halos in the mist. Garlands on the outdoor holiday trees drooped with the weight of dampness. Now, in the late afternoon, clouds slid across a darkening sky. What had been a light, intermittent rain threatened to become steady. The temperature dipped into the low forties,“frigid for northern California’s delta region.
When the weather goes wet and cold, the locals don’t come outside unless they have to. The cops, however, have no choice. Detective Harold Sagan and the Fairfield investigative team had arrest warrants to serve in neighboring Vallejo. That meant a sweep—and confrontations.
A gang member had shot two kids at a local mall—one a targeted victim, the other a bystander. Both survived. It was the kind of incident that gave the city its reputation as “The Little Oakland of the North Bay.”
Harold Sagan likes the city, and he enjoys his job. “We’re not subtle here” he is fond of saying. “If you did the crime, you’re going down. We’ll sort it out later.”
Despite the bulldog attitude, he is more polished than most of his big-city peers. He holds a master’s degree in public administration and is at work on a doctorate in education—training that he uses when he is teaching college and graduate classes in the investigation of crimes against children.
Long days are routine for the 6′1″ detective, whose crop of gray hair makes him look older than his forty-three years. He’s been a cop for twenty of those years—a cop with the veneer of laid-back California. His eyes reveal his determination, his intensity. He resents it when the bad guy gets away.
On the evening of the twenty-seventh, Sagan was losing patience with the other members of the investigative team, but that was nothing new. He had worked with these guys—Detective Sergeant Chuck Timm and Detectives Joe Allio, Barry Horn, and Mel Ferro—for years. Sagan always tightened up when the time for a major bust approached. The others were loose, joking around, taking their time. They were all good cops, but each had his own style. Sagan grew thoughtful, focused, determined; his colleagues bantered with one another, kept it light, until the moment they went into action. Then they were all business.
As he walked to his car late that afternoon, Sagan could feel the dark dampness, taste the saturated air. He hated this time of year. The cop drove out onto Webster Street and headed for Highway 12. He noticed the dashboard clock as he reached over to switch on his headlights and adjust the windshield wipers to intermittent speed. It was 5:00 P.M.
By 8:30 P.M., the almost flawless sweep of Vallejo was complete and Harold Sagan was merging his car into the light traffic on the highway, headed back toward Fairfield. He was thinking over what had gone down—the coordination with the Vallejo department, the arrests. He considered what still needed to be done—booking, interrogation, paperwork. As he drove over the last big hill outside town, just before the Sunnyside Dairy, he was thinking about the one shooter who had eluded them.
The chatter of a talk radio station buzzed softly. Then the voice of a Fairfield dispatcher cut through the background noise with a missing child broadcast—an all-points bulletin for a four-year-old girl named Amanda “Nikki” Campbell, last seen by her friends wearing a pink jacket and purple corduroy pants on Salisbury Drive.
Alone on the dark highway, driving through the cold rain, Sagan listened to the end of the broadcast and felt a wave of nausea. This was more than just a kid wandering down the street to some neighbor’s house. She was only four, and already had been gone for hours.
It was difficult to shake himself out of his thoughts about the child, but he didn’t have time to dwell on them. He had one remaining arrest warrant, and by now, the shooter they had missed would know that his friends had been arrested. Sagan had to figure out what approach to use, how he was going to snag him. He knew he was in for a long night.
At 4:00 A.M., Sagan took a short break. He walked into the atrium that was at the center of the administrative offices and the investigations unit. He asked if anyone had found Nikki Campbell yet.
No, he was told. They hadn’t located the child.
As he worked on his reports through the early morning hours, he overheard bits and pieces of conversation. Nikki went out to play. Mom was at work. Dad was home with the kids. The child knew her street, knew her neighborhood. She hadn’t wandered off before, hadn’t gotten herself lost. It looked as if someone had grabbed her. No witnesses. No nothing.
Four years old, Sagan thought. Two days after Christmas. A little girl not even old enough to start kindergarten. Now she was a case number: 91-18747.
There was something about the child’s Salisbury Drive neighborhood that struck Sagan as familiar. Working at his desk through the night and into Saturday morning, he felt as if something were escaping him, some important piece of information that skirted just beyond the reach of his consciousness. Whatever it was, it would have to come in its own time.
By mid-afternoon Sagan was finally finished with the last of the paperwork. He walked out through the atrium to the command center, next to the chiefs office. He hadn’t slept, but he knew that the search for Nikki Campbell was continuing, that dozens of people had volunteered to help as the scope of the investigation spread out beyond the immediate neighborhood.
“Where do you need me?” he asked. “What do you want me to do?”
The late December afternoon was cold and overcast as Sagan drove into the Salisbury Drive neighborhood. Into the night, he combed through an orchard searching for Nikki. As he waded through the tall, damp grass and among the power line towers, elusive, half-formed thoughts continued to nag at him, but he couldn’t put his finger on what he was trying to remember.
He took a break for a couple of hours, slept and showered, then returned to his office at 5:00 A.M. Sunday. At his desk, he could hear muted conversation coming from the command center, but his mind kept drifting. He thought about the search, the neighborhood, the little girl.
On the basis of what the kids on the street had told investigators, and the timing of the search begun by Nikki’s father and brother, the police estimated the time of her disappearance to be 5:00 P.M. If they were right, she had disappeared at the same moment Sagan had glanced at his dashboard clock on his way to Vallejo. While he was busy complaining to himself about the rain, and the cold, and the early darkness, little Amanda “Nikki” Campbell was disappearing into it.
Then it hit him. He had been in the Campbells’ neighborhood six months earlier to check out an Oakland man in his forties who was sending strange letters to a twelve-year-old girl. The look and feel of the first letter caught her mother’s attention. The envelope contained something round and solid, something metal. There was no return address, just a printed message on the back: “i think if they had climbed through the looking glass they would have found you, Sheila.”
Sheila Cosgrove—that was the kid. Her mother’s name was Liz. Sagan pulled the file.