Jo Ann stepped out of the car, breathed the still air into ice crystals that ringed her nostrils, let Adam’s gloved hand take hers and lead her up the sidewalk. Each step was a thousand thumps of her racing heart. The trepidation, still, after all this time. The phone call had heightened it yet again. Yet again. Lisa Brewster’s voice had betrayed nothing, but Jo Ann knew. After so many false alarms, she knew. The woman’s voice had sounded calm over the phone, insipid even, like that of a friend calling to pass the time. But of course she would put up such an innocuous front, she was a pro. Lisa Brewster had dealt with people like Adam and her dozens of times before. Probably more.

Adam stopped, turned, his hand squeezing hers, gentle, firm, his voice husky in the frozen, morning air when he said, “Why we’re here, Jo, why we’re here. They requested this, the people in charge. It’s a good thing really, why we’re here now. The time has come. Finally. Answers.”

Jo Ann looked up through the blur of tears. Even in the haze of winter’s dawn, she could make out that Adam’s dark eyes were teary too. The cold, the circumstance. Yes, they were full of trepidation too. Still. After all this time. “Why we’re here is not a good thing,” she said at last. She cleared the night from her throat before trying to add, “It could never be a good. . .” Her voice gave way to the chill, the emotion, and her gaze fell to the blanket of snow that cloaked the lawn. No longer was it freshly fallen with tiny flakes settled one on top of another. Even beyond the shoveled heaps that flanked the sidewalk, the contrast of white looked crusty, pocked with shoots of vegetation poking out from tiny craters. Littered with leaves, trash from the street, no longer was any stretch of it pristine. She tried again to look at Adam, but she couldn’t stand for another second to see into his troubled eyes. His eyes spoke only the truth. “Let’s go home, Adam. Please, let’s just go. This won’t change anything. If it could, we would have been told that already. Please, let’s just turn around and go. We still have hope then.”

“Jo, Lisa Brewster called us here. We agreed to come. She’s expecting us now.”

“I know, but I don’t think—I don’t think I can do this, I don’t think I can bear this—what she’s about to tell us—what we already know in our bones. You remember what she said the last time—you remember. No news is good news. We will meet face to face if I have bad news, she said. I wouldn’t do that to you over the phone, she said. That’s what she said, Adam—that’s what she said. You remember—we had her on speaker phone, we both heard it—you remember.”

“I remember, but—”

“I can’t do this—I can’t.”

The large hand squeezed hers again. “Jo, we have to, we have to go through with this. It’s the only way forward, if. . .”

When his voice faltered, she drew in another deep breath, the ice crystals burning inside her nose. “If there is a way forward.”

“Yes—yes, Jo, if there is a way forward. We have to try, we have to find that out. Now. Please, it’s time to face whatever lies ahead. It’s time to find out—good or bad—” His voice broke again, this time with a sob. He quavered a sigh, managed to finish, “where Laurie is now.”

“IF. . . if . . . she is now.”

“Yes. . .if. . . she is, now.” He caressed the back of her hand with his thumb and then tugged her forward along the sidewalk.

Jo Ann let Adam lead her to the red-painted door and the tiny lights that twinkled from the smiley snowman that decorated it. A happy time for the Brewsters, for the rest of the world. Christmas time. And here they were intruding on the Brewster family now. She and Adam, two strangers really, from out of the blue practically. But the woman had requested this meeting. Why now? Why here, in her own home? Could Lisa Brewster be that callous, that cruel, to do this to them now, at this ungodly hour, at this time of the year? Did she think having her happy family around would soften the blow somehow? Would prevent them from making a scene? This could wait a little longer, at least until after the holidays. At least do it in the middle of a warm, sunny day, when squirrels scamper across green lawns and birds fly against a blue sky. Not now, not at this hour of this day.

Jo Ann watched Adam’s gloved finger work to punch the doorbell, quelled the panic in her chest, gasped more ice crystals, swallowed, waited. Adam’s other hand squeezed hers again, this time too hard in its attempt to reassure, with too much emotion dammed inside his strong fingers. The pain made her wince, reminded her that she was awake—that this was not another one of her nightmares. That hope still lived, if only in their fear. She squeezed Adam’s hand, shook it, looking up to meet his eyes. His taut, dry lips were trying to smile at her, so she tried to smile back before her gaze returned to the dirty snow.

“It will be what it will be,” she heard him say. “We have to know, Jo. You’ve said so yourself, a million times. The torture—the hell of not knowing—that’s what’s unbearable, you said so yourself. Once and for all, we have to turn the page. It’s time, Jo. To know what’s on the next one.”

She wasn’t sure she nodded, she only knew that she meant to. Then the door opened to an older woman dressed in a scarlet sweater and gray slacks. A James Avery cross, much like the one she herself owned, hung from her neck. “Mr. and Mrs. Sorber,” she said, “I’m Lisa Brewster, please come in.”

The woman’s pale, blue eyes shimmered against the twinkling door and the lighted foyer, belying their redness and the dark bags under them. She had not slept much it was plain to see. Then the face smiled, and an egg shell of wrinkles cracked across each cheek. Lisa Brewster was older than Jo Ann had pictured her to be, than her voice had sounded over the phone so many times. The bloodshot, puffy eyes, what did it mean? Lisa Brewster should have slept well. This would be routine for her, she had dealt with such an occasion dozens of times before. Only Adam and Jo Ann had not. They were the ones quaking through life without sleep. They had struggled to block out this imagined occasion at every turn of every day. They lived moment to moment, hour to hour, day after day, for months on end, on little more than the fumes of drained emotions. This woman was a pro, she should be fresh—she should have slept.

“Here, let me take your coats,” Lisa Brewster was saying in the same nondescript voice that had spoken over the phone.

“Hello, Mrs. Brewster,” Adam said, stepping into the foyer behind Jo Ann, “it’s good to put a face to a voice finally.”

“Likewise,” she said, gently prodding the two inside the house enough to close the door.

Jo Ann watched Adam peel off his gloves, stuff them inside a coat pocket and then unwrap the muffler from around his neck before working out of his coat. She wanted to stop him, but she was unable to speak until, shaking her head, she blurted out, “We shouldn’t be here, Mrs. Brewster. Adam, let’s go. Mrs. Brewster is busy, it’s the holidays. We don’t need to be here, we should go, Adam.”

Lisa Brewster hung Adam’s coat and muffler on a nearby rack and then turned to Jo Ann. “Please, Mrs. Sorber, bear with me. I’ll get you up to speed momentarily.” The woman’s smile seemed forced as she moved to help Jo Ann out of her coat. After hanging Jo Ann’s outerwear on the rack next to Adam’s, she led them into a large room that glowed and crackled with a fire in its hearth. In the warmed air, the smell of fresh coffee hung with that of the burning logs. “We may be a few minutes.” She gestured to a couch situated to one side of the fireplace. “Please have a seat. May I get you coffee?”

Adam made no effort to move to the couch, faced the fire, staring. “Just tell us about Laurie?”

“No coffee, Mrs. Brewster,” Jo Ann said, “we have adrenaline enough.”

“Lisa, please,” the woman said, “call me Lisa.”

Jo Ann noticed that Lisa Brewster had put on a pair of glasses that magnified the dark puffs under her eyes. “Why are we here, Mrs. Brewster, why couldn’t we do this over the phone, like all the other times? At least we would be in the comfort of our own home. If this were to be just another empty update, we would be, wouldn’t we? But it’s not, is it?” Jo Ann was tearing up again, realized she had left her purse in the car, searched the room for a tissue until Lisa Brewster handed her one. “We really don’t want to get into any of this right now, Mrs. Brewster,” she said, blotting a tear as it rolled down one cheek. “We’re not ready.” She dabbed away more tears. “I need to be ready, I’m not ready.”

Jo Ann let Lisa Brewster take her free hand in both of hers. They were warm, soft, yet firm hands, and behind the glasses, her eyes blinked at what might have been tears of her own. “Jo Ann, you don’t mind if I call you Jo Ann, do you?” When Jo Ann shook her head, the woman continued, “I do apologize for asking you to come here, and for seeming evasive. I don’t want to be—believe me, I don’t want to be. I’m just following instructions. I’ve been given very strict instructions.”

“Instructions for what?” Adam turned to the woman, his hands crammed inside his pants pockets.

“Every case is a little different, sometimes very different,” the woman explained. “Some instructions are procedural, as a precaution, some are specific to a circumstance. The situation dictates.”

Jo Ann freed her hand from the woman’s annoying caress, turned a shoulder to her, looked toward Adam. “So, is coming into your home in the middle of the holidays at the crack of dawn part of the procedure, or is it specific to Laurie’s case? Why couldn’t we meet in your office during office hours, Mrs. Brewster?”

“This isn’t my home,” Lisa Brewster said. “This is a safe house we use for such times as this.”

Jo Ann looked around, realized the room was sparsely furnished, that there were no Christmas decorations in sight. “The front door, the snowman, the lights—all for show?”

“I suppose,” she said, “I’ve never been in this particular house before. Furnishing and decorating safe houses is not my department.”

“Get us up to speed,” Adam insisted, “we’ve been on the road since two a.m. just to be here. You said you’d get us up to speed.”

“And I will,” the woman said, “just give me a couple more minutes. I’m waiting for a call that will give me the information I need to explain the situation. I really don’t know much more than you do at the moment. I only know that we’re about to find out a great deal. My job was to have you here in place when we do.”

Adam sat on the edge of the couch, leaned forward, elbows to knees, his hands clasped into white, bloodless fingers. He stared where the flame’s shadow flickered across the shiny, tiled floor. “So what does it mean that we should be here in place—what does that mean?” He raised his head, glared toward the woman. “Tell us that much, Mrs. Brewster? Talk to us!”

“Please, Mr. Sorber—please try to understand—I’m waiting to learn what’s going on the same as you.”

Adam leaped to his feet, stood before the hearth, flexed his hands, stared into the fire. Jo Ann moved up beside him, wrapped an arm around one of his, caressed it, leaned her head against his shoulder, watched the flames lick at the sooty fireplace. “Let’s go, Adam, I want to be home.”

When a crackling log sent embers high into the flue, Jo Ann let Adam shift away to face Lisa Brewster across the room. “For Christ’s sake,” he said in almost a shout, “we’ve been living this hell for going on two years now—two years. Since the day we found Laurie’s bike on the side of the road—since the day she just disappeared off the face of the earth. So tell us, Mrs. Brewster—tell us something, tell us what little you do know about what the hell is going on!”

Lisa Brewster removed her glasses, rubbed her eyes, set them back into the indentation across the bridge of her nose. After a pronounced sigh, she approached Jo Ann and Adam, said, “All I know is what I’ve been told from our people in the field. Most of it I’ve already relayed to you. As I explained then—”

“But now, for the first time, you bring us here to meet with you face to face,” Adam said. “Why?”

“Yes, why?” Jo Ann demanded. “The last time we spoke—the very last time—you—you told us—you told us you would talk to us in person—in person—if, if it. . . was something bad.” She closed her eyes, breathed deeply, deliberately, until her shaking was under control. “So, so it’s bad, that’s why we’re here—that’s what you said.”

“I know that’s what I said, but I don’t know that that’s why they requested I bring you here now, I don’t. The fact that I don’t yet know tells me that maybe—maybe—no one does, just yet. Or hasn’t, up till now. Our people in the field are in motion as we speak. To confirm, one way or another, the situation, Laurie’s status. Please, Mr. and Mrs. Sorber, please bear with me. I’m on your side, I’m doing all I can to find things out as soon as I can—please.”

“Here’s what you told us,” Adam said, “you confirmed that Laurie was abducted. At least in the beginning. From one of the kidnappers you eventually captured, we learned that she and another girl escaped—”

“That’s right,” Lisa Brewster said. “We have no reason to think this woman who helped abduct your daughter was not telling us the truth. She herself was beaten badly, almost to death, for passing out, falling asleep, whatever, which allowed the girls to escape. From the woman’s plea bargain, we learned a great deal about this particular human trafficking ring. And thankfully, now, she’s behind bars.”

“But that leaves all the rest of them still out there,” Jo Ann said. “You told us they would be looking for Laurie and the other girl—”

“They might be looking—might be looking—for the two girls,” Lisa Brewster corrected. “Evidently, this ring has recaptured girls in the past—”

“You told us there would be consequences if they find Laurie before your people do,” Jo Ann went on, “that’s what you told us. What if—”

“I told you I would never sugarcoat any of this,” Lisa Brewster said, “and I won’t, Mrs. Sorber. I will never mislead you. Yes, there would likely be consequences, should the girls fall back into their hands.” The woman paused, sighed. “And yes, we have learned that this particular trafficking ring is fairly sophisticated. These people are very selective in their targets, and very possessive when they have their targets. They have recaptured three other girls that we can all but confirm. This group seems to pride itself on delivering young Caucasian girls to an Asian market, or at least we think that’s the general destination, by what we have since gathered from other sources. So, the way we look at it—the only way we can look at it—it’s a race, between them and us, as I’ve told you before.”

“So where are we now in this race?” Adam demanded.

The woman lifted her glasses just enough to rub the bridge of her nose, exhaled another prolonged breath. “The most recent details I was given were those I shared with you the last time we talked. A preadolescent girl matching the description of Laurie was spotted near Toronto and then again, only weeks later, near Flagstaff. How she got from one side of the continent to the other, we don’t know. Maybe these were two different yet similar-looking girls. Regardless, it’s likely Laurie came across others on the street, runaways probably. If so, she would need help surviving out there. A twelve-year-old girl can’t do this on her own, for long.”

Jo Ann began to sob. “Twelve now—twelve. She was barely ten when. . .”

Adam moved to take her in his arms, said to Lisa Brewster in a mournful tone, “She’s just a little girl. If she escaped, she would have reached out to us some way, somehow—she’s just a little girl.” Then, as if to himself, he added, “Whoever she’s with may be making her use drugs. She wouldn’t be capable of making intelligent decisions—who would? Why else would she not reach out to us, if she isn’t with the kidnappers? If she’s still . . .” His voice trailed to barely a whisper, “Unless she’s gone.”

“Stay strong, Mr. Sorber,” Lisa Brewster said, “don’t assume what we don’t know.”

“Whatever the circumstance, whoever’s involved,” Adam went on, “whether it’s people on the street or the kidnappers, Laurie—if she’s still. . . with us—she’s under someone else’s control. We would have found her by now, Mrs. Brewster—otherwise, we would have found her by now.

“We’ve come close,” the woman reminded, “but each time we are about to attempt a rescue, she disappears.”

“Our baby girl wouldn’t know how to protect herself,” Jo Ann said, “she wouldn’t know the first thing about surviving in that world. She’s just a little girl. . . a sweet, little girl.”

“They have her,” Adam decided, his voice quiet again, “that means they must have her. Or . . . she’s gone. Either way. . . by now, she’s gone.”

“No, no. . . Our little baby, no.” Jo Ann convulsed, felt Adam’s arms tighten around her, his chest heave with hers. Eventually, she shifted in his embrace, quavered another breath, searched Lisa Brewster through the teary blur. “That’s why we’re here—why we’re in place—in this safe house—where we won’t make a scene in your office. That’s why we’re here—they just haven’t told you yet either.”

Lisa Brewster stepped toward Jo Ann, reached a hand to her. “Pray, Mrs. Sorber, just pray. That’s all we can do—just pray.”

Adam kissed the top of his wife’s head when her convulsions had passed, sat again on the edge of the couch, this time wringing his hands as he stared into the fire. “Tell us, Mrs. Brewster, tell us, have you ever had instructions like this before? Have you ever been kept in the dark to the very end like this before?”

Lisa Brewster took a cellphone out from a chair across the room, set it on the end table next to the chair. She sat, watched the phone, finally said in a hushed tone, “Yes, one time.” She caressed the cross that hung around her neck. “I’ve been involved in more cases than I can count, and I’ve always been in the loop but for once. Just once.”

Jo Ann sat beside Adam, pressed against him, the fingers of one hand clutching at his knee, those of the other balled against her stomach. She looked back to the woman, managed to ask, “And what was the outcome then?” Lisa Brewster did not answer, her weary eyes briefly finding Jo Ann’s before shifting back to the phone. Jo Ann looked to Adam, clutching, moaned, “I want to be home, Adam, please.”

The cellphone rang atop the glass-covered end table. Lisa Brewster grabbed it, pressed it against one ear, said, “Brewster here. . . Yes, they are with me. . . I see. . .Oh. . . Okay. . . Okay, I will.”

Jo Ann was on her feet, watched the woman set the phone on the end table, shook her head slowly, mouthed, “No. . . please, no.”

“What?” Adam was standing next to Jo Ann, his hand searching for hers, found it, squeezed.

Lisa Brewster pushed herself out of the chair, the pale skin cracking into shallow lines across her face, a smile forming. “We have her.” Tears rolled across the shallow lines, tumbled down her cheeks, a small laugh, then she rushed to hug them both. “We have her.”

“She’s okay—is she okay?” Jo Ann heaved for air, pulled away enough to eke the words, “She—okay?”

“Laurie’s alive, Mrs. Sorber,” Lisa Brewster said. “You have your daughter back.”

“Thank God—thank you, Mrs. Brewster—thank God!” Adam cried out, wiped his wet face with the sleeve of his sweater.

The woman backed away, smiling broadly now, said as she started toward the foyer, “Get your coats, your daughter is on her way to Saint Luke’s Hospital, do you know the way to Saint Luke’s? I can have someone here in minutes to drive you if—”

“We’ll find it,” Adam said, following.

“She’s not okay,” Jo Ann said quietly, mostly to herself, “of course she’s not okay.”

“She’s alive, Mrs. Sorber. This is procedural now. She’ll be checked over, treated, eventually debriefed, what have you. She’s alive, Mrs. Sorber. She’ll have the best of care at Saint Luke’s. Until you can get her home, where the real healing begins. For you all. Are you okay to drive, either of you?”

“Yes, I can drive—I can drive,” Adam said, working into his coat.

Jo Ann’s trembling fingers struggled to button hers. She looked at Lisa Brewster, for the first time with a stretched smile, gave up trying to slip on her gloves, said, “I guess this time turned out a little better than that other time, when you were kept in the dark.”

The woman’s own smile slipped away, her look distant for a moment. “There’s something I want you to know,” she then said, “I’ve dedicated my life to rescuing young people from the streets. You see, that other time, that one time when I was kept in the dark, I got a phone call, in the middle of the night. I was alone, sitting in my rocker, unable to sleep. Because, it was my daughter that night. They found her body far away, in a wooded area, off the main highway. Seventeen years old. She would have been thirty-nine last Wednesday.” Lisa Brewster reached again to the cross around her neck. “My Jennifer. I gave her this necklace on her sixteenth birthday. She was wearing it when they found her—she was still wearing it.”

“Mrs. Brewster,” Jo Ann said, caressing the woman’s trembly hand that held the cross, “we’re so sorry for—we had no idea you have gone through this nightmare yourself—we had no idea. We were just thinking of our little Laurie—I feel so selfish now.”

The woman’s smile returned. “Don’t be silly. My Jennifer is in a better place now. Has been for a long time. She’s with God now. Merry Christmas, Jo Ann, Adam. You’ve given me one. The kids on the street, they are my family now, and today, we brought home one of our own. So, merry Christmas, Jo Ann and Adam. Merry Christmas to us all.”

“To us all,” Adam said.

Jo Ann hurried with him to their car, looked up, whispered, “Yes, today, this day.”

High overhead, an eagle soared, against a blue sky.