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Seek and Ye Shall Find 

Chapter 3

He'd been sitting here for hours. Hell, he hadn't left the room all weekend! He pushed an empty pizza box and two empty beer bottles out of the way, rolled off of the bed. A father. He was a dad. Had been for about twenty-eight years now, by his calculations. From what Natalie had told him, Brenda must have called soon after the baby had been born. March of 1975.

He paced back and forth. Went to the window to look out at the parking lot below. Did he have a son or a daughter? Was he a grandfather? Was his child all right? Did he...or she...ever wonder about him...who he was?

"What do I do now, Cookie?" he whispered, pressing his forehead against the cold window pane.

A young family chose that moment to leave the lobby of the hotel. The father holding the hand of a very rambunctious little boy. The mother cradling a baby in her arms. Gary's arms began to ache. An honest to god, physical ache. He rubbed them slightly. His arms had never held his child. Never hugged his child. He hadn't been there...hadn't been given the opportunity to be there! He'd missed so much...he'd missed everything!

The cry of anguish that left his lips was one torn directly from his heart. He dropped to his knees and began to weep. So much lost! Twenty-eight goddamned years! An entire lifetime!

When the last of the body-wrenching sobs had passed, he shifted, put his back to the wall. He wiped his face with his hands. He'd lost the best thing in his life when Cookie had died. This...loss...was every bit as painful.

Snap out of it, airman, he told himself gruffly. What's done is done. You have the information. What are you going to do with it?

He closed his eyes. Did he want to try and find the young man or woman who carried his genes? He examined the question carefully. Hell yes! Okay, did he have a right to go messing around in their life? He...or she...could always tell him to go away. Didn't his child have as much right to know him, as he did to know him...or her? Damned straight!

Okay, think. First things first. Start at the beginning. Find Brenda. And there was one place to begin. He opened up his laptop. Connected to the internet. Began a search. A lot could have changed. He smiled grimly. Luckily for him, this hadn't. He wrote the number down. Glanced at the clock beside the bed. No time like the present.

Trembling fingers punched each number with deliberate care. As if by doing so, the answers he needed...the outcome that he wanted...would be forthcoming, a result of his calculated, restrained movements. His heart was pounding as he listened to the sound that indicated that the phone was ringing.

"Hello?"

It was a female voice. Older...elderly. He took a deep breath. "Yes, may I speak to Mr. or Mrs. Henry Collier, please."

"I'm Mrs. Henry Collier."

"Ma'am, I don't know if you'll remember me...my name is Gary Franklin. I lo...I knew your daughter, when she was in college." The long silence made his heart pound all the harder. He rubbed his chest in an effort to ward off any attempts of it crawling right out from behind his ribs. 

"I remember," the woman finally said, very softly.

"I...do you know where she is?"

Another long silence. "We were so wrong," the woman sighed sadly. "We just wanted the best for her. Our shining star. That's what she was, you know. Just wanted the best for her."

"You knew about the baby?"

"Yes. She came home...once. Didn't stay long. Just a few days. She cried so, wanted to find her. But she couldn't remember. She'd left her on the doorsteps of a church, but she couldn't remember which one. She wanted to go and look for her...but Henry..."

Her. Congratulations, Gary. It's a girl. "Did she remember what town?"

"Tacoma. She went back there...she said she was only going to find her baby, and then come home for good. But she only went back to him."

Him? Him who? "Who did she go back to, Mrs. Collier?"

"The man who made my baby girl a junkie. She was so thin...so sick...when she came home. It took weeks in rehab to clear the drugs from her body. Weeks. And then...then she spent days just crying. Crying for her little baby girl. She said she knew it was a girl, because she'd held her."

Wait a minute. Something wasn't adding up..."She had the baby in the hospital?"

"No. A hotel room. That man...that monster...he...he...I'm sorry, Mr. Franklin, I don't want to talk about this."

Before he could reply, he heard the muffled sounds of another person in the room, it sounded like a woman's voice.

"Who is this?" The voice was tired. Bone tired.

"I'm Gary Franklin. Father of Brenda's child."

"Which one?"

"Excuse me?"

"She had four."

"The first," he said softly.

There was a pause. "Oh, god, I'm so sorry! Please..." the woman took a deep breath. "I guess we always figured that someday we'd hear from you."

"What the hell happened?" He winced as soon as his words hit the air. Getting snappy wouldn't garner him any favor. But his instincts were telling him that something was horribly wrong. And he wanted...needed...to know what was going on. He had to find his little girl...his daughter. Those words banged around in his head so loudly that he realized an instant too late that the woman had said something that he'd missed entirely. "I'm sorry, what did you say?"

"I asked if you were here in Granger."

"No, no. Tacoma."

"I see."

"I just found out. I didn't know. She never told me. She left..." He paused, took a deep breath. "She left, she never told me she was pregnant." He needed this unseen woman to understand - he hadn't deserted Brenda. She had abandoned him.

"I know. She showed up here about the middle of August. She was a mess. She...she said she'd left college, and was going to get a job and an apartment. Raise her baby, she said, and not drag you into it. She didn't want your life 'screwed up', is how she put it. Only it didn't work out that way. She couldn't find work...and...well, she met some guy by the name of Greg Vincent. Drug pusher and pimp. He helped her out...at least until she owed him. Then he pimped her. She said he never let her have any drugs or alcohol while she was pregnant. But he knew men who..." The woman took a deep breath. "Men who liked pregnant women."

His stomach began to roll and burn. His head was throbbing. Brenda...sweet, beautiful Brenda...so shy and quiet and innocent...his free hand curled into a fist. He had a name, and a location. It wouldn't be hard to find the bastard. He'd found people with less!

"He wouldn't take her to a hospital...he...he...Bren said that just before she went into labor, this...she called him Vinnie, anyway, he had some sort of a party. She said there were fifteen men there that night. And every one of them..." Another deep breath. "She thought that was what triggered her labor. This Vinnie cleared out the room. She had the baby there in the hotel. When he went to find a trash bag...he was going to...he didn't want her to...he was going to..." It was clear that the woman couldn't put into words the horrible plans that bastard had had...for his baby! Was that what had Brenda so upset? Was the baby even alive when she left it on the church steps?

Oh, Mary Mother of God, no! No! NO!

"He'd shot her up with heroin before he left. She said she threw up a couple of times. She wrapped the baby in a towel, and the blanket from the hotel bed, and then she left. She didn't know where she was...she said she walked for a bit, and found a church, and figured that God would take care of her baby, so she left it...her...there."

A church. In Tacoma. How many could there be? "Do you..." he stopped, cleared his throat. "Do you know where Brenda is?"

"Yes, Mr. Franklin, I do."

Something in her voice; the quiet, sad way she replied sent his heart plummeting.

"We brought her back here. She's buried next to Daddy."

He ran his hand over his face. Cookie. Brenda. Gone. Lost to him forever. "Did she ever say anything...remember anything?"

"Mr. Franklin, Brenda was in and out of jail and rehab for the next fifteen years. She was a heroin and coke addict. She was..." the soft voice caught on a sob. "She was a prostitute. She had three other children, all of them delivered during the times she was imprisoned. And all three wards of the state. She didn't have a clue who any of the fathers were. From what I understand, the last two, little boys, were born with severe health and mental problems because of her drug abuse."

It was his fault. He'd done this to her. If he'd just sent her home, rather than letting her spend the night with him...she'd have finished college. Been a beautiful wife and mother...his fault...all his fault.

"She called once, not long before...well, before," the woman said. "She told me that if she could go back, and do things over, she'd have told you as soon as she knew she was pregnant. That she realized, in hindsight, and much too late, that you loved her...really loved her."

"Yes, I did," Gary whispered.

"She said that...that she would've had the life she wanted...if she'd just told you. She didn't...she was so afraid you'd be angry...that you'd...that you wouldn't want her any more."

He barely bit back the gasp of pain. "I already had plans to marry her. I was going to give her a ring for Christmas," he whispered. He cleared his throat. "She never said anything else? No one contacted her parents about the baby?"

"I'm sorry I can't help you, Mr. Franklin. You know what we know. Will you...will you look for...um...for your daughter?"

"Until I find her."

"If you do...tell her that Brenda never stopped thinking about her. I think...I think that was what hurt her the most...if she'd been able to keep her baby, and come home...everything would have been okay."

"I'll tell her," he promised. "Thank you, I appreciate your willingness to speak to me."

"Thank you for calling," the woman said softly.

He could almost hear the door closing on that part of her life. As far as she was concerned, it was over. For him, it had just begun. He replaced the receiver gently. Stood slowly, walked into the bathroom. And began to heave, throwing up until his body could expel no more. The tears returned, and he sat there on the floor, and cried for what might have been.

 

A  A  A  A  A  A

 

It took less than fifteen minutes to have a list of all of the churches in Tacoma. He frowned at the screen. What he needed was a list of the churches that had been in existence in 1975. And how many had been located within a few blocks of a seedy motel. No way could Brenda have walked far; not after having a baby, and being shot full of heroin. Those two facts were a testimony to her determination to save her baby's life. He ran a hand over his face. There was one person who could find that information for him. He needed to check in anyway. Hell, he hadn't planned on staying this long. His original plan had been to leave Sunday afternoon. Here it was, Tuesday evening.

He needed to go home, needed to make arrangements for an extended absence. Make certain that all of the projects that his team had undertaken were on schedule. If he had them working while he traveled home, he'd save himself a day at least. Grabbing his cell phone, he punched one. Began to scribble a list of the information he wanted.

"Franklin Enterprises," a female voice said.

"Hey, Charley."

"Hey, Boss. Thought you'd be back by now. Find an old classmate to hang out with for a few days?"

He winced slightly. "Not exactly. Listen closely. I need information on the following people. Brenda Kaye Collier. Deceased. I want to know everything that happened to her after she left the University of Puget Sound in October of 1974. Everything that can be found on one Greg Vincent aka 'Vinnie'. Start with police records in Tacoma for both. I need a list of churches that were open in the Tacoma area in 1975, with a hotel or motel, probably fairly cheap, within a fifteen block radius. The closer, the better. Also, all adoption records for the Tacoma area for '75."

There was a pause. "Anything you need to tell me, boss?"

"I'll fill you and the rest of the team in when I get there. I'll be in the office on Thursday. I want to see the reports for the projects we have going. Oh, and tell Lucky he'll be taking over for awhile."

"Gary? What's wrong?"

He sighed. "We'll talk Thursday, Charley. Have you got it?"

"All of it."

"I want preliminaries on my desk Thursday morning."

"You're the boss."

"Damned straight. Oh, and uh...make arrangements for a basket of flowers. Have it delivered to Fourteen Twenty-Eight North Henderbrant Road, Granger, California."

"Message?"

"No. Just...no...no message."

"Got it."

He flipped the phone closed, dropped it onto the desk. His daughter was out there somewhere. And he wasn't going to stop searching until he found her. He wouldn't sit and dream up happy endings. If he were lucky, he'd get a chance to meet her, talk to her. He'd ask for no more than that. And damned his heart for aching so at the thought.

With a sigh, he called the concierge of the hotel. Requested a flight back to Kansas City for the next morning. Ordered his breakfast, arranged for it to be sent to the room. Then stretched out on the bed. He was exhausted. He needed sleep. Experience had taught him that no matter the project, going in tired or ill-prepared had one result...failure. When he failed, people could get hurt...seriously hurt. He closed his eyes. Could see Brenda's sweet, beautiful face. The big green eyes. Could feel her long blonde hair touching him as they made love. The face changed...became older...deep blue eyes, short and sassy red hair. A smile that always made him feel warm inside. Cookie. In his dreams, he could still hold her...she still held him. Still offered him comfort. In his dreams.

 

A  A  A  A  A  A

 

He was showered, shaved and dressed by the time the waiter brought his breakfast. He'd intentionally focused all thoughts on the current project. When, and only when, the team was ready to proceed would he allow himself to return to his problem. His very personal problem. He'd be honest with Jess and Charley and Dancer and Lucky. They deserved that...he owed them that. But they'd carry on without him...until he had come to a satisfactory conclusion. Or a conclusion. Whichever it happened to be.

The coffee was strong and hot, and did nothing for his quaking stomach. He forced himself to eat the scrambled eggs and toast. It was as light a breakfast as he could have, without skipping the meal altogether. Considering he honestly couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten...had to have been Monday, when he'd ordered the pizza, he knew that eating now was in his own best interest.

A call to the front desk assured that his rental car would be waiting at the curb for him. He grabbed his duffel and laptop case. Glanced around the room. It had become another one of those places seared into his memory. His life had been turned upside down while this room served as his place of refuge. Whether or not the upside down part was a good thing remained to be seen.

 

A  A  A  A  A  A

 

He spent the entire flight going over the details of the project. Even though on the surface it appeared to be a quick 'in-and-out' job, he knew from past experience that there were a hundred different things that could go wrong. Lucky had spent three months on site, getting a feel for the area. Making a few friends. Learning the routine. Dancer had done his thing, making procuring what they'd need look easy. Gary knew it was anything but. He gave a mental chuckle thinking about Dancer. One of his best friends. A man who could sweet talk Arabs into buying sand. Who could get whatever they needed, whenever they needed, delivered to exactly where they needed it. And all on the budget set out for him. Gary had often wondered how many times Dancer had mortgaged his soul for some of the items that had been required for their projects.

He studied the photo. Found that he was no longer objective. The face of the little girl tore at his heart. She was the victim...a pawn in a power game waged by her Lebanese father, to control her English born and raised mother. Lucky had reported that the little girl was treated well...spoiled, actually. For the first time, Gary questioned whether or not they were doing the right thing. Esther Haddad seemed quite happy being with her father. Akil Haddad was a businessman. No illegal activities. No ties to terrorist organizations. Didn't donate a penny to any of the so-called 'fronts' for said terrorists, but did donate heavily to the local Catholic parish.

Gary brought up the file for Kathy Williams Haddad. Secretary. She'd been working at a travel agency when she and Akil met. He wooed her...she'd told him that Akil had 'swept her off her feet'. They were married and lived briefly in England before settling in Italy. Haddad had taken over the operation of a small textile mill. Built it up to become a competitor among the textile producers of the country, putting out quality fabric.

According to Mrs. Haddad, her life had been a good one. Akil insisted that his job as her husband was to take care of her, provide her every need. She was his wife, her job was to take care of him. He'd been overjoyed when she'd become pregnant. Had been a doting husband during her pregnancy, hiring a maid to take care of the house.

He'd been disappointed that his first child wasn't a son, Kathy had reported. But he'd hold the baby. Especially when his mother and sisters were present. He'd moved his entire family and extended family to the small Italian village...all worked in the mill, or the fields of the farms he'd purchased.

Kathy told him that she'd never been accepted by his family. She wasn't Lebanese. And Akil's mother moved into the large villa where the Haddad's lived, and took over. Kathy had been, she said, relegated to nothing more than a servant in her own home. Care of her daughter was undertaken by Akil's youngest sister.

Desperately unhappy...miserable was the word that the woman had used...she'd chosen to leave. Just packed her bags one day and left.

Just like Brenda had done.

He shook himself mentally. He skimmed the pages of the report. He knew he'd asked the question...was certain that he had...there...had she tried talking to her husband? She had, she said. But he'd simply told her that her mother was from the old country, and set in her ways.

Gary searched, couldn't find any other comments on the subject. Had Kathy Haddad told her husband how she was feeling? Had she explained that she'd been the mistress of her home, and that she should continue in that position, even if his mother lived with them and objected? Had she given Akil Haddad a chance to deal with the situation? Was he even aware of how unhappy his wife was?

Another search of the report. He jotted the number down. Had no clue what he was doing...what he was thinking.

No, that was a lie. He knew exactly what he was thinking. Maybe he should just back away. Let Lucky run the operation completely on this one.

There was a lay-over in Denver. He opened his cell phone, not allowing himself time to consider what the consequences could be. Punched in the number before stopping to think of the time difference. Oh well. This was important.

"Ciao?" The voice was male. And sounded half-asleep.

"Parlate inglese?" Gary asked.

"Si...a bit."

"Mr. Haddad, my name is Gary Franklin. I'd like to speak to you about your wife."

"Kathy? Sapete dove Kathy รจ? Eh...you know where Kathy is? She is well, si? She is not hurt? I will kill you with my own hands if you have hurt her!"

The response was not what he'd expected. Or had he? "Yes, sir, I know where she is."

"She left...she ran away...she tells me nothing...just gone." The pain was tangible.

He closed his eyes. Knew exactly what Akil Haddad was feeling. "Mr. Haddad, do you love your wife?"

"Si! Si, naturalmente!"

"Did you know she was unhappy?"

"I knew that she struggled to understand the ways of my mother."

"Mr. Haddad, she told me that she'd been reduced to being a servant in her own home. That the care of her daughter had been taken from her, that she was only allowed to see the child in your presence."

"What? Non credo questo! Why did she not tell me this?"

"I don't know, Mr. Haddad. Maybe she tried to tell you."

"Please, Mr...ah..."

"Franklin."

"Si...Franklin. Mr. Franklin, if you know where my Kathy is, you will tell her come home, si? I miss her. Esther miss her very much. Tell her...tell her that I move Mama to the guest house, if she come home."

"Mr. Haddad, I'm willing to arrange a meeting between you and your wife. But I'm warning you right now, if Kathy returns to you, and you abuse her in anyway, punish her for running away because she was so desperately unhappy, I'll make certain that you never touch her...hurt her, or Esther, again."

"You threaten me, mister?"

"Yes, I do. You see, it's my job to make certain that women like Kathy, and little girls like Esther, are protected from abusive husbands and fathers. I'll talk to Kathy, make the arrangements. You'll meet in a neutral place. And there will be people there who will be able to tell me in a heartbeat if you're sincere or lying. If I am told you're lying, I'll move Kathy to a safe place. I'll make certain that Esther is with her."

There was a pause...for a minute Gary thought they'd been disconnected. "Mr. Franklin, Kathy is my heart. How can I live without my heart? Everyday Esther asks about her mommy. Everyday I tell her that mommy will be home soon. Because I can't tell her the truth. I...I did not know...Kathy said nothing...she...she just pulled away from me."

He could feel the emotion in the man's words. Feel the man's heartbreak, so similar to his own. "I'll get that meeting set up right away. You'll here from me within twenty four hours, you have my word."

"Grazie! Grazie molto! Thank you! You give me much hope...much hope, Mr. Franklin!'

He closed his eyes. "As soon as I speak to Kathy, I'll let you know."

"Grazie!"

"Goodbye, Mr. Haddad."

"Goodbye, Mr. Franklin."

He leaned against the wall where he'd been standing, seeking a bit of privacy. What in the hell had he just done? He dialed Kathy's number. She was staying with family in Dorchester. The voice on the other end was much more awake than Haddad's had been. "Yes, this is Gary Franklin. May I speak to Kathy please?"

It took a few minutes. Apparently she'd been sleeping. "Mr. Franklin? You have her? You have my baby?"

"No, Kathy, not yet. I need to ask you a couple of questions."

"I don't know what else I can tell you."

"Do you still love your husband?"

There was shocked silence. "What?"

"Do you still love your husband? I'm not here to judge, but your answer will dictate what my next move will be."

Again there was a pause. Then the sound of a choked sob. "With all of my heart."

Once again Gary closed his eyes. He could feel the smile that tugged at his lips. "Kathy, if I arrange a meeting between the two of you...somewhere neutral, away from his family, would you consent?"

"Why?"

"If you love him, and he loves you, I think that maybe talking things over would be a better deal than snatching Esther from her home, denying her the right to be with her father...denying yourself the right to be with the man you love," he said softly.

"If you can get Akil there, I'll be there. Just tell me when and where."

For once, everything was going just exactly as he'd hoped. Maybe it was an omen...a sign of things to come. "I'll make those arrangements, and call you as soon as I have a place and time."

"Thank you...thank you," she said again, softly.

"You're welcome. Goodbye, Kathy."

"Goodbye."

The call to board for the last leg of his flight echoed above his head. He was certain that his team would think he'd lost his mind. Hell, he wasn't certain that he hadn't. But it felt...right. This was the right thing to do, he was sure of that much. Feeling better than he had in days, Gary Franklin boarded the plane.

 

A  A  A  A  A  A

 

He dropped his bag and computer onto the couch as soon as he walked through the door. The condo was stark...white walls, just a few essential pieces of furniture. He actually spent very little time here. He'd bought it soon after Cookie had...left him. Unable to stay in the sprawling ranch house that she'd loved so much, where every room, every stick of furniture that she'd picked out screamed of her absence. It had been far too large for him, too empty without her. Without her, there would be no more parties that filled the house with people...with laughing voices and music and good food...no longer would friends be spending the holidays with them. Cookie had been the most generous, gregarious woman he'd ever met. She loved having people around her, loved being the center of attention. His work required that he travel all over the world. Sometimes at a moment's notice. But in between those projects, she made his life one full of laughter and excitement...and happiness. Without her...without her there was no need for the house. So here he was.

There was still beer in the refrigerator. He grabbed one, twisted off the cap and tossed it onto the counter. Took a long pull. It was still early, but he was exhausted. He'd make arrangements for his return flight, book a room and a rental car, and then get some sleep. He had to let his team know what was going on. Charley was a licensed psychologist. She'd be able to tell if Akil Haddad was on the up and up. If he wasn't, she'd let Jess and Dancer and Lucky know, and the project would continue as planned.

He stood in the bedroom, beer in hand, staring out the window at the lights of Kansas City as they twinkled brightly. Where was she? Was she happy? Was she safe? Did she have people in her life who cared for her...loved her? He wiped a hand over his face. Dared to let the thought enter his brain. Would she want to get to know him?

Finishing off the beer, he slowly undressed. Stretched out on the cold bed. One that had never known love. In all the years that Cookie had been gone, he had...indulged...his baser needs twice. But never here. He'd picked up both women at a local club that he'd occasionally stop in for a drink on the way home. He'd made no promises, no whispers of endearment; not that the women were expecting any, nor had they whispered in his ear. He'd just taken them to the car, did the deed, and saw them on their way. Physical release. That's all it had been.

What would his life have been like with Brenda? If she'd told him...he'd have gotten that degree in English Lit. For her...for their baby...their daughter. It wouldn't have been easy. But he'd have done it. Found a job teaching...hell, he had known then as soon as he had his degree in hand, he could have taken his mother's place. She was ready to retire. Kept working to help him as much as she could.

A little house in Ackerman. He'd have taught school, and Brenda could have done whatever she wanted. His mother would have babysat, no doubt about it. Or Brenda could have been a stay-at-home mom. He'd always suspected that deep inside, that's what she wanted...to be a wife and a mother.

That thought prodded him. Was that why she'd fallen apart...tumbled down into that pit of self-destruction? The one thing she'd wanted, and she threw it away? Why? Just what would make her think that telling him that she was pregnant would screw up his life? Make him angry? Or was that just an excuse? Was her unplanned...unwanted...pregnancy an excuse to just give up...to quit trying? To take the easy way out, and then put the blame on him?

He was so damned tired of thinking about it! Tired of all of the thoughts and half-forgotten memories playing through his mind like a tape on repeat...the same images moving through his brain over and over and over again. It meant that there was something there...something he wasn't 'seeing', something that was important.

With a sigh, he tried to focus on the images that moved behind his closed eyelids. There was a clue there. To what? The reason Brenda had left him...left school, without once letting him know about his child?

He carefully examined his memories of their first...their only night together. She'd declared her love for him, whispering it again and again, crying out his name as he took her higher and higher...clinging to him as they danced among the stars together. Afterward, she'd lain in his arms, shivering and smiling and her eyes had been so full of love...of happiness...

He'd called her twice, doing as she requested and calling at prearranged times at the home of one of her friends. She'd sent long love letters, delighting him, entertaining him with her descriptions of life on the farm, the people she knew, even the animals she helped to take care of. She knew he was working long hours on the dock, told him she didn't expect him to respond to each and every letter. He'd sent three...care of general delivery, again as she'd requested. He knew for a fact that she'd received them, she'd told him so.

The day she was to arrive back in Tacoma, he'd met her at the bus stop. He'd been so excited he'd arrived a full hour early, and spent it pacing impatiently. As soon as she'd been close enough, he'd grabbed her and hugged her, swinging her in a circle. She'd smiled...but had immediately pulled away from him.

She'd wanted to go straight to her dorm room. She and Natalie had been roommates beginning in their freshman year. She was just anxious to see her friends, she'd told him. And then, he hadn't seen her for three days. They'd both been busy settling in, and the first days of classes were always a bit hectic as schedules had to be adjusted due to some unforeseen conflict.

The first weekend they had together, she had spent Saturday in the library. On Sunday, she had asked him to take her to...

He sat up. Brenda had never been one to attend church regularly. Her parents were religious fanatics, she'd told him. And declared she'd had enough of religion to last a lifetime.

Which church? What church had she gone to? Think, Franklin, think! He crawled out of bed, began to pace the width of the room. It had been a Catholic church...he thought. She'd chosen it because it was the polar opposite of the Bible-thumping, chandelier-swinging Fundamentalist church in which she'd been raised. He frowned. He'd driven her, waited in the car for her just as she asked him to...his memory tried to pull up every detail of that drive taken twenty-eight and a half years earlier. Were there any motels nearby?

Had she confessed to the priest that day? Had she told him of her sin of fornication, and that she was an unwed mother? Had she been condemned by some narrow-minded old man...one who probably had a penchant for young boys, if the current media reports were correct? He rubbed his hands over his face. It was a place to start. And more than he'd had...he glanced at the clock beside his bed...an hour ago.

Weak with the sudden knowledge that he at least had a place to go, someone to talk to...that all important starting point, he dropped back onto the bed. And dreamed of Brenda, with her long blonde hair and big green eyes.

 

A  A  A  A  A  A

 

He walked into the conference room, looking just as he did every day at work, dark pants and a dress shirt...casual tie slightly askew. Four faces watched him carefully. He sat down, put his hands flat on the table. "There's been a slight change in the Haddad case," he said. 

Lucky leaned forward, folded his arms on the table. A frown pulled his dark-chocolate colored face into a scowl. "What's going on, Boss?"

His studied the man who'd been a best friend for damned near twenty-five years. The man who'd been his second seat, his navigator during their time in the Air Force. Lawrence "Lucky" Johnson. Born and raised in the ghettos of Detroit. A young man determined to break free from the cycle of poverty that kept his family in the tenements. He'd graduated high school, the only one in his family to do so. Worked his way through college with help from the G.I. bill after a stint in the army. Chose the Air Force after spending two years looking for work in his chosen field of communications. A man in whom he could, and had, entrusted his life.

Then there was Dancer. Legally named Robert Lee Radenburg, son of a southern newspaper editor. He'd grown up in the house where his father, and his grandfather, had been born. In the same town where his family had lived for nearly a hundred years. He'd earned his nickname in the Air Force, as a fighter pilot. Because he was able to dance around a subject until he had those he was conversing with so confused they didn't know where they stood, let alone what his thoughts were. He had natural charm that oozed from his tanned skin. Most often he reminded Gary of a used car salesman. Slick and fast-talking. But he was damned loyal, and had his priorities straight. Or at least in line with the others he worked with.

Jessie Hatcher. Son of a Montana rancher. Gary had hired him when he'd started Franklin Enterprises. He'd needed someone who was good with computers. Jess was the best. He could repair them, build them from scrap parts laying around, and could surf the internet and find back doors to any place in the world...had done so many times. And he'd been Special Ops as well. Had worked with a friend of Gary's after he'd retired. For just a second, his attention wandered, and he wondered just what Jack O'Neill, Colonel US Air Force, Retired, was doing these days.

Then there was Charley. Charlene Louise Taylor. She'd been a friend of Cookie's. At first her involvement in the company had been merely as a secretary and receptionist. When Franklin Enterprises had been nothing more than a security consulting firm. The four partners had had to solicit their first contracts; Charley had been a godsend, keeping their spirits up, making those who did call believe that the team was doing them a favor by taking them on. By the time they celebrated the firm's first year in operation, they were turning clients away.

Then Charley's husband, a police lieutenant, was gunned down in what should have been a routine arrest for DUI. She hadn't suspected anything out of the ordinary until she learned who that drunk driver had been. And that the local precinct, the men and women Mike had worked with for fifteen years...had tabled the investigation. It had only taken Gary and his friends a week to uncover a ring of dirty cops and local Mafia connections that went all the way up to the office of the Chief of Police. When copies of the information appeared on the desks of the editors of the two competing newspapers in Kansas City, and those of the program directors of three television stations, the scandal had rocked the city. There had been two attempts on Charley's life, both had ended with the assassins dead, and their bodies returned to those who'd hired them. No one had bothered her since.

Cookie had preferred to remain...uninformed, if not completely ignorant of what Gary and his friends did, once they began taking on the 'special projects'. Oh, they weren't mercenaries, by any stretch of the imagination. They'd all left the Air Force with honorable discharges and more medals and merits than they probably, in their modesty believed, had deserved. But they'd also retired as Special Ops warriors. Men who did the jobs that needed to be done, that no one else wanted to do, and that certainly no one wanted to admit were being done. Skills that made them the best at finding people. Extracting them from places where they never should have been in the first place.

"We need to set up a meeting place. I want Kathy Haddad and Akil Haddad able to meet face to face. It needs to be in a public area, somewhere that'll make it difficult, or impossible, for him to whisk her away. But it also needs to be...small enough, private enough, that Charley can get a take on the guy, make sure he's on the up and up," Gary replied quietly.

"Okay, I give up. Why?" Dancer asked.

"Because she loves him, and he loves her, and if there's a chance to get this family back together, we're going to grab it."

Nervous glances were exchanged. Jess shook his head. "I don't get it. When did all of this happen? And how do you know they still love each other?"

"Because I asked them," Gary answered bluntly.

"Gary, what's going on?" Charley asked quietly.

Okay. Here it was. The moment of truth. He wondered for one brief second if she'd declare him insane and have him locked away. He took a deep breath. "I went to Tacoma for a college class reunion. Seems they have the damned things every year. This year someone managed to get my name and address, and I was mailed an invitation."

"This we know," Lucky said.

"Yeah, well, I ran into..." Another deep breath, as his heart began to pound. "I ran into the roommate of...of the girl I loved very much. The girl I had planned to marry. Until she disappeared."

Dancer frowned. "Disappeared? Kidnapped?"

Gary shook his head. "No. She just...left. Natalie...her roommate, got to the dorm room about ten minutes before I arrived that night. Brenda was just...gone."

"Why?" Charley asked.

"Because she was pregnant. With my baby. Only I didn't know that at the time. I found that out Saturday night."

Stunned silence filled the room.

"You're sure it was yours?" Lucky asked quietly.

"Positive. I was...I was her first...and at that point in time, the only," Gary said softly.

"Wow," Jess muttered.

Charley looked at the folder in front of her. Began putting the pieces together. And slid the report across the table. "The information you asked for."

"Boss, before you look, you should know...it's...it's pretty bad," Jess said, putting a restraining hand on Gary's arm as he reached for the folder.

"I know," he said quietly. "Did you get that list of churches?"

Jess nodded. Slid a second folder to the man who sat at the head of the table. "I highlighted the three that fit all of the criteria."

He opened that folder first. Felt his heart stop when he recognized the name on the second yellow marked line. St. Joseph's Catholic church. It had been a bit rundown, in an area of not so great housing. He remembered that now...could see the sign that sat in front of the old brick building with its stained glass windows and bell tower and grates over the basement windows. And three blocks away had been a motel...closed now, according to this information. That's it, his heart whispered. That's where you start.

"Anything more we can do?" Charley asked.

Gary glanced up, forced a smile. "No. Not right now. Can you handle the Haddad case?"

"Easily," Jess replied. "I'm thinking a small cafe in some equally small town outside of Paris. Somewhere we can keep an eye on both of them, while Charley does her head thing."

"Sounds good. Get everything set up, I want this meeting to take place as soon as possible."

"Will do, Boss."

He closed the folder. "I'm going to take some personal time. I...I have to look. Have to know."

"We understand," Dancer said softly. "If you need anything, you've got the numbers."

The smile he gave was small, but genuine. These people were the only family he had. Except for your daughter, his mind pointed out. He firmly pushed the thought away. Nine times out of ten situations like this didn't end 'happily ever after'. More than likely she wouldn't want him in her life, messing it up...complicating it. But he had to make the effort to find her. To let her know that he'd never have allowed her to be given away, abandoned, had he known about her then. "Thanks. I have a flight out this afternoon."

"We'll have that meeting set up before you leave," Jess promised.

"Good." If he could do this...get this one thing right, then he'd hold it as a talisman during his own search. If he did this good thing, then surely he'd reap some sort of reward for it, right? 


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