A Child's Last Hope

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Chapter 15

“Welcome back, Ethan,” Janelle said enthusiastically, welcoming him into her office. “It’s too bad that we’ve developed a habit of only meeting under these circumstances, though.”

“I know. I meant to come by on other occasions, but the cases don’t let up. I’m too preoccupied when I arrive at work,” Ethan said as he sat down on the couch, feeling much more comfortable than the first time he visited her office.

“I’m sorry you had to go through that again. I’m sure yesterday was a long day for you. It’s both figuratively and literally a brighter day today.”

She was absolutely right. The sunshine really made a difference in Ethan’s demeanor. He felt more jovial than he had over the rainy and chaotic weekend, and the sun gave him the energy he needed to get up on a Monday morning.

“You know what they say about murder, it gets easier after the first time,” Ethan said, smirking.

“Ah, so you’re coping with your feelings through humor.”

Ethan smiled on the inside, knowing that he wasn’t actually coping with any feelings. He was just being honest. “Yeah, you could say that.”

Ethan took a seat on the couch, relaxing back and crossing his fingers.

“Has this event brought back any feelings about Marcus’s death?”

“To be honest, not really. I’ve dealt with that. I actually feel more justified in this case. I hope you don’t think I’m losing it, but if you could have witnessed what Thomas did, or understood what he was going to do to those children, then you would see that there is no possible way to see him as a victim. Or even human for that matter.”

“So, in this case, you don’t think Thomas deserved to live? How would it have played out if Thomas didn’t threaten you?”

Ethan gave the impression that he was deeply contemplating her questions, when he really already knew the answer. Looking back, he wanted to kill Thomas the minute he stepped foot in that basement, but knew he couldn’t tell Janelle that. “I have no reservations about his death. Of course, if he hadn’t attacked me, I would have turned him in to authorities for legal prosecution. Killing him without being threatened would be murder.”

“Well, you sound pretty stable, Ethan. How do you feel about what you saw in that basement?”

“I can’t get it out of my head. I can’t even imagine what this guy wanted to do. He not only raped that little girl, but he was planning to castrate a little boy. How and why would anyone do that? It’s horrifying. He even had thoughts of cannibalism and was inevitably going to kill these children. He wanted to eat . . .” Ethan couldn’t finish the sentence. He rubbed his eyes and looked away from Janelle.

She allowed him a moment to compose himself, taking notes on her pad.

“I actually had a nightmare last night. I dreamt that I was basically in Dillon’s position. I was being dragged into the basement by Thomas, screaming at the top of my lungs for help. Obviously, no one came to my rescue. It was strange because I knew Thomas and what he was capable of, but I didn’t know what was about to happen, if that makes any sense?” Ethan said, trying to convey the context of the dream.

Janelle nodded. “I think I understand. It is a dream after all. Your mind only allowed you to access certain information from reality into your dream.”

“I was scared to death. The basement was barely lit and he forced me into the coffin. I struggled so much. He stripped me naked and closed the lid to the box. All I could do was cry in the darkness. Being alone with no hope of rescue was terrifying. The worst part of it all, I had no idea what I did to deserve such treatment.”

“It’s common to feel this way. I only read about the incident and even I’ve had a hard time getting it out of my head. This is not a typical case and everything about it is disturbing. I suggest focusing on the survival of the children. The most positive aspect of the case is that you saved those children.”

“That’s exactly what keeps me going, Janelle. No matter what atrocities I see, or how many children’s lives are lost, the ones I do or can save, they push me to continue my efforts. I find myself working harder with every case. If I’m not pushing myself, I feel like I’m failing everyone.”

Janelle leaned forward and looked into Ethan’s eyes. “Ethan, don’t forget that you can’t save every child. You’re not the only one trying to save children. You shouldn’t put too much pressure on yourself.”

“I wish I could do that. But, my conscious won’t allow it. When a child is abused and neglected by their parents, or alone in a stranger’s basement, I’m as equally responsible for saving them as law enforcement. The police force doesn’t have the resources to do everything. The teachers, neighbors, and doctors that deal with children on a daily basis might not even notice the abuse, or worse yet, not do anything about it. So, when a child has no one to turn to, I’m their last hope.”

Ethan forcibly held back the tears that began to flood his eyes as he passionately poured out his true feelings. “We have a responsibility to identify children that need help. These are children that don’t know what to do and are often afraid to tell anyone; children that need an adult to tell them that they did nothing wrong; children that don’t know the love that most families have for one another, but often take it for granted. Knowing that, I’ll do whatever it takes to save them.”

After maintaining teary and resolute eye contact with Janelle, Ethan realized he was looking at her with the deadly determination he had stared at Thomas with. Judging by Janelle’s concerned expression, she understood how serious he was about protecting children.

Janelle placed her hand on his knee and empathetically stared at him. “I know how dedicated you are, Ethan. As long as you leave my office knowing that your heart is in the right place, and that you’ve done nothing to be ashamed about, then I’ve done my job. No one is going to miss this Thomas creep.”

Ethan wasn’t completely sure if Janella understood what he had actually done, or if she was just treating him like any other victim of tragedy. To avoid an awkward conversation to determine which, he stood up and shook her hand. “Thank you again, Janelle. I appreciate your perspective and honesty.”

“That’s what I’m here for, Ethan. Come see me again soon. Preferably without another incident.”

Confident that his secret was still safe, Ethan congratulated himself on successfully hiding the fact that he had murdered Thomas in cold blood. He had manipulated everyone into viewing him as a victim rather than a murderer. If he could convince his own psychologist, no one else could possibly think otherwise.

Having gone straight to Janelle’s office when arriving to work, Ethan hadn’t been greeted by anyone else at the agency. While walking back to his desk, several people congratulated him. Even Lin approached him. “I didn’t know you were working on your days off, too. You should take some time off. You know, if you need it. The world won’t collapse without you at work for a few days.”

Ethan showed her a modest smile. “I’m good, Lin. I’ll collect on that vacation this winter.”

Lin slapped him on the back. “Don’t overdo it. Good work yesterday.”

Owen approached him from behind once Lin disappeared into her office. “Dude, you’re famous. Could I have your autograph?” he asked, handing Ethan a sharpie and turning around to stick his butt out. “Right here would be nice.”

Ethan threw the pen, hitting Owen in the back of the head. “Nice try.”

“Alright. In all seriousness, I need you and Maria to be at the restaurant by eight.”

“What are you talking about?” Ethan said, legitimately confused.

Owen laughed. “Maria didn’t tell you? You guys are going to dinner with my fiancé and I. She’s been wanting to meet you, but even more so now that you’re this famous hero. She just texted me and said how excited she is, and since tomorrow is her night off, I told Maria you guys should be there at eight sharp.”

“First of all, you’re never anywhere sharp, and second of all, you’re engaged? This keeps getting better. You’ve barely talked about this girl. What, you’ve been together a week?”

“No. More like over five years. We’ve been off and on, but I think I’m really ready to commit now. I’m convinced this is THAT girl. I mean, she can still stand me after all this time, and she knows pretty much everything about me.”

The weekend was so chaotic, the dinner date must have slipped Maria’s mind. “Well, congratulations, buddy. I just hope you’re serious and don’t come to regret it later. Maybe this is that pivotal moment in your life when you realize it’s time to become an adult.”

Owen slapped Ethan on the back. “I most certainly have. Well, got a house call to make, so I’ll see you at dinner, buddy.”

Once Owen began walking away, Ethan said, “Thank God. You’re going to get some work done, finally. Maybe you have matured.”

Owen continued to walk away and completely ignored him. Shaking his head, he sat down and took a sip of the coffee he had prepared before entering Janelle’s office, oblivious to how cold it must be until the liquid reached his tongue. His mouth pursed with distaste at the same time that he noticed a blurry silhouette approaching out of the corner of his eye. Looking toward the figure, he saw Lin walking toward him, only this time her expression was determined and she carried a manila folder.

“Since you’re working today, I need you to go check this house out. The school district called to report Tina, a teenage girl, missing for a few days without any reasoning, but there hasn’t been a missing person’s report filed by the mother.” Lin explained. “The mother, Hannah, doesn’t have any priors. Her ex-husband does have some drug trafficking charges, though. He’s not living in the state, so he shouldn’t be an issue.”

Lin placed her hands on his desk and leaned in close to him. “If you see anything out of the ordinary, you call the police. I don’t need you involved in any more deaths.”

Ethan frowned at Lin and crossed his arms. “Come on, Lin. You don’t have to treat me like a newbie.”

Lin chuckled. “Just don’t kill anybody today.”

“No promises!” he shouted as Lin walked away.

Ethan walked toward his car, enjoying the warm sunshine radiating his face. The smog-saturated air had been cleared by the weekend of rain, but would unfortunately not stay that way for long. While he was hoping the pleasant morning would set the tone for the day, he knew it would not remain so—not with the case he was just given.

Sitting in his Escape, Ethan pulled the envelope Sarah had given him out of the glove compartment. Reading her letter of heartfelt gratitude humbled him, while also providing the encouragement he needed to continue his pursuit of justice for all children. It pumped him up for his current case.

Ethan placed the letter back into the glove compartment, knowing that he would read it again in the future when in need of confidence, and when needing a reminder about why he became a social worker in the first place. Anxious and determined, Ethan put the car in gear and drove in the direction of his next assignment.

The Escape steadily cruised down each street in the neighborhood as Ethan looked for the address that had been reported. With the visor down, he still had to shield his eyes from the sun that shone directly into his face while trying to identify the numbers at each address.

Most of the homes in the neighborhood he travelled through could use renovations to their exterior, so he assumed the interiors were just as bad. The homes weren’t necessarily trashy, but they were aging poorly. The one home with a manicured lawn and fresh coat of paint stood out like a sore thumb, but in a good way.

Once Ethan spotted the address he was supposed to investigate, he parked across the street and a few houses down from the house he was supposed to inspect, sitting quietly in his car to perform a little reconnaissance.

A dirty Toyota Corolla was parked in the driveway of the single-story home. A red pick-up truck was also parked out front, but on the curb. Like most of the homes he usually visited, the lawn had not been mowed in at least a few weeks and the facade was in desperate need of repainting. In most cases, if a child is neglected, so was the home.

Looking at his watch, Ethan realized lunch time was nearly over. His visit with Janelle had taken up most of his morning, but he hadn’t noticed the time. Picturing the perfect cheeseburger—the elusive burger used in fast food commercials to entice viewers that had never been seen in reality by customers—caused his mouth to salivate. His patience quickly evaporated while fantasizing about the juicy burger, prompting him to approach the house. Just as his hand grabbed the handle of the car door, the front door of the home opened.

A middle-aged man exited the house. He was about the same height as Ethan and not much heavier. While walking toward his truck, the man reached down to check his crotch zipper. Once inside his truck, the man drove away. Ethan was quick to write down the truck’s license plate number before the vehicle was out of sight.

Based on what he had just witnessed, and with reports of multiple men going in and out of the house, he worried the young girl was being treated as a sex slave. While preparing himself to approach the house, the front door opened again.

This time a woman exited the home, counting a wad of bills as she walked toward the Corolla. She had blonde, greasy hair, and wore a stained, white tank top with baggy sweat pants. She didn’t appear to be wearing any make-up and her complexion looked sickly. He hoped that the mother was the prostitute, but then where was the daughter?

Once her car backed out of the driveway and disappeared down the road, Ethan got out of his car, hoping he would catch the teen girl at home alone.

Ethan knocked on the door, listening for a response. Not hearing a single sound come from inside the home, he turned the door knob. Being that it was unlocked, he decided to let himself in, but not before looking over his shoulder to see if anyone was watching him enter.

The interior of the home was not in shambles, but it wasn’t all that clean either. Stepping into the living room, he did find a plastic bag containing marijuana on the coffee table, next to a dirty bong.

A few steps away from the living room was a kitchen with several dirty dishes in the sink. Ten empty beer bottles were lined on top of the counter, along with a greasy, fast food bag. While the greasy bag was not really appetizing, it induced more imagery of burgers that made his mouth water.

Walking down the side hall, Ethan came to Tina’s room. Pink and purple colors were dominant throughout the furniture in the room. There were several stuffed animals on the shelves and a doll’s castle next to her dresser. The room looked fit for a child, but not what one expects of a teenager.

To his horror, despite everything he had seen on the job already, Tina was nearly unconscious on her bed. She was nude other than a bra and princess themed, high heel shoes. He immediately pulled the covers over her body and lifted her head. “Can you hear me, dear? Can you speak?”

She spoke softly and mumbled her words. “Yes . . . I hear you . . . hel—” Tina started choking, struggling to turn her head so that she could vomit.

He helped her safely vomit by pulling Tina onto her side and lifting her head over the side of the bed. While she tried to move herself, he felt little activity or resistance while holding her. Looking away as she began puking, fighting to keep his gag reflex under control, he spotted a syringe on the nightstand.

The worst possible outcome had been realized. The mother was drugging her daughter and pimping her out for money, which was most likely used to buy drugs. He considered rape the most disgusting crime, and witnessing a child subjected to it by her own mother infuriated him. His anger boiled beyond the same point that he had felt when caving in Thomas’s head with a baseball bat.

As Tina finished vomiting, he lay her back down and pulled out his phone to call the police.

“Help me,” the girl managed to say.

Placing a phone call to emergency services had become second nature to Ethan. He had no trouble explaining the situation—or his version of it—to the dispatcher. After ending the call, he heard the front door open. Surely it was the mother and he would be able to confront her.

Slowly walking back down the hall, he witnessed Hannah dumping syringes and smaller bags appearing to contain both marijuana and heroin out of a paper bag and onto the kitchen counter. He couldn’t resist the outrage he felt, so he charged toward her with clenched fists.

Hannah looked up to see Ethan approaching her, enraged. Her eyes instantaneously grew with fear. Ethan wrapped one hand around her arm and the other around her throat, throwing her up against the kitchen wall with ferocity, causing her back and head to slam against it. As frightened tears began to pour from her eyes, she fought to remove his hands from her.

“What the hell do you want?” she struggled to shout. “Take whatever you want, please. Want to fuck a fifteen-year-old? Huh? I’ll let you. Even give you a discount.”

Ethan squeezed tighter when hearing her disgusting proposition. “Shut the fuck up!” he said while staring into her eyes without an ounce of sympathy. “You’re a waste of human life. Woman or not, I would have no problem ending your life for what you’ve done. You’re lucky, though, because I’ve already called the police and an ambulance to save your daughter. You know, the one you let a bunch of strangers have their way with for a little drug money.”

“I’m sorry. So damn sorry. I swear it. I have a problem. I need help.”

He abruptly slapped her, just hard enough not to bruise her. “Spare me, I’ve heard it before. I want you to listen to me. When the police get here, you’re going to tell them that you let me in when I arrived. I’m with Child and Family Services and you had no other choice. If you don’t, I’ll make sure you don’t make it to jail, but rather the morgue.”

“Whatever you say, man. But please, can I shoot up real quick, before they get here?”

He loosened his grip on her neck, but continued to hold her arm tight. “Only if you tell me about that guy I saw leaving before you left your daughter alone to choke on her own vomit.”

“Okay, okay. No problem, mister.”

As soon as he released his grip, the desperate, addicted mother ran to the counter and grabbed a syringe, bag of heroin, spoon, lighter, and rubber hose. “The guy’s name is Sam. I met him online while trying to find customers, and he’s come by a few times over the last couple of years. Look, I don’t do this all the time. Just when I need some cash.”

Ethan observed the woman while she wrapped the hose around her bicep. The vein in her arm swelled as her circulation ceased. She focused on the flame from the lighter heating the spoon full of heroin in her hand. “You disgust me, Hannah. I can’t believe you try to justify exploiting your own daughter.”

The heroin powder slowly liquefied, bubbling as it came to a boil. “It’s really easy to judge the addict. You’re so much better than me, aren’t you?”

He continued to stare at her, despising everything she represented. “You bet your ass I am. You really don’t get it. You’re too far gone. It’s about how you treat your daughter, not me. How long have you been doing this to her?”

“Shit, man. Not that long. Just since she was maybe . . . about twelve,” she said in a casual manner that frightened him.

Beginning to fantasize about jamming the syringe into her neck, sirens arrived out front, just as she filled the syringe with heroin. Motioning to stick the needle in her arm, he grabbed her hand, prying the syringe from her grip. “Sorry, time’s up.” he said, throwing the syringe at the wall.

Police officers barged into the house, followed by two paramedics. While the officers put Hannah in handcuffs, Ethan directed the paramedics to Tina’s room. The paramedics quickly injected her with naloxone, started an IV, and placed her on a gurney.

“You’re going to be alright now, Tina. I’ll make sure you’re taken care of,” Ethan said, squeezing her hand. He carefully placed her limp hand on the gurney as the paramedics rolled her away, assuming that Tina probably wasn’t conscious of what was happening.

After the police officers took his statement, Ethan was dying for a meal. While his stomach devoured itself, he figured a small snack at the hospital would tide him over until getting home.

Sitting in his car, Ethan reveled in the mother’s arrest. Once he had learned what the woman had done, the only thing of importance was that she received a fitting punishment. She had strong potential of becoming a valuable member of the violent, drug addicted inmate community in prison.

Following the ambulance in his Escape, Ethan mentally planned the rest of his afternoon. After making sure Tina was going to be alright, he would visit Sarah to find out more information about her ex-boyfriends. While he didn’t doubt Chase’s abilities as a detective, he had a strong feeling that an important piece of information was being overlooked. He figured the average investigator wouldn’t put as much effort into the investigation as he would. Kathy could not have been picked randomly, but rather chosen for a specific reason.

Once reaching the hospital, the ambulance parked in front of the emergency room and Ethan parked in the parking lot. He hadn’t eaten in so long that his hands began to shake. While not excited about eating the bland food from the hospital cafeteria, his body was alerting him that it was necessary.

Walking through the entrance to the hospital, Ethan noticed a former social worker of Child and Family Services. Paul was on his way out with a child by his side.

“Hey, Paul. Long time, buddy. How have you been?” he said, shaking Paul’s hand.

“Hi, Ethan. It’s been one of those long days for me. I had to confront this little guy’s parents. They were trying to get him back after putting him in the hospital three days ago. Bastards injected the poor guy with heroin,” Paul told him in a whisper.

Ethan rolled his eyes. “Tell me about it. I’m here to check up on a poor girl that was subjected to a heroin overdose by her mother. That shit is an epidemic right now. I sure wish we could put a stop to that crap coming into our cities.”

“You and me both. It’s good to see you again, Ethan. Hopefully I won’t run into you here too often. I got to get this little guy to a foster home now that he’s been released. Good luck, buddy,” Paul said, waving goodbye.

“God be with you, Paul.”

Ethan continued walking straight toward the cafeteria, refusing to let anything else distract him from depositing food into his belly. Nearing the entrance, he heard a group of people talking and laughing inside. His immediate assumption was that they most likely weren’t visitors unless it was a celebration for a child birth. There were very few other reasons he could imagine that would put people in a lighthearted mood.

Stepping into the large cafeteria, he identified the jocular group that was made up of four doctors and five nurses. He wondered how they even had an appetite to eat after seeing disgusting injuries and surgeries all day long. The only answer was that they had built up an immunity to such things after doing the job long enough.

He could not ignore the fact that he himself had built up an immunity of sorts. With each new degenerate he met, it was becoming easier to deal with them however he pleased by ignoring any protocol he was supposed to follow.

Being self-aware, he feared losing total control and reaching a point where he couldn’t recognize the difference between right and wrong anymore. Maybe there was no psychological benefit to everyone approving of his actions that are based on lies he had manipulated everyone into believing, but it gave him a false sense of legitimacy.

Walking up to the cafeteria counter, Ethan grabbed a pre-made Cobb salad and a twenty-ounce Coke. He figured the salad would be a safe bet to hold him over until getting home for dinner where he could gorge himself on Maria’s cooking.

Carrying the salad container and Coke in his hands, Ethan walked to the front desk of the emergency room wing. A gorgeous, young blonde girl was sitting at the computer. “Gretchen” was the name on her nametag. Ethan thought about how only a pretty woman could successfully avoid chaffing for a terrible name like that. “Good afternoon. Can I help you?” she said.

Even though he was married, he felt the need to make a good impression with the girl. “I’m doing alright, dear. Could you just let me know when I can see Tina? I’m the social worker that saved her life today,” he said without sounding like he was bragging.

She didn’t bother to take her attention away from what she was typing. “That’s great, sir. I’ll let you know when she’s available.”

His masculinity barely intact, Ethan sat down in a waiting room chair and dug into his salad. The chicken breast was dry and the eggs were a little on the rubbery side, even after dousing it with the Italian dressing packet. That didn’t stop him from savoring every bite as if he hadn’t eaten in days. On days that lunch got postponed due to significant events, he always swore to himself that he would eat breakfast more often. Sleep just always took priority over getting up earlier to make breakfast.

After about an hour of waiting, the nurse let him know Tina was awake. “You can go in and see her now, Mr. Harper.”

Ethan gave the nurse a big, teeth-baring smile. “Thank you very much.”

The nurse responded with an artificial grin.

Walking through the emergency room doors and toward Tina’s room, he popped the seal on his Coke and chugged several gulps until his throat and sinuses burned from the carbonation. As he pulled the bottle away from his lips, he couldn’t refrain from coughing while entering Tina’s room.

“Excuse me,” Ethan said.

Tina didn’t verbally respond. She just looked up to see who was entering her room. She looked much better than when he had met her. Her natural skin tone had returned and her eyes were open wide.

“You remember me? My name is Ethan Harper. I wasn’t sure you would remember me because of how much heroin was in your body.”

“Yeah, I remember you. My memory is patchy. After you helped me puke, I blacked out completely until waking up here. I want to thank you. I wasn’t sure my nightmare would ever end.”

“You definitely look better. I’m sorry this happened to you, Tina. I wish I could say it wasn’t common, but parents give their kids drugs all the time.”

“That’s terrible. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy,” Tina said, pushing her greasy hair behind her ear.

He didn’t want to ruin the moment, but felt it was important to explain the path ahead of her. “The good news is that the worst is behind you, but it’s going to be a long road before you can take your life back. Once you’re released from the hospital, you’ll need to go through rehab. I know it’s not your fault, but you’ll need help getting off heroin.”

Tina pointed to one of her teeth. “You have something in your teeth, by the way. So, where do I live after that? I don’t know any other family members?”

Ethan rubbed his teeth with his finger and found a piece of lettuce, now understanding why the nurse had been so awkward. His masculinity was completely defeated. “Well, you’re old enough that we’ll place you in a group home. Since you’ll soon be old enough to live on your own, we want to prepare you for that. I promise, Tina, I will put you in the best one I can find. I want you to have the best possible chance at success. You deserve it.

He stared at Tina, making sure she was paying close attention. “The most important thing is that you understand nothing that happened to you was your fault. Most girls in your situation blame themselves. Don’t do that. Not even for a second.”

“I appreciate that, but I’m responsible for how long it went on. I should have reported that bitch the first time she did it to me, but the threats kept me silent. From Hannah and many of the men she forced me to . . .” Tina had to stop talking, breaking eye contact with him to control her tears. She was not successful.

“I know. You don’t have to say anymore. You don’t have to answer either, but can I ask how many times this has happened?”

“Thirty-two, over the last year and a half. All for money and drugs. She never loved me. When I was little, she would make me steal stuff from stores or beg for money. She’s always used me.”

“That’s over now. Hannah isn’t going to affect your life ever again. She’s going away for a long time. Again, I’m sorry. I wish someone would have reported something sooner. I have to go now. I just wanted to make sure I spoke with you as soon as you were coherent. I’ll be seeing you again, dear.”

“Thank you for everything, Ethan,” Tina said, reaching up with both hands and holding his arm.

Ethan bent over and kissed the top of her head. “You should get some rest. You need it. Bye, Tina.”

Travelling to Sarah’s house only took about fifteen minutes. As he pulled up to the curb, Sarah looked up from the flower bed she was digging in, elated and surprised to see Ethan.

The front yard had four different flower beds. Colorful flowers grew in the two flower beds closest to the porch, while the other two beds lined along the side of house contained vegetable plants, of which cabbage and peppers were visible.

Sarah stood up and took her dirt-caked gloves off as Ethan approached her. “Well, isn’t this a nice surprise. I wasn’t expecting to see you again so soon.”

“It’s good to see you, too. Sorry I’m stopping by unannounced like this.”

She stepped towards him, reaching out for a hug. It would have been impolite to refuse, so he hugged her. “It’s no problem at all, Ethan. Would you like to come inside?”

“No, thank you though. I’m on my way home. I just figured I’d stop by because I had a favor to ask.”

Sarah looked confused. “Really? What can I do to help?”

“I spoke with agent Ramsey the other day, and he really didn’t have any leads as to whom could have wanted Kathy kidnapped. I believe he spoke to you about your previous lovers?”

“Well, yeah. He asked me if anyone would want to harm Kathy, but I can’t imagine any of the men I’ve been with doing that. I only dated three over the last three or four years, and I didn’t date them long. None of them acted strangely around Kathy,” Sarah said, visibly struggling to recollect.

“Would you mind showing me their pictures?” He could tell she was still confused. “I know I’m not involved in the investigation, but there is a chance I could help find this guy that worked with Thomas. Sometimes, these types of men are involved in other child abuse crimes. I’d like to keep an eye out at the very least.”

“You saved my baby girl, and I can’t possibly repay you for that. I’d help in any way possible to catch that creep. I’ll run inside and grab the pictures.”

While waiting outside for her to return, a school bus stopped in the street and let three children out. One of the children was Kathy. Her face lit up with excitement as she ran toward him, arms wide open. Upon collision, he nearly fell off his feet.

“Hi, Ethan. It’s so good to see you,” Kathy said.

“How are you? I’m surprised you went back to school so soon.”

“I wanted to see my friends again. I missed being a normal kid.”

Ethan nodded. “I totally get it.”

“Hi, honey,” Sarah said, walking back outside with a phone and a picture in her hand. “Did you have a good day back at school?”

“Yes, Mom. Definitely. My friends were happy to see me again.”

“I bet they were, honey. Go inside and do your homework. I’ll be inside in a minute to help.”

“Okay. See you later, Ethan,” Kathy said, jogging inside with her backpack shaking back and forth on her shoulders.

“Bye, honey. Take care.”

Sarah handed him a picture strip that came from a picture booth. She also gave him her phone, which had pictures of the other two men.

Looking at all three men, he recognized one on her phone. It was the man he saw leaving Hannah’s house earlier, after having raped her fifteen-year-old daughter. “What’s this guy’s name?” he said, pointing at the picture on her phone.

“That’s Bill. I dated him for about three months a year ago. He was a nice guy, but we had too many differences. We just didn’t have that spark,” Sarah said.

“What did he do for a living?”

“He was a teacher, I think. Maybe a substitute. His schedule changed a lot and he was actually kind of mysterious about it.”

Ethan raised an eyebrow. “How so?”

“He never had me over at his place, and he didn’t like to talk much about his past. I just figured he didn’t like to get personal. Do you recognize him?”

“He looks familiar, but I’m just confusing him with a different guy named Sam,” he said, lying through his teeth. He didn’t want to alarm her. “Well, thank you so much. I should be going.”

Sarah leaned over and hugged him again. “You’re welcome any time, Ethan. Just let me know if you need anything else.”

Ethan walked back to his car and smiled triumphantly, knowing that Bill would most definitely be the man connected to Thomas, and he had his license plate number. Bill and Sam were definitely the same man, so he must have used a fake name when visiting Hannah.

Ethan knew he should call Chase, but couldn’t resist keeping the new information to himself. Bill was just as evil as Thomas, if not worse. Nothing would make him happier than to stop Bill just as he had stopped Thomas. He felt it was his personal responsibility.

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Inkitt is the world’s first reader-powered publisher, providing a platform to discover hidden talents and turn them into globally successful authors. Write captivating stories, read enchanting novels, and we’ll publish the books our readers love most on our sister app, GALATEA and other formats.