Listen, kids. Stay right here while I get the car.” Standing under the shelter of the covered mall entrance, Debra fixed her gaze on one precious child then the other. All the while, a downpour hammered against the roof above them. “Chad, Lauren, don’t move. You know the rules. I’ll be right back.” She slipped tiny Lauren’s hand into Chad’s. “We did have a good day, didn’t we?”
Chad offered a thumbs-up, and Lauren smiled and nodded. Oh, how she treasured her children’s innocence—their clean smell and the taste of her lips on their peachy-soft cheeks.
Debra grabbed the many packages, evidence of their school shopping, and dashed out into the rain. She winced at the liquid needles bruising her flesh and soaking her clothes. Moments later, she started the engine of her SUV and eased backward from her parking spot. Rain pelted the windshield, and although the wipers sliced through the cloudburst faster than she could blink, she still found it difficult to see. Pressing the air conditioner button, she anticipated the rush of cool air in the hot, humid temperatures of a Houston summer.
With her fingers gripping the steering wheel, Debra rounded the corner of a department store. She could only imagine what Michael would say when he discovered the cream-colored leather interior of his new SUV soaked from her wet clothing and, in a few moments, their rain-kissed children.
She detested the driving rain, no matter how badly the scorched August ground needed it. A flash of jagged light and a crack of thunder caused her to jump. “That was close,” she said and realized she’d been holding her breath.
A few people darted about to retrieve their vehicles. Most of them had the sense to bring an umbrella today. But not Debra. She hadn’t noted this morning’s weather report in the hustle to get the kids to the mall.
She eased on the brake and stopped in front of the pavilion where she’d just left Chad and Lauren. They were nowhere in sight. Cursing under her breath, she yanked the keys from the ignition and leaped out into the rain. Once the door slammed, she pressed the lock button on her alarm and raced toward the mall entrance, determined those two would definitely receive a sound scolding for disobeying her.
The wind and rain drenched her. Frustrated, Debra considered all the things she planned to say to Chad and Lauren, and for certain, they would not rent any video games on the way home.
Agitation coursed through her veins. After all she’d done for those two imps today, why couldn’t they have stayed where she left them? The metal bench was empty. Chad knew better. An eight-year-old entering third grade in two days should realize the importance of following a few simple directions. What an example for Lauren, who would be entering kindergarten. She looked up to him as the all-knowing, perfect big brother. That little girl had better be holding his hand when she found them.
Debra caught sight of herself in the glass entrance door. Her shoulder-length hair hung in ringlets, and no doubt, her expensive makeup streaked down her cheeks. Embarrassment warmed her face, and irritation rose from the soles of her feet like smoke signals. Just wait till she found those two kids.
Stopping at the empty bench with water rolling down her arms and legs, Debra’s gaze swept to a young black woman with a baby stroller standing nearby.
“Excuse me, but have you seen two children, a boy and a little girl? They were supposed to wait here for me while I got the car.”
The woman shook her head. “No, ma’am.”
A faint twinge of apprehension tugged at her heart, and the reply thickened in her throat. “Thank you. If you see them, would you ask them to stay put until I return?”
“No problem.” The woman reached down to stroke the cheek of her ebony-skinned baby. “Hope you find them soon.”
Glancing about, Debra stepped inside the mall. The closest store to the entrance happened to be Funville Video Arcade. She clenched her fists. That’s where they are. They both have money left over from Mother Patterson’s last visit. Earlier Chad had begged to check out the latest swords and demons games, but she wanted to get home—get dinner started for Michael.
Through the dim lighting with the sound of beeping, clanging, and sirens, she searched every game but couldn’t find a trace of her children. Her fingernails pierced the skin of her palms. Where could they be?
Next to the video games stood a small earring and accessories boutique. Standing at the entrance, she took in every square inch. Two teenage girls giggled over earrings, but no children were there.
Across the way, a candle shop boasted of every size and scent known to tantalize the senses. Debra swallowed the lump in her throat and moved toward the storefront. Chad and Lauren had helped her select pumpkin spice and apple votives earlier in the day. Those two are busy sniffing all those candles.
Debra explored every corner and display but emerged from the busy shop without her children. Again, she scanned the area outside where she had left them. The empty bench seemed to mock her tortured emotions. More people mingled about as the rain poured unrelentingly. Concern had long replaced anger, and in its stead, a gnawing fear curdled her stomach.
Standing in the middle of the mall’s walkway, she turned a complete circle. “Chad, Lauren. . .Chad, Lauren.” Nothing.
Hysteria began a rapid ascent. She clasped her arms about her, freezing. Why did malls have to turn their air-conditioning so low?
“Ma’am,” a woman said from a children’s shoe store across from the candle shop. “Ma’am,” the same woman called again.
Debra lifted her gaze in reply.
“Can I help you with something?” the woman asked.
She moistened her dry lips. “I left my children at the entrance while I ran to get my car. It’s pouring out there.” She avoided the woman’s stare. “When I drove back around to pick them up, they weren’t on the bench, and I can’t find them anywhere.”
Still not meeting the woman’s scrutiny, Debra peered in every direction.
“And you’ve checked all these stores?” The woman waved her hand at the nearby shops.
“Some. I’ve looked through some,” Debra said, and for the first time she met the woman’s eyes. They were brown, a warm, soothing color. “This isn’t like them. They’re good children.”
“I’ll help you.” The woman turned to another clerk. She quickly explained she would be gone for a few minutes. “What are their names?” she asked, joining Debra.
“Chad and Lauren Patterson. He’s eight and she’s five.”
“And how are they dressed?”
Debra scrambled to remember. Where was her mind? “Chad is wearing a red and blue pullover shirt and jean shorts, and Lauren has a yellow, short overall outfit with a yellow and pink T-shirt. Both are wearing tennis shoes.”
“Okay, I’ll look on this side, and you take the other.”
Debra nodded, briefly acknowledging her. She took a quick assessment of the woman—blond highlighted hair, medium height, and wearing a navy blue pantsuit. “Thank you,” she whispered.
“And what is your name when I find them?” the woman asked.
“Debra—Debra Patterson.” Her voice quivered, and she took a deep breath to control her staggering emotions.
“I’m Nelda.” She smiled. “Don’t worry, honey, we’ll find your children.”
She forced back down her throat the tears that threatened to well up in her eyes. For certain, those two would receive a good scolding for this one.
With each store—a cosmetic and perfume shop, cards and gifts, and an exclusive men’s store—no one had seen two children who fit Chad and Lauren’s description. She raced from one business to another while panic wrapped its icy fingers around her heart. She hated to stop and take a breath for fear she might miss them. Surely, they wouldn’t think of this as a game.
Straight ahead, Nelda met her at the information booth empty-handed. “I think we should call security.” Her voice was laced with compassion, and a furrow spread across her forehead.
“Yes, of course.” Debra hurried toward the covered booth and quickly explained her problem to the lady perched behind the counter.
The customer-service representative, near the age of Debra’s mother-in-law, stared at Debra as though she needed a lesson in motherhood. The older woman pressed her ruby-red lips firmly together and picked up the phone. “I’ll call security.”
“Why are you looking at me that way?” Debra leaned over the counter at the woman. “Didn’t they train you to be more helpful? Can’t you see my children are missing?”
There, she said it.
The older woman picked up a radio, without a trace of eye contact. “Customer Service to Public Safety. I have a woman at the desk who has lost two children.” She gazed emotionless. “Ma’am, can you describe the children?”
Debra repeated the same information she’d just given to Nelda, adding Chad’s cinnamon-brown hair and Lauren’s blond curls secured in a ponytail. Ignoring her body’s reaction to the trauma assaulting her, she looked beyond the booth to a candy store on the opposite side of the mall. Lauren’s favorite red gummy bears.
Wet leather sandals beat a rhythm against the tiled floor. She brushed the shoulder of a long-haired male teen who told her to watch it, then she dashed in front of a woman with two little girls near the age of Lauren. The candy store had standing room only; its bright colors and enticing smells attracted all ages.
“Chad, Lauren, are you in here?” Several people stared, but she didn’t care. “Chad, Lauren, you’d better not be hiding.”
“Excuse me,” a young woman sporting a short, purple, spiked haircut asked from behind the candy counter. “Can I help you?”
“My children.” Debra searched over heads and around bodies and feet. “I thought they might be here.”
She shrugged. “What do they look like?”
Debra described them while scrutinizing young and old.
Walking outside the store, she glanced back at the customer service booth. A uniformed security man waited beside Nelda. Misery replaced the wetness from the rain.
Debra’s breath came in short spurts. She made a conscious effort to gain control. Nothing worked. She clenched her fists but couldn’t stop the quivering. Chad and Lauren would not be found any sooner by her losing control or hyperventilating. The mall had several trained security people who must have exact procedures to follow in circumstances like this. She must believe their expertise would find her children.
Quickening her steps, Debra wove her way back through the throng of people to the information booth. She needed to be strong. She needed someone to tell her everything would be all right. She needed to find Chad and Lauren.
“I can’t find my children.” She stared into the placid face of the dark-skinned security officer who hosted a mustache. His badge read James Thatcher—Security Director.
“Yes, ma’am, I’m here to help you.” His voice relayed confidence; his looks were professional, but he annoyed her instead of offering the hope she desperately craved. In the next instant, he produced a form and began firing questions, the same ones she’d already answered.
All the while Debra answered his questions, her gaze darted about, always looking. . .hoping to see her children. After she gave Mr. Thatcher their description, he radioed a general lookout to all the security officers.
“How many people do you have here?” Debra’s voice shook.
“Twenty plus the mobile units outside.”
“Does this happen often?” She forced herself to focus on his coffee-colored eyes. Perhaps this wasn’t unusual, possibly a common occurrence.
“Sometimes.” Mr. Thatcher smiled. “Don’t worry, ma’am, we’ll find your children. Most likely in the next fifteen to twenty minutes.”
Twenty-five minutes later, Debra paced the front of the information booth. Nelda had excused herself and gone back to her store while the security director attempted conversation. A knot twisted in her stomach.
“Do you have a picture of your children?” Mr. Thatcher asked, too kind and understanding for Debra’s liking. She didn’t want sympathy; she wanted Chad and Lauren.
Her heart pounded furiously against her chest, the pain intensifying each time she took a breath. “Yes, in my purse.” She glanced toward the mall entrance. “I left it in my car.”
“Let’s go get it.” His competent tone wavered, or perhaps her trust had diminished.
He stepped beside her, and they made their way through the mall doors and out into the pouring rain.
A mobile unit had stopped beside her SUV. Mr. Thatcher waved the vehicle on.
Debra’s trembling fingers couldn’t find the button to release the alarm. “Stupid thing.” She dug her perfectly manicured nail onto the car alarm and willed herself to, once more, find control. Rain bludgeoned her body as though attacking her as an unfit mother.
“Ma’am?” Mr. Thatcher asked.
She shook her head and tried the alarm release again. This time it clicked, and she reached across the driver’s seat to retrieve her purse.
The sight of her ultra-expensive leather bag with her cell phone sticking out of the top caused her to consider calling Michael. What would he say? She’d lost the children? Snatching up her purse, she slammed the door and locked it.
“I’ve posted security people at the mall exits with instructions to stop every person who has a boy or girl fitting your children’s description, and I’ve called the police,” Mr. Thatcher said once she reached him. “Also, your car will not be towed.”
“What does this mean?” Suddenly the tears flowed as swiftly as the rain.
Mr. Thatcher studied her face. “It’s policy, Mrs. Patterson. We are committed to finding your children.”
“But you said you could find them in fifteen to twenty minutes.” Her voice rose with the terror threatening to overtake her body.
“Please.” He took her arm. “Let’s go back inside and wait for the police. We can use your children’s pictures to help the security guards. It might be a good idea to call your husband.”
Debra sensed another wave of panic. Yes, she’d call Michael. He’d come to the mall and stay with her until the police found Chad and Lauren. She needed his arms around her. She hadn’t done anything wrong. The rain. Chad and Lauren would have been soaked. He’d have done the same thing.
“Mrs. Patterson,” the director said, “try to calm down.”
Debra heard sobbing. Her own. This couldn’t be happening.
“I understand how you feel.”
Something inside her snapped. “You have no idea how I feel! Have you ever lost your children?”
“No, and you’re right. I’ve never been in your position.” He touched her elbow and escorted her toward the mall’s business area. “We’ll go to my office and meet the police there.”
“But what if my children are looking for me? Shouldn’t I stay here?” she asked.
“I think you’d be more comfortable away from the crowd. You’ll appreciate the quiet and privacy when you phone your husband and find your children.”
“Yes. . .I guess you’re right.”
They passed a sea of nebulous faces, reminding her of a horror movie she’d once seen. Did anyone care that a nightmare had invaded her perfect, secure world?
Mr. Thatcher ushered her to a small sterile area labeled Security Director and assisted her into a chair across from his desk. A photograph of a pretty, black woman with three young children rested on the corner. They looked happy. . .and safe.
“Do you know your husband’s number?” Mr. Thatcher handed her the receiver. “You can contact him while I post your children’s pictures on the security monitors.”
Fumbling through her wallet, she nodded and handed him the photos of Chad and Lauren.
Michael. She wanted to hear his voice, but she didn’t know how she could tell him what had happened.
Swallowing hard, she took the phone Mr. Thatcher offered and punched in Michael’s cell phone number. One ring. Two rings. Three rings. The waiting unnerved her. She caught the scent of the security director’s uniform. It smelled of greasy burgers and fries.
“This is Michael Patterson. I can’t take your call right now, but if you’ll leave your name and number, I’ll get back to you shortly. If your call is an emergency, please contact—”
“Michael, please call me immediately. We have an emergency.”
Replacing Mr. Thatcher’s receiver, Debra pulled her cell phone from her purse and checked the battery. Fully charged. She punched Michael’s pager number into the desk phone and left their 911 code.
She watched a long minute tick by on the desk clock. The second hand jerked as though possessed by a nerve disease. Maybe Michael had gone home for something. She snatched up Mr. Thatcher’s phone again and raced through the number for home. One ring. Two rings. Three rings.
“You’ve reached the Pattersons. We’re unavailable to take your call at the present time, but if you’ll leave your name and number, we’ll get back to you.” Chad and Lauren had recorded the greeting weeks ago. Their sweet voices were filled with enthusiasm.
“Michael. Michael, please, if you’re at home, please pick up the phone. Michael. I’m scared. I need you.” The receiver fell from her hands, and she sobbed. Glancing up at Mr. Thatcher, she wanted to lash out at him—at someone for the guilt sweeping through her. What kind of mother loses her children?
A moment later, two police officers walked in. She could not utter a word. The nightmare only continued. Another thought entered her mind. She’d call Michael’s office. Lynn would know how to find him.
She grabbed a tissue from Mr. Thatcher’s desk and hastily swiped at her nose. Control, she needed control. Snatching up the phone, she punched in the law office number of Patterson and Doyle. Michael’s secretary seemed to take forever to answer.
“Lynn, this is Debra. Is Michael there?”
“No, he’s not. In fact, I’ve been looking for him. He hasn’t been in today or returned any calls.”