Magnolia Leaf Press
Digital ISBN: 978-1-93901601-0
Trade (Coming Fall 2012)
* Two Time Maggie Award of Excellence Finalist *
SHE KNOWS A CHILD’S LIFE IS IN DANGER BUT NO ONE BELIEVES HER.
HE KNOWS SHE’S A FRAUD AND IS OUT TO PROVE IT.
THEY SEEK THE TRUTH AND DISCOVER THE TRUTH CAN SET YOU FREE . . . OR KILL YOU
Caron Chalmers is an empath. A mind reader cursed with imaging only victims. She sees what they see, feels what they feel, endures what they endure and has since she was seven. But even with all the sensory perception and insights, sometimes she fails to save victims in time. Sometimes she interprets the signs wrong—and a year ago, she did exactly that. She messed up and a victim died. Caron nearly died with her. Her “gift” shut down.
Now it’s back. There’s another victim—this time a child—and because of the mistake made last year and the shut-down, her police contact, though aware of her many successes, isn’t willing to stake his career on her. Yet he can’t dismiss her and calls in help from a private investigator, Parker Simms: a man with a past as bleak as Caron’s and a specific agenda of his own: proving Caron Chalmers is the fraud he believes her to be.
In a hostile alliance, Caron and Parker seek the truth . . . and discover a labrynth of lies and deceptions that require skills and experience they have and trust they don’t but must somehow find.
The situation grows desperate. Time for the child’s survival grows short . . . and for Caron and Parker, who must live with the consequences of missteps and wrong moves, the unthinkable happens: Stakes that couldn’t get any higher soar.
* First published by Vicki Hinze writing as Victoria Cole in 1993. *
“This is not a book to be begun at midnight. As tightly controlled a mystery/thriller as I’ve read in a long time. Not to be missed.” – Heartland Critiques
“I loved this thrilling, suspenseful, and emotionally moving story–from the first page, I was hooked!” – Rendezvous
“A powerful new author. A strong, emotional story of real people. Will worm their way into your heart and stay there.” – The Talisman
“A tense, action-filled story of suspense that will keep you turning the pages.”– Affaire de Coeur
“Victoria Cole [Hinze/Barrett] writes with a fresh ingenuity and intensity that will make readers eagerly anticipate future works.”– Romantic Times
“A story that turns your blood hot–and cold–by turns. Plenty of chills, plenty of thrills.” – Nora Powers, author
“As a professional psychic, I have always been drawn to books that are stories about intuitives, or psychics. Many times I am disappointed because of the writer’s inaccurate portrayal of their gifted characters. Vicki does NOT disappoint. As a psychic who has many times worked with law enforcement to locate missing people and help with murder investigations, I have been where Caron was and dealt with the doubt of law enforcement to the point of questioning my own sanity. I wonder, Vicki, surely you must be one of us? I was captured from the first page of Caron’s story. Her emotional struggles with the visions she saw and what she felt as she searched for the missing child. I was right there with her feeling what she felt, seeing what she saw. Realistic in her scenes Vicki has done all of us true psychics proud with her talent. BRAVO!! Thank you Vicki for one of the best reads I have had in a very long time and for your honest portrayal of those of us who can’t hide from our abilities and choose to do what we can with them. “–seerjean127, amazon
“You really need to try this book – It keeps you on the edge of you seat – power packed and fast moving and DANGEROUS as Parker almost loses Caron. Such involvement and romance makes for an excellent book — WOW! HIGHLY RECOMMENDED” –M. Hartmann, Amazon
“Plenty of twists and turns to keep you guessing in this fast moving story.” –Mark Louis Baumgart, Amazon
It was about to happen again.
She knew it. Sensed it. Smelled it as distinctly as she smelled the freshly brewed coffee in her kitchen. And there was nothing she could do to stop it.
The images forming in her mind were as vivid and real as the chips in the porcelain tabletop in front of her. As real as the steam rising from her coffee cup. And because they were real, dread and cold fear clawed at her stomach. She knew what would come next, and yet she was powerless to stop it.
Rain pelted against the window of her apartment. Caron stared at the flattened drops beading on the pane, wishing she could force the image away.
Then it was too late for wishing. The image was there. The image of a little girl, eight, maybe nine, with shoulder-length brown hair and wide green eyes that were almost black with fear—more fear than any human being should ever know.
Caron swallowed hard. Where was the girl now? The lighting was dim, everything was blurry. Focusing all her energy and concentration on the girl and her surroundings, Caron tried to sharpen the image. But a sense of betrayal grew strong, then stronger and stronger, until Caron couldn’t get past it to pick up on anything else. Acid churned in her stomach. She began to shake, then to shudder. It was happening again—just as it had with Sarah!
Caron clenched her muscles, fighting the resentment she felt at her life once more turning topsy-turvy, spinning out of control—and fighting the guilt that came with the resentment. From the time she was seven, she had considered the images confusing, a curse, because even then she hadn’t seen ordinary people. She had seen victims.
And Sarah Jame
s’s case had proven Caron right; she was cursed. That case, a year ago, was the last she’d helped Sandy with, and after it, everything had changed. After nineteen years, the images suddenly had stopped.
Now they were back.
Why did she have to go through this again? Why?
The need to hear someone’s voice—anyone’s voice—hit her hard. Caron sent the phone a desperate look. She could call Dr. Zilinger, her analyst, or her aunt Grace—anyone but her mother. Her mother never had understood why Caron didn’t just “ignore” the images, and all the explanations in the world hadn’t convinced her mother that Caron could no more ignore them than her mother could have ignored the pain of childbirth.
A sense of urgency seeped through Caron’s chest. Sandy. She had to talk to Sandy. She grabbed the phone and dialed.
It seemed to ring forever, but he finally answered, “Yeah, Sanders here,” he said.
His familiar gruff voice helped ease the lump from her throat, but the tightness in her chest remained. “Sandy.” Why, after all this time, was talking to him so difficult? “I’m on my way to your office. We have to talk.”
“Caron?” He sounded surprised.
She supposed he was surprised. It had been nearly a year since her last call. “Yes, it’s me.”
His wary tone held fear, a fear she’d felt before and had hoped she’d never feel again. But now she was. The receiver in her hand grew sweat-slick. The words choked her.
“It’s happening all over again.” Her voice cracked. She slumped against the counter and held on.
“I’ll come to you. Where are you?”
“No.” She was scared stiff, but she couldn’t lean on him, or on anyone other than herself. If nothing else, she’d learned that. Her temples were pounding. Rubbing circles on the left one, she forced her eyes open. “No, I’ll come to you.”
She slid the receiver back onto the hook, her hand shaking. She should have been stronger and not deluded herself into believing that the images would never come back. But she hadn’t. Now she would have to fight this battle the same way she’d fought all the others—alone.
Caron grabbed her purse and headed for the door.
Outside, she dipped her head against the rain and ran, dodging murky puddles and dark patches of soft, squishy mud. Water gushed along the curb to the drain and splashed down with a hollow thunk somewhere beneath the street. She took a giant step over the water and climbed into her Chevy. Then while the engine warmed, she tissued the raindrops from her face.
The images were back. When they’d stopped, she’d felt naked without them. The way a man must feel when he discovered he was going bald—at the mercy of his body, helpless.
She tossed the soaked tissue onto the floor mat. Seeing the images was like that. She was helpless to stop them. No matter how much she wanted just to teach her students, just to be normal, she was reduced to suffering the empathy pains and the emotional upheaval of the victims, and to wondering, Why me?
A crash of thunder shook the car. A bare-limbed oak tree to her right became the image of a dark-haired man with a stubbly chin and wicked green eyes. He belched, and the smell of beer nearly gagged Caron. Lightning flashed, a little sizzle rent the air, and then, as quickly as it had come, the image disappeared. Shaking, Caron rolled down the window an inch. Rain and fresh air rushed into the car on a chilly gust. The wind whistled and whipped at the craggy oaks lining the scrap of lawn in front of the apartments.
The limbs looked like sneering gargoyles, twisted, grotesque and menacing.
“God, help me,” Caron whispered. “I’m suffering a landslide.”
A horn sounded in a long, steady blast from in front of the corner store across the street. Her stomach muscles clenched. Seeking solace in common, ordinary things, she gripped the steering wheel hard and watched the wipers sweep the windshield, click at the base, then sweep back again. The store’s illuminated yellow sign flickered as the power fluctuated. It read “2 Liter Cokes $1.29.” A car sped past, kicking up a spray of water, and a kid hung out the window yelling at a second guy who was getting into his car. “Hey, Bobby, come on, man!”
She didn’t know either boy, but at that moment she knew their thoughts and feelings.
Knew them physically. Bobby was late for the basketball game. David, the one hanging out the window, was ticked that he was missing the tip-off.
There was no solace.
The little girl’s image snapped back into focus. Caron felt the child’s fear, the grisly sense of betrayal, and cringed. She couldn’t ignore the images. Not now. Not ever. She had to accept the inevitable. The images had come again, and she was doomed to suffer them.
Every self-preserving instinct in her body screamed for her to run. Yet she couldn’t. Whoever she was, this child was hurt and confused and afraid, and she was not going to face whatever happened alone.
Caron straightened, slammed the gearshift into Drive, and pulled out into traffic, hoping her bravado would outlast the time it took her to drive to police headquarters.
“Anytime today would be just fine, ma’am.”
Caron jerked and looked back. A drop-dead-gorgeous guy in a flashy black Porsche waved an impatient hand for her to vacate the parking slot.
“I’m coming, not going,” Caron said, sliding the man a withering look and easing the Chevy alongside the curb. Not even his looks could excuse his sarcasm.
The man nodded, then drove on.
“Charming,” she muttered, tugging her keys from the ignition. She snatched up her purse, then went inside.
Detective Hershel Sanders was in his same dismal office. Surrounded by gray metal cabinets and awful green walls, and so cramped he couldn’t turn around without bumping his little paunch, Sandy sat buried behind the mountain of files on his desk, an unlit cigar stub clamped between his teeth.
According to Dr. Zilinger, Sandy hadn’t lit up since Jim Garrison dragged New Orleans into national focus, claiming Kennedy’s assassination was a political conspiracy. The district attorney had lost his job, and because Sandy had agreed with him, he’d been demoted and left to swelter in this hole ever since, punching the clock and waiting for retirement.
Caron plastered a s
Sandy looked up. His gaze, seen through his black-framed, half-moon glasses, hadn’t yet focused. A shock of blond hair sprung out from his head. He’d been forking his fingers through it again. He should let it grow and ditch the glasses and the stubby cigar. It’d take ten years off of him.mile to her lips, folded her arms across her chest and leaned against the door frame. “Still hiding behind the clutter, Detective?”
For a second, his jaw hung loose. Then he whipped off his glasses and slapped his palm down on his desk blotter. “Where’ve you been, kid?”
To the fiftyish Sandy, the twenty-six-year-old Caron would always be the seven year old she’d been when they first worked together. “Oh, nowhere special,” she said.
She knew she was being evasive, but she didn’t want to share her “normal” life with him. She wanted to hoard every moment of that time to herself. A normal life was all she’d ever wanted, and she’d had a taste of it. Now that the images were back, her memories of normalcy were even more precious, and more private.
She walked in—and saw that he wasn’t alone. A man pushing thirty sat scrunched up in a chair, his shoulders wedged between two file cabinets. Big, brawny, beautiful—all those words came to mind. His hands were fisted inside the pockets of his black leather bomber jacket. And the look on his face made his feelings clear. He didn’t like her.
That set her back on her heels. When the surprise settled, she nodded in his direction. “Sorry I interrupted. I thought Sandy was alone.” Then she recognized him. He was the guy who’d been driving the flashy Porsche downstairs. Remembering his sarcasm, she frowned, not much liking him, either. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”
He let his gaze slide down her length and linger on her chest before returning to her face. “I’m a friend of Sandy’s,” he said, in a tone that told her he wasn’t impressed with what he saw. “A private investigator.”
“I see.” She flushed heatedly. Whether because of the intimacy in that look, or in anger because he’d so brazenly perused her, she wasn’t sure. Probably a bit of both. If they’d been
alone, she’d have found out. But they weren’t. Sandy was watching—avidly. She forced herself to be civil and extended her hand. “I’m Caron Chalmers.”
He seemed reluctant, but clasped it. His hand swallowed hers; it was as huge as the rest of him.
“Yes, I know.” His grasp was firm, strong, and he didn’t flinch, slump or look away. “Parker Simms.”
The man was gorgeous, one any woman could appreciate, but the emotions seeping from him were alien to her. No one ever had looked at her with such raw animosity. But why? A parking slot didn’t warrant this kind of emotion, not even for a guy driving a Porsche.
They hadn’t met before; she was certain of that. A woman wouldn’t forget meeting a man who looked like him—and she’d never forget being looked at in the way he was looking at her. Feeling crowded, uncomfortable, she stepped back.
Sandy cleared his throat. “I thought Parker should be involved in this.”
She darted a look at Sandy. He refused to meet her gaze. Her insides started rumbling, but she forced herself to calm down. “You told him about me.” She tried not to let it, but resentment and accusation edged into her voice.
“I had to, Caron.” Sandy’s eyes held an apology. “For both our sakes.”
Her purse strap slipped off her shoulder. She shoved it back. Why did every man in her life have to betray her? Was there an invisible bull’s-eye drawn between her shoulder blades, a sign that read “Men, Stab Here?”
“I’m worried,” Sandy said with a lift of his hand.
He was worried; she could see it in his expression. But she wasn’t sure whether or not his concern appeased her. Her phoning earlier had cued Sandy that she’d imaged a victim. His calling in his detective friend could mean he doubted that there was a case. It could also mean that he thought she needed a keeper. And a keeper she would not tolerate. “I work alone.”
“So do I.” Parker’s voice was as cold as his chilly look.
She didn’t know what to make of his remark. “If you feel that way, then why are you here?”
Before he could reply, the phone rang. Sandy didn’t answer it. His faded blue eyes flickered an uncertainty that the smile he’d carved around the cigar couldn’t hide. “I asked Parker to come. I thought he could listen in and maybe help.”
Sandy was still ducking his phone calls—and he was darned nervous, busying himself ruffling through an inch-thick stack of pink phone messages on his desk. He’d known that she wouldn’t like Parker Simms being here, and he hadn’t been at all sure how civil she’d be about it. Somehow that doubt made his having violated her trust easier to take. Still, she was feeling darned bitter.
Explaining her gift in the past had netted two effects. One was her being used; the other, her being ridiculed. She didn’t care for an encore to either experience.
Working alone was easiest, best. Yet after what happened to Sarah, could Caron afford to turn down reliable help?
Emotionally torn, she nodded toward the mystery man.
Parker Simms nodded back, but his expression didn’t soften. What was with him? Her having interrupted his meeting with Sandy couldn’t raise this much hostility any more than the parking slot could, especially considering Sandy had brought Simms here to hear what she had to say. So what had she done to irk him?
She focused, trying to pick up on his emotions. Though they were strong and turbulent, she couldn’t peg them—or the source of his animosity.
That surprised her. She cocked her head. But then, she wasn’t able to read everyone. With Sandy, the minute he looked into her eyes, it was as if some magic shield slid into place and hid his thoughts. She didn’t probe. It’d taken years of working with him, but she’d come to trust him. With Parker Simms, it was more complex than that, though she couldn’t say exactly how or why…not yet.
Sandy stuffed the cigar into an overflowing ashtray he kept on his desk for appearances, then stood, curled a beefy arm around her shoulder, and squeezed reassuringly. “Dr. Zilinger didn’t tell me you were back in town.”
“I haven’t called her yet.” Caron hugged him back, feeling self-conscious. Parker Simms had the most intense gaze she’d ever seen. And the most sinfully gorgeous gray eyes. Long, thick lashes and black-winged brows.
She wished Simms weren’t here, wished she could talk freely to Sandy and openly explain the situation. Outsiders just didn’t understand. For the most part, she supposed, her gift frightened them—though she had a hard time imagining Parker Simms being afraid of anything. The man seemed more likely to incite fear than to suffer from it.“Ah, then I was wrong.” Looking relieved, Sandy sat down again, retrieved the cigar and lazily sprawled back. The chair springs creaked. “This is a social call.”
“I wish this was a social call, Sandy. Until three days ago, it would have been.” She let him see the truth in her eyes. “But not anymore.”
“What happened?” He rocked forward, picked up a pen and held it poised over his blotter.
She looked at the scrawls in the margin, unable to watch him during the telling, or at Simms during the objecting. “Can we speak privately?”
Simms didn’t move. She hadn’t figured he would.
Sandy rubbed his jaw. “Parker’s here for a purpose, Caron. I haven’t forgotten what happened last time. He can help…if you’ll let him.”
He couldn’t help. For some reason, the man strongly disapproved of her, and he made no bones about letting her know it. His body language was as expressive as a chalked blackboard. “I work alone,” she reminded Sandy.
“I’m staying, Ms. Chalmers.” Parker glanced at his watch. “Accept it, and let’s get on with this.”
“Ease up, Parker.” Sandy frowned, then motioned to a chair and softened his voice. “Come on, Caron. Talk to me.”
Caron stayed where she was. She hadn’t asked for Parker Simms’s help. His hostility, whatever the reason for it, wasn’t her problem, and she slid him a hard glare to let him know it.
He didn’t so much as blink. Disappointed, she focused on Sandy. “Three days ago, the sensations started coming back.”
“Sensations?” This from Simms, complete with a frown in his voice.
“The feeling of being on the brink,” she explained. “Of something big about to happen.”
“What?” Curiosity replaced the frown.
“I didn’t know, I just had the feeling.” She forced herself to be patient, looked up at him, and immediately wished she hadn’t. His grimace could stunt growth.
“But you found out,” Sandy said.
She nodded, then leaned back against the wall, lifted her chin and stared at a water spot on the ceiling. “That afternoon. I was checking out at the grocery store. I handed the cashier a fistful of coupons. ‘Customers and their damn coupons,’ she said.”
“I don’t get it.” Sandy shrugged. “That’s rude, but not odd.”
Caron slumped, dreading Parker’s reaction to this. She deliberately refused to look at him so that she wouldn’t see it. “The woman hadn’t said a word.”
Understanding dawned in Sandy’s eyes. “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure.” Caron rubbed her temple. “She was cracking her gum, and I was looking at her lips. They hadn’t moved.”
“You heard her thoughts,” he said softly, sliding the cigar into the ashtray.
Hearing Parker’s sigh, she winced inwardly. “Yes,” she answered Sandy, knowing they both knew exactly what her hearing the woman’s thoughts meant. Caron’s time without imaging, her time of freedom and peace, was over.
The “gift” was back.
“What did you do?” His voice had an odd catch in it.
She let out a self-deprecating laugh. “Flatly denied that it was happening again. Refused to accept it.” She’d cried all the way home, too, mourning the loss of her normal life in Midtown, and her students, who deserved a teacher who wasn’t distracted by visions. She didn’t want the gift. She’d been blessed enough.
Sandy leaned forward. “Could you?”
“Refuse to accept the images?” Parker said, interrupting them. Muttering his impatience,he propped his elbows on his knees.
“I tried.” She had. But by the time she’d stored the chicken noodle soup on the pantry shelf, she’d known she had to help. That was when she’d first “seen” the little girl…a
nd when all hell had broken loose inside her.
Sandy frowned, clearly perplexed. “So you can refuse them, then?”
He was hoping for a way out…for her. But, though she appreciated his concern, there wasn’t one. Not one she could live with, anyway. “No, Sandy. I can’t refuse them.”
“That would be too convenient.” Parker’s voice held a condescending smirk she thoroughly resented.
Sandy rubbed his jaw, then his nape, studying her for a long minute. He put down the pen and laced his hands across his desk. “I’m going to be blunt here, Caron.”
“Okay.” Hadn’t he always been?
“Can you handle this?”
Though it stung, it was a fair question. One she had been asking herself since her first inkling that the images were returning. She’d agonized, rationalized, but no matter what path her thoughts had taken, all roads led back to one. “I don’t have any choice.”
“Of course you don’t.” Parker grunted, making it clear that he’d meant the exact opposite of what he’d said.
That was the one. The proverbial back-breaking straw. Who did this guy think he was? She frowned at him and held it so that he wouldn’t miss it. “I’m sorry you don’t approve, Mr. Simms. But I haven’t asked for your approval, or for your help, so could you can the sarcasm?” She slid her gaze to Sandy. “This is hard enough without a stranger’s censure.”
Simms lifted his brows, but said nothing.
His hostility had her angry and nervous inside. She needed a minute to get herself glued back together. She pushed away from the wall and peeked out between the dusty Venetian blinds. “Can you believe this rain? It should be snow.”
“Later.” Hearing the steady rap of his pen against his blotter, she turned back toward Sandy. “When there’s time.”“You know New Orleans doesn’t get much snow,” Sandy said, “not even this close to Christmas. And you don’t seem fine. Maybe you ought to give Dr. Z. a call.”
His faded eyes lit with compassion. As if knowing she wouldn’t welcome it, he shifted his gaze. “Look, I know that last case was hard on you,” he said, avoiding speaking Sarah’s name. “Finding her like—like that. Well, I know it was rough.”
Caron stiffened and tried hard not to recoil. Parker, too, had tensed. Just the indirect mention of Sarah had Caron remembering what had happened—and reliving it.
Images flooded Caron’s mind. Images of Sarah’s battered body, unnaturally twisted, lifeless and cold. Images of flames sweeping up the walls, engulfing the building where Sarah had suffered and died. And images of the empathy pains, so staggeringly severe that she nearly had died with Sarah.
Her stomach folded over on itself, and Caron shuttered her thoughts. Still, her hands shook, and her knees were weaker than her aunt Grace’s tea.
Afraid she’d fall if she didn’t sit, Caron plopped down in an old chair wedged between Sandy’s desk and the wall.
Parker looked at her from around the corner of the file cabinet. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Caron assured him. “I’m fine.”
He lifted a brow and spoke to Sandy. “She looks a little green around the gills.”
If she’d had the strength, she would’ve slapped him. The man didn’t have a compassionate bone in his body.
Sandy held his silence and rocked back, rubbing his chin. The split leather cushion swooshed under his weight and creaked when he rolled closer to his desk to reach for his glasses. He draped them over the bridge of his nose and propped his elbows on his desk pad. “What do we have this time?”
Would there be more times? Or was this one a fluke? Swallowing hard, Caron dropped her shoulder bag onto the floor. Again she wished that Parker Simms were anywhere in the world except Sandy’s office. After this, the man would add “flaky” to his list of her sins.
Resentment churning her stomach, she looked at Sandy and began disclosing the facts. “A nine-year-old girl. Brown hair. Green eyes. Frail.”
“Caron?” Sandy stiffened, his voice tinged with reluctance.
He was afraid for her. Afraid she couldn’t handle the pressure or the empathy pains. So was she. But she had to take whatever came—for the little girl. Caron schooled her voice, but it still sounded still faint. “Her hands are…bound.”
Caron looked up and met Sandy’s gaze. It was all there for her to see. Fear for her. Raw terror for another victim—a younger Sarah.
“Do you have any proof?” An angry white line circled Parker’s lips.
“Let her tell the story, Simms.” Sandy’s tone carried a warning, one Simms would be wise to heed.
The men locked gazes.
Parker didn’t back down.
Sandy blinked rapidly three times, then turned his chair toward the computer on the stand beside his desk and positioned his fingers on the keys.
She heard him swallow. “Bound with what?”
His tone told her that Sandy, the man, had buried his emotions. Sandy, the cop, had stepped in. Caron took comfort in that. “Rope.” She squeezed her fingers around the cold metal arms of the chair. “A greasy rope.” Her wrists twinged. She looked down, half expecting to see black grease marks. But, of course, there were none.
Sandy began to type. “Paint me a picture.”
It was as hard as the telling itself, but Caron forced herself to look Parker Simms right in the eye. It was obvious that he didn’t believe her. But that was his problem, not hers. “She’s huddled in the corner of an old wooden shed— the wood’s slick, weathered. Sunlight’s slanting in, between the slats. Inside it’s maybe eight by ten—no larger.”
“What’s inside?” Sandy’s voice was hoarse.
concentrate. Parker’s gaze had gone black. It was disturbing, seemingly reaching into her soul.
She closed her eyes and blocked him out. The images grew sharp. A spider crawled up the far wall, then onto a shovel caked with dry mud that hung there from a shiny nail. “Lawn tools,” she said. “Rusty cans of paint and insecticide are on a shelf above the little girl. There’s a big bag of—” the writing was faded, and Caron strained to make out the letters “—Blood Meal.” That was it. “It’s on the floor, propped against the far wall. That’s where she’s huddling.”
The steady clicking of the keys stopped. Sandy gulped down a swig of coffee. “What’s she wearing?”
From his grimace, the coffee was cold. “Blue jeans,” Caron said. “The color of Mr. Simms’s. They’re ripped over her left knee.” She paused and felt her own knee through her white linen slacks. No pain. No burning from a scrape. The frayed fabric was worn, not ripped. The girl’s knee was fine. “And a yellow T-shirt.”
“Anything written on the shirt?”
“There’s an emblem, but I can’t see it. Her hands are curled to her chest.” Cold? No, she wasn’t cold. Caron scanned the image, then closed her eyes to heighten her perception. “Black sneakers—muddy. And yellow socks.”
He keyed the last of what Caron told him into the computer. “What about height, weight, distinguishing marks?”
“She’s sitting down and curled, but about four feet, and maybe sixty-five pounds. She’s fragile-looking, small-boned.” Caron pushed herself to sense the girl’s emotions, her physical condition, opening her mind to the images. Her stomach churned. Pain flooded it. Fevered and flushed, she felt dizzy. The smell of mud and chemicals grew stronger and stronger, until she couldn’t breathe. She snapped her eyes open and gasped.
Sandy jumped up and touched her shoulder. “Hey, take it easy, Caron.”
“I’m okay.” She took in great gulps of cleansing air. The expression on Sandy’s face warned her that the second she left his office he’d be calling Dr. Z. to express his concern that Caron was still suffering from trauma-induced psychic burnout. “She’s sick, Sandy. Very sick.”
“Was she beaten, bruised—anything else?” Parker asked.
How could Simms sound so calm and unaffected? Again Caron sensed his disbelief, his hostility toward her. “No.” Her head was clearing. “Just sick.”
She dabbed sweat from her forehead. “I don’t know about the man.”
“What man? Now there’s a man?” Parker grunted. “What next? Flying saucers?”
“Damn it, Simms, knock it off.” Sandy looked back at Caron and gentled his voice. “Tell me about the man.”
She closed her eyes and again saw his face, his piercing eyes. They were green, and as ice-cold as Parker Simms’s.
She blinked and focused on Sandy. Her voice rattled. “I imaged him on the way over here. He might not even be connected. I’m not sure yet.”
Then it hit her. The little girl had dimples. So did the man. “No, they’re connected. He’s her…father.” That didn’t feel quite right. Not at all sure she was interpreting properly, she hedged. “Maybe. There is a connection.”
Sandy moved back and watched the computer screen. “We’re coming up empty. Ready to look at some pictures?”
Caron nodded and picked up her purse. From under her lashes, she stole a glance at Parker. He’d pulled his chair away from the wall. And, sitting sprawled with his elbow propped on the armrest and his chin cupped in his hand, he looked bored and irritated. He hadn’t bought a word she’d said.
Caron sighed inwardly. She’d met his kind before—one too many times. “No photos of runaways,” she told Sandy. “The girl’s not a runaway. She was abducted.” She could feel herself breaking out in a cold sweat.
Abducted. Just like Sarah James.
Tapping his pen, Sandy abruptly stopped. “Any idea of where from?”
Caron knew exactly. “A store on the west bank. The corner of Belle Chase Highway and Twenty-first Street. There’s a shopping center there, a reddish brick building. She was behind it on her bicycle. It’s lavender.”
“They’re coming fast, aren’t they?”
She nodded, resigned. The images were coming very fast. And Simms’s expression had turned to stone.
Sandy added the latest info to the rest in the computer. “Do you have a name?”
She paused, waited, but nothing came. It hadn’t with Sarah, either, not until later. “No.”
“We’re still dry here.” He nodded toward the monitor.
“Nothing?” Caron frowned. “The child was abducted. How could there be nothing in the data bank? Her parents—somebody—had to notice her missing.”
“There’s nothing here.” He raked his hair with a burn-scarred hand—another legacy of the James case.
“Maybe she wasn’t abducted.” Parker let his hand drop to the armrest. “Maybe none of this is real. Maybe you’re—”
“I wish the images weren’t real. You have no idea how often I’ve wished it.” Caron leveled him her best hostile look. How could any man so gorgeous be such a narrow-mind
ed thorn in the side? “But they are.”
Compassion flitted over his face. He clamped his jaw and squelched it. “At the risk of sounding sarcastic, let me ask my trivial question again. Do you have any proof?”
She flushed heatedly again. For a second she’d thought he might come around, but he hadn’t. He was no different from the others. She lifted her chin. “Nothing you can touch, see, smell or feel, Mr. Simms. Only the images.”
Parker looked at Sandy. “And there’s no missing-person report?”
Grim-faced, Sandy shook his head. An uneasy shiver rattled along Caron’s spine. Before now, there always had been a report. That there wasn’t one now had her feeling grim, too. Grim and uncertain.
Parker stood up. “As far as I’m concerned, that covers it.”
Caron tried hard to keep her temper in check. Not only was the man insulting and rude—he might as well have called her a liar straight out—his negative feelings were unjustified. That infuriated her. “Look, Mr. Simms—”
“No, you look, Miss Chalmers,” he cut in, his voice cold and steady. “It’s a simple matter of logic. If your child were missing, would you file a report?”
“Yes, I would, but—”
“Well, there you have it. Right from the psychic’s mouth.” He leaned against a file cabinet and cast her an acid look that she would have thoroughly enjoyed knocking off his face.“No report, no abduction. And no case.” With an annoying little shrug, he straightened. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have real work to do.” Refusing them so much as a nod, he walked out of Sandy’s office.
Caron glared at his retreating back. “You’re wrong, Parker Simms. Dead wrong!”
He didn’t stop, or turn around.
“Parker has a point, Caron.” Sandy said on a sigh. “Are you sure about this?”
After all their years together, Sandy doubted her. That hurt. “Yes, I’m sure,” she snapped. “Do you think I want to see this child dragged through hell? Do you think I’m looking forward to being dragged through hell with her?”
“I didn’t mean to offend you. It’s just that…” His face tinged pink. “You and I both know you had a really close call with—with the James case.” A desperate edge crept into his voice. “You nearly died, Caron.”
He looked down at his desk pad, his eyes unfocused. “It’s been a year today.”
A year ago tod
ay, they’d found Sarah James. Dead. A surge of bitter tears threatened. “I know.” How could she not know? She’d never forget. Sarah’s killer being in prison didn’t help at all.
“Could you be getting your wires crossed because of it?”
His question was valid. Caron had nearly died. During the week-long investigation, she’d followed up on the leads she’d imaged, and her health had deteriorated quickly. The more deeply engrossed in the case she’d become, the more acutely she’d suffered every atrocity that Sarah James had suffered at the hands of her captor. And Sarah James had been tortured.
Following the grain in her padded chair with her fingers, Caron looked at Sandy, knowing her regret was shining in her eyes. “This isn’t confusion. I wish it was. I wish the child wasn’t in danger. But she is, Sandy. I swear, she is.”
He pinched the bridge of his nose above his half-moon glasses. A smudge on the lens caught in the light.
When it became clear he wasn’t going to respond, Caron turned the subject. “Why did you bring in Parker Simms?”
Sandy looked away. “I told you. I think he can help.”
“Help?” She guffawed. “He’s the most hostile man I’ve ever met.”
Indecision creased Sandy’s brow, and he stuffed his hand in his pocket. “He’s got his reasons. I agree that these days Parker’s in a black mood most of the time, and he’s really rough around the edges. But he’s the best at what he does.”
Sandy knew more than he was saying, and her expression must have told him that she knew it. He gave her an uneasy smile. “Come on, you can handle Simms. Just don’t take it personally. When the man dies, he’ll probably ask God for his ID.”
“And God’ll give it to him,” she said with a hint of a grin. There was no sense in alienating Sandy. She’d get Parker Simms’s measure…eventually
“He probably will.” Sandy gave her shoulder a firm pat. “Let’s look at those pictures, hmm? Maybe we’ll get lucky.”
Nodding, Caron went into the outer office and got busy.
Parker sat in the Porsche outside Sanders’s office and stared up at the rain-speckled window. She was still in there, filling Sanders’s head with bull.
His hand shook on the wheel. God, if he’d blown this…No, he hadn’t blown it. He’d been rough on her—not that she didn’t deserve worse—but she had no idea who he was, that he’d been tailing her, or that he’d gathered a year’s worth of proof that his ex-partner, Harlan, had been right. Caron Chalmers was no more psychic than he was.
For prosecution purposes, it was circumstantial evidence, true. But it was strong enough to convince Parker. A year of teaching second-graders sixty miles away in Midtown, and the lady couldn’t hack playing it straight. So she’d come back and picked up where she’d left off with Sanders.
Parker had figured that it would take an out-and-out threat to get any information on her from Sanders. All he’d managed for the past year was Sanders’s admission that he and Chalmers were friends. But things had taken an odd turn.
This morning, Sanders had called and seemed almost relieved to spill his guts and tell Parker she was coming down to headquarters. And then Sanders had done somethin
That request had knocked Parker for a loop. Sanders was genuinely worried about her; there was no doubt about that. Parker had seen Sanders’s look in his own mother’s eyes too often not to recognize it. And that worry made Sanders Chalmers’s victim, too. Not the same kind of victim Harlan had been, but still her victim.g even odder. He’d asked him to help Chalmers.
Parker’s stomach lurched, and the lump in his chest turned stone-cold. He grimaced, doubly resolved. Harlan was right. Caron Chalmers was a fraud. And, by God, Parker meant to stop her—before she caused anyone else’s death.
After an hour of staring at photos and coming up as empty as the computer’s data bank, Caron stood up at the long table and stretched, then looked back over her shoulder.
Through the half-open glass door, she saw that Sandy was alone, but talking quietly into the telephone.
From the intimate tone of his voice, she knew the call was personal. Caron lifted a brow. It was hard to imagine Sandy loving, or as a lover. What kind of woman would be attracted to him?
Sandy hung up. Caron tossed her foam coffee cup into the overflowing trash can and tapped on his door. When he looked up, she leaned her head against the door frame. “You guys should use paper cups or real mugs.”
He glanced up from an open file. “What?”
His eyes looked a little glazed. Must have been one hot call. Parker Simms and his broad shoulders flashed through her mind. She blinked the disturbing image away. “Foam doesn’t break down. You know, go green and save the planet.”
“Oh. Right.” Sandy set the file down and, elbow bent, propped his chin with his hand. “I’ll mention it.”
He wouldn’t. Typical Sandy. “There’s nothing in the photos. I’m going to ride over to Gretna and see what happens.”
Caron nodded. “I’ll give you a call.”
“You want company? I guess Simms skated out on us, but I could tag along.”
Sandy was worried about her, but that wasn’t all of it. She couldn’t blame him. After Sarah’s case, how could he not be worried? Caron herself was worried—and tempted to take him up on his offer.
Before she could give in to the fear, she replied. “No, but thanks. I have to get my feet back.”
She hiked up her shoulder bag to hide her own misgivings. How well would she cope this time? Okay, so she was scared stiff. She had honest concerns about her abilities, and about the empathy pains that always accompanied the images. How much could she physically withstand? She hadn’t been tested since the images had come back, either. How accurate were her perceptions?
As much as she hated to admit it, hostile or not, Parker Simms had made a valid point. For the first time ever in a case, she didn’t have a missing-persons report, or any other hard evidence. But she did have the images. After what had happened to Sarah, trusting them was as hard as trusting outsiders. Yet the stakes were too high for her not to; more than for herself, she was terrified of what was happening to the little girl. Of what could happen to her—if she found her too late.
She squeezed the strap on her purse until it bit into her palm, and pushed away from the door casing. The white paint was chipped and peeling away in splinters. So was she…inside.
She didn’t want to, but she had to warn Sandy. Not that there was anything he could do about it without a report. But maybe it was herself she had to warn—out loud—just in case this little girl ended up like Sarah. “She’s sick, Sandy. She could get sicker.”
Their gazes linked and held. He did understand. They both did. And whether or not Parker Simms believed her, Caron knew the truth. The little girl had been abducted. She was in serious danger. And unless Caron interpreted her images dead-center accurate, the girl could die.