Part 1

Friday, November 22, 7:45 a.m.

The wind howled, the windows shook, and the angry gray clouds rebelled, coughing violently. It was a cold, wet miserable excuse for a day and matched her mood perfectly. Eyeing her watch and feeling her headache turn into a keg of dynamite, the harried woman hissed in frustration. Shoving a black pump on and grabbing earrings, she flipped the bedroom light off and ran into the hall and down the stairs.

"Finish up, Tiger," she ordered to her pokey six-year-old. She pulled on her coat and checked the two lunchboxes, snapping each one shut. She shoved dishes into the sink and clenched her eyes in desperation. Why did her children move like molasses uphill in January?

"EMILY!"

Rosemary Anderson's exasperated voice rose to the second floor of the well kept home and bounced loudly on the eight-year old girl's door. "Great," she murmured, peering under her bed, "Snickers. Snickers!" Sighing in frustration, she frantically swept her arm under the bed, hoping to dislodge the missing hamster, "Mom's gonna kill us."

"Come on, Steven," Mike Anderson snapped his fingers, gulping his coffee and shoving a lunch at the slow moving six-year-old. He got the boy's yellow slicker on, eyed the clock and hissed, "The bus is here! Why isn't she ready?"

"Hey, Mike, I got two hands, okay? I get them up, cook breakfast, check homework, get myself ready..."

"Just get her!" he growled, cursing as the bus horn sounded from the corner, "I can't miss the train."

"Go, I'll take her!" she shouted, kissing the top of her son's forehead and shoving him at her husband.

The door closed, the thunder rolled, her head threatened to leave her body and still no child. She eyed her watch and swore softly. Her eight-thirty meeting was with two clients the architectural firm she worked for had been wooing for six months. She couldn't be late. She started back up the stairs.

"EMILY! NOW! WHAT ARE --"

"I'm sorry!" The dark-haired child adjusted her glasses and ran down the stairs. "I was...uh...looking for...uh...my...homework, yeah that's it..."

"Your homework is in your backpack," the irate mother drilled, shoving the wayward arms in the yellow slicker. "Zip up and get to the car. You missed the bus, I'll take you to school." She paused, watching the dark head peek up the stairs. "Oh no. Don't tell me -- that rodent is missing?"

"I'll find him...he just...sort of..."

"I don't want to hear it!" the harried mother put both hands up, "When are you going to learn to be more responsible?"

"I'm sorry, Mom, really. I didn't mean --"

"Go on."

Emily flinched as the door slammed. She buckled her seatbelt and felt her breakfast churning in her gut. She remained silent, her hazel eyes sliding sideways through foggy glasses. She knew that look and knew better than to bother her mother. Finally, the short ride to school was over.

"Not here," she said quietly, "it's Friday, remember? I've got to go to General Assembly. It's on the other side. Mr. Petrucci said we gotta be on time --"

"Aw, dammit!" Rosemary pounded the wheel and the digital clock spilled another number: eight fifteen. "Sorry." She saw the startled look. "It slipped out," she noted of the curse.

The school grounds were extensive and surrounded by trees, part of a park. The entrance to the auditorium was on the other side. A familiar silver Volkswagen pulled up several yards ahead of them. She saw the raincoated driver hop out and open the door. She watched Irene Dunne hustle her own daughter out and climb back in the car, out of the rain.

"Look, there's Jessica. You won't go in alone!"

"Good!" the worried girl sighed, tucking her pigtails under the hood and opening the door.

"Hey," Rosemary said, recalling the note on the refrigerator from the principal. A note she'd read and should have known. She saw Emily's face turn slowly and rested a hand on the fair cheek.

"You have a great day, Honey. I'm so sorry about losing my temper. Looks like I need to be more responsible, too, huh?"

"Maybe we can learn together!" Emily announced, then smiled and leaned over for a kiss.

Rosemary waited until the yellow slicker was nearly caught up to the taller girl on the path. She heard Emily holler Jessica's name and saw the other girl stop. They were nearly at the doors, Jessica had her hand on the knob. Then the shrill screeching of brakes and the sickening loud sound of metal crunching caused her to jump.

"God!" she exclaimed, hand on chest, eyeing the wreck at the dangerous intersection across the fenceline. When she turned back, both girls were gone.

**********************

Friday, November 22, 10:15 a.m. McHugh Elementary School

"Whadda we got, Jack?"

Danny Taylor pulled the collar of his jacket up, squinted into the teeming rain and hustled closer to the black umbrella his boss held. He shivered slightly, wishing he'd taken the time to finish that coffee now getting cold in his car.

"Emily Anderson, eight years old." The older man showed the handsome, dark- haired agent a school photo.

"Cute kid," the younger agent noted. He had a soft spot for kids and the crooked glasses over the smile, complete with missing tooth, captivated him. His nose twitched, his eyes scrunched, then he took two short breaths and a long wavering one, holding his finger under his nose.

"Hey!" Jack Malone, the head of the city's most elite missing person's squad, rebelled. He moved back, put a hand of defense up and grimaced, "I thought you took care of that germ convention?"

"I...I...I...." Danny tried, his senses tickling, and then his eyes closed and the lips parted.

"Turn your head!" Malone growled, and the younger agent moved just in time, before the Godzilla of sneezes was unleashed.

"Damn that felt good!" Taylor exuded, dark eyes full of relief. "I've been trying to lose that for an hour."

"Lucky me," Jack sighed, pushing the door open, "Inside. I can't afford to lose you to pneumonia."

"Aw, hell, Boss, I didn't think you cared!" he teased, wiping his face with a napkin from the diner. He drew out a second one, courtesy of where he'd been the night before, and blew his nose.

"Don't get your hopes up," the other managed, reviewing his notes, "My nerves aren't up to breaking in another rookie."

"Speaking of which," Danny looked around the auditorium, which was filling with students, "where is Harvard?" He referred to Martin Fitzgerald, the newest member of the team and an Ivy League grad.

"He's in the cafeteria, trying to find a teacher, Isabella Graziani."

"Aren't we all?" the mischievous dark eyes twinkled.

"She teaches third grade and Emily was in her homeroom. She's also organizing this year's Thanksgiving pageant. She's the one who reported the little girl missing," the senior man advised.

"How long?" Danny asked, flipping out his notebook.

"The principal, Joseph Petrucci, spoke to Mrs. Anderson. She dropped Emily off outside at eight fifteen, they were running late. She said her daughter was with another child, Jessica Dunne. Assembly started at eight-fifteen, lasted forty-five minutes. At nine o'clock, the students were dismissed to their homerooms. Miss Graziani..."

"Miss?"

"With a capital M, Romeo," He muttered, "called Petrucci's secretary, Mrs. Wilson, at nine-fifteen, when she noted Emily was not present. None of the children recalled seeing her during the assembly. She checked with the office, to see if the girl was out sick. The secretary got no answer at home. She called both mom and dad at work. Mr. Anderson stated they were running late today and his daughter missed the bus. He said his wife was dropping her off."

"The wife?" Danny asked, blowing his nose again.

"Works for Levy, Browne and Lightheart, a very pricey architectural firm." He nodded to the principal, signaling he'd be right with him. "Michael Anderson, the father, is an accountant in town."

"She here?"

"Stuck in traffic. She's on her way. He had a hard time reaching her," he nodded to a tall, slim dark-haired man whose face was pale and wrought, "That's Michael Anderson and the shorter man next to him is the principal, Joseph Petrucci. I'm gonna talk to them and then he's gonna address the kids -- see if anybody has seen her."

"What about the other kid...uh...uh..." He frowned, coughed and sent a wet sneeze airborne.

"Christ, will you be careful!" Jack winced.

"Hey, I was supposed to be home sick today! I climbed outta my deathbed --"

"Spare me!" the hand went up again, "Jessica Dunne, also eight and a classmate. She claims she never saw Emily. She arrived, entered and took her wet things off outside the assembly, then went in and took her seat."

"The kid never made it inside..." His voice dropped, his heart sank and he sniffed again. "Right behind her?"

"That what Mrs. Anderson said."

"Sam is checking hospitals. Vivian is with the secretary, getting a list of employees that might be working in and around the building."

"Okay," Danny eyed the corridor, his keen eyes seeing an arrow and the word 'Cafeteria'. "I'll be in touch -- my future fiancée awaits."

Jack smiled, handed the photo of the missing girl to him, pointed to a tweed-carpeted hall and turned the other man around.

"Knock 'er dead, Champ..."

************** TWO HOURS AND THIRTY MINUTES MISSING.

While his partner reviewed his notes again, Martin Fitzgerald tried to clear his head. The clean-cut native of Seattle, Washington, let his keen blue eyes wander the room. On pillars supporting the eatery ceiling were large decorations. Leaves in gold, red and orange splashed color on the otherwise drab room. Pilgrims, turkeys and cornhusks trimmed the other poles. Several groups of children, varying in ages and costumes, sat at circular tables. Some were reading their scripts, some were fooling around, and some were getting into their costumes. Today was dress rehearsal for the pageant on Wednesday

His firm fingers rested on slim hips, just below his worn brown leather jacket. The room was much too warm, the hot air was extremely dense. He wanted to undo the top button of his white shirt and loosen the restrictive tie. His brown hair was still damp and slightly mussed -- something that the teacher he interviewed found appealing. Her green eyes kept straying to his hair, as if she wanted to rake it with her fingers.

The dull ache began to get nasty. He thought perhaps this year, in a new city, new job -- new start -- that it would be different. But now, he stood hip deep in memory lane. Pilgrims, corn, wheat sheaves, dancing leaves, the parade with floats, a turkey, trimmings and pie -- the whole Norman Rockwell scene assaulted every sense. His stomach churned, he clenched his lips tighter and sucked air nosily through his teeth. He swiped at the beads of sweat forming on his forehead, must be ninety degrees inside the stifling room.

"This guy smells like bad news to me," Danny continued, flipping through his notes, "Teresa, the cook, said he was always leanin' on a broom near the recess area, right where Emily and her friends used to play. Where's this Murray, anyway? Where's the janitor hangout?"

"Environmental Services," Martin corrected distractedly. Didn't anybody else realize how hot it was? He tugged on his collar, releasing his pent-up neck. Twin long lines of sweat snaked a race down his back. The shirt was sticking to him and his hair was getting damper. The bright decorations seemed to glare at him, their colors garish and harsh. He sucked in a long breath and swiped at the sweat appearing on his face.

"Oh, sorry," Danny rolled his dark eyes, "aren't we the politically correct, young G-man." Then he saw the pronounced difference in the other man. Martin looked like a rat caught in a trap. Curious as to what was causing those wide blues to become so frantic, he slowly scanned the room. "So?" he asked, "Where is he?"

"Who?" Martin rasped, blinking sweat from his eyes and breathing hard. The whole scene was too close...too damn close.

"Jimmy Hoffa."

"What?" the wavering soul blinked.

"What's with you, man? You okay?" He cocked his head and wrinkled his nose in puzzlement. Normally, Fitzgerald was GQ all the way, every inch pressed and creased. Hell, he bet the shorts were even starched. Something was very wrong to be causing the immaculate agent to be in such disarray.

"Yeah...no...Hell, it's like an inferno in here."

"Just my luck, you'll keel over in here. I hate extra paperwork." He nodded his head towards the door, "Why don't you go get some air? Hit the office up there and see if Vivian has an address on this guy...uh...Murray, the jani.the Environmental Services Manager. We'll go check it out, okay?"

"Yeah," Martin managed, wiping his wet face and taking his shaking limbs to the door. He fumbled with the heavy bar, shoving it hard, and grunted when if finally opened. He slid outside, letting the icy pellets hit his face, and sucked in air greedily. The roar in his ears died down as the past drifted away -- for now. Composing himself, he made his way along the building to the side entrance. He combed his errant hair with his hand, buttoned his shirt and straightened his tie. He took out a linen handkerchief and wiped his face and the back of his neck. Stopping long enough to get several gulps of water, he took a deep breath and entered the office.