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Gingerbread Man

Gingerbread Man

Titel: Gingerbread Man
Autoren: Maggie Shayne
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ONE
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    ARE MY CHILDREN still alive?" Sara Prague asked the question in a quiet, steady voice that he heard very clearly despite the noise around her. Cops coming and going, keyboards clicking, phones ringing. She looked haggard. Hard. She hadn't always, Vince figured. The worry lines bracketing her eyes, her mouth, the dry skin, the chapped lips, the sense that she really didn't give a damn what she looked like—those things had been strangers to her that first day. The day her kids hadn't come home from school. Now those lines, that hardness, had made themselves at home. It looked as if they planned to stay awhile. This shouldn't have happened to Sara Prague, a PTA mom whose world revolved around her kids. It shouldn't have happened to her husband. Mike, full-time plumber and part-time Little League coach. It shouldn't happen to anyone. Ever.
    Vince walked around his desk and eased Sara Prague into a cracked vinyl chair, ignoring the chaos around them. He poured her some stale coffee from the pot on the nearby stand, just as he had every day for the past three weeks. She came in here like clockwork—something the Center for Missing and Exploited Children had probably told her to do. He thought she would keep doing it, too. For years, if necessary.
    It wouldn't be necessary, though.
    She took the foam cup and sipped automatically. It was all part of their daily ritual. ''You haven't answered my question. Detective. Are Bobby and Kara still alive?"
    "Mrs. Prague, we're doing everything we possibly can." He walked back around his gray metal desk, pulled out his chair, sat down. It gave him a chance to school his face. It gave him a chance not to look at hers. She was just... bleak. Looking into the woman's eyes was like looking into a black hole. Nothing left. "Every lead is being meticulously followed. We're pursuing every avenue of—"
    "I don't want the party line you give to the press, Detective O'Mally. I want the truth."
    Things crossed his mind. Things every cop knew—like the fact that, in most cases, kids abducted by strangers are either found in the first twenty-four hours or not found at all. Not alive, at any rate. He shook the thought away. It was irrelevant. This was
his
case. The outcome would be different this time. He wouldn't fail.
    He forced himself to look her in the eye and managed not to shiver at the dead gray chill of her gaze. "I do think they're alive," he told her. "And I'll keep thinking it until and unless I have a reason to think otherwise." He painted his face with a hopeful expression, reached across the desk, and squeezed her cool, limp hand. "Try to hold on to hope, Mrs. Prague."
    "I have to. Detective. I don't have anything else left." Pulling her hand away, she set her coffee cup on his desk, adding a new ring to a file folder already covered with them. She reached inside her purse.
    Vince bit back a groan. God, here came more pictures. He couldn't take much more of this daily torture. Then again, he didn't imagine it even began to compare to hers.
    "I brought this for you." She pulled it out—a silver frame that folded in half, like a book. With her free hand she pushed aside some papers—the ring-marked file folder, the wrapper from his mc-breakfast—making a single bare spot on his desk. Then she set the frame there so that it faced him. One side held a photo of five-year-old Kara. Dimples. Freckles. Carrot-colored pigtails and sky-blue eyes. She held a scrawny tiger kitten in her lap. The other side of the frame held a photo of seven-year-old Bobby, posing in his Little League uniform, bat at the ready.
    Keeping a professional distance had never been what Vince O'Mally did best. Hell, it was the one thing he wished he
could
do by the book. But he wasn't a by-the-book kind of a cop. His methods were more instinct than science. His gut had gotten him further than any procedural manual or training course ever would. He trusted it. But sometimes it got him too close.
    And this was one of those times.
    This woman—coming in here every day, with her photos and her red, puffy, lifeless eyes—was dragging him into her anguish. He barely slept nights anymore. Every spare second, on duty or off, he was working this case. It gripped him in a way nothing ever had.
    Sara Prague was a needy woman. Not a weak woman, but needy. He didn't do well with needy women. He tended to want to save them. Always a mistake.
    "Mrs. Prague ...," he began.
    "I notice the other photos I've brought

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