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Saturday, October 3, 2009

MISSING EXCERPT


Here's a sneak peek of MISSING.


Missing

PROLOGUE

Thirteen-year-old Stacie Cox walked down the heavily wooded path to the A-frame home where she and her aunt and uncle lived during the summer months. She pulled her bandana from her pocket and wiped the sweat from her neck and forehead before opening the screen door and stepping into the dimly lit living room.

“I won’t ask about the hike,” Aunt Kathy called from the kitchen, “because I already know you enjoyed it. But what about the Smythes?”

Stacie sank onto the couch. “Mrs. Smythe said the mountains looked the same from there as they do from her store window in Rexburg.”

Aunt Kathy laughed. “Some people don’t get nature.”

“Then why do they go camping?” Stacie loosened the laces on her hiking boots.

“Same reason you like to hike so much. It’s a chance to get away from it all and just think.” Aunt Kathy, came out of the kitchen, her graying, light brown hair pulled tight in a ponytail, She placed a ham sandwich, baby carrots, and a glass of milk on the table. “Besides, it’s cheaper.”

Stacie slipped on her flip-flops. “Sorry, I’ll have to eat later. Mrs. Smythe asked me to watch her kids at the pool for a few minutes.”

“Don’t let them take advantage of you, dear. You work for the campground, not for her.”
“I’ll try not to. She said I’d only be watching the boys for a few minutes while she and Jessica changed into their swimsuits.”

“Okay. But they better not expect you to babysit for free the entire time they’re here.”
“If it takes too long, I’ll tell them you have something you need me to do.”

“Like eat your lunch!”

Stacie grinned, stepped out the door, and headed to the pool.

Mrs. Smythe and her children were waiting for her next to the Swim at Your Own Risk sign. She gave Stacie a cool once-over. “I thought you were changing into your suit. You took long enough.”

“I—I was going to, but my aunt needs me back soon.”

Mrs. Smythe frowned. “The boys are over there. Jessica and I will be back in a few minutes.”

Stacie opened the gate to the fence that surrounded the pool and walked to where the boys were swimming. More accurately, they were fighting.

“Let go of Harold’s ear!” Stacie yelled to Sam.

“He won’t let me have the ball!”

“I had it first!”

Stacie stood to her fullest height. “Let me have the ball. It’s mine.”

“No it’s not. It’s the campground’s!” Sam had let go of Harold’s ear, but now his fingers were entwined in his hair.

“I own the campground!”

Nuh-uh! On the hike you said your aunt and uncle own it!”

“Yeah, well, I live with them. They’re my family, so it’s like I own it too.”

Harold screamed and threw the ball to the other side of the pool just as someone tugged at Stacie’s shirt. She turned to see Jessica. The young girl’s bright, brown eyes shined with excitement.

“Where’s your mom?”

“She’s in the camper,” Jessica said, holding out two pairs of goggles. “These are for the boys.”

“Thanks, Jessica. I’ll get them in a minute. Right now I’ve got to get that ball. Wait right there.”

Within moments, Stacie had it.

“Hey!” Harold cried.

“If you can figure out how to play without fighting, you can have it back,” Stacie said, remembering the babysitting tip her mother had shared with her a few months before she died.

“Tell Harold to let me have it, and we’ll stop fighting.”

“No, tell Sam to let me have it.”

Stacie pushed the long strand of dark brown hair that had fallen from her ponytail back behind her ear. “Uh, who had it first?”

“Me!”

Sam pushed Harold. “You did not. I picked it up as soon as I walked through the gate.”

“I had it before you even got there.”

“That’s enough, boys.” Mrs. Smythe had come up behind them, her arms full of towels. “And no more fighting about anything else, either, or it’s back inside for a nap.”

“A nap?”

Mrs. Smythe smiled briefly, and Stacie.

“Now, where’s Jessica?”

Stacie turned. “She’s over—”

The goggles were on the side of the pool.

The hint of a grin left Mrs. Smythe’s face. “Over where?”

Stacie ran. “Jessica!” She picked up the goggles. “Jessica!”

Mrs. Smythe caught up to her. The boys were close behind. “Weren’t you watching her?”

“I was trying to stop the boys from fighting.” Stacie scanned the poolside. “She was right here.”
And then she paled.

Mrs. Smythe looked at the pool too. “Jessica!” she screamed, lunging forward.

Stacie dove in, vaguely aware of Mrs. Smythe’s cries for help.

Stroke. Stroke. Reach. Got her!

Stacie lifted Jessica’s face out of the water, but the girl didn’t sputter. She didn’t move at all.
Mrs. Smythe screamed.

Don’t listen. Stacie thought. Just get her out of the pool.

From the corner of her eye, Stacie saw Aunt Kathy and Uncle Frank rush through the pool gate.

“What’s going on?” Uncle Frank rushed to the poolside, took Jessica from Stacie’s arms, and laid her on the concrete. He tilted the little girl’s head back and began breathing into her mouth.

Please, Heavenly Father, help her breathe!

Stacie climbed out of the pool, her limbs shaking even though it was a hot July day. She saw Aunt Kathy put her arm around Mrs. Smythe, who was now crying hysterically.

“Frank used to be an EMT,” Aunt Kathy soothed, trying to lead the woman away from the pool.

“Stacie, get the cell phone from the pickup and call 911.”

Stacie raced to the gate, but as she pulled it open, Mrs. Smythe began to scream. “Someone do something! She’s not responding!”

Tears poured down Stacie’s cheeks. Where is the pickup?

“Stacie, you were here!” Mrs. Smythe’s voice grew venomously shrill. “You were supposed to be watching her!”

Finally, Stacie found the pickup and called 911. Then she waited for the paramedics to arrive, led them to the pool, and watched their futile efforts to revive Jessica. But it wasn’t until they loaded the child’s lifeless body into the ambulance that Stacie ran.

She ran and ran and ran.

CHAPTER ONE

EIGHT YEARS LATER
August 12

Adrienne brushed the traitorous tears from her face, wiping away in one quick movement the emptiness that had filled her since the accident. It was as if sudden energy—life—had returned to her veins, telling her she didn’t have to feel this way anymore. The agony was over, and that child—soon to be her child, the one she’d watched for nearly an hour now—was right there, running toward her.

Adrienne stepped out from the cover of the pine trees. “Can I help you?” she asked.

The girl stopped running, wiped the tears from her cheeks, and shrugged. Her broken expression reminded Adrienne of when she used to cry herself, especially when her mother left her alone with her first stepfather. It was the greatest of betrayals, but his neglect had given her strength she could share with this child. Her child. Beauty and strength all the world would know she had because she’d raised this Riana. Her new Riana. Her daughter.

“Are you hiding from someone?” she asked soothingly.

Another shrug.

Adrienne glanced through the trees toward the secluded clearing of the playground. She had seen that other mother arguing with Riana, and Riana had run off in a tantrum, but now the mother had her back to them and was standing at the base of the slide, watching, waiting for another child, a boy, to whisk down to her.

“I bet no one will find you in my car,” Adrienne said.

Riana peered at the mother through the trees, and her brow furrowed.

“Did someone make you feel bad?” Adrienne nudged the child toward the road.
Riana nodded.

“Then let’s hide, okay?”

The girl didn’t answer, but Adrienne took her hand and led her away.

December 15
They say trouble comes in threes, and if this was only number 2, Stacie hated to think what number 3 would be. She closed her cell phone.

“What’s wrong?” Janice whispered.

The tour bus turned onto Fort Street.

“Nothing,” Stacie replied.

Janice’s dark eyes settled on her with that innate, reassuring power Stacie had always believed came from her Sioux ancestry. “Then why are your hands shaking?”

“Read this.” Stacie handed her friend her phone and the two of them read the text together.

Didn’t want you to hear from someone else. The Smythes have sued the campground again.

Claim we’re financially responsible for their daughter’s death. Everything under control. Good luck on your solo.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Janice said. “I thought that was settled.”

“Nothing’s ever settled with that woman.” Stacie swallowed the bile that always surfaced with thoughts of Mrs. Smythe.

Keep me posted.

She pressed send, tucked her phone in the bag she kept in the overhead compartment, and peered out the bus window. The trees and houses flickered by like a slide show on fast-forward, and for a moment Stacie wished the posh Victorian buildings weren’t in the middle of a bustling city of almost-green lawns and manicured bushes, but were instead draped with blankets of snow and icicles. That way, it would feel more like Christmas.

Stacie sighed. The choir’s Christmas tour was in full swing, and Stacie’s accompanist for her solo was ill and unable to play for her. That was trouble number 1. She’d be singing with a substitute accompanist, and the idea made her nervous.

The driver turned into Craigdarroch Castle’s driveway, and once the bus came to a stop, Stacie and the other choir members filed off quickly.

“Don’t worry,” Brother Fillmore, the choir director, said when Stacie stepped onto the wet pavement. “You and Matt will do just fine.”

“Did you see where he went? I’d like to at least talk through the solo before we perform it.”

“Up near the front. He was one of the first off the bus.”

Stacie scanned the crowd ahead of her, trying to ignore her growing anxiety. Then she saw him. He stood at the base of the stone steps beneath the castle’s arched entry, and almost as if she’d called his name, he suddenly turned his gaze to hers, held it briefly, then nodded before continuing up to the doorway. Confidence, she suspected, was what he meant to convey, but it didn’t comfort her. Sure, Matt was a good pianist, but she and Lara were such a perfect team, always anticipating the other’s movements. Stacie had learned to rely on her.

A brisk breeze caught a thick strand of Stacie’s hair and plastered it across her eyes, but by the time she’d pushed it away, Matt had stepped inside the castle.

She gathered the skirt of her sapphire formal in both hands and rushed up the steps and through the door. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dim light, but when they did, she saw that she was standing at the front of an open hall. The floors and walls were paneled with a warm white oak and lined with historical displays of Christmas ornaments and children’s toys. Ivy adorned the banister of a box-shaped, winding grand staircase, and light filtering through the stained-glass windows added a multicolored luster to the early-twentieth-century Christmas tree display. Across the hall were two widely separated doorways that opened into a large, chandeliered room. And humming through the air were the blended voices of dozens of tourists.

“Are you looking for me?”

Stacie turned and saw Matt standing uncomfortably close to her.

“Yes,” she said aloud. “I thought, well, since we haven’t practiced together yet, we ought to talk through my solo and—”

He shrugged slightly and looked passed her, or rather he gazed over her head and across the room. “We can if you want, but I’ve heard it many times.” His bass voice was so soft she had to strain to hear him over the crowd’s drone. “You sing ‘Silent Night’ simply enough, Stacie. I shouldn’t have any trouble following you.”

Stacie tried not to grimace. Simply enough? Did he mean that as a compliment or an insult? “This is important to me, Matt. I know the city dignitaries won’t be here today, but this is pretty much our dress rehearsal.”

He shook his head. “It’s too late to do anything about it now. Maybe later we can change things. But I really think we’ll be fine.”

Stacie suddenly felt nauseous. “What do you mean? Change what?”

Before Matt could answer her, Brother Fillmore, who stood in front of the fireplace between the two doorways, motioned them to the portable risers, and Matt started forward. If Stacie didn’t speak now, she’d lose her chance.

“I can change something if I need to,” she blurted. “What’s wrong with the song?”

Matt stopped, turned, and looked at her beneath lowered eyelids. “The ending’s not right. Slow down the last note. Let it float for a second longer, then I’ll play the final chord.”

Stacie stared at him. Even after all her practicing, she knew he was right about the ending. But before she had a chance to tell him so, he nodded and said, “Like I told you, it’s too late now. It’s your decision.”

“Wait a second. I didn’t give you my answer.”

Light flashed through his dark brown eyes. “Well?”

Stacie licked her lips, preparing to graciously tell him they’d perform it as he’d suggested, but when a hint of smugness suddenly shaded his expression, she stopped. Was he teasing her or telling her the truth?

Matt shrugged, then headed to the risers where the rest of the choir was waiting. Confused and a bit embarrassed, Stacie followed him.

As soon as they stepped into their positions, Brother Fillmore cleared his throat. “Mr. Underwood, head of the Craigdarroch Historical Society, has asked us to sing our numbers in this hall. However, Stacie and Matt will perform ‘Silent Night,’” he motioned to one of the two doors, “at the piano in the drawing room. Stacie, I’d like you to stand on the middle row today, between Tom and Matt, to minimize the distraction.”

Stacie dutifully moved to the middle row.

“Have you made up your mind?” Matt whispered as soon as she settled in next to him. He was looking straight ahead as if they were already performing.

Stacie didn’t look at him, either. “I don’t know. Were you serious?” She gazed at the gathering audience, realizing that many of the tourists would simply be walking by during this concert, somewhat like at an open house, where they could listen to the choir while looking at the displays.

“Of course I was serious. What’d you think?”

“I wasn’t sure. I thought you might be joking.” Stacie noticed many children in the audience. They were probably on school tours, and their faces seemed so bright with anticipation that it filled Stacie with guilt. How could she even consider giving them less than her best? She turned to Matt. “I’ll sing the end the way you suggested. Okay?”

Matt’s unexpectedly appreciative gaze held hers so long it sent heat to her cheeks, and she involuntarily inched backward. But still he watched her, wordless.

“Well?” Her voice fluttered uneasily, so she stood even taller than she had before, almost on her tiptoes, hoping it would restore the edge—the self-control—she needed, even though it put her barely at eye level with his shoulder.

“Agreed,” he said.

The BYU–Idaho Chorale performed their first few numbers flawlessly, despite the stifling air that smelled of sweat and cinnamon. Out of the corner of her eye, Stacie noticed several children listening so closely that they mouthed the words of the well-known carols. But eventually, it was time for her solo, and Brother Fillmore cued Matt and her forward.

Shoulders back, head poised, Stacie smoothly followed Matt to the elegant, double drawing room. A path of blue carpet led them past period furniture and massive brass chandeliers to a gold-inlaid, nineteenth-century grand piano.

Matt slipped behind the velvet cord that kept visitors from roaming too far into the room and sat on the cushioned bench. Stacie stepped into position next to the piano and looked out at the audience, most of whom were less than twenty feet away from her.

Matt played the introduction.
She sang:

Silent night! Holy night!
All is calm, all is bright.

At the far end of the room, Stacie saw a tall woman in a white hat whispering to one of the tour guides. She seemed upset.

Round yon virgin mother and Child.

The woman turned away from the guide, and Stacie saw a young girl wearing a black coat and green scarf. The girl was wedged between the woman and the wall as if she were hiding.

Holy Infant, so tender and mild.

On closer inspection, Stacie saw that the blonde-haired girl had dark brown eyes and a familiar round face. Stacie’s eyes widened. There’s no way it could be Jessica!

Silent night! Holy night!

Even though she knew it wasn’t Jessica—after all, Jessica was dead—Stacie couldn’t keep her gaze off the girl. It was almost like she was seeing the ghost that had haunted her nightmares for the last eight years.

Suddenly, the woman folded her arms and stared at the docent with narrowed eyes. Then, with one quick movement, she zipped her tan jacket to her neck, grasped the girl’s shoulder, and hurried the child toward the door.

Christ, the Savior, is born!

The girl stumbled to the floor.

Silent night! Holy night!

As the white-hatted woman tugged the girl to her feet, the girl’s scarf caught on the woman’s jacket sleeve, pulling the scarf from the girl’s neck to reveal a large, cauliflower-shaped birthmark that covered most of the skin from the base of the girl’s left ear to her throat.

Son of God. Love’s pure light.

As Stacie neared the end of “light,” a bit of hesitancy crept into her voice, but she pushed through it, trying to focus on the note. Where have I seen that birthmark?

Radiant beams from thy holy face . . .

Had she seen it at the university pool where she’d worked as a lifeguard? The campground? Somewhere else in Rexburg?

Sleep in heavenly—

The woman’s gaze flitted anxiously round the room, stopping briefly on Stacie, before she finally re-coiled the scarf around the girl’s neck and tugged her out the door.

Matt played the last arpeggio.

Stacie took a deep breath and held it, preparing for her final note. And then—

Becka! That’s where she’d seen the birthmark. On the “Missing” posters for Becka Hollingsworth—a little girl missing from Rexburg for several months. Stacie and half of Rexburg had searched for poor Becka.

Stacie’s throat strangled around “peace” as an empty roar filled her ears. And then, no longer thinking about the song or Matt or even Jessica Smythe, she charged into the audience and raced toward the door through which the woman had disappeared. She had to catch that girl.

Breathing fast, Stacie ran past the choir and through the hall. She frantically scanned every face, not caring whom she bumped into and almost knocking over several Christmas displays. When she finally reached the exit, she raced outside, but no one was there.

Trouble number 3.

3 comments:

Josi said...

Hey ronda, just thought I'd let you know I left you a blog award over on my blog :-)

Kim said...

Ronda,

I just read your intro to Missing, and wanted to tell you I'm totally hooked. I'm so excited for you! Good luck with your release. I'll look for Missing, so I can finish it.

Ronda Hinrichsen said...

Whew! And thanks. I'm so glad you liked it.