I struggled to open my eyes and reached out, slamming my hand into the alarm clock, then sat up in the bed. It was 5:30 a.m. Pitch dark outside, pitch dark in my bedroom. Slowly, my eyes adjusted, and I saw that Erin had never come to bed. She was most likely asleep on the couch. Lately that had been pretty common.
I stood up and stumbled to the closet and got out a uniform. My suits hung in the back of the closet to the right, more or less out of reach. I hadn’t worn one in months. Shower and shave, and by six I was ready to go.
I knocked on Sam’s door, and when there was no response, knocked again. Finally I heard a groan, and the door cracked open. Bleary eyed, Sam looked out at me.
“School, kiddo. Time to get up.”
No answer; instead Sam nodded and wandered toward the bathroom. I walked through the living room without turning on the light. Erin was asleep on the couch, a blanket wrapped around her. I paused for a moment, looking down at her. Asleep on her side, facing the television, she looked younger. Almost like the girl I’d fallen in love with so long ago. I gave a tired sigh, and went into the kitchen and filled a travel mug with coffee.
Finally outside, I walked past Erin’s Mercedes, which we’d managed to keep only because it was already fully paid for, and over to my car. It was muggy as hell. A warm, unpleasant breeze blew through my uncomfortably short hair. The house we were renting was a one story, two bedroom ranch house. Stained carpet, and one of the front windows was cracked and sealed with duct tape. I needed to cut the grass. When we did the math on what the new job was going to pay, minus living expenses, gas and health insurance, this was the only option. It wasn’t the worst neighborhood in Oxford, and it was zoned to a decent high school, which was important. But the entire thing would have fit in our old living room in Fairfax.
I got in the car. There was no point in dwelling on that. Our lives weren’t what they had been. Now it was all about surviving, day to day. Somehow I didn’t think we were even going to need this much for much longer. Our marriage was utterly wrecked, and as I drove away, I reflected on the fact that the only reason we were still together was Sam and economic necessity. Seriously. If I left, where was I going to go? I could barely afford the rent on this crappy house as it is, much less a hotel room. And Erin wasn’t exactly in a position to support herself. Bachelor’s degree in economics or not, it had been twenty years since she’d held down a job. And she never missed an opportunity to remind me that it was my fault.
Not to mention, if I left, what about Sam? Would Sam end up staying with his mother? Would that be any good for him? She drank way too much and didn’t have a job and Sam was already oddly effeminate. Not that there was anything wrong with that, I guessed, it’s just who he was. But — well, I often thought Sam needed to toughen up. We could go live with my parents, I guess. Dad had warmed up a lot over the years, but Mom was a piece of work. Not to mention that the court wasn’t just going to let me up and move. I’d been lucky they let me transfer my probation to Alabama in the first place.
For the ten thousandth time, I thought, Maybe I should ask Daddy for help. Except the one time, when we put up the award for information about Brenna, I’d never asked him for a handout. Not once. I didn’t want to start. I could picture what it would be like. He’d be grudging, but would offer a loan. Disapproving. My mother would charge her own form of interest, by nosing in where she wasn’t wanted, demanding to know how the money was spent and trying to dictate our lives and push us around, just like she pushed Daddy around.
I wasn’t ready for that.
Fifteen minutes after leaving the house I parked behind the restaurant. The sun was just beginning to lighten the sky. I took a walk all the way around the building. Linda hadn’t swept the parking lot yet, and cigarette butts and garbage scattered the lot.
The building itself was shaped roughly like a shoe box. Old brown brick, dark brown metal panels and glass. Inside, Linda and Dakota were sitting next to each other at the counter talking. I walked in the restaurant. The floor was dirty, and so were the bathrooms.
Without a word, I walked to the register, turned the key and checked sales. One hundred ten dollars. I raised my eyebrows, then turned to Linda and Dakota.
“Slow night, huh?” I said.
“Dead,” Linda replied.
In a sharp tone, I said, “Then why hasn’t the parking lot been swept? Why’s the floor dirty in here? You’re telling me you can’t get your job done on a ten hour shift with just a hundred bucks in sales?”
Dakota and Linda winced, and Linda said, “Sorry, boss. I’ll take care of it now.” Both of them got up from their seats.
“Good. And this needs to be the last time I have to say this. I’m getting tired of repeating myself.”
Shaking my head, I walked down the line, checking supplies and food. I was working myself up into a rage. Eggs pans were dirty, and dishes were piled in the dish pit. Linda had only done a half assed job of cleaning back here. I could see dirt and grime built up underneath the dish pit, and a fork on the floor underneath was clear evidence she’d only deck-brushed along the line, not bothering to get underneath the equipment. The grills had been done at least, but a glance up showed the filters were getting dirty again. I’d spent two hours scrubbing them just four days ago, and left instructions to clean them every shift.
I pushed into the back room.
“Morning,” I grunted to Julie, one of the first shift waitresses. She stood in front of the mirror next to my office door, doing her makeup. Julie was in her late twenties, and was an attractive lady with a good smile. She had tied her apron tight enough to emphasize her body’s curves, which were pleasant. She hadn’t been working here long, but long enough that some of the regulars… at least the old men who came in here to flirt with the waitresses … actively sought out her section. That was starting to cause drama with the other waitresses, which was not what I needed. She was leaning into the mirror putting on mascara. I had to turn away.
“Morning,” she replied as I unlocked the padlock to the office. I checked my watch. Twenty to seven. Over the next fifteen minutes I changed the drawer while Dakota and Linda rushed to finish the jobs they’d had ten hours to complete. Once that was done, I took a minute in the office, leaning against what passed for a desk, looking out through the one-way glass at the restaurant.
Two years ago I’d managed a twenty-million dollar data center with thirty highly-paid professional employees. People I didn’t have to micromanage, because they were excited and motivated to do their jobs. I still sometimes couldn’t grasp the transition to this fucking life.
On the other hand, I kept in touch with a lot of my former coworkers, a few of whom were still unemployed after the company’s collapse. I’d missed that collapse: I was already gone by then.
A couple minutes before seven, Linda stopped at my office door. “Sorry about that, boss. It won’t happen again.”
I looked at her and nodded, then said, “Linda… I just need you to remember, you’re supposed to be running this shift, okay? That means you’ve gotta take some initiative. If Brian had come in here, you can bet I’d be hearing about it.”
She frowned at the mention of our division manager and said, “I know. I’m sorry.”
“All right. You ready to get paid?”
“Yes, sir,” she replied.
She tapped the numbers on the time clock, and I pulled up the payment module on the computer, then unlocked the safe. Her name popped up on the screen, and I tapped through until her pay stub printed.
One hundred thirty three dollars. I counted out the cash and handed it to her, then passed her the clipboard to sign for her check. As she was signing, I glanced over the pay stub. Her check was thirty or so dollars smaller than usual, because she’d been out sick one day, and we didn’t have sick leave.
“While you’re in there, can you print my last four weeks’ paystubs?”
“Sure,” I said. This wasn’t an unusual request. Most of my employees were on some form or other of public assistance and needed to periodically prove their income to whatever county or state agencies they were dealing with.
Linda had two teenagers at home, and raising two kids on less than six hundred bucks a month couldn’t have been easy. My rent was eight hundred dollars a month. I knew she got a little help from her daughter, who worked for us on the weekends, but that probably only brought in an extra forty bucks a week.
On the other hand, maybe if she did some work during her shift, she’d be making more money. Maybe she wouldn’t be stuck working as a third shift cook in a crappy restaurant in the middle of nowhere.
She double counted the money, then put it away in her purse. Less than a minute later, Dakota appeared at my door. She looked sheepish. “Sorry, Cole. Berry was sick and I didn’t get no sleep yesterday. I’ll do better tonight.”
I sighed. The seventeen year old was normally one of my hardest workers, and she’d done a lot to improve our third shift sales. In a quiet tone I said, “I know it’s hard, Dakota. Just keep trying, I know you work hard normally.”
She smiled, then clocked out. I’d have liked to have told her it gets easier when they aren’t infants anymore. But that’s not true. The problems get bigger; the dangers get bigger.
I locked the safe and headed out to the front of the restaurant. Julie was out front now, chatting with one of our coffee-only customers at the bar. Even though shift change was at seven, the other two waitresses wouldn’t be in until eight. I had to shave every dollar I could, and bringing them in a little later saved six dollars off my payroll.
I took half the egg pans to the dish pit and started scrubbing them with steel wool. These pans were probably twenty years old, and beat up as hell. Carbon tended to build up on the back if they weren’t scrubbed every shift.
I listened with half an ear as Julie told her customer, Larry, a story about her last job. She’d been a customer service manager for a custom home builder, but since the recession started, there weren’t exactly many custom homes being built around here.
I kept scrubbing. It would be half an hour or more before we started to get many customers.
The moment I knew Brenna wasn’t coming home was the evening of her disappearance, when Detective Hunt showed up at the door. He’d knocked, and we’d answered together, both of us on the verge of panic.
“Mr. and Mrs. Roberts,” he said. “Do you recognize this?”
It was as if he’d designed the moment to be as traumatic as possible. He held up Brenna’s phone—it had to be Brenna’s, I gave her the Black Flag phone case. The screen was covered with spiderweb cracks.
Erin staggered back, a gasp turning into a wail. I grabbed her before she fell down. Hunt came in the room with another man we hadn’t met.
“Mr and Mrs Roberts—my name’s Stan Wilcox. I’m with the FBI’s Child Abduction Response Deployment program.”
At those words, my chest seized in some kind of a painful spasm. I winced, and I watched as Erin raised her fist to her mouth and bit, hard.
Wilcox continued. “About an hour ago, local police in Winchester discovered a VW Beetle parked behind a pawn shop. It’s your daughter’s car—the phone was on the ground beside it.”
“Oh my, God,” Erin said. She was starting to hyperventilate.
Through the window, I could see blue lights as more police cars showed up, the flashing illuminating the living room. Hunt got up and opened the door as Wilcox continued to speak.
“The CARD team is going to establish a mobile command post, and we’re releasing an Amber Alert for your daughter shortly.”
Erin met my eyes. I reached out and grabbed her hand. “We’ll get through this,” I said, urgently. “We’ll get her home.”
She nodded, her eyes looking glassy. I looked around, but I didn’t see Sam. Had he gone to his room?
Wilcox began to brief us. Mobile command post. Amber Alert, all points bulletin. Chase had been arrested and was being questioned already.
Wilcox said, “Her computer showed she’d been chatting with a guy named Rick. His Facebook account has been deleted. Have you heard of this guy?”
Erin swung her face toward mine, eyes wide. I shook my head. “No. Rick? I’ve never heard of him. What’s his last name? Did he go to school with her?”
Wilcox shook his head. “No last name that we can identify yet. Our team is contacting Facebook to try to get more information. We don’t even know if we’ve got the entire conversation. But she’s been chatting with him online a lot over the last four weeks or so. Complaining about her boyfriend, among other things.”
Erin frowned. “That doesn’t make sense…she’s really obsessed with Chase.”
I leaned forward, running my hands through my hair. What the fuck was she doing online? Who were these people?
Chase. What if she was talking to this guy, this Rick guy, and Chase found out?
Note: This is an unedited preview of my upcoming novel Winter Flower, releasing June 22, 2019. Pre-orders are available at all major retailers.