The Stolen Girl
Olivia Wesson was having a bad day.
First her diva hairstylist had called in sick. Roberto’s schedule was booked solid, so she had to fill in for him herself. Two of her regulars got their appointments mixed up, and she had to do both of them at the same time during a break, without letting the other think she was getting short changed.
Mrs. McDougall wanted a full makeover, which Olivia normally loved doing. She didn’t have time for it today and had to hand it off to another operator. Then Tennille and Nanette, two of her other operators, starting fussing at each other and she had to referee. Plus answer the phone which had been ringing off the hook all day. And she hadn’t even gotten to last year’s books so she could be ready for her appointment with the accountant next week.
She loved running Lavish Looks. She’d worked hard to make the upscale beauty salon a success since she’d bought it four years ago. But today, by the time the afternoon rolled around, all she wanted was to get off her feet.
She finished blow drying a young woman who spent the whole session bragging about being invited to a party in Beverly Hills, and collapsed into a nearby chair.
Suddenly Olivia realized something was missing. Someone. She reached for her phone to check the time. After three.
She looked around the salon. “Where’s Imogen?”
Tennille was combing out a customer in the chair behind her. She shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Did you see her come in?”
The tall dark-skinned woman with the short copper hair who looked like a fashion model shook her head.
Imogen usually said hello to everyone when she came in after the bus let her off outside. Olivia shot up onto her aching feet and hurried toward the little break room behind the Ladies room in the back of the shop. She peered inside at the small table where Imogen did her homework while she waited for Olivia to finish up before they went home.
It was empty.
No backpack. No books. No pencils or crayons. No sign of her daughter.
She stepped across the floor, opened the fridge, and found the peanut butter sandwich on seven-grain bread she’d made for her that morning. It was untouched.
She didn’t know what to think. Surely the bus had let Imogen off as usual.
She hurried back through the store and out the front.
Her salon was in the middle of the second floor of a two-story strip mall with a white stucco exterior. It was mid-January and cool, though the temperature never got too extreme in LA.
Rubbing her arms from nerves rather than the weather, Olivia peered over the banister and onto the parking lot below. It was about half full of cars. A couple was climbing into a red Volkswagen. No little girl out there.
The bus always let her off alongside the curb on La Cienega. Right in front of the mall. Did Imogen decide to sit down somewhere and—do what? There was nothing along the street but antique stores and home furnishing shops. Nothing to interest a little girl.
A skateboarder rolled by on the sidewalk in the distance. Would she have followed someone like that? No. She knew to come straight in.
Maybe she wasn’t on the bus. How could that happen?
What kind of mother was she, not to see her daughter wasn’t on the bus?
No, this was a good area, Olivia reminded herself. And the bus driver always made sure Imogen had climbed up the stairs and was inside the shop before pulling off.
She should call the school. She turned around and made her way back into the store.
Had Imogen gone out the rear exit? There was nothing there but an alley and dumpsters.
And then she remembered the argument she’d had with her daughter that morning.
She wanted a puppy, and Olivia had said no. She’d told her she didn’t have time to talk about it then. Imogen had gotten so mad at her, she hadn’t even kissed her goodbye.
Had she—run away?
In a half daze, Olivia made her way to the back again and sank down into the chair at the table. Where was her daughter?
After her break up with her no-good live-in six years ago, Olivia had struggled hard to make a life for herself and her daughter. They’d been staying in a bad part of Culver City. A place where she’d been afraid to go out at night. It had taken all she had to move to West Hollywood.
She’d worked two jobs and gone to beauty school part time on a loan. She’d even had to go crawling back to her parents and beg forgiveness for how she’d left home years ago.
Worse, she’d always had to wrestle with her guilt about not being there enough for her daughter since she was working so much. But she had to do it to give Imogen the best life she could.
It was for her. For them.
She sat up straight and took out her cell phone. Call the school. The bus driver made some kind of mistake. She’d straighten it out and everything would be fine.
She was just about to make the call when her phone went off. She stared down at the screen.
Her fingers trembled as she answered it.
When she heard the voice, her whole body trembled.
It was a harsh distorted sound like something in a horror movie.
“We have your daughter,” it said.
Olivia breathed in a ragged breath of terror. “What do you want?” she asked, not knowing what else to say.
“It’s what we don’t want. Don’t call the police. Don’t call the authorities. If you do, you’ll never see her again.”
They hung up.
Olivia tossed the phone onto the table as if it were a snake. She pressed her hands to her face, her heart pounding.
Who was that? She had no idea. No, she had a vague idea, though it didn’t make much sense.
What was she going to do? Should she call the police anyway? No, that was too risky.
She stared down at the phone. Who could she turn to?
She might have gone crawling back to her parents years ago, but there was one person who up to now, she’d refused to grovel before. Her sister, Janelle.
They’d had such a big fight the last time she’d seen her. Janey had said some awful things to her. Among other things, she’d told her she was stupid and would never amount to anything. Well, she was proving her wrong, wasn’t she? Still, they hadn’t spoken in years.
But Janey worked for a big time investigation firm in Atlanta. Her parents had said she was an investigator herself. She would know what to do. Olivia felt a pull in her stomach.
She didn’t want to call her, but what choice did she have? She’d do anything for Imogen. Even swallow her pride. Even if she had to listen to Janey telling her what a bad mother she was.
She was the only one who could help.
Hoping she didn’t end up regretting the decision, Olivia picked up her phone and dialed.