Today and tomorrow The Inquirer is printing exclusive excerpts from Lisa Scottoline's new novel, "Look Again," which will be published April 14.
Ellen Gleeson was unlocking her front door when something in the mail caught her attention. It was a white card with photos of missing children, and one of the little boys looked oddly like her son. She eyed the photo as she twisted her key in the lock, but the mechanism was jammed, probably because of the cold. Snow encrusted SUVs and swingsets, and the night sky was the color of frozen blueberries.
Ellen couldn't stop looking at the white card, which read HAVE YOU SEEN THIS CHILD? The resemblance between the boy in the photo and her son was uncanny. They had the same wide-set eyes, smallish nose, and lopsided grin. Maybe it was the lighting on the porch. Her fixture had one of those bulbs that was supposed to repel bugs but only colored them yellow. She held the photo closer, but came to the same conclusion. The boys could have been twins.
Weird, Ellen thought. Her son didn't have a twin. She had adopted him as an only child.
She jiggled the key in the lock, suddenly impatient. It had been a long day at work, and she was losing her grip on her purse, briefcase, the mail, and a bag of Chinese take-out. The aroma of barbequed spareribs wafted from the top, setting her stomach growling, and she twisted the key harder.
The lock finally gave way, the door swung open, and she dumped her stuff onto the side table and shed her coat, shivering happily in the warmth of her cozy living room. Lace curtains framed the windows behind a red-and-white checked couch, and the walls were stenciled with cows and hearts, a cutesy touch she liked more than any reporter should. A plastic toy chest overflowed with plush animals, Spot board books, and Happy Meal figurines, decorating never seen in House & Garden.
"Mommy, look!" Will called out, running toward her with a paper in his hand. His bangs blew off his face, and Ellen flashed on the missing boy from the white card in the mail. The likeness startled her before it dissolved in a wave of love, powerful as blood.
"Hi, honey!" Ellen opened her arms as Will reached her knees, and she scooped him up, nuzzling him and breathing in the oaty smell of dry Cheerios and the faint almond of the Playdoh that stuck to his overalls.
"Eww, your nose is cold, Mommy."
"I know. It needs love."
Will giggled, squirming and waving the drawing. "Look what I made! It's for you!"
"Let's see." Ellen set him down and looked at his drawing, of a horse grazing under a tree. It was done in pencil and too good to be freehand. Will was no Picasso, and his go-to subject was trucks. "Wow, this is great! Thank you so much."
"Hey, Ellen," said the babysitter, Connie Mitchell, coming in from the kitchen with a welcoming smile. Connie was short and sweet, soft as a marshmallow in a white sweatshirt that read Penn State, which she wore with wide-leg jeans and slouchy Uggs. Her brown eyes were bracketed by crow's feet and her chestnut ponytail was shot through with gray, but Connie had the enthusiasm, if not always the energy, of a teenager. She asked, "How was your day?"
"Crazy busy. How about you?"
"Just fine." Connie answered, which was only one of the reasons that Ellen counted her as a blessing. She'd had her share of babysitter drama, and there was no feeling worse than leaving your child with a sitter who wasn't speaking to you.
Will was waving his picture, still excited. "I drew it! All by myself!"
"He traced it from a coloring book," Connie said under her breath. She crossed to the coat closet and retrieved her parka.
"I drew it!" Will's forehead buckled into a frown.
"I know, and you did a great job." Ellen stroked his silky head. "How was swimming, Con?"
"Fine. Great." Connie put on her coat and flicked her ponytail out of the collar with a deft backhand. "He was a little fish." She got her brown purse and packed totebag from the windowseat. "Will, tell Mommy how great you did without the kickboard."
Will pouted, a mood-swing typical of toddlers and manic-depressives.
Connie zipped up her coat. "Then we drew pictures, right? You told me Mommy liked horses."
"I drew it," Will said, cranky.
"I love my picture, sweetie." Ellen was hoping to stave off a kiddie meltdown and she didn't blame him for it. He was plainly tired, and a lot was asked of three-year-olds, these days. She asked Connie, "He didn't nap, did he?"
"I put him down, but he didn't sleep."
"Too bad." Ellen hid her disappointment. If Will didn't nap, she wouldn't get any time with him before bed.
Connie bent down to him. "See ya later. . ."
Will was supposed to say "alligator," but he didn't. His lower lip was already puckering.
"You wanna say goodbye?" Connie asked.
Will shook his head, his eyes averted and his arms loose at his sides. He wouldn't make it through a book tonight, and Ellen loved to read to him. Her mother would turn over in her grave if she knew Will was going to bed without a book.
"All right then, bye-bye," Connie said, but Will didn't respond, his head downcast. The babysitter touched his arm. "I love you, Will."
Ellen felt a twinge of jealousy, however unreasonable. "Thanks again," she said, and Connie left, letting in an icy blast of air. Then she closed and locked the door.
"I DREW IT!" Will dissolved into tears, and the drawing fluttered to the hardwood floor.
"Aw, baby. Let's have some dinner."
"All by myself!"
"Come here, sweetie." Ellen reached for him but her hand hit the bag of Chinese food, knocking it to the floor and scattering the mail. She righted it before the food spilled, and her gaze fell on the white card with the photo of the missing boy.
She picked up the bag of Chinese food and left the mail on the floor.
For the time being.
Tomorrow: Chapter 2.
Lisa Scottoline's column, "Chick Wit," appears Sundays in the Arts & Entertainment section.