The Summer Children (The Collector #3)(2)

“Is there still a pool on whether or not you two are dating?” Siobhan asks.

“Several,” I snicker, “and at least one to guess the date our latent sexual tension finally overwhelms us.”

“So one of these days I should expect a text apologizing for jumping him?”

“I think I just threw up in my mouth a little.”

She laughs and reaches up to pull the clips from her hair, her wild red curls spilling around her. “If you’re going to be up and about earlier than usual, do you need to take me back to Fairfax tonight?”

“How would you get to work? I drove us straight from the office.”

“Oh, right. But the question stands.”

“I’d like you to stay over,” I tell her, taking a hand off the wheel so I can tug one of her curls, “as long as you don’t mind sleeping.”

“I like sleeping,” she replies dryly. “I try to do it every night, if I can.”

I respond with dignity and maturity: I stick out my tongue. She laughs again and bats my hand away.

I live in a quiet neighborhood on the outskirts of Manassas, Virginia, about an hour southwest of DC, and almost as soon as we pull off the interstate, we become the only car on the road for minutes at a time. Siobhan sits up straighter when we pass Vic’s neighborhood. “Did I tell you Marlene offered to make me a raspberry trifle for my birthday?”

“I was there when she made the offer.”

“Marlene Hanoverian’s raspberry trifle,” she says dreamily. “I’d marry her if she swung that way.”

“And if she didn’t have fifty-plus years on you?”

“Those fifty-plus years have taught her to make the best goddamn pistachio cannoli ever. I am all sorts of good with those extra decades.”

I pull onto my street, most of the houses dark at this time of night. We have a mix of young professionals in starter houses and empty nesters and retirees who’ve downsized. The houses are more cottage than anything, only one or two rooms, set like single blooms in decently sized lawns. I can’t keep a plant alive to save my life—I’m not allowed to touch the numerous plants in Siobhan’s apartment—but my next-door neighbor, Jason, tends my lawn and the shared garden that stretches between our houses in exchange for helping him with his laundry and mending. He’s a nice older man, still active and a little lonely since his wife died, and I think we both enjoy the trade.

The driveway is on the left side of the house, extending a full car’s length beyond the back wall, and as I cut the engine, I automatically check that the back porch with its sliding glass door looks undisturbed. There’s a certain amount of personal paranoia that comes with the job, and on the good days, when we’ve saved kids and gotten them safely home, it feels like an okay cost.

Nothing seems out of place, so I open the car door. Siobhan grabs our messenger bags from the backseat and skips ahead of me on the curving walk to the front porch. “Do you think Vic will bring in something from his mother tomorrow?”

“Today? Chances are good.”

“Mmm, I could really go for some Danish. Or, ooh! Those berry-and-cream-cheese pinwheel puffs.”

“She’s offered to teach you how to bake, you know.”

“But Marlene is so much better at it.” She passes the motion sensor, and the porch light flickers on as she grins over her shoulder at me. “Besides, it would never survive to the baking part if I tried to do it, I’d eat—Oh my God!”

I drop my purse, gun in hand with my finger stretched along the side of the trigger guard before I can put thought to it. In the bright glare of the porch light, a shadow sits on the bench swing. I inch forward past Siobhan, gun aimed down, until I can see more clearly through the rails. When my eyes finally adjust, I damn near drop the gun.

Madre de Dios, there is a child sitting on my porch, and it is covered in blood.

Instinct says, Race for the child, take him or her in my arms and shield them from the world, check them over for hurts. Training says, Wait, ask the questions, don’t disturb the evidence that will help find whatever asshole did this to them. Sometimes being a good agent feels a lot like being a heartless person, and it’s hard to convince yourself otherwise.

Training wins, though. It usually does.

“Are you hurt?” I ask, still inching forward. “Are you alone?”

The child lifts its head, face a horrific mask streaked in blood, tears, and crusting snot. It sniffles, thin shoulders shaking. “Are you Mercedes?”

He knows my name. He’s on my porch, and he knows my name. How?

“Are you hurt?” I ask again, to give myself time to process.

The kid just looks back at me, eyes huge and haunted. He—fairly sure it’s a he, though it’s hard to tell from here—is in pajamas, a giant blue T-shirt and striped cotton pants, all spattered thickly with blood, and he hunches around something, clutching it. He sits up more as I get closer, up the three steps of the porch, and I can make it out: a teddy bear, white where blood hasn’t rubbed, rust and red, into its fur, with a heart-shaped nose and crinkly gold wings and a halo.


The spray patterns on his shirt are alarming—somehow even more than the rest of this—because they’re thick stripes, far too reminiscent of arterial spray. It can’t be his, which is almost comforting, but it’s still someone’s. He’s the kind of fine-boned small that suggests he’s probably older than he looks; my guess is ten or eleven. Beneath the blood and the shocky pallor, he looks bruised.

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