“I can tell they searched,” she whispered. “They did a nice job putting things back, but I can tell.”
Ava thought it was surprisingly neat for an eleven-year-old’s room. At that age, she and her sister rarely saw the floor of their shared bedroom; they had practically used the floor as a closet. Henley’s bed was made, and there wasn’t a shred of clothing to be seen. Several shelving units held fabric storage bins. They looked nice and neat from the outside, but Ava suspected they were loaded with a mishmash of toys, books, and Barbies.
A poster of an unfamiliar boy band held the place of honor over Henley’s headboard. A huge white desk with a hutch for knickknacks overflowed with stuffed animals with huge eyes. A dozen lip glosses and a lighted makeup mirror were pushed to one side of the desk.
“They took her computer.” Lilian ran her hand across the white wood. “I’m not surprised. It just seems to leave a glaring empty space on her desk.”
Ava stared at the blank spot. Did all eleven-year-olds have their own computers in their rooms? Didn’t all the parenting magazines caution against that?
“I had good parental control software on there,” Lilian said as if reading her mind. “It kept her from accessing certain websites. Even some websites that I had no problem with.”
“Did you ever look at her browsing history?”
“I did at first. But it was all simple stuff. Disney and Barbie and games. I haven’t checked in a while.” Her voice faded away.
Ava’s thoughts sped to Internet predators; she suspected Lilian’s did, too. “If there’s something on there, our guys will find it. Fast. It’ll be the first thing they look for,” she said.
Lilian shook her head, staring at the pile of lip gloss. “I should have checked more frequently. But I trusted her to come to me with questions. We talked about what was appropriate on the Internet, and I cautioned her about being contacted by people she didn’t know. I know she did some game sites with her friends, but she couldn’t really chat with other players. She could only pick from a set of phrases to use, like ‘This is fun’ or ‘Have a happy day.’”
“The FBI will be able to see every site she visited,” Ava said.
“I should have watched her better,” Lilian whispered. “I let her be on there by herself too much.”
Ava didn’t like the despair threatening Lilian’s gaze. The woman was falling into a whirlpool of self-doubt and blame. “Lilian. Look at me.” The woman turned, her brown eyes moist. Ava grabbed her hands and squeezed them. “Listen. You are not a bad mother. Not looking over your child’s shoulder every minute of every day does not make you a bad mother. This is not your fault. Do not beat yourself up when we don’t know what’s happened.” The woman nodded as Ava spoke, but she doubted her words penetrated Lilian’s self-blame.
How does a mother function when her baby is out of her reach?
“Let’s get your bags packed.” Ava assigned a task, hoping it would shift Lilian’s focus. She tugged on the mother’s hands, pulling her to the door. Lilian followed and didn’t look back into her daughter’s room. In the hallway she seemed to snap out of her mood and moved past Ava to her own bedroom.
“It’ll just take me a few minutes.” She shut the door to her room.
Ava halted in the hall. That was an unmistakable don’t come in.
This was her new role. As soon as Duncan had said she would be embedded with the family, Ava’s role had switched from being an investigator to being a hand-holder. It would have been nice if Duncan had approached her privately about embedding. It was a bit of a dickhead move to pop it on her in front of the mothers. But she would have agreed if he’d asked her beforehand. And Duncan knew her well enough to know that. Still, she’d hide his favorite coffee mug in retaliation for not warning her.
She let Lilian have a few minutes to herself and went to the kitchen. Special Agent Parek looked up as she entered. He sat at the kitchen table, two cell phones, a novel, and a notepad in front of him. Ava avoided looking at the Christmas tree in the living room. The stack of presents underneath made her heart hurt.
“She says they put things back neatly. She seems pretty pleased,” Ava told him. He nodded and gestured at a chair at the table. She pulled out the chair to join him. Parek seemed like a quiet type of guy. He was compact, not much taller than her, with kind, dark eyes. “Do you know how the canvass went in the building?”
“Out of a dozen units, only six had people inside. A team is coming back this evening to knock on doors again. The art gallery has a camera system that catches part of the sidewalk out front and another camera on the rear entrance. They had a backup of forty-eight hours of footage, so if Henley somehow made it here, we’ll see her.” Parek took a sip of a soda, and Ava realized she’d missed lunch. She never missed lunch. She swallowed hard, her mouth dry. She had to eat several times a day, or she suffered severe headaches.
She would eat and sleep this case until it was over. It was the type of case that she had to throw herself into 100 percent, or she’d feel she failed the parents. And failed herself.
She was prepared for the worst, but she would fight for the best outcome for Henley in every way she could. But she wouldn’t be out tramping the sidewalks or digging through paperwork on this case. Her hands had been tied on the investigative side. As the fill-in victim specialist, her job was to be there for the family. Not to interview the parents.