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Authors: Julie Cantrell

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BOOK: The Feathered Bone
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All these umbrellas. It would have been easy to miss her. Maybe she's already back at the bus.

With the rain still heavy, I breathe deeply, trying to calm myself. Jackson Square is quieter now. The streets are nearly empty, but I shout to anyone within sight, calling out for a blond girl. Twelve. Green shirt. Tiny gold cross pinned against her chest.

Still no answers. No Sarah.
Why wouldn't Beth and Preacher let her have a cell phone? Why do they have to be so strict?

The bus doors open and I pound up the steps, out of breath, hoping to see Sarah sharing my daughter's seat, laughing at me for looking like a drenched dog. But as I top the stairwell, dropping the backpack by Raelynn, it's clear Sarah has not returned.

“She's still not here?” I am panicked.

Miss Henderson's face shines white with fear. She turns to my
daughter, and her timbre tightens. “Tell us again. When's the last time you saw Sarah?”

Ellie answers with a nervous voice. “When she went to the bathroom.”

“Did you wait for her?” Miss Henderson tries not to sound angry, but the accusation is clear. Ellie abandoned her buddy, the one friend she was accountable for.

“No, ma'am.” Ellie's voice quivers, and I squeeze into her seat, pulling her close, trying to say without words that everything will be okay.

“Did you see her after that? Did she get her beignets?” Miss Henderson eyes the bus driver. Gator grows tense behind the wheel. He fidgets with a switch or two as the bus stays parked by the stage.

Ellie answers, even more timidly now. “No, ma'am. I couldn't find her. I went back to the bathroom, but the man said she wasn't there. I thought she was already at the bus with everybody else. You told us to hurry. So I did.”

I jump to my daughter's defense. “It's my fault,” I insist. “I shouldn't have left them in line. I thought they'd be fine.”

Miss Henderson continues the inquisition, trying to remain composed. “So the last time we saw her was at the restroom?”

“Yes, ma'am.” Ellie begins to cry. “She was last in line. Right behind me.”

“I checked,” I insist. “The man even opened the door to prove the room was empty.” My heart pounds violently and my throat tenses. “The backpack was there.”

Raelynn sits still, her green eyes anchored tight as she watches this scene unfold. For perhaps the first time in her life, she is very quiet.

Miss Henderson presses her forehead into her palm, runs her
hand through her wet hair, and speaks to the class. “Has anyone seen Sarah since you all went to the restroom?”

No one answers.

“Anyone? Surely someone saw her get beignets? Run to the bus?”

Again, silence. The students glance around, trying to gauge each other's expressions.

“I'm going to look again,” I announce. “She's got to be there.”

“I'm with you,” Miss Henderson says, following me out through the folding glass doors. As we move again into the rain, she leans back through the doorway and shouts one last command up the steps to the students, leaving Raelynn at the helm. “Mrs. Melancon is in charge. Stay quiet.” Then she looks at Gator. “Don't let anyone off this bus.”

Raelynn shouts as the bus doors slam behind us. “Amanda, call Jay!”

Chapter 5

web outward from the café where Sarah was last seen. “She was only out of my sight for a few minutes,” I tell the investigator, clinging to Ellie. She's shivering, despite the heat.

“A few minutes is all it takes,” the investigator says, clicking her pen, ready to take notes. She's interviewing each person separately while her partner tag-teams, hoping to catch any discrepancies as the stories unfold. They want to question Ellie apart from me, but I refuse to move away from my child. For the first time in nearly a year, Ellie doesn't protest. In fact, she clings to me, fear gripping us both.

“So you're friends with Sheriff Ardoin?” With a cropped hairstyle and no makeup, everything about the investigator is matter-of-fact. She speaks with a thick New Orleans Yat accent, not all that different from one found in a New York borough. Nothing like the rural Southern tongue I lapse into when tired or emotional. Like right now.

I nod. “Jay's one of my closest friends. Since kindergarten.” When she arches her brows, I don't bother explaining how Jay was elected sheriff at such a young age. It's basically because there's not a person in LP who doesn't admire and respect him.

“And you're the one who called him? The sheriff?”

“Yes, as soon as I realized . . .” I look away and focus on breathing. It's becoming more difficult by the moment. “Then I called Sarah's mother.”

“Beth Broussard?”

“Yes, but she didn't answer. I left a voicemail.” The words echo within:
“Beth, it's Amanda. Call me. As soon as you can.”
Then a second:
“Beth, call me. Please.”
And a third:
“Call me!”

Now my cell phone is ringing, and my hands are shaking. I don't wait for the cop's approval before answering the call. “Beth? Where are you?” I wish I had thought this through. I know better than to give someone this kind of news over the phone.

“I'm still at the church. Why?”

“Is Jay there?”

“Jay? No.” Her pitch peaks. “What's wrong?”

“Who's with you?” I try not to reveal alarm.

The investigator's face tightens as she gives me a look of concern.

“I'm in the office. The staff's all here. Why?”

Our church secretary happens to be one of the toughest women I know. I exhale and try to phrase this carefully. “Beth, we're going to be a little late getting back to school.”

“You don't sound like yourself, Amanda. What's going on?”

“I'm sure everything is going to be fine. We're just . . .”
How in the world can I say this?

“You're just what? What's happening?” There's a tinge of panic in her voice.

I can't answer.

“Amanda, tell me.” Her volume rises.

Despite my best efforts to stay strong for Ellie, I struggle to hold back tears. “I'm sorry, Beth. I only turned my back for a minute.
Just long enough to help Miss Henderson pass out the beignets. I left Sarah and Ellie together, in line for the bathroom. I thought they'd be fine.”

“What are you saying? Where's Sarah?”

“I don't know.”

“You don't know? You don't know
? Is she okay?”

“I don't know, Beth, I'm sorry. We're looking for her now. We've got the cops and—”

“What do you mean you're looking for her? Where is she, Amanda?” And then much louder, fear-filled: “Where is my daughter? Find her! Find Sarah!”

“Beth, please listen.”

The investigator holds out her hand, offering to talk to “the mother.”

How many times have I stood on the other side of a trauma, keeping my cool in the midst of chaos? I pass the phone and press my fingers to my temples. The haze lifted hours ago, yet my head feels foggy. As if none of this is really happening. As if it's all a strange show. I'm playing a part, and any minute I'll pass my hat, collect tips from a street-side audience, and we'll all return to reality.

Beside me, the investigator stays steady. She is a square-framed middle-aged woman who talks to Beth without emotion. “I've got two girls myself, ma'am. I can imagine how this must feel. I'll be looking for Sarah as if she were my very own.”

From the receiver, nothing. I've seen it time and again—the brain's refusal to accept reality. Beth can't cry or wail or scream because she feels numb.

“Sheriff Ardoin is your friend, right?” As she asks this of Beth, I begin to wonder if we're getting special treatment due to our connection with Jay. Would any other missing child receive such
an immediate reaction? Would anyone be looking for Sarah if Jay hadn't made a few calls? “I understand he's on his way to meet you.” The investigator lifts her brows, asking me for confirmation.

I nod, repeating Jay's plan to escort Beth and Preacher down to the café.

“He'll get you here as fast as he can, ma'am. Stay on the phone with me until he gets there.”

I nod again. It's finally starting to sink in.
Sarah is missing. She is a missing child. This happened on my watch. I was supposed to keep her safe. It's my fault.

The investigator continues talking to Beth. Raelynn is being questioned in the opposite corner. The rain has stopped, and the café has been quartered off with crime scene tape, much to the dismay of the manager. Tourists, curious and eager for photos, have wrapped the sidewalks and added to the confusion. Around us, officers work the crowds, questioning bystanders and canvassing the streets. “Have you seen this child? Did you notice anything unusual? How long have you been out here? Who do you remember seeing? Who was with you? Where are they now? Did you take any photos, video?”

While I am familiar with the routine, their words hit me in pulses, choppy little bits that barely make sense. In the back, officers are examining footage from the café's security cameras. Someone at headquarters is likely searching the sex offender list.
This can't be happening.

Explaining the process to Beth again and again, the investigator's sentences arrive in jumbled fragments, as if my mind can no longer comprehend the English language. The more she talks, the less I understand, and I find myself whispering words, repeating phrases as she speaks:
NOPD, state police, Louisiana Clearinghouse
for Missing and Exploited Children, National Clearinghouse, NCIC database.

“The first forty-eight hours are crucial,” the investigator says. “The first three hours especially.”

I look at my watch. Surely Beth must realize time is ticking. We're creeping much too close to that critical three-hour mark. What Beth may not know, and what I wish I didn't, is that more than 75 percent of abducted children are killed within those first three hours. Sarah's kidnapping simply does not make sense. So these statistics don't rise to the surface. Instead, they build in my brain, a static reminder that things like this sometimes happen. But never to people like us.

“Of course, we'll be working with you and your husband to get as much information as we can.” The investigator speaks respectfully but with an authoritative tone, in parsed phrases, giving Beth time to let this hard truth sink in. “The sheriff knows the protocol. He will have to follow it, even though you're friends.”

A boat horn sounds, preventing me from hearing Beth's response, but I sense she's questioning the investigator.

“I'm only saying this because you can't take it personally, Mrs. Broussard. It's all part of the process. I'm sure you understand that your daughter's safety is our first concern. If you're on her side, then you're on our side.”

Beth yells through the phone, causing the investigator to distance it from her ear.

“Nothing is adding up,” I say. “The café was packed. Tell Beth. Tell her. There were people everywhere. Someone saw something. Someone has to know what happened.”

I step toward the alley one more time, Ellie at my side. Detectives scour the area, climbing the steps to the parking lot and
searching out toward the Mississippi. My stomach twists.
Did she fall into the river?

“He's there?” The investigator waves me back her way. I hurry. “And he's with your husband?” Another pause. “Okay, Mrs. Broussard. I want you to give the phone to Sheriff Ardoin. That's correct. Yes, ma'am. Thank you.”

As Jay takes over from the other end, I continue to scan our surroundings, certain we're all overlooking an obvious clue. At one table Miss Henderson is folded over, her face covered. She is crying. A detective sits with her, pen in hand. Raelynn is also still being questioned, and from the looks of it she's been crying too, a rarity for my thick-skinned friend.

Having finished their interviews, the other moms circle protectively, trying to shield the kids from onlookers. Miss Henderson wipes her eyes and joins her class, giving final instructions before they head home without her.

The café employees have been separated too. No one seems to be protesting, as one of the bilingual waiters serves as an impromptu translator. When a second detective tries to pry Ellie from me, it is all I can do not to lose it. But I stay calm, for my daughter's sake, and convince him to let me keep her in sight.

“You know we have to do this,” he explains. He lowers his chin and gives me a sincere eye, as if he genuinely feels bad about it. He puts his hand on my daughter's shoulder, and she retracts. Ellie is crying, rubbing her arms, going back and forth between shock and panic. She gasps for breath.

“Sweetie, they're going to ask you some more questions. They're trying as hard as they can to help us find Sarah. You need to tell them the whole truth. Everything you remember. You won't be in any trouble, no matter what you say. I promise.”

Her crying has turned ugly. It's the snot-dripping, wet, messy kind of emotional draining that no one likes to display. Every piece of me is in pain for my child. And for my friend's child. For all of us.

I wipe Ellie's cheeks and draw closer. “I'll be right here, sweetie. You need to go with him. Just far enough away so I can't hear what you're saying. I'm not leaving, I promise. You can keep your eyes on me the whole time.”

With this, the hefty male investigator takes Ellie to the far end of the café. She looks behind at me, and with each step my chest caves deeper against my heart.

BOOK: The Feathered Bone
6.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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