I licked my teeth speculatively, tapped a pen against my notepad.
"What I hear you saying is that you worry because she doesn't have any friends or nearby female relatives to talk to. Which is unfortunate, I guess, but what I don't see here is a crisis that caused her to run away. Can you think of anything?"
"I did," Ainsley said more slowly, "talk to her friends. Her classmates, I mean."
"What did they say?"
"They didn't say much. They were kind of embarrassed, and maybe feeling guilty. Ellie's run away, and I'm her sister, and probably they felt like I was there to blame them for not being kinder or more supportive of her."
"They didn't say anything useful?" I prompted.
"Well," she said, "one of the girls said there were some rumors."
"What kind?" I asked.
"That Ellie was sexually active, I guess. I tried to get her to say more, but the other two girls jumped in, and said, 'You know, people just talk. Something like that. I couldn't get anything more out of them."
I nodded. "But you said Ellie didn't date. It seems like there wouldn't be much grounds for those kinds of rumors."
"Dad would let her go to sleepovers." Ainsley lifted her coffee cup, didn't drink. "He thought they were all-girls parties, but sometimes I wonder. You hear things, about what kids are doing at earlier and earlier ages. . . ." Her voice trailed off, leaving the difficult things unsaid.
"Okay," I said. "None of this may be relevant at all to why she ran away."
Ainsley went on with her train of thought. "I wish she could live with us," she said. "I talked to Joe about it, but he says we don't have enough room." She twisted the diamond ring on her hand.
"Why do you think she's in the Twin Cities?"
"She likes it here," Ainsley said simply.
It was a good enough answer. Kids often ran away to the nearest metropolis. Cities seemed to promise a better life.
"Do you have a photo of Ellie I can use?"
"Sure," she said. "I brought you one."
The photo of Ellie did show a lovely girl, her hair a darker blond than her sister's, and her eyes green instead of Ainsley's blue. She had a dusting of kid freckles, and her face was bright but somewhat blank, as is often the case with school photos.
"It's last year's," she said. "Her school says they just took class pictures, and the new one won't be available for a week or so." It was early October.
"Do you have another one that you can use?"
"Me?" she said.
"I have a full caseload right now," I explained. "You, though, are free to look for Ellie full-time. You should keep looking."
"I thought . . ." Ainsley looked a little disillusioned.
"I'm going to do everything I can," I reassured her. "But you're Ellie's best advocate right now. Show her picture to everyone. Motel clerks, homeless people, the priests and ministers who run homeless shelters . . . anyone you think might have seen Ellie. Make color photocopies with a description and hang them up anywhere people will let you. Make this your full-time job."
Ainsley Carter had understood me; she'd left to do what I'd said. But I found Ellie instead, and it was just dumb luck.
At midmorning the day after Ainsley's visit, I'd driven out to a hotel in the outer suburbs. A clerk there had thought she'd seen a man and boy sought in a parental abduction, and I'd been asked to look into it.
I handled all kinds of crimesall sheriff's detectives didbut missing-persons was a kind of subspecialty of my partner's, and along the way, it had become mine, too.
The father and son in question were just packing up their old Ford van as I got there. The boy was about two years older and three inches taller than the one I was looking for. I was curious about why the boy wasn't in school, but they explained they were driving back from a family funeral. I wished them safe driving and went back to the registration desk to thank the clerk for her civic-mindedness.
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