Finding Grace is a Christian detective novel. And this is the first chapter. Finding Grace is the second novel in a series that began with Soul Pursuit. Finding Grace and Soul Pursuit are both available on Amazon.
I sat in an upright positioned, recliner chair across from Charles and Deborah Miller who rigidly shared the couch. We were in a well-appointed living room in their Washington Township home, which was tastefully decorated in the latest fashions and highest standards of home design.
There was a lever on the right side of the chair for reclining in different layout positions, a semi-layout for comfortable reading, and a complete layout for napping. And in between positions, if you weren’t fully committed to either and wanted to nap with an open book in your lap.
I resisted the urge to pull the lever.
Relaxing before an uptight couple wasn’t a good idea. Not sure if they were uptight because of their situation or just in general.
They looked composed at the moment. Charles looked trendy in his business casual slacks and Polo shirt, while Deborah, tastefully put together wearing a dress and makeup, would fit right in at a Junior League luncheon. But I sensed they were tightly wound, like two coiled springs about to release. Might be good to avoid that.
Deborah’s hands were folded in her lap, but in a constant, wringing motion. Charles sporadically tapped his right foot on the carpet. Fast tapping for a minute and then slower, more purposeful the next. Fluctuating emotions in syncopated rhythm. His foot was the drum major. Keeping time to whatever tune was playing in his head.
They had invited me in, politely introduced themselves and asked me to sit. I was unsure who was supposed to start the conversation. I decided to let them, which led to an awkward silence. But now I felt obligated to it.
They called this meeting, and I was an audience of one. So, I wore my professional mask, inoffensive, non-committal, and politically neutral.
Charles finally spoke.
“Our daughter is a freshman at the University of Dayton,” he said, “and we’ve lost contact with her. Haven’t heard from her in weeks.”
“Did she stop calling suddenly or gradually over time?” I asked.
“Gradually,” Charles answered.
“She’s a commuter,” said Deborah, “and at the beginning of the semester, she was home every night and most weekends. But as she made friends, she began staying with them on campus.”
“For campus social life,” I said.
“We expected her to engage socially,” said Charles. “That’s a part of college. At first, she called us regularly. But as the semester went on, it became less frequent. Until nothing.”
“Were you concerned when the calls became less frequent?”
“Not at first,” said Deborah. “Grace told us she was studying more on campus and joining campus activities. We thought it good she was becoming her own person.”
“When did you suspect things weren’t right?”
“We began to notice a difference in her when she came home,” said Charles.
“And one time when I called her at school, she was…out of it,” said Deborah.
“Like drunk or high?”
Deborah swallowed and looked at the floor. It was hard for her to admit. But she forced it out in a voice just slightly above a whisper.
“How long since nothing?” I asked.
“Six weeks,” said Charles.
“Was she dating anyone? Any reason to believe someone would hurt her?”
“No to both,” said Charles. “She’s a good kid. But she’s never had this much freedom over her schedule before.”
“And maybe it’s gotten a little out of control?”
“Did you file a missing person’s police report?”
“Of course,” said Charles.
He was getting defensive. Did he think I was questioning his commitment to being father of the year? I nodded in affirmation and widened the smile. A little less benign. A bit more sincere with a touch of empathy.
Of course, you’re father of the year. Husband too. Best boss ever. All-around good guy. And by the way, I accept check, cash, credit card and App payments.
“Routine investigation didn’t reveal anything,” he said. “At least nothing that indicated foul play. The detective told us college kids go through all kinds of adjustments. Especially freshmen. Said if we wanted something more thorough, we should consider a private detective.”
Charles tapped his foot faster and Deborah’s hand wringing turned white knuckled. More tightening. If they sprung now, they’d shoot through the ceiling.
Behind them on the couch, a large picture window presented a breezy Autumn day in Dayton, Ohio. The neighbor across the street was blowing leaves from his front yard to the curb, where a city truck would vacuum them up and haul them away for recycling. There was a sparse covering of leaves on the yard. The two large trees in the front yard were still over half-full. I congratulated myself for thinking half-full rather than half-empty. He could have waited longer to let more leaves fall before raking or blowing. But every homeowner was different. This one was probably a neat-freak extraordinary. Behind him, the yard was spotless. And he was halfway to the street with a neat line but was suddenly encountering two problems.
First, the leaves were slightly wet making them heavier and harder to blow. Second, he was blowing into a head wind. So, as the leaves launched into the air, they curled in the wind and floated back towards him, landing at his feet and even behind him. There was a rake leaning against one of the trees. An obvious solution. But he wasn’t having it. He had paid for this state-of-the-art technology and by golly, he was determined to use it.
Man and technology against nature. Old man and the sea. Captain Ahab and Moby Dick.
Maintaining the neat line was growing difficult and it clearly agitated him as he sped back and forth, trying to keep it together and move forwards towards the curb. I could see a lot of agitation on both sides of the street.
Dude, It’s okay. Use the rake. It’s not a sign of weakness.
But no. He was all in with the leaf blower. Except nature was blowing back and winning.
I refocused on Charles and Deborah.
“Assuming no foul play, any thoughts on what’s going on with Grace that might contribute to a disappearance?”
“She was struggling emotionally,” said Deborah.
Deborah’s hands reflected the intensity of her emotions. The higher the emotion, the greater the hand wringing. Was it her fault? Charles’s fault? Their fault?
“I…uh, our marriage has been struggling too,” said Charles.
“More like unraveling,” said Deborah.
“It’s taken an emotional toll on Grace,” Charles said.
“What did you expect? Learning that all those nights you said you were working late…you weren’t working.”
His face clouded.
“So, you start an affair as revenge and that’s supposed to help?”
They separated a little further on the couch and turned slightly to face one another. I was neither a marriage counselor nor a referee but wished I had a whistle to call a time out. Another awkward silence. Except this one bristled and I braced for ugly.
The neighbor across the street was making progress. He was down to two especially stubborn leaves. Big, wet, broad leaves that clung stubbornly to the grass, and when he did get a pocket of air underneath, curled up into the wind and blew right back to him.
Only two leaves, Dude. Pick them up and walk them down to the curb.
But there was a principle here. A contest. He had established rules that must be followed. An unbreakable code. And apparently, picking up the leaves and carrying them to the street was a violation. He must win the battle with technology.
But his blower lacked the air power to overcome the wind. Rather than admit defeat, he grew angry and more determined. He started punching the blower at the leaves like that extra umph would make the difference. And somehow, it worked. Or maybe the wind just died down. But regardless, the two leaves scooted steadily towards the street, and I silently cheered for him.
C’mon, Dude. You can do it. Keep delivering those air punches. They’re working.
Finally, the remaining two leaves were on the pile. The man turned to survey the yard. Victory at last. While the couple I faced looked more defeated.
“Does Grace have friends on campus I can talk to?”
“Susan and Julie were girls she knew. Fellow Centerville High School graduates a couple of years ahead of her. She stayed with them several times.”
Charles handed me a piece of paper with the names of the two girls and their cell phone numbers. The air was thick with tension. And I said the only thing I could think of to ease it.
“I’ll find her for you.”