The display in his dash says it’s 2:11 PM. Sebastian already has one foot on the pavement and is launching himself out of the car when his seatbelt yanks him back into it.
“God fucking damn it!” he snaps, prompting gasps from several of the parents around him who are shepherding small children to their cars. Sebastian ignores them, because now his shoulder is throbbing and he has lost precious seconds. He fumbles for the buckle and unfastens it, then makes a second, more successful attempt to leap out of his car.
“Mr. Castellanos,” says Ms. Kinney, clutching her clipboard to her chest. “I’m sure it’s just a misunderstanding. Maybe your wife forgot to tell you about Lily’s appointment?” Her round, friendly face holds a hopeful look that matches the note in her voice, and for a split-second, Sebastian wishes he was the sort of person who could be soothed by that kind of talk.
Of course, he isn’t, and he brushes by her, heading for the front door of the school. He is trying to keep his pace measured, trying not to raise the alarm yet, but something is wrong. Today was his day to pick up Lily, and Lily doesn’t have a doctor’s appointment. He would have known if she did, and he is damn sure no one else was supposed to pick her up today. So where the hell is she?
Three steps along the sidewalk he breaks into a run.
“Mr. Castellanos!” Ms. Kinney’s voice rings out behind him. “You can’t leave your car here!”
Sebastian glances over his shoulder to see that she looks utterly distraught, clipboard now tucked under one outstretched arm and wavy blonde hair fanned out all around her face.
“I’ll just be a minute!” He shouts, then turns back and dashes the rest of the way to the front door, dodging around a couple of parents and children to yank it open and make a beeline for the office.
The receptionist- Mrs. Wexler, Sebastian is almost sure- is already holding out the sign-out log to him, which makes sense because she must be the one who told Ms. Kinney that Lily had already been picked up. Sebastian grabs it from her, resting his elbows on the reception desk as he scans it for Lily’s name.
He has to run his eyes down the list twice, and when he does spot Lily’s name, it’s in unfamiliar handwriting. The log shows Lily being signed out at 12:32 PM for a doctor’s appointment by someone named Gabriela Flores.
“Who is this?” snaps Sebastian, pointing to the name. “Who’s Gabriela Flores? Myra, Juanita, and I are the only ones who have authority to pick up Lily.”
“The woman who came to get her said she was Juanita Flores’ sister,” says Mrs. Wexler, her brow creasing in concern.
“And you just took her word for it?” Sebastian shoots back. He can hear the frustration coming through in his voice, but he can’t do anything to stop it.
“No,” says Mrs. Wexler, shaking her head vigorously. “We never take anyone’s word for it. She had a note from your wife.”
“What?” Sebastian says, his voice rising in incredulity at this development. “Where’s the note?”
Mrs. Wexler takes the sign-out log binder out of Sebastian’s hands, though he is reluctant to let go of it, and flips to the back pocket. She pulls out a sheet of paper and hands it to Sebastian.
Sebastian can only stare. The note is unmistakably on Myra’s stationary and in Myra’s handwriting. Please allow Gabriela Flores to pick Lily Castellanos up today at 12:30 for a doctor’s appointment , it reads. Myra’s signature is at the bottom.
“What…?” Sebastian chews the inside of his lip as he stares at the note. How did he not know about this? He didn’t know that Lily’s nanny even had a sister, and he certainly didn’t know about Lily’s appointment. Myra has been complaining lately that he’s not listening to her, and Sebastian is starting to wonder if she has a point.
Even though the note appears to be in order, something about this feels wrong, and that cold, sinking feeling in his gut- the one that started to set in the instant Ms. Kinney said Lily wasn’t here- isn’t going away. He hands the note back to Mrs. Wexler. “Just give a minute,” he says, stepping away from the reception desk and pulling out his phone.
He dials Myra’s department cell phone first. She’s on day shift this month and working now, so she won’t be thrilled to hear from him, and she’ll probably give him a hard time about being a bad listener, but he needs an answer on this right now. The phone rings several times before her voicemail picks up.
“Myra, call me when you get this. I’m at Lily’s school.” Sebastian hangs up, hoping that the message will convey the seriousness of the situation but also not cause Myra to panic in case it turns out that everything really is on the up-and-up here.
He dials Juanita’s number next. “Hey,” he says the second she picks up. “It’s Sebastian. Does your sister have Lily?”
There is a long pause on the other end of the line. Then Juanita says, “I don’t have a sister, Sebastian. I have three brothers.” She pauses again. “What happened to Lily?”
“Shit!” Sebastian blurts out, earning him a severe look from Mrs. Wexler. “Shit,” he repeats, more quietly this time. “Juanita, do you know anyone named Gabriela Flores?”
“No,” Juanita replies.
“And you didn’t pick Lily up from school today?”
Sebastian hangs up the phone and turns back to Mrs. Wexler. “I don’t know who picked Lily up today, but it definitely wasn’t Juanita’s sister.”
The color drains from Mrs. Wexler’s face right in front of his eyes. “Should I call the police?” she asks.
Sebastian contemplates just flashing his badge at her, but if something really did happen to Lily, which is seeming more and more likely with every passing minute, he’s going to need backup.
“Yeah,” he says. “Go ahead and call them.”
While Mrs. Wexler is busy on the phone, Sebastian looks at the sign-out log and note again, trying to handle them as little as possible. There is a part of him that doesn’t want to think of them as evidence just yet, but that part is the same one that has him sweating, has his heart pounding. That part of him is the panicked father, and now he needs to be the detective, both for Lily and for himself.
The note is perplexing, because it really does look like Myra’s handwriting, and for a moment, Sebastian even entertains the idea that Myra had someone else pick Lily up today and just forgot to tell him, except that he and Myra are both so vigilant when it comes to Lily’s safety that no one else besides Juanita, one of Lily’s grandparents, or maybe Sebastian’s partner, Joseph, would be allowed to pick Lily up. And that also wouldn't explain why this woman lied about being related to Juanita.
Mrs. Wexler puts the phone down. “They’re on their way,” she says.
Sebastian nods, then launches immediately into his next line of questioning. “Were you the one who was on-duty when Lily was picked up?”
“Yes,” replies Mrs. Wexler.
“Can you describe the person who picked her up?”
Mrs. Wexler’s mouth twists in confusion. “Shouldn’t we wait until the police get here?”
“I’m a detective,” Sebastian says, pulling his badge out of his pocket and holding it up for her to see. “And I don’t want to waste any time.”
Mrs. Wexler seems stunned for a moment but then nods. “She was maybe in her mid-thirties? She had long, dark hair.” Mrs. Wexler touches a hand to her upper arm, a few inches below her shoulder, presumably to indicate the length of the woman’s hair.
“What about her skin tone?” Sebastian asks.
“Medium,” replies Mrs. Wexler. “I assumed she was Hispanic because of her name and her accent.”
“How tall was she?” Sebastian prompts.
“A couple of inches taller than me,” Mrs. Wexler says, holding up her hand above her head. That would make this woman about five foot six.
“What was she wearing?”
“A sundress and a big hat. I remember thinking that she looked more like she was going to the beach than the doctor’s office.”
“Do you remember what she said to you?”
“Just that she was here to pick Lily up for her appointment,” Mrs. Wexler says with a shrug.
“And how did Lily react to her?” Sebastian asks, swallowing down the lump in his throat as he tries not to think about Lily being taken away by a stranger.
“Lily seemed happy to see her,” Mrs. Wexler says. Then after a pause, she adds, “Though I’m not sure that means anything. Lily is a very gregarious child.”
Sebastian assumes this is a teacherly way of saying that Lily would happily leave school with anyone, but he isn’t so sure himself. Lily may only be five years old, but he likes to think that he and Myra have taught her enough that she would be wary of a stranger. It makes him wonder if Lily has seen this person before, if he or Myra might have seen this person before.
“Are there cameras in here?” he asks.
“Yes,” Mrs. Wexler says, a look of relief crossing her face. “Yes, there are.”
“Can we pull up that recording?”
“Yes, of course,” Mrs. Wexler says with a nod. She beckons Sebastian around behind the counter and starts running back through the surveillance footage from the front office.
Sebastian glances at his watch. 2:23 PM. Lily’s been missing for almost two hours, which means that whoever took her has a two hour head start on him, and he is still at square one.
Seventy percent of kidnapped children are dead within three hours of being abducted. The statistic springs unbidden into his head. He remembers hearing it during his training at the Academy. He has no doubt that it was used to drive home the need for fast response times in missing persons cases, but now it settles in his stomach like a lead weight.
He’s also sure that he’s remembering some part of that statistic incorrectly, because it makes no sense. The majority of children reported ‘abducted’ have simply been taken by a family member, so maybe the seventy percent is for children who have been abducted by a stranger or children who have been abducted by a known murderous pedophile. He shudders. This isn’t helping him figure out what to do next.
“Okay, here we go,” Mrs. Wexler says, jarring Sebstian back to reality, which isn’t much of an improvement over his darker thoughts. Sebastian stares at the computer screen, which shows multiple views of the front office and the hallway outside it. The time stamp on the video says 12:30 PM.
“There she is,” Mrs. Wexler says as a figure walks into the frame on the sidewalk outside the school. The video feed is in black-and-white, but just as Mrs. Wexler said, the woman is wearing a sundress and a large floppy-brimmed hat. Sebastian can't see her face from this angle.
She strides up to the door, pulls it open, and heads directly for the front office. The office camera is mounted lower and shows more of her face, but to Sebastian’s dismay, she is wearing a pair of sunglasses, and he can’t see anything past the dark lenses. Even so, his heart sinks, because he’s never seen this woman before, and he’s willing to bet that Myra hasn’t either.
In the video, Mrs. Wexler speaks to her, and the woman hands her a piece of paper.
“Is that the note?” Sebastian asks.
“Yes,” Mrs. Wexler replies.
Sebastian nods even though Mrs. Wexler has her back to him. The woman handled the note with her bare hand, which makes him wish he’d been more careful with it when he handled it a few minutes ago. It’s not easy to lift a fingerprint or DNA from paper in the best of conditions, but especially not if he’s added his own contributions to the mix.
In the video, Mrs. Wexler steps away from the desk and picks up the phone. “Now I’m calling down to Lily’s classroom to have her sent up to the office,” she explains.
Sebastian is half-listening and half-watching the woman on the video. She isn’t looking at her phone or playing with her hair or fidgeting at all. In fact, she has an air of confidence about her that is highly disturbing in light of what she is here to do.
Sebastian is chewing at his lip again as he thinks it over…the way she approached the school, the way she knew exactly where to go to get to the office. “She’s been here before,” he says under his breath. He’s sure of it. Whether she has a child who goes to school here or whether she was casing the location before she came here to get Lily, she’s familiar with the layout and she knows what to expect, so there’s no reason for her to be nervous.
“And you’re sure you haven’t seen her around here before?” Sebastian asks, not taking his eyes off of the screen where the woman is now writing in the sign-out log.
“I haven’t,” Mrs. Wexler replies, “but I only just came back from medical leave. I was out for two weeks.”
Sebastian sighs and raises a hand to rub at his temple. “How far back in time do you guys save the videos?” he asks, still keeping his eyes on the woman, who is now leaning on the counter and gazing straight ahead. She’s wearing something around her neck, but no other jewelry, no tattoos, nothing else that makes her distinctive.
“Thirty days,” Mrs. Wexler replies. That’s not surprising to Sebastian, though he wishes they kept more of a backlog. Most facilities with surveillance can only afford to maintain thirty days of footage before they start taping over the old ones- or reusing the hard drive space- with new material.
“What about the sign-out logs?”
“We never destroy those,” she says. You could still find the ones from years ago.”
Sebastian opens his mouth to answer, but then all the breath is knocked out of him as Lily bounces into the office on the video, bright and excited and looking exactly like his little girl. Sebastian has the craziest impulse to reach out to her, to warn her not to go with this woman, but the woman smiles and says something to Lily. Lily smiles back and the two of them walk out hand-in-hand.
Sebastian watches as they leave through the front doors and walk along the sidewalk. With every step they take, his heart beats faster and his chest feels tighter, and by the time they exit the frame he is almost gasping for breath.
“Is there surveillance in the parking lot?” he chokes out.
“Not where she parked,” Mrs. Wexler says. “I remember thinking it was strange that she parked at the far end of the lot, but the cameras don’t reach down there.”
“Shit,” breathes Sebastian, because this is seeming less and less like a weird coincidence or an impulsive act and more like something that involved extensive planning and knowledge of the school layout and camera system. But who would want Lily so much and what would they be planning to do with her? There have to be a thousand other kids who would be easier targets to-
His thoughts are interrupted when the office door swings open and Brian Hodges from the Missing Persons Unit strides in. He sizes up the situation in seconds and comes around to the other side of the reception desk to clap a hand on Sebastian’s shoulder.
“Sebastian,” he says firmly. “Why don’t you come sit down and tell me what’s going on?”
There is one moment, one brief flare-up of anger in Sebastian, because Hodges knows him as a detective, and Hodges was his trainee not that many years ago, and Hodges has never called him by his first name. Hodges isn’t talking to him as another cop now; he’s talking to him like he’s a victim, like he’s the terrified parent of a kidnapped child.
And suddenly that’s exactly what he is. The confidence, the orderly thinking, the distraction that came from being able to play detective all goes out the window in an instant. He really is here, and Lily really is gone, and his face feels hot. His vision is changing, going black and white like the surveillance video, and Hodges’ voice is distorted in his ear.
“Sit down,” Hodges commands, but it sounds like he’s shouting at Sebastian from underwater. “Sit down, Sebastian.”
He can hear the wind rushing in his ears, the blood pounding in his veins, until Hodges plants one hand on each shoulder and gives him a push down. His knees buckle, and he collapses into a rolling chair that is inexplicably behind him. He drops his head into his hands and waits.
He can hear voices around him, but they sound distorted and far away, and the surveillance tape is playing on loop in his brain. They only have one hour...one hour to find Lily before she’s…
“Sebastian.” Hodges’ hand is on his shoulder again, and Sebastian sits up, taking a few deep breaths as his vision starts to clear and his hearing returns to normal. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” Sebastian answers, though his voice still doesn’t sound quite like it’s supposed to.
Hodges turns to Mrs. Wexler. “Is there a conference room or something we could use?”
Mrs. Wexler directs them to the conference room down the hall. Hodges gives Sebastian a deeply suspicious look, but lets him get up out of the chair on his own, and they leave the front office in the hands of Hodges’ partner Coleman and one of the evidence techs.
Sebastian drops heavily into one of the chairs around the conference table, and Hodges sits down next to him and gets out his notebook. For just a moment, it feels like they’re doing a training exercise, but then Hodges speaks.
“We’re here to figure out what happened to Lily, Sebastian. Can you tell me what you know?”
Sebastian tries to take a breath, tries to answer, because he does know things. He knows that Lily left the school with a stranger, a woman who seems to have some knowledge of the security system. He knows that this woman had a note that was either written by Myra or was a convincing forgery of Myra’s handwriting. But more than anything else, he knows that Lily is missing and they have so little time to find her, and his heart is aching all over again.
He locks eyes with Hodges and summons all of his strength. “She’s...she’s gone,” he forces out.
She is in her room, but it’s not her room at all. Everything looks the same: the bed, the desk and chair, the toys and stuffed animals are all exactly as they should be. Her drawings are hanging on the walls, and her clothes are in the dresser.
She sits on the bed, swinging her feet back and forth, because waiting is hard, and this is kind of boring, but Miss Flores’ sister, who is also called Miss Flores, said to be patient. Lily knows that when an adult says to be patient, nothing is going to happen for a long time. Mom tells her to be patient when they go to the bank, and Dad tells her to be patient when he gets a phone call from work, and Miss Flores tells her to be patient when they are waiting for cookies to bake.
So she is being patient. She can hear the Other Miss Flores above her, talking to a man. She wishes Other Miss Flores would come back and take her to the car. They would go out for ice cream, like they did last week or to see a movie, like they did before that. Other Miss Flores is much more fun than Regular Miss Flores, who is always talking about homework and bedtime and eating vegetables.
But Other Miss Flores is weird sometimes, like right now. Lily has never been to her house before. In fact, she’s never been to someone else’s house without one of her parents, but Other Miss Flores told her to be patient, and she can do that.
She jumps when the door creaks open.
Other Miss Flores is standing there with a smile on her face, and relief surges through Lily as she leaps off the bed, ready to get out of here.
“Wait.” Other Miss Flores holds up a hand, and Lily obediently freezes in place. “I’m sorry Lily,” she says. “But you need to be patient a little while longer.”
Lily nods, because Other Miss Flores really does look sorry, maybe even sad. “I can be patient,” she says. Then, because Other Miss Flores’ forehead is wrinkling the way Mom’s does when she’s worried, Lily adds, “It’ll be alright.”
Other Miss Flores raises a hand to her mouth and nods her head as she turns away and pulls the door shut behind her. It isn’t until she hears the key turn in the lock that Lily thinks that maybe it isn’t going to be alright, that something is very wrong here.
But Other Miss Flores told her to be patient, and she can do that. She hops back up onto the bed and sits down, legs dangling over the edge as she looks around the room again.
It’s her room, but it’s not her room. Everything looks the same, except that the floor is hard, and there are bars on the window, and she is almost sure that someone is watching her from inside the walls. Lily doesn’t know how much longer she can wait.