And finally, the third part of today’s countdown . . . An excerpt:
Anna’s cell phone rang at a little before midnight, and she dug through her backpack for it, even though it wasn’t Nika’s ring.
The word private appeared on the phone’s tiny screen instead of a typical ten-digit number, and she took a deep breath before answering, half-dreading and half-hoping that Nika’s abductors were on the other end with their ransom demands.
“This is Anna Taylor,” she said, hoping she sounded less exhausted and more in control than she was currently feeling, having repeatedly and fruitlessly walked the route from Cambridge Academy to the tiny studio apartment that she and Nika shared.
Her breath hung in the cold night air as she closed her eyes, waiting, hoping . . .
“Miss Taylor, this is Dr. Joseph Bach from the Obermeyer Institute. One of my colleagues informed me that you’ve filed a missing persons report for your sister, Nika?”
Whoever he was, his voice was pleasant. It was evenly modulated, and it hinted at formal training–his elocution was quite good. Moses supposes his toeses are roses. Singin’ in the Rain, that old movie about old movies, was one of Nika’s favorites.
Maybe Dr. Bach was an elderly man in good health, with still-excellent breath-control.
But he’d asked her a question.
“Yes, I did,” Anna answered quickly after that long and probably strange pause. “My sister didn’t come home from school this afternoon. And yes, I know she hasn’t been missing for that long, and that she’s thirteen and capable of breaking rules, but she’s not . . .” Normal, she’d been about to say. But that made Nika seem like a freak, and she wasn’t. “Prone to going off the radar like this,” she said instead. “Not ever. She’s a good kid, and she knows I’ve made a lot of sacrifices for her to go to Cambridge Academy. She’s a scholarship student there. We’re not wealthy.”
She emphasized that last bit, just in case he was one of those citizen detectives–the kind who’d snatched Nika up in the first place.
“I’m aware of that,” he said. “I’m outside of your apartment, and I know you’re not here, that you’re probably still searching for your sister, but it’s important that you spare a moment to talk with me. If you tell me where you are I’ll–”
“Do you know where Nika is?” Anna was just around the corner from her building, and she began walking again, picking up her pace.
He hesitated. Just a little. “Not exactly.”
“What does that mean?”
Another pause. “It means I have an idea as to who took her–and why she was taken. But I don’t know precisely where she’s being held. Not yet. Miss Taylor, it’s urgent that–”
“Who took her?” Anna demanded as she crossed the street. Her building was in sight, and she could now see a tall, slender man in a long, dark overcoat, with his phone to his ear, standing on the sidewalk out in front. She slowed her pace. He was unaccompanied–or at least he appeared to be. Still . . .
She was suddenly very aware that she was alone on a dark, deserted street. And that at least one of the neighbors she’d met in her apartment building this evening had been some kind of drug addict. Meth, probably. The woman’s teeth had been terrible.
“It’s . . . complicated,” Dr. Bach told her, turning to look directly at her, even though she was moving quietly and he couldn’t possibly have heard her approach.
“I’m pretty smart,” she said, closing her phone as she stopped a safe-feeling ten yards from him. If she had to, she could run, and she was fast. “Why don’t you try me?”
He wasn’t elderly. Not even close. His shoulder-length hair was dark and his eyes were brown, and the phraseblack Irish came to mind, although, really, that meant his eyes should have been blue. Despite the brown eyes, his complexion was properly United Kingdom-pale, his face lean, his features strong yet aristocratically perfect.
Anna had read that description once, in a romance novel. The hero had had elegantly cruel lips. She’d always thought that was a load of hyperbolic bull. Or at least she had before tonight.
Nika would’ve thought that Dr. Joseph Bach, with his elegantly cruel lips and pale complexion, looked like a vampire. The hot kind, with a soul–like Angel or Spike from Buffy.
And had Anna been just a few years younger, and had her fear and worry for her little sister not been consuming her, she might’ve agreed. This man was unnaturally handsome. But since there were no such things as vampires, either with or without souls, and since she was solidly grounded here in this current dreadful-enough-without-demons-and-monsters reality, he looked like exactly what he was–a slightly tired, very good-looking young man who no doubt knew all about the incredible stress that came with a missing child, and who purposely spoke and dressed the part of the gallant prince in a fairytale, come to the rescue.
A gallant prince who spent a lot of time indoors, and didn’t even remotely share her own racially-mixed, melting-pot heritage–which was all part of being a prince. The whole purebred-to-the-point-of-inbred thing came with the territory.
He was looking her over as carefully as she was inspecting him, and she knew that she didn’t look like most people’s idea of a Cinderella princess, with her wild mass of dark curls, her coffee-colored skin, and her hint-of-Mayan-ancestor’s nose.
Of course, he wasn’t much of a real prince himself if he made his living kidnapping girls and “finding” them for their distraught families.