Every cop has at least one story about the day the job found them. It's not uncommon. Out on the streets, on duty or off, suddenly an officer sees two guys in baseball caps and sunglasses run out of a bank as if their heels were afire. By pure luck, there's an officer on the scene even before Dispatch takes the call.
With missing-persons cases, though, it's a little different. The people you're looking for, generally, are already dead, out of town, out of state, or in hiding. As a rule, they're not in highly visible places, waiting for you to all but run into them. Ellie Bernhardt, fourteen, was to be the exception that proved the rule.
Yesterday, Ellie's sister had come to see me, all the way to Minneapolis from Bemidji, in northwest Minnesota. Ainsley Carter was 21, maybe 22 at the outside. She was thin and had that tentative, nervous kind of beauty that seems proprietary to blondes, but today, and probably most days, she hadn't chosen to accentuate her looks save for some dark-brown mascara and a little bit of concealer under the eyes that didn't erase the shadow of a poorly-slept night. She wore jeans and a softball shirtthe kind with a white body and colored long sleeves, blue in this case. A plain silver band rode her right hand; a very small diamond solitaire the left.
"I think my sister is probably in town somewhere," she said, when I'd gotten her settled before my desk with a cup of coffee. "She didn't come home from school the day before yesterday."
"You contacted the police in Bemidji?"
"In Thief River Falls," she said. "That's where Ellie still lives, with our dad. My husband and I moved after we got married," she explained. "So yes, they're looking into it. But I think she's here. I think she ran away from home."
"Does she have a suitcase or bag that's missing?"
Ainsley tipped her head to one side, thinking. "No, but her book bag is pretty large, and when I looked through her stuff I thought that some things were missing. Things that she wouldn't take to school, but would want if she were leaving home."
"Well, she had a picture of our mother," Ainsley said. "Mom died about six years ago. Then I got married, and Joe and I moved away, so it's just her and Dad."
It seemed an anecdote was forming out of what had started to be generic background information, so I said nothing and let it unfold.
"Ellie had the usual amount of girlfriends growing up. She was a little shy, but she had friends. But just in the past year or so, I don't know, Dad says they've kind of cooled off," she said. "I think it's just because Ellie has gotten so pretty. All of a sudden, within almost a year, she was tall, and she was developing, and she had such a lovely face. And that same year she was out of grade school and into junior high, and that's a big change. I think maybe the girls felt differently about her, just like the guys did."
"Guys?" I said.
"Since Ellie turned 13 or so, boys have been calling. A lot of them are older boys, Dad says. It worries him."
"Was Ellie seeing someone older, someone your father didn't have a good feeling about?"
"No," Ainsley said. "As far as he knew, she didn't date at all. But I don't have a good feel for her life." She paused. "Dad's nearly 70. He doesn't talk about girl things with us, he never has. So I can't get a good idea from him what Ellie's life is really like. I try to talk to her on the phone, but it's not the same. I don't think she has anyone to confide in."
"Ainsley," I said carefully, "when you talk to Ellie, when you visit the house, do you ever feel something isn't right about her relationship with her father?"
She understood immediately what I was asking. "Oh, God, no," she said, and her tone left me no room to doubt she meant it. She picked up her coffee; her blue eyes on me suggested she was waiting for another question.
Excerpted from The 37th Hour by Jodi Compton Copyright© 2003 by Jodi Compton. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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