Search Angel

A Novel


By Mark Nykanen

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A riveting suspense thriller about the reuniting of birth mothers with their adopted children and the madman who preys on them After two highly praised psychological thrillers, Mark Nykanen returns with his most spellbinding story yet. Suzanne Trayle is a ‘Search Angel’ whose success in tracking down and reuniting birth mothers with their adopted children has earned her national fame. Known as ‘The Orphan’s Private Eye,’ Suzanne has reunited thousands of mothers with their children, but has failed to find the son she put up for adoption thirty years ago.



A BED OF NETTLES, this business of telling secrets, and Suzanne found herself tossing and turning on it as they began their approach to Chicago. The landing gear lowered, and she realized the shudder that radiated from the wings to her window seat could just as easily have arisen from her body: She was on the verge of making the most painful confession of her life to the biggest and most important audience she was ever likely to face.

She spotted the blue-capped, blank-faced chauffeur with the “Suzanne Trayle” sign standing just outside the security checkpoint and had to fight an impulse to walk right past him to the nearest ticket counter for a return flight home to Oregon. She’d come to Chi-town to give the keynote address to the annual conference of the American Adoption Congress, but after reviewing her speech for the umpteenth time on the plane, she felt as keyed up as a long-suffering understudy about to take the stage for her first real performance.

The convention organizer had told her that they wanted her to speak about opening adoption records. Suzanne had been so flattered—and had agreed so quickly—that the personal implications hadn’t been immediately apparent: How can you talk about opening adoption records if you’re not willing to be open yourself?

So she’d resolved to come out of adoption’s darkest closet, a decision that had been much easier to reach when she was still about two thousand miles from the podium. As she wound down the Chicago lakefront, peering through the smoky windows of a limousine at the whitecaps surging to the shore, her uneasiness prompted assurances that by nine o’clock it would all be over; but then she recalled how many times she’d used this tired—and ineffective—gambit to try to weasel her way through a pending crisis.

And it’s not going to be over. Don’t kid yourself. It’ll just be starting.

Red, white, and blue pennants snapped in the breeze as they pulled up to the City Center Complex, an unimaginative name for an uninspired-looking convention hall and hotel.

The driver hustled around the stretch to get her door, and she managed a smile as she remembered a famous photographer saying that the outdoors was what you had to pass through to get from your cab to your hotel. But these were tonier times for Suzanne, and the cab had turned into a limo.

Before she made it to the reception desk, a short man with freckles all over his bald head intercepted her.

“I’m Douglas Jenks, and I’m so glad to see you.” His smile burned as bright as those spots on his polished pate.

“It’s good to meet you, too.”

The convention organizer. She shook his hand, as cool and limp as raw salmon—and so at odds with his animated face—and thanked him for the invitation.

“No, don’t thank me. Do not thank us for one second. We want to thank you for coming. This is so great having you here. And the timing with that story in People? It couldn’t have been better. Like you planned it. The—”

“I didn’t, really.”

He went on undeterred. “. . . ballroom is absolutely packed. We’re sold out, and we’ve had to clear out some chairs in the back so we can make room for the overflow. Lots of TV, too,” he added with even more delight.

Suzanne barely had time to consider the gratifying—and intimidating—size of the audience before he was reminding her of his invitation to join him for dinner.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I can’t. I have to beg off. I really need some time to get ready.” The truth? She didn’t think she could hold down dinner.

“Okay,” he said slowly, drawing out both syllables skeptically. “Well, we do want you at your best. You’re feeling all right, aren’t you?” He frowned, and in an instant fleshy cornrows traveled up his brow and the front half of his spotted scalp.

“I’m fine. Don’t worry.” Suzanne touched his arm reassuringly. “I just need to get settled from the plane ride.”

She edged toward the reception desk and handed a credit card to the young man waiting to check her in. The Congress was hosting her, but there were always incidentals to pay for.

“All right. Come down when you’re ready. We’ll be waiting. Ciao-ciao.”

As he turned away she had to stifle a laugh because with that silly good-bye, and his orange spots, he suddenly reminded her of Morris the cat in those old commercials.

She just managed to bite her lip—pain the moment’s preferred antidote—when he executed a spirited and surprisingly graceful spin to wheel back around.

“Sorry, almost forgot.” He dug through a three-ring binder and pulled out a note. “A distinguished-looking man with silver hair gave me this earlier and asked me to give it to you.”

One glimpse at the crisp penmanship confirmed that it was, indeed, from Burton. But distinguished-looking? Silver hair? She’d always thought of it as gray. He’d made her husband sound like a Supreme Court Justice, which he definitely wasn’t. Not yet anyway. Try administrative law judge for the Oregon Construction Contractors Board. He’d applied for a circuit court judge pro tem position, but was still waiting for the governor to promote him to the bench. Despite his steroidal ambition with the gavel—or maybe, now that she thought of it, because of it—His Honor had suffered a serious lapse in judgment in following her here. Hardly the first such lapse, and far from the worst, but can’t an estranged husband stay estranged? At least for a while?

The note proved blessedly brief: “Good luck, sweetheart. I’m with you.”

But not brief enough to keep her from seeing that he could have chosen his words more carefully, too, made them less susceptible to sarcasm. I’m with you. Where were you a few months ago? And where are you now?

A quick, furtive look around the lobby assured her that he wasn’t haunting its remote corners. Thank God for small favors.

She took the key card from the receptionist and handed it to the bellman.

They stepped off the elevator on the sixteenth floor, and she trailed him to a plummy suite with a large bedroom. Nice. The Congress was treating her well.

She heard the bellman opening the drapes and turned to take in a view of Lake Michigan as wide as the horizon itself.

Two weeks ago clocks were set back an hour, and though it was still early evening, the blackening sky, with its gray filaments of cloud, looked like an eerie reflection of the dark, windswept water.

A chill prickled her arms, and as she rubbed them, the bellman, more alert than most, pointed out the thermostat. He turned it up, and as he left she handed him a five.

She unzipped her laptop case and reviewed her speech, double-checking the most painfully revealing lines.

The words she’d written over the past few weeks left her stomach feeling as if she’d never left the elevator, and more glad than ever that she’d declined the invitation to dinner. Hardly tempted in any case by the morel-stuffed mahi-mahi that was, at this very moment, taking its final bow on terra firma.

The bellman had hung her garment bag in a closet with a full-length mirror on the door. After slipping on a cerulean blue dress that highlighted her eyes, she gave herself a once-over, fluffed her honey-colored hair, which promptly deflated in palpable protest, and called it good.

Not quite. In deference to the harsh lights that seemed to bear down on every podium she’d ever commanded, she reluctantly applied mascara, lip gloss, and enough blush to enliven her pallid Portland complexion. About as much as she’d concede to the dogs of demeanor. But she’d learned the hard way that when you went before your public, you really did ignore your appearance at your own peril. That hideous photograph of her in People? Taken at a speech she’d given in Orlando two months ago. All the proof—and impetus—she’d ever need to primp.

She returned to her laptop, checking the time on the screen. Fifteen minutes and counting. One more look at the speech, even though she’d committed every last pause to memory.

Second thoughts? “Try third and fourth ones, too,” she murmured. But you’re not turning back now.

The title sounded simple enough, “Opening Records in the Era of Open Adoption,” but simplicity in all guises is pure deception—ask any magician worth his wand—and this surely proved true in the scroll of words her eyes now scanned.

Minutes later she made the trip back down the elevator and glanced in the ballroom as she headed to the backstage entrance. Packed! Camera crews choked the aisles, including one from 60 Minutes and another from Dateline NBC. Both shows had been hounding her for interviews. Ed Bradley himself had called, not some assistant to the assistant producer. She’d liked his manner on the phone, very smooth, yet chummy, but supposed that every reporter had learned to give good phone, a skill as necessary to their success as it was to the practitioners of another, more bluntly seductive art. He was so good she’d almost asked him what he was wearing.

All the attention was a sign, she supposed, that she was truly emerging into national prominence and mainstream interest, coming as it did only three weeks after that cover story in People. The headline? “The Orphans’ Private Eye,” a gussied-up way of overstating the humdrum nature of her work, which typically entailed hours of web searches and visits to the dustiest removes of distant libraries. She had allowed to the reporter that occasionally she did the work of an actual gumshoe—surveillance, interviews, impersonation—and evidently that had been enough to earn her the colorful sobriquet. But danger, the kind often associated with PIs? Not a bit. Her world was no more noirish than a cheese blintz.

The initial blip of publicity had occurred two years ago right here in Chicago when she’d appeared on Oprah; but she’d shared that hour with birth mothers and their children and had been featured only briefly, which had been fine with her. But 60 Minutes, People, Dateline NBC? This was a whole new level of fame, and she wasn’t sure it was good for the open adoption movement to be wedded so closely to one person, even if that person happened to be her.

“Like I said, SRO,” the conference organizer startled her as she sat backstage. “They’re standing all the way clear to the back of the ballroom.”

“Great.” But her stomach swirled even more over the great number of ears that would soon be listening.

She parted the curtain to take a peek and picked out Burton in less than five seconds. Sitting erect, as if still in his hearing room. Red regimental tie. Bold for Burton. (Never “Burt,” unless she wanted to goad him. Sometimes “Burty-boy” in bed, but that seemed like a long time ago.)

At the table right behind him sat Ami, French for dear friend, which surely she was, in addition to having become her trusted assistant.

The spry young woman had knocked on Suzanne’s door when she was nineteen and in need of help searching for her mother. She’d been a student with no money, save the dribble of student loans on which she subsisted. But she’d insisted on paying for the search by helping out in the office.

They’d found her mother seven months later, homeless and strung out on meth near the docks of Port Angeles, Washington. Bunny was one of the lucky ones—the meth had broken her spirit, but not her mind. Not yet. Still one day at a time for her. Always would be. She huddled next to her daughter, their shoulders almost touching as they finished dinner.

Ami had never stopped helping out in the office. She now had her master’s in social work and had become indispensable and irreplaceable to Suzanne, which was a whole lot more than could be said for Administrative Law Judge Burton Trayle.

The chandeliers dimmed, and even the clatter of plates and utensils softened, as if the light switch controlled the ambient noise level, too.

“We have with us this evening as our keynote speaker a woman all of you know.”

The curtain had opened, and the conference chair, an older woman as elegant and sparkling as a formal gown, was speaking from the podium.

“Many of you have met Suzanne Trayle in person. Some of you owe your reunions to her perseverance, and all of you have seen her on television and read the wonderful stories that have been written about her . . .”

Applause interrupted the chair, and she stepped back to let it build.

“Thank you. I’m sure Suzanne appreciates that. No one has done more to bring the emotionally charged issues of adoption into the mainstream of American attention, because Suzanne is not just a first-rate search angel, she’s a powerful advocate for opening adoption records.”

Amid the cheers, Suzanne heard Burton’s telltale whistle, odd in a man otherwise so mannered. It was an ear-splitting screech that would have startled even the stream of scam artists and miscreants who flowed through his courtroom, had he ever been taken with an uncontrollable urge to issue it in such a staid setting.

“As many of you know,” the chair said in a clear voice that rose above the fading clamor, “Suzanne’s searches have resulted in more than a thousand reunions between birth mothers and adoptees, and she found all of them in the past decade alone.”

This too brought expected applause, though thankfully not another of Burton’s whistles.

“Tonight we’re here to listen to Suzanne’s wise words, but first let’s honor her great success by giving this most amazing search angel the reception she so richly deserves.”

They rose to their feet as Suzanne approached the podium. She received the light embrace of the chairwoman, and placed her laptop on a table to her right. Tonight it would prove more prop than tool.

She looked up with a smile that granted breadth to her oval face, crinkling her high forehead and cracking, as genuine smiles will, the shell that people wear.

Suzanne gestured for them to sit, saying, “Please, you’re embarrassing me. Down—down.”

When they were seated she looked at them slyly, arched her eyebrows, and said, “Aren’t we the lucky ones? As adoptees, we can’t get arrested for marrying our first cousins. We can’t even get arrested for marrying our sister or brother, for that matter.”

The audience hooted. They understood, as a casual observer might not, that Suzanne was playing to the fear that so many of them had suffered when they’d selected a mate: Was their intended related? Was a blood link hiding in the secrecy of conception?

She recognized the generosity of the laughter and was a savvy enough speaker to not let it linger. She was in performance mode, and even the concerns she’d had over the most revealing parts of her speech had receded, as tides often do before a flood.

“The other day I read that the biggest problem with being an adoptee is that it’s like showing up for a mystery movie five minutes late.”

More knowing laughter.

“But it’s getting easier to figure out the beginning of each of our movies, isn’t it? Not easy, mind you, but easier. County and state records are going online. The same is true for newspapers. Hospitals are getting better about responding to e-mail,” she said as she removed a disk from her laptop. “It’s not like the old days when we’d have to write them and plead and wait . . . and wait. Remember that?”

A collective groan assured her that they did.

“We can go online and do a lot of our work with the help of a simple disk. Not sexy. Not a lot of sizzle, but it works.” She held up the one she’d just taken out of her computer. “This contains most of my records. I leave a backup at home and work on the road. Every one of you can do the same thing. I urge you to attend my workshop tomorrow, ‘Seeking Love, Finding the Link,’ because that’s what it’s all about. I urge you to put me out of business because . . .”—and here she paused long enough to hear a single utensil slip to a plate—“when I’m no longer in business, that’ll mean the closed adoption system, with all its secret records, has closed down for good. That’ll mean it’s dead, which is the destiny it deserves.”

This line was intended to rouse them, and it didn’t disappoint. When the wave of approbation finally broke, Suzanne placed the disk aside and offered updates on the states that had moved toward opening adoption records, where adult adoptees could determine the identity of their birth parents. But she pointedly reminded her audience that it was still far simpler to list the few states where records were open and available to them than it was to run down all the states that continued to stonewall adoptees, treating them as wards who had to be protected from the most basic of all truths—their birth.

She paused to take a sip of water, then looked out at the crowd.

“But tonight I want to talk to you about a deeply personal matter that I’ve avoided for a long time. It’s a subject I couldn’t bring myself to talk about until recently.”

Her eyes took in Burton, who sat forward, looking worried, and Ami, who nodded at her with a wariness Suzanne had never before seen in her assistant.

“As many of you know, I’m an adoptee. I was left on the steps of a firehouse in Los Angeles on January 16, 1958. I was only a few hours old. No note. No apologies. No clues. Only a thin white blanket and the cardboard box I was left in.

“The State of California assumed custody of me, and I lived in a state-run orphanage for the next five months until I was adopted by my absolutely wonderful parents. I’m as indebted to them as I am to life itself.

“These facts are all public, but my life hasn’t been the open book I’ve pretended it to be. I’ve kept one chapter tightly sealed for all these years: I’m not just an adoptee, I’m also a birth mother.”

Ami looked up, no longer wary but startled; Burton raised his hand to his chin. He knew this, of course, and all the facts that followed.

“At age fourteen—yes, fourteen—I became pregnant with my son. Like so many other young women adoptees, I’d sought the only connection I could to my lost and presumably ‘loose’ birth mother. It wasn’t a conscious decision—nothing of that nature is ever conscious at that age—but the desire for a connection to my birth mother was real, and no matter how pathetic it seems now, it resulted in the beautiful baby boy I had thirty-two years ago when I was still a child myself.

“I gave my son to the closed adoption system, and in one way or another I’ve been searching for him ever since.”

Her throat thickened, and she heard a chair move, bodies shift positions, and noticed how intently her audience was staring at her.

“I gave up my son because I was told that having a baby out of wedlock would violate every sense of common decency. In other words, I was shamed into giving up my son. Shamed. I was told, in effect, that I could keep my baby and raise him in shame, or I could give him up and give us both a good life.

“Giving up my baby to the closed adoption system did not give me a good life. It’s given me countless hours of agony; and as an adoptee who’s never known her own mother, I can’t believe my son is better off for not knowing me.”

She gripped the sides of the podium.

“‘Give up your baby, or live in shame.’ Up until about twenty years ago, when the open adoption movement began to take hold, that’s what most birth mothers were forced to hear. And let’s not overlook the unpleasant but very real fact that in spite of these gains, it still goes on: Every year thousands of young women in this country sign over their babies to the closed adoption system. But great progress has been made: More than half of all adoptions in the United States are now open, so those children will always know who their birth parents are, and their birth parents will always know who’s raising them. This is a healthy and critical development, but what about the millions of birth mothers who gave up their babies in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s? And what about their children, now in their thirties, forties, and fifties?

“These are the adult adoptees who are still denied access to their birth records in most states; and not a single state permits a birth parent to see her child’s amended birth certificate, which contains the names of the adoptive parents. They’re completely shut out by a system that thrives on secrecy and lies.”

She took another sip of water and noticed her hand trembling as she placed the glass back on the podium.

“These people are desperate. I see this every day: middle-aged adoptees trying to find medical information about their birth parents because of a health crisis in their own lives or in the lives of their children. I see birth mothers fighting terminal cancer and an insidious system that won’t let them see their son or daughter before they die.

“People ask me all the time why I do this kind of work. That’s why. I want basic human rights for all adoptees and birth parents, not just for those lucky enough to have experienced open adoption in the past twenty years.”

She took a deep, deep breath.

“The birth mothers, frankly, tear my heart out. After listening to literally thousands of their stories, I’m convinced that most of them were coerced into giving up their children. They were treated like social lepers, removed from their towns and cities and placed in homes for unwed mothers. Their mail and visitor lists were closely monitored to leave little chance that a prospective father would propose marriage—and deprive one of these money mills of a profitable baby.

“Many of these birth mothers signed adoption papers while heavily drugged, or during the most grueling moments of labor. Can you imagine that? Signing adoption papers during labor? It happened time and again.

“Others were threatened that if they changed their mind and wanted to keep their baby they’d have to pay all the hospital costs, doctors’ bills, lawyers’ fees, even their room and board at the ‘homes’ where they were held as virtual prisoners.

“I know. I endured some of that abuse myself and lived in shame for many years.”

Her head shook slightly, anger and anguish mingled as sand, and then she paused—she had to for fear of breaking into tears—and was stunned by the absence of any response other than those intently staring eyes. She was an experienced speaker and could usually read a crowd, but now she sensed nothing. It was as if the walls themselves had absorbed every emotion in the room save hers. Then she wondered if what she really felt was the crowd’s barely subdued anger: Did they feel betrayed by her many years of silence, by finding out that she wasn’t the woman she’d claimed to be?

Turning from the microphone, she tried to clear her throat discreetly; but discretion’s not possible when the attention of a crowd is pinned on you as unblinkingly as a spotlight.

“This is very difficult for me, as you can probably tell, but it’s important to address this issue. Even though the hour is late for my saying this, we must choose to live openly. But to live openly we must open all birth records to adoptees and their birth parents, as they did long ago in England, Scotland, Germany, Israel, Mexico, and in many other countries as well.

“But not here. Not in America. We may even be regressing. There’s now an attempt to criminalize the work I do, and the work that all of you do when you search for your child or birth parents. This abominable legislation would seal birth records for ninety-nine years, and if we violated its most dreadful provisions, we could go to prison.

“I’m going to vow to you right now that I will go to prison before I’ll stop searching on behalf of adoptees. And I’ll go to prison before I’ll stop searching on behalf of birth mothers. I’ll go to prison before I’ll ever bow to a system still determined to shame so many women who gave up their babies for the lie of a good life.”

Though her resolve made her appear calmer, she felt shaky, very shaky, and told herself that in another minute it would all be over. She was now willing to believe any bromide that would help her survive this speech; her stomach was swirling, and her palms were as cold and damp as dead leaves.

She leaned closer to the microphone and spoke her last words clearly: “We must end the secrecy, the scars, and all the shame. We must demand not only open adoption, but the opening of all birth records to adoptees and birth parents. And we must demand this . . . now!”

Silence followed her like a shadow as she stepped away from the podium. Not a single clap. A camera light blinked off. Then another, darkness as disappointment. She felt a gathering anger creeping closer. They must feel betrayed, that had to be it. But shouldn’t they understand? Then a hand struck a hand, and another pair joined in, and the applause built in seconds into an explosion of sound that rocked the room, and finally drained the grief that had been hiding in her eyes for years.


I DON’T LIKE PUNS. As amusements go, I’d rank them just above a deep incision and two degrees south of a family dinner. But I couldn’t help thinking that I’d hit the mother lode the night I saw Suzanne Trayle speak.

There she was, the most celebrated search angel of all, pulling a disk out of her laptop and telling us she had all her records right on that disk.

I realized right away that if I could get my hands on it I’d have the names, addresses, and maybe even the most intimate details of hundreds of birth mothers. I’d be able to pick and choose my moms without having to bother with the tedious research. I’d know who was married, who had kids, and most important of all, who lived alone (in all that shame Ms. Trayle was so worked up about).

So right from the start I knew what I’d do: I’d copy the disk and return it to her. And then, when the timing was absolutely perfect, I’d let her know that someone had it. Telling her would be the heart of my plan.

But to get the disk, I’d have to get into her room. I’ve gotten into hotel rooms before, but never in a place with electronic locks. But there’s always a weakness in a system. It’s true of people, and it’s true of hotels. I started looking where I always look first, at the bottom of the food chain. At the City Center Complex, that was the housekeeping staff. You can count on any hotel to provide two things: a bed, and maids who are paid next to nothing.

The next morning, the second day of the conference, I was haunting the hallway when María Alvarez pushed her cleaning cart up to Room 1633 and knocked. No answer. I didn’t think there would be because Ms. Trayle had gone to breakfast, and I could still see her at a table down in the atrium talking to some of the other people attending the conference. When María used her passkey, I made my move.


On Sale
May 1, 2006
Page Count
320 pages
Hachette Books

Mark Nykanen

About the Author

Mark Nykanen won four Emmys and an Edgar Award in his last four years at NBC News, where he worked as an on-camera investigative reporter. Nykanen has been an award-winning radio news director and talk show host at KDKB Radio in Phoenix, as well as a public television reporter and news anchor in Arizona. He lives in the Pacific Northwest.

Learn more about this author