Something inside her relaxed. It was all familiar, but not because Nell remembered being here.
“My name is Paula Hale. We—my husband and I—take in teenagers,” the woman said awkwardly.
“This is a youth shelter,” she said with delight.
“In a manner of speaking,” Paula agreed, but with restraint. “Please. Sit down. Can I get you a cup of coffee? It’s always on here.”
“I— Yes. Thank you.”
A minute later they sat across one of the tables from each other, each conducting a cautious survey.
“You understand,” Paula said at length, “that we operate somewhat under the radar here.”
“Back home, in Seattle, I’m an active volunteer at a shelter called SafeHold.”
Her face brightened. “I’ve heard of it. It’s one of the best.”
“Thank you. I think so.”
“We’re...somewhat different here.” She hesitated. “This is a last resort for these kids. They have been returned repeatedly to abusive homes. If we didn’t take them in, they would be living on the street in constant fear of authority. I’m sure you’re aware how poor the outcome would be for them.”
“Yes. Of course. I see.” A sense of urgency pushed back her momentary pleasure at realizing what this place was. Her head hurt, and she knew how strained she must look. “You must wish I hadn’t appeared. But what I’m here to find out is important. I was attacked.... You know my story?”
“I do.” Paula sounded sympathetic.
“Some bones have been found in the park.”
“I read about that,” she said slowly.
“Along with the bones was a backpack. Things in it suggest the boy might have been a runaway. Detectives are puzzled, though, because along with family mementos and a change of clothes he was carrying schoolwork.”
“We do homeschool here.” She sounded even more reluctant now. “I and another woman have teaching certificates with secondary certification. Of course we can’t issue diplomas, but we prepare the kids to take the GED.”
“You’ve been doing this a long time.”
“Could the boy in the park have come from here?”
She sighed. “Of course it’s possible. Kids don’t always tell us when they’re leaving. We’re sorry when they just disappear, but if we made inquiries it would alert authorities and jeopardize what we can do for the kids who remain.”
“His name was Beck. I don’t know if that was a first or last name.”
Paula gazed past Nell, her eyes momentarily unfocused. “That’s...familiar. It’s an unusual enough name to have stuck.” She didn’t move. “You place me in a dilemma.”
“I know. I shouldn’t ask, but...I don’t know where else to go.” She hoped her sincerity showed. “I’ll do my best not to reveal what you do here.”
After a moment she nodded. “I do keep some records. If you’re willing to wait...”
“Please.” She was clutching the coffee cup as if it was a life buoy. “I think what happened to him might have been the same night. It might be linked to my disappearance.”
When Paula returned, Nell’s gaze locked compulsively on the thin manila folder in her hand. She wished fiercely that Colin were here, but she couldn’t have brought him. Given his position, he might not be able or willing to turn a blind eye to what went on here, and being responsible for destroying this refuge was something she didn’t want to have on her conscience.
“There’s no photo, I’m afraid,” Paula said apologetically. “Not all that much information, either. He was here only about six months.”
Nell sat, her knees refusing to hold her up. Paula slid the folder across the table. Nell kept staring at it.
Please don’t let me pass out.
“Unless he assumed a new identity when he left, or is dead, it ought to be possible to trace him from this information.”
Nell stared at the top sheet, a court order. She’d seen plenty of them. This one remanded custody of one Beckett Spencer to an uncle, Kurt Jarvis, giving the uncle’s address in Eugene—here in Oregon but on the other side of the mountains.
“After his mother’s death,” Paula said, “he was forced to live with his uncle, who was an abusive drunk. Unfortunately, the uncle was also a cop. Despite documented bruises and broken bones, he convinced the court that he was a caring guardian of a troubled youngster.”
Nell turned pages and saw notes. Grades. A couple of essay tests and one that she thought was calculus.
“He was very bright, a fine student.” The woman’s voice was soft, regretful. “Certainly ready for college. He was also nearly eighteen, at which point he would no longer need to stay here.”