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Authors: Julie Cantrell

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BOOK: The Feathered Bone
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“The churches are sending vans too,” Preacher says, focusing on the good. “They're leaving straight after today's service.”

“I can't believe how many people are helping,” Beth whispers. Exhaustion is about to conquer her. “You haven't slept at all, have you?” She clutches my shoulder, as if it's me she's worried about. We've been searching nonstop, both Friday and Saturday nights. Now we're trying to refuel with the strongest coffee we can find.

“I saw Vivienne,” Beth adds. Viv is my friend, a fellow clinical social worker who shares a therapy practice with me. “She drove down by herself, to offer support.”

“Yeah. She's canceled my clients. Said to take as much time as we need.”

“Ma'am?” The lead investigator with the Louisiana State Police has arrived. He greets Beth first, then shakes hands with Preacher and Jay. He's ready to give us the update we've been waiting for. Law enforcement organizers have charted a grid and given us precise instructions on how to spread out. He reviews our timeline. “We've got dive teams on the river now. Another team searching the canals.”

Beth stares at the agent, her eyes swollen and red. It's common knowledge that divers usually come for recovery, not rescue.

“We'll find her,” I say.

Raelynn, too, does her best to revive hope. “Today. I can feel it.” Despite her knee pain, she's walked every step of this search with us, never complaining.

Jay reminds us that sheriff's deputies from three parishes are
helping, and the police have placed checkpoints on all the roads running in and out of New Orleans. “We're watching the bus stations. The docks. Amtrak too.”

The state trooper adds his support. “We've got every arm on this case, Mrs. Broussard. Our guys, the sheriffs, NOPD. If need be, we'll bring in the Feds too. We want to assure you, we're doing everything we can to find your daughter. Because of his ties to your family, and because the case involves the Livingston Parish School District, Sheriff Ardoin will be our coordinator. He's your go-to guy for anything you need. Anything at all.”

Louisiana's unique Napoleonic Code gives him a lot of authoritative power, so putting Jay in charge makes perfect sense.

As the state investigator provides precise instructions for Jay, they turn to exclude the rest of us from the conversation. Beside us, the large television continues to show intermittent coverage of the search.

“It sounds as if no one has found a single clue,” the CNN journalist says on TV. With her brash style, she's known for stirring up trouble and making a story bigger than it should be. In this situation, we're grateful for the international coverage. “No green field trip T-shirt, no green hair bow,” she continues. “No witnesses. No signs of the angelic Sarah Broussard. This sweet, innocent preacher's daughter simply vanished with the fog. One minute she was in a popular café, laughing and playing rock-scissors-paper with her best friend. The next she was gone. The only clue we have is the black backpack she left behind in the restroom. That tells us that something happened. She didn't just get lost.”

The reporter cuts to a tourist who is visiting the States for holiday. “You say you have a piece of information that could help solve the case?”

This gets our attention. Preacher taps Jay's back. We all watch the screen.

“Yes.” The woman speaks with a heavy accent. “I have try to call police but they do not take me for serious. Maybe we try this.”

“We're all committed to finding Sarah Broussard. Anything we can do,” the reporter says. “What information do you have?”

“Well, I look through my photograph from café, and I find one. Time-stamped 1:47. It show a woman leave café with another person who you see in costume. What if Sarah Broussard in that costume?”

The television screen fills with an image. In it, a young woman is shown to be walking through the restaurant. Maybe in her early twenties, at most. There is nothing eye-catching about her. She has plain brown shoulder-length hair, not too dark, not too light. She's about five foot five, and she's neither too thin nor obese. I'd guess a size eight, maybe a ten. She doesn't look stressed or anxious. In fact, her expression reveals no emotion at all. Everything about her is ordinary. The only odd thing about her is that she is holding the hand of a shorter person who wears a mask, the rubbery kind that completely covers the hair and face. This tops a long black robe of sorts, one that easily could have been pulled over Sarah's clothes to disguise her completely. As the reporter continues, we tune in to every word.

Jay makes a phone call directly to CNN. “I want to speak to your guest,” he says. “Have her call my cell phone. And can you please put me on the air?” Within seconds, he has stepped outside to find a CNN correspondent who immediately puts him through with a live feed. From the lobby, we watch Jay on TV.

“I encourage anyone who was in this area Friday, October 29, to contact the Livingston Parish Sheriff's Department,” he says. “If anyone has photographs or video, we want to see them. Tips? We
want to hear them. If anyone knows the woman in the photograph you just aired, we want to speak to them.” The screen divides to post a toll-free number.

As Jay continues to answer questions, the trooper pulls Beth and Preacher to the side for a private conversation. Raelynn and I collapse into two leather chairs perched near the sofa where Ellie is sound asleep. I stare at the photo on-screen.

“Why would Sarah put on a costume and leave with some stranger? It doesn't make sense.”

Raelynn shakes her head with equal confusion. “You really think that's her? I can't imagine Sarah doing that. Ellie, maybe. She's the follower.” She looks down at my daughter, who dreams deeply on the lobby sofa.

“Ellie would never even talk to a stranger, much less go off with one,” I explain. “Sarah's always been much more outgoing. She's grown up behind the pulpit, eager to reach out to everyone. No fear of people.”

Raelynn nods. “You should have sent Ellie home with Nate. Heard from Carl yet?”

“Finally found a charger.” I hold up my phone. “He got a chopper out, but he needed to go home first, get a few things. He was on the causeway when I called him. Should be here any minute. How's your knee?”

“Been better.” She slides back against the club chair, as if she may join Ellie and take a little nap right here. Around us, media and tourists crowd the breakfast bar while desk clerks manage the morning checkouts.

“I still can't seem to accept this. I've talked my clients through trauma so many times. But now that I'm the one facing the crisis, I understand. It's weird what the brain will do.”

Before I can get too deep in thought, Jay returns. He looks at Ellie, sound asleep. “Y'all should go up to your room. Get some rest.”

“This could be the lead we've been waiting for.” My words slur from fatigue. “Any information come in? About that woman in the photo?”

“Nothing yet, but we're on it. Listen, Amanda, you're so tired at this point that Sarah could walk right past you and you'd never see her. You all need a break. It's been a long few days.”

“Carl's almost here. We'll take shifts with Ellie.”

“He'd better let you have first nap,” Raelynn pipes.

Jay reaches for my empty cup. “More coffee?” He takes Raelynn's too. “We'll head back out in twenty minutes.” Just as he turns for the coffee station, Carl enters the lobby, suitcase in hand.

I rush to the door, greeting my husband with a tight hug. He pulls away before I am ready. “Where's Ellie?”

“She's crashed,” I say, leading him back to the sofa where Raelynn stands guard.

“Reporters everywhere,” he complains. “I barely made it inside.”

Jay returns, handing off coffee before shaking Carl's hand. “We're about to head out. You coming?”

“Nah, I'm beat, man. I'll probably head on up with Ellie. Sleep it off.”

Raelynn rolls her eyes.

I offer a tired smile. “I'm just glad you're here.” I give him a kiss, but he shifts away and it lands on his cheek. “I'll help you get Ellie up to the room.”

“It's all right,” he says. “Y'all go on. I'll call you when we wake up.”

“Stay right with her, okay?” My exhaustion puts an edge to my tone that I don't intend.

His voice rises in volume, defensive. He must assume I'm
doubting his ability to be a father, telling him what to do. “Of course I'm going to stay right with her, Amanda.”

What I hear is
I'm not the one who lost a kid
.

People in the lobby are staring. Beth and Preacher too, as if they're just coming to terms with the fact that I am the one responsible for all of this.

“Let's go,” Raelynn says, standing with defiance and pulling me away from Carl. Jay leads, and the three of us leave the lobby, where my daughter still sleeps.

Chapter 7

Friday, November 5, 2004

I
WAKE TO A LOW
-
VOLUME RING TONE
,
THE ONE
E
LLIE SET FOR ME
. It's her voice, teasing with exaggerated inflection. “Your phone is ringing. Answer the phone, Mom.” Her quiet command pulls me from deep sleep, and before my brain is fully awake I've hit the Answer button.

“Gloopy?” It's Jay, the only person who calls me by the silly nickname. I earned it back in kindergarten, when we fought for the Elmer's glue while making our first-day-of-school badges. He pinched me. I pushed him. And before all the students had even arrived, Jay and I were wrestling on the floor in tears. When the teacher leaned over us, we were both red-faced. She pulled us apart, ruining her Lee press-on nails, and she never forgave us. We ended up sharing a carpet square the rest of the year as punishment, and whether she intended it to work out that way or not, we've been friends ever since. As a result, he's always called me Gloopy, teasing that he'll stick with me for life. “You up?”

I roll toward the bright-red numbers on the alarm clock, rubbing my eyes. “It's after eight?”

“You were sleeping?” He half laughs. “You're usually up with the sun.” Then he adds, “Sorry I woke you.”

“It's okay.” Beside me Ellie sleeps on, undisturbed. I yawn as I explain she's right here with me. I feel safer that way.

“I'm glad y'all got some rest,” Jay says. “You needed it.”

“Mm-hmm.” I'm barely processing this conversation.

He laughs for real this time. I stir myself to life and shake away the slumber as the clock numbers change, a reminder that time keeps moving. It's Friday. One week since Sarah went missing.

“I'm hoping Ellie will go back to school Monday. She's already missed a week.”

I pull myself from the bed, my legs still clumsy. Ellie doesn't stir. As Jay fills me in on the search, my brain spins, rehashing the trauma, still trying to process our new reality.
What if it had been Ellie? What if I were standing here looking at an empty bed? What must Beth be waking to this morning? How can we bring Sarah home?

We have cried and prayed and searched and questioned. We have retraced our steps a million times. We have gone through every possible scenario, every potential nightmare. And still no answers.

“You going back to work Monday too?”

“I'm not sure yet. I want to be out there with Beth and Preacher. I can't focus on anything anyway. I just feel bad leaving it all on Viv, canceling my clients.”

I leave Ellie sleeping and move to the back porch.

Jay finally gets to the point of his call. “I'm heading out to Gator's. Need you to ride with me.”

“Why? What's wrong?”

“He's having a rough time. Last Friday he dropped the kids back at school, drove the bus to his house, and never returned it.”

“He still has the bus?” I hold the phone with my shoulder while I sweep the porch. Seven days away. Bugs have claimed this turf. I
brush their webs and brittle casings over the low concrete ledge into the grass.

“Yep. The district has a couple extra buses, but they asked me to go out there. Have a talk with him. I thought you might come. To help. He needs it.”

With the porch halfway clean, I dust off the wooden swing and relax into a soothing sway. Our calico, Beanie, jumps up to join me, purring and rubbing her head against my waist. I scratch behind her ears. “Is he still listed as a person of interest?”

“I don't think anyone really suspects him, but the investigators sure have given him a hard time. His record was a flag for them.”

“What's on his record?” Gator looks sketchy, with his redneck vibe and his backwoods way of life, but I never would have suspected him to be a criminal.

“Just a few things in his early years. Nothing unusual. Fight or two, some petty theft. Mostly stuff he got caught up in with his cousins. You know they're trouble.”

“To say the least.” Thinking of the expansive clan of outlaws gives me the quakes, and I start to wonder if Gator could have anything to do with Sarah's disappearance. “Jay? You don't think—”

“Oh, no, Gloopy. Gator's not involved. I know him better than that.”

“You sure?” Beanie climbs into my lap and curls into a nap, a fuzzy lump of patchwork fur.

“I'm sure. And you know it too. He's different, but he's not sick.”

“You're right. It's just . . . I can't figure it, Jay. Nothing makes sense. Anything could have happened.”

“Yeah, I know. But the stress is about to do him in. He's as innocent as you are. And he needs our help.”

“As innocent as you are.”

“Jay? Do you mean . . .” I struggle to say it. “Do you mean they're pointing a finger at me too?”

He says nothing. Then, “You coming with me or not?”

BOOK: The Feathered Bone
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