If Alec McClane had a heart left, it might have been shattered on the floor. As it was, sitting on the cracked plastic chair in the sterile hallway, all he could think about was how someone else’s heart was about to be shattered. And how he was going to have to live through that all over again.
He rubbed his aching forehead with his thumb and first two fingers and waited. He’d known the news wouldn’t be good when he’d gotten the call, but he’d come anyway. Raegan, on the other hand, was probably so excited she could barely think straight. Just knowing all her hope was about to be crushed left a knot in the pit of his stomach that he’d carry with him for at least the next damn week.
Man, he wanted his old friend Jim. Unfortunately, he and Jim Beam weren’t on speaking terms going on close to three years now.
He shifted on the uncomfortable chair, leaned back, and crossed his arms over his chest. A nurse rushed by, stethoscope in hand. Down the hall, a couple of doctors conversed quietly in their white coats and shiny shoes. Pressure formed in his chest the longer he waited. A pressure he knew was rooted in guilt and self-disgust even Jim Beam hadn’t been able to ease.
He leaned forward again, rested his elbows on his knees, and clenched his hands into fists, only to release them in a feeble attempt to take the focus off the heaviness between his ribs. He should have called Raegan as soon as he’d seen the girl. Should have told her not to come. Then, at least, he wouldn’t be sitting here waiting for the love of his life to walk through the door only to leave him wrecked and more empty than he’d awoken this morning.
Holy hell, he needed a drink.
Alec glanced to his left where an FBI agent strode toward him down the long hallway, a grim expression on the man’s angular face. Slowly, Alec pushed to his feet. “Hey, Bickam.”
Jack Bickam had worked Emma’s case. He was the one who’d called both him and Raegan when the four-year-old in the other room had been found in a park not far from the one where Emma had vanished three and a half years before.
Vanished when Alec had turned his back for two minutes to help a kid who’d fallen off the swings.
His stomach churned with another wave of guilt, and bile rose in his throat. But he swallowed hard and forced both back.
“Glad I caught you before you left,” Bickam said. “Got a minute?”
Alec glanced over his shoulder toward the lobby of the small hospital. Still no sign of Raegan. Nerves rolled through his gut along with the guilt, but there wasn’t a whole lot he could do about either. “Yeah.” He turned back toward Bickam. “What do you need?”
“Sorry the kid wasn’t Emma,” Bickam said, brushing the dark bangs off his forehead.
There wasn’t any good way to respond to that, so Alec shoved his hands into the pockets of his worn jeans. “That what you came out here to tell me?”
“No. I wanted to talk to you about the tip we received on the girl. It came from the Santiam Correctional Institution.”
All the worry and stress faded to the background, leaving behind nothing but a simmering anger that was as insistent as any liquor craving. “Are you sure about that?”
“Yeah, I triple-checked the call records. It came in at one thirty-five p.m. SCI’s a minimum-security facility that transitions inmates back to society. They have access to phones from six a.m. to ten p.m. so long as they’re not out on a work crew. And your father wasn’t on a crew when that call was placed. I just checked.”
A thousand memories of a neglected and filthy childhood rolled through Alec’s mind. The man in that prison wasn’t his father. Fathers took care of their kids. They didn’t knock them around, make them fend for themselves, or use them as mules to move their illegal shit. No, John Gilbert wasn’t his father. He was just the son of a bitch Alec shared DNA with.
He was also the asshole who had every reason to want to see Alec suffer. “I’m gonna kill him.”
“No, you won’t.” Bickam stepped in Alec’s way before Alec could move toward the lobby. “I already sent someone out to question Gilbert.”
“He won’t tell you shit, and you know it. If he knew about this missing girl, it means he had a part in my daughter’s disappearance.”
“I’m not so sure,” Bickam said. “The caller mentioned Emma specifically. That’s why I notified you when we found the girl. I was hopeful this would be a major break in the case, but if Gilbert was the caller, as we think, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say he did it to mess with you.”
“You mean to fuck with me.”
“Yeah, that.” Bickam’s jaw clenched. “Look, he could have learned about the missing girl from the news or overhead some of the correctional officers discussing the case. The caller didn’t name the park where the girl was picked up; he named the one where Emma disappeared. It could just be a coincidence.”
Not for Alec. There was no such thing as a coincidence when it came to John Gilbert.
“I also listened to the call,” Bickam went on. “It didn’t sound like Gilbert to me, but I know that doesn’t mean much to you.”
No, it didn’t, not to Alec. The dickhead could have altered his voice or even conned another inmate into making the call for him.
“I just wanted you to know,” Bickam said. “When I hear back from my people out at SCI, I’ll fill you in. Either way, you need to watch your back. Gilbert’s scheduled to be released next week. His six-month sentence for probation violation is almost up, and he’s completed his community reintegration program. If we can link him to that call, I’ll take the info to the judge, but if not, he’ll be out on the streets soon.”
Alec rested his hands on his hips and fought back the rage that wanted to consume him. Regardless of what Bickam thought, Alec knew John Gilbert had killed his daughter. He was the only person who had motive, the one person in the world who wanted to see Alec suffer. It was Alec’s testimony as a teen that had sent Gilbert to prison for fourteen years. No matter how long he lived, Alec would never forget that day in the courtroom when Gilbert had been convicted, the way he’d stood at the defendant’s table, stared at Alec across the gallery with enraged eyes while he was cuffed, and screamed that he’d make Alec pay. And Alec had paid. He’d paid every day since that awful day in the park. Gilbert had been released from prison less than a month before Emma had gone missing. Alec knew Gilbert had been there, that he’d taken Emma in his sadistic need for revenge, just as Alec knew Gilbert had killed her as soon as he got her away. Alec had just never been able to prove it.