He picked the wrong child and the wrong mother. Never piss her off.

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Theirs had been a frantic search through the night and deep into the following morning, which shone bright with promise so incongruent to their desperate condition. They vowed to search through the day into the evening and all through the following night, if necessary, to return that which had been stolen from them. Fate intervened, however, and they fell still to hang heads from drooping shoulders, defeated.

Bara Flaherty stood in the doorway of her sister's home, her almond eyes wide, her beautiful face pale, her auburn hair swept back from her clouded forehead in a utilitarian bun. She shook her head. Her sister, Andera, placed both hands on the woman's shoulders to draw her back inside the house to a couch where the woman could lay back and weep. Bara would have none of it.

Her eyes piercing in their intensity and burning with disbelief, she scowled into the police woman's unhappy face and said, "No, you're mistaken."

The officer swallowed stiffly, and moved to one side so slightly that she might have drifted there on a wispy cloud. Behind her, the police chaplain extended his hand to add its weight to those of her sister's, and together they urged her to sit, to rest and ponder, to wallow and despair.

"I'm sorry, Ms. Flaherty," returned the chaplain carefully, "but we're not mistaken. Your ex-husband… identified… the remains."

Bara's response came immediate and forceful. "I don't care what Michael says. He doesn't know her the way I know her. He could be mistaken. I want to see for myself."

The police officer blanched and appeared to take suddenly ill. The chaplain's countenance soured unpleasantly. He stepped forward to embrace the woman's denial, to press the warmth of his eternal hope to her icy breast from the depths of his own burning heart. "You shouldn't do that, ma'am. It… the sight would… haunt you. Perhaps it's better not to see."

He wanted to weep inconsolably to witness how the shock and dismay spread across the confused denial of her face like a slow, creeping infection, as she realized what his words implied. "What do you mean? What happened? Where is she? Why can't I see her?"

The officer sucked her lower lip, as she struggled to decide how much should be said, how much could be said, how much could be borne by a mother so distraught. She tried, "The… remains… aren't intact, Ms. Flaherty. You don't want to see her that way."

"She's nine years old!" Now the infection of dread and horror blossomed full force into a raging epidemic of disgust and anger. "What could happen to a nine year old girl that might be so bad her own mother can't see her?"

"Ma'am," soothed the chaplain, "if you'll just return to the house and sit down a moment with us. We can help you through this."

"NO!" screamed the woman defiantly. "You can't help me through this! Nobody can help me through this! I WANT TO SEE MY DAUGHTER!"

Once she raised her voice, from where they gathered near the curb, several uniformed policemen and plainclothes detectives turned to observe the disturbance. Many of them wept unashamedly. Several shook their heads and walked away, unwilling to do what the chaplain and his female honor guard had been sent to do. It was the worst part of the job, and they had all done their share of dispensing bad news. Today, their backs said, it must be somebody else's turn.

Bara's eyes flashed back and forth between the faces and hunched shoulders of the people gathered in her sister's front yard. They were neighbors, friends, relatives, police men and women, all collected immediately after Cara's disappearance the day before to search for her through the woods, ponds and creeks that surrounded Andera's tidy ranch-style home. None of them would meet her angry, defiant gaze. All of them found something interesting on the ground at their feet to occupy their wet, glistening eyes.

Again, Bara said, "You're mistaken. It can't be Cara. It can't be!"

"It is, Ms. Flaherty," returned the chaplain, his words choked by bile and a sick, bitter taste of loathing for the entirety of the human species. "It's Cara."

"But you said yourself that the remains weren't intact," she spat, "maybe it's some other nine year old girl. Maybe it's somebody else's baby. It's NOT MINE!"

When her sister again attempted to draw her away from the front door and the awful news, Bara shrugged her clinging hands away with a guttural snarl of primeval rage. "I WANT TO SEE MY LITTLE GIRL! NOW!"

"Ms. Flaherty," the chaplain urged, stepping forward to embrace his wayward mission, "please. Let us help you. We all want to help you. Come inside and lie back. We'll talk of happier times. We'll dwell on more pleasant memories of your daughter. We won't think of her as she is. We'll think of her as she was. This is okay for a time. For a few minutes. For an hour. Afterward… afterward, we'll face the future together. We won't abandon you. We'll walk that long walk together, hand in hand, and little Cara…," he fell silent for a moment, choking on his own growing sense of rage, terror and disgust, continuing softly, "…little Cara, she'll walk alongside us. She'll hold our hands through the tough times to come. She'll comfort us with a smile none of us can ever forget."

"Bara, please, listen to him," urged her sister through ill concealed tears, "don't do this thing. Leave it lie for now. We'll-," but she couldn't continue. She felt the world rush up from the bottoms of her feet to smack her dully in the head. Stars swam before her watery vision. The room seemed so far away, a million times a million times a million miles away. Nothing real existed, any longer.

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