RUNAWAY

Chapter 1

His fingers—caught mid-reach between the upright bins of fruit and the plastic bag in his other hand—clenched around a kiwi, surely bruising the tender flesh hidden under the ugly skin as he stared at the stunning girl with the mahogany hair. 

Her striped leggings led to tennis shoes that flashed with multicolored lights at every footfall. She skipped along the aisle. Eyes glued to the child, he threw the kiwi back toward the others, shoved the baggie in his basket, and followed. The girl and her mother stopped just ahead, so he halted too, at the bananas—though he hated their texture—and pretended to find a good bunch.

Turn. Turn around, he willed. He had to have another look at her face.

For it was like seeing an angel—or a ghost, depending on your perspective. Like seeing Laura fifteen years ago when he’d bought the house on Dale Drive. He hadn’t realized then quite how their relationship would develop, and yet he’d known with the full force of his being that there’d been a reason he’d been brought into her circle, and she into his. He’d been beguiled by children before, although sexually he preferred his girls somewhat older. In the end, the craving he’d felt for Laura had proved something special. He’d stayed close, been patient, played the doting neighbor, watching in anticipation as she began to bud and bloom so early—and it had all paid off.

“Mackenzie, keep up, honey. Mackenzie!” the mother called, but the girl had her hand in a bag of grapes. Popped one in her mouth. She looked right at him then, all liquid brown eyes and rosy cheeks, and put her finger to her lips, including him in her secret. He managed to wink back before she turned and fled after her mother—but in truth, his brain stumbled as his heart raced. My god, she was a beauty. And indeed, uncannily similar to Laura. Just his type.

He wondered at her age. Perhaps six, or maybe seven and a bit small for her age?

The pair argued about something down the aisle. The mother was blond and blown out with angular features. The child must resemble her father, or perhaps some dead grandmother whose genes had finally achieved dominance generations later.

“All right,” the woman said with a roll of her eyes and a slight smile curving her lips. “Run down, pick a treat—one only—and meet me at the other end.”

A sweet tooth, then. The minute the mother passed the end cap, he slid into the frozen foods aisle. He sidled up to Mackenzie—such an awful name, contemporary and contrived. A classic moniker would have suited her better.

“Hmmnn. So many choices.” He smiled at the girl. “What should I choose…”

Young Mackenzie looked at him and smiled. She remembered him from the produce section, or she trusted far too easily. 

She didn’t speak. And he was conscious of a distinct shortage of time.

“What’s your favorite?” he asked.

“Today my favorite is something with chocolate chips.” She nearly pressed her nose against the cold glass. “Last week my favorite was Frosty Cake ice cream.”

“Frosty Cake? What’s that?”

“It’s got pieces of cake and frosting it!” She grinned, showing a set of tiny but perfect teeth.

“Cake and frosting and ice cream on one spoon? You must have cavities on every tooth!”

“No, I don’t, see?” And she opened her mouth wide, leaned into him just enough.

His heart pounded as he leaned down. Precious girl, inviting him to enter her space. His fingers angled her jaw upward. He displayed the appropriate expression of mild curiosity, yet the ease with which he’d contrived this encounter suffused him with power and thrilled him down to his very cells. 

“Bigger. I can’t see,” he said. In the same instant, he realized the child’s mother was barreling down the aisle with her cart.

“No cavities!” he exclaimed as loud as he dared. “I can’t believe it! You must really do a fine job brushing.” 

He turned from the child, pretended to check the case. He yanked open one of the doors, grabbed something small, and shoved it in his basket. The woman reached them and placed her hand protectively across Mackenzie’s chest, pulling her back against her body into what she must imagine was a circle of safety. 

He nodded at the case, as if reaching a decision. “Well if you want chocolate chips, you should get Cookie Chip Ice Cream. It’s got chocolate chips and cookie dough.” 

He gave the child a conspiratorial wink, then shot the woman a small, quick smile and turned to go, as if he was embarrassed about discussing ice cream flavors with a child. In reality, he required a quick exit, before she memorized his face. Before any hint of the giddiness that bubbled within him showed. Like a chemical reaction in the lab, spontaneous effervescence could not be contained for long, he thought, as a laugh erupted from him moments later in the cereal aisle. There was simply nothing like the discovery of someone new.

 

Chapter 2 

Standing beside a borrowed police cruiser, Detective Sergeant Mitch Saunders scanned the ugly orange and tan exterior of East County High in Blakes Ridge, Pennsylvania. He blew out a shaky breath. Ever since last night, when he’d found out his younger sister had run away—over two weeks ago—he’d been trying to dislodge an awful sense of foreboding. 

Mitch hit speed dial for his mom.

“All right, Mom, I’m here. Who am I looking for?”

“Tiffany’s best friend is Carrie Holland. Last time I saw her, her hair was dyed an awful shade of red—bright and unnatural looking. It always looks sloppy, teased up into a ponytail. Lots of heavy makeup. Clothes too tight…” Deirdre Scott heaved a sob. “She used to be a nice girl. But, you know, they are way past the age of tea parties and teddy bears, so I just don’t know anymore.”

“It’s okay, Mom, I’ll sort it out.”

“I know, I know you will, I’m just—I was so sure she’d come back. I thought to give her some time, just enough to realize how much better it is to be at home…with people who love her. And now, I’m so scared.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Maybe something horrible happened.”

“Don’t borrow trouble,” he said, knowing the advice was worthless. She’d buried a son and a husband. Deirdre would always fear the worst. “I’ll find her, and then, after I skin her hide for you, you can play the good guy at home, okay?”

He heard sniffling, and frustration welled. Nothing he could say would ease his mother’s heartache and worry. Nothing would help until he’d found Tiffany. Again, he wished his mother had gotten word to him right away. But he’d been undercover and just about to bust a fledgling narcotics ring when Tiffany had split. Unfortunately, that career move had rendered him unavailable to his family for much of the last few years.

The bell rang—a far-reaching metal reverberation signaling the most important part of the school day: escape.

“Mom, they’re coming out. I’ll call you later.”

He rounded the hood and went to lean against the passenger-side door. Eager to be released, especially on a Monday, kids poured from the doors and fanned out, though most of them had to flow in his general direction. He’d parked between the main doors and the seniors’ parking lot. Anybody tight with his sister wouldn’t be caught dead heading for the buses lined up like neon sausage links off to the left.

They paid him no mind, just streamed past him. Cops came to the school often enough. Given that most of Mitch’s years in law enforcement had been spent right here in Blakes Ridge, he’d been back to the school numerous times himself since his own graduation seventeen years ago. LEOs, or law enforcement officers, often checked kids out, followed up on reports of vandalism, and searched lockers for drugs. Today, he’d purposely worn his uniform, marking him clearly. Otherwise, a thirty-six-year-old man sporting torn jeans and a day’s growth of beard loitering on the premises might creep the kids out—something he hoped to avoid. 

He fixated on a girl who’d paused to light a cigarette before stepping off the sidewalk. The hair, makeup, and retro Madonna-era clothes made her look like a ten-dollar hooker. Mom had nailed the description.

Mitch crossed to her and her friend—nearly a twin, except this one remained a brunette.

“Girls.” He crossed his arms, but remained in the street. Although they still had to look up at him, he wasn’t aiming to intimidate them right off the bat by towering over them.

They didn’t return the greeting. The redhead—if you could actually call that screaming mop red—squinted and blew out a stream of smoke, testing him. The friend shifted her hips, attempting to look cool and undisturbed.

“I’m Detective Saunders. Are you Carrie Holland?” He nodded at her.

“Depends.”

He rolled his eyes. “Listen, this isn’t the movies. You aren’t in trouble. I just need to ask you a few questions—about my sister. So, are you or aren’t you Carrie Holland?”

“I am.” She sighed, like admitting that took some great effort. 

“Tiff’s your sister, then?” Carrie scrutinized him. “You’re older than I expected.” 

Kids these days had no respect for adults or, for that matter, the law. Yes, compared to Tiffany, he was old. He’d been seventeen himself, when—surprise—his mom and new (but temporary, as it turned out) stepdad had announced a baby sis was on the way.

“Uh,” the other one interrupted, “can I go?”

“Depends,” Mitch said. “Do you hang with Tiffany at all?”

“Yeah, for a while.”

“Then stay. What’s your name?”

“Jennifer Mayberry, but everybody calls me JayMay.”

Well, that should be easy to remember. “So, let’s start with the main thing—either of you know where Tiffany’s hiding out?”

Shakes of the head. Jesus, teenagers. They never wanted to tell you a thing.

“Come on,” he said.

“We’re not that good of friends anymore,” Carrie said, looking sideways.

“Nothing you tell me is going to land you in trouble. Seriously, my mom’s worried sick, and frankly, so am I. I know you know she’s…not well.” Hardly a secret, given that Tiffany had missed a couple of months of school first semester. He’d pressed his mother to stage an intervention and force her into rehab. For a while, they’d thought, she’d stayed clean.

He felt almost physically sick every time he thought of his sister like so many of the kids he’d seen in the system and on the streets, and he had to look away for a second. “I’m trying to help her, keep her from hurting herself.” He held his breath, waiting.

The girls exchanged a glance, and Carrie shrugged. The leader of this duo, for sure.

“We don’t know where she is. None of us do. She won’t even text us back. Everybody was talking about it last week. She skips all the time.” She gestured to the school. “That’s not a big deal, but then she missed a big party last Saturday night. One she wouldn’t have wanted to miss.”

“One that promised lots of drugs and booze?”

The ratty red knot on Carrie’s head bobbed up and down as she nodded.

But it was JayMay who piped up. “She was always up for that stuff. Everybody does some things, but she was getting kinda scary, you know?” 

Carrie looked up, the brown eyes behind the black eyeliner holding his. “You’re not the only one who is worried. Tiff used to be cool. She was my best friend. She was a good person, too—helped all those old folks even though I couldn’t see how she could stand it. But she doesn’t care about anything anymore, not me, not anyone—only the next fix.”

“Where’d she get her stuff?” He wanted to fire questions at them like bullets. Instead, his tone remained cool, his pace slow. “Who’d she hang with?”

“Some old dude, her boyfriend.”

JayMay snorted. “Her dealer, more like.”

“Yeah,” Carrie said. “She calls him her boyfriend, but he doesn’t hang. She would just go over there, so I’ve never even met him.”

“You know his name?”

JayMay shook her head, but Carrie spoke: “Tommy, I think. But she didn’t say much about him.”

“How old is he, d’ya think? What’s he look like?”

“I only saw him once, from a distance,” Carrie said. “Definitely older than you, but not ancient. Blond hair. Looked like a classy guy—not like some scumbag dealer.”

“Any idea where can I find this guy?” 

Carrie nodded. “I dropped Tiff off a couple of times when her mom took her car keys away. Lives over on Dale Drive. Way out of town, off the access road that runs along the highway.”

Mitch’s heart pumped harder, and he felt a crack of hope. Not only something concrete he could use, but also an address that rang warning bells for him.

“I don’t think she’s there, though,” JayMay said. “A few weeks ago, she told me”—her fingers hooked the air like quote marks—“‘Everyone’s so stingy out here with their goods, but I hear it’s easy out in Cali’—California,” she added, making sure he understood.

“You’ve been a big help.” He handed them each one of his cards, anxious now to follow up on what he’d learned. “Call me if you hear from her, or think of anything, and tell the other kids, too, okay?”

They nodded.

“And hey, you better get off school property with that cigarette or someone’s going to accuse me of not doing my job.” He winked, and Carrie jumped. She’d forgotten about her smoke.

Mitch called his mother to let her know he’d connected with Tiffany’s girlfriends, then headed back to the station just long enough to return the cruiser and change clothes—investigative work, especially unearthing a person who didn’t want to be found, was best done undercover. The rest of the day—the rest of his life, if necessary—would be devoted to tracking down Tiff. First stop, Dale Drive.

As far as Mitch was concerned, that particular street could be considered the scene of a double crime. His own personal disaster: his career path halting in its tracks. And a true tragedy: a teenage runaway named Laura Macnamara who’d abandoned her nearly comatose mother—a case he’d been unable to solve. Although there had been no good leads, no real motive from any angle, no body ever found, the media had a field day making him look incompetent. Eventually, he’d been forced by the chief to give up and move on to cases more pressing.

As for a promotion, the higher-ups had been forced by public opinion, courtesy of those piranhas called the press, to pass him over—and over. Until he’d finally thrown his hands up and switched to narcotics. Scranton had needed faces the drug runners didn’t know. It was no more than forty minutes north by car, so he’d kept his apartment in Blakes Ridge in order to have a home base near his mom and sister. Truth be told, though, he’d been relieved to ditch this town for a while, and therefore, he rarely spent time at home. 

In terms of the Macnamara case, he’d always believed that someday the clues would fall into place, and he’d finally solve the runaway mystery, regardless of the departmental shift. He’d never really let go of it, and didn’t intend to.

Dale Drive came up quick if you weren’t prepared, so Mitch slowed his truck. The street curved in a wide but shallow arc, where only four houses stood, unless somebody had subdivided their lots in the last couple of years. Room to do that, as each house claimed a couple of acres. All of them sat to the right of the road, with deep wooded areas behind. The lots to the left had been leveled and mostly cleared but never built on, and he’d never seen them look anything but overgrown. He made the right onto Dale Drive, and slid to a stop without pulling over. 

The runaway’s house looked well cared for—otherwise, very little had changed. Still a ton of kitschy yard art in front of the third house—this time heralding Memorial Day, all red, white, and blue. When he’d first landed that case, the yard had screamed St. Patty’s day. The fourth house still looked a little sad, forlorn, with an old Caddy in the drive. That couple had seemed ancient then, and Mitch wondered if they were both still living.

If Carrie and JayMay’s info was solid, the first house, the one sitting just ahead on his passenger side, had to be the one. Tiffany’s “Tommy” could very well be that self-righteous, smug neighbor he’d met in the first case, Thomas Hadfield Weihle. 

Mitch parked in front, walked the gravel drive, and took a deep breath before ringing the bell. He waited, adrenaline and tension sparring for the top spot in his chest. 

He pushed the bell over and over—obnoxious, yes, but no way a person could ignore it. Three forty-five. If Weihle was still a nine-to-fiver then it’d be a couple of hours at least before he arrived home.

Mitch trudged back down the stoop steps and headed for the car, more disappointed than he’d expected. 

Somehow, he’d hoped against hope that Tiff would stumble to the door. That she hadn’t gone to California as her friends suspected. That she’d been holed up in Weihle’s house. That he’d be able to save her from Weihle and from herself.

He moved the truck opposite the Macnamaras’ old house and let all the details of that case ricochet through his mind. Was it possible the two cases were linked via Thomas Weihle? When he could stand it no longer, he crossed the yard in long strides and skirted the left side of the Macnamara property. No one seemed to be home, so there was no one to mind. 

A play set—the wooden kind boasting swings, slides, a climbing wall, a fire pole, and even a roof—pushed the borders of the mowed lawn. The wood, apparently just as much fun for squirrels, was gnawed in multiple spots along the top. To the right sat a plastic log cabin, its bright red shutters now a mottled pink—color leeched out from the sun. This new family had been here a while, likely moved in soon after the property was foreclosed.

He looked at the back of the two-story, reacquainting himself mentally with the interior layout. Typical second floor. Three average bedrooms, one hall bath. Before the time of master baths and walk-in closets, and fancy built-ins for kids who had more toys than he had furniture. Downstairs had been rather average, too. Linoleum and Formica. A La-Z-Boy recliner and matted wall-to-wall carpeting.

There’d been a dish rag with blood on it tossed haphazardly on the kitchen counter—otherwise, nothing. At first glance, nothing out of the ordinary, anyway. 

Laura Macnamara’s school backpack had sat on the bed, unzipped, yet intact. Clothes spilled out of her hamper. A lone suitcase showcasing Hello Kitty seemed more appropriate to sleepovers than travel. And, in fact, there were no empty spots, either in her mother’s room or her own, where a suitcase or duffel might have been yanked out of storage.

The mother, Ellen Macnamara, she was the catch. At the time of Laura’s disappearance, Ellen had recently entered a long-term care facility—the same one where Tiffany had done community service. Another coincidence?

 Ellen’s stay had been paid for in cash, although she herself was near comatose. Oh, she functioned physically, if you called sitting and staring out the window functioning. She slept, she woke, she ate, she shit. But beyond responding to the most basic physical needs, there was no desire, no initiative, no forethought, no speech. She didn’t shower, unless she was made to. She would eat if spoon-fed, but likely hadn’t seen the inside of her own refrigerator in, well, who knew how long. The neighbor—Thomas Weihle, of course—had said she’d been “unwell for ages.” 

Mitch could just hear his well-to-do tone. A concerned neighbor, supposedly, though clearly a man who felt himself above petty matters like illness or heartbreak.

“Ellen was always prone to depression,” Thomas Weihle had said in that cultured voice of his. “Medication worked nicely for some years, but when her husband died, well…I saw her rarely after that.”

Mitch had disliked the man on instinct. Being a cop, you learned to trust your gut, to read a person’s eyes. Mr. Weihle’s eyes had been off—too hot. Deceiving, like a skillet on a gas range. Just because the flame underneath had been snuffed, didn’t mean it wouldn’t give you a third-degree burn. Mitch could have attributed some of that heat to the cop cars lining the curb, their flashers bouncing like strobe lights, disturbing an otherwise quiet evening. In those situations, most folks showed pity or concern and usually even a degree of morbid curiosity. Yes, sometimes the selfish ones radiated annoyance at the intrusion. But Weihle’s wasn’t garden-variety frustration, the kind born from disturbed sleep or trampled flowers. His was something deeper, something angry simmering furiously below a tightly clamped lid. Worse yet, Mitch had sensed excitement lurking behind the smooth exterior, too. 

Of course, he’d checked out Weihle as a possible suspect in Laura Macnamara’s disappearance. He was an R&D—research and development—scientist at a local pharmaceutical company called Novatru. Well thought of by his superiors. Owned his own home, and, given the way it was decorated, appreciated the finer things. A bachelor, but the serious, conservative type. No dating, no partying, no Sunday tailgates. Weihle went to work, he came home, he did some errands, nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, the complete lack of a social life seemed odd to Mitch, and yet there’d been no red flags, nothing to follow up on, nada to investigate further without crossing the line.

And yet here I am again. Mitch smirked, then immediately sobered. He hoped with every fiber of his being that his gut telegraphed wrong. That Weihle wasn’t involved. That Tiffany was just a temporary teenage runaway who’d left of her own volition. Please, don’t let her end up like Laura Macnamara—a missing person, murky clues, dead ends, and an eventual cold case to everyone on the force but him. 

He turned again to the woods pressing in behind the jungle gym and walked it as he had so many times before. He squished through earth dewy from a recent spring rain, stepped high to tamp down young pricker bushes, and ducked under low branches. Two hundred yards, give or take, and you popped out on PA Route 80 Westbound. 

Just that easy.

Mitch’s boots slid on cinders that had been pushed to the wide shoulder of the highway. A few cars whizzed past, and the hood of his thick sweatshirt blew wildly against his neck. He yanked it up, turned to avoid a face full of road dust, and scanned the woods. At this time of year, the bushes were thick, the tree cover dense; everything was lush and green. 

When Laura took off from this very spot, the branches would have been bare, the color gone. Lights would have been visible in the backs of the houses, winking on and off as drivers sped by the staggered silhouettes of tree trunks. And at night, the woods would have looked black. Wide and stark. Empty and menacing.

What was it the semi driver had said? Oh yeah, he’d likened the dark that night to an eerie thing right out of a horror movie, like something living that could suck you up.

The burly driver’s words came back like it’d been just yesterday. “I could just see a figure, standing near the guardrail. Wouldn’t have seen her so early, except her coat was white. I downshifted, but overshot her, o’ course. No way not to with a semi and a full load, so when I passed I could see she was a female. That was about it, ’til she climbed in my cab.”

The driver had shaken his head, scuffed his boot in the cinders, right here at mile marker 291.1. “The lights in my cab come on automatically, o’ course, so before she shut the door, I got a look. All beat up. Black eye, split lip. Had a down parka on—one o’ those teenage things. Ain’t for warmth, but for looks. Barely covers their middles.” He’d gestured to his own stomach, well hidden under thick black and red flannel. 

He’d nudged up his cap. “Fur all around the hood. She kept that hood up the whole ride.”

Mitch had waited. Sometimes, if you just let people talk, they’d let loose just what you needed.

The trucker had looked at him sideways. “This girl, she ain’t no stupid teenager. This one, she was serious, probably smart. Well, I don’t know, maybe not smart, but she ain’t no child. I’d wager she’d already seen too much o’ this world.”

Mitch hadn’t expected an answer, but had asked anyway: “Did she mention a destination—a town, an area of the country?”

“Nope,” the trucker had said, sighing. “I asked how far she was headed. She said, ‘As far as I can get.’ She didn’t go no further than Ohio with me, but every time I drive this stretch I wonder if she got as far as she needed to.”

 

Chapter 3

A volunteer shut the heavy double doors of the church behind the last man in line, blocking out the early evening sunshine that blessed San Francisco today. Charlie Hart sighed as her concern ratcheted up several notches—Tiffany Scott had missed another meal at Glide.

She looked over her shoulder at the blue and orange trays lined up on the metal runners, five here, about ten across the glass in the works, being filled with pot roast, fruit cocktail, rolls, various condiments, and the necessary utensils. Nineteen meals between her and the last guest.

“Only four more, Henrietta,” she said to her friend who was stationed at the start of the trays. 

“Hallelujah,” Henrietta Plummer said with a weary smile. Plenty of girth and an advanced age always made Henrietta tire long before the end of a shift. And yet she showed up—nearly every day now that she was retired and her grandchildren were in school—to give back to the organization that had helped her feed her family so many years ago.

“Uh-huh,” Charlie said, though she could have served forever, hoping that Tiff would walk through the door. She was really getting worried about the teen.

Hola, Juan,” Charlie said with a smile, handing him one of the oversized plastic trays laden with warm, filling food.

Gracias, Charlie.” Juan, an older man, was still embarrassed to be there and ducked his head, but Charlie always greeted everybody by name if possible. She knew firsthand that this soup kitchen and its affiliated church might be the only place these folks felt welcome today, or all week.

Charlie bent down and greeted a young black boy who had wrapped himself around his mother’s leg. 

“Hey, Chief.” She smiled. “I gotta a little something extra here for my favorite guests,” she said, and slipped a Hershey’s Kiss from her oversized cargo pants pocket to his. She made sure he got a good look at the silver foil in the palm of her hand, and was rewarded when his eyes turned into saucers and a smile tugged at one corner of his mouth.

“Save it for later, when you really need a treat, ’cause I don’t have enough for everybody, ’kay?” She winked at the boy, and the young mother thanked her with a smile.

Always, the single mothers and their young kids got to her. The runaways, too, of course. There but for the grace of God, go I… She always recalled the phrase, though she’d no clear idea where she’d heard it first.

Charlie loved coming here. Loved giving back. Loved the success stories. Some days she felt the heaviness of it all—such a cruel world, so many needy, some who never seemed to make any progress. But mostly she felt some peace for having done what she could, and always a bone-deep sense of gratitude for having gotten out herself, after spending years on the run. Homeless, scared, and alone was never far behind her.

Although she could relate, she tried to remain unattached to the people who came through Glide, giving kinds words of advice and hope without getting too involved. But Tiffany Scott was a special case.

A couple of weeks ago, Henrietta had mentioned that a girl came through Glide whom she believed hailed from Charlie’s hometown. Henry only suspected Charlie was from Blakes Ridge, Pennsylvania, as she’d noticed Charlie’s white knuckles during a newscast about a gruesome fire at a nursing facility there last year. Somehow—probably because Charlie had been cagey about confirming or denying the fact—the town’s name had stuck in the stubborn woman’s mind. The idea of talking with Tiffany had stuck in Charlie’s.

Against her better judgment, Charlie had tracked the girl down in line for another shelter. Dirty and hollow-eyed, at turns twitchy or zoned out—it’d been clear from the first that she’d been pretty well gone. 

Right off, Tiffany had asked her where she could find a safe place to sleep. And then asked about a clinic. Charlie’s shell had cracked, as it always did when she felt a young addict truly wanted help. Charlie invited Tiffany to take meals and shelter at Glide. As they’d walked, she’d asked where the teenager was from, biting her lip as she waited…hoping she was and hoping she wasn’t from the same area.

“Nowheresville, PA,” came Tiffany’s answer with a roll of her eyes under her knit cap and stringy blond hair.

“Hmmn,” Charlie had replied, with a knowing look. “Sounds just like where I came from in Pennsylvania.”

“No shit, you’re from Pennsylvania, too?” Tiffany’d said.

“Yeah, but I bet your town wasn’t as backward as mine.”

“Blakes Ridge’ll win hands down.” 

“Wow.” Charlie gulped. 

The Poconos to the east, some minor college towns to the west, her and Tiffany’s hometown sat somewhere, nowhere, in between.

She’d hoped never to meet another person from home again. Tried hard never to think of the place or the people she’d left behind. And that got easier, mostly, as the years went on. But here was Tiffany Scott, inadvertently chiming a giant gong that rang on in Charlie’s soul for days. Making her yearn for things better left behind. Making her desire for answers grow more demanding, almost heedless of consequences.

She’d had to refrain from blurting out the questions that plagued her, from giving too much away. Even though Tiffany was in bad shape and probably not paying enough attention to become suspicious, clearly she also couldn’t be trusted to keep secrets. And Charlie had been so careful, for so long.

They’d talked, little by little, day after day, though Charlie gleaned precious little information. Tiffany’s accent was so familiar—not glaring like a Southern or foreign one would have been, but with an earthy, no-nonsense quality that spoke of generations of Northeastern Pennsylvanians, proud of their small-town, blue-collar history. Overall, however, Tiffany hadn’t wanted to talk about home, had trouble focusing, and was rather unreliable. In fact, she hadn’t shown up at all the last few days.

And yet because of their shared roots, because Charlie had come to care, because also—yes, she’d admit it—she still hoped she’d stumble onto a bit of information that might provide her a measure of comfort, she’d continued to look out for the girl.

Charlie sent the last man in line off with his tray and a smile.

“Henrietta, I’m going to visit. Be back in a few.” She tugged off the plastic cap she’d worn, ran a hand through her choppy, bleached hair, and headed for the cafeteria-style tables. 

Charlie looked over first one dining room and then the other. About one hundred guests today, she’d estimate. A small crowd. Glide Memorial Church could fit two hundred when full, and usually did, being located in a real hot spot for the homeless, the addicts, and the poor—the Tenderloin district, arguably the roughest section of San Francisco. Glide and St. Anthony’s, a group of Franciscans, worked together, making a serious dent in hunger and providing shelter to as many as they could. Their numbers always increased when folks needed a respite from the rain, fog, and cold that so often invaded the Bay Area. Today, though, the weather spun California perfection. Spring bloomed, but the warm wind and toasty sunshine felt almost like summer. 

She made a beeline for one teen after another. So often they knew each other from the shelters and the rehab clinics, even if they kept to themselves here. 

“Hey,” Charlie asked one after another, “you seen that girl Tiffany lately?” Nobody had, until she spotted Ian Cross.

“How you doing, Ian?”

“Fantastic, Charlie. Love the pot roast, and it’s a beautiful day.” Ian grinned at her with a knowing look. Once, she’d remarked on how positive he always was, so now he played it up just for her. Still a growing young man, he never missed a meal. Charlie also suspected that if his table companions left anything untouched, Ian pocketed whatever traveled well.

She couldn’t help but grin back at him, but quickly brought the conversation around to where she needed it.

“Have you seen Tiff lately?”

“No show, huh?”

“Yeah, I’m more than a little concerned.”

Ian shook his head, inky black hair sticking straight up from a recent cut. In fact, he’d shaved it off himself as a symbol of his commitment to stay clean. But judging from his thick eyebrows, he’d have a full head of hair again in no time.

“You might want to lower your expectations,” Ian mumbled to his tray.

Charlie bit down a nasty retort and opted for the truth instead: “I know it, but I just can’t.”

Ian frowned. “She hasn’t been at the shelter for a few nights, so unless she’s at one of the others…” He shrugged.

“Damn.” She sighed and smoothed out the white plastic apron over her thighs. “Will you let me know if you hear anything?”

“Yeah.”

“Thanks, Ian.”

“Uh, Charlie?” Ian fidgeted with his spoon. “I really have a bad feeling about her.”

“Why? What makes her any less likely to succeed than any of these other people sitting here?” She swept her hand out to encompass the room. 

Charlie had been eating at or working in this soup kitchen for years, and had seen other teens kick it—whichever addiction they’d had. Unlike her, most teenagers had families somewhere, who could forgive and could help them get the care they needed. Teens also had physical strength in their youthful bodies made for recovery, a long future ahead to face and fill, and most important, if they’d been living on the streets, usually a hard-won maturity to fight through the tough weeks. 

Ian shrugged, yet his lips pressed in a flat line and he refused to look at her. Charlie figured he’d bend the cheap metal spoon if he clasped it any harder. Her heart sank watching him; however, she herself wasn’t giving up on the girl.

 “Okay, Ian.” She squeezed his shoulder as she stood. “Thanks for the warning.” She blew out a breath and clenched her fists. 

Little did Ian know that when it came to Tiffany Scott, far more than Charlie’s emotions were at stake. For her, anybody hailing from Blakes Ridge presented a minefield of danger. Yet her craving for information from that very spot was so intense, she—inconceivable as it was—ignored the risk.

___________________

 

To continue reading Charlie and Mitch’s story, you can find the book here:

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Runaway holds a special place in my heart, and I truly hope you enjoy! 

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JB