The place was just a storefront between a wig store and a real estate office in a neglected strip mall on Florin Road. Shelly Lambert shaded her eyes in the percolating heat of the parking lot and squinted at the cloth banner stretching across the inside of the show window:
MISSING AND EXPLOITED CHILDREN COALITION
The sign shimmered and danced in the heat and, like shards of broken glass, bits and pieces of stabbing pain flashed brightly into Shelly's inner eye. Cubby. Police.
It all crashed back down on her. Her husband yelling at her. Scenes. Bitter fights. Despair. And flashes of her indecision, anger and defiance-but mostly flashes of her grief and pain, her constant suffering; the panic that even now welled up without warning and engulfed her in helpless anguish.
It had been eight long years, yet to Shelly it was only yesterday. If Cubby were alive today, he would be a nineteen-year old, fresh out of high school, driving a car ... Shelly caught herself and shook her head. She took a deep breath and closed the door to her car.
Inside the store the temperature was as hot as the parking lot outside, maybe hotter. Electric fans blew molten air around the dozen busy volunteers who worked at long folding tables piled with documents and ringing telephones. The volunteers wore name tags pinned to their chests.
Most of the workers only had electric typewriters, but one table held a fax machine and a computer. Both looked outdated. A police scanner next to the computer sputtered and crackled at intervals.
The dusty suffocating air smelled of stale powder and perfume with an undertone of burgers and fried chicken. The walls of the former store had been plastered with hundreds of notes, sketches and photographs, mostly photographs of children. Although the staff was almost exclusively composed of women, Shelly noted that there were no plants or flowers, nor had there been any attempt at all to make the place look homey. That did not surprise her; she knew the feeling.
A slender middle-aged woman approached Shelly. Her hair was dark, threaded with strands of white. Behind designer glasses the woman's eyes crinkled with kindness.
"Hi, could I help you?" Her voice was surprisingly booming and echoed through the room above the hollow murmur of other voices.
Shelly extended a well-groomed hand and introduced herself. "I was looking for Mrs. Bloss..."
The woman gripped Shelly's hand, "Irene. Just call me Irene. Well, as I told you on the phone, Shelly, we can never get enough help." She tossed her head and chuckled. "If you come back tomorrow, I'll say, welcome aboard!" She paused and slowly appraised Shelly's trim figure, dark straight bob and intelligent gray eyes. She did not miss the diamond solitaire on Shelly's right ring finger or her clothing. "That outfit didn't come from Wal-Mart," she observed.
Shelly laughed disarmingly. She made a deprecating gesture. "I'm a careful shopper."
Irene Bloss introduced Shelly around to the other volunteers. Their ages ranged from seventeen or so to over sixty. They all wore dedicated and harassed expressions on their faces. Their dedication displayed itself in their body language as well.
There was only one man in the room, a thin bespectacled fellow in his late fifties. Later Shelly would learn that he had lost a grandson the year before.
Phones rang intermittently. Voices, some soft, some shrill, chattered and echoed against the bare walls.
A table bore a small sign that read:
SE HABLA ESPAÑOL.
From behind the table a slab-sided young woman rose to her feet.
"I'm Vera Rosaria." She smiled warmly, showing her strong white teeth. She squeezed Shelly's hand. "The things that go on--you just wouldn't believe. I could tell you about Thailand--"
"Oh, I believe you, all right," Shelly said. "I believe. That's why I'm here." But inside she quaked. Maybe it had been a big mistake to come here after all. Part of her wanted to turn around and get away from here, run right now, run away from the heat, the dust, the chattering women--she wanted to crawl back into her shell where she belonged. But before Shelly could formulate a plan, an excuse, Irene Bloss had hustled her into the back room that served as a snack room and storage area for the volunteers.
Cardboard file boxes covered one wall, stacked together in jumbled piles. Suspended from the ceiling, a fan slowly stirred the hot air.
"Sometimes it overwhelms me. It overwhelms all of us," Irene said. She smiled. "Expect that. Like poor Vera there. Just don't get her started." Irene poured coffee. "Sorry, we haven't got the money so far to get the air conditioning fixed."
The two women sat down at a 50's dinette table. A pink box, still half full of doughnuts, sat on the table.
"Okay, so tell me, what made you decide to become a volunteer, Shelly? I mean, forgive me for being so blunt, but you'd be surprised how many volunteers come in here all gung ho only to disappear after a day or two, people who just can't deal with the pain and depression this place brings with it ... or the work."
Shelly shrugged, faintly hurt that Irene had struck so close to home. Then she stiffened. No, not hurt. She was angry. What does she think I am, some sort of society girl out slumming?
"I think I can stick it out," she said, making a decision. "I've been thinking about volunteering for some time, actually." She bit her lip and looked closely at Irene. "You probably wouldn't remember, but eight years ago my son--" Her voice caught and she had to stop for a moment. She regained control of the wash of emotion that nearly overcame her, and then went on as it came suddenly gushing out. "My little boy was playing just outside our apartment. I mean--I was right there. I hardly took my eye off him for a minute. And suddenly he was just--gone." The tears she had held back abruptly filled her eyes and she dabbed at them with a handkerchief. "He was gone," she finished, "just like that. Gone..."
Irene Bloss's expression had changed, softened. She reached across the table and patted Shelly's free hand. "Of course--Lambert. I should've connected the name." She remained silent for a moment, and then said, "They found him..."
"Yes, they found him--what was left of his little body." The glass shards of memory stabbed into her mind again. Brief, violent glittering flashes. Shelly took a sip of her coffee and winced at its bitterness. She leaned forward. "Well, we had to go back to square one. We not only lost our baby; we lost our marriage. I don't know. Things just began to build up. Resentments. We began to blame each other. My husband always acted as if the whole thing was my fault. That I was somehow solely responsible. In fact for a long long time, I did believe it was all my fault. I even had to go into analysis. It's been eight years now. The pain ... I began to think I'd never recover. I guess I won't really, but I suddenly realized that I can't help Cubby or myself, or anyone else by spending the rest of my life in mourning." She sighed. "In the end the marriage broke up. It didn't really break up; it just died. Maybe it would've happened anyway.
"I tried going back to school. That helped. I'm a paralegal now. That's what I do. I--well, finally, after all this time I got tired of feeling sorry for myself and decided to do something. I know nothing I can do will ever bring Cubby back, but I thought maybe I could do something ... I thought it might give me a chance to sort of redeem myself..."
Irene patted her hand. "I don't think you have to redeem yourself, Shelly, but there certainly is something you can do. You can do a lot.
"Everyone in here has lost a loved one, including me, but I'm tired of telling my story. I'll tell you about it some other time." She leaned back. "Personally, I believe this is the best kind of therapy in the world, my dear. You're right about one thing. We can't bring back our loved ones, and we really don't bring back but a fraction of the people who go missing. But at least by being here we can show people that somebody cares--that they're not alone, that someone shares their pain and suffering.
"You know--" she went on, "--sometimes I think the scariest thing of all is having that feeling that nobody cares. Most people don't really pay attention to those pictures on milk cartons and flyers. I know that. I know that in the public mind, it's not--"
One of the women, a dark eighteen-year old with the name tag, LaVonna, stuck her head through the door.
"We just got the word on another missing child," she announced, "and not far from here, either."
Irene Bloss frowned and stood up. She went into the front and came back a moment later.
"This could make an interesting start for you, Shelly. Come on. Let's get out there. You can get a first-hand look at what goes on when something like this happens."
They got into Irene's cranberry Pontiac. The searing heat inside the car closed in on them.
"When did this happen," Shelly yelled over the whine of the air-conditioning fan.
"The report just came in. We may get there before the police." Irene smiled, casting a sidelong glance at Shelly. "It wouldn't be the first time."
Shelly's eyes widened. "How on earth do you do that?" But even as she spoke, her mind flashed to the police scanner she had seen back in the office.
Irene's smile revealed her satisfaction.
"Our spies are everywhere. The police have always been slow getting started on these things, but they're getting better. I understand their problem. The old story: too few police and too much crime to handle." She shrugged. "Besides, in a case like this, it's hard for them to drop everything when, nine times out of ten, the child just stopped to visit a friend on the way home from school or something." She drove in silence for a moment, then took a breath and started talking again.
"A few years ago, a girl disappeared while she was washing the family car. Right here in Sacramento. Her mother came out to call her in for dinner and there was the wet car, the bucket of water, the soapy sponge on the ground--but no daughter. Well that definitely looked serious and everybody swung into action: us, the FBI--everybody. And then a couple of days later we found out the girl had run off with her boy friend. Dropped her sponge and hopped in his car with him. Just like that." Irene Bloss sighed, braking for a traffic light. "No wonder the police are cautious.
"But for every case like that, how many abductions are the real thing? So to me the important thing is, if that girl had been abducted, somebody was doing something about it. The first few hours can be so critical. Memories are fresh. Witnesses are still around. If we can get a good description of the abductor--or his car--we're halfway home, because most sex offenders aren't new to the game. They're already known to the police. We don't often get that lucky..."
"But offenders have to be registered now, don't they?"
"Sure, they're supposed to be."
The car was much cooler now and Shelly leaned forward and enjoyed the frosty air that blew across her face. Irene turned down the air conditioning fan so that she might lower her voice.
"Anyway, that's where we come in. We try to get out to the scene as quickly as possible and gather what information we can. And get pictures of the missing subject. That way, while the police are trying to decide whether this is a legitimate kidnapping or just a runaway, we start getting the message out."
"But if it does turn out to be a false alarm?"
Irene smiled. "We start the wheels rolling anyway, Shelly. Sure, we just spin them sometimes, lots of times in fact, but that one time when it counts--" her eyes darkened, "--that one time, Shelly, we could make the difference between life and death."