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"My name is Carolina Coulter, Mr. Fraley. Many of my friends call me Cara for short."
At the mention of the name, Adam's office manager across the room at once shifted her eyes from her computer screen to the young woman sitting in front of her boss's desk.
"I discovered early on four-syllable first names invite alternatives," his visitor added.
"I like Carolina, and please call me Adam."
The tallish young woman had a dignified manner about her. A lemon-yellow blouse and dark blue dress fit favorably over her slender figure. Her sandy blonde hair was curled to the shoulders, framing an expressive face highlighted by crystal blue eyes.
"Now, what I can I do for you?" he asked.
She shifted in her chair, crossed her legs, and smoothed her dress before responding in a soft voice. "Perhaps I should start from the very beginning."
"The beginning is always a good place to start. I have found in many cases it often mitigates the confusion that follows," he said, taking a pencil in hand.
She nodded, as if prepared to shed her reluctance. "Five years ago, I could unequivocally state my family was leading a charmed life with hardly a worry in the world. My father had embarked on a successful career in high finance, following a short but successful career in professional football. Perhaps you've heard of him. His name is David Coulter."
"Yes," Adam said, and with it, an inkling of where this was headed came to mind.
"I was sixteen at the time and in high school. My sole sibling was a three-year-old sister. Her name was Sadie. She was the treasure of the family. Due to the age difference between us, there of course was no sibling rivalry to speak of. While our father was pursuing his business career, our stay-at-home mom devoted all of her time and energy to taking care of us on the home front, seeing to it that our formative years were rewarding ones. Those were very happy days, but the happiness all came crashing down nearly five years ago in one terrible moment." She paused to catch a breath. "You may already be aware of what I'm about to say to you since it made the papers at the time."
Adam nodded, acknowledging his general awareness. It made the papers all right, he recalled, though even hard-bitten editors must have thought twice of the question of whether to include it. The compromise was to bury it on the inside pages. "But please go on," he quickly added, wanting to hear it directly and in detail from her.
She took a deep breath before continuing. "Well, one day my father was rushing to meet some friends of his for their usual Saturday morning golf outing. He was running late due to a last- minute business call he had to make. Once he finished it, he rushed out the front door, jumped into the family SUV and began to back out of the drive, unaware that Sadie, blocked from his view by the car, was playing in the driveway. My mother was in the front yard tending to some flower beds and was also unaware of the danger. In his haste my father backed the vehicle over Sadie ..." She halted her story as words became difficult and tears began to well in her eyes. "Sorry ..."
"That's okay. Take your time," Adam said, at which point his office manager rose from her chair and deftly strode across the floor.
"Excuse me, can I interrupt you for a moment?" she asked in a low voice.
"Sure," he said, then turned to his potential client. "Carolina, this is my office manager, Tamra Fugit."
The two women acknowledged each other's presence with polite nods. "I have a few errands to run, if that's okay," Tamra said.
"Fine," Adam replied, fully aware the real reason she was exiting the room was to give them a measure of privacy, something their cramped one-room office did not allow.
Having regained her composure, Carolina continued with her account of the incident. "Anyway, the first thing I heard was my mother screaming outside. Seconds later my father burst open the front door and rushed to the telephone to call 9-1-1. I will never forget the look on his face, as he breathlessly explained to the dispatcher the reason for his call. The emergency crew arrived quickly but it was all in vain. She was killed instantly and by a father who adored her. The image of her lifeless little body with my father and mother bending over her in anguish is one that will forever haunt me as it has them."
She hunched her shoulders ever so slightly, "Well, that's the story in a nutshell and now you're probably wondering why I'm here."
"Yes ... what is it I can do for you?" he asked, his curiosity stirred.
"I'm here to ask you to fix a family," she said straightforwardly.
"In what way?" he asked, taken aback by the directness and breadth of the request.
"In the beginning there was forgiveness all around, from me, my mother, and close friends of the family, all directed in good faith at my father. Nevertheless, a tension simmered below the surface in the aftermath, particularly between my mother and father. Ironically, what aggravated matters was my father's prior insistence on family safety. For instance, my mother and I had long lobbied for a backyard swimming pool, but he was adamantly against it. 'How many times do you hear on the news of a toddler drowning in the family pool?' he would ask with Sadie in mind. Then there were the innocent comments to follow that unintentionally brought the incident back into focus ..."
Carolina suddenly suspended her line of thought, as though wary of feeding a demon that had occupied her mind far too long.
"Comments like ...?" Adam asked in a quiet tone, nudging her along ever so easily while at the same time probing for as much background information as he could without appearing overly intrusive.
She exhaled another deep breath. "Like the time not long after the incident the three of us got in the car to head out somewhere and the first thing my mother said to him was 'Careful' as he began to back the car down the drive. Her simple word of caution was like sticking a dagger in him."
"And the end result of the friction?"
"The end result was the end of the marriage — not formally, but in reality. My father and mother loved each other deeply but could not cope with the fallout despite months of counseling. Things had spiraled down to the point where the unsaid between them spoke louder than what was said."
"What was your living status at the time?" Adam asked.
"By then I had graduated from high school and went away to college to pursue a liberal arts degree. I carried a full load year round and managed to complete the required course work in three years. Following graduation, I took a job with a public relations firm here in town and moved out of the house. To make a long story short, one day while I was still in school, my mother called to let me know my father had quit his job, packed up his belongings, and left the house without so much as a hint as to why or where. The why part we could pretty much guess, the where part we had no idea. That is why I have come to you for help."
"You reported his disappearance to the police?"
"Yes, but they quickly pointed out to us he was an adult, not a minor, and could do whatever he wanted, as long as he did not break the law. Furthermore, unless there was evidence, he was a victim of foul play or was in imminent danger, they had no reason to pursue the matter."
"How long ago was this?"
"A little over five years."
"Why did you wait until now to seek out private assistance?"
"We had convinced ourselves he was just taking time off to clear his head and that eventually he would return home. But time got away from us and he never did. By then, my mother had come to accept the notion he would never return."
"But you didn't."
"I agreed there was a good chance he would not return but I was not ready to accept it without some kind of confirmation."
"There's been no word from him at all?"
"Is your mother presently living alone?"
"Yes, and that brings up another matter. My mother is now fully convinced he's not coming back and, as I said, she may be right. It is now officially five years since he went missing. In Florida you can petition to have someone declared legally dead if they are missing for a continuous period of five years and if their absence is not satisfactorily explained after a diligent search and inquiry. She already has hired a lawyer to help her with the petitioning."
"And the diligent search and inquiry is where I come in," he said.
"Yes, and there's one more issue at play. There is a new man in my mother's life. They plan on getting married once the petition is approved."
"Do you approve?"
"Of her getting married or him?"
"If it is certain my father is not coming back and is declared legally dead, I have no objection, though I'm not sure it is out of love she is entering into this marriage. She is terribly lonely and is desperate for permanent companionship. As for her beau, I've only met him a few times. He seems okay, but I feel confident in stating he in no way measures up to my father in his feelings toward my mother."
"What's his background?"
"He's a medical doctor. That's about all I know."
"Does your mother know you have sought out a private investigator?"
"No. At this point I'm not sure whether she would approve. Like I said, she seems to have accepted the idea he is not coming back."
"Do you know if your mother's lawyer has any intention of conducting a formal search for your father?"
"No, though I should correct what I said about her hiring a lawyer. It was her beau who did the hiring — at least that's what she said."
"Do you know the name of the lawyer?"
"So, if I take the case, there may be two entities in search of your father."
"Yes, but I have no confidence in the other entity. They could well be searching for someone they don't want to find. That should tell you how much effort is going into their search. If there is a hunt for him, I'm almost positive it is a pro forma one."
"Gotcha," he said.
Adam set aside the pencil he was taking notes with, nudged his chair back a bit from the desk, stretched his legs out, and clasped his hands in his lap. "Well, Carolina, here's what we're facing. We do not have the resources law enforcement officials have in tracking down missing individuals. They have ties to vast worldwide information networks, not to mention subpoena powers to access private records. We, on the other hand, fly by the seat of our pants, or should I say trudge along on the soles of our shoes, relying heavily on input from our clients. So, let me ask you this as a starting point: Do you have any idea where your father may have taken off to?"
She gave a slight shrug. "If I did, I would have already checked it out long ago."
"Fair enough," Adam said, dispensing with the obvious. "Then let me rephrase the question. Was there any one place your father particularly enjoyed visiting — say, while on vacation or on some sort of assignment — that he let it be known was a favorite refuge from any stress he might be under?"
"Our vacations were standard fare — visits to the national parks, Disney World, the beaches. He always thought cross-country train travel was relaxing and often talked about getting one of those long-term Amtrak passes that allowed you to travel anywhere on their route at any time. He said he would like to sit in the club car and watch the world go by."
She thought a moment. "Our family was active in the church ..."
"Sorry to interrupt — which church?" he asked.
"Queen of Peace. Do you know of it?"
"Yes. What sort of family activity?"
"My parents oftentimes attended out-of-town retreats sponsored by the church. My father especially liked the downtime."
"Where out of town?"
"Calvary Monastery, north of Orlando."
"What else?" Adam asked.
She wrinkled her brow in thought. "Well, I don't know whether you would call this getting away from it all, but my parents also volunteered for a couple of church-sponsored missions to Haiti to help with recovery efforts following several major storms that ended up devastating the country. They both had a strong altruistic streak in them."
"Were those their only overseas adventures?"
"Yes. My mother had a fear of flying which limited their long-distance traveling."
She again shrugged before continuing. "Well, my father did have a dentist friend who moved his practice and family to Whitefish, Montana, a number of years ago. The reason I mention it is that he often talked about taking a cross-country train trip up there to visit him."
"What's his name?"
"Dan Conner, if I recall correctly."
Adam continued his scribbling.
"You're going to accept the assignment?" she asked, taking note of his notes.
"Yes, I am, Carolina, but I want to advise you it could be costly. This case is about as far away from a slam dunk as you can get. He could be anywhere in the world or dead and buried for all we know. The fact no one has reported seeing him is a discouraging sign in itself. He was a person very much in the limelight, after all."
"I can pay you. Money is no problem. My father made sure long before he disappeared that me and my mother were taken care of financially."
Adam unclasped his hands and straightened his lean frame in his chair. "Okay, here is what I need before you leave. Do you have a photo of your father on you, preferably the most current one available? Also, I will need a current one of you."
"I don't have them on me, but I do have several of each at home. I can fetch them and have them back in your office this afternoon," she said. "Do you need one of my mother? I'm not certain if I have a recent one of her. She's always had a strong aversion to cameras."
"No, those of you and your father will do. You also will need to leave your contact information with my office manager. You can do that when you return with the photos."
Adam rose to bid her goodbye, at once second-guessing his decision to take on the case. When it came to family dysfunctions, emotions run high. Already, he was as apprehensive as a rookie cop responding to a domestic disturbance call.
* * *
"The moment I heard her mention his name, a bell rang," Tamra said, rehashing the original incident and Adam's detailed account of the interview following her return to the office. "What a terrible burden to bear. I remember thinking at the time there was no way the family was going to survive that kind of personal trauma."
"It appears they may not," Adam said from across the room. "Some choose their cross to bear, mitigating the burden. Others, like the Coulter family, have it handed to them. Unfortunately, it's often an unbearable one. When it comes to family tragedies, the death of a child is the worst of the worst. What makes it especially burdensome is the realization the father had a direct hand in his daughter's death. It's one thing for a parent or guardian to leave the backyard swimming pool gate open, allowing a toddler to wander into dangerous territory and accidentally drown. It's another to directly back over your child, crushing the life out of them. Definitely makes most everyone else's problems seem trivial in comparison."
"I suppose in a case like that you could be charged with reckless driving or negligence of some kind, could you not?"
"It would take a heartless prosecutor to bring that case, I would think."
"Agreed. So what made you take the case?"
"No way could I turn down a request — more like a plea — to ease the pain they're going through. As you've heard me say, putting a family back together is one of the most challenging and satisfying aspects of this job. Carolina made it sound like this was her last shot at making things whole again. Plus, there's another reason," he quickly added.
"Here comes the real reason," Tamra opined.
"Maybe ... maybe not."
"Care to share?"
"Sure," he said, sinking back in his chair and clasping his hands above his head. "When I was about eight or nine, I played Pee Wee football."
"You were a football player?" she interrupted.
"Is that beyond imagining?" he shot back. "If you must know, I never made it past the Pee Wee level."
Tamra tossed him a teasing smile, a strand of her auburn hair falling across one of her deep green eyes. "That I can believe," she said, brushing away the hair.
"May I go on?"
"Please do," she said.
"Back then, my father decided he would sign me up for a one-day youth football camp here in Tampa as a birthday present. It was organized and run by a couple of pro football players. On the day of the camp my father was unexpectedly called to work. One of the guys he worked with had phoned in sick. My father was assigned to replace him, so my mother ended up taking me to the camp. I spent the day doing wind sprints, jumping jacks, push-ups, hopscotching through a track of tires, pushing against a blocking sled, and learning how to pass, throw, and catch a football. All of the basics were on display.
"It so happened one of the pro football players helping to run the camp was David Coulter. I recall him as being very patient in teaching us the fundamentals of the game. He wasn't just putting in his time there. He was making sure we were getting our money's worth. At the same time, my mother, who could care less about football, was up in the stands also displaying extra patience, off and on reading a book or monitoring me. It was nearly dusk by the time the camp ended. Anyway, as we were driving home, our car, a small sedan, had a blowout. The car skidded off the road, with the blown-out tire and wheel ending up in a deep rut. My mother tried to free it by gunning the motor and alternately shoving the clutch into drive and reverse to rock it back a forth, but it didn't work. We then tried to push it out but again failed. The truth was even if we got it back on level ground, we still had to change the tire, something neither of us had ever done. To make matters worse, there was no phone nearby to call for help. I could see my mother was becoming distraught. The road we had taken was a shortcut to the interstate and not a well-traveled one. A few cars passed by though none stopped to offer help. About that time, I offered to hoof it to find a gas station or a store of any kind, but my mother would have none of it. 'Someone will stop to help,' she said unconvincingly.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Perpetual Penitent"
Copyright © 2019 Henry Hoffman.
Excerpted by permission of Melange Books, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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