I didn’t sleep the night after Brenna disappeared.
In the hours after the Amber Alert was issued, we stayed in the kitchen, listening as well as we could. Stan Wilcox was running the response team right out of our kitchen, staying on the phone and radio with a bunch of FBI agents as well as local and state police. I called my parents, and Cole called his, and we worried, pacing, nibbling at the edges of terror we couldn’t wholly digest. Angela arrived with several bags of assorted takeout Chinese, which we spread on the main dining room table. I didn’t feel like eating, but the various police could, and Sam needed to eat something; he was so small for his age.
The traffic in and out of the house was more than I could handle. I stayed close to Lori and Sam, anchors in the chaos, while Cole paced around like a trapped tiger. It was loud, at times half-a-dozen people on the phone at once. Then, less than forty minutes after the Amber Alert was issued, the first news van rolled up in front of our house. Thankfully, Detective Hunt had posted a uniformed officer to guard the gate of our driveway, or they likely would have driven right in. But that van was soon followed by another, and another, until there was a crowd of satellite vans crowding the street outside our fence.
“What do we do?” I had asked Wilcox. “Do we talk to the press?”
“Damned right we do,” Cole said. “Get them to put her picture out everywhere.”
Wilcox nodded. “At this point I’d recommend it. The first few hours count the most.”
This comment brought on nothing but rage. “We’re already past the first few hours,” I said. “Maybe we’d have her back if you’d taken this seriously to begin with.”
Cole ran his hand through his hair, frustration showing on his face. “What about Chase? Is he talking yet?”
Wilcox shook his head. “At this point were questioning him… he’s a person of interest. But we don’t have any reason yet to believe that he’s involved with her disappearance.”
“Bullshit!” Cole’s face was red as he blurted out the word. “Who else is there? Of all the fucking incompetent—“
“Cole…” I interrupted. “That’s not helping.”
He bunched his fists and closed his eyes, leaned his head back, dragging his fingers through his hair in frustration. I’d seen that mannerism before—once when we were visiting Georgia, his mother had been in a particularly nasty mood and had hectored Cole for nearly forty minutes about nonsense. Cole had finally stood up, his face a grimace, and dragged his fingers against his skull just like this. Then he walked out as she was speaking, mid-sentence. Cole had a reputation at work for being a brilliant engineer and executive, but he wasn’t a popular boss. He had too little tolerance for mistakes or anything he viewed as incompetence.
Watching him, Angela’s eyes widened. A flash of judgment passed over her face—and for the first time since we’d met on the first day of college, I hated her.
Cole took another deep breath, then opened his eyes and dropped his hands to his side. “Let’s do this press thing then.”
For the next twenty minutes we sat down and made a plan. Lori came downstairs — she’d been upstairs with Sam for the last hour. Both had red eyes from crying. As we sat down at the table, Lori said, “Mom and Dad are on their way up.”
I closed my eyes. I didn’t know if that was a relief or not. I didn’t have the mental space to worry about it one way or another at the moment. Cole’s parents were also on their way from Georgia, and while we had room for everyone, the competing sets of in-laws could be a lot to take. And honestly, I wanted to focus on finding my daughter, not placating parents. They would all have to fend for themselves. But if Virginia started in on Cole, as she was sometimes prone to do, then she and Jim could go find a goddamned hotel.
Wilcox said, “The thing you need to remember is that the media will maybe cover thirty seconds of what you say if you’re very lucky. More often than that, you’ll get a maximum of ten-to-twenty seconds of airtime. It’s important that you maximize that time… so you need to focus what you’re going to say very carefully.”
Lori asked, “What is the most important things to say?”
“Sometimes families focus on putting up a reward for information. If you’re able to do that, it’s worth mentioning it. But the key thing is getting the public looking for her. Get their sympathy… ask for their help.”
I met Cole’s eyes. Most of our money was tied up in stock options with the company which had not matured yet, and with our mortgage payments being what there were, we had precious little free cash at any given time. But we did have some investments.
Cole cleared his throat. “We can put up a $100,000 reward.”
That was all we had. No… it was more than we had. It would have be enough. He said quietly, “Daddy will probably put up some of it.”
Shock ran through me. In our life together, Cole had never asked his parents for anything. It wasn’t exactly bad blood between them—we went to Georgia for holidays some years, and they periodically came to visit us as well. I think it was pride more than anything. Cole had quit Georgia Tech over his father’s loud objections. He had to prove he could make it on his own.
But this? It changed everything.
Note: This is an unedited preview of my upcoming novel Winter Flower, releasing June 22, 2019. Pre-orders are available at all major retailers.