Excerpt from The Dollhouse

Peter had no delusions Shine would welcome him with open arms. Since Olivia's abduction, he'd made an intentional effort to tone himself down, to seem like an everyday guy, put some distance between Peter in real life and Peter on TV. His jeans were old Levis, but not vintage. His shirt was a button-down chambray he'd had for years. His sandy brown hair was a little too long, his worn boots serviceable.

When Lynn lead Peter into the trailer's small living room, Shine pushed herself awkwardly off the cluttered couch, causing a pile of gossipy magazines to slide to the floor under her feet. She grunted and cast her friend a mildly annoyed look. "Lynn wants me to make a vision board, some stupid hippie-dippy shit that's supposed to convince the universe to bring you what you want. There are only two things I want, but the fucking universe apparently isn't up on the 'woo woo' I guess, because they're not here." She waved her arms around, in case he missed the fact her two children were absent.

Peter could see she had the wobbles. Her hands were shaky, her ability to walk a straight line not so hot. He wondered if it was from stress, from the empty tequila bottles he'd spotted on the kitchen bar, or something else. If she had a drug problem, maybe she did have something to do with the kids' disappearance. More than one parent had made a poor choice while high.

His gut didn't believe that, though. Under normal circumstances, Shine would be an attractive woman. She was short, petite, and curvy. A young Dolly Parton without the bankroll or the pipes. Right now, she was a mess. The denim shorts she wore were saggy from days of wear, and her wife beater tank was stained and stretched out. A teal and yellow bruise the size of an orange highlighted her left calf, maybe from bumping into something in the messy trailer. Or possibly from something else?

Lynn didn't say anything, just settled into an armchair that looked like it was two generations past its prime.

Shine made her way to the kitchen area. "I'm not complaining. Lynn is the only one of my so-called friends who doesn't think I'm a freaking murderer." Shine shoved aside one of the empty tequila bottles and a couple of pizza boxes, found a tipped-over container of what looked like ibuprofen, and swallowed two pills dry.

She poked at her hair, trying to tuck it into her Bulls baseball cap. "Lynn said you can help. How, exactly? And why do you give a crap about me and my white trash kids?"

"I give a crap because I'm one of the few people who understands what you're going through. My daughter Olivia has been missing for more than a year. I'm lucky because I have connections and financial resources that make it possible for me to help others. So, I help others." Peter said quietly, pulling out the only chair at the kitchen table that wasn't stacked with clothes. Someone cared enough to fold them. Shine? Or one of the kids? He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and didn't try to hide his sad smile. "There's no worse hell. Until you've experienced someone taking your child, you can't understand. It's a very small club we're in."

Shine's face turned to storm clouds, but she fought to hold herself together. "I wouldn't wish this on my very worst enemy."

Peter decided he was going to believe her when she said she had no idea where Angel and Bud were. "Have the press swooped in?"

"Only Janice," Lynn offered bitterly.

"We need to remedy that. It would be easy for the abductor to take them to Chicago, or Des Moines, or Kansas City, or Milwaukee, or Columbus...We need to get the story out to the national media in case someone spots them."

"How - ?" Shine asked, returning to the sofa. She shoved more magazines off to make room for herself. She sat with her feet planted firmly on the floor, knees together, hands tucked under her thighs. She looked like a shy girl who'd been called to the principal's office.

Peter continued. "I have connections. I have a friend who will come and get you press-ready. She'll help you pick an outfit, the right makeup, hair, all those things – I know, it's not supposed to be a beauty pageant, but we all know people judge, and quickly. She'll help you decide what to say and what words to use – and what words to avoid. She's not going to make you into someone else. She's going to help reduce friction – I say this with the utmost respect – and lead people to the story we want to tell. Stereotypes can change the way people see you and relate to your story. We want people to believe you and empathize with you. We want them to want to help you."

Lynn grunted in approval.

More storm clouds crossed Shine's face but she pressed her lips together and stayed silent.

"I have another friend who will set up a dedicated website with the story of the twins' disappearance and pictures of the kids. The site will help collect tips. The police and FBI are doing that as well but some people are reluctant to contact law enforcement directly. We'll wait a little bit longer so we don't step on the LEO folks -- sorry, law enforcement -- but it will be ready to go. And wouldn't it be great if we never need to use it."

Peter rubbed his jaw. "That brings us to the next thing...if we don't get sufficient leads, we'll offer a reward."

Lynn held up a hand to calm Shine but she shot to her feet anyway. "I don't have money! Do you see where we live? My idiot husband didn't rob banks because we're rich!"

"My foundation has a fund for just this purpose. Not a penny will come out of your pocket, ever," Peter said.

The whole experience was overwhelming, exhausting, frustrating, and seemingly never-ending. But he could tell Shine wasn't stupid; she knew that left to manage herself, she might very well say or do the wrong thing. Peter watched her fight her instincts to accept his help graciously (or at least not tell him to eff the eff off).

Finally Shine said, "Okay." And that was that.

"You need anything, sweetie?" Lynn asked as they wrapped up. She used the arms of the chair to push to her feet.

Peter followed her lead, stood, and moved casually to examine the contents of a shelf by the TV. There was only one framed photo. It was excellent quality, obviously taken by a pro, but not a portrait. Shine stood on the steps of a courthouse wearing a pretty floral dress, her makeup and hair a little much for a court appearance but not too over the top. A boy and girl stood on either side of her. Both were blond-haired and blue-eyed, the boy tan, the girl a bit less so. Shine was smiling at the photographer, the kids looked uncomfortable. Actually, the boy looked angry.

What struck Peter the most was how much the kids looked like Olivia.

Shine took a deep breath and cast a glance toward the kitchen. "Jan, could you run me to town to stock up on a few necessities? I'm out of smokes."

And tequila, Peter thought, without judgment. In the last year or so he'd become very close with his special friend, Bourbon.

"I need to run Peter back to his car, too."

Peter folded himself into the back seat of Lynn's Taurus, intending to disappear into the upholstery and let the women chat. But it was a very quiet ride.

In the ten minutes it took to get back into town, Shine tried to get herself together. She used the mirror on the visor to pick gunk from her eyes, smoothed her hair, and generally tried to look a little less 'rumpled bedsheets.' She tipped her sunglasses down to hide bloodshot eyes.

"I wouldn't mind hitting the store too if it's not inconvenient," Peter said. He didn't actually need anything but was curious to see how Shine handled herself in public, considering the doubters who thought she'd harmed her kids.

The store was mostly empty because it was Saturday morning and according to Lynn, most of the town was at the farmers market. Lynn grabbed a red-handled plastic basket and went in search of items. Peter tagged along behind Shine, no purpose or intention, just watching, absorbing, and trying to get a feel for this woman. If she noticed he wasn't shopping she didn't say.

Shine moved slowly through the store. Broccoli? Cauliflower? She inspected each, then muttered, "Not gonna start eating healthy now. Mama needs carbs." She pushed her cart to the frozen foods aisle and grabbed a bag of tater tots. Cereal, crackers, cheese. Toilet paper.

"Bitch!" The voice was deep, menacing, and full of contempt and caught both of them by surprise. Unhurried shopping was over. Shine pushed her cart quickly toward the booze aisle, swept a couple of jugs of cheap tequila into the basket without pausing, and headed for the register. Peter stayed close behind, unobtrusive backup, ready to offer protection if needed but not interested in drawing more attention.

"Don't you ignore me, you vicious bitch." The guy was huge. A human Shrek, if Shrek smelled like beef jerky and compost. "Who's this guy? Is this the guy who helped you get rid of the kids? Is this the guy you're cheating on Junior with?"

Peter held clenched fists tightly at his side but averted his gaze to avoid engaging.

"I just met him today!" Peter could tell Shine knew the other guy well enough to recognize his voice. She didn't have to face him to know who he was. She snuck a quick look at Peter, embarrassed. "And even if we were screwing around, I wouldn't be cheating on your pal Junior, because we're separated, you giant stupid asshole!"

Later Peter would learn from Lynn that Carl Cotton was Junior's best friend since high school, and a first-class prick. He was lucky he wasn't in prison with Junior, Lynn said, and it certainly wasn't for lack of trying.

Shine pushed her cart into the shortest line at the checkout and kept her head down. She fished around in her jeans pocket for her cash. Her key ring popped out of the pocket and slipped partially under the candy and magazine rack. Shine squatted to grab them. Carl's large booted foot nudged them deeper under the rack before Shine could catch the metal Flower Power emblem attached to the ring. "Fucker." She whispered, and shoved her hand flat under the wire rack, wiggling her fingers. Peter could see the underside of the rack scratching into the flesh of her hand but she didn't seem to notice or care. She carefully pulled the keyring out by the flower petal, taking deep breaths, trying hard to ignore Carl.

Shine might be tiny but she had a spine of steel.

"Where are the kids, Shine? What did you do with them?" Carl shoved his way into the small space between Peter and Shine. His tone was soft and low, so only Peter and Shine could hear. He asked questions the same way he might ask another customer where the salsa was. The old lady checking out ahead of them and the cashier seemed clueless.

Peter debated saying something but decided it would send the rumor mill into high gear. But he wasn't sure how much longer he could keep silent.

Shine began placing her items on the conveyor. Peter sent her psychic messages. Do not look at him. Do not speak to him. Do not let him fuck with you!

"Shine, you need to 'fess up. Where the hell did you put those kids? You'll do anything for attention. I wouldn't be surprised if you hurt the kids to keep that reporter sniffing around." Carl's tone wasn't quiet now, it was fierce, and loud, demanding attention, and he was crowding her. Peter could see his fat belly pressing against her back. Ignore him, do not respond, do not react.

And still, the cashier and the old lady continued to chit chat about the weather, tomatoes, tourists.

Which was fine, because it would be worse if they noticed and decided to jump in on the beat up on Shine party.

Finally, the old lady moved and the cashier began to scan Shine's few items. She gave the total and Shine shoved two twenties and a five at her grabbed her two plastic bags and fled, ignoring the shout of the confused cashier, "Your change!" Peter swept it up in his hand and followed Shine out the sliding doors.

Shine dashed the Taurus. Lynn was still inside somewhere, and the car doors were locked.

Peter trotted after her, keeping himself between her and Carl, whose heavy footsteps were clear behind them, getting closer, getting louder. Peter didn't have to turn to see the man's paunchy six-foot-five-inch frame or the angry grimace hidden under a scraggly gray beard and mustache. He smelled him, old sweat and earthy soil. Peter was nervous for himself but downright afraid for Shine. He couldn't imagine being harassed and accused like this on top of the stress of your children gone missing.

Her wobbles were back, and Shine's hand shook as she tugged at the passenger door, obviously hoping it would magically unlock and let her escape Carl. No luck. She let her bags slide to the ground. Peter expected to hear the crash of broken glass then remembered the inexpensive tequila came in plastic bottles. Shine took a deep breath. "Go the fuck away, Carl."

Carl stepped into her space, leaning against the door. "Where are Angel and Bud, Sunshine?"

"I wish to God I knew," Shine growled. "Leave, Carl!"

"I think you do know. You need to tell me. Or the law. Or Junior. Tell somebody where those poor kids are, Sunshine."

Shine tipped her head back and looked him square in the face, or at least as square in the face as she could considering he had twelve inches on her. With each word, her voice rose until she was screaming. "I've told you. I've told Junior. I've told the Chief. I've told the FBI. I've told the press. I've told every single fucking person who has asked. I do not know where my Goddamn children are. I'd give everything to know! Now leave me the fuck alone!"

She was going to explode. Peter used his calmest journalist voice. "Carl, I don't know you, but I do know there's no point being abusive. How about you leave Shine alone. Let her get back to trying to find her kids. That's what we all want, right?"

The look on Carl's face indicated Peter might be returning to California with a broken nose or black eye until a sudden whoop whoop of police siren startled all three of them and they turned to see a police car pull up next to the Taurus. Peter recognized the Chief from his photo in the lobby of the police station, which was as far as he'd gotten when he stopped there earlier today. "How we doing? Shine, you good? Carl, I'm sure you have business to attend to – somewhere else?"

The Chief looked at Shine with what Peter recognized as kindness and pity.

Lynn clicked the doors unlocked as she hustled out of the store, anger turning her face red as she realized what was happening. Shine practically dove into the passenger seat, dragged her bags into the foot well, and swore when one of the bottles of tequila caught on the metal strip. Once the bag was inside and the door was closed and locked, Shine gave Carl a look that said she'd order Lynn to run over his damn foot if he didn't move, punctuated by a stiff middle finger. He stepped back, tipped his cap at the Chief, glared at Peter, and stepped away.

"Thank god the Chief came by," Lynn said. She turned the key in the ignition and backed out of the space, waving to the Chief as they headed toward the diner.

"The Chief is okay. But he can't protect me. He hasn't found my kids, and I can't produce them. So Carl and everyone else will keep chasing me until they came back, or I make up some story... or die." Shine held herself together until they were within sight of the diner, then fell into racking sobs. "I forgot to get fucking cigarettes."

Feeling helpless, Peter started to slip out of the car, leaving Lynn to take Shine back to the trailer but remembered something just before he closed the door. "What did Carl mean about a reporter sniffing around?"

Shine was numb, huddled into the corner of the car, in her own world. Lynn answered. "When Junior blew up the bank there were some reporters in town. One of them was extra attentive to Shine and the kids. They ended up on one of those gossipy TV shows."