Little Lost Girl
The first time I laid eyes on Delsey Lee Hawkins was on a cool, crisp Wednesday afternoon in early October. I found her waiting for me when I got back from lunch, sitting on the couch in the small reception area I keep in the outer office. When I walked in, she was thumbing through a dog-eared, pocket-sized edition of the Bible and humming tunelessly to herself.
She looked to be about fifty years old, give or take a page of the calendar. She was dressed neatly, but not expensively, in a conservative navy-blue dress, thick stockings, sensible black, low-heeled shoes and a lightweight tan raincoat that had been worn well past the point where a trip to the dry cleaners would have done it any appreciable good. She had a plain leather handbag which she had tucked tightly under her arm, as if it were a living thing that might try to make a break for it if she loosened her grip even for a moment. Her hands were strong and red-knuckled and looked as though they'd done their share, and then some, of dishes, diapers, windows, and floors. She wore a gold wedding band and tiny gold pierced earrings. Her iron gray hair was cut short and curled into tight little ringlets that framed her face the way lily pads surround a pool of quiet water.
When she heard me come in, she looked up expectantly before pausing to mark her place in her Bible. I smiled and said, "Good afternoon."
She scanned me up and down like a person who'd been warned to expect the worst, and was somehow still disappointed. "Are you Jackson Gamble? Jackson Gamble, the private detective?" She spoke with a nasal, east Tennessee twang. The tone of her question made it sound as if scarcely a day in her life went by that she failed to encounter one or more individuals named Jackson Gamble, each engaged in a different line of endeavor. I assured her that I was, indeed, Jackson Gamble, the private detective.
The corners of her mouth turned sharply downward. "Then Mr. Gamble, you should know that I have been waiting here to see you since eleven-thirty this morning. It is now," she paused, snapped open her purse, extracted a large turnip watch and consulted it disapprovingly, "one thirty-five and I am late getting back to work. May I ask just what kind of a business it is you're running here?"
I decided that a blow-by-blow description of my long, liquid lunch and the lady who helped me drink it wasn't quite the explanation she was looking for. Instead, I said, diplomatically, "One that requires me to be out of the office a great deal of the time, I'm afraid. That's why I have an answering service."
She acted unimpressed. "Looks to me like what you need is a good secretary."
"You're probably right," I told her. "The job's open if you're interested." When that got no reaction other than an even stonier stare, I said, "Do you want to come inside where we can talk?"
"I suppose I'd better, or I'll be here all day." She slipped her Bible into her coat pocket and got stiffly to her feet. I unlocked the door to the inner office and went in ahead of her. I flipped on the lights and pulled the customer's chair around so it faced my desk.
"Can I hang up your coat for you?"
"I'll keep it, thank you," she said, sounding very much as if she feared that if she handed it to me, I might not give it back.
I sat down behind my desk, unlocked the middle drawer, and took out a notepad and a pencil. She crossed her ankles and fidgeted uncomfortably in her chair.
"Would you like a cup of coffee?" I offered. "I'll have to make it, but it'll just take a minute."
"No, thank you." She let her eyes drift slowly around the room, like an auctioneer pricing the fixtures for a going-out-of-business sale. Taken together, they wouldn't have attracted many bidders. In addition to my desk and the chairs in which we were sitting, I could number among my assets a computer, a printer, a bookcase crammed with paperback novels that kept me occupied during slow business days, and a couple of battered, second-hand file cabinets that held all I had to show for my nine years in the private detective business. On the wall above the cabinets hung a framed copy of my license and a reproduction of a Pennsylvania Railroad calendar that had been issued during the 1940s and that matched the days of the current year. For reasons I no longer remember, I get a new one just like it in the mail every year.
The silence finally got loud enough for her, and she gave a short, self-conscious laugh. "Well, now that I'm here, I'm not sure where to begin."
"Maybe you could tell me your name?" I suggested.
"It's Hawkins. Delsey Lee Hawkins."
I wrote that down. "That would be Mrs. Hawkins?"
"Mrs. Jericho Hawkins, that's correct," she nodded.
"All right. What seems to be the problem, Mrs. Hawkins?"
"It's my daughter, Gabrielle. She's—Mr. Gamble, do you carry a gun? When you work, I mean?"
"It depends on the situation. Why, what kind of trouble is your daughter in?"
"She's been kidnapped."
I laid my pencil down and looked across my desk at her. She looked back at me levelly.
I said, "Kidnapped?"
"That is what I said, Mr. Gamble. You heard me correctly."
"Yes, I'm sure I did. I'm just wondering if that's what you really meant, because if it is—"
"I meant what I said."
"Because if it is," I continued, "then I'm afraid I don't understand what you're doing sitting here talking to a private investigator. Kidnapping is a very serious crime, Mrs. Hawkins. If a minor child is involved, it's a federal offense. You can get life just for trying it. If you really believe your daughter's been kidnapped, then you need to get in touch with the police or the FBI."
"I've already tried that."
"They weren't interested."
She looked at me with some irritation. "Mr. Gamble, is there something wrong with your hearing? Would you like me to talk louder?"
"My hearing is fine," I assured her. "It's just that I'm having trouble understanding—Mrs. Hawkins, how old is your daughter?"
"Fourteen. She'll be fifteen next month."
"And how long ago was she, uh, abducted?"
"It's been two weeks ago this coming Saturday."
"I see." I leaned back in my chair and chewed on that. I tried to imagine all the likely scenarios that the parent of a fourteen-year-old girl would characterize as kidnap, but that the police would brush off with as little concern as they apparently had. I could only think of one that made any sense.
"Let me ask you something," I said, "and please don't take this the wrong way, but I have to ask. Is it possible that your daughter might have just run away from home for some reason or other? I mean, has anyone contacted you demanding money in exchange for her return?"
She said icily, "Nobody has to 'contact' me, Mr. Gamble. My daughter is a good and proper Christian girl who wouldn't up and leave home without somebody forcing her to do it. Now you call that whatever you like, but I call it kidnapping."
"Kids run away every day, Mrs. Hawkins, without anybody forcing them to do it. Even good and proper Christian ones."
She gathered her tired raincoat around her and made a move to get up. "I can see I'm just taking up your time, Mr. Gamble. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be a bother to you."
"You aren't bothering me, Mrs. Hawkins. This is how I make my living. Look, why don't you let me get a little more information about this—this situation, and then we can try to figure out whether there's anything I can do for you."
"Does that mean you might not be able to do anything at all?" she challenged. "What kind of a detective are you, anyway?"
I bit my tongue. "A reasonably honest one, as it so happens. I'm not going to take your money or make you any promises about what I can or cannot do until I have a better idea what your problem is. Now if you want, we can sit here the rest of the afternoon and argue about how I do my job or you can let me get some information, and then we can go from there."
She squirmed in her chair again and pulled her handbag more tightly against her body. "My baby's gone. Somebody took her. What more is there to tell?"
"Well, how about if you tell me your address."
"3633 Newsome Street."
I wrote that down. "That's here, in Nashville?"
"You mentioned earlier you were on your lunch break. Where do you work, Mrs. Hawkins?"
"Baptist Hospital, in the admissions office."
"Do you have any other children besides Gabrielle?"
She smiled a tiny smile of inward satisfaction. "There's just my son, Jericho, Junior."
"Does he live at home, too?"
"No. He's in the army, in South Korea. He's been there going on a year, now."
"Okay." I made a couple more notes. "Let's talk about Gabrielle. Has she ever done anything like this before? Even just to stay overnight someplace, maybe at a friend's house, without telling you?"
"Never. She wouldn't do that."
"Not even once? You're absolutely sure about that?"
"Of course, I'm sure. Don't you believe me?"
"I don't disbelieve you, Mrs. Hawkins. I'm just trying to get things straight in my own mind. Now, the night she left home, a week ago Saturday, you said?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"Okay," I said. "Was she behaving in an unusual manner? You know, did she seem nervous, or fidgety, anything like that? Had she been spending a lot of time on the telephone, or texting more than usual?"
"Not that I noticed, but then, when she's home from school she stays in her room most of the time. I couldn't really say for sure what she's up to in there."
I was starting to feel like I was trying to punch my way through a wall of mashed potatoes. "Let's get back to the night she disappeared. How did she get out of the house without you noticing?"
"Oh, I noticed, all right. I just didn't think anything of it. Gabrielle said she wanted to spend the night at her girlfriend's house. I couldn't see the harm in it, so I told her to go ahead as long as she promised to be back in time for Sunday school. Then she went into her room and packed a few things in an overnight bag and left."
"What time was that?"
"It was just about seven-thirty."
"Did you see what she took with her?"
"No. But I know she never got to Ginger's house. She just walked out the door and—disappeared."
"Just like that? None of your neighbors saw her talking to anybody in the street or in a car or anything?"
"The police checked on that. From what they tell me, nobody saw anything." She paused, as if to reset the scene in her mind.
"So, she walked to her friend's house. She didn't get a ride."
"If she got into a car, nobody saw. It was raining a little that night, and it was right around dark, so I guess there weren't too many folks outside who would have seen anything."
"What about during the last few days before she left? Did she get any visitors or new friends you might not have met before?"
"Okay. Was she having any trouble at school? Teacher trouble, for instance? Or did she have an argument with you or your husband that could have upset her?"
She hesitated for a second. "Not that I can think of."
"Well, think hard. It could be important."
She took a deep breath. "Mr. Gamble, I'm not a complete fool. I know what you're getting at. The police asked a lot of the same kinds of questions. They think Gabrielle just ran away, and I can tell by the way you're talking, so do you."
A single tear spilled out of the corner of her eye and ran slowly downward through the furrows of her cheek. "But she didn't run away. She's just a little girl. She's my daughter, and I know her better than to think she'd do a thing like that."
She shook her head doggedly, as if to force the idea out of her mind. "Somebody evil took her away. Somebody who means to hurt her or kill her or force her to do terrible things. And nobody will believe me, and I don't understand why."
I put a comforting look on my face and started to say something about how it didn't make any difference what the police or I or anyone else believed. Gabrielle was gone and nobody was questioning that. The important thing, I started to tell her, was not how she got that way, but what we were going to do about getting her back.
But I didn't say any of that, because before I got a chance, she said in a suddenly firm, accusatory voice, "Mr. Gamble, have you been born again?"
"Have you been born again? Are you a Christian?"
The question caught me off guard. "I was brought up Catholic, Mrs. Hawkins. I don't know if that qualifies me as a Christian for your purposes or not."
"Do you believe it's possible for the Lord God to speak directly to His children here on earth?"
"I don't know." I spread my hands helplessly. "Where are we going with this?"
"Mr. Gamble, all my life, I've put my faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, in the sure knowledge that he would take care of me and those that I love in times of trouble. I was brought up that way and I've tried to raise my own children to hold that same conviction. The Lord knows, though, it hasn't been easy.
"Since Gabrielle first disappeared, I've prayed day and night, asking Jesus if he took her away from me as a punishment for some sin I might have committed during my lifetime."
"And has he answered you?"
She stuck her chin out defiantly. "You may laugh, Mr. Gamble, but yes, I believe he has. In fact, after my experience the other night, I'm convinced of it."
I said, "What happened the other night?"
"I had—well, you see—I've had a revelation."