Chapter ONE - Sara
Sara was late again.
She plowed into her office, greeted by the overpowering scent of cologne and hair gel. Teddy Rutherford, the clichéd heir to the throne and obnoxious VP of Research & Development, sat at her desk using her PC to play that little game involving dogs, cats, and giant cannons. Her kids loved it, but she never saw the appeal.
As the VP of Marketing for a growing video game company in Portland, Oregon, it was her job to get their Juggernaut series into as many hands as possible. And since she’d been promoted to a marketing position after a decade of hundred-hour workweeks as a tester, then up to VP, LightPulse Productions had grossed more in the past eight months than over the previous five years.
Marketing came naturally to her, and nobody in the industry had seen her coming. She had been interviewed in numerous magazines, made it into the upper half of multiple Top 40 Under 40 lists, and signed a contract to write a monthly column for Professional Mother. All while raising twin girls and their younger brother, alone, since the day their father left for the gym and never came back.
She’d been wined and dined with some incredible offers from Fortune 500 companies, but LightPulse was her home, the house she’d helped build, and she had no intention of leaving.
Even if it meant dealing with a privileged, spoiled cretin like Teddy on a daily basis.
He said, “These guys are pure genius, aren’t they? Nothing but flat animation, some bright colors, and the chance to destroy the enemy with a single click. And people play it for hours. Incredible.”
He was obtrusive, annoying, and infantile: a thirty-year-old man-child who had never had his dad around growing up. Jim spent more hours at the office running LightPulse than he did at home, and his three ex-wives certainly hadn’t been the right women to guide Teddy toward anything resembling a respectable human being.
But the fact that he’d been brazen enough to hack into her work account was more than an invasion. She probably would’ve been less offended if he’d put his hand up her shirt. She took one deep breath, then another, and tucked what she wanted to say back into her throat. Instead, she asked, “How’d you get into my system?”
He ignored the question. “I mean, really, look at it. I flick, it goes boom, pieces of wood go flying. Flick, boom, done. After Juggs 3 comes out,”—that childish nickname again, Sara thought—“we should look at going in this direction. Cut some of the staff, cut some costs. Get in good with Apple. Dad said—I mean Jim said—they were dying to work with us. Put something like this up on the App Store, charge a buck apiece? We can all retire and sip some boat drinks and swap wives.” He winked at her.
She looked down at the heavy crystal paperweight on her desk, wondering how big the dent in the side of his head would be.
“You’re trying too hard, Teddy. Now get away from my computer and out of my chair.”
Teddy stood up, lifted his hands in apologetic resignation, and then squeezed her shoulder as he walked around to the other side.
God, this guy is a harassment lawsuit wearing a fake Rolex. If he ever tried that with some of the hardcore gamer girls out in The Belly, he’d be toast.
“Sorry,” he said. “You shouldn’t leave your password written on a sticky note. And you’re late. I got bored.”
“Still not okay, Little One.” Being the youngest member of the executive team—and the owner’s son—was more of a scarlet letter than a badge of honor, and they all knew that the nickname was the perfect way to knock a couple inches off Teddy’s platform loafers whenever he got out of line. Vertically challenged (as he insisted he was, often), he had to look up a good three inches at Sara on the days he came into the office wearing unprofessional flip-flops.
He straightened the collar of his polo shirt, smoothed out his khakis, and gave a snort of disapproval, but nothing more.
She laid her tattered and thinning leather briefcase on her desk and took her time unpacking, making Teddy wait on purpose, letting his impatience and ADHD reach a festering point. She was poking the badger, of course, but it was justifiable retribution, and he stayed silent.
And while ‘guilt’ wasn’t a word in his vocabulary or a feeling that had ever impregnated the three brain cells he had floating around in that all-too-polished, bronzer-coated melon, she figured he was at least aware that he’d done something wrong by invading her privacy.
She sat, pulled a notepad out of her desk, and chose a pen from her cup with such slow deliberation that Teddy was almost vibrating by the time she finally said, “I can’t come up with a marketing plan without a product. So tell me, why are you two months behind?”
The direct, personalized blame was enough to send Teddy into a barrage of excuses that lasted for over an hour.
By the time he was done—and by the time she had tortured him to the point where it was no longer fun—they’d worked out a plan that they could take to Jim. A few extra hours per employee on Teddy’s side would get them both back on schedule in another month, and Sara would have what she needed to begin a viral marketing campaign. If everything worked out as it should, Juggernaut 3 would demolish the success of its previous two releases, but they had to be ready. Public outcry over production delays was never a good thing, and Sara had no experience in handling the backlash. Nor did she want any.
Teddy got up, but before he could leave, Sara stopped him at the door. “Teddy,” she called after him.
“If I ever catch you on my PC again...”
It was all she needed to say. He hung his head, examined the tops of his shiny Kenneth Coles, and muttered a doleful, “Won’t happen again,” before he escaped the prison yard of her office.
After he walked out, her assistant, Shelley, poked her timid, dimple-cheeked face around the corner. Sara smiled and motioned for her to come in. Shelley crossed through the doorway, one halting step at a time, like she was testing the ground for landmines.
It’s definitely Tuesday, Sara thought. Same blue top, every week.
Shelley’s sense of style was somewhere in the neighborhood of convent-chic and librarian-demure. Straight hair yanked into a tight ponytail. Glasses hanging around her neck by a chain, aging her by twenty years. Plain tops, neutral slacks, and comfortable black loafers that went with everything—except for Tuesdays, when the splash of blue added life and light to her wardrobe, which must have been as uncomfortable for Shelley as coloring outside the lines in kindergarten.
Sara had never raised her voice at the poor girl, but she always approached Sara as if she would explode and send her running from the office coated in curse words and insults. Shelley was shy to the point of having trouble interacting with the outside world, but she was a brilliant marketer, and had a way with copywriting that could convince a politician to refuse campaign funding.
She worked more hours than anyone in the building, constantly refining ad copy and press releases, searching for the perfect words to tell LightPulse’s story, studying the advertising giants of the past like David Ogilvy and John Caples. More than once Sara had found her asleep at her desk after pulling an all-nighter. For the past two months, the girl had been a perpetual motion machine when it came to her job, but her social life consisted of leaving her apartment on Sunday morning to brave the lines at Voodoo Doughnut and Powell’s.
Sara was positive that Shelley was the smartest person in the office, and had tried to convince her of that once, but the recent San Diego State University grad had refused to accept the compliment. It had been the first and only time she had shown signs of confidence regarding something she believed in—however misguided her intent might have been, in Sara’s view.
Still, her genius, under Sara’s guidance, was a major factor in the success of their advertising and marketing campaigns for their last release. If and when Sara decided to move on, she planned to ask Jim to promote Shelley over some of the other, more-seasoned team members as her replacement. But, that would all depend on Shelley’s ability to leave her fears behind. Sara was working on her. Slowly.
Any nudge to Shelley’s delicate nature that was too forced, too forward, would tilt her in the wrong direction. Sara had seen it before, and was careful in her attempts to build up her introverted assistant’s confidence.
Sara said, “How’s it going, Sarge?” The shortening of Shelley’s last name, Sergeant, seemed to please her the first time Sara had used it, so it stuck, and she’d been ‘Sarge’ ever since.
Shelley’s voice came out a notch above a whisper. “Jacob’s school called. They said it was urgent.”
Sara tensed. The last time they’d called, he’d fallen off the monkey bars and had come home with a knot the size of a golf ball on his forehead. She said, “And you didn’t forward the call? Did they say what it was about?” and knew at once that it was a little too brusque.
Shelley backed away a step, fiddling with the ruffles on her blue top. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Winthrop. You were busy with Teddy and I knew the meeting was important and I didn’t want to interrupt and—and—”
“Hey, no, it’s fine. You didn’t do anything wrong. Could just be another beetle stuck up his nose.” That particular visit to the doctor caused a lot of chuckles around LightPulse, and the other employees began referring to him as ‘the little bugger’. “How’s the little bugger doing? Pick any buggers out of his nose lately?” At the age of five, boys do what boys do.
Shelley said, “The principal called this time, not the school nurse.” Admitting that it was more important than a bug up the nose made Shelley take another step back, just in case.
“What? Really? Did she say what it was about?”
“No, but she was super frustrated when I wouldn’t let her talk to you right away.” Shelley backed up all the way to the door.
“Weird,” Sara said. “I’ll give her a call. Thanks for being a good gatekeeper. But,” she added, “it’s okay to put a principal through during a meeting. Broken bones, too. Bugs, not so much.”
Shelley acknowledged the ruling with a meek grin. Once she’d retreated, Sara dialed the school, wondering what kind of trouble Jacob had gotten into that warranted a call from the principal.
“Hello, Mrs. Bennett’s office, Dave speaking.”
“Dave, hi, it’s Sara Winthrop, Jacob’s mom? My assistant said—”
“Oh thank God, I’ll put you right through.”
Whoa, what? What’s going on?
The up-tempo blast of the on-hold music didn’t help her building tension while she waited. Thirty seconds passed, a minute, two minutes. She tried to distract herself by going through her email.
Mrs. Bennett’s voice came on the line. She sounded rushed, out of breath. “Mrs. Winthrop? Hello? Are you there?”
“Yes, here,” Sara said, turning away from Jim’s request for an all-hands meeting at 10AM out in The Belly. It was her favorite place in the building, the open-cube hub of LightPulse where she had spent so many years with the programmers and testers looking for glitches and offering suggestions on the fluidity of gameplay. “What happened? Everything okay with Jacob? Your receptionist sounded worried.”
“We have a bit of a situation.” The word ‘situation’ was loaded with unease.
“Please stay calm, because we think everything is fine.”
Sara sat up straight and leaned into the coming news. “You think? He’s not hurt, is he?”
Mrs. Bennett said, “I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about. It’s crazy around here on the last day of school. The kindergarten classes were all outside playing hide and seek and when Mr. Blake rounded up his kids for a head count, Jacob wasn’t with the rest of the group.”
Sara sprang out of her chair, then tried to compose herself with a couple of deep breaths before she said, “Have you found him yet?”
The pause on the other end of the line was longer than Sara expected. “No,” Mrs. Bennett said, “but we have every available adult looking. Our assistants, our teachers—even the janitor, Mr. Burns. We’re positive he didn’t realize that he wasn’t supposed to be hiding anymore. We’ll find him, but I think it’s best that you come down anyway.”
“I’m walking out the door right now.”
Sara hung up the phone, grabbing her keys and her purse. A delicate blanket of fear enveloped her, but she tried not to let it take control. He had done this once before, months ago, when the four of them were playing hide and seek in the house. He’d climbed under a dusty green tarp down in their basement and had managed to fall asleep while she and the girls hunted for over an hour. She’d panicked and had come close to calling the police before Callie accidentally stepped on him.
Without that particular instance as a buffer, she would’ve been throwing people out of her way. Instead, she took a long swallow from her water bottle and then walked over to Shelley’s desk to let her know what had happened and where she was going.
She heard Shelley mumbling into her headset, saying, “Yes...Oh wow, you’re the second one today...Let me send you to her—wait, here she is.”
Sara raised her eyebrows. “For me? Who is it?”
Shelley covered the mouthpiece, saying, “Mr. Brown? Says he’s the principal at Lacey and Callie’s school?”
“Him, too?” What’s up with my kids today? Sheesh. “Okay if I take it here?”
Sara picked up the receiver, pushed the button for Line 1, and said, “Mr. Brown? This is Sara Winthrop, Lacey and Callie’s mother.”
The conversation that followed left the phone dangling from its cord, and at least one blindsided coworker lying flat on his back. There may have been more. It was all so blurry.
Sara flung open the glass entryway doors and sprinted down the sidewalk toward the parking lot. The sun had broken through, evaporating the morning’s rain, creating a level of humidity that made the air syrupy and hard to breathe. Added to that was the realization that without her husband, she had no one to help.
I need you, Brian. Damn it, I need you. Why aren’t you here when I need you?
Two years after Brian’s disappearance, she’d been able to release her grip on the anxiety and fear and panic that had plagued her for days, for weeks, for months. Over time, sleepless nights dwindled to sleepless hours, and then lessened to troubled dreams and reluctant acceptance. But now, as the soles of her flats slapped against the concrete, the idea that her children might be taken from her fueled those long-subdued emotions like a gust of wind through a forest fire.
Not again. I can’t go through this again.
A flash of white under her minivan’s windshield wiper caught her attention. She thought it was another flyer for the local pizza place and ripped it from the rubbery grasp, ready to crush it in her fist.
The neon-orange, bold lettering was just bright enough to stop her squeezing hand, saving the paper slip from turning into a crumbled mass.
Seven words, asking a question that created even more questions:
ARE YOU READY TO PLAY THE GAME?