Cooper’s brain had been on overload since Lieutenant Frio’s visit earlier that day.
He’d glance at his fingernails from time to time, hoping the sand would magically disappear, but it was still there. He couldn’t will it away. He lifted his hands to his face for a closer examination. Why did he have sand embedded underneath his fingernails? Was he digging with his hands in the desert?
Riley’s body was found in the desert.
The memory of another young girl’s tragic death washed over him in a flood: police officers talking to his parents when he got home from a high school track meet, speaking words that didn’t make sense. Images. Emotions.
His sister was dead. Her body had been found in a wooded area about a mile from her school. Cooper was numbed by the news, and tried to process it, but could not comprehend it. Both his mother and father were weeping when the officers turned to Cooper with questions.
Your parents said you gave your sister a ride to school this morning. Is that true?
Did you see her enter the school building?
Was there anyone in the area you didn’t recognize, who seemed out of place?
The truth was Cooper had no memory of what happened from the time he stopped his car in front of Cecilia’s—Cissy’s—school and when he pulled into the parking lot of his own school. Cissy was particularly annoying that morning, whining about not getting what she wanted for her birthday the day before. Cooper had learned to ignore her when she was like that. If he ever told her to shut up, or to knock it off, their parents always took her side, anyway, so why waste his energy?
He was eight when she was born—his mother had suffered several miscarriages between them—and his life changed overnight. Gone was his status as the pampered only child. Cissy was clearly the favored one by both of their parents. And she was very sweet until she was three and figured out she could get whatever she wanted from their parents, one way or the other. Cooper loved her and blamed their parents, not Cissy, for her personality. He even defended her when his friends called her a spoiled brat.
Cissy’s death tore their family apart. His father began drinking heavily. He didn’t even attend Cooper’s graduation the following year. He drank himself to death a few months after that. Cooper’s mother moved to Kentucky to be near her sister, leaving Cooper with a house of near-mansion proportions, and responsibilities beyond his years. As a nineteen-year-old, he wasn’t prepared for any of it, and coped as best he could. Money wasn’t an issue—there were seemingly unlimited funds available from his grandfather‘s investments–so he asked their housekeeper if she would move in during the week while he was at school to take care of things. On weekends, he returned from campus forty miles away, and spent most of Saturday and Sunday studying. The one thing he had control over was getting the best grades possible, and for Cooper that meant straight A’s.
Years later, when he was offered a professorship a hundred miles away, he sold the house and moved on. In retrospect, he didn’t know why he had kept the house as long as he did. Any happy moments there had faded into oblivion.
He strained again to capture the memory of Cissy getting out of the car and walking into the school, but it was all a blur. At the time, he believed the traumatic news the police delivered was the reason for his mental lapse. Then when he started having sleeping walking episodes as a graduate student, it made him wonder if he’d had milder episodes much earlier, if they’d started the day his sister died. Her killer was never caught and the case had been cold for nearly twenty-nine years.
After the incident which dramatically altered his life again—the time he awoke with blood on his hands—doubt wiggled its way into his thoughts and made him wonder if he had anything to do with Cissy’s death. Every part of his being screamed out in denial, but the niggling doubt persisted.
He could never physically hurt anyone—especially someone he loved—as a conscious Cooper. But he didn’t know what the sleeping Cooper was capable of. He did strange things: wandering around, drinking with strangers, and who knows what else. He’d searched for years for an effective treatment for his condition. What was that quote from the Book of Luke? “‘Physician heal thyself,’” he muttered. “Yeah, right.”
His dear friend was gone. Why?
Cooper went into the living room and sat down on the edge of the couch. He extended his arm until his hand rested on the edge of genetics book he had co-authored. He opened it to the chapter titled “InheritedTraits” and pulled out the photo Riley had given him. Lieutenant Frio obviously hadn’t found it when she paged through his book earlier.
In the picture, Riley was sitting on her father’s lap and her mother stood to the left of her husband, her right hand resting on his shoulder. When Riley gave Cooper the keepsake, she proudly announced, “This is me with my dad and mom.”
Cooper had seen her out walking with her father, but had never seen her mother in person. He wasn’t sure why. The Petersons lived on the same side of the street, a few doors down, but their home was blocked from his view. Mrs. Peterson was striking with her dark, straight hair framing her porcelain face. It was difficult to guess her height, but she appeared tall. Riley’s father had light brown, straight hair, and Cooper estimated he was around six feet tall from the times he saw him walk by.
“Very nice picture,” he’d told Riley.
“My mom was happier then. I hear them fight sometimes. My dad and mom.”
Cooper did not want to intrude on their private lives and changed the subject before she said more. Now he wished he had asked a question or two about their family life. Did Riley know she was adopted? She never mentioned it, but it was clear the Petersons were not her biological parents.
He studied the photo again. Riley had five observable dominant traits she had not gotten from the Petersons: dimples, detached earlobes, freckles, curly hair, and a widow’s peak. Both her parents had the recessive traits of no dimples, attached earlobes, no freckles, straight hair, and straight front hair lines.
“When a dominate allele is present, the dominant trait is expressed. The recessive trait is expressed only in if there are two recessive alleles present,” Cooper said aloud, as he had to many classes of students over the years.
Mr. Peterson appeared somewhat athletic, Mrs. Peterson struck a graceful pose, and Riley was on the awkward side. And Cooper doubted she would ever have come close to attaining either of her parents’ height.
None of that mattered, in the scheme of things, until he happened to catch a couple on a daytime talk show pleading for the return of their daughter who had been kidnapped from a Minnesota hospital shortly after her birth. She would be nine years old. He remembered an abduction incident that made regional, maybe national, news some time back. It could have been nine years.
What caught Copper’s attention was Mrs. Neuhaus. She was an adult Riley. Curly hair pulled back, exposing a widow’s peak, dimples, detached earlobes made obvious by her earrings, round face, full lips. Riley and Mrs. Neuhaus were cut from the same cloth. And it didn’t take a geneticist to arrive at that conclusion.
It was not a criminal offense to keep a child’s adoption secret, but it was a felony level crime to abduct another’s child. If Riley was the missing Neuhaus daughter, her biological family would never, ever, have the opportunity to meet her in this life on earth.
And Cooper had lost his only friend in the area. He rose from the couch and began pacing the length of the room.
Stop it, you coward, it’s not about you. And it’s time you take some action.
You have doubts about your possible involvement with Cissy’s death. You’ve wondered for over a year if it was you who hit and killed that woman back home.
Quit being a damn coward, worrying about yourself and your precious image.
Cooper stopped by the coffee table, took a final look at the photo, bent over, and replaced it in the book. It might be needed someday. He studied his fingernails, then went first into the kitchen for a small baggie, followed by a trip to the bathroom where he found a nail clippers. He set the baggie on the bathroom counter and opened it as wide as it would stretch. He slid the nail file on the clippers into a useable position and scraped sand, and any other material hiding under his nails.
The baggie was self-sealing. Cooper squeezed it shut, then carried it into his office. He found a permanent marker in his drawer, wrote “Contents collected from under the fingernails of Cooper A. Dahlsing. He dated it, signed his name, and put the baggie in his top right drawer.
Cooper headed to the bathroom, stripped off his clothes, and examined his body, searching for any unusual marks such as scrapes, scratches or bruises. Nothing new or suspicious. Riley was spunky. If he had attacked her in some manner, she’d have fought back, friend or not. Unless he had grabbed her from behind . . .
Should he go to the police? But with what? I sometimes wander around in my sleep, and I wonder if I may have hurt Riley? They’d start watching his every move and he’d have to move away. If they let him. No, it was better if he started a little investigation of his own. If he was guilty of this crime, or any other, it was time he paid for it.
He jumped in the shower and thought of his next actions while he lathered and scrubbed.