The Children’s Cop

Did Angel run away? Or was she taken?

Detective Lucy Montalvo’s job in the juvenile division of Missing Persons at the Houston Police Departent may not be the easiest job in the world–but what’s more rewarding than reuniting a missing child with her family? Now she’s searching for Angelina Beckett, a young girl with a troubled past. Estranged from her friends and misunderstood by her family, Lucy feels all alone.

That is, until she meets Jackson Davis, Angel’s uncle. They make a good team–but what about when the case is finished? How can she admit to him the things she’s never told anyone about her job? Will he still be able to trust her?

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(copyrighted material)

CHAPTER ONE

Leaves rustled in the wind and moonlight spilled across the lawn as Lucy Montalvo locked her car and started up the sidewalk toward her Houston condo. Every muscle in her body burned, and the dull headache that had been teasing her all afternoon spread across her forehead and settled behind one eye.

A few porch lamps still burned away the late-night shadows and the soft blue flicker of the TV lit a couple of nearby windows, but most of the complex was dark. Usually, Lucy battled a slight loneliness when she came home after her neighbors were asleep, but tonight was different.

She walked slowly, trying to find solace in the near-silence, the autumn breeze that stirred the heavy humid air, and the faint glimmer of starlight overhead. The temperature had dropped a little from its mid-day high, but the humidity had been unbearable all day and ninety degrees of Texas heat still lingered close to the ground.

Lucy had no idea how late it was. She’d lost track of time while holding Maria Avila’s hand and trying to offer comfort. She’d tried for hours to wipe away the memory of little Tomas Avila’s body, discovered by a couple of construction workers earlier that afternoon, but it was a moment she knew she’d never forget. She was just grateful that she’d been able to keep his grieving mother from the sight.

The conversation she’d just had with the grieving mother had left her feeling slow and lethargic, and she’d pushed too hard at her morning workout. She was more than ready for a day off, but she wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of bringing Tomas’s killer to justice.

Much as she loved her career, the constant search for missing children sometimes got to her. Six years after graduating from the Police Academy and hiring on with the Houston Police Department, she still hadn’t learned how to lock her heart away. Even her training as a patrol officer and the years she’d spent in the Domestic Violence Unit hadn’t hardened her.

A few months ago, she could have released some of tonight’s tension and despair over margueritas with the six-pack, a group of friends she’d made during her training in the Academy. For the grueling six months the course lasted, Risa Taylor, Crista Santiago, Abby Carlson, and Mei Ling had been as close to Lucy as sisters. Together with Catherine Tanner, their favorite instructor, they’d formed a bond they’d all believed would never break. Even afterward, they’d remained close friends, getting together at least once a month for lunch, more often when their schedules allowed.

The six-pack would have understood both the grim reality of finding Tomas Avila too late, and the pain of having to carry that news to his mother. Abby and Risa would have known the right things to say. Catherine, now Chief of Police, would have offered her unique brand of wisdom, and Mei and Crista would have done their best to chase away the gloom.

But Lucy had blown it a few months earlier when Risa had been suspected of shooting her partner. Though Risa had been cleared eventually, the friendships had been a casualty. The other members of the six-pack were the last people Lucy could turn to in a crisis.

Battling a huge yawn, Lucy climbed the steps to her front door and slipped the key into the lock. She rotated her shoulders to release some of the tightness there. Melancholy and exhaustion almost got the best of her, but the allure of a hot shower kept her moving.

“Lucy?”

The unexpected sound of a woman’s voice in the shadows behind her brought her around on the balls of her feet. “Yes?”

A figure moved out of the shadows, and Lucy recognized Gwen Small from the unit next door. Gwen had to be at least fifty, but she dressed like someone far younger. Tonight, wearing pink shorts, a white tank top, and sequined flip-flops, she plodded across the lawn as quickly as her short legs could carry her, obviously eager for conversation.

Trying to hide her irritation at the interruption, Lucy moved to the railing so she wouldn’t have to raise her voice. “Hi Gwen. Is something wrong?”

“I’m afraid so. I’ve been watching for you.” Gwen smoothed a hand across her fly-away blond hair and came to rest at the bottom of the steps. “Nathan thought I should warn you before you go inside.”

The Smalls were good people, but both had far too much time on their hands and Nathan took his job as president of the homeowners association way too seriously. Compared to what Lucy had just been through, grass clippings left on the sidewalk and visitor parking violations didn’t even rate mild concern.

Trying to ignore the ache in her head, she tugged the handle of her workout bag higher on her shoulder and smoothed the annoyance out of her voice. “Warn me about what?”

“Nathan and I found water on our kitchen floor this morning. He tried to figure out what was wrong by himself, but he couldn’t, so we had to call a plumber. Apparently, there’s something wrong with the pipes in your unit.”

Even leaking pipes didn’t show up on Lucy’s radar screen. “Okay,” she said, and hoped it would be enough to placate her eager neighbor. “I’ll look into it.”

“I don’t think you understand.” Gwen climbed the first step and leaned against the railing. “The damage is so severe, the plumber thinks you’ve been leaking for quite a while. I’m afraid you won’t be able to stay there until it’s fixed.”

Lucy struggled to follow. “What damage?”

“Below the floors somewhere.” Gwen motioned vaguely toward Lucy’s darkened windows. “He says the supports have been weakened, so it’s not safe to even walk around in there.”

“But that’s impossible! I was there just this morning and everything was fine.”

“Well, that’s the point. If it’s structural damage, you wouldn’t see it, would you?” Gwen fished a business card from her pocket and passed it over. “That’s from the plumber. He comes highly recommended, of course. We try to get the best.”

Lucy glanced at the card, but she couldn’t see well enough in the dark to make out anything it said. This had to be some kind of joke. She’d bought the condo only a year ago. It simply couldn’t be falling apart beneath her feet. But Gwen and Nathan weren’t the kind of neighbors who played practical jokes, and even in the dim glow of her porch light, Lucy could see that Gwen’s expression was unhappy.

And that made her spirits slip even lower. “How does the plumber know the water is coming from my place?”

“We had to let him in, of course. That’s another reason I’ve been watching for you. We had to turn off the water to stop the leaking, and there’s a bit of a mess, I’m afraid.” Gwen squeaked out a high-pitched laugh. “I guess more than a ‘bit.’ He’s torn up the kitchen floor in front of the sink, and the bathroom is completely unusable.”

A protest rose to Lucy’s lips, but she had given them a key for emergencies, and obviously this qualified as one.

“You’re welcome to stay with us,” Gwen went on. “We were a bit flooded this morning, but we don’t have any structural damage to our place. We’re lucky it’s contained to your unit.” She hitched a falling strip and brushed something from the front of her blouse. “Nathan didn’t feel right about giving the go-ahead to start working, but the plumber did say that he could have everything fixed and get you back home in two or three weeks.”

“Two or three weeks?” Lucy’s heart plummeted and the pounding in her head grew even stronger. “You’re kidding, right?”

“I wish I were,” Gwen said with an apologetic smile, “but apparently there’s a lot of work to do. Nathan can explain it all better than I can, and I’m sure you’ll want to talk to the plumber yourself in the morning.”

“You’re right about that.” Still struggling against disbelief, Lucy wheeled back to the door and turned the key. The musty odors of mold and rotten wood rushed out to meet her, and her spirits took another nose-dive. Even she couldn’t deny that something was dreadfully wrong.

As she turned on the light in the kitchen, she could almost see her plans for an early morning meeting with Homicide flying out the window. Even with Gwen’s warning, she wasn’t prepared for the deep hole gouged into the floor, or for the smell that was even worse now. This problem might not rate up there with the tragedy she’d just faced, but it was too big to ignore.

“If I were you,” Gwen said from just inside the front door, “I’d grab a few things now. If this is as bad as they say, there’s no telling when you’ll be able to get back inside.”

Numb with disbelief, Lucy could only nod.

Gwen’s lips curved with understanding. “I’ll head home and get the guest room ready.”

That brought Lucy out of her trance. She shook her head quickly. “Thanks, but I’ll give my parents a call. They just live over in Pearland.”

“Are you sure? It’s awfully late.”

Lucy managed a weak smile. “They’re always after me to visit more, and I don’t want to put you and Nathan to any trouble.”

“Well, all right,” Gwen said uncertainly. “But you know you’re welcome.”

Lucy tore her gaze away from the trail of muddy footprints on her new off-white carpet and tried to shake off the daze. “Thanks, Gwen. I appreciate it, but if I don’t call Mom and Dad, they’ll never let me hear the end of it.” She rubbed her forehead and closed her eyes against the pain. “This is just such a shock. I’m still trying to take it all in.”

“Well, of course you are.” Gwen put a hand on Lucy’s shoulder and gave a gentle squeeze. “I’ll be glad to help you pull a few things together.”

“No. Thanks.” Lucy opened her eyes again. Gwen was a good neighbor, but Lucy had never been comfortable with having people nose through her belongings. Risa had once accused her of having a thing about privacy because she was an only child. Whether or not that was true, Lucy did like to protect her space.

Putting a touch of warmth into her smile, she walked Gwen to the door and urged her outside. “I really appreciate you and Nathan for taking care of this. I’ll get in touch with the plumber in the morning, and I’ll make sure you have my cell phone number and the number at my parents’ house in case you need to reach me.”

“You’ll be careful? I don’t want you getting hurt.”

“I’ll only stay a minute,” Lucy promised.

Though she still looked unconvinced, Gwen gave in and toddled down the steps onto the lawn, and Lucy watched as she cross the lawn and disappeared through her front door. Only then did she turn back to her own condo. So much for a hot shower and a good night’s sleep. It had already been one of the longest days of her life. Obviously it wasn’t over yet.

Two hours later, Lucy parked in front of her parents’ two-story brick house and shut off the ignition of her Eclipse with a sigh. The ibuprofen she’d swallowed with the last of her bottled water on the drive over was finally kicking in, and she was beginning to think she might be able to sleep, after all.

Though it was nearly two o’clock in the morning and her parents were notorious early risers, porch lights blazed a cheerful welcome and Lucy could see her mother’s shadow moving in the upstairs window of Lucy’s childhood bedroom.

Rolling her eyes in fond exasperation, Lucy climbed out of the car and reached into the back seat for the bag she’d packed before leaving home. She’d made her mother promise to leave the bed alone until she arrived, but she wasn’t surprised to see that her mom had ignored her. She just wasn’t sure whether Ellen was making the bed out of concern, or because she didn’t trust Lucy to do it right. Lucy’s mediocre homemaking skills had long been a joke in the family, so it was a good thing her parents were both quick to point out her other talents.

Stifling a yawn, she let herself in through the front door and locked it behind her. The house smelled as it always did, of flowers and the scents of something Ellen had cooked recently. She gave an appreciative sniff, and the shoe-leather sandwich she’d wolfed down at the station rolled over in her stomach.

Leaving her bag near the door, she detoured into her parents’ spacious kitchen and found her dad sitting at the table in front of a bowl of dessert, his attention riveted on a book. At fifty-eight, her father was a vital man with boundless energy and still only a slight paunch above his belt in spite of his love of midnight snacks. In the past few years, strands of gray had started appearing in his hair, and tonight she noticed that the hair at his temples was more silver than brown.

He wore his glasses low on his nose and he created a tent with both hands to shield his eyes from the glare of the light. He was so focused on the pages in front of him, he didn’t even hear her come in.

It was at Doug Montalvo’s knee that Lucy had learned her unbending work ethic and her ability to focus. From her mother, she’d inherited a desire to make the world a better place. Both parents excelled in their own pursuits, and Lucy had grown up determined to make them proud of her.

With a grin, she hurried toward him and pressed a kiss to his receding hairline. “Hey Dad.” She picked up his abandoned spoon and lifted a piece of her mother’s Apple Betty for a better look. “What’s the matter? No good?”

Doug’s head shot up, but it took a moment for him to focus on her and process what she said. Lucy loved watching the recognition dawn and the change of expressions as he went from stern concentration to obvious delight at seeing her.

“Hey-hey! What’s this?” Scowling playfully, he motioned for her to put down the spoon. “Has the world sunk so low that a man can’t turn his back for a second without somebody pilfering his food?”

“I’m not pilfering, and I’d be willing to bet your back’s been turned for longer than a second. I think forgotten food should be fair game.”

“It’s not forgotten. I’m just taking my time, that’s all. Savoring.” He closed his book, moved it out of the way, and patted the chair beside his. “You look tired. Sit down and tell me what you’ve been up to.”

“Besides discovering that my house is falling apart under my feet?” She dropped into the chair and propped her feet on the closest empty one. Now that she was here, the exhaustion and memories came rushing back. “It’s been a very long day.”

“Anything you can talk about?”

There was no question that her father would never betray a confidence, but Lucy had strict personal rules, on top of the usual departmental ones, against discussing her cases—especially with people who weren’t on the force. Besides, she didn’t know how to explain the emotions she’d been struggling with all night. “Thanks,” she said, sliding down in her chair and leaning her head back. “Wish I could, but . . . you know.”

Wearing a smile of approval, her father gave her hand a squeeze. “Have you seen your mother?”

“Just her shadow in the window.” Lucy admitted. “I wish she wouldn’t go to so much trouble. I told her I’d make the bed.”

Her dad laughed. “You know your mother. She’d been hauling things into that room for over an hour already, getting it set up just-so.”

“I brought everything I’ll need.”

“And when has that ever stopped her?”

“Never,” Lucy said around another yawn. “Mom’s going to do what she wants, and I’m too tired to argue with her. I was going to go straight up, but that smelled too good to resist.”

“You haven’t eaten?”

“A piece of horse meat on white bread about two hours ago,” she said with a half-smile. “Don’t tell Mom, though. I don’t want her thinking she has to cook supper.”

“I’m sure we could rustle up some leftovers. There are always some in the fridge.”

A third yawn brought tears to her eyes, so Lucy shook her head. “I’d love some, but I’d probably just fall asleep in my plate. All I really want is a soft bed and a dry floor.”

Her father stood and pulled her to her feet. “Well, you came to the right place. We just happen to have both. How long does the contractor think it will take to make the repairs on your condo?”

“According to Gwen, it will be two or three weeks.” She slid an arm around her dad’s waist and walked with him into the foyer. “Does that sound reasonable to you?”

“I’m not an expert on home repairs,” Doug said with a thoughtful frown, “but it does seem like a long time. What about the cost? Any idea what he’s going to charge you?”

“I won’t know that until I can talk to him.”

“And how are you fixed for money?”

“I’ll be fine. I have a little set aside.”

“Good for you. Financial stability, that’s the key.” Her dad guided her toward the stairs and gave her a gentle push onto the bottom step. “I know you’re busy, and I probably have more spare time than you do. I could make a few calls on Monday if you want me to.”

“Thanks, Dad, but I can take care of it. I just wondered what you thought.”

“Well, then, I think you have a place to stay as long as you need one. Now go say hello to your mother. I’ll bring your bag up in a few minutes.”

Lucy climbed the steps toward her old bedroom, but her legs felt as if someone had strapped weights to them and the muscles in her neck were painfully tight and sore. Tomorrow was only a few short hours away, but maybe, with luck, she’d be able to forget the look on Mrs. Avila’s face long enough to catch some sleep. She wanted to be clear-headed when she met with the Homicide detectives in the morning, and ready to work when they began the search again.

An incessant and annoying buzzing pulled Lucy from a troubling dream far too early the next morning. Moaning in protest, she threw one arm over her eyes and rolled onto her side just as the buzzing finally let up.

The muscles she’d overworked in the gym the day before had grown stiff in the air conditioning that had poured into her childhood bedroom all night. But even in the cold air, her skin felt sticky from the muggy September heat.

When the buzzing began again, she groaned aloud, pushed upright, and began a search for the source of the irritation. She fumbled with the alarm clock beside the bed, accidentally turned on the radio, and spent too long trying to figure out how to turn it off again. Only then did her head clear enough to realize that the noise was coming from the cell phone she’d left on the night stand.

Swearing under her breath, she grabbed the phone and punched a button to answer. “Whoever you are, you’d better have a damn good reason for calling.”

“Good morning, sunshine.”

Even half asleep she recognized Orry Keenan’s voice, and some of her irritation faded. Orry was a good cop and a good friend—one of her favorites in Missing Persons. He’d been with her through much of the horror the previous evening, and she knew he was trying to help by not letting her become maudlin. But he was skating on thin ice.

“Don’t ‘sunshine’ me,” she warned. “I’m not in the mood.” She caught sight of her reflection in the full-length mirror her mother had installed on the back of the door and winced. Even as a teenager she’d hated that mirror. Now, at a week past her thirtieth birthday, she liked it even less.

“What’s the matter?” Orry asked. “Did I wake you?”

“It’s six-thirty on a Sunday morning. What do you think?”

“I think you’ve gotten lazy in your old age. You should be at the gym by now, or at least on the track.”

“Not today.” Turning away from her reflection, she rolled back onto the bed and dragged the pillow with her. “Why are you calling me, anyway?”

“I just wanted to hear your cheerful voice. I can’t start a day without it.”

“Funny, but you’re calling the wrong person.” She tried to find the position she’d been in before the phone rang, but somehow it had disappeared. “What’s the real reason?”

Orry’s voice sobered. “I just wanted to make sure you’re okay. Mrs. Avila was pretty rough on you.”

Lucy didn’t want to think about last night, and she didn’t want anyone—even Orry—to think she couldn’t handle a little adversity. “It’s no big deal,” she insisted. “Mrs. Avila was understandably upset. Anyone would have been under the circumstances.”

“That’s a bit of an understatement, don’t you think?”

“She was devastated,” Lucy said, rolling onto her side. “I had to tell her that her son is dead. What do you expect her to do, thank me?” She threw one arm over her head and wished for a hole to crawl into, away from the memories, away from the world, away even from Orry’s concerns. “Now can I go back to sleep?”

“‘Fraid not, sunshine. We have a problem and Nick thought you might like to know about it.”

“What problem?”

“Nick wants you on a new case that was just phoned in.”

Lucy’s eyes flew open again and she sat bolt upright. “He can’t do that. I’m meeting with Homicide about the Avila case in a couple of hours.”

“Not anymore you’re not.”

“But he can’t do this.”

“He has no choice, Luce. Phil’s out for his mother’s funeral and Marcus is still on his honeymoon. You’re the only one in the unit without an active case.”

“The Avila case is still active,” she argued. “Not to mention the scores of others sitting on my desk waiting for me to get back to them.”

“Yeah, but those cases are old, and Avila is Homicide now. If those guys need something from you, they can call.”

Fully awake now, she paced the length of her bedroom, dodging the pile of clothes she’d left on her floor. “This isn’t right, Orry. Nobody knows this case like I do.”

“So you’ll give Homicide what you’ve got. Happens all the time, Luce. You know that.”

“But I—” Afraid of sounding whiny, she broke off and swallowed what she’d been about to say.

Too late. Orry must have guessed what was coming. “You what, Lucy? You’re emotionally involved in the Avila case? You’re taking it personally?”

She stopped walking and sank onto the foot of her bed. “Of course not. But finding Tomas was my responsibility, and I failed him.”

“You did everything you could,” Orry said, his voice uncharacteristically gentle. “It’s a sad fact of life that we don’t win ’em all. And you know how Nick gets when he suspects one of us is too close to a case. You’re lucky he let you stay on that one as long as he did.”

“For all the good it did.”

“The only way to be of help to the families and the kids is to remain objective. You know that.”

“That might be true,” Lucy said, “but it doesn’t make me feel better.”

“It’s not supposed to. Your feelings aren’t part of the equation. So pull it together and get your tail in here. What should I tell Nick? Fifteen minutes?”

“Give me a break,” she said, sighing with resignation. “I’m not even home.”

“Well congratulations! It’s about damn time you hooked up with somebody. Anybody I know?”

“It’s not like that.”

“So you say. But even a night of hot romance won’t save you this morning. So rise and shine, and kiss your boyfriend good-bye. Just don’t tell him that you’re going to share the details to share with your poor married friends later. He might not appreciate it.”

That was supposed to drag a laugh out of her, but she still couldn’t manage one. She drew up her knees and pressed her forehead against them. She’d become a police officer to help people. To make a difference in the world. She’d chosen to work with children because she was drawn to them for reasons she couldn’t completely understand. Maybe because she was an only child and that sense of isolation she’d felt around friends with siblings had never quite left her.

Whatever it was, the need to help kids was as much a part of her as the color of her eyes, the shade of her skin. And no matter how much she ached for Tomas Avila, no matter how desperately she wanted to catch the person who’d ended his life, she couldn’t flaunt the rules and regulations of the system she’d sworn to uphold. If Nick wanted her on the new case, she’d take it. But she wouldn’t forget about Tomas. Not even Nick could make her do that.

“All right,” she said. “Tell me what you’ve got.”

“We just got the call. Possible missing kid. Female. Fourteen years old.”

“Possibly missing? Nick’s pulling me off Avila and he’s not even sure we have a case?”

“The old man who lives next door called in the report. Patrol officers have talked to him already. He says the mother took off a few days ago and the girl disappeared some time last night.”

Lucy let out a tired laugh and tried again to get her mind to focus. “The sun’s not even up. How does he know she’s not home in bed?”

“He claims she usually comes over to his place on Sunday mornings. She didn’t show up when she was supposed to.”

“Maybe she’s gone somewhere with her mother, or maybe she’s staying with a friend.”

“Neighbor claims she wouldn’t leave without telling him. Apparently she’s alone a lot, but he insists she’s steady and reliable in spite of her home life.”

Determined not to come across as weak, Lucy stood, stretched, and reached for the jeans she’d left in a pool on the floor. “So where am I going? Do you have a name and address?”

“Missing girl is Angelina Beckett,” Orry said. “Close as we can figure, she disappeared sometime after eleven last night. The mother is Patrice, same last name.”

“What about the father?”

“Parents are either divorced or never married. Father never comes around, anyway. Neighbor says the father’s family is from up near Nacogdoches, but he’s never met any of them.”

Lucy had no use for absentee parents, and no patience with them either. She pulled a clean white T-shirt from her bag, tugged socks onto her feet, and looked around for her shoes. “I suppose nobody’s tried to contact him.”

“It’s your case, Luce. Guess you’ll get to do that. The neighbor you want to see is Henry Livingston.” Orry rattled off an address in Channelview, a suburb of Houston near the shipping channel. Lucy made notes on the back of the electric bill she’d stuffed into her bag as she left home and tucked the envelope into her pocket.

While they talked, she ran a brush through her hair and pulled it back with a clip. Lowering her voice to just above a whisper, she headed into the bathroom to splash her face with cold water. “Any reason to think the neighbor isn’t telling the truth?”

“Not from this end. You’ll have to see what you think when you get there. Officers Yamaguchi and Hanson responded to the call.” He rattled off a phone number for them and asked, “What’s your ETA? I’m sure Nick will want to know.”

Ignoring the dark circles under her eyes, she tiptoed back to her bedroom, stole one last glance at her childhood bed with its beckoning sheets, and snagged her favorite jacket from the back of a chair. “Estimated time of arrival one hour if traffic is light and road construction isn’t an issue.”

She’d have to leave a note for her mother, but she knew her parents would understand. She was lucky. Some of her colleagues had to do battle every time they walked out the door—with parents, with spouses, with significant others. Some people just couldn’t understand what drove police officers out of their comfortable beds at a moment’s notice. Lucy barely understood it herself. The job was hard and often thankless, but the need to make a difference in her community was as much a part of her as the air she breathed.

There were times when she longed to settle down and have a family of her own, but she’d seen so many marriages ruined by the job, she wasn’t willing to take the chance. Some spouses could take the hours, the uncertainty, and the danger. Some couldn’t.

Lucy had never even gotten that far with a relationship, and the way things looked, she never would. It would take a stronger, smarter, more secure man than any she’d met so far to welcome a woman with a badge into his life, and someone close to a saint to keep her there.

(copyrighted material)


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