Her Last Goodbye Page 21

“Want to tell me about it?” Grandpa was a retired NYPD homicide detective.

“A young mother went out to meet her girlfriend for a drink.” Morgan began, then summed up the case for him.

Grandpa reached across the table, picked up Chelsea’s photo, and stared at it. “Have you considered human trafficking?”

“Isn’t she a little old? Don’t they usually abduct teenagers?”

“Yes. But this girl looks young. She also has the wholesome, blonde, all-American look that’s very popular in the trade.”

“I’ll keep it in mind.” Morgan turned to her laptop.

Grandpa put the picture down, went to the fridge, and poured a second glass of milk. He set it on the table in front of Morgan, then he took two cupcakes from the container on the counter and handed her one.

“You know my weakness.” Morgan bit into the cupcake. Only cop families could eat cupcakes while reviewing a missing person case.

“You were born with a sweet tooth.” Grandpa ate his cupcake, tugged a chair next to hers, and sat down, setting his milk on the table.

“Looks like my sweet tooth is genetic. Isn’t that your fourth?” She rested her head on his shoulder for a few seconds. She might have lost both her parents and her husband, but Grandpa had always been there for her. “We didn’t get a chance to talk earlier. How was your appointment with the cardiologist?”

“My heart is still beating.”

She gave his arm a playful swat. “I’m serious. You’ve been really shaky lately. That’s not like you.”

“Honey, I know you’re worried,” Grandpa said. “I’m still on this side of the grass, but someday I won’t be.”

Morgan’s next breath trembled.

“You’re stronger than you realize.” He patted her hand. “You’re going to be all right.”

Unable to respond, she nodded.

“I’m not going anywhere just yet, so enough with the long face.” He pointed to her cupcake. “Now eat so we can work on your case. I might be old, but I still know a thing or two about criminals.”

“You’re right.” Straightening, Morgan licked icing off her fingertips and turned a page in her file. “I’m going to access the state sex offender registry and see how many possible sexual offenders are in the area.”

“Too many.”

“Yep.” She already knew the number was higher than anyone wanted to think about. There were just under forty thousand sex offenders registered in the state of New York. Considering sexual assaults were severely underreported, the actual number of predators was likely much, much higher. A few keystrokes brought up a list of names. “One hundred sixty-seven convicted sex offenders currently live in Randolph County. This is going to take forever.”

“Can I help?”

“Do you want to take the bottom half of the list?” Morgan asked.

“Sure.”

“I’ll get your laptop.” She fetched his computer from his room.

In his mideighties, Grandpa might be shaky on his feet, but his brain hadn’t lost any of its sharp edge. He pulled his glasses from the chest pocket of his flannel shirt and set them on the end of his nose. “What do you want to know?”

“Name and home and employer address to start. We’ll cross-reference them with the places Chelsea frequents. Then we can get more detail on any that overlap.”

The New York State sex offender registry maintained a detailed profile on all level-two and level-three offenders. Home and work addresses, physical descriptions, convictions and sentencing information, photos, vehicle registrations, and specific legal restrictions were listed for all to see.

Morgan didn’t find any sex offenders in Chelsea’s neighborhood. Nor were there any listed in the immediate vicinity of the spot where her car had been found.

But ninety minutes later, Morgan froze. An address on the registry looked familiar. She went back to her list of Chelsea’s activities. A match!

“Chelsea took her car to Burns Auto Shop last month.” She shifted her gaze to her list of sex offenders. “The address of the auto shop matches the employer address of Harold Burns, a registered level-three sexually violent offender.” She went back to her computer. “Harold is thirty-five years old. He served seven years in state prison for the first degree rape of a twenty-three-year-old woman.”

Level-three offenders committed the most serious crimes, both violent and nonviolent crimes against minors and adults, and required lifetime registration with frequent verification of personal information.

“Was the victim a stranger or not?” Grandpa asked. Most sexual predators knew their victims.

Morgan checked the data. “Yes. Stranger. Force used is listed as coercion, threat, and a firearm.”

Grandpa’s face tightened. “Why on earth a man like this is free is beyond me.”

“Prisons are full, and the minimum sentence for first degree rape is only five years. With time off for good behavior, some don’t even serve that much time.”

“Yeah. Yeah. I know. Still. Burns was a violent man going into his sentence. I would bet that seven years in a state prison didn’t magically make him docile.”

Morgan shook her head. “No, but he’s been out for three years with no arrests, and it seems he’s in full compliance with registry requirements.”

“So far,” Grandpa grumbled. “And no arrests doesn’t mean he hasn’t committed any crimes. He just hasn’t gotten caught.”

Harold drove a red Chevy truck. Morgan copied his license plate number. “Since his name is Burns and so is the auto shop’s, I’ll assume he’s related to the owner.”

“I can keep plugging away at the surrounding counties tomorrow if you want,” Grandpa said hopefully. He missed being a detective.

“Are you sure? It’s grunt work.”

“I don’t mind. Work keeps the mind sharp.”

“There is nothing wrong with your brain.” She checked the time. Nearly midnight. Too late to call Lance’s mom. Morgan sent her an e-mail. Then she copied all of Harold Burns’s personal information down into her notes and printed his photo from her computer screen. Tomorrow, Jenny Kruger could dig up more details on him. Morgan fetched the image from the printer in the family room and stared at Harold Burns.

About six feet tall, Harold was dirty-looking. He wore his shoulder-length, gray-streaked brown hair in a ponytail, his bushy beard was unkempt, and his brown eyes were frighteningly emotionless.

Was she looking at the man who had abducted Chelsea?

Chapter Fifteen

The next morning, Lance opened Morgan’s front door just as two children shot out past him.

“Hi, Lance,” Ava called, running toward the driveway.

Dragging a book bag on the pavement, Mia stopped to give him a quick hug. “Gotta go.”

The door opened wider, and Morgan flew by, a piece of paper fluttering in her hand. “Wait!”

She was dressed in gray pants and a matching suit jacket, but she wore no coat and her feet were bare. The hem of her pants was too long and she ran on her toes. The scarf around her neck was more decorative than warm, and he knew it was in place so her kids didn’t see the bruises on her neck. Her hair was down and billowed around her head in the wind. The cold reddened her fair skin almost instantly. In his eyes, Morgan was always beautiful, but usually her appearance was polished and perfect. When he caught her in a casual, carefree moment, before she assumed her professional veneer, it felt intimate, and she took his breath away.

She called out, her voice commanding, “Stop!”

Both girls slid to a quick halt.

“Ava! You forgot your permission slip.” Morgan twirled her finger in the air.

Ava turned around, and Morgan zipped the paper into the front pocket of her backpack just as a school bus turned the corner. Morgan grabbed her girls’ hands and held on until the bus came to a complete stop. Then she kissed each child as they squirmed away and climbed onto the bus.

Once the bus pulled away, she returned to Lance, her cheeks flushed. “I’m sorry. I’m running behind.”

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