The second in Essence bestselling author Yolonda Tonette Sanders’s Protective Detective series featuring Troy Evans, this suspenseful novel shows the devastation domestic violence can cause and how sometimes, mistakes of the past cannot be undone.
For over thirty years, Detective Troy Evans has been haunted by the disappearance of Elana Campbell. The younger sister of his best friend, eight-year-old Elana stormed out of the house one August afternoon and that was the last they saw of her…until her body was found several weeks later off the Texan highway in a place known as the Killing Fields.
With no suspects or leads, the Campbells hire private investigator B.K. Ashburn, and Troy heads back to his hometown of Houston to assist with the case. While there, he reluctantly begins to build a relationship with his father, whom he’s spent his entire life hating. Meanwhile, Troy keeps running into dead ends on Elana’s case, except for a gut feeling that Elana’s disappearance all those years ago had to do with a member of her own dysfunctional family.
As Troy and B.K. begin to dig into the pasts of the Campbells’ relatives, they uncover painful secrets that could destroy relationships. And when the culprit is finally revealed, the discovery will leave everyone wondering if perhaps some mysteries should remain unsolved…
Day of Atonement Chapter 1: The Killing Fields Thirty years later—Columbus, Ohio
Detective Troy Evans sat in the basement of his large two-story home enjoying the solitude of a nice, quiet Friday evening. He normally didn’t get many Friday nights to himself thanks to his rambunctious three-and-a-half-year-old son and his six-months’ pregnant wife who, when back pains and stomach cramps kicked in, often reminded him that he was the one responsible for her current condition. They were expecting twins—a responsibility that Troy wasn’t sure he was prepared to handle, though he had wanted more children. Natalie was out Christmas shopping with one of her friends and Nate was staying overnight with his big sister, Corrine, Natalie’s daughter, whom she’d had as a teen. Corrine usually got Nate at least once a month on the weekends. Troy and Natalie often tried to take advantage of those moments by doing something together, but Troy wasn’t mad about things working out differently tonight. He’d gone to the gym, showered, and for several hours now, he’d had the house to himself—nothing but pizza, basketball, and peace.
Kevin Durant was going up for a shot when Elvin’s call came through. “Yes!” Troy screamed as he answered his cell. “What’s up, El? Man, I hope you’re watching the game. Durrant just had a swuh-eet shot in Kobe’s face.” Troy had not really had a favorite team or player since Jordan and the Bulls. He pretty much rooted for any Texas team, the Heat, and now, maybe Oklahoma City Thunder.
“They found her, Troy! After all these years, they found her!” Elvin sounded both frenzied and joyful as he ranted the words repeatedly.
Troy didn’t need to ask questions. There was only one her Elvin could mean. “Elana,” he whispered. The knot in his throat prevented him from speaking any louder and he felt like he had been hypnotized. Though he stared at the screen and saw the crowd going wild, Troy didn’t have any real comprehension of what else had taken place. He was in a trance. He saw, but didn’t see; heard, but couldn’t hear. He cleared his throat, hoping to speak with more force. “How is she?”
“Mama has been waiting so long for this day. We all have.” It was difficult to make out some of his words through his sobs, but Troy heard the last words very clearly. “I have always wondered if we had let her play that stupid game if any of this would have ever happened.”
Those words stung. Troy had always felt the same. For several months after Elana went missing, neither he nor Elvin played the Atari much. It wasn’t until years later when the first Nintendo was released that Troy would consider himself actually becoming a “gamer.” Even then, whenever his baby sister wanted to play, he made allowance for her to do so, fearing she’d get mad, run off, and disappear. Deep down, Troy knew that had it not been the Atari, there would have been something else that he and Elvin were arguing about with Elana. That’s the way things went when they were together. It wasn’t the Atari’s fault. It had been his…theirs. After he and Elvin began playing video games together again, neither talked about what had happened that day. It was a silent understanding; an unspoken guilt that would bond them forever.
The single tear that trickled down the right side of his face surprised Troy and snapped him out of his catatonic state. Crying was not his mode of operation. He put the TV on mute. The noise from the crowd had become irritating. “Is she okay?”
More sobs from Elvin and then a deep breath. “She’s dead.”
Troy’s heart sank. Over the years there had been some hope that Elana could still be alive. Shawn Hornbeck, Elizabeth Smart, Jaycee Dugard. All were kidnapped as children. All had been found alive. Jaycee, abducted at age eleven, had been kept in captivity for eighteen years until a few years ago. Her case was the one that really helped the candle of hope continue burning for Elana in Troy’s heart. The candle that Elvin’s words, “She’s dead,” blew out. “Where was she discovered?” Troy imagined that campers somewhere had stumbled upon her remains or perhaps some kids playing near an abandoned railroad.
“This is where things get crazy. No one found bones. They found her body.”
“Back up, man, you’re not making sense.”
“Elana’s body, fully grown and developed, was found several weeks ago on I-Forty-five between Houston and Galveston. Someone shot her and dumped her there.”
The Killing Fields, Troy thought to himself, recalling the nickname for the stretch of highway where many bodies of young girls had been discovered. “Several weeks ago? Why are you just now telling me?”
“I didn’t know until tonight. I still don’t have all the details because Mama is too worked up. From what I gather, there was a news story about a woman’s body being found with a heart-shaped birthmark and Mama thought there was a possibility it could be Elana. She’d never stopped hoping that one day we’d find her. I think some people, including the police, think she’s been a little psychotic about it because she would always contact them whenever there was a report about a female who might fit Elana’s description. She kept this hunch to herself. She told me that when she actually saw the body and the birthmark, she knew it was Elana, but she didn’t want me or anyone else to think she was crazy so she kept quiet until the DNA results confirmed her suspicions.”
“How is Lilly handling this? How are you?”
“Obviously, Mama’s preference would have been for Elana to be alive. Mine, too, but we have her back and that, in and of itself, is important to both of us.” Elvin’s voice trailed off as he began sniffling. Troy, a nineteen-year police detective, was not used to the mist that continued to form in his own eyes. Crying was not his thing and yet this was the third time this year he had done so! Though all the times seemed warranted, he supposed, together they were more than he could recall doing since being a young child. The first two times happened this past summer when his investigation into several serial killings ventured close to home. Elvin was like family to him, so in a way, Elana’s case hit close to home as well. Maybe that’s why the plethora of emotions he felt inside was followed by tears. “It’s amazing that she has been alive all this time and we never knew.”
“Do they have any suspects?”
“No. After thirty years, we now have more questions than answers.”
With the television still muted, Troy turned to CNN, expecting to see some kind of headline about her discovery. He got angry when he didn’t. “The media better give her story as much attention as they did Etan Patz last spring.”
“The little boy from New York who went missing in the seventies. I think it was seventy-nine to be exact, but he was the first missing child to appear on a milk carton. Last spring they arrested some dude who admitted killing Etan as a teen.”
“Oh, yeah, I vaguely remember that. Man, I doubt the media will care much about Elana. They’re still talking about the election results.”
“I’m sure they’ll keep talking until next year after the inauguration.” Last month’s presidential race between Obama and Romney had gotten pretty fierce. Though neither claimed to be strictly Republican nor Democrat, Troy and Elvin had found themselves on opposite ends of an intense debate about the two candidates. Obviously, their friendship remained intact, but both adamantly voted for different people for reasons they could not get the other to understand.
“Even if Elana’s story doesn’t go national, maybe it will generate some attention in Houston. No one ever put her face on a milk carton. Instead, the assumption was that she ran away like that’s normal for an eight-year-old. Elana would have never done that.”
The older Troy got, the more he wondered if Elana’s disappearance was connected with that of other young girls who went missing before and after her. Many of their bodies were also discovered along I-45 between Houston and Galveston. He’d never shared this thought with Elvin, until now.
“I’m sure that’s one possibility, but as far as I know those girls all died pretty soon after their disappearances. Elana was kept alive until recently. Mama is convinced that someone in our family could be responsible. Besides Bill, she doesn’t want to talk to anyone else about the case until we find answers.”
Bill was Lilly’s older brother. The two of them had always been close as far as Troy could remember. Bill also seemed to be Elvin’s and Elana’s favorite uncle, filling in as surrogate since their real father was not around and their stepfathers did not need to be. Elana seemed closer to Bill than Elvin since she used to go with him more. The funniest thing Troy could remember about Bill was his use of big words, which were made even more complicated to understand because he stuttered. It wasn’t until Troy’s vocabulary began expanding thanks to high school literacy classes that he learned that Bill had actually been mispronouncing a lot of the words he used. That made memories of him even funnier. Bill spent a lot of time with Lilly during those early years after Elana went missing. From the sounds of it, he was there for her now, too.
“I feel bad thinking that someone close to us may have been involved,” Elvin continued, “but as dysfunctional as my family is, it wouldn’t surprise me if one of them knows something. The more Mama shares her thoughts, the more they make sense. You know how Elana was. If a stranger had tried to abduct her, she would have been cutting up so much that someone would have heard something and I’m sure her kidnapper would have given up. We think someone enticed her to go with them willingly and it had to be someone she knew.”
“Have you guys shared any of this with the police?”
“Mama has. As far as we know, no one in our family was ever considered a suspect back then and there is even less information to go on now. If I were to suspect anyone, it would be Herbert because he stayed gone for days after Elana disappeared and then he and Mama split up a few months later. I don’t think Elana would have gone anywhere with him though. She didn’t like him.”
Troy wasn’t so sure that Herbert should be ruled out just yet, especially as he began thinking about how quickly he left Miss Lilly after everything had taken place.
“I get the impression from Mama that the police are sticking with the initial conclusion. The cops are still going to look into things, but Jeff has hooked us up with a private investigator.”
“Your stepfather, Jeff?”
“Technically my ex-stepfather, but yes, him. Believe it or not, he’s been a godsend throughout this entire ordeal. He and Mama may have had their issues, but he always looked out for Elana and me even after they divorced. When Elana disappeared, he pulled every string he had on the department to try and find her. Jeff’s retired now and has a buddy who works as a private investigator. He talked to the guy about taking Elana’s case. I told Mama not to tell anyone that we’re hiring a P.I., not even Bill, because he has a tendency to talk too much and if someone in our family is involved, I don’t want them to know the steps we are taking to find out what happened. I’m not knocking the police, but I don’t feel comfortable solely leaving everything up to them for fear that Elana’s case won’t be a priority since there is not much to go on.”
As a homicide detective, Troy believed that every murder was a priority, despite the lifestyle of the victim. He also understood Elvin’s concern. “Man, if y’all need help paying for the investigator, let me know.” Troy was aware that Elvin made a pretty decent salary as a graphic designer and his wife, Nikki, had her own catering business, but he also felt responsible for what had happened to Elana. Maybe, subconsciously, that’s why he became a cop. What better way to atone for his past guilt than to do good deeds in the future? And a good cop he was. No one could argue about Troy’s dedication to his field, but the mysterious disappearance of Elana was something that solving a hundred cases would not let him forget. If he could assist with finding answers, he would do so, no matter the cost.
“I do need you, man, but not your money. I need you to help us find closure. You guys are still going to Houston for Christmas, right?”
“Yep. That’s the plan.”
“Good. Mama is planning a service for Elana on Christmas Eve and it would mean a lot to us if you would come.”
“You don’t even have to ask, I’m there.”
“There’s something else.” Elvin paused for a moment as if trying to consider his words carefully. “Will you help look into Elana’s disappearance while you’re here?”
“I don’t have jurisdiction in Texas.”
“I know that.” Elvin responded as if his intelligence had been insulted. “I was hoping you would meet and work with the investigator. I’m sure he’ll want to at least interview you.”
“Sure.” Troy wasn’t sure how helpful he would be seeing how he was only eleven at the time. He had played that day repeatedly in his head and there was nothing he could remember that would provide answers to Elana’s disappearance. But, he knew how important his cooperation would be to Elvin and Lilly. Plus, he owed it to Elana.
“I’m not accusing anyone in particular in my family. Until we have answers, I don’t know who to trust. I need you, man.”
“I’m assuming that since most of your family will be there for the service and the holidays, you want me to see what information I can glean from them.” Troy picked up on where his friend was headed.
“You can read people better than anyone else I know. You know as well as I do that there are some shady characters in my family. If Elana’s abductor is among us, you can help find him.”
Troy wondered if the kidnapper and murderer were one and the same. Was it possible that someone abducted her and later released her or she ran away? There were so many questions and little to no answers.
“I know my sister did not run away from home. Somebody took her and if you can at least help figure out the first part of the puzzle, maybe the other pieces will fall into place.”
Troy agreed that finding Elana’s kidnapper was crucial to solving the overall mystery of her disappearance and subsequent murder. Unfortunately, it would also be the hardest thing to do as the person or persons involved hadn’t left a single clue.
Yolonda Tonette Sanders took a leap of faith by resigning from her job with the State of Ohio to focus more on writing. It was a leap that she has never regretted, as several of her novels have been published, including Soul Matters, Secrets of a Sinner, and In Times of Trouble. All of her books have appeared on Essence’s bestseller list. Currently, Yolonda resides in Columbus, Ohio, and is the loving wife of David, proud mother of Tre and Tia, and joyful caregiver of her mother, Wilene.