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Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport
Wednesday, 4:05 p.m.
Fiona Glass was trained to notice faces, but even if she hadn't been, she would have noticed this one.
The man watching her from across the crowded concourse was a study in contrasts, from his receding hairline to his youthful, ruddy cheeks. His hair was strawberry blond -- the same color as Fiona's -- and a smattering of freckles covered the bridge of his once-broken nose.
But it was his eyes that really captured her attention. They were brown and serious and fixed squarely on her.
Fiona halted outside the arrival gate, creating a pileup of deplaning passengers.
"Sorry," she muttered, tugging her black roll-on bag out of the flow of traffic.
She glanced into the eyes that had been boring a hole in her just moments before.
"Garrett Sullivan, FBI," he said.
A special agent. His charcoal suit and forgettable tie should have been her tip-off. Fiona draped her coat over her arm and hitched the strap of her attaché case onto her shoulder so she could shake the hand he'd offered.
"I didn't know someone was coming to meet me," she said, pulling her hand back. "I was planning to take a cab."
The side of his mouth ticked up. "Didn't want you to get lost."
"Aren't we going to the police station?"
"Change of plan." He commandeered her suitcase and led her into the river of people, creating a path for her in his wake. He wasn't tall -- probably five-nine -- but he was bulky in the way of an athlete who had let things slide.
"Any checked bags?" he asked over his shoulder.
He obviously wasn't going to fill her in yet, so Fiona simply followed him through the concourse. Glancing around at all the harried business travelers, she smoothed her French braid and adjusted her lapels. She didn't like suits, but she wouldn't dream of wearing anything else to a meeting with police and FBI agents, most of whom would be men. Those occasions called for drab, wrinkle-resistant clothes, which she kept in the carry-on bag that lived in her car. Today's gray suit was double-breasted and had the added advantage of concealing her figure. She looked tailored. Conservative. Professional.
She looked like Sullivan.
"We're going to the house," the agent finally explained. "The media wanted fresh sound bites for five o'clock, so there's a press conference scheduled at police headquarters in twenty minutes. Things are quiet at the residence now, and we thought it'd be a good time to get you out there."
"Okay." Fiona blew out a breath and mentally adjusted her expectations for the evening. She'd hoped to be thoroughly briefed on the case before she met with the child. She didn't want to go in unprepared. All she knew about this kid was that he was "highly traumatized," which could mean anything.
They passed the escalator leading down to ground transportation, and Fiona stopped. "Don't we -- ?"
"We're out here."
He led her to a roped-off area near a bank of metal detectors and X-ray machines. A line of passengers snaked back and forth, their boarding passes and IDs held out for inspection. A security guard gave Sullivan a crisp nod, then unclipped the nylon strap from the stand and waved them through. Less than a minute later, Fiona stood on the curb beside a white Ford Taurus that had been illegally parked in the passenger-drop-off lane. Sullivan waved at the orange-vested guard patrolling the sidewalk as he opened Fiona's door.
She slid into the car, discombobulated by the change of plan but grateful to be whisked away from the airport so efficiently. Fiona hated airports. They were inevitably bipolar -- filled with people either frantically stressed out or morbidly bored.
She fastened her seat belt and stowed her attaché and coat at her feet. The interior of the Taurus felt warm, meaning Sullivan couldn't have been waiting long inside the terminal. For some reason that came as a relief. Sullivan slammed her suitcase into the trunk and then opened the driver's-side door to admit a gust of chilly air. Georgia wasn't known for its bitter winters, but the entire South was in the midst of a cold snap. Even Austin was expecting snow tonight.
Fiona watched the agent settle in behind the wheel. She placed him at thirty-eight, maybe forty years old.
"Tell me about the case," she said.
He turned up the heater and pulled out into traffic.
"Shelby Sherwood. Age ten. Last seen by her brother Monday afternoon."
"And she was taken from her home?"
"Yep. Man came to the front door. Rang the bell, we think."
So far he was only repeating what Fiona already knew from CNN this morning. She typically avoided news broadcasts, but she'd been surfing for weather updates, and the story had caught her attention. At the time, she hadn't imagined that a few hours later she'd be abandoning her Survey of Western Art class to rush to the airport.
"Tell me about the witness," she said.
Sullivan twisted his body around to retrieve something from the backseat, all the while steering the car onto Interstate 85.
"Colter Sherwood. Age six. Was home from school watchingPower Rangersin the living room when Shelby answered the door." He flipped through the file in his lap, taking his eyes off the road and making Fiona's heart palpitate. "First-grader at Green Meadows Elementary. Same school as his sister."
Sullivan unclipped something from the manila folder and passed it to Fiona. It was a color copy of Shelby's school photo, the one that had been all over the television this morning. Shelby's straight brown hair hung past her shoulders, and she wore a purple and pink striped T-shirt. The photograph made Fiona uneasy. Shelby's expression wasn't the carefree smile of a typical ten-year-old girl. Neither was it the sullen look you might expect from a middle-schooler. It was a tense smile, very self-conscious. Fiona studied the girl's tightly closed lips.
"She has braces?"
Sullivan glanced at her, startled. "How'd you know that?"
"You can tell from the picture. She's trying to hide them. What's with the makeup?"
His gaze shifted back to the road. "I noticed that, too. Not exactly age appropriate, huh?"
"For a fifth-grader? I wouldn't think so. Especially if her fifth grade is part of an elementary school like you said. You guys need to get a photograph of Shelby in braces circulating, pronto."
"We're working on it. Apparently Shelby hasn't smiled for the camera since the braces went on."
"How old is this picture?"
"September, I think."
Four months probably wouldn't make much difference in the girl's appearance, assuming she hadn't cut or dyed her hair recently. Still, they needed a photo with the braces.
A horn blared as Sullivan skated across two lanes of traffic. Fiona glanced over her shoulder.
"Are we late for something?"
"I'm trying to get you to the house while the media's distracted," he said. "No one knows you're here, and we'd like to keep it that way."
"That's going to be tricky when we release a sketch of the subject tonight."
"That'sifwe release a sketch. We're not sure the brother saw anything."
Fiona looked up from the photograph, surprised. "Then why am I here?"
"His beanbag chair was parked in front of the television, not fifteen feet from the front door, but he says he didn't see the guy."
"And why don't you believe him?"
"Because when the mother came home from work, the kid was distraught. Shelby was missing, and all he kept saying was, 'I didn't see him.' That's pretty much all he's said for the past two days. No one can get anything else out of him -- not his mom, not the cops, not the shrink we brought in. He's freaked out, so we're pretty sure he sawsomething. That's why we called you."
Fiona stared down at the school portrait and shook her head.
"What? You don't think you're up to it?"
She lifted her gaze, and Sullivan was smiling at her.
"Aw, come on," he said. "You're supposed to be magic with traumatized kids. It's all in your file. You're the rising star in forensic art."
Fiona pressed her lips together and looked away. "This is my last case. I'm retiring."
The car filled with silence as he digested this. She hoped he wouldn't press her on it. She didn't want to explain. All she wanted right now was to do her job and get back on a plane.
She glanced over. Sullivan was eyeing her with amused disbelief.
"Youwant to retire. You're what, thirty?"
He tipped his head back and laughed, and Fiona's spine stiffened. She didn't expect him to understand. But she didn't owe him an explanation.
"Who's home with Colter?" she asked, changing the subject.
His smile disappeared. "The mother and grandmother."
"And the dad?"
"Deceased. Drunk-driving accident about a year ago."
"Mom hasn't left the house since Monday night," he continued. "Doesn't want to be gone in case there's a call. She's convinced Shelby has her cell phone with her, although we haven't confirmed that."
"And is Mom a suspect?"
He cast her a sidelong glance. "Mom's always a suspect."
"You know what I mean. Any weird behavior? Boyfriends who don't check out?"
"So far, no. Everything we've got indicates a stranger abduction."
So Sullivan had leads he wasn't sharing. Fiona wasn't surprised. Her job was to provide information, both visual and otherwise, to investigators, but the information tended to flow one way. Most detectives she'd worked with operated on a need-to-know basis, and the artist didn't need to know anything not directly related to the drawing.
A muffled snippet of Vivaldi emanated from the pile near Fiona's feet. She dragged her case out from beneath her coat and rummaged around until she found her phone. The caller ID showed a Texas area code, the same one that had popped up on the screen three times today. It would be that detective again. He'd left three brief messages, and she'd been putting off calling him back. She needed to get this over with.
"Fiona Glass," she said briskly.
"Hello, ma'am. I'm Jack Bowman with the Graingerville Police Department." He paused, as if he wanted her to say something, maybe offer an excuse for not returning his calls. She didn't.
"You're a tough lady to get ahold of."
"What can I do for you, Mr. Bowman?" Fiona's stomach clenched, dreading what he'd say next. They had a murder. An abduction. A serial rapist on the loose...
"Well, we've got a homicide down here, and we'd like to get your help." His voice sounded relaxed, with a hint of Texas drawl. But Fiona sensed something more from him, a steely determination that told her he was going to be a difficult person to refuse.
"I'm sorry I can't help you, Mr. Bowman, but I'm on another case at the moment." She felt Sullivan's gaze on her as she said the words. "You'll have to call someone else."
Silence. This was so much harder than she'd expected. She held her breath and prayed he wouldn't tell her about the victim.
"Well, that's just it, ma'am. There isn't anyone else."
She cleared her throat. "You might try calling Nathan Devereaux with the Austin Police Department. I'm sure he can recommend -- "
"He recommended you."
Fiona's grip tightened on the phone. She'dtoldNathan she was retiring. What was he trying to do here?
Suddenly the car slowed as Sullivan exited the interstate. They drove through a few stoplights, and Fiona looked out the window. They appeared to be entering a bedroom community like so many others that had cropped up on the outskirts of American cities. The landscape was a series of strip centers, mega-markets, and cow pastures. Every telephone pole and stop sign was adorned with yellow ribbons andMISSINGflyers bearing Shelby Sherwood's picture.
"Ma'am?" Jack Bowman's voice jerked her attention away from the girl's face. "You still there?"
"I'm sorry, Mr. Bowman. I can't help you."
She snapped the phone shut and shoved it back into her bag. As she zipped the attaché closed, her hands trembled. She flattened her palms on top of her thighs and took a deep breath. She needed to focus on the task ahead. This was her last case. She needed to get it right.
We've got a homicide down here. How many times had she heard those words? Too many to count. She didn't want to dwell on it. She didn't want to think about the words Jack Bowmanhadn'tsaid, because she'd heard those before, too, from the detectives who called her from all over the state, and lately, the nation.We've got a young woman...they usually said. And the woman had been raped, or murdered, or beaten to within an inch of her life. Maybe her child saw it happen.The witness is highly traumatized, and we heard you can help...
Sullivan approached an intersection and entered the left-turn lane.
"Is this it?" she asked.
Fiona leaned forward and peered out the window at the residential street. All the homes looked alike -- small, red-brick one-stories with garages dominating the fronts. The entrance to the neighborhood was marked by a young magnolia tree and a sign that saidROLLING HILLS.
Fiona glanced over her shoulder at the strip center they'd just passed. She spotted a convenience store.
"Can you do a U-turn?" she asked.
"I'm not dressed for this," she said. "I need to stop and change."
The homes of missing children are charged with a peculiar energy. Parents wait for their sons and daughters thinking unthinkable thoughts, and their desperation is like a current in the room. Their energy is powerful, galvanizing scores of perfect strangers to tromp through woods and pass out flyers and tie ribbons. But it doesn't last forever, and as the days and weeks and months tick by, the energy fades.
Fiona knew the odds. She knew that in all likelihood she could visit Shelby's house a year from now and the energy would be gone completely, snuffed out by a single phone call.
She surveyed the Sherwood home as she walked up the driveway. The concrete path leading to the front entrance had been cordoned off by crime scene tape, the doorbell and doorjamb dusted for fingerprints by hopeful investigators. The yard had no landscaping to speak of, save a leafless gray sapling whose slender trunk had been wrapped with a big yellow bow.
A handful of B-team reporters kept an eye on things while their colleagues covered the press conference downtown. Most waited for something to happen in the comfort of their vans, but a few milled around on the sidewalk talking and smoking. Sullivan ignored their inquisitive glances as he sauntered up the drive with Fiona at his side. There was nothing going on here, his gait seemed to say, nothing new to report.
"Another member of our CARD team's on the way over," Sullivan said, his voice low. "She's in charge of releasing the drawing, so I'm sure she'll have some questions for you after the interview."
"You're with CARD?"
"Yep. They put four of us on this one."
"Good for them," Fiona said, impressed. The FBI's Child Abduction Rapid Deployment team was an elite group, and she was surprised Sullivan hadn't mentioned he was part of it before now.
They mounted the back steps. A forgotten Christmas wreath made of plastic holly decorated the Sherwoods' door. Sullivan rapped lightly on the windowpane beneath it as Fiona stood behind him on the stoop, stealing glimpses of the backyard through weathered slats of fence. She saw a sliver of patio, some yellowed grass, a blue-and-white swing set.
Her icy fingers tightened on the handles of her brown leather case. She'd left her coat in the Taurus, along with her luggage, which now contained a neatly folded pantsuit. She'd changed into jeans, white Keds, and the navy Mickey Mouse sweatshirt she'd bought in Anaheim years ago. Her prim French braid was long gone, and her hair now hung loose around her shoulders.
The door squeaked open, and a thin brunette woman stood on the threshold. Matching streaks of blond framed her angular face, and she held a cigarette behind her. She looked like a barely adult version of Shelby. Fiona was startled by her young age and the fact that she'd answered the door herself. Most people in these situations had protective relatives standing guard.
"Afternoon, Mrs. Sherwood. This is the forensic artist I told you about, Fiona Glass." Sullivan stepped aside to make room for Fiona beside him.
The woman nodded a greeting, her gaze wary but not unfriendly. "Y'all come on in," she said, opening the door wider.
Fiona entered the small breakfast room. It smelled of Pine-Sol, as if someone had just finished mopping. The blinds were sealed shut, and the only light shone down from a fixture above the kitchen sink. So often, it seemed, these houses were dimly lit, as if the people within had an aversion to bright lights. Fiona had observed this phenomenon enough times to think there must be some psychological explanation for it, but she wasn't a psychologist and had no idea what it might be.
A vacuum hummed to life in another part of the house. Shelby's mother leaned back against the Formica counter. She wore low-rise jeans and a long-sleeved black T-shirt. Beige woolen socks covered her feet.
"Y'all want anything?" she asked, nodding at the endless row of bundt cakes and casseroles sitting on the counter. "It's just me and my mom and Colter. No way we can eat all this."
"I'm fine, thanks," Sullivan said. "How is he today?"
The woman took a long, pensive drag on her cigarette, then reached over to tap ash into the sink. "Pretty much the same. He asked for Froot Loops this morning, but that's been about it. He's playing in Shelby's room now. I told him you were coming."
"If it's all right with you," Fiona said gently, "I'd like to talk to him one-on-one. It seems to work better that way."
The young woman pitched her cigarette butt into the sink and gazed at Fiona for a long moment. She started to say something, then stopped herself and looked at the floor. She crossed her arms and cleared her throat before looking up at Fiona with glistening blue eyes. Again, Fiona was struck by her resemblance to Shelby.
"We can certainly leave the door open if you'd be more comfortable, Mrs. Sherwood. But I'd like to minimize distractions."
"Just call me Annie," the woman said, swiping at her cheeks. "And whatever you need to do is fine." She pushed off from the counter and padded out of the kitchen.
As they walked through the house, Sullivan paused briefly to show Fiona the living area just off the front door. It contained a royal blue sectional sofa, an oak wood coffee table, and a matching entertainment center. A large television inside the cabinet was tuned to CNN , but the sound was muted.
"Colter was seated there," Sullivan said, pointing to a denim beanbag chair beside the table.
"And the lighting conditions?" Fiona asked.
"The blinds were open," Annie said from the doorway. "And the overhead light was on." She flipped the wall switch to demonstrate, and the room brightened considerably.
Fiona looked from the beanbag chair to the front door. Sullivan was right. The boy almost certainly saw something.
Annie led them to the bedroom wing of the house, which was even darker than the rest and smelled like stale cigarette smoke. "My mom's been cleaning nonstop," she said as they neared the vacuum noise that drifted from one of the back rooms. "She drove up from Albany Monday night."
Annie paused beside the first doorway. "Colter, hon. The artist lady's here to see you."
Fiona glanced into the bedroom and saw a boy with sandy blond hair sitting cross-legged on the carpet. He wore green Incredible Hulk pajamas, and Fiona wondered whether he was ready for bed or simply hadn't dressed today. He didn't look up from his project, a multilayered Lego structure that appeared to be some kind of staging area for his many plastic dinosaurs.
Annie gazed at her son for a few moments before shifting her attention to Fiona. "Well. I guess we'll leave you to it."
Fiona nodded and entered the room. The lilac-painted walls matched the floral-print spread and pillow sham on Shelby's twin bed. A white wicker desk sat beneath a window, and Fiona noticed gray smudges on the windowsill where someone had dusted for latent prints. Beside the bed was a second windowsill, also smudged. Gold thumbtacks were pinned to the woodwork, each spaced about one inch apart. From every tack dangled a woven bracelet made of brightly colored embroidery thread. The intricately patterned bracelets were in various stages of completion, and Fiona stared at them a moment, thinking they were just the sort of thing she'd enjoyed making as a kid.
She chose a spot on the carpet far enough away from Colter to give him a sense of space. He still hadn't looked up from his dinosaurs or in any way acknowledged that he had a visitor.
"Hi, Colter," she said casually, mirroring his cross-legged posture on the floor. "My name's Fiona. I'd like to hang out with you for a while if it's okay."
Colter said nothing, but he stole a glimpse of her from beneath his cowlick.
She unzipped her leather case and pulled out a wooden board. It was four boards, actually, fitted together with brass hinges. Folded, the board measured twelve inches by twelve, the perfect size to fit inside a carry-on bag. Fiona unfolded the flaps and slid several brass fasteners into place, creating a two-foot-square work surface. Her grandfather had created the drawing board in his woodshop last summer, and Fiona considered it a clever feat of engineering. The brass fasteners that held the pieces rigid also served as clips for photographs or other visual aids. There was a shallow groove for pencils, and a notch at the top where a light could be attached if needed.
Colter didn't look up, but his hands had stilled.
Fiona pulled out a cardboard tube and unrolled a thick sheet of vellum-finish watercolor paper. She clipped it to the board and then dug a graphite pencil from her bag, along with a small container of Play-Doh. She spotted herFBI Facial Identification Catalogueand placed it within easy reach on the carpet. She preferred to work without it, but sometimes it came in handy when young children or non-native English speakers struggled to describe something they'd seen. A six-year-old boy might not know the term "receding chin," but he could point to a picture.
Fiona then rummaged through her collection of Beanie Babies and selected a soft green dragon with purple spikes on his back. It was the closest thing she had to a dinosaur, and she plopped it on top of her drawing board. She made a quick sketch of the dragon and glanced at Colter. His attention was riveted to her paper.
"What's your favorite dinosaur?" she asked him.
He tipped his head to the side, giving the question ample consideration.
"Mine's triceratops," she told him, quickly drawing one. It ended up looking more like a rhinoceros than a dinosaur, but she had Colter's attention.
"I like velociraptor," he mumbled.
Fiona's heart skipped a beat, but she nodded gamely. "I'm not sure I know that one. Is he the guy in your hand there?"
Whoa. So much for limited verbal skills. Fiona took a closer look at the dinosaur toys and noticed they'd been divided into camps. Her prehistoric animal trivia was rusty, but she was pretty sure he had them grouped into meat eaters and plant eaters.
Colter scooped up several of the dinos and scooted closer to Fiona. "Here," he said, dumping them on the carpet beside her. "These are the best ones."
One by one, Fiona drew each plastic toy, quizzing Colter about them as she went. He was a font of information.
"I draw people sometimes, too," she said as she shaded a T-Rex. "I'd like to draw the person you saw at the door after school Monday. You think you could help me do that?"
Colter sat across from her on the carpet now. He bowed his head.
Fiona removed the dinosaur picture and replaced it with a clean sheet. She brought her knees up and rested the drawing board on them so he wouldn't be distracted by it. "Will you help me, Colter?"
"I didn't see him," he muttered.
Fiona tried to keep her voice relaxed. She didn't want Colter to sense the pressure, although clearly he already did. "It's okay," she said. "Just tell me anything you can."
He sat inert.
"Colter? Do you remember someone coming to the door Monday?"
A slight nod.
"What color hair do you remember?" Asking about characteristics in the abstract was less threatening, and hair color was the trait most witnesses talked about first.
"Brown," he whispered.
"Okay." She leaned forward to hear his quiet voice. "What else did you see?"
"He was big."
"All right. That's good, Colter." But she didn't start drawing yet. Lots of people would seem "big" to a child seated on the floor, particularly a scared child. "Can you remember what he looked like?"
The silence stretched out as Colter stared at his lap. A tear splashed onto his pajama pants, and he rubbed it in with a pudgy thumb. Fiona's chest tightened.
"He said not to tell."
"It's okay to tell me, Colter. What else do you remember?"
"He made Shelby cry." The boy's voice caught, and he hunched his shoulders.
"It's okay." Her heart was breaking. "Take your time."
"He sticked his knife in my face!" A sob erupted from the depths of his little body. "He said don't tell about him or he'll come cut out my tongue."Copyright © 2007 by Laura Griffin
Excerpted from Thread of Fear by Laura Griffin
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.