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Pretty little things, p.10
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       Pretty Little Things, p.10

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  ‘Zach,’ his father cautioned.

  Zachary looked back and forth at his parents. ‘I … I … I don’t know. I was … Wait! I was on that field trip, remember? You picked me up at school at eleven when the bus came in. We – Ms Grainger, my science class – we went to Cape Canaveral to see the space place. NASA, you know?’

  ‘That’s right!’ his mother exclaimed giddily. ‘You were on a field trip!’

  ‘He wasn’t even home,’ his father said matter-of-factly to Bobby. But relief betrayed his don’t-fuck-with-me lawyer voice. ‘It wasn’t him,’ he added with a smile.

  As if Bobby hadn’t already figured that out.

  22

  Back behind the wheel of the Grand Am, Bobby washed down two Pepcids with a slug of hot caffeine as he swung on to the entrance ramp to I-95 South. His agita was raging, and he tapped on his chest with his fist as he settled into the left lane. He knew the feeling all too well. Something was not sitting right in his gut. Something was very wrong …

  The graphic crime-scene photos were carefully arranged across his desk, alongside the three clear evidence bags sealed with red tape that he’d signed out of the evidence locker just that morning. He fingered the smooth outer edge of the bag that contained the crumpled Trojan wrapper, dotted with flecks of blood, his cell phone cradled between his neck and cheek. ‘Calm down, Belle,’ he said into the phone.

  ‘Damnit, Bobby, it’s ten o’clock and she’s not home! I … I can’t take this any more. I really can’t!’ LuAnn replied, her voice cracking. He knew she was already pacing the floor, twisting her long blonde hair over and over and over in her slight fingers. That’s what LuAnn did when she was nervous.

  ‘Where did she say she was going after school?’ Bobby asked. He rubbed his eyes and tossed the evidence bag into the cardboard box marked State v. Marcus Stahl.

  ‘The library, for some project. Social Studies – it was a Social Studies project. I let her go, even though she’s supposed to be grounded. But she should have been home hours ago!’

  ‘Did you check there?’

  ‘It closed two hours ago.’

  ‘Maybe she went home with Lilly. Maybe Lilly’s mom picked them up.’ Across the desk from him, Zo was mouthing, ‘What’s happening?’ in between bites of his burger. Bobby shook his head.

  ‘I called, Bobby. Lilly went to the library with Dahlia. Not Katy. Katy wasn’t there.’

  He started to shove the reports and crime-scene photos into an accordion folder. ‘Maybe she’s with –’

  ‘Don’t! Don’t even say it!’

  ‘I’m gonna have to call him, LuAnn.’

  ‘I’ll kill her. She better not be with him.’ She started to cry.

  ‘OK, OK, Belle. Don’t worry. Try her cell again,’ he said as he stuffed the accordion folder under his arm, grabbed his briefcase and rushed out the squad bay, past Zo and the other task force members. He took the stairs two at a time, his stomach churning like someone had poured acid down his throat. Something was wrong. He could feel it. He pushed open the doors into the MROC lobby. ‘I’m coming home. I’m coming home, honey …’

  The semi in the middle lane next to him blasted his horn. Bobby looked around at the cars flying by him. He’d drifted again. He sped up, forcing himself to focus on the present. ‘Give it time, Robert,’ LuAnn’s shrink had said the first and last time Bobby had seen him, swallowed up in the executive leather chair he was sitting in, a patronizing smile on his thin, pasty face. ‘It really does heal all wounds.’ Bobby had wanted to pummel him. As if it was all that simple. Just give it time and all will be fine. Each night was longer than the one before; each day an emotional battle to get through. The not knowing was pure hell. He’d worked in Crimes Against Children for too long, and knew all too well just what the worst-possible-case scenario looked like. It was a reality far darker than any nightmare Dr Give-It-Time could ever imagine.

  He sipped at his coffee as his thoughts returned to Elaine Emerson. While he still had to confirm the field trip with Jupiter High, he already knew Zachary Cusano wasn’t lying. The kid had never heard of, much less met, Lainey. So either he had the wrong seventeen-year-old Zach from Jupiter who played varsity baseball, basketball, was captain of the football team and strummed the bass guitar, or …

  That person did not exist.

  That would potentially present a host of other problems. But, even if it were true, even if this ElCapitan proved to be an internet phantom, he still had no evidence that Lainey had ever met the guy. Or that the sexy pictures she’d taken were for him. Kids chatted with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people from all over the world on the web. People whose paths they never crossed outside of an internet connection.

  It was almost eleven by the time he got home. Nilla, Katy’s Australian Shepherd-mix, greeted him at the door with a yawn and a stretch, then followed it up with a few kisses and tail thwacks. Nilla was a Humane Society Survivor – Katy had rescued her from death row when she was just a pup. Out of the dozens of sad, woeful eyes, Katy had picked Nilla as her birthday present and the dog had never forgotten. From the second they’d brought her home, Nilla was Katy’s pooch. They played together, swam together, slept together. Even when Katy turned into a teenager and found friends and boys and parties more interesting than racing her dog to the end of the pool, Nilla was there – just like tonight – waiting patiently at the door for Katy to finally find her way back home.

  LuAnn had to be at work at seven a.m., so chances were she’d popped a Xanax and was out like a light. ‘Come on, girl, let’s get us some salami,’ Bobby whispered as he headed into the kitchen with Nilla at his heels. The Nextel chirped just as he excavated the makings of a sub from the fridge. ‘Dees.’

  It was Zo. ‘You need to turn on the TV.’

  LuAnn walked into the kitchen just then in her pajamas. ‘Hey, Belle,’ Bobby said softly, ‘I thought you’d be sleeping.’ ‘You need to see this,’ she replied, flicking on the kitchen TV.

  On the television screen, Debbie LaManna, Elaine’s mom, was wiping tears off her cheeks. ‘… I asked them to call the FBI, you know?’ Bobby recognized the pink bedspread that she sat on, the movie posters that decorated the walls behind her. ‘Those cops all told me to hire a private investigator if I want to find her. Can you believe that? A private investigator? Don’t ask me what the police are doing. They’re doing nothing! Nothing at all!’

  ‘Debra LaManna only wants to find her little girl,’ said the handsome reporter with the jet-black hair and piercing blue eyes. His manicured eyebrows were deep-set in a concerned V. ‘A little girl who loves her friends, her teddy bears, her family …’ He gestured to the Twilight poster behind him with a wry smile. ‘… vampires and love stories. Yet no one is willing to help her look. She is just like any one of the hundreds of other Florida runaways that Channel Six has discovered listed on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s website.’

  The picture then cut to the lobby of MROC. ‘Here at FDLE headquarters in Miami, an entire squad of special agents investigates what’s known as Crimes Against Children. Those crimes specifically include missing and exploited kids.’ The reporter walked over to a wall-mounted glass case. Along with FBI and FDLE wanted posters, it displayed a montage of current Missing Children/Endangered Runaway flyers. ‘Posted right here in their lobby are pictures of some of the missing.’ The camera panned across the faces as names were read aloud. ‘Eva Wackett, Shania Davis, Valerie Gomez, Kathleen Thomas, Gale Sampson, Nikole Krupa. And there are more, not posted here in the lobby, but still listed as missing on the FDLE website. Dozens and dozens of missing kids, right here in South Florida. Right in our own backyard. Some have been missing for months; some for years. And no one’s looking for them. Now there’s one more name to add to the list. Only this time, one mother has had enough and is speaking out.’

  He held up the fifth-grade picture of a bespectacled Lainey sitting at her school desk two years ago. ‘Thirteen-year-old Elaine Emerson. D
ebra LaManna can only wait and hope. Hope that perhaps Lainey, as she’s known to friends and family, is more important than the dozens of other kids South Florida law enforcement have written off and thrown away. Reporting for Channel Six, WTVJ, I’m Mark Felding.’

  ‘Son of a …’ Bobby started.

  ‘I’ll make the coffee,’ LuAnn said quietly, reaching for the bag of Dunkin’ Donuts.

  ‘How about them apples?’ Zo asked with a loud sigh before Bobby could finish his sentence. ‘Tell LuAnn to brew a pot. I’m coming over. I do believe, Shep, that the shit has just hit the fan.’

  23

  He leaned forward and stared hard at the TV. He was on the news! Not just any news, but the eleven o’clock news! Prime-fucking-time news! He looked at his watch and rubbed the fine sandpaper stubble on his jaw. It was only 11:07. Maybe not the top story, but a top story! He did it!

  He sipped at his warm milk and rubbed his tummy. He thought about how many people saw the news. Hundreds of thousands? Definitely. Much more than that. This was no time to be modest. Millions! Millions of people were sitting in their beds right now, watching this sniveling excuse for a mother boo-hoo about the daughter who just last week she couldn’t give two shits about, and wondering what might have happened to her. Where she might have gone, why she might have left. If she was dead. Crying just so she could milk a few more seconds off her fifteen minutes of fame, maybe tape it so she could critique how good she looked on camera with her friends.

  Then the camera slowly panned down the FDLE hall and across the sweet faces of the others.

  He fell back into his La-Z-Boy. The names – they didn’t matter. But those … faces. He always remembered a pretty face. Every detail, every curve, every line, every dimple, every perfectly misshapen freckle.

  He felt himself getting excited at just the thought of what he had done and he closed his eyes. The sweat began to gather on his forehead and back of his neck and he licked his dry lips as his hand went to his pants. He clutched at the tweed upholstery on the chair’s arm with his free hand, twisting it in his clammy, shaking fingers.

  No, no no. This was not the way. This was not the time. He opened his eyes. There was work to be done. Before the perfect picture was spoiled forever in his mind. He sat up and reached for the canvas roll-up bag of paintbrushes on the side table next to him.

  On the television, a photo of his pretty little princess flashed on the screen. Only it wasn’t her. He frowned as he stuffed the bag of brushes into the back pocket of his jeans. Lainey was much, much prettier than that. She had made herself that way for him. She had made sure she was special. Different than the rest.

  The piece ended and the dramatic music ushered in a commercial break. He stood and brought the empty milk glass and cookie plate over to the sink. He hummed the catchy music as he washed the plate and glass and set them out to dry. Then he turned off the TV and reached for his utility case and the Jullian French easel that sat by the cellar door.

  That’s when he heard her. Loud and nasally, piercing the delicious quiet.

  ‘Noooooo … somebody … please …’

  He covered his ears with his hands. He’d have to go down there and stop that. All that noise, noise, noise, noise! It was a bit disappointing, no doubt. The spoiling process had already fucking begun. Like a perfect, round red apple set out on a countertop couldn’t just sit there and be perfect forever, but instead had to rot slowly, from the inside out, until the peel bruised and darkened, and the inside decomposed to a mealy, tasteless mush. Annoyed, he shoved the easel under his arm and reached for the basement door handle. On the outside his little princess still looked perfect and red and ripe, but on the inside she was already moaning, whining, complaining.

  Rotting away.

  It was a fucking shame. The pretty ones never lasted long.

  24

  ‘Why wasn’t an AMBER Alert issued, Agent Dees?’

  The Miami Regional Operations Center training room was only maybe half-filled with reporters, but every eye in it turned to SAS Bobby Dees, who was standing as far away as possible from the regional director, Trenton Foxx, his entourage of Yes Men, and half the brass of the Coral Springs Police Department on the makeshift press dais. The entire morning had been spent in rushed ‘damage control’ meetings, headed by people who didn’t have a clue about missing kid protocol, culminating in a noon knee-jerk press conference that Bobby had not recommended and wanted no part of. He had hoped all questions would just be directed at Foxx, a media-hound who had taken command of the podium the second he saw it, but once again, luck was not on his side.

  ‘As I already explained to y’all, Agent Dees and Detective Dagher did not feel that was necessary,’ Foxx started, irritation beginning to fray his hospitable Panhandle twang. The forced soft smile was melting. The director liked the limelight well enough, but he had no use for the obnoxious Miami media. Up where he came from, cops told the press what was a good story, not vice versa. Last night’s investigative report bullshit would never have happened in Destin. But Foxx was new to the area and he was no fool – you caught more flies with honey than you did vinegar. He was only a couple of weeks into a long five-year commitment in this city, and he knew if you didn’t want every news channel and paper in town looking for ways to make you sound like a moron, you smiled when you took their questions and you bitched when the door closed on their tails. ‘You see now –’

  ‘No, I’d like to hear from Agent Dees, please,’ interrupted the reporter. It was the guy who had done last night’s interview with a teary Debbie LaManna. His hair was even fluffier and more perfect in person. ‘Mark Felding, Channel Six. I’d like to hear from Agent Dees, if we could. He’s running this investigation, is he not?’

  Foxx shrugged and stepped back from the podium. The smile was gone.

  ‘Elaine Emerson did not and does not meet the strict protocol to issue an AMBER. That is reserved for abductions,’ Bobby responded as he leaned over into the mike.

  ‘But you issued a Missing Child Alert, so you had to believe Elaine was in some sort of danger,’ Felding persisted. ‘What made you think that, Agent Dees? Did you have any additional information?’

  The Missing Child Alert had been the domino that notified the local media that Elaine was missing, which caused Channel Six’s Felding to follow up on air with her sad-sack of a mother. That led to the tears at eleven, then the barrage of phone calls from frantic parents and slick reporters chumming for a juicy sequel to the Makala Jarvis mess, which ultimately brought on the shit storm that Zo had predicted. Hours had been wasted and nothing had been accomplished. ‘I did that in an abundance of caution,’ Bobby replied.

  ‘Doesn’t a Missing Child Alert mean a juvenile’s in imminent danger?’ Felding repeated. ‘So what is it about Elaine’s disappearance that made you believe she was, or is, at risk of bodily harm?’

  There was a reason why they didn’t let Bobby head up the press conferences – he was no good at either the smiles or the sugarcoating. ‘I know you’re looking for a story here, Mr Felding,’ he replied testily, ‘one way or another. Either law enforcement did too much, or did too little. But there’s nothing to report. The investigation’s ongoing, we are pursuing many avenues which I’m not going to comment on, and hopefully with all the attention you have now focused on it, Elaine will see herself on the news and call home.’

  ‘Channel Six has been conducting an investigative report on runaways in South Florida,’ Felding continued. ‘The first installment ran last night. There are literally hundreds of missing kids across the state that I’ve discovered on the FDLE website that nobody is looking for, Agent Dees. Hundreds. And over the years, I’m sure, thousands. My question for you then, as the supervisor of the Crimes Against Children squad, and as a recognized national expert on child abductions, is why do some kids’ disappearances get a full-blown investigation, with AMBER Alerts and organized volunteer searches, while other disappearances – like Adrianna Sweet, Eva Wackett or Nikole
Krupa – don’t get the time of day?’

  ‘Every case is different, Mr Felding. There are many factors – the age of the child, the circumstances surrounding the disappearance –’

  ‘Well, Eva Wackett went to the Dolphin Mall to meet friends and never came back. That never got any attention. Adrianna Sweet didn’t come home from a friend’s house in Miami. That never got any attention, either. Of course Eva was in the foster-care system and Adrianna had a juvenile record for drug possession and a family that didn’t give a damn. Maybe that’s what mattered. Could that be it?’

  ‘I didn’t work those cases, Mr Felding.’ Bobby knew exactly what this asshole was trying to do, and his blood was beginning to boil.

  ‘My point exactly. When is a case bad enough – or, rather, a kid important enough – to get turned over to the Crimes Against Children unit of FDLE?’

  ‘A kid’s socio-economic status is not a determining factor in issuing an AMBER or starting an investigation, and you know it. Neither is race or heritage. You’re breaking this down to a sound bite for the second installment of your investigative report, Mr Felding. More than a million kids run away from home every year in this country. A million. There’s just not enough manpower to go looking for teenagers who don’t want to be found, is all.’

  ‘But why do some runaways – like your own daughter, Agent Dees – why do those kids get a full-blown investigation at tax-payers’ expense, and others, like Elaine Emerson, get only a couple of perfunctory phone calls to the morgue and the hospitals?’

  A buzz ran through the crowd.

  Bobby gripped the podium with both hands, so hard his knuckles went white. The room was spinning. ‘Who the hell do you think you are, asking me that question?’

  ‘That’s enough! This is over,’ broke in Zo, pushing forward and wedging himself between Bobby and the podium. He clasped a firm hand on Bobby’s shoulder, and waved over the Public Information Officer. ‘Thank you for your time, everyone. Please direct any further questions to our PIO, Leslie Mavrides.’

 
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