“Dad?” Stiff from hours of sitting beside his daughter’s hospital bed, he lifted his head. Had he heard Hannah’s voice? Or was he dreaming? “You need to be strong, Dad.” He blinked to clear his vision. The curtains were drawn, leaving the hospital room drenched in gloomy shadows. His mind was muddled, weighed down by the emotional roller coaster of the past few weeks. He’d grown used to the smell of antiseptics and the faint beeping of machines, but he would never get used to the idea that his twenty-five-year-old daughter might be dying. Life without Hannah was unimaginable. She meant everything to him. Just as her mother had been, Hannah was filled with light and energy. So much energy. “Hannah,” he said in a throaty whisper. “Are you okay? What can I get you?” When was the last time he’d heard his daughter’s voice? Two days ago? Maybe three? “Hannah,” he said again. “Are you thirsty? What is it?” No answer. It wasn’t until he heard the drumming of what sounded like dozens of feet slapping against the tile floor outside the room that he realized the beeps from the machine had become one long, steady sound. “Hannah!” he cried as the door opened and the lights were switched on, shedding clarity on the cold, hard reality of what his life had become—grief and sadness.
So much sadness. Hannah’s eyes were closed, her skin the color of newly poured cement. Her hand was curled within his grasp. He could no longer see the rise and fall of her chest, no signs of movement or life. “Hannah,” he whispered. “Don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me.” One of the nurses examined the machine while the doctor and another nurse worked around all the tubes and wires, checking vital signs. Another alarm sounded, giving him a tinge of hope. But nothing had changed.
The oximeter was removed from Hannah’s finger, and the machine was turned off. A deafening silence followed. The doctor wrote on Hannah’s chart, then looked at him. Hollow words spilled out, one over the other, before he spoke to the closest nurse and then exited the room. The door clicked shut, sending a wave of panic through his body. Do something, he thought as he watched one of the nurses remove the IV from Hannah’s arm while the other simply gave him a sorrowful look. He looked at Hannah, willing her eyes to open. Please, don’t go. A hand came to rest on his shoulder, and he broke down and sobbed. ONE PI Jessie Cole heard a faint knock right before the door to her office opened.
Her ten o’clock appointment was on time. Jessie stood, introduced herself, and then asked Ashley Bale to have a seat in the chair in front of her desk. “Should we wait for your husband?” Jessie asked. “I’m afraid Nick won’t be able to make it.” Ashley fidgeted some before adding, “The truth is, he’s not happy about my decision to go through with this.” Jessie could tell she had more to say, so she sat silently and waited for her to finish. “As we discussed, Dakota, our newborn daughter, was abducted seven years ago. What I didn’t mention to you on the phone is that since that time we’ve been lucky enough to have twin boys. They’re lovely, and they keep me busy.” She smiled.
“That’s an understatement.” “I can imagine,” Jessie said. “Don’t get me wrong—my husband wants Dakota back as much as I do. Our hearts were broken when she was taken, but he believes if I never stop looking for her, I’ll be taking something away from the boys.” Jessie’s chest tightened. Her heart went out to the woman. But in cases like this it wasn’t up to her to take sides or push her clients in one direction or another. “Maybe you and your husband should spend more time thinking about what’s best for both of you. I’m happy to return your deposit, and we can—” “No.” Just like that Ashley’s expression changed from complacent to unwavering.
Jessie lifted a questioning brow. “No?” “No. I want to do this. I need to do this. That’s why I’m here. I’m ready to move forward. I have to know what happened to my daughter.” She pulled a binder from her bag and set it on Jessie’s desk, turning it so they could both have a look at what was inside. She flipped the pages slowly, giving Jessie a glimpse into her world at the time Dakota was born. Pictures taken at the baby shower and then at the hospital, Ashley clearly overjoyed.
There were photos of hospital visitors, too, and Ashley had taken the time to place a sticky note on every one, with names and relationship details such as cousin, aunt, mom, and so on. Every page was sealed within clear plastic. Stashed within were ribbons and cards and scribbled notes with a long list of possible names for their baby girl. There were printed copies of posts taken from social media, people congratulating them on their new addition to the family, a colorful picture of the front yard complete with a sturdy wooden three-foot stork wearing a pink hat and bow tie announcing their new baby girl: Dakota Elizabeth, six pounds, twelve ounces, nineteen and a half inches, August 22, 2010. They were halfway through the binder when Ashley stopped turning the pages and pushed it Jessie’s way. “Everything else inside is what happened after Dakota was taken from us. Newspaper clippings, police reports, and, oh—” She reached into her bag again, pulled out two leather-bound journals, and handed them over. “My therapist at the time told me it was a good idea to put all my thoughts to paper, so that’s what I did.” She shrugged. “I can’t say whether it helped me or not.
I’m still here, so there is that, but I decided to give you everything. No reason to hold back.” Ashley Bale reminded Jessie of herself. Every fine line in her face told a story. It was the not knowing that did that to people, made them look weary and disillusioned by life. “I’m hoping something here might be helpful in your search.” Jessie nodded. “I do have a couple of questions.” “Go ahead.” “In the paperwork you sent back, you mentioned that immediately after Dakota was taken, you looked at everyone differently.
Friends, family, neighbors. They all appeared suspect. Looking back now, was there anyone in particular who stood out?” Ashley cleared her throat. “I’m not saying it was fair of me to see everyone as suspect, but in certain cases, I had my reasons. For instance, Nick’s cousin Wendy Battstel had just suffered a third miscarriage in a two-year period. She wasn’t married, but she wanted a baby more than anything in the world. I always felt sorry for her.” “Did she live around here?” “For a while, but she was having problems and moved away. She’s sort of the black sheep of the family, and Nick doesn’t like to talk about her.” Ashley smiled nervously.
“Of course, it would’ve been difficult for Wendy to pass Dakota off as hers, but still, the thought ran through my mind.” Ashley rubbed the back of her neck. “There was also a nurse. Her name was Sue. I remember her holding Dakota as if she didn’t want to hand her over to me. She kept talking about wanting a baby of her own someday. Later, I asked about the nurse, but the hospital was adamant about there not being anyone on staff who went by that name.” “Did the police look into that?” “Yes. In fact, they found her.” “Really?” Ashley nodded.
“Turned out she was a volunteer at the hospital, but the name on file was Kendra Foster. Her middle name was Sue. My husband doesn’t know it, but after Dakota was taken, I kept a close eye on Kendra Sue.” “How so?” “I spent hours watching her house. If she left, I followed her.” Jessie figured that was something she might have done herself under the circumstances. “And?” “Nothing. For months I watched her leave for work, come home, go to the grocery store every once in a while, and then lights out by ten.” Jessie was about to comment, but Ashley lifted a finger to let Jessie know there was more. “Before Dakota was born, I was a manager at a department store.
At the time, a coworker had just found out that she couldn’t have children. Her name was”—Ashley looked upward as if in thought —“Rose Helg. Yes. I guess her husband wasn’t willing to adopt, so he asked for a divorce.” She crossed one leg over the other. “It wasn’t fair of me to judge these women and think the worst of them, but there you have it.” She lifted her hands, palms up. “I’m a judgmental bitch.” “No. Sounds to me as if you were just a desperate mother.
” Ashley met her gaze. “Thanks.” “It might be helpful if you could give me any information you have on these women and anyone else you can think of who drew your attention at the time. I’d like to talk to them.” “Okay,” she said. “I’ll e-mail you tonight. Does that work?” “That’ll be fine. I could also use pictures of you and your husband at the age of seven, the same age your daughter would be today.” Ashley thought about that for a second. “We’ve had two artist’s renderings done of what Dakota would look like at the ages of one and four.
” She pointed toward Jessie’s desk. “You’ll see them inside the binder.” “Those will be helpful, too,” Jessie assured her. “But I’d still like pictures of you and your husband, if possible. I know someone who uses age-progression software along with Photoshop and pictures of parents and relatives to create realistic images.” Ashley nodded. “I’ll see what I can find. Is there anything else?” Jessie opened the file. “I believe I have your cell phone number and your home phone.” “I’d prefer it if we corresponded through e-mail.
” Jessie wondered if Nick Bale had any idea at all that his wife was going through with the investigation. The notion made her uncomfortable, but she liked Ashley, and she wanted to help if she could. “I’ll shoot you an e-mail if anything comes up.” They stood and shook hands; then Jessie walked her to the door and saw her out. Although statistics leaned heavily against Ashley learning the truth about what had happened to her daughter, Jessie knew from her own experience that the woman was surely plagued by continuous questions cycling through her mind. Where is Dakota? What is she doing? Is she scared—is she safe? Is she alive? For ten years Jessie had asked those questions over and over—until three months ago, when the search for her missing sister had come to a tragic end. They’d found Sophie’s brittle bones within a tattered and faded red dress, the same dress she’d been wearing the last time Jessie had seen her alive, protected beneath a blanket of thorn-covered vines. Jessie was one of the lucky ones. She knew what had happened to her sister. There were no more questions, only sadness and regret and a Ferris wheel of if-onlys going round and round about what she could have possibly done to save her sister.
If only things had been different. If only she’d stopped her from leaving the house that night. If only . TWO Ben Morrison, crime reporter for the Sacramento Tribune, was sitting at his desk opening mail when one particular letter gave him pause. After reading the first few sentences, his gaze swept to the signature at the bottom of the page: Sincerely, MAH He checked the envelope and saw there was no return address. He went back to the beginning of the letter and started reading again. Dear Mr. Morrison, Greed killed my daughter. She was my angel and my life, and I refuse to let her go without letting the world know that greed is killing people every day. People need to know that their daughters or their sons could be next.
My research has shown that you’re an experienced journalist who appears to have no real agenda other than telling the story. And that’s why I’ve come to you. I need you to tell my story. My wife and I met during college, married six months after we graduated, and had our first and only child two years after that. Once our daughter reached grammar school age, my wife returned to the workforce. We worked hard, earned decent money, went on vacation once a year, made some improvements to the house, and even managed to put a few dollars toward retirement. We lived in a small Victorian in a nice neighborhood, and other than the mortgage, we were debt-free when our daughter, at the age of twenty-one, was diagnosed with a disease that need not have killed her. For reasons that will become obvious, I will not be providing you with details. My wife and I handled the situation as we had everything else—with purpose and resolve. With the right medications, treatment, and attitude, doctors assured us our daughter would recover.
But an allergic reaction to the medication complicated matters. I know you have children of your own. Have you ever had to watch your child suffer? In the beginning, my daughter was angry with her body for deceiving her. Exhausted and in terrible pain, it wasn’t long before her anger turned to fright, and she began to wonder if she would ever get better. She had no choice but to quit her internship at a large tech company. No more sports or morning runs through the park with her friends. Her joints were swollen. There were many days where the pain was so intense she lay in bed without speaking a word. She couldn’t get to the bathroom without assistance. We all felt helpless.
Once we found the right medication, our hope was renewed, and we were able to breathe again. At least until she experienced her first seizure and reminded us things could always get worse, which they did. On my wife’s way to see our daughter in the hospital, an uninsured driver hit her car head-on. She died instantly. They told me she didn’t suffer. My daughter was prescribed a new drug. She did everything she could to keep me from diving headfirst into a pit of despair after my wife’s tragedy. And it was working, too, until I received a letter from Direct Health Inc. (DHI) stating their refusal to pay for the costly medication that was keeping my daughter from experiencing seizures. They said the drug was experimental.
The doctors immediately stopped administering the medication. To pay for the costly drugs, I sold my house, begged for money on social media, and worked long hours so I could keep my insurance since I still needed what little help it offered. Eventually the money ran out. The hospital, the doctors—everyone involved—watched my daughter’s decline, and they did nothing. Unlike my wife, my daughter didn’t die instantly. She suffered for another year. Have you ever had to watch someone you love slowly deteriorate? The lumps that appeared on her body were painful to the touch, but I couldn’t help her to the bathroom without touching her. She couldn’t walk without feeling as if there were dozens of needles sticking into the bottoms of her feet. The pain was excruciating. She couldn’t move without crying.
Her suffering did not continue for days or weeks, but for months. If you talked to the people who know me best, they would say I am a calm and rational being. But that was then, and this is now. I’m mad as hell. My daughter needlessly suffered and died too young because of greed. Since I have been unable to get the insurance company’s attention, I want you to contact DHI and see that I get an apology and reassurance that all experimental drugs will be covered for all patients henceforth. If, and this is a very important if, I do not see a photocopy of such letter on DHI’s company letterhead signed by the president and chief executive officer, Owen Shepard, on the front page of the Sacramento Tribune on or before Wednesday, October 18, an innocent life will be taken. Sincerely, MAH Something niggled, stopping Ben from tossing the letter in the trash. He thought about his accident. Even ten years ago the hospital bills had been astronomical.
If not for the health benefits he received through his work, he would have been screwed. His wife was a nurse. She had told him many sad stories about patients who were turned away because they didn’t have insurance. Even with insurance, two out of three people were unable to pay their hospital bills. On the off chance someone’s life could be in danger, Ben stood, scooped up the letter, walked across the fading parquet wood floor to his boss’s office, and took a seat in one of two chairs facing Ian Savage’s desk. “Not now. I’m busy.” Ian waved him away without bothering to look up from the pile of papers in front of him. Ben slid the letter under Ian’s bulbous nose, then waited a few seconds until watery gray eyes looked at him over wire-rimmed glasses. “What now?” “Read the first paragraph, and then we’ll talk.
” Ian gave his attention to the letter. A full minute passed before he looked up again. “Just another crackpot.” “I don’t know. I’ve been doing the crime beat for a while now.” Ben pointed at the letter. “He’s threatening to take an innocent life if his demands aren’t met. What if he is serious, and we do nothing?” Ian took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “So, what do you propose?” “I’d like to give Owen Shepard at DHI a call. See what he has to say.
” “Fine.” “And then I’m going to call the police.” “You really think that’s necessary?” “I do.” “Of course, if the person who wrote the letter had threatened a specific group or person, I might be concerned, but his threat is a little vague—don’t you think?” “I’d rather be safe than sorry.” “Okay, fine, fine. Get out of here and get it done.” Ben made a quick exit. After making copies of the letter and envelope, he returned to his desk and picked up the phone.