Title: Little Girl Gone
Author: Margaret Fenton
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About the Book:
When Little Girl Gone opens, it’s September in Birmingham, Alabama, and Claire Conover is steeling herself. September—with its oppressive, unwelcome heat, back-to-school newness worn off, and skyrocketing reports of abuse and neglect—is a time of year Claire has come to dread. As the crime rate increases, so increases the work load for Claire and the Jefferson County Department of Human Services Child Welfare Division. Seems this year is no exception.
When she takes into custody a 13-year-old girl found sleeping behind a grocery store, Claire is swept up in a case that turns out to be far more complicated, and far more dangerous, than initially meets the eye. Struggling to piece together the young girl’s identity, Claire finds herself with few answers and no shortage of questions. Is the young girl a runaway? An abuse victim? Or something else? But things go from bad to worse when the young girl’s mother is found murdered—and then the girl disappears. Claire soon discovers that the mother was involved in an illegal gambling industry in Birmingham. But even with this clue, the case becomes more complicated. Could the young girl have pulled the trigger? Is that even possible? And where could she have run? Did she run at all? In the midst of all the questions, only one thing is certain: Claire has to find the answers, and the girl, fast.
A swiftly paced, suspenseful, and shocking story, Little Girl Gone earns Margaret Fenton a solid spot among today’s best mystery writers. Masterful plotting, extraordinary character development, and a pulse racer of a plot combine to create an extraordinary mystery resplendent with twists, turns, and surprises. An unforgettable story informed by Fenton’s near decade of experience as a social worker, Little Girl Gone also shines a light on the plight of at risk children and the dedication of those tireless and compassionate workers who serve them. A stellar entry into what Booklist hailed “a promising new series,” Little Girl Gone is mesmerizing.
About the Author:
Margaret Fenton grew up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and moved to Birmingham in 1996. She received her B.A. in English from the Newcomb College of Tulane University, and her Master of Social Work from Tulane. Fenton spent nearly ten years as a child and family therapist before taking a break to focus on her writing. Her work tends to reflect her interest in social causes and mental health, especially where kids are concerned. She serves as planning coordinator of Murder in the Magic City, a one-day, one-track annual mystery fan conference in Homewood, Alabama. She is President of the Birmingham Chapter of Sisters in Crime and a member of the Mystery Writers of America. Margaret lives in the Birmingham suburb of Hoover with her husband, a software developer.
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I dread September every year. The summer heat lingers, oppressive and unwelcome. The kids in Birmingham have been back in school for two weeks, long enough for the excitement of new teachers, clothes, and school supplies to wear off. Classes and homework have become things to be endured. The lush green hills surrounding the city begin to fade to an unappealing dull brown, and it seems the crisp cool nights and the red and gold foliage of fall will never arrive.
Other typical late summer colors emerge, too. Like the black and blue of bruises on a child’s legs, peeking out from under a pair of shorts at recess. There’s the chalky complexion of the child who never gets enough to eat in the cafeteria, or the rusty skin of the one who never gets a bath. Reports of abuse and neglect made by teachers skyrocket in September, swamping the Jefferson County Department of Human Services, Child Welfare Division, where I work.
To no one’s surprise the murder rate also spikes. The woman found in the ravine was the area’s forty-fifth homicide of the year. I’d like to say the news of the poor woman’s death was more than mere background noise read by the perky morning anchor while I half-dried my hair in my usual scramble to get to work. I’d like to say I paid attention. Paused for reflection, a moment of silence, a prayer, anything. But I didn’t. It was Tuesday, the first of September, and another school year was well underway. It was the busiest time of the year for me, and I was struggling every day just to keep my head above the flood of new investigations and everything that went with them.
I parked in the lot behind our downtown office at five to seven. Russell, my cubicle-mate, trudged in ten minutes later. As usual, his highlighted blond hair was still wet from the shower, his newspaper was tucked under his arm, and he clutched a cup of to-go coffee.
Russell and I are not morning people. Both of us usually start out in a bad mood, but lately his had stretched into a day-long thing. His boyfriend of nearly a year, Heinrich, moved back to Germany recently to be with his family. They were trying to decide whether to maintain a long-distance relationship and Russell was miserable. I was on the verge of placing a call to Munich and begging Heinrich to get on a plane back to Alabama.
I updated my To Do list for the day as Russell settled himself at his desk. Every day he sipped his coffee, perused the paper, and read me little bits of news before he checked his voice and e-mail messages.
“You hear about the body they found?” he asked, skimming the front page.
“There was something about it on TV. She was found in a drainage ditch or something?”
“Uh-huh. Behind that fancy new golf resort they’re building in Homewood.”
“Russet Ridge? Strange place for a body.” The half-completed complex would feature a world-class golf course, five-star restaurants, and a hotel with a shopping area and a spa. It was going up in one of Birmingham’s more affluent suburbs where murders weren’t supposed to happen.
“Yeah, it doesn’t sound like the usual stuff.”
The “usual stuff” was drugs and domestic violence. They were two of the most common causes of death in Jefferson County. And two of the most prevalent reasons why caseworkers like me and Russell took children into the State’s custody.
Russell continued reading. “It says here she was shot in the head at close range. Found by some kids out playing over the weekend. Poor things. If she was in the water in this heat for more than a day, even it was shallow--”
The bagel with cream cheese I’d wolfed down for breakfast suddenly lurched in my stomach. “Russell, please.”
“I don’t really want to hear the details.”
“I didn’t know you were squeamish.”
“Can I at least finish my first cup of coffee before we discuss decomposing bodies?”
“Sorry. Anyway, your boy Kirk Mahoney wrote this story.”
At the mention of Kirk’s name, an uninvited image of his spiky black hair and blue eyes flashed into my mind. I felt a strange tightening in my chest and a tingling sensation just in front of my left ear where he’d kissed me last. I rubbed the spot, then tucked a strand of blonde shoulder length hair behind my ear. “He’s not my boy.”
Kirk was anything but my boy. More like my nemesis. One who had dogged me relentlessly after the tragic death of one of my young clients this summer. He’d turned out to be quite an ally, though, when it came to putting the pieces of that case together. I hadn’t seen him in over a month. “Besides, I have a boy, remember? Grant.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Grant was my boyfriend. As much as he could be. We hadn’t seen much of each other lately due to my thirteen hour days and his computer firm being awarded a contract to outfit an entire new medical clinic. Grant owned a company called High Tech, and they were installing all of the facility’s new PCs and other equipment. We’d squeezed in a handful of dates in August before the days got so crowded. Our relationship now consisted of a lot of sleepy late-night phone conversations.
I focused again on the list of tasks in front of me. I prioritized it into things I had to get done today, things for tomorrow, and stuff I’d get to when I could. Russell logged on to his computer, and I picked up the phone to arrange some IM’s with clients. IM’s were intervention meetings, during which the caseworker and the clients worked toward addressing the problems that had led to the department’s involvement. Strict guidelines dictated when they had to be done, and I was falling behind in scheduling them.
I was on my third phone call when Jessica, our unit secretary, appeared in the doorway of the cubicle. In her hand was a thin brown folder.
“Oh, no. Come on. You’re kidding, right?”
“Sorry. You’re next on the assignment rotation.” She said it with a smarmy smile. Jessica was the type of person who enjoyed giving people bad news. “Mac says tag, you’re it.”
Mac McAlister was my boss, the Unit Supervisor. He and I have kind of a love-hate relationship. Okay, maybe not that strong. More of a like-dislike relationship. His somewhat tepid support of me after my client’s death in June still rankled. I had no doubt that if that case had gotten any uglier, he would have thrown me under the bus.
“Damn,” I muttered, and held out my hand for the file.
“He’ll be by in a minute to give you the rundown.”
“Thanks so much.”
“No problem,” she called as she walked back to her desk.
I could feel stress tightening my shoulders. Mac entered the cubicle and leaned his own beefy shoulder on the filing cabinet. His ring of white hair needed a trim, and his out-of-style tie hung inches too short. He fingered the cigar in his pocket, no doubt longing for the good old days when he could light up at his desk. I picked up the folder Jessica had brought me and read the highlights while he talked.
“One of the Homewood police officers found her sleeping under a cardboard box behind the Piggly Wiggly on Highway 31. They thought for a second they had another body on their hands. The reporting officer, Mary Nobles, thinks she’s about thirteen. The girl won’t give her name or address.”
“That’d be my guess. Or a throwaway. That’s all I know for now. Go over to Homewood and pick her up, get her something to eat and see what you can do with her.”
“Wonderful. I suppose HPD can’t be bothered to bring her here?”
“I didn’t feel like arguing about it. They said they were busy.”
“Like I’m not?”
“Touch base with me after you get her some breakfast.”
I kissed my plans for the day goodbye and gathered my purse and briefcase. I drove my aging white Honda Civic to Third Avenue North and made my way to the Red Mountain Expressway. The morning commute traffic was at its peak, but I was headed south out of the city so it didn’t slow me down. I took the expressway and within ten minutes pulled up to the square, beige-bricked police department headquarters.
I checked in with the officer at the desk, and as I was signing in I heard a familiar voice.
“Well, hey there, Miss Conover.”
I looked up from the sheet to see an officer enter from the back of the station. He was in uniform, his gun dangling from his right hip.
“Oh, hi, Officer Ford.”
“Chip,” I repeated with a nod. Chip and I had worked together on a couple of pickup orders, taking kids into custody. He loved his job as a cop, worshiped his badge, and probably slept with a loaded gun under his pillow. He was a big ball of us-against-the-scum-the-earth, Dirty-Harry-movie fueled testosterone. I couldn’t stand him.
Chip ran a hand over his dark blond high-and-tight. “You here for the girl?”
“She’s in the break room. I’ll take you back.”
I clipped a temporary pass to the pink and white lanyard around my neck that held my DHS ID and entered the back of the station with Chip leading the way. “She’s not real talkative,” he said.
“So I hear.”
“Mary’s one of our best officers and she hasn’t been able to get jack out of her. I told the girl that if somebody had messed with her, all she had to do was tell me and I’d take care of him. Put him under the goddamn jail, you know what I mean?”
I winced in frustration. Chip had just made my job a hell of a lot harder. If this girl was a victim of sexual abuse, the last thing in the world I wanted him to talk about was what could happen to the perpetrator. First, prosecution in most cases was unlikely, and second, most kids didn’t want the abuser to go jail, especially if it was a loved one. For many kids the thought of putting daddy or uncle in prison was too much to bear, no matter what he’d done. I needed to figure out what had happened first, make sure she was safe, and let justice sort itself out later.
A small room off the narrow hallway held two tables and a couple of vending machines. An old color TV was perched on top of a humming refrigerator. A fluffy morning talk show played with the volume muted.
A uniformed black policewoman sat in silence at one of the tables, writing on a thick clipboard, next to a teenaged girl. The girl had an open can of Diet Coke in front of her. Standing in the doorway of the break room, I got my first look at my new charge.