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All the little pieces, p.17
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       All the Little Pieces, p.17

           Jilliane Hoffman
 
‘Well, the lab will confirm if they’re hers, but they’re long and dark and one is purple, which, if I remember correctly, matches the color of the streaks she had in her hair. And that would not only place her in his car – it would place her in his trunk. Now what the hell would she be doing back there?’

  37

  Everything suddenly seemed brighter. This was big. Really big. There weren’t many explanations for how a dead girl’s hair got in someone’s trunk that didn’t involve her head being in there with it. And if the fibers in the car matched that patch, it would at least place Poole in the same woods that Angelina had disappeared in: It would corroborate Faith Saunders’ ID. And it might be enough to charge Poole with murder.

  ‘Now for the not-so-good news,’ Tatiana replied hesitantly.

  Bryan felt his chest tighten and he got ready for the punch that he had a feeling was gonna take his breath away. ‘I knew my high was too good to last. What was that? Ten seconds?’

  ‘I just got a call from Carl Edmunds over at Riviera Beach PD. They got a girl, the name’s Noelle Langtry, age seventeen, who’s been reported missing. She lives with her mom at Southern Court, a mobile home park. Mom says she went missing three days ago. Teens run away all the time, but what makes this interesting for us is the kid dances at Sugar Daddy’s. Mom says she lied about her age to work there – she’s a high school dropout. Because of her age she might get more attention from the cops and the media than your average missing stripper. Edmunds saw your flag in the system; they routed the call to me.’

  ‘Three days ago? That was Saturday.’ Three days ago he was sitting outside Poole’s townhouse till eight in the morning. Fuck. ‘Was she working Saturday?’

  ‘Yeah. Did her shift, got off at one. Never went home. Apparently that’s not too crazy, cause Mom waited two days to report her missing, but no one has heard from her since. Her car was still parked in the back lot.’

  Fuck, fuck, fuck. If it was an abduction, it couldn’t be Poole. It was that simple. Or that complicated. If this girl turned up dead in a cane field, then it couldn’t be Poole. Bryan was watching the house the whole night and the guy was home the whole time. That would mean he was looking at the wrong guy. He wouldn’t be the first detective to try and make the suspect fit the crime. Was that what he was doing here?

  But Faith Saunders had ID’d. There was a long purple hair in the trunk of Poole’s car. Derrick Poole refused to give an alibi, because he obviously had none. There were a lot of pieces missing to the puzzle, but he did have a couple. He just wasn’t sure yet where they fit.

  ‘You still there?’ Tatiana asked. ‘Did you hear anything I said?’

  His brain was jumping the gun, imagining the worst-case scenario and trying to fix it. Maybe this Langtry girl had gone missing for the usual reasons strippers and prostitutes went missing: drugs, pimps, boyfriends. It didn’t mean she was a victim. And it didn’t mean she was a victim on this case.

  ‘Oh, I heard it,’ he replied quietly, starting down the stairs. He had to let out the crime-scene techs who’d thoroughly combed through the townhouse and found nothing.

  ‘This probably has nothing to do with us,’ she tried. ‘You want me to take a ride out to Sugar Daddy’s and see what they know?’

  ‘Nah. I’ll head over there after I’m done here. I’ll talk to you later,’ he replied quickly.

  A discouraging thought came to him as he sat at the breakfast bar completing the disappointing inventory of property taken under the warrant for the return that had to be filed with the court tomorrow. Maybe he was looking for a serial killer because he was hoping for a serial killer. Something that was more important than just a regular homicide. Something that would make him more important than just a regular detective. Something that would make life exciting and him exciting and maybe get Audrey to notice him again.

  It was hard to think this way, but he had to be honest with himself. Especially if the case against Poole started to fall apart – or, more fittingly, the pieces never came together to form the picture he wanted to see. Maybe he’d been building this Cane Killer case up, trying to make it something it wasn’t so that he wouldn’t have to think about how his own life sucked. He could be the rock star of the detective world. At least in Palm Beach. He could make headlines and be asked to speak at conferences and maybe write a book about the experience. Like a bullied teen who dreams of social revenge one day – he’d be someone special again and he’d show her.

  He’d gained a hundred pounds since Audrey blindsided him fourteen months ago and asked for a divorce. Before that awful day, he’d taken two-week summer family vacations with her and the girls to family places like the Grand Canyon and the Smoky Mountains. On weekends he’d held garage sales, and washed both the car and the dog in the driveway of the house he’d worked real hard to buy in Boynton Beach, while he waved hello to neighbors he’d known for years. He went out to dinner with other couples, and joshed the guys in the squad who were on wives number three and four.

  Now he lived in an apartment that was a few miles from the Key West-style two-story Audrey had once called her ‘dream house’. He’d pushed himself and the budget to buy it for her just so he could see that smile on her face – the one that made his insides glow. Most nights he ate dinners that came from a microwave or a local takeout on his rented sofa. He could count the pieces of furniture that were in his apartment on his fingers. He saw his kids on Wednesdays and every other weekend. He tried to see them more, but they were always so busy. The girls were seventeen, and he wasn’t sure if it was their age or his size, but they weren’t excited to see him any more when he showed up at school to surprise them at lunch or after school at their softball games and lacrosse practices. The twins used to think he was so cool, that what he did was so cool – now they were embarrassed when he hugged them in public. He rang the bell at the house he worked overtime to buy, and watched as his former neighbors avoided saying hello to him as they washed their cars and their dogs in their driveways, because, as Audrey had explained, ‘It’s awkward for everyone, Bryan.’ Twenty-two years and she just didn’t love him any more. It wasn’t her and it wasn’t him. It was as simple and devastating as that.

  ‘We’re done here, Detective,’ called out Styles, the crime-scene tech, from the front door.

  Bryan stood up and looked around the empty kitchen. He felt incredibly lonely. ‘Me too,’ he replied quietly, gathering his papers and his bag.

  It was unmanly to cry, even when no one was around to see.

  So he never did.

  38

  Faith took a cart and waded into the crowded supermarket, politely dodging a woman who was peddling samples of the Publix Apron Recipe of the Day. She had forty-five minutes to grab shampoo, toilet paper and something to cook for dinner, and then shoot back to pick Maggie up from ballet. Sometimes the teacher let the parents into the studio to watch the dance the girls had learned that afternoon, and if that was the case today, she only had thirty-five minutes.

  Even before the ‘incident’, Maggie was funny about ballet class. Sometimes she didn’t want Faith to stay, practically pushing her out the door at drop-off, proclaiming she could ‘do it herself’, and other times she demanded Faith stay and watch, even though mommies weren’t actually allowed in the studio itself during class. Most moms sat around the lobby chatting amongst themselves or reading. Despite Maggie’s protests of independence, usually Faith did too, but today she figured she’d get shopping out of the way so she didn’t have to drag Maggie into the supermarket during dinner hour. Also, the truth was, she didn’t want to sit and chat with anyone. She didn’t want anyone looking at her for too long. She looked like she was about to crack, and if any of the moms started talking about something cute their kid did for them, or asked how Jarrod was, she might melt into a puddle of tears. And if anyone were to bring up the Palm Beach dancer or speculate as to the identity of the two Parkland witnesses to her murder – she would surely shatter into a million pieces. Right t
here, right then. That’s how emotionally fragile she felt. She could only keep trying to get through each day, hoping that perhaps with time she’d be able to figure out a single solution to the mounting problems in her life: one that could lift the crushing weight of guilt that affected her every thought, but yet not cause the implosion of everything else in her life. Because she couldn’t figure one out, she’d done nothing. As she’d already learned, that could be worse than doing something.

  She headed off to the shampoo aisle and checked her watch. Hopefully she wouldn’t catch traffic on University on her way back to ballet. No matter Maggie’s mood at drop-off, she’d absolutely, completely panic if Faith wasn’t waiting with all the other mommies when the studio door opened at the end of class. Her anxiety level the past three weeks had been at an all-time high, understandably. One minute she was very clingy, the next minute she ran from Faith as if she were a complete stranger. Usually that happened when Jarrod came home or walked into a room, so Faith wasn’t sure if she was playing up to him or playing Faith while she waited for Daddy to come rescue her. She might be ‘developmentally delayed’, but like all kids, Maggie instinctively sensed weakness in her parents and exploited it to her advantage. She was four and not mature enough to realize, though, that the weakness she was exploiting, wasn’t just going to score her a cookie from Daddy that Mommy wouldn’t let her have – it was actually wearing away at an already compromised spot in the fabric of her parents’ marriage. As much as it killed Faith to watch her little girl, her baby, run from her to Jarrod, it probably killed Jarrod to watch his daughter run from her mother, even if he was at the receiving end of her affection. Faith didn’t know where she stood with her daughter, so she could only stand still, waiting for Maggie to give her a sign, watching as she ran – to her sometimes, away from her others. Meanwhile, the stress that filled the house was like carbon monoxide, silently, insidiously, poisoning all three of them, but since they couldn’t smell it, taste it, hear it, it was easier to pretend everything was going to be OK. No one argued. No one sniped. No one yelled. And no one talked about the ‘incident’. They got up and did all the things they were supposed to do for the day and went back to sleep as the poison continued to fill the house.

  The store was abuzz with beeps from the scanners and registers, and overhead announcements from the deli counter and bakery department. On her way to the paper products aisle, she decided on dinner: spaghetti and meatballs. Something quick and easy. She picked up a package of pre-made meatballs from the meat department and headed over to the pasta aisle, grabbing a box of Apple Jacks off an end cap and two cans of chicken stock off another. It was impossible to come out of a Publix with only the original amount of items you came in for. Jarrod was even worse. She’d send him for milk and he’d come back with half the store. And usually no milk. She smiled to herself. And he always came back with Ben & Jerry’s Chubby Hubby – her favorite ice cream. Always. She rubbed her eye to stop the tears before they started. She couldn’t lose it in Publix.

  Bam! Her cart smacked right into another cart.

  ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ she began, ‘I wasn’t paying atten—’ She stopped in mid sentence.

  Standing right in front of her, his cart blocking hers, was the man in black.

  ‘That’s OK,’ he replied with a smile, pushing his glasses up on his nose. ‘Accidents happen.’

  She began to shake all over.

  ‘As long as you say you’re sorry and promise never to do it again,’ he said.

  Faith looked dumbly around her. The rest of the shoppers carried on as if nothing had happened. People checked prices and ingredients. She heard someone laugh raucously from the next aisle over. The manager urged customers on the overhead system to pick up fresh fried chicken in the deli department.

  ‘Excuse me,’ said a woman as she made her way past the two of them. Sitting in the front basket, protected from cart germs by a pink fitted cart Snuggie, was a chubby baby sucking on a pink rattle and fussing.

  ‘Cute,’ said the man in black, waving at the baby.

  Faith opened her mouth but not so much as a squeak came out.

  ‘Thank you,’ said the mother. She shook the rattle at the baby, pushing the cart forward with her elbows.

  The man put his finger to his lips. ‘Shhhhhh,’ he said as the pair passed. But his eyes never left Faith’s.

  With the cart clenched in her hands, Faith backed up and into a shopper.

  ‘Ouch! Excuse me,’ exclaimed an elderly man: Faith had run over his foot with the cart. His wife glared at her.

  ‘That man, there, he, he’s a … he took a girl …’ she started to say. She’d finally found her voice, but it was soft and she did not even recognize it as her own. She pointed instead.

  The old man was rubbing his foot. ‘What did she say?’ he asked his wife.

  ‘Just say you’re sorry,’ snapped the wife, angrily. ‘You ran into his foot and he’s diabetic.’

  ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘but that man …’ she began, pointing.

  The man in black was gone.

  The wife shook her head. ‘Rude,’ she said loudly. Then she led her husband away by the elbow. He limped past Faith, pushing the cart until they disappeared around a corner.

  Faith reached for her cell phone and tried to think who to call. Jarrod? Detective Nill? Vivian? The aisle was empty now. It was her standing there all alone with her phone in her hand, her mind paralyzed with fright. She couldn’t even think. She left the cart and hurried out to the main aisle. A dozen or more checkout lines snaked their way around display bins full of holiday favorites: gravy, candied fruits, canned pumpkin. Thanksgiving was in a week. Her eyes searched everywhere, but he was gone.

  Someone touched her shoulder. ‘Faith!’ said a cheerful voice. ‘It’s been a while—’

  She jumped in her skin.

  ‘You OK, Faith?’ said the stranger she was supposed to recognize. ‘You look a little pale.’

  Faith shook her head, and with her hands over her ears, ran through the crowded supermarket checkout line and out the automatic doors as if the devil himself was hot on her trail.

  39

  ‘Please, mister. Please! I won’t say nothing, just let me go. I just want to go home. I want to see my mom …’ said the once pretty girl with a whimper. She awkwardly clutched the bars of her crate.

  Ed squatted before her and cocked his head.

  ‘I won’t say anything, swear to God I won’t!’ she pleaded.

  He shook his head. ‘We all know you don’t mean that, darlin’.’

  ‘I do! I do!’

  ‘You don’t! You don’t!’ he mocked, in the same snivelly voice. He was getting a headache. He didn’t have as much patience with them as Derrick. If they played good cop/bad cop, he always assumed the role of the bad one.

  ‘I have a mom who needs me, mister. She’s sick. I have to take care of her. I’m all she has.’

  ‘I had a mom, too,’ Ed replied. ‘Everyone has a mom. Don’t make you special.’ He lit a cigarette.

  ‘I won’t say anything!’

  ‘I’ve heard that before.’ He looked around the candlelit room and sighed with annoyance. He thought of the blonde bitch as he fingered the lock.

  ‘I want my mom!’

  Ed studied her for a long, long moment. ‘How old are you … ah, what’s your name again? It’s like a Christmas carol, right?’

  ‘That’s right, mister, it’s Noelle. Noelle Marie. My mom is religious, you know. She believes in God. We’re both very religious!’

  He rolled his eyes. ‘Not working in that place, you don’t believe in God none.’

  ‘Seventeen! I’m only seventeen!’ she cried.

  He nodded. ‘That is young. Youngest yet. You got a whole life in front of you. Soooo … I’ll tell you what. You convinced me to take a chance on you … kind of. Let’s play a little game. It’s called Trust Me. I’m gonna see how good you are at keeping your word. If you’re better than the othe
rs, if you’re honest, maybe I’ll let you walk out of here. ’Cause being honest means a lot to me. I’ve been burned before. And it hurts.’

  ‘I won’t burn you! I’m not like other girls. I’m very loyal,’ she whimpered. ‘I’m not like the others. I can keep a secret. I’ve kept the worst kinds.’

  ‘Now that is interesting. Well, I suppose it’s not fair to judge you by the sins of the sisters who have come before you. I’m not loco, you know? I’m not unreasonable. So I’m gonna take off those cuffs ’cause they probably hurt and I’m gonna open up your crate and then I’m gonna go out, Noelle. I’m gonna walk out that door. And I want to see if you’re right here, right here in this box when I get back. I might be gone five minutes or five hours or five days. But if you are right here, right where I left you, when I get back, then I’ll know you can be trusted and I can let you go. We already had our fun, you and I. If you don’t tell nobody about it, and I don’t get in trouble none, then I can live with us keeping a secret.’

  She nodded, crying. She looked away from the wall that was in front of her, but he knew she had seen the manacles and tools. He knew she had a pretty good idea of what might have happened to those lying, disloyal sisters who came before her. ‘I’ll be right here. You can trust me, mister. I swear.’

  ‘We’ll see now, darlin’. But you can’t move so much as an inch out of your box. That’s your den, ya hear?’

  She nodded furiously.

  He did as he had promised and opened the padlock on the crate and she held out her hands. He unlocked the cuffs and rubbed her raw wrists. He kissed her on the head. ‘Now don’t disappoint me, Noelle With The Name Like Christmas. I’m expecting big things from you.’

  Then he got up, blew out the candles and left.

  To her credit, it was almost two hours before he saw the front door slowly start to open. He checked his watch. If it was him in there, he’d’ve hightailed it out the second the room cleared, but then again, Ed knew what he was capable of. He stubbed out his cigarette before she could spot the glowing ember in the otherwise pitch-black darkness. He watched with a grin through the night-vision scope on his crossbow as she looked frantically around. Then she took off down the rickety front porch steps like a bat out of hell in nothing but a shirt. He let her get to the edge of the cane field, then took her down with an arrow to the leg.

 
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