As Tyler pulled into the diner, Rowan hurried out to greet him, still wearing her apron. She pulled it off just before opening the passenger door to the unmarked vehicle he had driven from the station.
“Thanks for coming by to pick me up.” She tossed her apron and her bag onto the floorboard and slid into the seat.
“No problem. You know, if you had let me take you to lunch, we could already be on our way.”
“I know. But my aunt really needed me. She’s not happy that I’ve been spending so much time at Tolivar’s, but she understands my interest in the case. Anyway, I thought I better put in as much time as I could. I probably smell of cheese,” she said, looking into the vanity mirror.
“No, you smell fine. I just hope that this plain-clothes aspect works. Maybe we’ll look like an average couple to them. Do I look nonthreatening to you?” He glanced in the rearview as she giggled.
“Yeah, close enough. But this car isn’t fooling anyone. I think you took the unmarked aspect a little too seriously.” She gave a soft laugh as he drove away from the diner. “I think the kids will know it reeks of cop. They are a lot smarter than we give them credit for.”
“They didn’t mind it before when they went to buy shoes,” he said. “But you’re right. They probably know better.” The solid black car was plain enough to look normal compared to his truck, which was decked out in lights and emblems. He hated driving it, but it was perfect when he didn’t want to be noticed.
As he turned out on the road, Rowan eased back in her seat. “They are both so smart. I know they think being quiet makes them safer, but I hope today they will see that we’re only trying to help them. I just want to get something, you know? It’s driving me crazy that they haven’t said a word in weeks.”
Tyler agreed. “Yeah, well, we don’t know what they’ve been through. Who knows what they were threatened with? Think of how long some abused children keep secrets, some all the way into their adulthood. Maybe that’s why they keep knowing Jessica from us. You can never tell what’s going on in someone’s mind.”
Rowan groaned. “She knew her mother. There’s no question about that. And I guess I’m still a little bitter that she wouldn’t just admit it again. But I think it’s the boy who manipulates her the most. I truly believe if you give her some time away from him, like some real time, not just minutes, she will talk. But who knows? She listens to him, even when he’s not there, knowing he’ll be mad at her.”
The two children certainly had a close relationship, but survival would do that to you. They were all they had in the world. The only thing familiar. “But that’s what I mean. Maybe it’s whoever dumped her off that she’s listening to. Maybe she’s afraid that some harm would come to her mother if she talks.”
Rowan sighed and turned to meet his eyes. “God, I hope that’s true.”
“Me too,” said Tyler, knowing what Rowan was thinking. “If it’s true, that would mean that Jessica is still alive.”
She gave a nod and let go of an anxious breath. “That would be a miracle, for sure. It’s more than I could have ever hoped for.”
“Any of us,” he said in an agreeable tone.
“I’m just so nervous, and I don’t know why.” She shifted in her seat and let out a heavy breath.
He reached over and took her hand to give her some reassurance. “I have a feeling that we’re going to make breakthroughs today. These guys are supposed to be good at getting through to kids. They know how to talk to them. They are bound to get something.”
Rowan’s brow lifted. “Yeah? You think so?” She gripped his hand a bit tighter and patted it before pulling hers away to dig in her handbag.
“Yeah. At least, I hope so. I just hope it’s not another waste of time like the other day. One tiny thing could be all it takes to crack this wide open. We’re so close but so far away.” He turned his attention back to the road and continued down the street to Ms. Opal’s, where she was waiting for him to arrive before loading the children.
Tyler got out and greeted the woman, who opened the door when he parked. “Are you all ready to go?” he asked.
“Yes, we are.” She let out a breath as if getting the children ready had been a chore. “I tell you, it’s a fine day for an outing,” she said as she ushered the kids out of the front door.
They came out holding hands, both quiet and alert, as they walked to the van.
“Yes, ma’am, it sure is.” Tyler smiled at the kids, and while Ava gave a shy grin and looked away, her brother glared at him with a hard expression.
Tyler could tell that Xavier didn’t like him, and it didn’t matter what clothes he was wearing. He had already made up his mind.
“Come on, now,” said Ms. Opal. “Let’s get loaded up. I’ll take you by the bakery as promised, and you can help me pick out a nice big cake for dessert tonight.”
“That sounds good,” said Tyler, giving the kids a wide-eyed look.
Neither showed much enthusiasm, but Tyler continued. “You’re going to make me hungry. So, I apologize in advance if my stomach growls through this meeting.”
Ms. Opal giggled as she put the kids in the car. “I’ll make sure and send you a piece. No one goes hungry on my watch.” She walked around the van.
Tyler laughed. “Careful, I’ll hold you to it.”
Once the kids were safely seatbelted in and Ms. Opal was behind the wheel, she gave the go-ahead.
He returned to the car, looking around to see if there was anyone suspicious nearby. Not seeing anything, he got in the car and followed the woman onto the street.
Traffic was busy throughout town that time of day, with everyone trying to get back to work. When they finally arrived at the building across town, which housed several agencies, he let out a chuckle.
“What’s so funny?” asked Rowan as he pulled into the crowded lot.
“I was just thinking. This is the place they felt was less threatening?” The building had all the charms of a prison. The gray brick looked cold and sterile.
“Ms. Opal said they have a really cozy room for the kids. So, I’m assuming it gets better.”
“Right,” he said. He drove around the lot and hoped that he could find two parking spaces next to each other. But the lot was so packed that he decided to sit and wait for Ms. Opal to find a spot.
She found a place to park rather quickly, but Tyler had to make a loop. He hoped to find someone leaving. But before he could make it around, a car pulled out and made him wait.
“Call her and tell her to sit in the car,” he said, glancing back at the van. “I’ll park here, and we’ll walk over to help them in.”
As Rowan got on the phone, Tyler glanced over at Ms. Opal in the other aisle and could see that there was a car stopped behind her. He wasn’t sure if it was someone hoping she was leaving, but there was something strangely familiar about the car.
“Don’t get out,” said Rowan. “Tyler said he’d come over, and we’ll walk in together.”
Tyler watched as the doors opened on the car. When the passenger got out, he was a tall man in a dark suit with sunglasses who very much resembled one of the men who had been lurking around the diner. It sent his adrenaline pumping.
This was really happening, and it was up to him to stop it.
Once it was clear the man was approaching the van, Tyler jumped out, taking his gun from his holster. “Stay here!” he barked at Rowan.
“What’s going on?” she asked, still on the phone. Her voice faded as he walked around the car.
He spotted Ms. Opal, who had gotten out of the car, but thankfully, the kids were nowhere in sight. He could only hope that she had told them to get down on the floorboards, but she wasn’t going to sit by and wait to see what happened. No, she was going to confront the man head on.
“Can I help you?” she said as Tyler crept into position a couple of cars away.
“Where are the kids?” he said, making it clear what he had come for. “Give them to us, and no one will get hurt.”
“Over my dead body,” she said, tempting the man. Tyler had a feeling that was exactly what they were thinking.
The man struck her, and Tyler rushed in, positioning himself behind a car just several feet away. He wasn’t going to let anything happen to her, especially when the man raised his gun and began to threaten her life.
Tyler moved in, saw his target was clear, and fired, taking the man down as Ms. Opal ducked for cover, practically jumping back inside the van when the gun went off.
“Stay down,” he screamed to her, knowing that the man wasn’t alone. Two more came from the car and quickly approached with guns drawn. Tyler couldn’t tell if he had killed the other man or not, but he had other problems.
As he crouched down, he heard footsteps and glanced over to see Rowan was on her way to the van. Leave it to her to be the type of woman who ran in the direction of gunfire. Tyler knew she was going for the kids, but she wasn’t the only one.
One of the men had already opened the van’s sliding back door on the opposite side of the vehicle from him and Ms. Opal, but Ms. Opal was one step ahead. She had the girl and was hurrying away to meet Rowan.
The man who had the little boy was getting more than he bargained for. Xavier was kicking and screaming. He clawed at the man, who screamed and yelled at him to settle down. But finally, the man screamed out in pain. “Motherfucker!”
Tyler glanced over to see the boy with his teeth latched onto the man’s hand. And before the guy knew what was happening, he had dropped Xavier, who quickly ran away. The man went after him.
Tyler wanted to react but knew there was still one more. He moved around quietly, trying to position himself, but it was too late. The third one doubled back and Tyler turned around just in time to see him strike Rowan. The man took the girl from her limp hands as she went down just feet from the unmarked car.
“No!” Tyler said through gritted teeth as she hit the pavement. The man ran with the girl screaming in his arms toward his car. He called out to the other man who had gone after the boy and told him it was time to go.
Tyler hurried after him, hoping to stop him from taking Ava, and was ready to take him down. But it was no use. Tyler couldn’t get a clear shot as the man was using little Ava as a shield. It was far too risky to make the shot. Tyler had no choice but to watch as the man got behind the wheel, still clutching the girl.
Ava was crying and screaming out for her brother. Her little hands grasped at nothing but air, as if she could reach him.
“Find the boy,” someone shouted from behind. Tyler turned to look, but he realized he wasn’t alone. The other man was there with the gun, and it was pointed directly at him.
“Are you Officer Harper?” he asked.
Tyler knew that wasn’t a good sign. These men knew him by name. “Who wants to know?”
The man lifted one shoulder casually. “I’ll take that as a yes.” He pulled the trigger.
Tyler tried to duck behind the van, but it was too late. The bullet struck him in the shoulder, and the force was enough to knock the wind out of him. He fell to the pavement in searing pain, with only one hope—that Rowan and the others would be safe.