My gaze flew to Michael’s face. He was pale and staring blankly out the window. When he turned, I saw the pain in his eyes.
“It’s my fault she’s been taken,” he said bleakly. Up until then he had been holding himself erect, but now his shoulders slumped forward dejectedly.
I was so horror-stricken by the turn of events I couldn’t empathize with Michael. I had led the kidnappers to Melissa by putting her in contact with her rich, influential father. I was as responsible as anyone.
“Now, let’s not jump to conclusions,” interjected the cop. “There are a lot of possibilities here. We have to explore them all.” He turned to Michael.
“I know it’s been a long time since we talked, but it certainly hasn’t been five years. I didn’t even know you had a child. When did you make it public?”
“I didn’t know until a short while ago.” He nodded in my direction. “Rebecca informed me shortly after the girl’s mother passed away and she became her legal guardian.”
“So, when did you make it public knowledge?”
“I haven’t. Only my brother knows about it, apart from the people Rebecca has told.”
Both sets of eyes turned toward me, one hard and cold, the other warm and encouraging.
“Miss Andrews?” The cop prodded me gently.
“Only my mother knows his identity and, even then, she doesn’t have any specific details. She lives in Florida. She wouldn’t have discussed it with anyone in this area.”
“I’ll need to know how to get hold of her to ask her a few questions. She may inadvertently have let something slip. Mike, I’ll have to do the same with Steve.”
Michael nodded. The detective addressed him again.
“Other than the desire for ransom, can you think of anyone who may have it in for you?”
Michael slumped down into a chair, his elbows on his knees, and his head in his hands. He was quiet for several moments before he lifted his head.
“Sean, you know as well as I do someone in my position is going to accumulate enemies over time, but I can’t imagine anyone desperate enough to do something like this. It’s too much.”
“I know it sounds crazy but we can’t leave any stone unturned. There’s too much at risk here.”
The cop spoke slowly and calmly; his eyes intelligent and intense, and I knew instinctively if anyone could help us, it would be him.
“Okay,” he continued, “let’s start with your personal life. Could there be anyone who would pull off something like this; an ex-girlfriend, a present girlfriend, an angry boyfriend or husband?
“No, any relationships I have, present or otherwise, have been with completely normal, stable people who’d never stoop to something like kidnapping. And for the record, I don’t have affairs with married or otherwise attached women.”
“I know from experience that some of the worst criminals appear to be completely normal and stable. I’m just asking you to consider it.”
“Alright, I will, but I’m really drawing a blank here.”
The cop sent a quick, speculative glance in my direction.
“Are you seeing anyone at the moment?”
Michael hesitated for a moment.
“I’ve been dating Jennifer Stockwell, off and on for a few months, but I could hardly say it’s serious.”
“When was the last time you spoke to her?”
“A couple of days ago.”
“Were you on good terms?”
The cop didn’t comment as he jotted down the name in his notepad.
“Anything else on the personal front you can think of?” he queried.
“No, nothing. To tell you the truth, I’ve been so tied up with work I don’t have much of a personal front these days.”
“What’s been going on from a business angle? I’m talking about employees, upper management, competitors, whoever you can think of.”
“Nothing that would justify kidnapping.”
He stopped speaking for a moment and seemed to be thinking about something. Detective O’Grady waited patiently, but I felt somewhat less than patient and was about to prod him into speaking when he finally broke the silence.
“There’s something which has been going on, but it’s hard to believe they could be involved.” He spoke slowly and thoughtfully. I couldn’t stand it anymore. My nerves were stretched so thin, I felt like strangling someone.
“For God’s sake, who is it? We’re wasting so much time talking when we should be out there looking for Melissa!”
The detective put a large hand on my shoulder.
“Miss Andrews, believe me, I understand how you’re feeling right now, but no matter how tedious this can seem, we’re not wasting time. We can’t look for Melissa if we don’t know where to look. I have detectives talking to people at the school and any witnesses they can find. Once we’ve gathered as much information as possible, we’ll have a better chance of finding that little girl. I know it’s a lot to ask, but you have to try to be patient.”
I took a deep breath and nodded. He gave me an encouraging smile and turned to the quiet, brooding man sitting beside me.
“Mike, tell me about this other thing.”
“I can’t see how it could be connected, but we’re in the process of being sued by a human rights group. They claim we discriminate against single mothers. Our legal department is handling it.”
“How did it all come about?”
“There was a single mother who applied for a job in our auto parts division. She wasn’t suitable for the job and her application was refused. The woman went to this group and enlisted their help, or maybe they encouraged her to let them fight for her cause because they didn’t have anyone else to harass this month. I don’t know.” He shook his head disconsolately.
“So, they’re suing you.”
“Yes, among other things.”
“What do you mean?”
“This group seems to have some pretty radical ideas. Their name, by the way, is HACK which stands for Humans Against Corporate Killers. Apart from the lawsuit, which according to our lawyers is dead in the water, they’ve been protesting in front of the plant, passing out flyers depicting a man in a business suit pulling a child out of a woman’s arms, and burning effigies of businessmen. They’ve been giving interviews to the press telling them we’re a bunch of Neanderthals who discriminate against women, and single mothers in particular.”
“I heard about it but I didn’t realize it was part of Walters Industries.”
The detective had a thoughtful look on his face. I had also seen the coverage on the news. My first impression had been the same as Michael’s. They were a radical group looking to get their name in the news and damn the consequences.
Detective O’Grady continued his questioning.
“Why do you think they wouldn’t be connected? Seems to me this bunch would do anything.”
“Doesn’t it seem a bit hypocritical to accuse us of taking children away from their mother’s and then turn around and do the same thing?”
At this, he turned and looked directly at me. I felt the full force of those green eyes, but I wasn’t sure what to read in them. Was it despair, empathy, determination or a combination of all of the above?