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Pretty little things, p.5
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       Pretty Little Things, p.5

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  ‘What’s up? Why don’t you tell me what’s up at, ah, nine-fucking-o’clock on a Sunday morning, Zo?’

  Lorenzo ‘Zo’ Dias was the recently promoted Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the FDLE Regional Operations Center in Miami – aka: Bobby’s boss. ‘Hate to tell you this, but last night was Daylight Savings. Fall-back,’ Zo returned. ‘It’s eight-fucking-o’clock.’

  ‘Where’s my gun?’

  ‘Don’t tell me you ain’t up yet …’

  ‘I sure as hell am now.’ Bobby sat up and rubbed his head. ‘There goes your overtime budget, Boss. I’m officially back on the clock.’

  ‘What if I wanted to see if you were up to hitting a few on the Blue Monster this morning?’

  Bobby yawned. ‘Now I know I’m coming in. Your balls couldn’t find a hole with a map, a flashlight and a personal guide. When was the last time you played golf?’

  Bobby and Zo had been good friends long before Zo had begun his lonely ascent up the FDLE chain of command. They’d met in the FDLE agent academy almost a decade ago – Zo had retired early from the Miami Beach Police Department to become a special agent; Bobby had decided he’d had enough of New York and the bullshit politics of the NYPD and had headed south for better weather and a slower change of pace, which was rather ironic, considering hurricanes had become almost as commonplace as thunderstorms in South Florida and his caseload in the Crimes Against Children squad was double what it was as a Robbery detective in Queens. But he and Zo had stayed close throughout the years and the titles, and even through all the crazy administrative bullshit of the past few months. Zo was one of very few guys Bobby had met in his career who had successfully managed becoming a good boss while remaining a good friend. Most people, he’d found, turned into assholes before the ink dried on their promotion paperwork, throwing colleagues under the bus just to show some stuffed shirt in Tallahassee that they could. Of course, Zo had only been an ASAC for six months …

  Zo sighed. ‘You got me. I’d rather have my teeth cleaned than chase balls smaller than my own around a big green lawn. G’head and call me un-American. I’ll see you in thirty.’

  ‘What’s up?’

  ‘We got a kid gone missing after school Friday,’ Zo replied, growing serious. ‘Thirteen-year-old Elaine Louise Emerson out in Coral Springs. Looks like a runaway, but we’re dotting I’s and crossing T’s. Springs PD asked for assistance. You know the drill.’

  Unfortunately, that was true. Bobby did know the drill. Missing kid. Parents call in the locals. Locals call in FDLE. FDLE calls in him. First twenty-four hours is critical, which meant they were already way behind schedule. He rubbed his eyes. Bobby had gotten the same phone call too many times before. Nobody knew better than he that with missing kids nothing was routine and rarely did things ever turn out ‘looking like’ everyone had said they would. ‘Has anyone called the Clearinghouse?’ he asked, referring to the Missing Child Information Clearinghouse.

  ‘Party’s waiting on you. Mom just called it in late last night. Waited almost two days for the kid to get home from some sleep-over. Says she figured her daughter was maybe staying over a friend’s house.’ Zo sighed with annoyance. ‘Don’t ask me why she waited till almost midnight to call the kid’s friends and find out whose house she was fucking sleeping at. Unfortunately, brother, ya don’t need a license to be a parent.’

  There was a brief, uncomfortable, silence.

  ‘You know what I’m saying,’ Zo tried when Bobby didn’t say anything.

  ‘Where am I going?’

  ‘Let’s meet at the house. You can talk to the parents, get a feel. If you don’t like what you hear, call it in. It’s 11495 NW 41st Street. FYI, that’s Section 45.’

  ‘Section 45’ was code for ‘Shitsville’. Coral Springs was a sprawling suburb stuck out in the middle of what was not so long ago considered nowhere. Kissing the Everglades twenty miles to the west of Fort Lauderdale and forty-five miles northwest of Miami, Coral Springs’ dirt roads had all been paved over into four-lane highways and its bean farms replaced with gated communities, office parks and, of course, a Starbucks on every corner. Voted one of the top places in the US to live by Money magazine, like any growing city, Coral Springs also had its share of problem pockets and rough neighborhoods that town commissioners would rather see annexed to some other city’s limits. ‘Section 45’ was one of them.

  ‘All right,’ Bobby said, reaching for the People magazine on LuAnn’s nightstand and jotting down the address across John Travolta’s forehead. ‘I’ll be there in a half. What? You don’t have anything better to do on a Sunday than hang with me? Does misery love company that much?’

  ‘Trent asked me to go along, since the Springs chief called him in special. Like I said, they’re saying runaway, they just want us to dot their I’s and cross their T’s for ’em. You know, they’re not in need of any more bad publicity out there.’

  Trent was Trenton Foxx, the new FDLE Miami Regional Director – aka: The Really Big Boss. ‘All right,’ Bobby replied with a yawn. ‘It’ll be like old times, Boss. I’ll pick up the coffee.’

  ‘Make it three cups. Another FYI, Veso will be meeting us there, too.’

  Bobby pretended he didn’t hear that last bit of news and hit the ‘end’ button before he said something to Friend Zo that Boss Zo wasn’t gonna like much. Frank Veso was just the latest in a string of green agents that had transferred down to Miami from some other bum-fuck part of the state to take a stab at his job. Not that he had anything against Veso personally – hell, he didn’t even know the guy – but it was growing real old real fast having to teach the lines to all the understudies gunning for his position as Special Agent Supervisor. It was no secret that the new regional director wanted ‘a change’ in Crimes Against Children – namely SAS Bobby Dees out and an ‘as yet to be named’ replacement in. But the reality was, no matter how good the raise or prestigious the title, in the end, no one really wanted Bobby’s job, and Bobby, Zo and the director all knew it. To date, all the wannabes who had headed south to try their hand at a new job description had high-tailed it right back to the FDLE Regional Operations Center they’d transferred in from. Because while working Crimes Against Children might get your face on TV more than running down unscrupulous accountants, it was always for a really bad reason. Beaten kids. Exploited kids. Abused kids. Missing kids. Dead kids. For most cops, the carrot at the end of an investigation was knowing justice had been served – the bad guy caught and locked up tight behind bars, the case closed nice and neat. Car stolen. Car returned. Defendant off streets. Victim happy. But with child predators, often you opened your investigation with one victim and ended it with a few dozen. And even when you sent the scumbag to jail for a couple of decades and the case was closed out and put in a box on a shelf, you never really felt it was over. You could never be sure you got all the victims. And because kids generally made for crappy witnesses, and parents didn’t want their babies to have to go through any more trauma, sometimes a cop never tasted the carrot at all – a slap on the wrist and long-term probation was the only justice being served on the courthouse menu. Working Crimes Against Children was like pulling off a Band-Aid and debriding what you thought was a scratch – only to find out under the scab was an infection that was a hell of a lot worse than anything you’d ever imagined. The layers of healthy flesh it had rotted away, unchecked, was horrifying. Only then did you begin to understand just how pervasive evil really was. Only then did you understand that for the smallest and most innocent of victims, the nightmare that would last a lifetime was only just beginning. And at the end of the day or the apprenticeship, few cops could handle that reality, no matter how much bigger the paycheck or how bright the limelight shone down on their careers.

  Bobby got out of bed, opened the blinds and looked out the window. Outside, his wooly-chested, red-faced neighbor, Chet, was dragging the mower back into the garage. In another driveway he spotted a purple jogging stroller and a determined new mom stretch
ing her Achilles against a curb. The twin toddlers next door were probably popping fistfuls of Cheerios, their wide eyes glued to Sponge Bob. If he stuck his head out the window, he could smell the bacon frying and the coffee brewing on this sunny Sunday morning. Inside his own home, the shower had turned off, and the silence was almost deafening.

  Good morning, Suburbia. Bobby watched with a bitter twinge of contempt as everyone’s life went on as usual, as if nothing at all was wrong in the world. Rising gas prices, falling stock prices and a war being fought six thousand miles away by kids they didn’t know anyway, were just mildly worrisome headlines in the morning’s paper. Then it was on to the sports page for last night’s stats and the travel section for some fun ideas on next summer’s vacation.

  Snug in their lucky little cocoons, where really bad things only happened to somebody else. Or better yet, to really bad people who really deserved them. Unaware and completely unaffected by the cold fact that somebody else’s child had just gone missing among them.

  11

  ‘I thought you were gonna try and sleep in,’ LuAnn said into the mirror, mouth open and mascara brush in hand, when he stepped into the bathroom.

  ‘Try’s the magic word. Who the hell can sleep through that?’ Bobby grabbed the tube of Crest off the counter, watching as LuAnn went back to finishing her face. Her short robe clung to the curves of her damp body, glistening with freesia-scented lotion. Against the stark white cotton, her muscular legs looked even more tan than they normally did. The robe was slightly open in the front, tied loosely at the waist, exposing the pale curve of one of her breasts, her flat, toned stomach. At thirty-nine, his wife still had an incredible body. Just looking at her standing there, doing her make-up, stirred things in him, both emotionally and physically. LuAnn always had that power over him, from the moment they’d met under the blinding fluorescents of Jamaica Hospital’s trauma room. It was her face that had calmed him, her words that had made sense as he lay on that cold, steel table, bleeding out from the gunshot wound that had severed his brachial artery. Bobby hadn’t remembered much when he’d woken up days later in a hospital room full of anxious buddies in NYPD blue jackets, still groggy from all the drugs and weakened by the infection that had routed his body, but he couldn’t forget her – the dark blonde with the Midori green eyes and light, melodic Southern drawl. He could still hear her whispers in his head, the bright lights of the trauma room backlighting her head like a halo.

  Officer Dees …

  Dees …

  Bobby, come on, now.

  Don’t be going nowhere on me, Bobby …

  Just stay right here … right here … with me … stay …

  He knew her the instant she walked into his room the morning he was being discharged. She had an angelic face that perfectly suited her name, he’d thought. LuAnn Briggs, the tag on her uniform read. LuAnn – sweet, simple, soft, Southern, delicate, bubbly, delicious. When she’d sat on the edge of his hospital bed and explained how she wasn’t even supposed to have been working the night he was brought in, how it was only her second day in the ER, how she’d checked on him every night when he was in the coma, he knew his life would forever change. He proposed three months later. They were married that same year, ten days before Christmas. This December would mark eighteen years. He shook the distant memories out of his head and turned back to the sink.

  ‘You should talk to Chet,’ LuAnn said, waving the mascara brush in his direction. ‘I have to get up, but you don’t. It’s not right on a Sunday, especially with your insomnia.’

  He squirted a gob of Crest on to the brush. ‘Helen told me he’s OCD.’

  ‘That’s no excuse.’

  Bobby nodded in the mirror, staring at his own reflection. He looked like shit. The silver hairs in his morning gruff looked like they were beginning to outnumber the brown ones. And the laugh lines that feathered out from his blue eyes had apparently decided to take up permanent residence – whether or not he had anything to laugh about. What turned distinguished into disheveled? He was forty by, what? A couple of months? Daily five-mile runs and twice weekly trips to the gym kept the stress at bay and the pounds off, but he knew the mileage was definitely starting to show. It was only a matter of time. The fact that he just didn’t sleep any more wasn’t helping. The past year alone had aged him ten.

  LuAnn dropped the mascara into her make-up bag, and leaned against the sink, pulling her robe closed and folding her arms across her chest. ‘Any reason you’re all dressed up?’

  Even on that rare Sunday Bobby did go to church, it was usually in jeans and a T-shirt. The pressed black slacks, white dress shirt and gray silk tie slung around his neck were a clear indication something was up. No one had died and nobody was getting married – it wasn’t too hard to figure out he was headed to a scene. He wiped his mouth on a hand towel, reached for the shaving cream and turned on the hot water. Steam fogged the mirror. ‘I gotta go in,’ he said quietly.

  ‘I thought you were taking some time off this week,’ she tried.

  ‘I was. But I gotta go in.’

  She stared blankly at him in the mirror, her face blurring from the steam, waiting for the rest of the explanation that he knew she didn’t want to hear.

  He turned to face her. ‘There’s a kid,’ he explained softly. ‘She didn’t come home from school Friday.’

  LuAnn said nothing. She just kept staring straight at him. Through him. Like the lyrics go from a bad song, there once was a time when he could feel himself getting lost in those green eyes. Eyes that just made you want to kiss her when you looked at them long enough. Now they stared at him, cold and empty. Concealor barely hid the dark circles and the stress fractures that feathered out from the corners. They were standing only a couple of feet apart, but there might as well have been a mountain between them in that small bathroom.

  ‘It looks like a runaway.’

  ‘Oh,’ she muttered with a blink and headed past him into the bedroom.

  He shaved while she got dressed in silence. He stepped back into the bedroom just as she was tying her shoes on the bench by the foot of the bed. He finished buttoning his shirt and doing his tie, then slipped his badge around his neck and clipped the gun belt to his side. Out of respect, he waited until she went back into the bathroom and out of sight before he unlocked the gun safe, took out the Glock and slid it into the holster. He knew it got her upset to see it. It always had, even when he’d gone back into uniform after his shoulder had healed. He was probably the only guy on the NYPD back then whose girl wasn’t turned on by the fact that her boyfriend was a cop. It wasn’t that LuAnn hated guns or was a gun-control nut, it was just that she hated to see him with a gun. She said it reminded her what he had to do all day, and why it was he needed a gun to do it.

  He slipped on a sports jacket and walked back into the bathroom. She was standing in front of the mirror just staring at the image before her. As he came up behind her, she started to mechanically brush her wet hair. His hand found her shoulder and rubbed it gently. ‘Don’t work too hard. See you tonight, Belle,’ he said into the mirror, then kissed her softly on the cheek.

  Belle, for Belle of the ball. His sweet Southern Belle. LuAnn just nodded and kept brushing. Her skin felt cold and slightly damp, like the inside of a window pane on a snowy day.

  He walked out of the bathroom, grabbed his car keys and cell off the nightstand, and headed down the hall, past the framed family pictures that covered practically every inch of the honey-colored walls. The last door at the end was slightly ajar, a battered street sign affixed to it warned ‘Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted’. Inside the bubble-gum pink room, the morning sun warmed the dozens of teddy bears posed neatly atop a metallic silver comforter. A stack of laundered, folded clothes sat on the desk chair, still waiting to be hung up. He stopped to pull the door closed, his hand lingering on the cold doorknob for just a second. A million thoughts rushed him and he quickly pushed them back out of his head.

  As he rounded t
he banister and hurried down the stairs, he licked his dry lips. They tasted salty. That’s when he knew for sure she’d been crying.

  12

  No media trucks, no mob of flashing patrol cars, no flock of hovering ’copters.

  That was the first thing Bobby noticed as he pulled his Grand Am in front of the tired white ranch. Atop a sagging roof, a faded blue tarp flapped in the breeze, a bike lay propped against a plastic car port. Down the block, a group of kids laughed and joked as they skateboarded into air off home-made ramps. Obviously the failure of some teenager to come home after a weekend of partying was not on anyone’s radar.

  ‘Hey there, Dapper Dan,’ Zo called, tapping on the car’s back window. He walked up to the driver’s side and leaned in, a toothpick stuck in the corner of his mouth, his eyes hidden behind Ray-Bans. He wore khakis and a light blue dress shirt, the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, the collar open and tie loose, like he was about to work on a car or deliver a baby. It was obvious Zo felt more comfortable in flip-flops and shorts. He fingered the lapel of Bobby’s sports jacket. ‘That real polyester?’

  ‘Very funny. I’d lie and say it’s Armani, but the joke would be lost on you. What’s with the stick, Kojak?’ Bobby asked, opening the door and stepping out.

  Zo sighed. ‘I quit smoking.’

  ‘Yeah? Since when?’

  ‘Yesterday.’

  ‘I thought you were trying to quit drinking.’

  ‘Nah. I gave up on that. Camilla said she’d rather have me drunk than dead of cancer. I’ve been told I’m a lot of fun at a party.’

  ‘I’ll second that.’

  ‘I’ve eaten a whole fucking box since last night. Not a single butt, though.’ Zo spit the gnawed toothpick to the ground and popped another one into his mouth.

 
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