It’s every parent’s unvoiced nightmare: A child disappears. The heart-freezing panic that follows may be brief, as when a kid turns up moments later in the toy aisle at Target, or it can stretch into unbearable hours, days, always.
Celia Hagen knows that panic from a fictional distance: She’s writing a novel about a missing boy. Reality intrudes, though, during a train trip through the south of France, even as Celia marvels at her adopted 7-year-old son, Benny. He and Celia appear to be simply mother and child, sharing laughs and snacks as quaint villages and fields of lavender roll past. But Benny’s biological parents are in prison.
Perhaps because “Fortune’s Deadly Descent” is the second of a planned trilogy, the author, Audrey Braun (the pen name of novelist Deborah Reed), assumes that readers know Celia’s back story. Casual references to cousins, the family’s pharmaceutical empire, acts of violence and hostage-holding will baffle newcomers to the series.
The story opens just before Celia’s train jolts to an unscheduled stop in Saint Corbenay. Fetching napkins to wipe chocolate smears from Benny’s face, Celia threads her way back to her compartment, where mild surprise at the boy’s absence quickly morphs into fright. As a few passengers disembark, a stranger with an accent responds to Celia’s frenzied cries, asking for “ ‘a rundown of what he was wearing.’ Rundown. The word immediately sounds wrong, as if out of an old detective movie. . . . And then he takes charge, shouting down the aisle in French.”
But Benny’s gone. So is that helpful stranger, whom Celia swears she’s never seen before, but who appears in a security camera photo of her and Benny boarding the train. The strange man is just behind them as Benny seems to look directly up at him. The authorities believe he was snatched to be sold by Roma to desperate couples eager to pay handsomely for a healthy child. But when she hears that the boy’s biological mother has been released from prison, Celia suspects a sinister, close-to-home motive for the kidnapping.
She launches her own search, aided by her adult son, Oliver, and finds a surprise ally in Moreau, a thoughtful policeman whose own burden — the unsolved abduction of his brother decades earlier — infuses his involvement with personal zeal. Moreau’s knowledge of the village and a street artist’s startling portrait of Benny suggest that the boy is nearby and alive. The hunt zigzags. That helpful stranger from the train shows up, though he’s not so helpful now; a loved one is viciously attacked. Celia is shaken, but desperation to find her son overrides everything else.
Following her hurried attempts to click the puzzle pieces into place takes persistence, and some readers, impatient for resolution, may abandon the chase. The trip is worth taking, though, as a shift in perspective shows that nothing is what it first seemed to be in “Fortune’s Deadly Descent.”
Blumenstock is a Washington writer.
FORTUNE’S DEADLY DESCENT
By Audrey Braun
Thomas & Mercer. 251 pp. Paperback, $14.95