Little Girl Vanished
Harper Adams Mystery #1
June 20, 2023
“You’ve been through a lot of trauma in only four months. How do you feel about that?”
I stared at the therapist on my laptop screen, trying hard not to roll my eyes. Not because I found it irritating that one side of his white button-up shirt collar was tucked under his navy-blue pullover sweater while the other was out and askew, like he’d thrown the sweater on at the last minute and hadn’t bothered to check his appearance in a mirror. Nor that his combover was so pathetic no one was buying that he had hair on top of his head, which meant he was hiding things, and poorly, which meant he was a shit therapist.
Physician, heal thyself.
No, it was his ridiculous question that was driving me insane.
Four months ago, I’d killed someone while working as a detective for the Little Rock Police Department. Consequently, I’d lost my job, my house, my money, and my reputation. My partner Keith—both personal and professional—had turned on me.
“Why don’t you tell me what happened the night of…” he said, checking his notes. His gaze popped back up. “October 17th?”
“I’m sure it’s all there in the paperwork,” I said dryly, gesturing toward the screen. I couldn’t stop the self-deprecating smile that spread across my face. “In case you missed it on the news.”
A hint of impatience flickered in his eyes. “I’d rather hear it from you.”
And I’d rather not repeat it. I’d told this story so many times I practically had the verbiage memorized, which, I was sure, gave it an air of inauthenticity with each subsequent retelling. But if this was what it took to convince the department I wasn’t unstable and that we could amicably cut ties, then I’d do it to cut the marionette strings.
“I was investigating a murder case,” I said, sitting back in my chair. My gaze drifted involuntarily to the cabinet under my sink where I kept my bottle of Jack Daniels. “I was looking for a witness, and I was told he worked the night shift at Durango’s Liquor. When I walked up to the establishment, a teen was hanging outside. His name was Dylan Carpenter. I asked him how old he was, and he told me to fuck off. I told him not to enter the store and went inside myself.”
“Did you identify yourself as a detective?”
“And then what happened?” he prodded.
I fought to keep reminding him that therapists were supposed to let their patients tell their stories at their own pace. Did this guy have dinner reservations after this? I had my own plans, so I didn’t mind hurrying things along.
“I noticed the witness wasn’t at the counter, and the clerk was checking someone out, so I walked around the store to see if I could locate the witness. While I was in the back, the teen came in and tried to buy a bottle of whiskey. I approached, asked him for ID, then he ran out the back with the bottle. I followed.”
I’d relived that night so many times. So many exhausting times. And I’d let myself wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t followed him. If I’d let him go. But the truth was I had followed him out into that back alley, and no amount of wishing or manifestation would change it.
I had to own up to what I’d done.
Then again, admitting to it wasn’t my problem. My problem was living with it.
“And then?” he asked, glancing down. I realized he was looking at his watch. Maybe I hadn’t been that far off in guessing he had plans.
“When I went out the back door, he had a gun trained on me. I drew my service weapon and told him to put the gun down. Instead, he took off running. I followed, telling him to stop. About twenty feet from the door, he turned and pointed his gun at me again and took a shot. I shot back. He missed. I didn’t.”
The therapist picked up a piece of paper and scanned it. “The report doesn’t mention recovering a bullet or casing from the boy’s gun.”
“They said there was no evidence he’d shot a weapon, let alone had one. That I fabricated seeing a gun and hearing the shot because my mind couldn’t cope with the guilt.”
“And do you believe that?” he asked earnestly.
Did I? I wasn’t sure what to believe anymore. One minute, I wondered if they were right, but the next, I was willing to bet money I no longer had that the Little Rock Police Department was gaslighting me, not only about the shooting, but about the three break-ins at my house that had occurred within two weeks of the shooting.
It had been suggested to me that those break-ins were imaginary too, but there was no denying someone had stolen a photo of my sister and me that had been taken shortly before her kidnapping and murder. Just like there was no denying I’d seen the back of the man who’d taken it and chased him through my backyard and down an alley before I lost him. I hadn’t imagined that.
“I don’t know,” I said, even though my gut churned at the thought of giving them what they wanted. Of admitting they’d made me start to doubt myself.
“There’s nothing wrong with that answer,” he said with a smile and a hint of triumph in his eyes. “No weapon was recovered, Harper. It’s good that you’re finally acknowledging that.”
But I bit back the retort on the tip of my tongue because that wasn’t what he wanted to hear. He wanted to hear that everything was fine. Just fine, because that was what the Little Rock Police Department needed to hear from their once exemplary detective. They needed to put this all to bed, and this session was the final nail in the coffin, my exit interview for my fourteen-year, formerly stellar law enforcement career.
“So tell me how you’re doing,” he asked.
“I’ve had my good days and my bad days,” I said softly with a small smile. I tucked my shoulder-length hair behind my right ear, making myself look slightly vulnerable. Soft, but not too soft.
This wasn’t my first therapist rodeo over the past four months, but I planned for it to be my last.
“And how do you handle the bad days?” he asked, a fake smile matching the fake concern in his eyes.
I wasn’t about to tell him that I handled it with booze. Lots of booze, preferably Jack Daniels, usually mixed with Coke. The Coke wasn’t absolutely necessary, but he definitely didn’t want to hear that.
“I journal,” I said. “And take walks. Fresh air usually helps.”
Lately, the only fresh air I got was on my way from my house to my car, and then from my car into a store and back again. And the only journaling I’d done was the occasional texts I exchanged with my friend Louise, one of the only people I’d kept in touch with from my Little Rock life. She was the police officer who’d responded to the last of my home invasions in Little Rock. Although she’d been a stranger at the time, she’d become a friend, partly because she’d believed me. She’d left the Little Rock PD too, because, according to her, something was rotten there. I wanted to believe it. I wanted to believe the something rotten wasn’t me.
As far as journaling went? I hadn’t journaled since I was a teenager, when my sister was murdered.
But he didn’t want to hear about that.
I’d made the mistake of spilling my guts early in the process, and I’d discovered the hard way that the court- or work-appointed counselors were just there to sign paperwork and make sure psychopaths hiding behind a badge weren’t running around on the streets. Everything else was considered normal.
“Good, that’s good,” he said, jotting something down on a paper off-screen. “And your move to your parents’ place in…” He rifled through some papers, then looked up triumphantly. “In Jackson, Kansas. How’s that going? It’s not always easy to go home after living apart from your parents for so long.”
“That’s Jackson Creek, Arkansas,” I said, trying not to let my irritation show or he’d mark me down for anger issues. “There’ve been some bumpy parts, but overall, it’s been okay.”
By bumpy parts, I meant that my mother had barely spoken to me since I’d moved into their garage apartment two weeks ago and that I had hardly left the four hundred square foot studio since I’d moved in. “I’m actually going out tonight when we’re done with this call.” A genuine smile curved my lips. “I’m meeting a friend.”
That was probably the first true thing I’d said in the past twenty minutes. I was meeting Louise, actually. She was now working for our county’s sheriff’s department.
“That’s great, great,” he said, writing something down again. “Socializing is important.”
“It makes everything feel more normal.”
“Normal is subjective, Harper,” he chided, then looked up at me. “What do you plan on doing with your life since you’re no longer with the Little Rock Police Department.”
“That’s a good question,” I said in all sincerity but struggled hard to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. “I’m taking some time to explore my options.”
AKA, I had no fucking clue.
“Good. Good.” His head bobbed as he smiled, probably thinking we were close to ending this call and he could shut down his laptop and get a beer. “Any more nightmares?”
I swallowed hard, my smile falling slightly. “They seem to be gone, thankfully.”
Since I’d come home, my memories of shooting the kid had been replaced with memories of my sister’s kidnapping. I wasn’t sure which was worse.
“Don’t be surprised if they resurface,” he said, studying my face. “Change can bring them back. If you feel the need for any medication—”
“Then I’ll contact a psychiatrist,” I said adamantly. “So far, I’m good.”
He glanced down again to take some notes, then looked up at me. “Well, unless there’s anything else you wish to discuss, I think this concludes your appointed therapy.”
“Thank you, Dr. Abalone. I’m eager to move on to a new chapter in my life.”
We ended the call, and I shut the laptop screen, every nerve ending in my body on fire. Without giving it another thought, I grabbed the open bottle of Jack Daniels under my sink and didn’t bother with a glass, drinking a gulp straight from the bottle. Who needed Prozac when I could self-medicate?
I screwed the lid back on the bottle, then closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Other than my trips to the liquor store up in Wolford, this would be my first time out in public since I’d come back to my hometown. In Little Rock, people either saw me as a poster child for the Thin Blue Line or a pariah. I had no idea what to expect here, but at least Louise and I were meeting at a bar.
“You look like shit.”
I gave Louise a sarcastic smile as I sat down at her table in the dimly lit bar. “Hello to you too.”
Considering I didn’t know her very well, I figured I must look pretty bad.
To be fair, I hadn’t seen Louise in a few months, not since she’d shown up at my house as a Little Rock police officer to take a breaking and entering report in the dead of night. I’d been a detective with the department on paid leave after a shooting.
I’d thought I’d hit rock bottom back then.
That seemed like ages ago.
Before she’d left her position in Little Rock in favor of a job at the Lone County, Arkansas sheriff’s department, she’d told me, Even rats leave a sinking ship. We hadn’t talked about it much since, but I believed her. I wanted it to be true because it would mean I wasn’t the kind of person who imagined guns and bullets. The kind of person who killed a kid by mistake.
“Interesting place,” I said, glancing around. “Seems like an odd place for a bar this far out of town.” When she’d suggested we meet at Scooter’s Tavern, I’d been surprised but also relieved. It was ten miles outside of Jackson Creek, which would hopefully be enough to save me from running into anyone who’d recognize me.
She gave me a smug grin. “It’s next to the Grant County line.” Lifting her bottle of beer, she added, “Grant County’s dry.”
It seemed crazy that in this day and age some counties in the state still refused or had strict limitations on the sale of alcohol, but the proof was just a few miles away.
She leaned in closer and lowered her voice. “How are you doing? Really.”
I’d just lied through my teeth with that therapist, but Louise was my friend.
Still, I didn’t want to acknowledge how far I’d fallen. “I’m gonna need a drink before we get into that.”
“Fair enough.” She took my order—Jack and Coke, of course—and headed up to the bar to place get us a round, giving me a chance to decompress. I’d been nervous about seeing Louise again, worried about what she’d think of me now—the disgraced ex-detective who would likely never work in law enforcement again.
She came back a few minutes later with a highball glass and a bottle of beer, and I caught a couple of men staring at her ass before she slid into her booth seat and placed the glass in front of me. Louise had always been pretty, with long dark hair that hung down her back, but she looked much more relaxed and happy than she had in Little Rock. The move to Lone County had been good for her.
Too bad I couldn’t say the same for myself.
My mouth watered at the sight of the drink, and I had a sudden desperation to slam it down to ease my anxiety.
Instead, I picked it up and took a casual sip. “Tell me about your job,” I said, eager to turn the conversation away from me.
She told me that while she loved the sheriff, some of the deputies were giving her a hard time. She was one of two female deputies in the department and some of the men had let her know they didn’t appreciate her presence. The sheriff didn’t put up with their bullshit, but he only knew about a quarter of what was going on, and she wasn’t about to tattle.
“Okay,” she said after answering my questions for ten minutes, her gaze on me. “How are you doing? Really. And not some bullshit answer. It’s me you’re talking to. The person who had your back in Little Rock when no one else did.”
I wiped condensation from the side of my nearly empty glass and gave her another sarcastic grin. “Great. What thirty-six-year-old doesn’t love living with their parents?”
She laughed. “I offered you a place to stay.”
She had, several times, but I carried around a stink she didn’t need to be associated with her. She was already facing an uphill battle in her new department. My baggage would only weigh her down.
“It’s only temporary. Until I figure out where to go…” I shrugged. “And what to do.”
We were both silent for a moment until she said, “What those assholes did to you wasn’t right, Harper.”
My thumb slid up and down the side of the glass, focusing on it and not the anxiety racing through my body. I took another drink, finishing it off. The burn in my stomach started to relax my tight muscles.
“Yeah, well…” I let the weight of my words hang in the air. It wasn’t right, but there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. I was lucky they’d just backed me into a corner and not a jail cell.
“Harper.” Pity tinged her voice, making me flinch. I’d had plenty of people pity me over the years, and I hated it. Anger and frustration I could deal with. But nothing was as suffocating as pity. “I believed you then, and I believe you now. You know that, right? That kid had a gun, and someone made it disappear.”
She’d told me the same thing four months ago, the night she’d shown up at my house after that final break-in, but it felt good to be reminded that someone believed me.
“I’m gonna get another drink,” I said a little too brightly, making the words sound brittle. “Want anything?”
Worry filled her eyes, but she lifted her half-empty bottle. “I’m good.”
I slid out of the booth and headed to the bar to place my order. There were more people than I would have expected for a Monday night. A few men were milling around the pool tables in the back, and some older men were hanging out at the bar. A group of young women occupied the table closest to the pool tables, their gazes drifting toward the men.
The bartender walked up to me, and his mouth ticked up in a smirk. “What can I get you?”
“I’ll take another Jack and Coke.”
He kept his gaze on me, forcing me to really look at him. Something about him rang familiar, but he was too old to be one of my former classmates. I guessed him to be in his mid-forties, but he definitely wasn’t rocking a dad bod. The muscles of his arms filled out the sleeves of his T-shirt, and his dark hair was thick and several inches long. A tattoo peeked out of the top of his collar. There were crow’s feet around his eyes, and his face was covered with stubble, giving him I can’t decide whether to shave or commit to a beard look. But his dark brown eyes unnerved me, like he could see right through me.
A shiver ran up my spine. I was in Jackson Creek to hide and lick my wounds. Not to be seen.
“Anything else?” he asked. “We serve food.”
“Nope,” I said with a false brightness, which thankfully sounded more genuine than it had with Louise. “Just the drink.”
“Haven’t seen you in here before,” he said as he grabbed a glass and filled it with ice.
I didn’t answer. Surely he didn’t know all of his customers. If the place was this busy on a Monday night, it had to be crazy on the weekends.
He finished making the drink and set it down in front of me. “You want it on a tab?”
I headed back to the table, Louise’s eyes on me the entire walk back.
As I slipped into my seat, she flashed a glance at the bar, then back to me. “I see you met James Malcolm.”
I squinted at her. “Why does that name sound familiar?”
“Because he’s the James Malcolm. The one who helped bust that international drug ring.”
My jaw dropped, but I quickly recovered. “What?”
Amusement danced in her eyes. “I admit that I had ulterior motives for asking you to meet me here. Malcolm owns this place.”
James Malcolm had made national news three years ago for his role in a sting operation in Fenton County, about a hundred miles southwest of here, that had brought down an international crime organization. No one knew exactly what had gone down, but the FBI had made a deal with him and then rescinded it. Malcolm had been in federal prison for months before all charges were dropped, and he was released.
“What the hell is he doing here?” I asked, still in shock. I’d thought I was the most notorious person around these parts.
“Good question. He moved here soon after he was released from prison and opened this place.”
“But why here?” I repeated. I couldn’t fathom it. I knew the Arkansas state police had suspected he’d had ties to Arkansas organized crime syndicates as well, but nothing had ever stuck.
“I know,” she said with a laugh, glancing over at the bar. “Seems like an odd choice, doesn’t it? The sheriff thinks he’s up to no good, but Malcolm’s as slippery as they come. He can’t find any evidence of wrongdoing.”
I took a long sip of my drink, relishing the burn as it slid down my throat. This was my second drink in about a half hour—my third in an hour, if I counted the one I’d knocked back before leaving my garage apartment—and I was finally finding the sweet relief only alcohol seemed to give me these days. “You can’t be dirty that long and suddenly go clean.”
“Seems to me it can happen in reverse,” she said, her gaze on me.
My face heated. Was she talking about me? After college, I’d gone straight to the police academy, then paid my dues as a beat cop until I worked my way up to detective six years ago. My record with the Little Rock police force had been spotless—exemplary—until it wasn’t.
“Not you, Harper,” she said bitterly. “Your partner. Among others.”
Keith Kemper. Asshole. Bastard. He’d turned his back on me after the shooting. Tried to get me to take the fall.
The pain of his betrayal was the worst of all. Especially since we’d shared more than a working relationship.
“I don’t want to talk about any of that,” I said with a shake of my head, then took another long drink.
Over the last four months, the life I’d painstakingly built for myself had been turned upside down. The rapidity and finality of it had shaken me to my core.
The last time that had happened was when my fourteen-year-old sister had been kidnapped in front of me. Her battered body had turned up one week later.
Andi was the reason I’d become a police detective, and when I’d lost my job, it had felt like I was failing her all over again.
Louise reached out and placed her hand over mine. “It’s gonna be okay, Harper.”
I was glad she was so certain, because I definitely wasn’t.
Louise’s phone rang, and she grimaced as she answered it. “Louise Martin.” She listened for a moment, then said, “I can be there in forty minutes.” She hung up and gave me an apologetic smile. “I’ve gotta go. Rain check?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Of course. Everything okay?”
“There’s a bad accident on Highway 24, and some of the deputies are tied up with a murder north of town. They’re shorthanded, so they asked me to come in and help.”
Murder? Last I remembered, there weren’t many murders around here.
I wanted to ask about it. But I reminded myself I wasn’t a detective anymore and gave her a wave. “Go. We’ll catch up later.”
She started to get out of her seat but lowered her gaze to my half-empty glass. Her bottle was still only half-empty. “You’re not planning on leaving soon, are you? I can drive you home.”
My back bristled. “I’m good. I’ll make sure I’m sober before I drive. Besides, I have a high tolerance these days.”
She gave me a dubious look. “Harper, I know everything sucks right now, but it will get better. Okay?”
“Yeah,” I said, trying not to frown. “I know.”
She got out of the booth and hesitated, placing a hand on my arm. “Call me if you need to spend a night away from your parents. Or if you just need a friend.”
I glanced up at her, hating the burning in my eyes. “Thanks, Louise. That means more than you know.”
She nodded, her mouth pressed into a grim line. “I’m gonna go pay the tab for both of us. Let’s try this again soon.” She headed up the bar and settled up with a female bartender. Malcolm wasn’t in sight.
I nursed the dregs of my drink until she finished paying. She gave me one last look before heading for the door. Less than a minute later, I was up at the bar asking the bartender for another drink.
The female bartender—her name tag read Misti—shot me a sympathetic look. “Sorry. James says we have to cut you off.”
My mouth dropped open. “You can’t be serious. I’ve only had two.”
“He said if you want another drink, you have to eat something first.”
What the hell? I wasn’t even drunk. Was this some underhanded way of making customers spend more money? Fuck that.
Then another thought hit me.
Did he know who I was? The name Harper Adams was pretty infamous, too, these days. I was either a martyr or a murderer, depending on who you spoke to.
That was rich—a known criminal blackballing me.
I grabbed my purse and my jacket from the booth and headed out the door. I didn’t plan to drive yet—I was smart enough to know my blood alcohol was over the legal limit—but I didn’t plan on nursing a glass of water and a basket of fries while Misti watched me either.
I walked out into the cool February night air. Standing on the sidewalk in front of the building, I dragged in a deep breath to settle my ragged nerves.
Maybe this was a mistake. Meeting Louise. Moving into my parent’s garage apartment. Maybe I should have…
What? Taken a job at Walmart or a car wash? I’d definitely needed to leave Little Rock. I was too damn notorious, whether people approved of me or not. I had no desire to be some poster child for the discussion about bad cops.
Moving home was penance…if I only knew for what.
I heard the roar of a motorcycle round the corner of the bar. It came into sight heading for the exit, but then it abruptly turned around and stopped in front of me. The motor shut off as the rider ripped off his helmet.
I steeled my shoulders, ready to deal with whatever this asshole was about to throw at me, but I wasn’t prepared to see James Malcolm’s furious face.
His eyes narrowed. “The fuck you’re drivin’.”
I shot him a glare. “Who said I was driving?”
His brow lifted slightly, just enough for me to notice in the white neon light cast by the Scooter’s Tavern sign. “Maybe the keys in your hand.”
My grip on the keys tightened, the metal edges digging into my flesh. “I’m going to sit in my car until I’m sober, not that it’s any of your business.”
His back stiffened. “It becomes my business if you get pulled over for a DUI. Or worse, you kill some poor family.”
I hadn’t planned on driving, but his accusation was like a stab wound to the heart. He thought I was that irresponsible? Then again, he didn’t even know me, so why was I taking it personally?
“You have three choices,” he said with a challenging gleam in his eyes. “One, you go back inside and hand Misti your keys until she deems you ready to drive. Two, you call an Uber and leave your car here. Or three, I call the sheriff and tell him one of my customers is about to drive home, and she needs a breathalyzer test. Which is it?”
What the actual hell? He was going to call the sheriff on me?
God, that was rich.
It was also embarrassing as hell. “How about you trust me to judge whether I’m ready to drive or not?”
His eyes hardened. “No offense, but I don’t trust anyone, let alone a drunk. Now which is it? Option one, two, or three?”
While it wasn’t hard to pick, it was hard to spit out “One.” Because I was broke, had nothing to rush home to, and I had no idea how I’d get my car in the morning.
“Good choice,” he said, pulling his phone out of his back pocket and tapping something onto the screen. “I let Misti know you’re coming back in. She’s gonna take your keys until she says you’re ready.”
“I’m not some kid,” I snarled.
“Maybe not, but your sense of pacing while drinking is shit. Now go inside.” He pointed to the door.
“Fuck you,” I grumbled, flipping him off as I opened the door.
His response was to start his motorcycle back up and gun the motor.
I was pissed as hell, but I went back inside and sat at the bar. Misti walked over to me and held out her hand with a sympathetic look. “Boss’s orders.”
I wanted to tell her to say her boss was an asshole, but instead, I handed her my keys.
“Would you rather have nachos or fries?” she asked.
“Surprise me,” I grumbled, pulling out my phone. In all honesty, I couldn’t be mad at either of them. It was the right thing to do, which was surprising coming from James Malcolm, especially given his alleged criminal history. If anything, I was embarrassed. This person wasn’t me. The real Harper Adams had a couple of drinks a month. She didn’t wallow. She sure didn’t have bartenders monitoring her consumption of alcohol.
Misti handed me a glass of water, then headed through a door to the back.
My cheeks burned but a quick glance around the room told me that no one had watched my walk of shame back into the bar, or at least they weren’t ogling me now, which I found to be a relief. I let my gaze drift to the TV screen over the bar, watching a basketball game as I sipped my water and tried to not think about the way my life had crashed and burned.
“Here you go,” Misti said, placing a basket in front of me. “Best damn nachos in Southern Arkansas.” The basket was piled high with cheese, shredded chicken, sour cream, and guacamole.
I took a bite, then released a soft moan.
“I told you they were good,” Misti said with a big smile. “Eat those, down your water, and you’ll be right as rain in no time.” She wandered down to the end of the counter to take someone else’s order before I had a chance to say thank you.
An hour later, Misti declared me ready to go. I’d finished the nachos and two glasses of water, using the forced downtime as an opportunity to study the place. While there were a few rougher-looking characters back by the pool tables, most of the patrons looked like people you’d find hanging out at a pub in Little Rock. Louise was right. Malcolm might own the bar, but he didn’t seem to have stuffed it full of his cronies.
She handed me back my keys, giving me a sympathetic look. “I don’t know what’s goin’ on in your life, but no man’s worth it. The best revenge is to have a life worth living. Show him not only do you not need him, but that you’re a hell of a lot better without him.”
I took the keys and lifted a brow. “What makes you think a man screwed me over?”
She laughed, placing her hand on the bar and leaning closer. “Aren’t men always screwing women over?”
She had a point, and it was damn good advice. Probably the best I’d received since this nightmare began, but it wasn’t that easy. And the Little Rock police department didn’t give a shit how well I lived my life. Neither did Keith.
I pulled out my wallet to hand her some cash, but she waved me off. “Nope. On the house. Believe it or not, I was a lot like you three years ago, and someone helped me. Just paying it forward.” A warm smile lit up her eyes. “If you ever need a friend to talk to, I’m a great listener.”
Was she a criminal too? Maybe not, but I figured there was no way she didn’t know about her boss’s past. “Thanks,” I said, not adding that I doubted I’d ever be back, at least not alone.
Why would I come here when I had a perfectly good bottle of Jack Daniels back at my new apartment calling my name?
Little Girl Vanished
Harper Adams Mystery #1
June 20, 2023