The Lost Girls

Allison Brennan

The Lost Girls

Book 11 in the Lucy Kincaid series, 2016

To Mike & Erin Pettingill, missionaries, who left successful careers to serve the less fortunate, first in Honduras, and now Equatorial Guinea.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The Lost Girls was an emotional book to write, and required more research than I initially thought. I think Google maps has become my best friend!

First and foremost, I want to thank Mike Pettingill, a friend of mine who used to work with me in the California State Legislature. The year after I left the legislature to write full-time, Mike and his family became full-time missionaries with Missions to the World. Mike answered all my questions about what it’s like to be a missionary, the joys and the fears. I wish I could have used everything I learned. It takes a truly special person to give up everything they own to serve others.

Once again, Deborah Coonts-author, pilot, and all-around extraordinary woman-helped with the plane details. If I got anything wrong, it’s because I messed up.

I was thrilled when my cousin Jason Gifford married the amazing Dee-for more than because I like her. She’s also a nurse! Dee helped me tremendously with a pivotal scene in this book that, without her guidance, wouldn’t have been half as good. Thank you so much, Dee.

Crime Scene Writers led by the wonderful Wally Lind is always my go-to place for all types of crime questions-this time I needed information about warrants, foreign nationals, extradition, witness protection, and more. Thank you to all the cops, lawyers, medical examiners, pathologists, and P.I.’s who are extremely generous with their time and talent to help writers “get it right.” I may have taken a few literary liberties, but I try to stay as close to the truth as possible-while still keeping the story entertaining.

Always, thank you to my agent Dan Conaway who keeps me grounded, and my editor Kelley Ragland at Minotaur who helps each book reach its greatest potential. This time she outdid herself and forced me to dig deep into the emotional well to make The Lost Girls hit all the right notes.

Last but not least, my family-for understanding my crazy schedule, for being patient, for letting me bounce around ideas, and for making me laugh.

PROLOGUE

Father Sebastian Peña sat up in bed early that morning, mindful of every ache in his arthritis-ridden joints. Disease didn’t care if you were a saint or a sinner or-like most of God’s creatures-somewhere in between.

Sebastian had always been an early riser. The sunrise was his favorite hour, peaceful, unlike any other moment of the day. But it wasn’t quite five, early even for him. A rustling outside had him thinking a wind was picking up. But then he heard nothing. No wind, no cars. What had he heard in that dream state before waking; what had him rising before the sun?

As soon as his feet touched the cold floor he sought his slippers. He turned on the dim light, then wrapped a thin robe around his broad but frail shoulders. Sebastian had once been a large man. He’d played football in college, before he received his calling. He had been a wild young man, but like Saint Augustine, once he was called, he kept his vows. Still, he wondered at times-as inappropriate as it was-if God had afflicted his joints because of the prideful athlete he’d once been.

That sound again, faint but distinct, came from outside. He parted the blinds and peered out the window into the darkness. A small house behind Our Lady of Sorrows served as the parish rectory, which he shared with Father Peter Mannion. Father Peter was a young priest who had taken over the parish when Sebastian retired last year. Sebastian had both longed for and dreaded retirement. He was tired, very tired, but he loved his church. The families he’d seen week after week, from baptisms to weddings to funerals. The joys and the deep, deep sadness. Our Lady resided in a poor, rural community halfway between San Antonio and Laredo. Sebastian had been in the Laredo Diocese for years, but the last thirty he’d spent here, in this small parish, in this impoverished town. He was here only for a few more months, to help with the transition. By January he’d be settled into a retirement home in Tucson, Arizona-a great relief from the Texas humidity, which worsened his arthritis.

But he didn’t want to leave.

A clang of metal on metal made him pause. A chest-high wrought-iron gate circled the property-easy enough to climb over if someone felt compelled to vandalize or rob the church. Perhaps it was the garbage cans, a cat or opposum in the trash again. Father Peter was far too forgetful. How many times had Sebastian told him to secure the lids?

Sebastian walked through the house. The living and dining areas had been converted to the parish secretary’s office and his private office. No, not his anymore… Father Peter’s.

“Forgive me, Lord,” he muttered as he turned on the entry light. Yes, his pride and jealousy were coming through. He had thought he’d conquered those vices decades ago, but turning over his parish to another, younger priest had brought back emotions he thought he’d never feel again. Along with the sick sensation that his life was over.

For seventy-one, Sebastian was a healthy man. He drank in moderation, had never smoked, and exercised regularly-except on days like today when his arthritis would prevent him from doing much more than walking. His life wasn’t over. He could still celebrate Mass during the busy seasons, he could still participate in the church, he could volunteer. Play golf. He almost laughed at the thought. He’d never picked up a golf club in his life. Perhaps he could volunteer at a church high school as a coach. He would enjoy that, working with youths and teaching them. There were options. He wasn’t dead yet.

Sebastian unlocked the door and stepped onto the small porch. It was a chilly morning, the first sign that autumn was approaching. Later that day it would again be hot, but the morning was refreshing.

He looked around. His body may be failing, but his eyesight was not. The streetlights in front of the church didn’t reveal anything suspicious. No one was climbing over the section of the fence he could see. Father Peter was still sleeping: as he’d walked through the kitchen, he’d noticed that the coffee had yet to be made. The young priest would rise by six to prepare for the morning Mass. Sebastian had never acquired the taste for coffee, though he enjoyed tea.

He heard a faint cry-it sounded like a baby. This early in the morning? A parishioner, perhaps, needing solace?

He walked slowly down the porch stairs. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of light in the dark. He turned and looked down. It wasn’t a light; it was a white cloth, left under the statue of Saint Elizabeth.

Sebastian bent down to pick it up. At the same time he noticed there was something moving beneath the cloth, he heard a murmur.

The murmur turned into a weak cry.

Dear Lord, what is this?

Of course he knew.

A baby.

A newborn.

Sebastian ignored the pain and creaks in his joints as he knelt in the dirt and picked the baby and the blanket up from the cold earth. Holding the infant close to his chest with one large hand, he used the statue as leverage to rise again, then walked back to the house. The child’s cries were muted. Sebastian barely gave the mother or circumstances a thought, not then. The poor soul in his arms was his immediate concern.

Headlights approached from the south end of the street. The high beams were on and the car drove slowly. Sebastian hurried back inside and closed the door. He bolted it, not quite certain why his heart was pounding. He didn’t turn on any lights, over and above what he’d already turned on before going outside. He didn’t want to draw attention to the small rectory behind the church.

The baby started crying again, its sound weak and sickly. Or was it? Sebastian knew little about babies. He’d blessed babies, he’d baptised babies and-on sad days-buried babies. Was the child hungry? What did one feed a newborn when there was no mother?

He took the baby across the hall to his room and turned on his nightstand light. He put the baby on the bed and opened the cloth. It was a shirt, not a blanket-and there was a lot of blood. He prayed without realizing the words were coming from his lips as he inspected the infant. The child didn’t appear to be bleeding, though the umbilical cord was still attached. It had been tied off, but looked unusually large and swollen. Was this common?

He took a clean undershirt from his drawer and wrapped the baby. She was a girl, a perfect, small human child. So delicate, so fragile… who would just leave her on the cold ground? Did the blood come from her mother? The umbilical cord was tied, which meant someone had cut the cord, tied it as a doctor or nurse would. But this baby had no wrist or ankle band; this baby hadn’t been born in a hospital. This baby had been born tonight, possibly only hours ago.

“Saint Elizabeth, please pray for this child laid at your feet tonight,” Sebastian said as he picked up the baby. He held her close. He had never had a child, but the pro ...

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