Life was pretty good. I was eighteen months into my parole, and was staying out of trouble. I had a job. Heck, I had my own company, and with it came money. Not a lot at first, but it was starting to pick up. I had a girl now, too, who accepted me with all the baggage that came with a convicted felon. It almost couldn’t get better than that, you know? Then I saw her.
It was more than a little odd that I even found her. Usually the departments I got stuff from were pretty consistent about erasing files and such, so I don’t know why she slipped through the cracks. And I hardly ever double-checked them, just because they had gotten so consistent.
Even more strange was that there was a case number attached to her. That was the first time since I started my little internet auction house for that. Well, maybe not. There was that department up in upstate New York a few months ago, but it was their first time shipping stuff to me. I had been working with the department that sent her to me almost since the beginning; they had helped me work out my rules, so they knew the drill. I shook my head. Very strange.
I sat there for a quarter of an hour, looking at the seventeen images on my screen, but not really focusing on them. I think it was her eyes that sent me over the edge. Even Maria commented on it. “You know, I think that’s who that guy had in mind when he wrote in that line, â€˜restless and reckless and lost’.”
She was pretty; she was young. Long black hair framed a small face in six photos; in three, it was pulled back into pigtails, and in the rest, it was pulled into a single ponytail or braid. The clothing changed every so often; there were three outfits. The locations were unremarkable. Most were inside. Some of those were on a couch; one showed her cooking. The outside shots looked posed, and could have passed for high school graduation photos, if she had been old enough to graduate. She looked happy outside.
There was something haunting about her, though. The look in her eyes was distant, and maybe a little bit sad. I understood what Maria meant with her comment about the song by Meat Loaf, especially the restless and lost parts. I sang the song in my head, and other lyrics seemed to fit her. “And all around the city you see the walking wounded and the living dead.” She had been hurt; that much was certain. The resolution on the pictures was good enough that I could see she had been crying in a couple of the last ones.
I finally shook off the willies that were creeping up my spine, and went back to checking out the rest of the memory cards in the box. There were about forty more, and after what I had already found, I decided to check all of them.
After the hour taken there, the rest of the day seemed to fly. I could see the results of my work piled by the back door waiting for UPS to pick them up, but I couldn’t tell you anything about any of the auctions. Usually something stuck in my head about each batch of stuff I sent out. I could tell you where some of the stuff was going, or something about my contact at one of the departments. Today though, I was still stuck on The Sad Girl. Maria had named her that, and it fit.
Before she left for the day, Maria handed me a manila folder, firm with pages. “I did a little research while you were packing today’s outbounds. Something to read over dinner.”
Teresa saw it in my face as soon as I walked in the door. “What’s wrong?”
I shrugged. I really didn’t know how to explain it, so I handed her the folder. Maria had printed all of the photos off, I knew. I had glanced at a couple of the photos during the bus ride home, but had stayed away from the web printouts.
“Pretty. Who is she? She looks awfully young to be so sad.”
I nodded. She was young, and seemed terribly sad. “Maria quoted Meat Loaf: â€˜restless and reckless and lost’. I don’t know. She was on a memory card I got from a client.” I tried to recall details about the department, but all I could come up with was Alabama.
“She might be fourteen. In my line of work, I should know better than to ask, but what could be going on in her life for her to look like that? Anything else interesting?”
“Couple cameras. Jewelry. Nothing special. A few dozen memory cards. That’s where she was.”
She had dinner ready for us, and we ate and talked about her day, which had been much less unsettling than mine. She had picked up a few new “clients,” as she called the probationers she kept track of, giving her almost forty. Made for some long nights sometimes. We talked through dinner the chatter of an old married couple, despite the fact that we had only known each other for a year, and had been dating for half of that, and cohabitating for a third of that.
She showed me why I loved her as I did the dishes. She trusted me in whatever I was going to do about The Sad Girl; I knew that. But she had seen that it was affecting me, and so was furthering Maria’s research. After the dishes were done, I pulled another chair over to the desk and rested my chin on her shoulder as she worked her magic with the search engines. It was odd to me that I had taken so well to the online auction work that I did, but search sites like Google could reduce me to a gibbering idiot. But that was another reason I loved her; we seemed to complement each other, which never failed to amaze me, especially when I considered my former and her current career.
We spent the rest of the evening in front of the computer, searching all kinds of news stories. It was sadly enlightening to see how many missing kids websites and news stories are out there. I finally realized we weren’t going to get anywhere with the resources we had, and decided to call the department tomorrow.
“What do you mean there were pictures on those cards? I erased them all myself.”
I assured Sergeant Ross that there was only one card with images, but there were indeed seventeen of them, and I had a case number to boot. “What can you tell me about the case?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“I’m nosy, OK?” I stopped for a second. Why did I want to know? She wasn’t anyone I knew, and I certainly wasn’t involved in the case at all. But that look in her eyes made hair stand up on my arms. I heard him typing, then muttering a bit. It sounded like he was reading to himself from the computer screen. “Hmm. Hang on a sec.” The on-hold music was some Top-40 singer I had never heard of. I listened to what the jocks today called classic rock. It was popular before I went to prison, which meant that I was old.
“Detective Thomas. How can I help you?” There was little enough of a drawl that I doubted he was a native Alabaman.
I explained again about the auction businessâ€”that I got stuff from police departments and sold it on consignmentâ€”and how I had come by the pictures and the case number. “I guess I’m just curious about her. It’s not often that I come across photos like this. Your property guy is usually pretty diligent about erasing stuff.”
“I see. Well, there’s not much I can tell you. It’s an open investigation, although it’s a few years old.” That meant it was a homicide or missing person, and they didn’t know squat. And a missing case a few years old was usually a homicide anyway. Crap. I thanked him for his time, and went back to work. There were boxes to open, pictures to take, and auctions to run.
The next day, there was a familiar Ford sedan in the parking lot. Dominic, my parole officer, waved to me as he talked on his cell phone. I had coffee waiting for him when he came in.
“Business or pleasure?” Aside from checking up on me every so often, Dom stopped by every couple of weeks to see what I had; I had hooked him up with some nice stuff on occasion.
“Business, I’m afraid. Did you ever give a DNA sample when you got out?”
“Not that I recall. I think that was just for violent guys when I got out. They didn’t extend it until a few months ago.”
“You mind giving one now?”
My eyebrow went up, along with the warning flags. I had only done a bank job, but I knew enough to know that parole officers don’t just stop by one day to get a DNA swab.
“Dom, I’m clean. I only did that bank. You’re not going to hook me up with anything else.”
“I know. But I’m told I need to do this. You know the rules, Danny.”
“Can’t say. I just got a phone call asking me to hit you up for this, and the guy on the other end of the phone was not someone I can say no to.”
I sighed. At least he let me wait until Maria got in. it wasn’t that I was worried about anything. I just hated the reminder that I was still on a leash, and still basically beholden to the man. For crying out loud, it was only a bank, and no one even got hurt. They even got all but about 2 grand back the day they busted me, and they got the rest of that a year ago after my auction business took off. Who knew an ex-con could make money selling recovered police evidence?
Dom and I made small talk on the way to the clinic. I told him about The Sad Girl; he was mildly interested when he found out where I found her, but as unsurprised as I was that I couldn’t find out anything else.
He bought me an early lunch on the way back to the office as an offhand apology. I liked Dom, such as I could. I had heard horror stories about parole officers, and knew I had gotten lucky with him. He went over the rules when we met, and told me if I didn’t give him any trouble, he would return the favor, and he had been true to his word. Of course, it helped that I had a plan before I got out.
I was in a mild funk the rest of the day over the swabbing, for what it represented more than anything else. It didn’t hurt, and I didn’t have to pay for it, but it still pretty much sucked.
For the next week, I basically forgot about her. That’s not entirely true. It was more that I didn’t have time to think about her. I had been talking to several fairly large agencies, and they all bit at once. Then a reporter got wind of the whole thing, and suddenly my auctions were going nuts. Even the junk stuff I put up was getting bid on. We were slammed with shipments coming in and packages going out. I needed to hire someone else to help, but I didn’t even have time to think about an ad, much less write one. Teresa came in a few times to help out, joking it was the only way she could see me. She said it with her musical laugh, but I knew she missed me.
I did manage to glance at a couple of the photos one day as I wolfed down a burger Teresa brought me. I was starting to analyze the backgrounds, to see if I could see anything special about them. I had finally decided they were hotel rooms; the walls that I could see were bare except for the corner of a painting in one. The day Dom had stopped by, I had checked the other cards I got with The Sad Girl, and saw that at least a couple more had come from the same case. The card she was on was only 32 megs, but the other two I found were both half-gig cards. That made for a bunch of photos, or even video if someone was so inclined. I wondered out loud if anything was recoverable from the cards.
Two days later, I had my answer. Maria had a friend who did data recovery as a business, and he checked out the cards for me, after reminding me about how computers really handled deleted files. I bought a data scrubber software package from him as my way of paying for his time.
The stuff he had been able to recover turned my stomach. The Sad Girl was no older than fourteen, I had decided (with input from Maria and Teresa), and I refused to believe that a just-teenaged girl knew about some of the things she was doing. Maria’s friend hadn’t been able to recover everything, and I was glad for that. I had begun thinking of her as a sister, or a daughter, and seeing her like that hurt.
Three weeks later I was working on my second cup of coffee of the morning. I was starting my day in my favorite way, alternating between reading the news on the web, and watching cars and people in the lot. I had chosen a spot in a strip mall, mainly because the rent was cheap. The advantage was that we had nice big windows, so I managed to get the occasional walk-in customer. The glass allowed me to people-watch on those rare days that I wasn’t busy.
I saw Dom’s car pull in, and realized he wasn’t alone. The guy with him was huge. Dom is about six-four, and a solid two-forty at least, and this guy was taller and a little wider. He had a couple of three-ring binders under his tree-trunk left arm. I met them at the door. “Business?”
Dom nodded. “Maria here yet? This will probably take a while, and we’ll need some privacy.”
I knew then what people meant when they said their heart sank. I showed them to my office, pointing out the coffee maker on the way, then went back out front until Maria showed up. Her eyes went to the office before she was all the way through the door; she knew Dom’s car as well as I did. I told her what we had coming in and going out, and headed for the office.
They both had coffee in front of them, but neither one was drinking. I sat down, watching them study me.
“This is Detective Thomas from Westwood PD.”
“Where’s Westwood PD?”
“We’re just north of Mobile, Alabama. Smallish town, maybe thirty thousand in a good week.” He wasn’t a native; his accent was too mild.
“Welcome to Corvallis, detective. What did you do to get sent way out here?”
“Danielle Cumberland Dawson,” he said after a minute, not looking at my eyes.
I nodded a bit as the name thudded around in my head.
“You know her?” Dom asked.
“No, but even I will admit the names are more than a little interesting. I have a unique last name. I’ll admit that.” One of these days I wanted to see where the name Cumberland came from.
“Could she be a long-lost sister, or cousin?”
“Not likely, detective. I’m an only child of two only children. I haven’t talked to what little extended family I have since long before I did my time.”
“What about Angela Marie Dawson?”
We all listened to the clock for a minute or two. A Monty Python sound clip told me I had email, and still we stared at each other. At least it looked like I was staring at them. Mentally, I was in San Francisco and it was the summer of 1991. The city was beautiful that year, and so was Angie. I had lost track of her. Prison will do that to almost any relationship.
I nodded again, finally. “I knew her.”
Thomas shifted in his chair; it creaked ominously. “How well?”
“Carnally.” No point in prancing around the truth. It had been an incredible summer though. Angie loved me that summer the way she did everything in her lifeâ€”completely.
He nodded. “In 1992, Angela Marie Dawson had a daughter. She named her Danielle Cumberland Dawson. There was no father listed on the birth certificate.”
Suddenly I knew. I had a daughter, and she was dead.