He hated it.
EVERY LIGHT AT Gerald’s Loft was on. It had quickly become the search center, where Ox had patiently handed out assignments, gathered reports, and called Ethan periodically.
Inside, Ethan saw Gerald Ransom and Mrs. Daily, brother and sister, refilling the giant coffee urn, laying out heaps of Oreos donated by Mavis at Blinker’s Market. There were still a good two dozen people wandering around the Victorian entry hall with its dark paneled walls and florid red cabbage-rose wallpaper, and in the sitting room across from the reception area, loaded with so many knickknacks that Ethan’s mom always said dancing on water might be easier than dusting that room without breaking anything.
Pete Elders of Elders Outdoor Gear spotted him, and slowly everyone turned to him, many of the faces lived-in, seamed, and weathered, all with the same expression—hope. Conversation died.
Ethan simply shook his head and saw their collective hope dissolve. He thought the air felt suddenly heavier. He searched the group but didn’t see her.
“Where is Mrs. Backman?” he asked Mrs. Daily, a large-boned, buxom woman, formidable in her man’s tie and black suit. She dwarfed her brother Gerald.
“I sent her upstairs, Sheriff, before she passed out on the floor. The girl’s a mess. No wonder. I tried to feed her, but she threw up. She was out searching until Tommy Larkin hauled her back here.”
He turned to the group. “Thank you very much for all your hard work today. Whoever can make it, we’ll begin the search again tomorrow morning.”
“Coffee’s here and free,” Mrs. Daily called out, saw her tightfisted brother start to shake his head, and stared him down.
Ethan turned to walk to the stairs, then said over his shoulder, “We’ll find her.”
He heard Cork Thomas, owner of the Bountiful Wine Shop, say, “To answer your question, Dolly, I haven’t seen Autumn in three, four years. She was just a toddler the last time she visited Tollie, cute as a button. Tollie carted her around everywhere right on his shoulders. She’s gotten big, and so bright she is. Those eyes of hers look right into your soul. She’s smart. Surely she wouldn’t have climbed into some stranger’s car. Damnation, where the blazes is she?”
“What a shame Tollie’s out of town until next Tuesday,” said Tuber Willis, owner of the local nursery and a tulip fanatic.
“It wouldn’t have happened if Tollie’d been here, that’s for sure,” Pete Elders said.
Ethan stood stock-still. He couldn’t believe this. Everyone knew Mrs. Backman and her daughter except him? What was Tollie Tolbert to her? Why hadn’t anyone said anything? Well, duh, maybe for the simple reason they assumed you already knew everything they did, being you were born and raised here. They forgot you’ve been back for only a little more than three years. And gone for a whole lot longer before that, back for only short visits. Fact was, though—and he frowned—Mrs. Backman had given him the distinct impression this was her first time in Titusville. Had she out-and-out lied or simply tiptoed to the line? And why?
He heard low-voiced conversations pick up as he climbed the wooden stairs with its center strip of Berber carpeting.
Her door opened before he got to it. Joanna Backman looked pale as a quarter moon that had finally cleared the mountains, her eyes bruised-looking and swollen from crying, as if she was waiting to hear the worst. Her gaze held not a flicker of hope. Her hands were fists at her sides.
“Mrs. Backman,” he said, walking up to her. “We haven’t found Autumn yet, but we will, you’ve got to believe that. Do you hear me?”
“I hear you,” she said, her voice a dead monotone, and took a step back into her room. She continued to walk backward, away from him. When her knees hit the bed, she sat down, her head lowered. He walked over to her, looked down at the top of her head. Her hair was a dull, dark brown with a thick hank hanging along the side of her cheek, the rest pulled back in a straggly ponytail. She wore old jeans and a wrinkled white shirt, and her long, narrow feet were bare. She was tall and looked thin. Well, no wonder.
He said, “Listen to me, you’ve got to keep optimistic. I will find her. Now, I know you’ve given this a lot of thought today.” He paused a moment, considered his words. “What more can you tell me that would help us find your daughter, Mrs. Backman?”
“Nothing, Sheriff, nothing. I’ve told you everything I know.”
His cop antennae blasted red at the crackling lie, but he’d been well trained and kept his voice calm. “I see. I guess we’ll just have to start at the beginning, then. Talk to me, Mrs. Backman.”