By: Kendra Elliot

The probability of abduction was growing by the hour.

With these facts in hand, it’d been Ava’s decision to request that headquarters activate the CARD team. They’d agreed with her assessment and put the wheels in motion. Six special agents with unique skills to solve child abductions were on their way to Portland from various FBI offices in the western half of the US.

To the FBI, there was no such thing as over-responding when a child vanished. Whether the child had wandered off or been abducted, they didn’t wait to act. Waiting cost lives. The FBI reacted as if the worst-case scenario had happened. Ninety percent of the Portland office’s special agents were clearing their schedules for the next forty-eight hours to have more feet on the ground for the search. The lines between the official divisions in the office were gone; today, every agent belonged to VCMO, Violent Crimes and Major Offenders. It didn’t matter if an agent was assigned to terrorism, white-collar crime, cybercrime, or art theft. Today everyone was looking for a child.

There’d be tons of grunt work. Interviews of every resident in the neighborhood and each adult at the school. Interviews of children. Leads from citizens to follow. Miles of square footage to search. Surveillance tapes to review. And that was just the beginning.

Ben tipped the eight-by-ten photo in his hand so that Ava could see it. Brown-eyed, blond-haired Henley Fairbanks smiled at her from a school photo. She was missing an upper front tooth. Ava’s heart contracted.

“Any fights with her parents or bad times at school to make her hide or run away?” Ava questioned, even though she knew it’d already been asked a dozen times.

Ben shook his head. “Nothing has indicated that she’s a runner.”

“Where do you want me?” Ava asked Ben.

He frowned as he studied her for a second. “Stay close. I’m going to have you talk to the mothers in a moment. Sanford has been speaking with both of them, but their body language is screaming that they don’t like him.”

Smart women. Sanford was a great agent, but he couldn’t establish a rapport with a woman to save his ass. What he believed he projected as kindness came across as condescension. Ava was surprised Ben had let him talk to the women at all.

“He was the first one here,” Ben said quietly as if reading her mind. “I knew you were on the way, so I let it run for a while. I think you might relate better to them.” He glanced at his phone’s screen and his face lit up at a new text. “There’s a church several blocks away that’s agreed to let us use their conference wing for our command center. Sounds like it’ll be perfect. I’ll assign Sanford to help set that up. He’s had the training for crisis-management coordination.”

“He’s not going to just walk away from the interviews,” Ava muttered.

“Wells is taking notes.” Ben dipped his head toward the lean special agent sitting next to Sanford. “He’s been listening in for the whole interview. He can get you up to speed.”

Ava nodded. Zander Wells was one of those quiet agents who drank in information and facts like he was dying of thirst. His memory and assessment skills were out of this world. He could probably repeat the whole interview verbatim without looking at his notes.

Ava agreed that Sanford’s organizational talents were better utilized setting up the command center. Within hours the church’s wing would explode from a simple space into a high-tech computer lab. Locating the center close to the victim’s homes and school was ideal since Henley had vanished nearby.

Or so they suspected.

Don’t assume anything.

Ava studied the two moms. She knew the brunette was Henley’s stepmom and the blonde was the birth mom. Both women looked like typical upper-middle-class moms in their thirties. Yoga pants, ponytails, and probably a minivan in the garage. Ben was right about their reactions to Sanford. The blonde scowled at him, and the brunette sat so straight she appeared to have a spine of steel.

Will they like me any better?

A silly female part of her wanted the women to like her, not simply trust her in her role as an agent. For some reason she struggled to form female friendships. She had lots of male friends, but women usually kept their distance. Her fellow female agents respected her and treated her well but never invited her out for drinks. Her blunt-spoken sister had said it was because she was no fun. According to Jayne, she was straitlaced, all about business, and impossible to get loosened up.

Nothing wrong with that.

The mothers were around Ava’s age, but they’d both experienced marriage and children. They’d traveled a path that hadn’t presented itself in Ava’s life. From day one, her path had law enforcement scribbled all over it. In grade school that had meant reading every mystery she could find, like Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew. Later on, that fascination had extended to true-crime novels and a hands-on teen Explorer program at her local police department. College had brought an FBI-as-goal-driven degree. The marriage and children part had never cropped up.

“Sanford.” Ben stepped up to the table. “I’m gonna need you to get in touch with Morales about setting up the command center. I want you as one of the crisis-management coordinators.”

Sanford looked at the ASAC in surprise and blinked. “But . . .” He didn’t finish as he saw the determination in Ben’s face. Agents didn’t question orders. They went where directed. Sanford glanced behind Ben and saw Ava waiting. Comprehension crossed his face.

Ava could read his thoughts. Oh, sure. This needs a woman’s touch.

He’d assume he was being bumped because he wasn’t female, but Ava knew the issue was his manner, not what hung between his legs.

Sanford looked to Wells and then back at Ben. “Is Wells—”

“I want Wells to stay with his notes and bring Agent McLane up to speed.”

Sanford excused himself to the women, stood, and pushed in his chair. He pulled out his cell phone as he silently left the room, not giving Ava another glance.

Ava hoped setting up the command center would heal his ego. That was a big project to manage. She pulled out Sanford’s chair and slid into the warm spot. “I’m Special Agent McLane,” she said to the two women, meeting each of their curious gazes. “I’m one of the Crimes Against Children coordinators.” She spoke in a calm, low voice. Her sister Jayne called it Ava’s I-know-what-I’m-doing voice and claimed it made the listener instantly confident in her. Ava didn’t do anything special. It was her everyday voice, and it’d bugged her as a teen that she had a lower timbre to her voice than the other girls. The women introduced themselves, and Ava asked Wells to catch her up as she pulled out her notebook. “Let me know if something doesn’t sound right to you two, okay?” she asked the women, looking one and then the other directly in the eye. The women nodded in unison.