On a bench at the edge of the Lithia Park playground, someone is stalking two-year-old Emily Michaelson as she plays with her eighteen-year-old half-sister, Brandy. The child’s laughter curves through the sunlight, as if on wings. The stalker is more enamored than ever, but aware of Brandy’s vigilance with Emily, knows a kidnapping won’t be easy. Planning to gain Emily’s trust, the stalker gives her a necklace—little girls love pretty things. A few days later, Brandy and Emily arrive at the park for the Children's Health Fair. The stalker sees them enter the public restroom and seizes the opportunity.
Not long after Emily's disappearance, Detective Radhauser finds her rainbow-colored sneakers in Ashland Creek, their laces tied together in double knots. Brandy’s father and stepmother blame Brandy for Emily’s disappearance. Radhauser feels sorry for her, but insists she stay out of the investigation. Brandy can’t do that. She is obsessed with finding out who took her little sister, and why. Will she find Emily in time?
Excerpt – When Time Is A River
I sat on a concrete bench exactly twenty yards from the Lithia Park playground and waited for Emily. For thirty-two days, I’d studied her movements, followed her and Brandy, the teenager Emily called Band-Aid, trying to determine exactly how and when to execute my plan.
As the sun made its low circuit across a crisp and cloudless sky, I felt grateful to be free again. To be in this place where the air smelled like earth and pine bark.
I opened my leather attaché case and removed my binoculars and The Sibley Guide to Birds. I set the book in a visible spot beside me on the bench, picked up my binoculars and scanned the clumps of rhododendron bushes where Emily liked to hide. She wasn’t there. Shifting the binoculars to the playground, I searched the line of children at the slides, the sandbox and finally found Emily on the merry-go-round.
Brandy ran in circles and sang as she pushed the laughing child. “The wheels on the bus go round and round…” Every time I saw her in the park, she was singing. Sometimes she came alone, brought a guitar and sat by the creek.
Small clouds of dust rose with the beat of her boots on the worn ring of dirt around the merry-go-round. Her long dark and curly hair was tamed on the top and sides by a hot pink cowboy hat and her skirt flowed behind her like a multi-colored banner as she ran. A half dozen silver bracelets made music when she moved her arm. She looked like a gypsy turned cowgirl.
I focused on her bandaged cheek, flinched and looked away. More than anything, I hated imperfection.
When she skidded to a stop and the dust settled, the merry-go-round slowed and my gaze riveted on Emily. As always, she clutched her worn Pooh bear in her lap. I adjusted the lens on my binoculars until Emily appeared close enough to count the grass clippings on the back of her neck. I imagined the toddler turning somersaults on the newly mown lawn—the legs of her red corduroy pants rising up over the plump soft flesh on her calves. I tried to steady my breathing. Alive with secrets and desires, I no longer cared what the dark-suited doctors said. They never understood my needs or my dreams. Why should I swallow their pills to escape them?
Emily rested her chin on the merry-go-round’s safety bar. With her legs dangling over the side, she looked like an illustration in the storybook, Snow White. A tiny flawless princess—so brightly lit from the inside that I imagined sunshine, rather than blood, filled her perfect veins. When the spinning finally stopped, she stood and jumped.
“Be careful,” I whispered as I set the binoculars aside.
Emily’s hair flew up, then fell back over her forehead—sunlight rippling through the red highlights in her dark curls. In midair she flashed a smile, then landed on her feet, giggling over her shoulder as Brandy chased her around the playground.
A flutter of panic rose in my throat. Brandy was so vigilant. But even careful people make mistakes.
Emily’s laughter soared through the air and the two of them passed so close to me I could have reached out and touched Emily. Then the toddler turned and ran back toward the merry-go-round. As she passed by the bench where I sat, she paused and waved at me.
Happiness swelled my chest. The dream of having this particular little girl pulsed through my veins like a mind-altering drug. It aroused every nerve in my body until even my fingertips throbbed with expectation.
Brandy scooped Emily up in her arms.
She was so pure and innocent. All I needed to do was gain her trust and the rest would be easy.
I pulled the necklace from my pants pocket and smiled as I studied the garnet heart set between two diamonds.
Little girls love pretty things.
Susan Clayton-Goldner is a graduate of the University of Arizona's Creative Writing Program and has been writing most of her life. Her novels have been finalists for The Hemingway Award, the Heeken Foundation Fellowship, the Writers Foundation and the Publishing On-line Contest. Susan won the National Writers' Association Novel Award twice for unpublished novels, and her poetry was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A collection of her poems, A Question of Mortality, was released in 2015. Her novel, A Bend In The Willow, released by Tirgearr Publishing in January, 2017, has nearly 100 reviews on Amazon, averaging 4.6 stars. Her second novel, Redemption Lake, was released in May, 2017 and is averaging 4.9 stars on Amazon. Her newest release, When Time Is A River, is available for preorder at half-price and releases on September 6, 2017.
When she isn’t writing, Susan spends her time making stained-glass windows and quilts. She says those two activities are similar to writing—telling stories through glass and fabric.