Out of Her Mind – T. R. Ragan

The moment she spotted the little girl, her blood pumped faster through her veins. Even from a distance, she could see similarities to Molly. Fair skinned with a small, upturned nose. The blonde curls framing the girl’s face reflected the last bit of daylight as the sun began its descent. Judging by height, she guessed the child to be nine or ten. She was perfect. And she was alone. Glancing in the rearview mirror, she turned the key in the ignition and merged onto the street. It was 6:00 p.m. on Sunday. Summertime. Dinnertime for many. People might be surprised to know how many kids played alone at the park after school and on weekends. Never in a million years would she have dared let Molly play anywhere other than within the safety of their backyard.

Even then, she always made sure to keep a vigilant eye on the child. Kids disappeared all the time in front of their homes, at bus stops, and right off noisy streets bustling with people. It didn’t matter how many times it happened. Most people didn’t take in their surroundings and pay attention. She’d done her homework, and there were reportedly 115 stranger abduction cases in the United States every year. Most victims were never found. People tended to be complacent. They let kids walk alone, to and from school, without batting an eye. The notion boggled the mind. Two blocks ahead, she pulled to the curb, the tire rubbing against the concrete before she stopped and turned off the engine.

She’d rehearsed so often that it took little thought to get her plan rolling. In two seconds, she’d slipped her left arm, already covered in a fake plaster cast, into the sling hanging from her neck. She grabbed the syringe from the middle console, then climbed out and walked with an exaggerated limp to the back of her SUV, where she opened the compartment. Before setting out for the day, she had folded the rear seats to give herself plenty of room for crutches—just in case the sling didn’t work—boxes, and little girls. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the girl watching her. Perfect. She used her right arm to reach for a couple of boxes and pretended to accidentally drop them, setting her plan in motion just as someone called out the name “Krissy.” Frozen in place, she prayed the little girl wasn’t Krissy. The second time the woman, who was quickly approaching, called the girl’s name, the child stepped out of the shadow of the trees. “I’m over here, Mom.

” Motionless, she released a long sigh. “What are you doing?” the mother asked the girl, her voice shrill. “You gave me and your father a scare.” “You said I could go to the park,” the girl answered. “I told you to be back in forty-five minutes. It’s been an hour and a half since you left the house.” Krissy’s head bowed. “Sorry.” “Tell that to your father. He’s on his way to Beth’s house to see if you went there without asking permission.

Come on,” the mother said with a huff. “We’ll call him in the car.” “I need to help that lady first.” The girl left her mom’s side and came running over to help. She picked up both boxes and handed them over, one at a time. A sparkle in the girl’s pretty blue eyes caused a lump to catch in her throat. “Thank you.” Krissy’s smile revealed a row of small, flawless teeth before she ran back to her mother. She watched the woman usher Krissy away. It took everything she had not to drop to her knees in despair.

The girl was perfect in every way. An idea struck her. She would follow them home and see where Krissy lived. She tossed the boxes inside and shut the compartment door before making her way back to the driver’s seat. Through the rearview mirror she watched mom and daughter climb into a white minivan and pull away. She counted to five before merging onto the street, careful to stay a good distance behind them. A right on Oak Street and a left on Hickory brought them to a blue, two-story home with white trim. The newest house on the block. Her frustration mounted at the thought of returning tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. What would be the point? The mother’s worry had been clear.

For the next few weeks Krissy’s parents would undoubtedly hover over her, not allowing her out of their sight. I can’t wait that long, she thought as she drove past. It had taken months to work up the courage to begin yet another search for the perfect child to fill the gaping hole in her heart after losing Molly. It was time for her daughter to come home, where she belonged. As she approached a stop sign, ready to head home for dinner and try again tomorrow, her heart jumped to her throat when she spotted another young girl, maybe a year or two older than Krissy. The girl was sitting on the bottom step outside a brick building, her nose buried in a book on her lap. One thick braid fell over a slender shoulder. The girl lifted her chin. Their eyes met. Her heart nearly stopped.

She was the one. The girl’s small shoulders slumped forward again, and she went back to reading. Stay calm. Breathe. Stick with the plan. She clicked off the radio and stopped at the stop sign, counted to three, then made a left and pulled to the side of the road. Only a few feet away from the brick building where the little girl was sitting, she shut off the engine and repeated everything she’d practiced: Cast in sling. Syringe in place. Get out of the car. Open the trunk.

Drop the boxes. Grimace and groan. It wasn’t until she bent over that she took note of the apartment building to her left. Not good. Her heart beat faster. Struggling to pick up the box, she gasped when a small hand shot out and grabbed the package for her. She hadn’t seen or heard the girl approach. But here she was, book put away, backpack strapped over her shoulders, helping a stranger. “Oh, my,” she said, feigning surprise. “I didn’t see you there.

Thank you so much.” The girl placed the box inside the back of her car, then eyed the crutches and asked, “Do you need help carrying these someplace?” A car drove by. She swallowed. “You, my dear, are an angel. If you could help me take these to that brick building over there, that would be lovely.” The girl’s eyes widened. “Are these packages for Mr. Brennan?” Her eyes were green, not blue. Her hair was dirty blonde. Not bright yellow like Molly’s, or even Krissy’s, but still shiny and pretty.

She realized the child was waiting for her to answer the question. “Um—why yes, they are! Do you know Mr. Brennan?” “He’s my music teacher.” “Such a small world.” You’re taking too long, she inwardly scolded. Get things rolling. People could be watching. She looked toward the apartment building across the street. With its aged concrete and peeling paint it looked as if it might have been abandoned. “I have one more box,” she told the girl, “but it’s heavier than these.

” She pointed into the compartment where she’d folded the rear seats and had left a box as far away as possible for just this purpose. It was too far to reach without climbing inside. The girl hesitated just the slightest before using her right knee to propel herself upward and inside. Adrenaline pumping, she grabbed the syringe and jabbed the needle into the girl’s thigh. It helped that the child was wearing a summer dress. “Ouch!” She pulled the needle out, dropped it inside her sling, and pretended to swat at an insect as the girl rubbed her leg. “I think it was a wasp!” The girl shook her head and pointed to her sling. “You did something.” “Me? No.” The girl should be unconscious soon.

Inwardly, she counted to five. The girl’s eyelids appeared heavy as she rubbed her thigh. She began to scoot her way out of the car, leaving the box behind. What was happening? Why was the child still awake? She needed to stop her. “What about the box?” she asked. The girl looked confused. She opened her mouth, ready to say something, when her body collapsed and her eyes closed. Finally! She leaned inside, tossed a light-blue blanket over the girl, then shut the compartment door. Another car drove past. She could see its reflection in the window.

She didn’t dare look toward the street. Nothing to see here, she thought as she opened the door and climbed in. Only then did she dare take a breath. Once the engine started, relief seeped into her bones. She turned the radio on before merging onto the street, humming along to the sound of “Take the A Train” by Duke Ellington. Life was good. Her daughter was finally coming home. CHAPTER TWO Sawyer Brooks, crime reporter for the Sacramento Independent, was the first one sitting at the conference room table, waiting for everyone else to arrive. Her boss, Sean Palmer, insisted on regular editorial meetings to make sure his team always met their deadlines and had enough content. At 7:55 a.

m., Cindy arrived. She was the editorial assistant, but everyone called her the Cheerleader. Every group needed one. She’d been working with Palmer for fourteen years. If someone on the team did a standout job, she was the one who made sure they knew they were appreciated. Not everyone in their small group thought she was sincere—just a robot hired to encourage the troops. Whatever. As far as Sawyer was concerned, Cindy’s gratitude was refreshing. David Lutz showed up a minute later.

He was tall with a thick head of blond hair. He liked to wear suits, which made no sense. This wasn’t the ’80s. Nobody wore suits anymore. Even worse, he wore ties with his suits. Like Sawyer, David was a workaholic. Unlike Sawyer, he got handed most of the sensational stories—the breaking news and headliners. He’d been at the job longer, but she had a feeling it was the suit working in his favor. Next to enter the room was Lexi Holmes. Forty-one, Lexi had dark hair, dark eyes, and a dark aura.

A woman of few words in the editorial meetings, but she knew her shit when it came to reporting. She also knew the beat. She was resourceful and naturally inquisitive. Despite all the talent sitting at the table, Sawyer liked to think she had something the others didn’t have—endurance. Give her a story, any story, and she’d do whatever it took to cover it. Sleep was overrated. It was five minutes past eight when Palmer joined them, which was unusual since he was never late. The only reporter missing was Donovan. Palmer sat down at the head of the table and stroked his beard—Cindy’s daily cue to get the show on the road. One thing Sawyer had noticed since her switch from human interest stories to crime reporting a month ago was that there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of real crime worth writing about.

The Sacramento Independent was the sixth-largest newspaper in California, but so far she’d covered mostly drug arrests and assaults. Questioning people about their neighbor getting caught with a gram of meth was getting old quick. Since there wasn’t enough room in the paper to report every minor crime, she prioritized by naming only those who harmed others. That included men who hit their wives, got DUIs, or texted while driving—anything that endangered another. After Cindy finished listing the stories assigned to each reporter, David tossed out three ideas for news stories along with proposed length and deadline. His record, he was fond of saying, was six stories in a single day. Impressive, but old news. Taking advantage of the lull, Sawyer raised a finger and said, “I’d like to do a story on the guy who uses dating apps to scam his victims out of their life savings.” “That’s mine,” David told her. Sawyer looked from Cindy to Palmer, thinking maybe someone would help her out here since David hadn’t included the scammer story when he read off his list of ideas.

No help there. Sawyer let it go and moved on to the number two idea on her list. “What about the man who lived with his wife’s corpse for—” “That story is taken,” Cindy interrupted. Lexi looked bored. “Okay,” Sawyer said. “Why don’t I wait until everyone else is finished?” “Good idea,” David said. Asshole. By the time they were done tossing out concepts for stories that were either accepted or rejected by Palmer, Sawyer was left to cover a story about the man who had robbed a local bank and was caught afterward boasting about it on social media. A big yawn. David stood and buttoned his suit jacket.

“Before any of you go,” Palmer said, “you should know that Donovan was offered a job in New York City and will not be returning to the Sacramento Independent.” “He will be missed,” Cindy said without any emotion. “What about the leads he was working on?” David asked. Palmer lifted a hand. “The Brad Vicente follow-up will go to Sawyer. Cindy will take care of the rest.” Nobody protested. Not a surprise since none of them wanted to deal with Brad Vicente, the rapist whose dick was cut off by a group of vigilantes. From everything she’d read about the guy, he deserved what he’d gotten. A month ago, the media had eaten the guy whole.

But recently the trolls had come forward and were doing a good job causing discord by posting inflammatory messages about the group of women taking the law into their own hands. Palmer’s cell beeped. He picked up the call. David was gone in a flash, followed by Cindy and Lexi. Palmer ended the call and then slid his cell back into an old-school holster attached to his waistband. “Come on,” he said. “Grab your things and let’s go!” Startled, Sawyer looked at Palmer as she gathered her things. “Me?” “Yes. You. Come on!” She’d been working with Palmer for a month now, but this was the first time he’d invited her —make that demanded—that she go somewhere with him.

It took her a second to realize he was serious. She came to her feet and slipped the strap of her bag over her shoulder. She had to jog across the carpeted hallway to catch up to him. “What’s going on?” “Bones.” “Bones?” “A skeleton believed to have belonged to a child was found.” “Where?” “Land Park. East Sac, across the lake from the amphitheater.” “Should I grab my camera?” “No need. Geezer is already on the scene.” He pushed through the double doors leading out of the building and continued on at a clipped pace to his blue Jeep Wrangler Sport parked in the front row.

The vehicle had two doors, a soft top, and was covered with dried mud. Palmer didn’t strike her as the four-wheeling type of guy. Once they were on the road, Palmer said, “Don’t let them push you around.” “Who?” “David . Cindy . they’re testing you. Every time you throw out a story idea, someone takes it as their own, and you allow it to happen.” “I’m the rookie on the team,” she said. “It seems disrespectful to question their authority.” He shook his head.

“They have no power. I’m the boss.” “You didn’t jump in and say anything, so I assumed I was the low guy on the totem pole and that was how things worked in the editorial meetings.” “Never assume.” During the editorial meeting, she’d thought she was being polite by stepping aside, but all she was doing was teaching her coworkers that she could be pushed around. As silence settled around them, she attempted to keep her gaze straight ahead, but a one-byone-inch picture of a little girl taped to the console caught her attention. Palmer glanced her way. “My granddaughter. She’ll be turning thirteen soon.” “Do you see her often?” Gaze on the road ahead, he said, “No.

” “She looks nine or ten in the photo.” “Nine. I haven’t seen her since that picture was taken.” “How come?” The question was out of her mouth before she realized she might be overstepping. “My son and I don’t get along.” The chuckle that followed was low and throaty. “Actually, that’s an understatement. When I saw him, he made it clear that it would be the last time.” Sawyer said nothing. “My son said most of the problems he wrestles with are because I never opened up to him about my own struggles in life.

He said I’ve always expected too much from him and that I’m a judgmental son of a bitch.” She smirked. “I can’t imagine why he would think that about you.” “Touché,” he said with a chuckle. “Enough about me. How are you doing, Sawyer? That’s what I want to know.” “I’m fine.” “You lost both your parents in one fell swoop. That can’t be easy.” “One fell swoop” was putting it mildly, Sawyer thought.

Against both her older sisters’ better judgment, one month ago, Sawyer had returned to her hometown of River Rock for her grandmother’s funeral, only to discover that her father was a pedophile and her mom was his protector, willing to do anything, including kill, to keep their secret safe. When Sawyer had confronted her dad, he’d admitted to his wrongdoings and even offered to turn himself over to authorities. But blind rage at the notion of giving up all they had worked so hard for prompted Sawyer’s mom to swing a fireplace poker at her father’s head, killing him. She would have killed Sawyer too, if her sisters hadn’t shown up. It was Sawyer’s sister Aria who had been forced to shoot their mother in self-defense. In the end, her parents’ deaths had given Sawyer a sense of relief, but she kept that little tidbit to herself. “I imagine most people who lose a loving parent grieve for all the happy memories they shared,” she told Palmer. “But I grieve for what my sisters and I never had.” He nodded. “Makes sense.

My mom died when I was five. Cancer. I also spent more than a few years grieving for what I never had.” Although Palmer was known for being gruff and blunt, he seemed unusually melancholy this morning. Being that she was a curious cat, she couldn’t help but wonder about his personal life. Was he happily married? Did he have more than the one son? Did he like to cook? Random questions rolled through her mind. “What is it you want to know?” he asked. “Me?” “Is there anyone else in the car?” His question had caught her off guard, but it shouldn’t have. One of the things she’d always known about Palmer was that he was abnormally intuitive. “I like to know about the people I work with,” she said.

“That’s all.” He made a left on Twelfth Street. “We’re here.” He found a parking spot, shut off the engine, climbed out, then stuck his head back in the car and said, “I’m divorced. Boy and a girl. Daughter lives in Los Angeles. In my spare time I like to crochet.” “Really?” He was looking right at her, his eyes like lasers. “I don’t crochet,” he said with a shake of his head. “I’m just fucking with you.

Are you coming or not?” Sawyer felt a pang of sympathy for his son. Again, s

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