Strings of Fate
CHRIS STRUGGLED, still caught in the grip of the nightmare. Her breath, raspy and quick with panic, hitched on a small sob, and it was several seconds before she calmed down enough to realize that she was not eight years old, but thirty-four, safe in her small bedroom. Collapsing backward on her bed, she eased her arms out from under the quilt, shivering as goose bumps rose on her sweaty flesh. Chris wished she’d remembered to turn on the heater before she’d stumbled into bed last night; cold invited the nightmare, which grew progressively stranger and more terrifying as the years rolled by.
She glanced over at the small digital clock on her desk: six a.m. Sighing, she rubbed two fingers over one eyebrow. The array of computers that lined her desk hummed, their screens dark but waiting. Above them, she’d secured cork tiles to the entire wall, covering them in pictures of missing persons, with maps and network diagrams connecting people together. She reserved a small space in the top right side of the wall for her successes. She could barely see it in the dim light from the streetlamps filtering in from her windows. There were six faces pinned there, five girls and one boy. These were the ones she’d found. She whispered their names in her head, trying to shake off the lingering effects of the nightmare: Laura Wellman, Patricia Cuba, Amy Gamez, Moji Abiola, Tammy Jones, Kurt Thomas.
It helped some, but it also made her anxious, anxious to check on her current missing children. There were always more it seemed. She’d searched for hundreds . . . hundreds of children, and had only found those six alive. Tavey had directly helped find five more, with her search-and-rescue dogs, though two of them had been bodies; and Raquel had hunted down dozens of child predators, so who knew how many she’d saved?
Chris swept her ancient quilt aside and stood, stretching automatically. Even though she worked as a yoga instructor, her shoulders and back were constantly tense from sitting at her desk in front of the computers.
As if compelled, she padded across the room and wiggled the mouse that controlled the two large flat-screens in the center of her desk. They came to life with a snap of static electricity. Filaments of her hair, which was thick and slightly curly, rose toward them. She sat on the edge of her chair, thinking that she’d just check really quickly and then make some coffee. She’d started a facial recognition search yesterday afternoon looking for matches to the pornographic image of a little girl that she’d schemed out of a creeper in a chatroom. She’d noted the handle he’d used and reported him to Raquel, but her real interest was in finding the girl—who was clearly being abused.
Her other “actives” were the searches for two missing girls in the Atlanta area. She’d traced what she thought were references to them back to a man named Martin Hays, but the links were tenuous at best. She couldn’t prove he was the man who had posted messages about the “sweet things” he’d enjoyed—at least she couldn’t prove it legally. She was also looking for clues into the disappearance of a teenage girl named Lobelia Curso; the girl’s mother had sent an email through the website of Tavey’s nonprofit search-and-rescue organization, Once Was Lost.
Chris had considered going into police work like Raquel, but she didn’t have the temperament to take orders, and her interest wasn’t so much in fighting crime. She tended to skirt the law whenever it was more convenient, which was often. When she wasn’t teaching yoga or working on her online profile business crafting made-to-order personas for her clients, she was searching for the missing. She contacted hackers, FBI agents, private investigators, police officers, and other people like her and her friends, people whose passion was to help missing and exploited children. She trolled sites like Craigslist and Backpage, befriending the scum of the earth to find out more about the codes and hidden messages. She’d managed to get her hands on the facial recognition software from a friend who’d worked for a small start-up tech company, and she’d used it to scan the faces of children whose images were being exploited.
Two hours later, she glanced up from her bank of screens and realized that the sun was up and she was running late for church and the Sunday meeting with her friends—she’d done it again, gotten lost in the search, and now she had to rush to shower and dress. She stood and stretched once more, bending from side to side, her gaze on the picture of Summer that hung, front and center, in the middle of her wall of the missing. It was Summer’s second-grade school photo, complete with two crooked front teeth, a tail of long blond hair, and unseeing blue eyes.
Straightening, Chris kissed her pinkie finger and leaned over her desk to touch it to Summer’s face, a ritual that occurred every morning and every night. “Pinkie swear, Summer-girl, I’ll never stop looking.”