Home > A Child Lost (Henrietta and Inspector Howard #5)

A Child Lost (Henrietta and Inspector Howard #5)
Author: Michelle Cox

Chapter 1


Elsie sat in theology class listening to Sister Raphael expound on the different types of grace, but she found it hard to pay attention. It wasn’t that the material wasn’t interesting—it was, actually—but Elsie’s mind was unfortunately on other things at the moment. It had been, truth be told, ever since her rather unexpected discovery of a small girl named Anna apparently living in Gunther’s hut behind Piper Hall. As she distractedly drew in the margins of her notepaper, she took the time to calculate, concluding that it had been just over a month ago already. She shifted slightly in her chair. They were still no closer to any answers.

She was inextricably caught up in Gunther’s story now, whether she wanted to be or not—and probably had been, if she were honest, since she had surreptitiously read his journal while she sat at his bedside in the hospital on New Year’s Eve last. That was where she first came across the name Anna, scrawled across the page in his unkempt handwriting, along with various poems and personal notations and ramblings, some of it in English, but most of it in German.

For a long time, Elsie assumed that Anna was a woman, perhaps someone Gunther was romantically attached to from his native Germany. But then Elsie had begun to feel certain stirrings for Gunther herself, perhaps unconsciously, and when he’d tenderly kissed her hand in the hidden greenhouse in the Mundelein Skyscraper, she had fled in terror—not for her personal safety, but for fear of what she might in fact be feeling for him. After a day and a night of avoiding him, however, she had eventually come to the conclusion that she needed to face her fears and confront him, the result being her discovery that the mysterious Anna in his journal was merely a child, which had raised a whole new set of questions and fears, especially when the child had called him “Papa.”

Upon discovering the two of them in the hut that day Elsie almost fled in her mortification and her sorrow and probably would have, had it not been for the look of panic on Gunther’s face and the broken utterance of her name.

“Elsie . . .”

His whisper had given her sufficient pause—enough to see the silent “please” that followed—his lips forming the word, but no sound escaping. His plea and the desperate longing she saw in his eyes were palpable and hovered in the short space between them, paralyzing and holding her there against her will.

“Elsie, please, come in,” he said hoarsely, slowly gesturing toward the interior of the small cottage, as if he suspected she might bolt at any moment and therefore should not employ any sudden movements. She did not bolt, however, though every nerve in her body was taut and ready. She instead took a deep breath and sternly reminded herself that this was why she had come: to hear him out. Hadn’t she stood at her bedroom window through most of the night, puzzling out what to do? Near dawn, she had finally come to the decision that she would go to him and listen without interrupting or judging, just as he had done for her, no matter how shocking his explanation turned out to be. And yet there in the frigid morning air, the sun having just crested the horizon, she had already been tempted to run; seeing a little girl standing in front of him addressing him as “Papa” was certainly beyond anything she had heretofore imagined. But as difficult as his explanation promised to be, she knew there was no turning back now. So with just a slight pause, she had stepped across his threshold and thus into his world.

Once inside the small hut, Gunther indicated for her to sit in one of the chairs next to a little wooden table. Anna retreated to a rumpled trundle that sat pulled out from under the main bed, which was also unmade and looked as though it had been recently occupied. Elsie averted her eyes from what was obviously Gunther’s bed and instead looked at Anna, who sat cross-legged on her thin mattress, warily watching Elsie with her finger in her mouth, very much reminding Elsie of her little sister, Doris.

Silently, Gunther placed a steaming mug of coffee on the table before Elsie and sat down across from her. Elsie stared at the mug for a moment and then took hold of it, her cold fingers finding comfort in the warmth before she forced herself to look up at him. He in turn was looking at her with such worried, sad eyes that she felt her stomach clench.

“Elsie, please. Do not look at me in such way. I can explain. I tried to explain to you in the greenhouse.” He paused. “Many times.”

Elsie wasn’t sure what to say to that. She looked back at the little girl, if only to avoid his eyes.

“This is Anna Klinkhammer,” he said, his eyes following Elsie’s, anticipating at least one of her silent questions.

The girl was thin—scrawny even—with very blue eyes and fine blonde hair that looked as though it hadn’t been brushed in quite some time, certainly not yet today, at any rate. She had on a plain, brown dress and held what looked like some sort of soft doll, though Elsie couldn’t see the face of it. Elsie guessed her to be no more than five. Her face was dirty, smeared at the corners of her mouth with what looked to be jam. At least she hoped it was jam. She glanced over at Gunther, who was still staring at Anna, almost as if he were trying to see her through Elsie’s eyes—for the first time, as it were.

“Ach. You have jam, Anna,” he said. He stood up and walked the few steps to a small sink.

As he did so, Elsie took the opportunity to quickly glance around. It was warm and dry in this little hut of a home, clearly intended for one person only. It consisted mainly of one large room, with a bed in one corner and a sink and a stove in the other. Above the sink, various dishes were carefully stacked on a shelf, under which hung a few mugs on hooks. Along the back wall was a chest of drawers, and in the middle of the room stood a table and chairs for two, where Elsie currently sat. Though terribly small, it was clean and cozy and just the sort of room that Elsie liked. In a way, it reminded her of the shabby apartment on Armitage, where they had lived before discovering they were actually part of the wealthy Exley family.

Gunther took up a rag from somewhere in the sink and brought it to where Anna sat. Awkwardly, he attempted to wipe her face despite her squirms. Elsie felt herself wanting to help, but she forced herself to remain seated and instead looked back into her coffee.

“She is not mine,” Gunther said quietly, as if reading Elsie’s thoughts. “I swear this.”

Elsie’s eyes darted back up at him.

He stood up tall, and Elsie felt her pulse quicken as he locked his gaze on her. She struggled to gauge the truth of his words, and pulled her eyes away to glance back at Anna, who seemed to have shrunk even smaller, if that were possible, at Gunther’s last words. Elsie bit her lip at the little girl’s distress.

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