, Book Two
If Alec McClane had a heart left, it might have been shattered on the floor. As it was, sitting on the cracked plastic chair in the sterile hallway, all he could think about was how someone else’s heart was about to be shattered. And how he was going to have to live through that all over again.
He rubbed his aching forehead with his thumb and first two fingers and waited. He’d known the news wouldn’t be good when he’d gotten the call, but he’d come anyway. Raegan, on the other hand, was probably so excited she could barely think straight. Just knowing all her hope was about to be crushed left a knot in the pit of his stomach that he’d carry with him for at least the next damn week.
Man, he wanted his old friend Jim. Unfortunately, he and Jim Beam weren’t on speaking terms going on close to three years now.
He shifted on the uncomfortable chair, leaned back, and crossed his arms over his chest. A nurse rushed by, stethoscope in hand. Down the hall, a couple doctors conversed quietly in their white coats and shiny shoes. Pressure formed in his chest the longer he waited. A pressure he knew was rooted in guilt and self-disgust even Jim Beam hadn’t been able to ease.
He leaned forward again, rested his elbows on his knees, and clenched his hands into fists, only to release them in a feeble attempt to take the focus off the heaviness between his ribs. He should have called Raegan as soon as he’d seen the girl. Should have told her not to come. Then, at least, he wouldn’t be sitting here waiting for the love of his life to walk through the door only to leave him wrecked and more empty then he’d awoken this morning.
Holy hell, he needed a drink.
Alec glanced to his left where an FBI agent strode toward him down the long hallway, a grim expression on the man’s angular face. Slowly, Alec pushed to his feet. “Hey, Bickam.”
Jack Bickam had worked Emma’s case. He was the one who’d called both him and Raegan when the four-year-old in the other room had been found in a park not far from the one where Emma had vanished three and a half years before.
Vanished when Alec had turned his back for two minutes to help a kid who’d fallen off the swings.
His stomach churned with another wave of guilt, and bile rose in his throat. But he swallowed hard and forced both back.
“Glad I caught you before you left,” Bickam said. “Got a minute?”
Alec glanced over his shoulder toward the lobby of the small hospital. Still no sign of Raegan. Nerves rolled through his gut along with the guilt, but there wasn’t a whole lot he could do about either. “Yeah.” He turned back toward Bickam. “What do you need?”
“Sorry the kid wasn’t Emma,” Bickam said, brushing the dark bangs off his forehead.
There wasn’t any good way to respond to that, so Alec shoved his hands into the pockets of his worn jeans. “That what you came out here to tell me?”
“No. I wanted to talk to you about the tip we received on the girl. It came from the Santiam Correctional Institution.”
All the worry and stress faded to the background, leaving behind nothing but a simmering anger that was as insistent as any liquor craving. “Are you sure about that?”
“Yeah, I triple-checked the call records. It came in at one thirty-five p.m. SCI’s a minimum-security facility that transitions inmates back to society. They have access to phones from six a.m. to ten p.m. so long as they’re not out on a work crew. And your father wasn’t on a crew when that call was placed. I just checked.”
A thousand memories of a neglected and filthy childhood rolled through Alec’s mind. The man in that prison wasn’t his father. Fathers took care of their kids. They didn’t knock them around, make them fend for themselves, or use them as mules to move their illegal shit. No, John Gilbert wasn’t his father. He was just the son of a bitch Alec shared DNA with.
He was also the asshole who had every reason to want to see Alec suffer. “I’m gonna kill him.”
“No, you won’t.” Bickam stepped in Alec’s way before Alec could move toward the lobby. “I already sent someone out to question Gilbert.”
“He won’t tell you shit, and you know it. If he knew about this missing girl, it means he had a part in my daughter’s disappearance.”
“I’m not so sure,” Bickam said. “The caller mentioned Emma specifically. That’s why I notified you when we found the girl. I was hopeful this would be a major break in the case, but if Gilbert was the caller, as we think, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say he did it to mess with you.”
“You mean to fuck with me.”
“Yeah, that.” Bickam’s jaw clenched. “Look, he could have heard about the missing girl from the news or any correctional officers discussing the case. The caller didn’t name the park where the girl was picked up; he named the one where Emma disappeared. It could just be a coincidence.”
Not for Alec. There was no such thing as a coincidence when it came to John Gilbert.
“I also listened to the call,” Bickam went on. “It didn’t sound like Gilbert to me, but I know that doesn’t mean much to you.”
No, it didn’t, not to Alec. The dickhead could have altered his voice or even conned another inmate into making the call for him.
“I just wanted you to know,” Bickam said. “When I hear back from my people out at SCI, I’ll fill you in. Either way, you need to watch your back. Gilbert’s scheduled to be released next week. His six-month sentence for probation violation is almost up, and he’s completed his community reintegration program. If we can link him to that call, I’ll take the info to the judge, but if not, he’ll be out on the streets soon.”
Alec rested his hands on his hips and fought back the rage that wanted to consume him. Regardless of what Bickam thought, Alec knew John Gilbert had killed his daughter. He was the only person who had motive, the one person in the world who wanted to see Alec suffer. It was Alec’s testimony as a teen that had sent Gilbert to prison for fourteen years. No matter how long he lived, Alec would never forget that day in the courtroom when Gilbert had been convicted, the way he’d stood at the defendant’s table, stared at Alec across the gallery with enraged eyes while he was cuffed, and screamed that he’d make Alec pay. And Alec had paid. He’d paid every day since that awful day in the park. Gilbert had been released from prison less than a month before Emma had gone missing. Alec knew Gilbert had been there, that he’d taken Emma in his sadistic need for revenge, just as Alec knew Gilbert had killed her as soon as he got her away. Alec had just never been able to prove it.
“Yeah, okay,” he said for the agent’s benefit, though inside he was already planning how he’d wring the information from the son of a bitch’s throat. “Thanks for letting me know.”
Bickam nodded and glanced over his shoulder toward the lobby. “Any sign of Devereaux?”
Alec’s stomach twisted, and with just the mention of Raegan he was transported right back to the reason he was standing in this empty hallway. “No. Not yet.”
“Okay. Well, I’ll be down the hall if either of you need me.”
Alec muttered, “Thanks,” as Bickam headed back the way he’d come. But as he sank into his chair once more and rubbed his throbbing forehead, the dread spiraled right back through his veins.
The automatic doors at the end of the hall pushed open long minutes later, followed by the click of heels on the tile floor. Lifting his head, Alec glanced to his right, and the minute he saw her, all the air drained from his lungs.
Raegan Devereaux rushed down the hall toward him, her curly auburn hair flying around her face, her tan trench coat flapping behind her. Pushing to his feet, Alec swallowed hard as she approached, remembering all the times he’d run his fingers through that silky hair, the countless hours he’d wrapped his arms around her slim waist and held her against him, and the nights he’d spent worshipping her perfect body like a peasant worships a goddess whose station is miles above his lowly class.
“Where is she?” Hope reflected deeply in Raegan’s meadow-green eyes, but her angelic features were drawn and tight, and her soft pink lips quivered with a fear he knew threatened to overwhelm her.
“It’s not her.” Alec caught her by the forearms before she could rush past. The scent of her jasmine perfume filled his senses, a hard punch to his gut filled with memories he couldn’t get sucked into. Not now. “Raegan. Stop. It’s not her.”
“How do you know?” Panic lifted her voice. “Agent Bickam said she fits the profile. He said—”
“It’s not her,” he said louder, ignoring the way her scent made him light-headed and how the warmth beneath the sleeves of her coat heated his chilled skin. “I saw her. It’s not our daughter.”
The hope in her pretty green eyes died like a flame being snuffed out. She searched his gaze as if willing him to say something more, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t, because hope was a dangerous thing. It was a mirage in the distance, flickering in the fading light and dragging a person forward like water draws a parched man. Only, when you got there, all you found was sand. Dry, grainy, throat-clogging sand that could kill you if you gave it the chance.
He stood motionless, unable to do anything to salvage her hope. Watched a familiar pain seep into her eyes and dampen her gaze. And he felt it filter deep into his bones, tugging at that heart he was sure no longer existed.
“I don’t believe you.” Just as quickly, another familiar emotion overtook her gentle features. One that hardened her jaw, darkened her eyes, and pulled her lush mouth into a tight line. She pulled back from his grip. “You just don’t want it to be her.”
Alec’s arms fell at his sides, and something in his chest deflated like a balloon losing air. There was nothing in this world he wanted more than for the four-year-old girl in the other room to be their daughter, but she wasn’t. She wasn’t, and no girl who showed up in this hospital or any other ever would be because of John Gilbert.
He didn’t tell Raegan that—they’d already argued about it a million times. He didn’t try to stop her when she stepped around him. Didn’t warn her against what she was about to see. Knew it would make no difference. He’d come to terms long ago with the bitter truth that Emma was gone and never coming back. Raegan, on the other hand, still chose to cling to a hope that would only torment her for the rest of her life.
He turned to look after her. Watched as she pushed past the doctors still talking, and rushed toward Bickam standing outside a room at the end of the hall with a uniformed officer. Pain lanced his chest as she nodded and followed Bickam into the room. When he could no longer see her, he clenched his jaw and rubbed the back of his neck.
Yeah, hope was a very dangerous thing. More dangerous than a loaded .45 aimed right at your head. And, shit, he should know. Because thanks to his splintered hope, he’d lived through that horror too.
All because of a man he planned to confront as soon as he walked out of this hospital.
January 10, 2017
Narrated by: Amy Landon
Length: 9 hrs and 50 mins