The voice on the phone stammered, “Mrs. Hutchins, I’m afraid we have some disturbing news. Your husband’s plane… We’ve lost contact with your husband’s plane. We’re afraid it may have…. We’re afraid it may have gone down, Mrs. Hutchins.”
Rachel didn’t move. She didn’t speak. To the unlucky bearer of bad news over the phone, it may have seemed that she didn’t react, at all.
However, to Chase, standing right across from Rachel in the Cory foyer, the way her face drained of all color, the way she froze in place, the way her lips moved soundlessly, helplessly, the way she almost appeared to stop breathing, told him something dreadful had happened.
“Mrs. Hutchins?” he asked gently, the insufferable tone otherwise perennially present in his voice disappearing in favor of concern, possibly even compassion. “Mrs. Hutchins, what’s wrong?”
Rachel still didn’t speak, she merely shook her head mutely from side to side, making a gulping, choking, gasping noise.
Chase reached for the phone, which she passed him without a struggle, almost as if Rachel believed handing it over might negate the message it’d brought, as well.
“This is Mayor Hamilton,” Chase barked. “Who is this?”
“Bay City Air Traffic Control,” came the response.
“What’s this about?”
“We – We regret to inform Mrs. Hutchins that her husband’s plane appears to have gone down over the Atlantic Ocean.”
Chase looked at Rachel in horror, she stared back at him, pleading with Chase to somehow make it untrue.
He grasped at the one straw he could think of. “Mr. Hutchins’ plane? Do you have any evidence that Mr. Hutchins’ was actually on it?”
Rachel’s eyes lit up gratefully at the possibility.
“The passenger manifest, sir. He filed it personally prior to take-off. Those on board included Mr. Hutchins, three employees, the pilot, and two children.”
She heard his declaration through the phone. Finally, Rachel managed to force out a pair of words, though the sound she made was like nothing Chase had ever heard before. “Two… children….?”
“I’m so sorry for this, Alice,” Jamie apologized as he strapped Devon into the stroller next to Mackenzie, wheeling them out to the front steps of the police station. “Thank you so much for coming.”
“Don’t worry about it, please.” Alice crouched to smile at her goddaughter, who was watching Jamie, seemingly ready to burst into a fresh flood of heart-broken tears the moment he stepped out of her sight. “Any news?”
Jamie shook his head. “At least I was able to convince the cops to treat this as a Missing Person’s case. Lorna would have never, ever left the girls alone like that voluntarily. It could only have been as a last resort, if she had absolutely no other choice in the matter. They’re searching the park. They’ve been interviewing anyone who might have seen her. They… they’re draining the falls.”
Unable to think of anything to say, Alice merely squeezed Jamie’s arm reassuringly, while he attempted to smile gratefully in response.
“Listen, Alice,” Jamie struggled to keep it together by sticking to the one concrete issue he, at least, had a modicum of control over. “I know you and Lucas are… friends.”
Alice nodded, neither of them choosing to delve into detail regarding what exactly that meant.
“Do me a favor, please don’t tell him about any of this. Not yet. I – I really need to get a handle on what exactly is going on here before I break it to Lucas. Or Felicia.”
“There’s no reason to worry them until we have more facts, right?” Jamie nearly pleaded. “I mean, in a couple of hours, there might not even be anything… Why put them through that kind of aggravation needlessly?”
“I’ll keep it to myself,” Alice promised.
“That goes for Mom, too. She’s got her own problems these days. I don’t want to add to them. Especially not before we know what we’re dealing with.”
Alice hesitated, debating whether or not to tell him, finally deciding it was information Jamie needed to have. “I – I don’t mean to increase your burden either, Jamie. But, if you’re thinking about getting in touch with your mother, I think you should know… I ran into Rachel today. At the cemetery. She told me… She told me that Carl’s left the country.”
“Don’t be mad at me, darling, please.” Donna attempted to smile beguilingly up at Matt as she sat on their picnic blanket, primly buttoning up her blouse.
“I – I’m not mad.” It wasn’t clear whom he was trying to convince, her or himself. “I’m just, I guess I’m just… confused. You said you wanted me.”
“Oh, I do, darling, I do. Always. Always. Don’t you ever dream of doubting it.”
“Then why…” He waved his arm helplessly in the direction of the spot where, a few minutes ago, they’d been lying. And now they… weren’t.
“I’m sorry. But, it’s as I said before. I start to think about what it might mean to you, and I freeze up. I can’t help it. I’m not doing it on purpose. I just love you so, so much…”
Matt mumbled something unintelligible.
“Please don’t be angry,” she repeated.
“Okay, then,” Matt sighed, inching closer to her. “So if you don’t want me to – “
“It’s for your own good. For our own good. I want us to have a long and happy, healthy life together. I can’t do anything to risk that prematurely.”
“At least let me take care of you.” He slid his arm around Donna’s waist, his fingers slipping beneath her blouse, slowly moving upwards, almost imperceptibly. “Do you know how much I love pleasing you? How much I get off on watching the way, when we make love, your skin blushes pink, starting with your face then moving lower and lower and lower the more I touch you? The way you arch your back, and how your lips open just a little bit… The way your breath gets quicker and quicker, and then there’s this tiny sound you make just before you – “
“Matthew!” Donna flushed, scandalized, and obviously excited at the same time.
“You have no idea what it does to me,” Matt leaned in closer, ready to take advantage of Donna’s slightly agape mouth, her tongue practically begging him to…
“No!” She sat up sharply, shaking him off like something particularly unpleasant. “I know precisely what it does to you, Matthew. It raises your blood pressure, and causes your heart to beat faster and – “
“Those are good things,” he insisted.
“Those are dangerous things,” she corrected. “No,” Donna straightened her clothes, squeezing her legs tightly for good measure, lest Matt get any ideas she’d have an even harder time resisting. “No. Until you are fully recovered, there will be none of that. For either of us.”
“Are you serious?”
“As a heart attack,” Donna told him gravely.
At which point, Matt merely groaned and flopped over on his back.
Still holding on to the phone, Chase glanced at Rachel apologetically. She, in turn, looked back at him, nearly numb from the blows of two, consecutive shocks.
“The children…” she repeated, reaching ineptly for the phone.
Chase protectively held it out of her reach. He said, “This is pointless. Why don’t we go down to the airport? Get some straight answers. This guy is just a flunky. Let’s see what the higher-ups have to say.”
Rachel merely shook her head. “You said, when you went to search Carl’s apartment, you said nobody was there. Not even the servants.”
“Which makes sense. He’d have let them go if he knew he was planning on leaving tonight. It doesn’t mean – ”
“Cory and Elizabeth, they were going to spend the night there. They told Carl about it. He knew.”
“Maybe they changed their minds? Maybe Mr. Hutchins refused to let them. Maybe he didn’t want them spending the night alone?”
“Then where are they?” Rachel’s voice went from barely above a whisper to glass-rattling. “Where are my children?”
“I don’t know,” Chase told her honestly. “Let me take you to the airport, Mrs. Hutchins. I have a police escort. You can be there in a matter of minutes. Please.” He held out his hand to her.
Rachel paused, then reached to take it, clinging to Chase like a lifeline, allowing him to lead her out the door.
“You guys heading out?” Zeno wondered as he passed Charlie and Kirkland by the door, both of them having changed out of their swimsuits and into shorts and T-shirts.
“Yeah,” Kirkland said. “Charlie picked me up, so she’s going to give me a lift home.”
“You’ll miss the fireworks,” Zeno noted.
“We won’t!” Charlie snapped, obviously reading a great deal more into the remark than Zeno had intended. “Kirk and I are going to watch them together. You know, in private?”
“Have fun,” Zeno said.
“Oh, we will,” she swore, grabbing Kirkland’s hand.
“Weren’t you supposed to be in solitary by now?” Steven poked his head into Jen’s hospital room, surprised to find her still there instead of in the isolation unit.
She shrugged. “It’s a hospital. Everything takes about three hours longer here than it’s supposed to. Colored People Time’s got nothing on Hospital Standard Time.”
Steven didn’t know how to react to that. “Colored People Time?”
“CPT? You’ve never heard of it?”
“Can’t say that I have,” he shook his head slowly, amazed they were having this conversation. Amazed there wasn’t some law against it.
“Yeah, well, it’s kind of a given in some circles. There’s also JST.”
Steven went with what he knew. “Java Script Time?”
“Jewish Standard Time,” Jen said, then reminded. “I grew up in New York.”
“That’s… uh, yeah, I guess I missed a lot, living in the Midwest.”
“What are you doing here?” Jen changed the subject. “If you thought I’d already be in isolation?”
“I came to see my dad,” Steven shot back, a lot more defensively than he’d intended. “I was going to join him, Lorna, and the kids for the 4th. But, he’s not in his office, and he’s not picking up his phone. I tried texting….”
“That’s strange. He came by a couple of hours ago to wish me luck. Said he was just going to finish up some paperwork and head out.”
“Are you scared?” Steven asked abruptly, fed up with small talk.
Jen appeared ready to offer him her traditional denial. Then unexpectedly changed her mind and admitted, “Terrified.”
He sighed. “Sucks, doesn’t it? Being in a situation you can’t brain power your way through?”
“Not that you’d know anything about that,” Jen teased, struck by his sudden U-Turn into sincerity.
“Actually, I do know a little something,” he told her meaningfully, staring at Jen with such longing that only someone deliberately trying to remain oblivious would miss it.
“Oh, right,” she said apologetically. “Losing your mom. I forgot. Sorry.”
“Yeah,” Steven agreed. “That sucked, too.” Though it obviously wasn’t what he’d meant.
“My mom died because of Horace,” Jen insisted on missing the subtext of his words. “I mean, he didn’t shove that final needle into her arm, I’m not saying she was completely innocent. But, he got her hooked. She’s have done anything for him. I don’t know what it was about the guy, he just had this effect on her. He had that effect on a lot of women. I saw it a bunch of times. He was absolutely poison to every single one of them, but, still they worshipped at his feet practically. He looooved that. Shame he was only interested in getting them to fall for him. Once the chase was over, he couldn’t care less.”
“Not all guys are like that,” Steven felt the need to defend.
“I know,” she said quickly. “It doesn’t have to be only that, though. A guy can be bad for you for a bunch of reasons.”
“A guy can be good for you for a bunch of reasons, too,” Steven reminded.
“Luckily, that is a situation you can brain power through. Right, Steven?”
“Right,” he told Jen slowly. Then, unexpectedly, he took a step forward, kissing Jen on the forehead. “Good luck,” he told her softly.
“Thank you.” Jen swallowed hard.
Steven hesitated, then quickly, before he had a chance to think better of it, he dipped his head again and kissed Jen on the lips, holding it as long as she let him, only pulling back when she did. Which was hardly instantaneous.
“Good luck with everything,” Steven told her.
“Good luck, Mrs. Hutchins,” Chase told Rachel after he, as promised, had her dropped off by a police escort in front of Bay City Airport’s Executive Office.
“You’re not coming in?” Rachel surfaced from her near-catatonic daze long enough to ask in surprise.
“I will if you want me to. But, this appears to be a private, family matter.”
“Hell of a time to grow a conscience, Mr. Hamilton. Considering you’ve been hounding my husband for months, I thought you’d be in there subpoenaing records right and left.”
He took no offense. “I’m a bastard, Mrs. Hutchins. I’m not a ghoul.” He signaled for the cop who’s brought them to keep driving. “Besides, I have plenty of time for that later. Good luck,” Chase repeated.
Rachel watched the patrol car pull away from the curb, part of her wishing she were still inside with them. Because, if Rachel were still inside with them, she wouldn’t have to turn around and step into the office where her family’s fate would be decided. As long as Rachel didn’t know for certain, Carl, Cory, and Elizabeth were still…
“This is what we know so far, Mrs. Hutchins,” the executive they’d assigned to walk her through proved both professional and efficient. And, Rachel strongly suspected, utterly indifferent. He was, after all, merely doing his job. “Mr. Hutchins filed a passenger manifest registering the following people.” He showed Rachel the list.
Carl Hutchins. Cory Hutchins. Elizabeth Hutchins. The names leapt out at Rachel in alphabetical order. Just some letters on a sheet of paper. Just some statistics.
“But, did they actually get on?” Rachel demanded. “Did you see them get on?”
“Well, no, I didn’t.”
“In that case, isn’t it possible that – “
“I checked with the ground crew prior to your arrival, and they do recall two children on board. A boy and a girl.”
“You said you lost contact with them,” Rachel switched tactics. “That doesn’t mean anything. The radio could have gone out. That might be all there is to it. Just a broken radio.”
“Yes, ma’am. We considered that. Which is why we waited to notify you until your husband’s plane failed to arrive at its specified destination at London’s Heathrow Airport.”
“So they were delayed! Bad weather, or maybe the problems with the radio…”
“It’s been hours,” he explained. “Based on the amount of fuel they were carrying…”
“But, couldn’t they have made an emergency landing? You should be sending out search parties!”
“Your husband’s flight plan indicated a direct route over the Atlantic Ocean. There would have been no opportunity…”
“My husband was running away from the law!” Rachel exploded. “You saw the police car that dropped me off? It had been sent to arrest him. Doesn’t it stand to reason that a man trying to avoid the law wouldn’t have filed a true flight plan? He must have rerouted somewhere. That’s possible, isn’t it? He rerouted? He fooled you all?”
“Yes, of course, it’s always possible…”
“There! You see!”
“But, based on radar tracking, as well as numerous other data points, we feel that – ”
“He’s Carl Hutchins,” Rachel reminded.
“He’s Carl Hutchins,” she stressed. “He’s my children’s father. He’s my husband….”
“Jamie?” Amanda answered her phone in surprise.
“Listen, I’m sorry, I’ve got to be quick. I need a favor.”
“Lorna is missing.”
“Yeah. Earlier today, she was at Bay City Park with the kids. I got a call a couple of hours later. The girls were there, but Lorna’s nowhere to be found.”
“Yeah. I’m keeping it quiet for now. I haven’t told anybody except Alice when I asked her to pick up the girls, and now you.”
Amanda shoved her follow up questions aside to ask, “What can I do?”
“Brava has a bunch of investigators on staff, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah. Good ones, too.”
“I need you to put a couple of them on finding Lorna.”
“Sure, but, won’t the police – “
“They say they’re doing their best. But, a couple of them, I suspect they think this is just a Runaway Wife scenario. Which means they’re not exactly going to try their hardest. Plus, their hands are tied by the law. I was hoping maybe your guys…”
“Got it. I’ll call a couple, give them your number. Is that alright?”
“Perfect. Thanks so much, Amanda.”
“Jamie, I – I just got some news a couple of minutes ago myself. Actually, it’s what I thought you were calling about, at first.”
“Is this about Carl?”
“How did you know?”
“Alice told me.”
“Alice? How would Alice get the information?”
“She said she ran into Mom this morning. At the cemetery. Mac’s grave. Mom told Alice that Carl had split. I know it’s what we wanted, but, honestly, right now I can’t motivate myself to give a damn.”
“This morning? No, Jamie. Alice couldn’t have known. Mom couldn’t have known. It only happened a few minutes ago.”
“Carl’s plane. It went down in the Atlantic. I just saw the news come over the wires. He’s presumed dead, Jamie.”
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