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The Free Friday Read

Read the first 5 chapters of my upcoming release!

 September 22, 2021

By  Lorhainne Eckhart

The Children

The Children

She picked up the wrong file, and now everything is falling apart.

 

 

From New York Times & USA Today bestselling author Lorhainne Eckhart comes a new Billy Jo McCabe mystery set on a small island in the Pacific Northwest. When social worker Billy Jo McCabe accidentally picks up the wrong file, she discovers a shocking, twisted mystery plotted by a high-ranking social worker in the DCFS.

 

When Billy Jo McCabe accidentally picks up the wrong file, before she realizes her mistake, she discovers a secret no one was supposed to find.

She takes the file to the newly appointed chief of police, Mark Friessen, but he doesn’t believe her—that is, until they discover dozens more files and missing money from vulnerable at-risk children who have aged out of the system and are living on the streets.

As she digs into the files, the system, and the people involved, everything falls apart.

And what Mark and Billy Jo discover is a secret far more shocking than missing money.

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Chapter 1

“Pam, I need the Gillespie file. Can you grab it for me?” Billy Jo said as she finished scribbling her notes. When she realized she hadn’t heard anything in reply, she looked over to the open door of her office and leaned back in her chair, her laptop open, listening, expecting to hear footsteps, but she heard nothing.

“Pam…” she called out again, scooting her chair way back, looking to the darkened hallway, really listening. But it was quiet.

Too quiet.

She pushed back her chair and stepped into the dimly lit hall to see a darkened front door and no Pam. When she pulled back the sleeve of her navy shirt and looked at her watch, it was only ten after four.

“You couldn’t even tell me you were leaving?” she muttered. Pam didn’t report to her, but wasn’t it a matter of courtesy?

Billy Jo walked over to the file cabinet and pulled open the second drawer, where she knew “G” was halfway down, seeing how packed full it was with paper and files, every one of them signifying a child and family in trouble.

“Gillespie, where are you?” She spotted the thick labeled file and pulled it out, realizing another file had been stuck inside it. She walked the bundle over to Pam’s cleared-off desk and opened it to see a stack of papers, with notes written on the inside of the folder, as well.

She pulled out the inside file and spotted “Rae, Deena” scribbled in pen on the tab, and she found herself really looking at all the notes by Jim Stone, an older social worker from a year ago or maybe earlier—notes and numbers, with what looked like dollar amounts listed:

$2,384

$1,177

$129

$4,584

She didn’t have a clue what any of it meant.

She flicked her gaze to the Gillespie file and then back to the Rae file before unfolding a thick piece of paper from the latter. An envelope slipped out and fell to the industrial gray carpet. She bent down and picked it up.

“What is this?” She took in the folded envelope with “Jim Stone” scribbled messily in pencil on the front. It was unsealed, so she opened it and found a check inside, the kind of state check she was familiar with.

The amount of $834 was made out to Deena Rae, and from the color of the check and the date, she knew it was from over a year earlier. “Who is Deena Rae?” she said, recalling the file had been tucked inside the Gillespie file. She flipped the check over again to see that Deena Rae had in turn signed it over to Jim Stone.

What the hell?

Billy Jo looked up and over to the tinted industrial windows. This seemed both off and wrong. When her cell phone started ringing, she glanced over her shoulder to her office but turned back to the file, to the check she was holding. She flipped through the pages of notes, looking for an intake form or something, her brow furrowing. There was a photo: dark hair, Hispanic, she thought, and not very old, maybe early teens, with the same haunted mugshot expression she was familiar with.

“Now, why is a check for Deena Rae signed over to you, Jim…?”

The locked front door rattled, and then came a pounding. Her cell phone was ringing again, too. She looked over to see her guy on the other side of the door. Mark wore a jean jacket and blue jeans, and damn, did he look good. Check in hand, she strode to the door in her sandals and faded jeans and flicked open the lock.

He pulled the door open, and her heart did a flip-flop. “You didn’t answer,” he said.

“Sorry, was trying to figure out a mystery.” She held up the check and took in his frown in reply. Was this that feeling everyone talked about, that honeymoon phase, where she wanted to spend every second around him?

His gaze lingered, and she wondered if he knew what she was thinking. He reached for the check and really looked at it, turning it over. It was the cop in him that made him too perfect for her. “What is this?”

She started walking, feeling him right behind her, so close. His hand slid over her back as she neared Pam’s desk. “I was looking for a file and found this one tucked inside it, for a Deena Rae, whom I’ve never seen before. That check was in this envelope. Not sure why it was signed over to Jim Stone. He was a social worker here a year ago, maybe, I think.”

His hand fell away, but he was standing so close to her, looking over her at the file. She didn’t need to touch him because there was barely an inch between them, just like when they were sleeping. She never would have believed sleeping next to someone would be something she could get used to.

“I take it this is unusual?” he said. Damn, he was handsome when he was trying to figure something out. This was the man she could see herself with forever.

“Yeah. I mean, what is this check even for? Deena Rae… I’m thinking this is her photo. Young, by the looks of it, and she signed over a check. Why? It hasn’t been cashed.”

“You know, Billy Jo, it could be for a dozen reasons. Maybe she didn’t have a bank account. You found it in the file?”

She nodded. “Yup, tucked in an envelope right here, with Jim’s name on it. I don’t know, Mark. That doesn’t make sense. If a youth is getting a check from the state, she doesn’t sign it over to a social worker.”

Mark was holding the check back out to her, and she could see he was done with the topic as he glanced to the door and back to her. “You almost finished? I want to grab some dinner. Carmen’s on tonight, so thought we’d do a steak and then head home.”

And that was it. He wasn’t going to ask anything else.

She tucked the check back in the envelope and closed up the file. “Yeah, I’m done. So that’s it?”

He seemed distracted. “I’m hungry,” he said. “It’s a check. You’re sure it wasn’t cashed?”

Her brow knit. “Yeah,” she said. “This is odd.”

He let out a sigh. “Look, you said he hasn’t worked here in how long? So an uncashed check is stuck in a file. Seems like bureaucracy at its finest. I’m sure there’s an explanation, Billy Jo, that doesn’t involve us standing here, trying to figure out something that likely happened long ago. Maybe a new check was issued, or maybe it was a mistake. But the last thing I want to do after the day I’ve had is get tied up in some wild goose chase. Please let’s go eat.”

She was about to argue with him, and she wondered if that was why he pulled her close, right against him, and then leaned down and kissed her. She entwined her arms around his neck when he pulled back, appearing distracted.

“You okay?” she said. “Something happen today?”

He stepped back, which was also unlike him, and a shadow flickered across his expression. “Just the stress of being chief on an island where it seems like I’m constantly wading into a minefield of politics run rampant. Just once, you know, I’d like to not have to wonder what kind of bullshit is going to come out of the closet.” He ran his hand over the back of his neck. He really was not having a good day.

“Council still giving you problems?”

“Seems they’re always doing something—but, believe it or not, today it’s not them. Seems the state has suddenly flagged Carmen as a homegrown terrorist.” He wasn’t smiling.

She waited for the teasing, but his pissed-off expression remained in place. “Carmen, our Carmen?”

He angled his head. “My reaction exactly. I spent the rest of the day on the phone, being sent from one career politician to the next as each agency said it wasn’t their department. I finally called the Feds, talked with an Agent Mitchell in the Seattle office. Seems Carmen Zarko is a common name. I expected him to say he’d fix it, but guess what? It’s not that simple.”

She knew she was frowning. “And how did you find this out?”

He brushed back his jean jacket as he rested his hands on his hips, those hands that stirred so much in her, and she took in his holstered gun, his badge. “Well, funny thing. I convinced Carmen to take some time off, so she called her sister—you know, the one who has her kid? She worked something out and was going to fly down there, but she went to book her ticket and her name was flagged. She walked into my office, and I’ve never seen that look on her face before. I told her there had to be an explanation. It seems someone flagged her even though the Carmen Zarko who’s supposed to be on the list is a different Carmen, ten years older, and lives in Ecuador, part of some militia. All I got was runaround after runaround, from ‘It’s not my department,’ to ‘Sorry, I understand your frustration,’ to ‘Submit a request in writing to the state department.’ But, as the agent I was talking to said, I’ll need good luck, because Carmen has a better chance of winning the lottery than getting this fixed.” He let out a heavy sigh.

“So…” she started.

“So I told her to take an extra few days and drive. She told me thanks for trying. You know, sometimes, Billy Jo, the incompetence amazes me.”

She ran her hand over his arm. “So steak it is,” she said. At least now she knew why he wasn’t interested in helping her with this mystery.

“And your company,” he said as she slid her hands over his shoulders again, feeling how tight he was. He pulled her closer and patted her bottom. “You ready?”

She still needed to figure out why a signed check for Deena Rae was in that file. Then there was the Gillespie file and the paperwork she needed to finish. “Let me just grab my purse and my phone.”

He had that brooding look. She knew he was there for everyone. She kissed him again and then stepped away, starting back to the office, before she turned back to him.

“You know, Mark, you can do only what you can do.”

He let his gaze linger. “That doesn’t make me feel any better,” he said. He looked over to the open files she had left on Pam’s desk, files she planned to dig into, but tonight she needed to be there for Mark with dinner and a backrub. Tomorrow, she’d figure out what the story was with Deena Rae and the social worker, Jim Stone. Opening that file had thrown her into another mystery she knew she wouldn’t be able to turn away from.

She grabbed her purse and sweater and tucked her phone inside her bag. When she stepped out of the office, there was her quiet, brooding Mark, holding the check, looking at the file. All she could think of was something her mom had said, that sometimes you had to put aside your own worries to be there for someone you loved.

Chapter 2

Mark hated bureaucracy and red tape. He took a swallow of his coffee, hearing the phone ring in the background. The new dispatcher, Lacy Young, reminded him so much of Gail that he thought they could be sisters. They were the same age, and her confidence in handling the phones and any problems made his job easier. Then there was the new deputy, twenty-two-year-old Elisha Fields, her dark hair pinned back, on the phone, taking a report about what he thought was a stolen bike.

There was a knock on his open door, and he glanced up from the weekly report he was reading to see Carmen in blue jeans and a purple T-shirt, her purse over her shoulder.

“Chief, I’m heading out,” she said, wearing the same expression she always did. She really did hide everything she was feeling.

“You take those extra few days and drive safe,” he said.

She only nodded, then stepped inside his office. He could see she had something on her mind. “I will, thanks.” She closed his door, and Mark leaned back in his chair, hearing the squeak, realizing she was a little on edge. “I wanted to thank you for trying to get me off that no-fly list. You think I have anything to worry about, being labeled a terrorist? I mean, I know how it works, Mark…”

“Hey, it didn’t say ‘terrorist,’ it said ‘potential threat’—and it’s ridiculous. I’m going to keep working on it. I’ll get it squared away. You just go and enjoy yourself. The agent I talked to said it happens more than people realize. Just relax and enjoy the drive. You never know; by the time you get back, it may be sorted out.”

She lifted a brow, and he knew she didn’t a believe a word he’d said. Neither did he. “That’s wishful thinking,” she said. “Even I know that someone’s clerical error has just basically fucked over my life.”

He leaned forward, his forearms on his desk. “Carmen, I promise you it’ll get sorted out. The FBI agent I spoke with yesterday, Cole Mitchell, is aware now, and he told me to just keep calling everyone, writing everyone, to be noisy and not take no for an answer. People who throw their hands in the air and get frustrated, thinking it can’t be fixed, are why this happened to you. I know it’s a pain in the ass, but no one is going to come in here looking for you.”

He leaned back in his chair as he heard the front door and spotted Billy Jo. His dog, Lucky, walked over to her, and she made a fuss over him. Carmen glanced over her shoulder to Billy Jo, her expression still doubting.

“Thanks for trying. It’s appreciated,” she said, then turned to leave just as Billy Jo approached.

“I’m not interrupting…?” Billy Jo said.

Carmen shook her head and gestured to Mark. “Nope. See you, boss,” she said. Then she was gone.

Billy Jo took in Carmen and then dragged her gaze back to him, gesturing. “Everything okay?”

He took in her long red coat, which had to be new, black capris, and sleeveless turtleneck underneath. Damn, did she look good. The freckles splashed over her nose and face just made her who she was.

“Yeah, she’s just leaving for some much-needed time away,” he said.

Billy Jo closed the door, walked around his desk toward him, and leaned against it. His hand went to her thigh, running down over her leg, and she was right there, so close to him.

“So what’s up?” he said.

“I know you’re really distracted by the Carmen thing. I would be surprised if you got it sorted out.”

He didn’t say anything, knowing she had something on her mind. “Can’t do anything to resolve Carmen’s situation right now except keep calling anyone and everyone who could fix it. But I don’t have the patience to deal with being continually put on hold or told to call someone else. I get one name and then another until I’m sent right back where I started. So distract me. You can’t be done for the day. It’s not even…” He lifted his watch to see it was ten after three. “A late coffee break?”

She stared at him, unsmiling. “I can call my dad, fill him in on Carmen’s situation. You know he still has the contacts, being who he is, to at least get people off their asses and push you past the roadblocks being set in front of you.”

He wanted to say no, but he wasn’t a fool. Sometimes it was about knowing that one person who could understand the bureaucracy and fix something. “You wouldn’t mind?”

She angled her head and really looked at him before sliding off his desk. “Of course not. It will save you banging your head against the wall and getting nowhere. My dad can make a few calls and then a few more and will accomplish way more in a day than you would in six months.”

He knew she was right, and maybe that was what pissed him off more than anything. He lifted his hand, and she stood and strode over to the door. “So that’s it?”

Her hand was on the door, and she pulled it open, holding the frame. “Just taking something off your plate instead of adding to it. I’ll see you at home?”

Damn, she was perfect. He already felt better. He pushed back his chair, followed her to where she stood in the doorway, and ran his hands over her shoulders and down. “You’re perfect, I love you, and thanks.”

He leaned down and kissed her, letting his thumbs brush over her cheeks. She didn’t smile, and he could sense something else. He closed the door again and took in the surprise in her expression.

“Okay, tell me what’s going on,” he said, turning to lean against his desk, crossing his arms, waiting. He knew her so well, when something bothered her or was weighing on her. A case, a kid, anything.

“You have enough on your plate,” she said.

He stared at her and pulled in a breath. “Actually, no, I don’t. If you recall, you just took the main issue off it. Come on, what is it?”

She made a face, then reached into her purse, pulled out a folded piece of paper, and handed it to him.

“Okay what is this?” he said, unfolding the paper and taking in a list of names. She never played coy. “What is this, Billy Jo?”

She didn’t look away. In her blue eyes, which were always so serious, he could see that something really was bothering her. “Remember last night when you came by the office and I showed you that check?”

He stared at her, trying to remember what she was talking about. “That check you found in a file?”

She nodded, then stepped closer to him and tapped the paper he was still holding. “The check was made out to Deena Rae but was signed over to Jim Stone. He was the social worker here about a year ago. I asked Pam about it this morning, and she didn’t know anything. Deena Rae is a fourteen-year-old girl in the custody of CPS. I made a few calls to the homes she was supposed to be in, and each one said she had been moved. Those names are kids Jim Stone was the social worker of record for, and each was getting money from Child Protective Services…”

He shrugged. “Is that unusual?”

She rolled her eyes, something she did when she was frustrated. There was so much about Billy Jo that he knew well, and he realized she never let anything go. “No, payments to kids aren’t unusual. It depends on the situation, but they mostly go to older kids who are in special situations. It’s something a social worker has to apply for. It mostly goes to the family the child is in care of, for food and clothes. Those names are all kids Jim Stone advocated sending money to. Because there are so many, I pulled the files, and I was left wondering why an eight-year-old would need a check, or a three-month-old, who wouldn’t even have a bank account. I called up the accounting department to find that they were cashed. Every one of those names had monthly checks issued, including the three-month-old boy, Edgardo Deana, who died in CPS custody two years ago.”

Okay, she had his attention now.

“You sure about this?” he said.

She reached for the paper and took it from him. “Of course I’m sure. I wouldn’t be here bugging you about this, knowing everything you have on your plate, if I didn’t think there was a problem.”

“And it’s not some clerical mistake? I mean, CPS isn’t exactly known for running an organized agency.”

“It could be a mistake, of course. They make them all the time. But that’s not the point. The point is that there are too many names, and although I haven’t dug into all of them, with the ones I have, I’m seeing something I don’t like.”

Damn. Kids and animals were the issues he couldn’t turn his back on. “What do you want me to do?”

She pulled in her lower lip and bit it, then flicked her shoulder-length hair behind her ears. “There has to be a paper trail. After putting in a call to Grant, I found out Jim Stone took a new job in Cody, Wyoming, but when I called the CPS in Cody, they didn’t have anyone by that name working there. Can you go into your database and find out where he is? Just a hunch I have, but if I’m right, I hope there’s some explanation for this.”

He already knew where this was going, and he hoped she was wrong too. “You think he took money from a bunch of vulnerable kids?”

She pulled her arms over her chest, the paper still in her hand. She was so close to him as she shrugged. “I hope I’m wrong, Mark, but that feeling I have in the pit of my stomach that he did it…well, it’s there, and it makes me sick.”

He stood up and slid his hand over her arm, moving her back as he walked around his desk and pulled open the top drawer to reach for his keys and then his jean jacket on the back of his chair.

“What are you doing?” she asked as he shrugged it on.

“We’re going back to your office, where you’re going to pull all these files and we’re going to go through them. Billy Jo, I swear, I hope you’re wrong.”

She tucked the paper back in her purse and flicked those blue eyes up to him. “So do I, but I already know I’m not,” she said. Then she pulled open the door, and he followed her out of his office.

“Lucky, come on,” he called to his dog, who was eating kibble. He looked over to his new deputy, who watched him with wary dark eyes. “Elisha, I want you to do a search on a Jim Stone. He used to be a social worker on the island a year ago. Find out where he is now, what he owns, and where he banks, and then call me with everything.”

She was scribbling. Billy Jo was watching him, holding the door open.

“Lacy’s got my cell phone,” he continued. “Call me if anything comes up.”

“Will do, Chief,” was all Elisha said.

He followed Billy Jo out the door, his dog looking between them, and said, “I’ll follow you to your office. You know if you’re right, this is really bad.”

She pulled open her driver’s door, then glanced away, as if thinking, and back to him. “I know, and if it’s true, the thing is that CPS will never want the truth to get out.”

Damn! Why couldn’t this island be a sleepy, quiet place where nothing ever happened? But he already knew the answer. Sleepy, quiet places were the perfect places to keep anything and everything under the radar.

Chapter 3

“You want another piece of pizza?” Billy Jo asked, sitting cross legged in the middle of the office, while Mark was in Pam’s chair. The file cabinet was open, and what seemed like every file had been pulled out.

He didn’t look over to her as he shook his head and said, “Nope, all yours.”

She reached for another slice from the open box beside her. It was dark outside, and the clock on the wall read nearly midnight. She had so many notes, pages and pages.

When she heard the click of the front door, she damn near jumped out of her skin. Mark was on his feet, and Billy Jo turned to see Pam walking in, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, wearing yoga pants.

“Why are you both here?” Pam said. “I was just driving by on my way home, out for dinner with friends, and saw the office lit up. I didn’t think I’d left the lights on… Why do you have all these files out?”

She could see Pam was ready to make an issue of this. What was Billy Jo going to say to get her out of there?

“Just researching some things,” she said.

Mark, who was still standing behind the desk, lifted a brow to her and then dragged his gaze back to Pam. “Actually, Pam, we’re looking into a discrepancy that could pose a problem. You’ve been here a long time. What can you tell me about Jim Stone?”

What was he doing? The last thing she wanted was to give Pam a heads-up, because then she’d call Grant or someone else, and then everything she was looking into, the links and the evidence, would suddenly disappear. She pressed her lips together and stared at Mark. He had to know what she was thinking.

“Jim? What do you want to know about Jim? You were asking about Jim this morning, too, about a file of his. What’s going on?”

Billy Jo put the loaded pizza back in the box and took in Lucky, who was lying on the other side of it, eyeing it. She uncrossed her legs, her feet bare, and stood up to toss the box on top of the file cabinet. “You know what, Pam? It’s probably nothing, just a question I have, and…”

“So you’re pulling all the files out? There’s paper everywhere. You know I’m going to have to put this all back in the cabinet. I had it all organized.”

Billy Jo didn’t miss the fury directed her way. “You won’t have to put anything away. I’ll do it.”

“I still need you to tell me about Jim Stone,” Mark said. “You worked with him, didn’t you? Because there are discrepancies in his case files.” He just wouldn’t let it go.

Pam walked around her to her desk, where there was a stack of files, two open.

Mark lifted a check, the one to Deena Rae, holding it so Pam could see. “See here? This check was made out to a young girl, and then it was signed over to Jim Stone. You haven’t answered me.”

Pam furrowed her brow. “Jim was here a long time, a great guy, worked with a lot of kids. He made a real difference, you know,” she said, looking at Billy Jo. Then she looked back to Mark and reached for the check he was holding.

Mark flipped it over and pointed to the other side. “See that it’s signed over to Jim Stone? Was this something he did?”

She gestured to the check. “Was it cashed?”

Billy Jo crossed her arms and took a step into the circle. “The check hasn’t been cashed, but it was in an envelope addressed to Jim, and the envelope was tucked inside a file. I mean, you’re the one who knew him and handled the files. Did you put it in there, or did Jim?”

She glanced between Billy Jo and Mark, then lifted her hands in the air and let them fall. “I have no idea. Jim handled his own files. Sure, okay, that’s strange, but Jim is one of the good guys, and I’m starting to get the feeling you’re trying to pin something on him or make him look bad. He did more for these kids than anyone. He went above and beyond when they needed something.”

“Like what? What did he do that had him going above and beyond?” Billy Jo said. “Because what I’m seeing is a lot that doesn’t add up. There are kids in these files from three months of age to fourteen, over forty kids just in the files we looked into. He had payments coming to these kids, a three-month-old, an eight-year-old, a thirteen-year-old. That makes no sense. And when I went into the system to look for these kids, I couldn’t find any of them.”

Pam frowned. Mark hadn’t pulled his gaze from her. She reached for one of the files and lifted the paper to read it, then shook her head. “You know how it is, Billy Jo. These kids get shuffled around and off the island. Records get lost all the time…”

“So why is there a request from you for money for these kids—for camp, school supplies, clothing? I could go on.”

Pam looked over to her and then back to one of the files. She could tell she was a little thrown as she shook her head. Billy Jo lifted a sheet of paper to show a requisition with Pam’s signature on it, pointing right to it.

“Okay, that is my signature,” she said. “You know I fill these out, and I do it for you too. There are all kinds of requests that have to be submitted on every kind of form. I can’t remember all of them. I’m sure there is a simple and reasonable explanation.”

Billy Jo swept her hands out. She could feel Mark watching her. “Then explain why Jim Stone was having checks issued to all these kids. A few, sure, but a three-month-old? I mean, how does a three-month-old cash a check, or a seven-year-old, or a nine-year-old? Do they even have bank accounts? I would really like to see all these cashed checks and who cashed them. What are the chances of that?”

Pam was now staring straight at her. Her face paled, and Billy Jo saw she understood clearly what she was accusing Jim Stone of. “I’m sure you’re wrong, I can find out from accounting in the morning. I know Joy in finance. She’ll be able to pull up the cashed checks and see. I’m sure it’s just a simple error or something…”

Billy Jo could feel herself going to that place of wanting to argue.

“That would be helpful, Pam,” Mark said, cutting in. “But, just to be clear, because of the seriousness of this issue, I’m going to ask you to enquire on all these files.” He slid over to her the piece of paper with all the names of the files in question. “I want you to call about each of these kids. Just ask to see the last check cashed and who cashed it for each of these names.”

She shot him a bugged-out expression. “That’s a lot of names. You know, I remember a few here—Dillon, Cam, Lea, Janny…” She looked over to Billy Jo. “I really hope you’re wrong here. There has to be a simple, reasonable explanation. Have you called Jim Stone?”

Mark didn’t pull his gaze from Pam. “He transferred to Wyoming, right?” he said, though Billy Jo knew he wasn’t there.

“No, he’s retired now. Thought you knew. He’s down in San Antonio. Said it was just too hard, the work, the kids, the same old. He said there’s a point where you just have to say you’ve done all you can do, and he was at that point.”

Billy Jo wondered how close Pam was to Jim. She sounded unusually fond of him. “You know where he is and how I could get a hold of him?”

Pam shrugged, opened the middle drawer of her desk, and pulled out a card. “He sends me a birthday card every year.” She held up the card and the red envelope. “That’s his address. Do you want his phone number?”

Mark took the envelope. “Yeah, give me his number—and in the meantime, Pam, I don’t want you calling him. Call your friend in accounting and give me the information about who cashed those checks, and then I’ll call Jim Stone. You do not talk to anyone about this.”

Even she could hear the warning in Mark’s tone.

Pam lifted her hands and shook her head. “Understood. Call accounting. But, again, I know Jim. He’s one of the good ones. When you find out you’re wrong, and you will, I hope he never learns how you, Billy Jo, and you, Chief, questioned his moral character.” Then she slung her purse over her shoulder and narrowed her gaze at Billy Jo as she walked around her desk and started to the front door.

Then she turned back. “And you know what? I have enough to do when I come in in the morning, and the last thing I want to do is clean this up. So, with all due respect, I expect all these files to be neatly put back in the cabinet exactly the way I left them.” Then she walked away to the door, pushed it open, and walked out.

Billy Jo listened to the key in the deadbolt, then dragged her gaze back to Mark, who had an odd look, still watching the door where Pam had walked out. When he looked over to her, she could see something she’d seen only a time or two.

“You think she’ll call him and tell him we’re looking?” he said. It was a good question and one she didn’t know how to answer.

“I don’t know. I hope she doesn’t, but she could,” she said. She looked over to Lucky, who had his eyes closed, tired, just like she should’ve been.

“Well, I think we’ve done all we can tonight,” he said.

She knew he was right. “Why don’t you head out? I’ll put the files away and meet you at home.”

Mark reached for one file and then another and stacked them on the desk. “Nope, I’m not leaving you here alone. I know how to file. You can double-check the names on the list and put them away.”

He shook his head again, and she could see the heavy thoughts lingering in the way his brow knit, the way he looked across the room as if thinking. He looked back to her. “You know, Billy Jo, I hope Pam is right.”

“But you know she’s not.”

He let out a heavy sigh. “You know me too well,” he said, then pulled open the drawer. “Come on, hand me those files.”

She took a step over to him and ran her hand over his arm, his back. She leaned against him a second, letting her hand link with his. “I love you.”

He leaned down and kissed the top of her head. “I know. I’m a catch.”

She nudged his arm and couldn’t hide the smile that only he could put there. “You really are arrogant.”

He winked. “Yeah, I am—and yours.”

Chapter 4

“Mark, coffee,” Billy Jo said.

He stood under the spray of the shower, and Billy Jo poked her head in past the clear shower curtain. He was almost tempted to pull her into the shower with him, but she was holding out a mug of coffee, so he reached for it and stepped out of the spray to take a swallow, then leaned down and kissed her. He took another swallow before handing the mug back to her.

“You know, you could step out of those clothes and join me for some shower sex to start the day,” he said.

She let her gaze linger on his chest and then lower, taking in all of him, and then back up as if she didn’t have a shy bone in her body. “I had a shower, and now I’m dressed. That shower is a tiny box that’s barely big enough for one.”

She pulled the clear shower curtain back in place, and he could see her through it at the sink as she set his mug down and began brushing her teeth. Mark turned off the shower, pulled back the curtain, and reached for a faded gray towel on a hook to run over his chest and head.

“So let’s get a bigger place,” he said.

Billy Jo spit out the toothpaste, rinsed her mouth and toothbrush, tucked it in the holder, and reached for a hand towel to wipe her face before slowly turning to him. “You want to get a bigger place? I thought you liked this secluded hidden-away cabin of yours.”

What was he supposed to say? It was a temporary place he’d found, but he’d been thinking of a lot more permanence as of late. “Would be kind of nice to have our own place. I’m now the chief. This is a small place, great for a single guy, but I’m not that anymore. Was thinking of a house on the island here, with three bedrooms, a big yard for Lucky, some bright windows for Harley to look out of…”

She didn’t smile. She was pulling back into herself, and he wondered if she’d just walk out of the bathroom. He dried his legs and back, then looped the towel around his waist as she stood there, her arms now crossed. Then she did walk out.

He shut his eyes, hung his head. “Way to push there, Romeo,” he muttered under his breath. He heard her in the kitchen as he reached for his toothbrush and turned on the tap.

“You know, Mark, I’m not scared, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

He squeezed a good amount of toothpaste onto his toothbrush. “You’re terrified, and I’m tiptoeing around you. See? A second ago, you ran out.”

She was leaning in the doorway now, and he let his gaze linger on her while he shoved the toothbrush in his mouth and started brushing. “I didn’t run out. I stepped out because I needed to give myself a second to figure out what you’re saying. You want a bigger place…”

He spit the toothpaste out and leaned down to the tap, where the water was running. He swished the water in his mouth and spit it out, then pulled his hand over his face to wipe it as he turned off the tap. “I want us to buy our own place, you know, a house, the kind that comes with setting down roots and eventually having a family.”

She frowned. He could see her freaking out, and he hadn’t even said the one thing he wanted to but knew he couldn’t. “With me…?” He thought her voice squeaked.

“No, with Gail! For the love of God, Billy Jo, who else?” He brushed past her into the bedroom and tossed the towel onto the made bed, something else she had done. She was always up first, showered and dressed before he was even out of bed. Lazing around and waking up slowly together was something she didn’t do.

He pulled open the top drawer of the dresser, seeing her underwear and socks next to his. He pulled out his black boxer briefs and stepped into them, and he knew she was still there behind him, watching and saying nothing. There were times, like now, that he wanted to shake her, and he would if he thought it would do any good. He pulled open the bottom drawer and reached for a clean pair of jeans, seeing how neatly everything was folded in the drawers now.

“Okay.”

He still had his back to her, stepping into his jeans and zipping them up. He turned to her. For a second, he didn’t think he’d heard her right. “You said yes?”

Her arms were crossed, and he could see she really was struggling, scared, but she wasn’t letting herself run. She nodded. “Harley would like a big picture window with a lot of morning sun, Lucky deserves a big yard, and I’d like to have a kitchen with a dishwasher and counter space.”

He didn’t know what to say. “I’ll call a realtor, get the ball rolling. Any other requests?”

She uncrossed her arms. Her navy T-shirt was flattering and simple, and her black capris were so her. She took a step over to him and then another, then ran her hand over his arm, the discoloration of where the tattoo had once been. He was glad it was gone, but he was thinking of another tattoo now, on his other arm—something that wasn’t the face of a girl.

“I was thinking about this morning,” she said. “While you talk to Pam about the accounting and the checks, I’m going to do some digging on each of these kids, find out where they are and a little bit about their situations, you know, put it together. You’re going to the station first?”

So that was it. All talk of the house was gone. But then, when something made Billy Jo uncomfortable, like their evolving relationship, she shut down. At least she was still there.

“I’ll call Lacy,” he said. “I think after last night, I’ll follow you in and catch Pam early to make sure she looks into what I asked her to.”

Billy Jo let her hand linger on his bare arm. Then her fingers traced down and over to his chest. She stepped in closer and rose up on her tiptoes, where he met her halfway and kissed her, letting it linger a second before she pulled back and started walking, gesturing to the bathroom.

“Don’t forget your coffee,” she said. “It’s probably already cold. You want me to top it up?” She glanced back to him.

“Sure, thanks.” Mark opened the middle drawer and reached for a navy T-shirt to pull over his head.

“You know, Mark, I would also like a double wall oven, a gas cooktop, and an island in the kitchen. I don’t need an ocean view, but a quiet property would be best, where we can’t see or hear the neighbors.”

He looked over to her where she was holding his mug. He hadn’t expected that from her, and he couldn’t help the easy smile that touched his lips. “You got it.”

She walked out of the bedroom, into the kitchen of his small cabin, and he watched as she poured him a coffee. His dog brushed up to her, and she smiled brightly to him and bent over, making a big fuss. He wondered if this was how his brothers had felt before deciding to ask their wives to marry them.

“Okay, slow down, Mark,” he said to himself.

“Did you say something?” Billy Jo called out.

He shook his head, taking in his image in the mirror. “Just pour the coffee in two go-mugs,” he said. “I’ll have some cereal, and then let’s get going.” He pulled out a pair of socks and couldn’t help thinking of a ring on her finger, something simple and small.

She lifted her cat and carried him, and whatever she was saying to him, he wondered whether she had any idea of what he was thinking of doing.

“Baby steps there, Mark,” he said in a lower voice now, watching his girl, who was starting to come around.

But he could move only so fast, because there was one thing he knew about Billy Jo: He needed to give her enough time to get used to an idea. He thought of that ring again, wondering when he could finally ask her and when she’d finally be ready to say yes.

Chapter 5

Billy Jo could hear Mark talking to Pam, but whatever he was saying to her, she couldn’t make it out. She typed another name from the long list into the computer for the CPS system, then reached for the phone again to dial the number of a facility called the Braxton Institute. She listened to the ring, and then she heard a buzz and an automated message: “This number is not in service.”

She took in the list of places the children apparently were. So far, she had discovered exactly the same thing for each: no number in service.

“The Braxton Institute, Coronaldi, Pleaseman Detention Center, and a numbered company, 567899… Like, what the hell is all this?” she said, staring at the names. An icy unsettled feeling lingered inside her. Where were the names of the families the kids should have been placed with?

She pushed back her chair, holding the paper, and walked out of her office to see Mark standing in front of Pam’s desk, reading something from a file, while Pam was on the phone. Mark looked right at her as she walked over, and just the way he was watching her, she realized how much she depended on him. He was her go-to, her person to lean on, and she didn’t know what she’d do if he weren’t there.

“What’s wrong?” he said. That was just something else that was too perfect about him. He could read her so well.

“I can’t find these kids. I’ve made it halfway through the list, and all that’s come up has been a detention center, an institution, a numbered company… I’ve never heard of any of these places, Mark. I called two of them, and I keep getting a number not in service message. For the numbered company, there’s no phone number at all, and I can’t find anything about it or where it is.” She held the sheet of paper out to him, and he took it from her.

Pam hung up the phone and turned to her. “That was Grant. He’s coming out to the island because of the issue with Jim’s files.”

“You called Grant and told him?” She knew she sounded accusing, but Pam shook her head.

“He called me. Apparently, Joy from accounting called him to give him a heads-up after I called about those checks. Several were cashed by Jim Stone, but how or why, I don’t know,” Pam said, then lifted her hands.

Billy Jo dragged her gaze over to Mark, whose expression was all cop. “You tell Joy I want a copy of all the checks cashed by Jim Stone, all of them,” he said. “For every payment issued to kids on this list, I need to know what it was supposed to be for and where it was sent. I want to know who cashed them.”

Pam just stared at Mark, then looked over to Billy Jo.

“Pam, these kids were sent to places I’ve never heard of before,” Billy Jo said, reaching for the paper Mark was still looking at. He dragged his gaze to her and let her take it back, and she put it on the desk in front of Pam. “Have you ever heard of these places? Because I haven’t.” Her finger was on the paper by the names, and the odd look on Pam’s face said everything.

Pam shook her head and looked up to her. “No, I haven’t. Where are these places? Are you sure that’s right? All the kids?”

Billy Jo turned to Mark, who was watching Pam and her. He held his hand out for the paper again and said, “I’ll give this to Elisha, get her to check it out. She was looking into Jim, as well. I think it’s time I have a talk with him and find out what this is, see what light he can shed on it.”

Pam said nothing, just linked her fingers, clasping them in front of her. Her demeanour gave Billy Jo an off feeling. Finally, she said, “I called him last night. I’m sorry, but Jim is a friend, and I’ve known him for a long time. I can’t believe he would do something like this. There has to be another explanation, and—”

“Pam, Mark told you very clearly not to call him,” Billy Jo snapped, cutting her off.

“I know what you said, but I know Jim, and there’s no way he’s good for this. He has to have been set up. There’s no other explanation!” Pam yelled, ready to fight back.

“Hey, enough. Stop this,” Mark said, shaking his head. “Pam, I was clear when I told you not to say anything to Jim.”

Billy Jo had to pull her hands over her chest and squeeze her forearms to resist the urge to wrap them around Pam’s throat.

“So please tell me what his explanation was,” Mark continued, and she didn’t know how he could sound so calm. “I take it he denied it.”

Pam turned to Billy Jo without pulling her gaze from Mark, and she wondered whether she was trying to figure out what not to say.

“Pam, so help me God, if you lie or hold anything back…”

“Oh, hush up!” Pam snapped at her, and Billy Jo had to take a step back. She couldn’t remember ever being on this end of such nastiness from Pam before. “Jim Stone is one of the finest men I know. He remembered every birthday I ever had. He was the one there for me when my husband cheated on me. We worked it out, likely because of Jim and what a good friend he was to me. I watched how he cared for those kids, every one of them, wishing he could do more. I know his kids, too, and was at their birthdays, graduations… We barbecued on weekends. There’s no way he’s good for this.” She really was on the defensive.

“So he said it wasn’t true?” Mark cut in.

Pam shook her head. “He was thrown, likely because I woke him in the middle of the night. He was real quiet on the phone. He was upset. I could hear it in his voice.”

Mark was watching Pam as a cop would. She’d seen this side of him so many times with people. “And what, exactly, did Jim say? Did he say he didn’t do it, Pam?”

Again, she shook her head. “No, he didn’t come right out and say he didn’t do it. He said he’d call me back.”

Billy Jo realized she was fisting her hands, staring at Pam, wondering how she couldn’t get through to her.

Pam glanced over at Billy Jo. “And don’t look at me like that. If you were in my position and someone accused Mark of something heinous, even if there was evidence that pointed at him, you can’t honestly tell me you would just believe it,” she said, fire flickering in her eyes.

Billy Jo wondered if she hissed as she stepped back. She made herself look over to Mark as if he could make sense of this, then said, “Well, first, Pam, Mark wouldn’t do something like this. He wouldn’t cash checks made out to kids and then try to hide it, so don’t you dare turn this on me and the man I love. I hate to tell you this, but a bunch of kids are missing. On first glance, it seems they’ve vanished, yet these checks were issued to them. How many were cashed by Jim Stone? He didn’t deny it and said he’d call you back, but I’ll tell you why he got off the phone—because he’s trying to figure out how the hell to cover his tracks. You just tipped off a man who was responsible for these children and needed to do right by them. How the hell do you explain any of this?” She couldn’t remember ever yelling at Pam, at anyone, like this.

“Billy Jo,” Mark said in that calm voice. He stepped over to her and ran his hand over her back. His touch usually settled her, but right now she was too furious with a woman who’d chosen to protect a man she knew deep down was responsible in some way for something she had a bad feeling about.

“You deal with her,” Billy Jo said. “I’m going to see what I can find out about these kids, where they came from, their parents, anything.”

He slid his hand over her cheek, the touch gentle, and she took the paper from Pam and rested her hand on Mark’s chest before walking past and back to her office. She heard Mark say to her, “Okay, Pam, get Jim on the phone, because right now, I want to have a word with him.”

Billy Jo glanced back to Mark, who she had to remind herself was now the chief on the island, the man she loved. She had this awful unsettled feeling she’d never felt before.

She squeezed the paper and looked at the names of the kids, the ages she’d written beside them, and the places they supposedly were, and she walked over to her desk and pushed the laptop back. She hesitated only a second before lifting the phone and dialing home.

It rang only once before she heard, “Chase McCabe.” The way he said it, she knew he was distracted, evidently working.

“Hi, Dad, you got a minute?”

“Hey, sweetheart, always for you. What’s up?”

“Well, a few things I need your help with. I wonder if I can run something past you.” She heard something in the background.

“You know you can ask anything, right?” he said.

She wondered when she would tell him how serious it was with Mark. She leaned back in her chair and stared at the names of the kids, the places they were supposed to be. “Yeah, I know. I’ve hit a brick wall on something. If I send you the names of some businesses, some institutions kids were sent to… I can’t find anything about them, and the numbers I called were not in service. It just feels off.”

“And you’re not talking to Mark about this?”

There it was, the curiosity. “He’s here now, and yes, he’s also helping.”

“Well, that’s good,” Chase said. “You don’t have to explain. Send me the names, and I’ll do some digging, make some calls, and see what I can turn up. Anything else you want to tell me about you and Mark?”

Why did it seem as if he knew something?

“We’re going house-hunting, you know, getting a bigger place,” she said. Her dad was quiet, and for a second, she wasn’t sure he was still there. “Dad?”

“Yeah, sorry. I thought you said you and Mark are house-hunting.”

She knew her dad was teasing. “Okay, stop it. Yes, we’re still together, and I did say that. Now, how about I send those company names and you let me know what you can find? Oh, and one more thing! Dad, remember Carmen Zarko, who took over as detective? Well, she found herself on a no-fly list, some bureaucratic mistake that has her listed as a person of interest. I told Mark I’d call you…”

Her dad sighed on the other end. “Send it my way, darling. You know I’ll do what I can. Hey, and, Billy Jo?”

She was leaning back in her chair, squeezing the phone, knowing her dad was likely going to toss out unwanted advice, so she said nothing.

Instead, he said, “It’s really nice to hear you’re so happy.”

She hadn’t expected that. “Thanks, Dad,” she replied.

Then she hung up and stared at the phone, the paper, and her laptop, for a moment wishing that just once, something good could happen for these kids, as it seemed nothing ever went their way.


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