EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER ONE:
It was late in the evening on the day after Christmas, and Evelyn Hernandez should have been at home, warm, and in bed. Instead, she was sitting on the cold, cushionless seat of a folding metal chair in an overly bright room located somewhere inside the County Sheriff’s Station.
The space was not at all like the dimly lit chamber she’d expected, the one she’d seen so many times on television with the single, swinging bulb hanging from the ceiling, handcuff rings welded to the tabletop, and a two-way mirror set into one wall, but then maybe those rooms were reserved for the criminals, not the victims. This room had rows of fluorescent lights set into the ceiling and instead of a mirror to spy through, the entire wall separating the room from the hallway was made of clear glass panels, floor to ceiling.
Sitting across from Evelyn at the single table in the center of the room was a little girl in a Frozen nightgown using a black ballpoint pen to draw pictures of snowmen on a sheet of white paper. Her long, brown hair and dark eyes were in direct contrast to the blonde hair and sea-blue orbs peeking from beneath the gray blanket that draped her slender shoulders.
“The nose is supposed to be orange,” the little girl said matter-of-factly and without looking in Evelyn’s direction, “but this is the only color I have.”
Evelyn reached into the front zipper of the backpack she’d brought and produced a tight bundle of colored pencils. “I might have an orange,” she said, removing the large rubber band holding the pencils together and carefully setting the loose pile on the table between them.
Still without meeting Evelyn’s gaze, the girl retrieved the orange pencil from among the other colors and proceeded to fill in the carrot nose of her most recent snowman.
“I like your drawings.”
“Thank you,” the little girl said, glancing up at Evelyn for the first time. When she was done coloring the nose, she set the drawing to one side and continued filling in the noses of each and every snowman she’d drawn, all seven of them. Then she returned the orange pencil to the center of the table, carefully stacked her drawings in a single neat pile, and sat back in her chair with her hands in her lap. Her big brown eyes took in Evelyn for a moment, and then they looked past her, over Evelyn’s shoulder, through the glass and out into the hall.
An hour earlier, Evelyn had awoken to the sound of men’s voices downstairs. Maybe one of her dad’s friends. She began to drift back to sleep when a woman’s voice, reciting names and numbers in a sudden burst of radio static, cut through the darkness and jolted Evelyn out of bed, bringing her immediately downstairs.
“But what does this have to do with Evelyn?” she heard her mother ask as she joined her parents in the living room. The police officer standing just inside the front door saw her first and, smiling politely, nodded in her direction. It was Deputy Ramirez, the officer who had questioned her at school about Aiden’s disappearance, and then later at the hospital, about Spider, the man who shot Karen.
Evelyn’s parents had turned to look at her as well, but neither of them had been smiling.
“How old are you?” the little girl asked.
“I’m almost eight.”
“I like your earrings,” Evelyn said. “Are they stars?”
“Uh-huh.” She smiled and reached up to touch the lobes of both ears. “I like your necklace.”
“Thank you, my boyfriend gave it to me.”
“You have a boyfriend?” she asked, her eyes growing larger.
“Does your mommy know?” she almost whispered.
“Yes,” Evelyn said, fingering the tiny paintbrush and palette hanging from the delicate gold chain around her neck. “She likes him.”
“Does he…” Now she was whispering. “Is he … nice to you?”
“Yes, he is.” Evelyn smiled. “He’s very nice to me.”
“What’s his name?” she asked, as if the answer were somehow crucial.
She seemed to think about this for a moment before nodding her head. “And what’s your name?”
Her lips moved as she silently repeated the name to herself. “My name is Isabella. You can just say Bella, if you want.”
“Okay, Bella,” said Evelyn. “It is very, very nice to meet you.”
“We picked her up less than an hour ago,” Deputy Ramirez had explained. “Someone saw her running down the street in only her nightgown, not even shoes. She said a man had grabbed her from her house and put her in his car. She said she opened the door and jumped out when the car slowed down. We think we’ve identified her parents and are attempting to locate them now, but—” He had seemed to stop himself mid-sentence, looking suddenly very uncomfortable. His gaze had darted about their living room for a second or two before finally settling on Evelyn’s dad. “Look, I know this is highly unusual, and, well, maybe even inappropriate. But I just don’t think making this little girl look at mug shots all night is the right thing to do, and we don’t have a real artist on staff, and I don’t want to keep her away from her parents any longer than necessary.”
Evelyn hadn’t waited for her parents to answer. She was already on her way upstairs to get her backpack and jacket.
“Are you in trouble?” asked Isabella.
She looked past Evelyn out into the hallway. “Who is that man, then?”
Evelyn turned to look. “That’s my dad,” she said.
He was sitting in a chair against the opposite wall of the hallway, pretending to read a magazine. She didn’t see Deputy Ramirez anywhere, but she noticed that he’d left the door to the room open a few inches and so she assumed he was probably standing just behind it. “Let her talk, but don’t lead her,” he had said to Evelyn on the drive over. “You know what I mean? Don’t coach her. We’ll be listening. We have to.”
“Is he in trouble?” Isabella asked.
“Who, my dad? No.”
“Then why are you here?” she asked. “People only come here if they do something bad.”
“But you’re here,” Evelyn said. “You didn’t do anything bad.”
She didn’t immediately respond but sat thoughtfully for a moment, eyes fixed on the tabletop before her. “Or if they work here,” she finally said, “so they could try to help you.”
“I don’t work here,” Evelyn said, reaching into her backpack again, “but I am here to help you.”
“What is that?”
Isabella sat up straight in her chair. “Are you going to draw me?”
“I can, if you want me to.”
“Okay.” Isabella lifted her chin, squared her shoulders, and turned her head a few inches to one side. “Like this?”
“That’s perfect,” Evelyn said, touching her pencil to the page.
Quickly, she sketched Isabella’s round face, upturned nose, and plump little cupid bow lips.
Someone saw her running down the street in only her nightgown, not even shoes.
Evelyn tried not to think about it, to let her imagination dwell too long on the image of Isabella scared and alone in the freezing dark. She concentrated instead on capturing her impossibly large eyes, noticing, only then, the deep-set shadows that seemed to surround them.
She said a man had grabbed her from her house and put her in his car.
Suddenly, Evelyn felt her heart leap into her throat, and she was struck with the overwhelming urge to take Isabella in her arms, to wrap her in the protective custody of her embrace. Anyone who would hurt this little girl deserved the worst possible punishment. They deserved to die. She found her sudden sense of rage at the situation frightening. Though, admittedly, it was an emotion becoming more familiar to Evelyn than her previous feeling of vulnerability and the ache of helplessness that accompanied it.
“Evelyn?” Isabella asked, her mouth hardly moving in an attempt to maintain her pose.
She took a deep breath, willed her hand to stop shaking. “Yes?”
“Can I have a princess crown, please?”
“You absolutely can,” Evelyn said, and then added, “your highness.”
She flashed Evelyn a wide-eyed grin, and then quickly regained her regal composure.
Evelyn added a delicate tiara, aglitter with diamonds, to the top of Isabella’s image. She would serve this beautiful princess. She would help Deputy Ramirez find the man who hurt this child, whatever she had to do.
Evelyn turned the sketchbook around for Isabella to see.
Her mouth shaped a soundless, “Wow.”
“Do you like it?”
“Yes. Can I have it?”
“Of course.” Evelyn folded the page back and forth a few times and then slid her fingertip along the inside margin of the book from top to bottom before carefully tugging the page free.
Isabella examined the portrait closely for a moment and then placed it reverently on top of her snowmen drawings.
“May I draw another picture?” Evelyn asked.
“No, for Deputy Ramirez.”
“The policeman that found me?”
“Yes.” Evelyn slipped her arms free of the jacket she was wearing, a puffy winter coat with fake fur around the hood, letting it fall over the back of her chair. Beneath it were the flannel Batman pajamas she’d gone to sleep in. “He asked me to draw a picture of the man that … hurt you.”
“Why?” she asked, staring at the symbol of the bat on Evelyn’s chest.
“Because he wants to know who he is, so he can find him.”
Isabella’s eyes moved to Evelyn’s. “And get him in trouble?”