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Pretty little things, p.11
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       Pretty Little Things, p.11

           Jilliane Hoffman

  Leslie hesitantly moved toward the podium.

  ‘I knew that was gonna come up,’ Foxx grumbled to Matt Donofrio, the Coral Springs police chief as the two of them quickly stepped off the dais and exited into a back hallway. ‘Jesus Christ … what a mess. That’s all I need …’

  ‘I just want to know why some kids are being ignored!’ called out Felding, looking around at the agents who were coming at him from the back of the room. ‘What if something more sinister is happening to these kids? What if they’re not all just runaways? We’ll never know, ’cause no one’s looking for them!’

  ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ Bobby demanded, as Veso and Zo moved to get him off the dais. ‘Who the hell does he think he is?’

  ‘I have a list,’ Felding shouted, waving a piece of paper above his head as the agents closed in. The cameras spun on him. ‘Nineteen girls – all fitting the same general description or same strange circumstances of disappearance! Nineteen, and I’ve just started to look! All local runaways on your website! I think they deserve an investigation, Agent Dees! They deserve someone to go looking for them,’ he said as he shook off the agents who ushered him towards the door. ‘Just like your daughter, Katherine. Don’t you think?’


  ‘I found out when I got to class this morning. Melissa told me, but, I mean, everyone knew. Everybody was asking me, you know, what happened to her. Then my dad called the school and said you wanted to talk to me.’ Molly Brosnan sat on the edge of her seat in the Ramblewood assistant principal’s office, twisting her long, Strawberry Shortcake locks through frosted blue fingertips. She chewed on a chapped lip.

  Bobby leaned forward in the chair across from her, elbows resting on his knees. It was a little over an hour since he’d left the circus back down in Miami. Five minutes after he’d finally told a pissed off, bitching Foxx to fuck off, Mark Brosnan had called to say Molly was back in town, so he’d jumped in the car and headed north to Coral Springs. There was no time to stop, no time to think about the bullshit that’d gone down that morning, and really no reason to stick around to see what squad or field office he was going to be reassigned to – assuming he still had a job at all after Foxx made a phone call to the Commissioner. What a fall from grace. Exactly a year ago at this time he had a great marriage, a beautiful daughter and was a ‘nationally recognized expert on child abductions’, assisting everyone from the FBI to the Georgia State Police on missing child investigations. Time had done a piece on him as the 2007 recipient of both the Officer of the Year Award for Missing and Exploited Children and Florida’s Law Enforcement Officer of the Year. People had even named him a ‘Hero Among Us’.

  Look, Daddy, you’re on the same page as Beyoncé! Katy had said in amazement when the tabloid came in the mail. You’re famous! You’re a hero!

  But am I your hero, Kit-Kat?

  Always, Daddy …

  Now his marriage was crumbling, his daughter was gone and he just might be in need of a job. ‘Molly, when was the last time you saw Lainey?’

  ‘Saw her? Um, well, not this weekend, ’cause of my grandma, but I saw her last weekend. I went over her house Saturday.’

  ‘And the last time you spoke with her?’

  ‘The day before I lost my cell phone.’

  Mark Brosnan, Molly’s dad, was standing across the room next to the assistant principal, his arms folded across his chest. He frowned and shot her a look.

  ‘Well, I didn’t lose it. My teacher took it on Friday,’ she added sheepishly. ‘I get it back tomorrow.’

  ‘What’d Lainey say? Did she tell you about plans she had over the weekend?’ Bobby asked.

  ‘We were gonna go to the mall, but then my grandma died and I went to New Orleans.’

  ‘What about a boy? Was there any boy she was dating?’

  ‘No. Lainey wasn’t dating anybody. There was a guy she liked, but, you know, she’d never even met him.’


  ‘I don’t know. Just some guy she talked to on the internet. I only know his name’s Zach and he plays football. He’s really cute, too.’

  ‘Is that the boy Lainey took the pictures for?’

  Molly’s face went beet red and she looked down at her shoes.

  ‘I know about the pictures. Did you take them for her?’ he prodded.

  Molly nodded.

  ‘What pictures, Molly?’ her dad demanded, puzzled.

  Molly shook her head. ‘Just Lainey looking pretty.’

  ‘How did Lainey communicate with Zach?’ Bobby asked. ‘I’ve checked her AOL email account, but I didn’t see any messages from either a Zach or ElCapitan.’

  ‘She IM’d him.’

  ‘On her cell?’

  ‘No, cause her mom would check that sometimes and she didn’t want her reading her messages. They IM’d on the computer, like we did. On Yahoo.’

  ‘This boy, this Zach.’ Bobby tapped the file folder on his lap. ‘You said he’s cute, but yet you never met him.’

  ‘He sent Lainey a picture. He’s blond and, like, a surfer-looking guy.’

  Bobby opened the folder and found the picture of a casual, T-shirted Zachary Cusano he’d downloaded from the internet baseball news article. ‘This him?’

  Molly nodded. ‘That’s the picture.’

  Bobby felt his heart speed up. He’d already verified that the real Zachary Cusano was looking at space shuttles a hundred or so miles to the north the night Lainey disappeared. ‘Was she going to meet him?’

  ‘No, no. He lived, like, real far away. It took all of Lainey’s nerves to even IM the guy a sentence. There’s no way she’d go meet him.’

  ‘How’d she get along with her mom?’

  Molly shrugged. ‘OK, I guess.’


  Both Molly and her dad made a face.

  ‘Lainey and Mr LaManna don’t … well, she doesn’t really like him. Is it OK to say that?’ Molly asked, looking over at her dad, who nodded. ‘He’s just, he’s hard on her and he can be really weird. Lainey avoids him. They had a big fight Thursday. She wasn’t talking to him.’

  ‘Really?’ Bobby asked. ‘Do you know what it was about?’

  ‘He’s just weird. He flipped out on her room, ’cause she locked the door on him.’

  ‘Would she run away from home?’

  She shook her head. ‘Where would she go?’

  ‘Molly,’ Bobby said quietly. ‘I pulled Lainey’s cell records and they show her last call out was made to you Friday night. That was the last communication anyone has had with her.’

  ‘I didn’t talk to her,’ Molly replied, her small voice catching. ‘I didn’t have my phone. But she did leave a message. I checked my voicemail from my grandma’s house. I guess it was kinda weird …’ her voice trailed off.

  ‘Do you still have it?’ her dad asked.

  ‘No, but I remember it. She said I’d never guess where she was. She sounded real excited. Then someone called her name and she whispered she had to go and said not to call her back, that she’d call me.’ Molly looked over at her dad, as the tears ran down her cheeks. ‘But she never did, Daddy. She never did.’


  ‘The email address used to open the MySpace account was [email protected] The name was Zachary Cusano, with a street address of 69 Lollipop Lane, Jupiter, Florida,’ Clint said into the phone, taking a long drag on his cigarette. It was Thursday morning. Almost a week since Lainey hadn’t come home.

  ‘What the hell kind of address is that?’

  ‘MySpace has over five million users, Bobby. They don’t verify names, addresses or ages.’

  ‘Let me guess,’ Bobby said, pulling in front of the white ranch. ‘The address is bogus.’

  ‘Of course.’


  ‘No good, either.’

  ‘What about the connectivity history?’

  ‘MSN says the connections are always from free WiFi locations. Coffeehouses, the Fort Lauderdale Airport, libraries. He
s untraceable, Bobby. It’s a ghost.’

  ‘Shit.’ Bobby slapped the steering wheel. ‘All right, Clint, I just pulled up to the kid’s house. I got Zo and a tech behind me and a warrant in my pocket.’

  ‘That’s a nice way to say, “Good morning”,’ Clint laughed.

  ‘Let’s just pray little Elaine didn’t actually try to hook up with this guy. That would definitely not be good.’

  He walked up to the weathered door and knocked. Debbie opened it, leaning against the frame in her robe, blocking the barking golden retriever behind her from getting out. Or maybe Bobby from entering. Lainey’s brother, Brad, watched wide-eyed in his pajamas from the kitchen as he slurped down a bowl of cereal. The circles were so bad under Debbie’s eyes, she looked like someone had punched her. Given the history on the house and the husband, that was a definite possibility.

  Bobby handed her a copy of the warrant. ‘We’re here for the computer.’

  ‘So you’re finally gonna do something? That shook you up the other night, I bet,’ Debbie snapped, her voice scratchy and slightly slurred, probably from lack of sleep and drinking too much.

  ‘Again, permission would’ve made it easier.’

  ‘The freaking computer … what the hell you want with that? Waste of time. You should be out looking for who took her!’ she yelled as Bobby, Zo and the tech pushed past her and headed down the hall.

  The bed was made, the room all prettied up. No doubt for the cameras that were in here two days earlier. Bobby flipped on the computer, burned the hard drive on to the zip evidence disk and sealed it in an evidence bag.

  He didn’t want to wait for a lab in Orlando to look for what he knew he could find himself in a matter of seconds. While he still had no concrete evidence Lainey had gone to meet this ElCapitan, he figured if he could just get a look at her last IMs, he’d know for sure. Unfortunately, most of the time on most of the search engines, IMs were gone the second you closed the program or shut down the computer. But on some Yahoo IM accounts, the default system would automatically save the last ten days’ worth of Instant Messages.

  He navigated Yahoo Messenger over to Lainey’s My Yahoo. He launched into her IM Settings and checked the date for archived messaging. Ten days. But the archive default was real-time sensitive, like the voicemail feature on a cell – it only went back ten days from the current date. Today was Thursday, October twenty-ninth. That would mean he could access stored IMs sent or received only up and through October twentieth.

  He launched into Lainey’s account. A bunch of texts appeared. The screen name ElCapitan was everywhere. He quickly scanned through the chatter till he hit last Tuesday, October twentieth, and his eyes fell on the texts he knew he was going to find.

  ElCapitan says: have to meet u.

  ElCapitan says: what about Friday nite? Wanna c Zombieland?

  ElCapitan says: I’ll pick u up at school. weve played CS High b4. Stay late and meet me @ 5:30 in the parking lot in back by the baseball field. Ill b in a black BMW.

  ‘Oh shit,’ said Zo, who was reading over Bobby’s shoulder. ‘Her last phone call to her friend was at what time Friday?’

  ‘Five thirty-one.’

  ‘That’s not good. Maybe she didn’t go through with it, though. Maybe she never showed. What’s the last IM say? Is it from this piece of shit?’

  Bobby scrolled down to the end. ‘Last IM was Thursday, October twenty-second at 9:47 p.m. from …’ his voice trailed off.

  On the screen was the last message Lainey had received right before she disappeared.

  ElCapitan says: c u 2morow ☺


  Lainey was with him. No doubt about it. Now the question was, who exactly was him? And the even more important question, how do you find him, this faceless phantom who wreaked havoc over an internet trafficked by millions of people each and every second of each and every day? A cyber-ghost who’s smart enough to not just cover his tracks, but leave none at all?

  Bobby watched the kids playing scrimmage on the Coral Springs High School football field. Everywhere he looked there were signs of life. Teenagers running track, reading books, hanging out in their cars. A completely different scene on a sunny Thursday afternoon than it apparently had been at dusk last Friday night, when no one had been around to see anything. He’d checked the storefronts on Sample, the homeowners across the street on Rock Island. He’d had security search the school’s video surveillance tapes, and even the Coral Springs PD pull traffic cams, but there was nothing. Nothing at all.

  Bobby had worked internet abductions before – the endings were never good. The first thing a detective learns out of the academy is statistics: More than 70 per cent of violent crimes – including sexual assaults and abductions – are perpetrated by someone the victim knows, either intimately or casually. Starting with the victim will usually lead you back to the bad guy. Where did she hang out? What were her hobbies? Who were her friends? Who were her enemies? But internet stalkings didn’t play by conventional rules. Most often, they began as random hunts in invisible chat rooms or through social-networking sites, where no one was who they said they were, witnesses didn’t exist and whole identities simply disappeared with the click of a mouse. Trails were electronic, not physical, and if the bad guy was experienced enough to know how not to leave one, then there was no way to track where he’d been or where he’d come from. It was like a masked stranger sneaking into a random home in the middle of the night, who leaves no fingerprints, no trace evidence, and no DNA behind. Short of someone squawking, the case was almost impossible to solve.

  Bobby looked out on the expansive field, home to the Coral Springs Colts. Blue- and green-skirted cheerleaders giggled and laughed as they practiced on the sidelines, oblivious to the guy with the badge and sports coat watching on the other side of the fence. Before she’d met Ray, Katy had been a cheerleader, too. Varsity St Thomas Aquinas High School. She’d started out in gymnastics soon after learning how to walk, and then sometime before she was eight or nine, switched to cheering. The competition schedule was grueling, with meets that lasted entire weekends in cities all across Florida. Standing in the bleachers, his hand wrapped in LuAnn’s, they’d watch with their hearts jammed in their throats as their only child flipped and twisted atop a pyramid of bodies. It was at one of those meets, watching one of those back tucks twenty-feet in the air, watching as someone else caught his little girl as she spiraled with a smile to the ground, that Bobby first confronted perhaps the most frightening reality of all about parenting: He had no control.

  * * *

  ‘Every guy with a badge is looking, Bobby. Key West to Boynton. There’s nothing.’

  ‘She can’t just disappear, Zo; she’s a sixteen-year-old kid. She’s got nowhere to go, and what? Maybe a few hundred bucks in her pocket from working at the fucking Dairy Queen?’

  The Dairy Queen. That’s where Katy had met that loser, Ray. Reinaldo Coon. The moment Bobby had met him – hovering over his daughter like a second layer of skin while she cleaned the Blizzard machine, watching her every move – he knew the kid was trouble. Barely eighteen, he had the confident swagger of either a rock star or a gang member, and the smirk of someone who just didn’t give a shit who you were or what you wanted. Bobby knew even then that it was too late; that the spell had been cast and Katy was falling hard. Her baby blue eyes followed bad-ass Ray and his mop around the store like an obedient puppy. Perhaps she found his tattoos sexy, his defiance exciting, his cockiness assuring. If Bobby could go back and do one thing in his life over, it would be to tell Katy that she couldn’t work at the fucking Dairy Queen.

  Zo chose his next words carefully. ‘Looks like the two of them maybe thought it out, Bobby. There’s no trace of the boy, either. Mom’s still saying she hasn’t heard from him in weeks. Says he moved out in November and she doesn’t want him back.’

  ‘Bullshit,’ Bobby ran his hands through his hair. ‘She’s lying. I’m gonna go over there and talk to her again …’

  ‘No. No, you’re not. She’s already screaming lawsuit over you breaking her shit last week. You can’t threaten ’em, Shep. No matter how good it feels to wrap your hands around her throat, or punch out her car window, you just can’t do it. Scum like her is looking for a way to make your life hell.’

  There was a long, horrible silence. ‘It worked, Zo,’ Bobby said softly, as he looked out the door of his office at the smiling faces on The Board across the hall. They were no longer photos of Somebody Else’s Kid. ‘My life is hell now …’

  The sun was starting to slip out west. The football players had trudged inside; the cheerleaders had stopped cheering. Across the street and down the block, porch lights were coming on. A couple of homes had already lit the Jack-o’-Lanterns on their stoops, and tremendous blow-up witches and ghosts were puffing to life on green lawns sprinkled with leaves. Halloween was just a couple of days off. He’d almost forgotten, or maybe tried not to remember the fun, kid-friendly holiday that used to be his favorite. It wasn’t so long ago that Katy had been a princess in a sparkly Sleeping Beauty costume, stepping out the door with no front teeth, giddily swinging her Trick or Treat bag. He kicked the fence and turned back toward the car and the emptying parking lot. He was no closer to answers than he was yesterday. On either case.

  ‘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?’

  That asshole reporter’s words from Tuesday kept repeating in his head, as they had all day. Who the hell did that guy think he was? Maybe he shouldn’t let it get to him – Katy’s disappearance had triggered a Missing Child Alert and had made a blurb in the local section of the Herald. Everyone in the South Florida media knew she’d run away. Even People ran an update in their MailBag section. And the guy did have a point, even if it stung to hear it. Why were runaways right up there with barking-dog complaints on a department’s priority list? Why were the final case disposition stats for them so dismal? Why were so many teens not even reported missing? And why was that somehow acceptable?

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