Gone In The Night

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Dr. Allie Hollister rounded the circular drive of the Vandermont home and parked behind two patrol cars. This part of El Dorado Hills might be considered one of the more affluent areas of the Sacramento Valley with its mini mansions, lake views and lush acreage, but at six in the morning, the winding roads and sporadic street lamps did not make for a relaxing drive.

It didn’t help that she was suffering the aftereffects of a champagne-heavy dinner at her foster siblings’ new restaurant last night. No doubt she’d used alcohol to compensate for the fact Eden and Simone, her two best friends, hadn’t been able to come with her. Not even two cups of coffee and a painkiller put a dent in the pounding in her skull.

“Dr. Hollister.” A fifty-something uniformed deputy with wary “I’ve seen everything” eyes and a too-tight lip line strode down the paved walkway and offered his hand once she’d climbed out of her mini-SUV. “I’m Deputy Sutherland. I appreciate you coming out. When Mr. and Mrs. Vandermont weren’t able to immediately get in touch with Hope Kellan’s parents or uncle, they insisted we call you. Not the end to their daughter’s sleepover they were expecting, I’m sure.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Between her suddenly attentive mother and finding herself embroiled in the opening of the cold case concerning her best friend’s murderer twenty years after Chloe’s death, it wasn’t as if Allie slept much these days. Right on cue, her cell phone chimed.

Allie glanced at another text message. Obviously she wasn’t the only one who couldn’t sleep. Compared with yet another update on her parents’ upcoming anniversary celebration —how many reminders did she need to bring potato salad?—suddenly making the trip up to the foothills didn’t seem so bad. Not that Allie was thrilled one of her most challenging patients—nine-year-old Hope Kellan—had started what Allie had planned as a quiet Sunday at home with a jarring bang. “I’m just sorry Hope’s recent proclivity to running off had to take this turn. Shall we?” She pocketed her phone, hugged her arms around her torso and wished she’d worn more than a thin sweater over her pastel-pink pedal pushers and matching tank. Her mind was all over the place these days; she couldn’t seem to concentrate to save her soul. As someone who prided herself on keeping an eye on every aspect of her life, she was not coping as well as she’d like.

She aimed her gaze at the oversize glass-and-wood front door, quickly determining that her entire house would probably fit in the tiled atrium. She knew of the Vandermonts in passing; Matthew Vandermont was a bigtime lobbyist while his wife was one of the top real estate agents in the region. She also knew they’d both come from very humble beginnings, which explained their dedication to providing the numerous scholarships at various private schools, including their daughter’s.

Mr. and Mrs. Vandermont are with their daughter and her friends in the sitting room. Just there, off to the right,” Deputy Sutherland said. “My men are still trying to get a feel for the property. It’s more extensive than we expected, but we should be able to get an organized search underway soon.”

“How extensive exactly?” Allie stopped just outside the doorway to get her bearings. The home was elegant but with homey touches, family mementos, framed certificates of achievement, and photographs from vacations, events and gatherings that included not only the Vandermonts but their daughter’s friends, as well. Warm, Allie thought.

Welcoming.

“There’s at least four acres of wilderness leading down to Folsom Lake,” the deputy explained. “And I do mean down. No fence line to speak of and the property lines are a bit skewed given recent construction projects. No telling what direction the girl might have gone in. I was about to call in reinforcements and have them bring up the search dogs to help.”

“Hope,” Allie said as diplomatically as possible. “The girl’s name is Hope and you’re right. More officers can’t hurt.” Self-doubt crept in around Allie’s practiced interaction with law enforcement. Had she misjudged Hope’s recent excitement about this long-awaited sleepover with her three best friends? Or had Allie been so distracted during their last session that she’d missed warning signs the little girl planned to run away? While Hope had become increasingly withdrawn in the months since her parents’ contentious separation had turned into a vicious custody battle, her spirits had lifted considerably with the arrival of her uncle Max. Other than her three best friends, talking about her hero firefighter uncle was the one thing guaranteed to bring a smile to her freckled face. “I’m sure your team will find her safe and sound,” Allie replied in an encouraging tone. “Hope is a smart girl. If she got lost, she’ll know enough to stay put until someone finds her.”

“At least we aren’t having to deal with harsh weather,” Deputy Sutherland agreed. “I’ll go make the call. You all right with them?”

Allie peered into the sitting room that glimmered in the same glitz and glamour as the outside façade. “I’ll be fine, thanks. Mr. and Mrs. Vandermont.” Allie set her bag on the floor by the door. The sitting room was decked out in hues of gold and white. The lush carpeting, glass coffee table, enormous French glass doors leading to a backyard with a pool and that large expanse of land reminded Allie of the house Simone, one of her own best friends, had grown up in. Sophisticated, rich. Isolated. But again, where Simone’s house had all been for show with nary a hint of emotional attachment, here she saw a celebration of family. As detached and remote as Simone’s parents had been, the Vandermonts exuded concern and warmth as

Allie approached them. “Thank you for calling me. I can only imagine how worried you must be.”

The last words nearly froze in Allie’s throat as she focused on the three girls sitting between the handsome couple. She’d seen photographs of the girls, of course.

Mercy, Portia and the Vandermonts’ daughter, Willa. Hope talked about them incessantly during their sessions, something Allie herself could relate to given her own relationships with her two best friends. But seeing the three of them here, together, without Hope…

She had to remind herself to breathe.

“Hello, girls.” Allie didn’t recognize her own voice as she rounded the table to crouch in front of them. Willa, all thick blond hair and debutante blue eyes, clung to her mother in a way that made Allie question who was comforting whom. Mercy, a strawberry blonde, conveyed a familiar edgy defiance that Allie could see masked a

good amount of fear. And then there was Portia. Allie blinked as she took in the girl’s slight frame, pale complexion and a pixie cap of dark, dark hair. Allie touched the edge of her own cropped cut. Unease bubbled inside her. “I’m Dr. Hollister, but you can call me Allie. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“We know who you are,” Mercy told her as Mr. Vandermont tightened his hold on a trembling Portia. “Hope talks about you a lot. She likes you.”

“I like her, too.” Allie couldn’t shake her apprehension. Having the three of them look at her as if she held all the answers had her relying on her years of education and training as a psychologist. That was hard enough. But, together, they also reminded her of one of the worst days of her life.

Allie took a slow, deep breath and pushed the past where it belonged: out of reach.

Keeping everyone involved calm and focused until Hope was found was the order of the day. That, and finding Hope, was all that mattered.

“The girls are the ones who suggested we call you,” Mrs. Vandermont said, her round, kind face easing Allie’s mind. With blond hair, a clear genetic connection to her daughter, she was dressed in gray yoga pants and a T-shirt, pedicured red toes stark against the white of the carpet. It was evident by Mrs. Vandermont’s expression that she

was focused on the girls—all the girls. “Thank you for driving all the way up here. I’m sure we’re overreacting and that this is just a matter of Hope getting lost—”

“Please don’t give it another thought, Mrs. Vandermont.” Allie held out her hands to Mercy, who, as far as Allie could tell, was trying her best not to rely on the support her friend Willa was attempting to provide.

She squeezed Mercy’s hands tight in a silent gesture of understanding. “I’d always rather have someone overreact than assume. Deputy Sutherland is going to be bringing some additional help to search for Hope.”

“I should make some coffee, then.” Mrs. Vandermont squeezed her daughter’s shoulders before she pushed herself to her feet. “That would be all right, wouldn’t it?”

“More than all right,” Allie said. “Girls, would it be okay if I talked to you about what’s happened in the last day or so? Just in case there’s something the police officers need to know.”

“Dad?” Willa leaned over to look at her father. “You can go help Mom. We’ll be okay.”

Mr. Vandermont glanced at his daughter with more appraisal than disapproval. “Are you sure? Mercy? Portia? You, too?”

“We’re sure.” Mercy let go of Allie’s hand to wrap a solid arm around Portia’s frail shoulders. Portia twisted her hands together and gave a weak nod.

“I won’t ask them any questions,” Allie explained at the hesitant expression on his face. As a certified children’s therapist trained to treat kids who had been or were going through traumatic experiences, she wasn’t allowed to pose any. But she could give them an opening to talk. In Allie’s experience, listening was the most important thing she could do. “I promise, if we run into any issues, I’ll come and get you.”

“All right.” Mr. Vandermont kept his blue eyes pinned on the three girls as he raked restless hands through his hair and followed his wife out of the room.

Allie stood up and walked the few steps to the padded straight-back chair at the end of the coffee table. She needed some distance; she needed to see how they were with one another, on the off chance something was going on here other than a friend who had wandered off. “Hope has been telling me about this sleepover of yours for a

while,” Allie told them. “She was very excited about it. Were you all, as well?”

All three girls nodded.

“It would help if you could tell me everything you did. What time you all arrived,” Allie said, nudging the conversation where she needed it to go.

“Around five,” Mercy said. “Hope was late, but that’s because she’d gone to the movies with her uncle before he dropped her off. He stayed for a little while, talked to Mr. and Mrs. V. and then we had pizza for dinner.”

“We don’t order pizza very often. Mom doesn’t think it’s good for us,” Willa interrupted. “But it was for my birthday, so she made an exception.”

“Did it have mushrooms on it?” Allie asked in almost a whisper. “My friend Eden hates, and I mean hates, mushrooms. And you know what? Whenever we order it, we make sure to order with mushrooms. Just so we can watch her pick them off.”

Willa and Mercy both laughed a little. “I don’t like peppers,” Mercy said with a watery smile.

“Vegetables on your pizza means it’s healthy.” Portia’s eyes filled. “That’s what Hope always says.”

Simone said the same thing. “I bet you watched a

movie.”

“That one where the girls go chasing ghosts with lasers and stuff,” Mercy said as Willa sniffled. “Mr. V. fixed up the tent over by the trees so we could feel like it was a real campout. Her mom made us s’mores in foil for dessert.”

“Campout?” Allie’s heart stuttered to a stop. “You slept outside last night?”

“Uh-huh.” Mercy nodded. “We thought it would be fun and different. Mr. V. even went out and got us a tent—”

“This was a last-minute decision?” Allie’s thoughts threatened to race, but she pulled back, tried to distance herself. “What made you think of that?”

The three girls glanced uneasily at each other. Finally, Willa shrugged. “We all agreed, but it was Hope’s idea. She said she’d seen something about it online and that it sounded fun.”

“It was fun,” Portia whispered. “Until it wasn’t.” Willa and Mercy nodded, but Portia’s big brown eyes shifted to the floor.

“What is it, Portia?” Allie leaned forward, letting the other two girls take a bit of a lead. “I promise, anything you say here, none of us will be mad. We all just want to make sure Hope is found safe. Okay?”

Portia didn’t look convinced.

“Por.” Willa reached across Mercy’s lap and held out her hand. That Portia immediately grabbed hold conveyed the strength of friendship among these girls. “What’s wrong?”

Portia’s chin wobbled. “I heard Hope get up. I should have gone with her, but I didn’t want to. It was cold.” The last few words came out in a sob. “I’m so sorry! I should have been her friend and now she’s missing and it’s all my fault.” Tears spilled down her cheeks as Willa tugged on Portia’s hand. Mercy moved to the side as they settled

Portia between them, hugging their arms around her. “I didn’t hear her.” The alarm in Mercy’s wide eyes told Allie she wished she had.

“That’s because you were snoring,” Willa said.

“I do not snore!” Mercy countered and brought a trembling smile to Portia’s face; the goal, Allie realized when she caught a silent exchange between Willa and Mercy.

Allie barely heard them over the roaring in her head. For the first time in as long as Allie could remember, the security she found in her clinical world crumbled. She clenched her fists to cling to the trained detachment that allowed her to do her job. Words that should help them seemed to have gotten trapped somewhere between now and twenty years ago when another nine-year-old had disappeared.

During another birthday campout.

Chloe.

Allie squeezed her eyes shut, snapping them open again when she heard Willa speak.

“None of this is your fault, Portia.” Willa hugged her friend close. “We should have all gone, just as we promised.” Willa turned pleading eyes on Allie with a pained expression that might haunt Allie for the rest of her days. “We made a pact when we first met. We’re sisters. Where one goes, we all go. Except we didn’t. And now one of us is gone.”

Allie stared at the three of them, huddled so closely together she couldn’t determine where one ended and another began. Her own arms ached from her tightened fists. Her throat burned from trying to swallow. Her skin had gone icy, as if she wasn’t ever going to be warm again, and yet part of her, the tiniest part, clung to the thin thread of hope that this situation wasn’t what it seemed to be.

“Are you all right, Dr. Hollister? Allie?” Mercy asked as Allie rose to her feet and walked to the French doors.

Allie heard her as if from a vast distance. “I’m going to go see where you all were sleeping last night. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” She pulled open the door, stepped out onto the patio and walked quickly around the pool. She could hear the girls calling her from inside the house, but she didn’t stop. Not as she hopped over the low-lying bushes. Not as she slipped and slid her way down the slight hill to the clearing ahead. She could see the outline of the red-and-blue tent situated beneath an outcropping of healthy pine and willow trees.

Her breathing came in short bursts, as if she had to remember to inhale. The brisk morning air felt tainted with gloom, the heaviness pressing down on her as she kept her eyes pinned on the tent, resisted the pull into the past. She started to run, as if she could leave the memories, the sensation of panic behind. But she knew the emotions had settled inside her chest another early morning twenty years ago.

She skidded to a stop at the edge of their campsite, her toes damp from the early-morning moisture. Four cloth folding chairs, water bottles stored in holders, the gooey remnants of the foil-wrapped s’mores lay amid wadded up sleeping bags peeking out from the zippered tent flap.

An odd keening erupted into the air and only as Allie turned in a slow circle, did she realize the sound came from her. She covered her mouth. Haunting little-girl whispers and giggles echoed through time and sent chills racing down her spine. “Not again. Oh, God, please, not again.” She bent double, her stomach rolling as she dropped down to the ground. “This can’t be happening.”

The date. What was the date?

“Dr. Hollister!” Deputy Sutherland, along with a handful of deputies, followed the same path she’d taken moments before. “Dr. Hollister, are you all right?” He hurried over and grabbed her by the arms to haul her to her feet.

“No.” His demanding question pierced the fog in her brain. Now wasn’t the time to break down. Now wasn’t the time to lose control. She needed to get a hold of herself. Disconnect. Separate herself from the nightmare unfolding around her. Hope, she told herself. Hope was all that mattered. And yet… “Is there any sign of Hope?”

“No, ma’am.” An officer who introduced himself as Deputy Fletcher shook his head. “We’re about to expand the search. My officers already went through this area—”

“She won’t be here.” Allie shook her head and only then did she see the concern on the older deputy’s face. “She’s gone.”

“Gone? You mean you think she went down to the river?”

“No, that’s not what I mean.” She took a step back, focused on the tent.

And the solitary plant situated on the ground.

Violets.

Allie walked forward, knees wobbling. Every impulse coursing through her urged her to discount the pot and spilling flowers. A coincidence, she told herself, but as she, Eden and Simone had learned in the last few months, there were no coincidences.

She took a shaky step forward and then another. Every cell in Allie’s body screamed out as she remembered that night, the following days before their friend’s strangled body had been found.

In a field of violets.