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Pretty little things, p.6
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       Pretty Little Things, p.6

           Jilliane Hoffman
 
‘What about those patches? They’re supposed to work.’

  Zo pushed up the sleeve of his shirt. Three flesh-colored squares dotted a muscular bicep the size of Bobby’s thigh. The silver hair on Zo’s buzzed head might betray his forty-five years, but his body sure as hell didn’t. He trained the new agents in tactical defense, headed up the Special Response Team – FDLE’s version of SWAT – and was very much a physically commanding and intimidating presence both in the office and out in the field. When Zo said, ‘Jump!’ most guys simply asked, ‘How high, sir?’

  Bobby shook his head. ‘In other words, don’t fuck with you today.’ He looked at the house. ‘OK. What am I walking into?’

  ‘Just got here myself. Haven’t been inside yet. Waiting on Veso. By the way, don’t hang up on me again,’ Zo said, with a frown and a wag of his finger as he pulled out a notepad from his pocket. He leaned back against the hood of Bobby’s car. ‘Elaine Louise Emerson. DOB, 8/27/96. Brown hair, brown eyes, five feet tall, about ninety-five pounds. A seventh grader at Sawgrass Middle.’ He held up a color copy of what was obviously a school portrait of a young, lanky girl seated behind a desk, her hands folded in front of her, with long, frizzy hair the color of coffee ice cream. Light brown eyes were hidden behind glasses that were just a little too big for her face. She was smiling, but didn’t show her teeth, which probably meant she either hated them because they were crooked, or she had braces. She didn’t necessarily look like a geek, but she was definitely in that awkward adolescent stage of not being a little girl any more, and yet still years away from becoming a woman. ‘That was the fax that came in this morning,’ Zo finished, handing him the copy.

  ‘August twenty-seven, huh?’ Bobby said. ‘That’s my birthday.’

  ‘And what a party we had. I think you stayed out till, what? Eleven?’

  ‘Is this recent?’ Bobby asked, ignoring the jab. ‘She looks young for thirteen.’ ‘That’s from fifth grade, I’m told.’

  ‘Elementary school? Two years is a world of difference at this age, ya know.’

  ‘Mom’s looking for something more recent.’

  Bobby thought of LuAnn and the pictures she covered every wall in the house with. The library of photo albums that she kept in the family room. If you stacked them all together and flipped through them fast enough, it would probably run like a flip-book movie of their daughter, Katy’s, whole life. There would be no missing pieces. No empty gap of memories for two years that she’d have to go searching for …

  ‘I’m told she’s inside and she’s pretty pissed off,’ Zo added.

  ‘At who?’

  ‘The kid, the cops, the husband – you name it. You’re up next,’ he warned. ‘Debra Marie LaManna, age thirty-six. She works at Ring-a-Ling Answering Service in Tamarac.’

  ‘Dad?’

  ‘Stepdad, aka hubby number three. Todd Anthony LaManna, age forty-four. CarMax Salesman of the Month,’ Zo said, raising an eyebrow. ‘In fact, he’s working right now.’

  ‘I’m guessing he’s not too worried about little Elaine,’ Bobby said.

  ‘I’m thinking that’d be a good guess.’

  ‘Real dad?’

  ‘California somewhere. No one’s heard from him in a couple of years. Mom’s got three kids: Liza Emerson, age sixteen, Bradley LaManna, son of our used car salesman, is eight, and Elaine, the one who’s missing, is thirteen by, as you can attest, a couple of weeks. Latch-key kids.’

  ‘Anyone call the hospitals?’

  ‘Done. Nothing.’

  Bobby looked over at the weathered and faded cardboard boxes stacked up along the side of the house. Moving boxes. ‘How long have they all been living here?’

  ‘Both Mom and Step changed their DL address to this house in June. They’re renting. Records place them before that in another rental in Ramblewood, a couple of miles from here.’

  ‘Any history?’

  ‘Not with this kid. But cops have been out to both houses a few times. Once for a domestic and a few times for the sixteen-year-old. She’s been in trouble for drinking, marijuana possession, truancy. The latest last month was a burglary. It was dropped to trespassing on school property.’

  ‘Ouch. A bad apple?’

  ‘Spoils the whole friggin’ barrel,’ Zo replied. ‘Sis has also hit the road before. Miami-Dade picked her up on an NCIC missing juvi report a few months ago down in Little Havana, hanging with some boys from the Latin Kings at two in the morning.’

  NCIC stood for the National Crime Information Center, a nationwide criminal information system for law enforcement. ‘That’s not good company to be keeping,’ Bobby replied, kicking the curb. The lawn was overgrown by a couple of weeks. The edging longer than that. ‘Who’s working it inside?’

  ‘Springs GIU responded last night when Mom finally decided to call it in.’ GIU stood for the General Investigations Unit, an all-purpose detective squad. ‘Bill Dagher and Troy Bigley. You know ’em?’

  Bobby shook his head. He knew most every cop in South Florida who worked Crimes Against Children or Special Victims. The fact that he hadn’t heard those two names before probably said more than if he had.

  ‘They peg the kid for a runaway. The Springs chief called Trenton this morning for assistance to clear it. You know, after the shit storm that hit last year with that Jarvis girl, CYA is the name of the game in this town.’

  CYA as in Cover Your Ass. Bobby nodded. Normally, only endangered missing kids (i.e. snatched) were investigated by FDLE, not runaways. With fifty thousand kids hitting the pavement each year in the state, there just wasn’t enough manpower to go looking for every kid who didn’t want to be found. The locals usually handled their own, calling in FDLE and the Clearinghouse for assistance on abductions, endangered runaways and exceptional cases. But then came the Jarvis debacle.

  Makala Jarvis was fifteen when she was first reported missing to the Coral Springs PD by her grandmother. Two days after cops took the report, Mom called, claiming Makala had returned home. Without verification, the case was closed and Makala’s name was removed from NCIC as a missing juvenile, even though Grandma kept insisting Makala hadn’t really come back home. It was two years before a school resource officer finally listened to the old woman and put Makala’s name back into NCIC. Within a month, the skeletal remains of a young female found stuffed in a suitcase and floating in the St John’s River eighteen months prior were finally identified. Makala Jarvis had died from blunt-force trauma to the head. The subsequent homicide investigation revealed that Makala had been scheduled to testify against Momma’s boyfriend in a domestic violence case just two weeks before Grandma initially reported her missing. A conviction would’ve violated boyfriend’s parole and sent him back to Florida State Prison for twenty years. Mom didn’t want to lose her meal ticket, and since cops don’t go looking for people who aren’t missing, Makala’s name wasn’t even on the list of possible victims back when her body was fished out of the water. She sat, unidentified, in a black evidence bag on a shelf at the Medical Examiner’s Office in Duval County for almost two years.

  The fallout from Jarvis was bad. The reporting Coral Springs detective was fired, virtually the whole General Investigations Unit was reassigned to road patrol, and the department took a beating in the press. And a new departmental policy was instituted: Cover Your Ass. But for that new policy, most likely Bobby would never have even heard the name Elaine Emerson. ‘Assistance to clear it’ was code for ‘we already investigated, just sign off on the report already.’

  ‘Where was stepdad on Friday?’ Bobby asked.

  ‘Out with the boys. Or girls. The Mrs says he stumbled home around three. Stumbled was actually my word. Pulling from personal experience, I think most people are stumbling when they get home at three in the morning.’

  ‘Anybody interview him yet?’

  ‘Not yet. He got home too late last night and left too early this morning. Given the shit he’s had to put up with from stepdaughter numero uno, maybe he’s expecting the sa
me from this one, and thinks, “Fuck that, I’m going to work and getting the hell out of Dodge.”’

  ‘One rotten apple …’ Bobby said softly.

  ‘Spoils the whole friggin’ barrel.’ Zo flipped his notebook closed.

  Bobby looked at the overgrown lawn, the overflowing garbage, the house in need of a paint job. Didn’t look like Todd LaManna liked to come home much at all. ‘Your boy Veso’s late, Boss,’ he said, glancing at his watch. ‘’Fraid he’s gonna have to hear what he missed out on at briefing,’ he called out as he started up the cement walk. ‘The morning’s getting away from us and I wanna find out where the hell this kid is.’

  13

  ‘I think her name was Karen or Carla.’ Debra LaManna shifted on the mauve sectional, and reached for another Marlboro, even though there was a crushed butt still smoldering in the ashtray on the cushion next to her. A thin haze of blue smoke hung in the modest, but cluttered, family room. ‘It was only a movie she was going to, for Christ’s sake,’ she added with a roll of her eyes. ‘Sorry if I didn’t think to get the kid’s social security number she was going with.’

  Bobby studied the slight woman with the bony, freckled cheeks and mistrusting stare across from him. Her pin-straight, long brown hair was pulled off her face and into a low ponytail, which she draped over her shoulder and absently stroked like a cat’s tail. She looked tired and stressed, but for a mom whose kid’s been MIA going on two days, what she didn’t look was sad. No red-rimmed eyes. No messed-up make-up from crying rivers of tears. No look of rabid panic or fear. Just plenty of anger, which radiated from her thin frame like a force field. The message was clear: Boy, was little Elaine gonna get it – if and when she finally decided to come home.

  ‘Sometimes it’s the one question that wasn’t asked,’ Bobby replied, looking around the room. Bill Dagher, the Coral Springs detective, stood over by the kitchen, texting on his cell. As far as the locals were concerned, this investigation was over: the report had been taken and Elaine Louise Emerson’s name entered into NCIC as a missing juvi. The kid didn’t want to come home, plain and simple, and one look at the mom and the history on the sis gave them a pretty good idea why. It was up to a social worker with the Department of Children and Families to fix what made her want to leave in the first place. ‘Did she tell you what class they were in?’ Bobby asked. ‘Where the girl lived? A last name? Did she maybe mention a theater or the name of the movie they were going to?’

  Debbie blew a plume of smoke in his face. ‘No, no, no and no.’

  The more questions Debbie LaManna didn’t know the answer to, the more she felt judged as a shitty mother, the more she clammed up. Not quite the distraught, ‘I’ll do anything I can to help you find her’ reaction one might expect, but then again, if ten years heading up Crimes Against Children had taught Bobby anything, it was that there was no ‘right’ way to behave when a kid disappears. He’d watched perfect moms sob perfectly on national television, begging for help in finding their babies, only to cuff the same cold-hearted bitches a few hours later in an interrogation room. He’d also seen the polar opposite – the reserved, seemingly heartless mother who can’t cry. The one whose indifference is viewed as most suspicious in the eyes of the public-at-large. The one who holds every emotion tightly in check because, Bobby knew, like a shattered vase gingerly held together with glue, if you removed just one piece, just one, then all the others would collapse and you’d never be able to put it back together again. So no reaction – or lack thereof – was ever ‘normal’ in these investigations. But even if he wasn’t necessarily reading ‘sinister’ in Debra LaManna’s overt hostility, it still wasn’t a good feeling to dislike the parent of the kid you were looking for. In this instance, it just made it that much easier to see why the girl might’ve left in the first place.

  ‘And none of Elaine’s friends who you’ve contacted’ – he looked down at his notepad to read back the names – ‘Molly Brosnan, Melissa and Erica Weber, Theresa M. – none of them know this girl Karen/Carly or how to get in touch with her?’

  Debbie sighed loudly. ‘Like I said, it’s a different school than last year. Melissa, Erica, Molly – those girls are Lainey’s friends from the old house.’

  ‘Lainey? That’s Elaine’s nickname?’ Zo piped in from his seat on a fold-up chair next to the couch where he’d been sitting quietly for most of the interview.

  Debra shrugged. ‘Her friends call her that.’

  ‘New house, new school, new friends. How’d Lainey feel about all that change?’ Bobby asked.

  Debra rolled her eyes again. ‘Please. She wasn’t happy about it. Is that what you wanna hear? That she was unhappy? OK. She was unhappy. Drama, drama, drama. It’s all about the drama at this age. She had to leave her friends a few miles away and change schools, but we all have to make sacrifices. If that’s the worst shit she had to face as a kid, then she’s damn lucky.’

  ‘What about boyfriends?’ Bobby asked.

  ‘She doesn’t have a boyfriend.’

  ‘You’re sure? Is there a boy she likes, maybe?’

  Debbie cut him off with a dismissive wave. ‘I’m very sure.’

  Behind where she sat on the couch Bobby could see into the kitchen. Empty beer bottles dotted the countertop and spilled out of the top of the garbage can. He’d already spotted the portable cooler next to the couch. ‘Does Elaine do any drugs? Drink alcohol?’

  She stared at him like he had three heads. ‘Look, if you just call some of the girls in her new school, you’ll find her. Just do some police work and call the principal and have him give you a class list or something. I can even look it over and see if I recognize the name or something. You know, maybe I’ll recognize it if I see it? I’m sure Elaine is at that girl’s house, I’m sure she’s not doing crack or drinking, and I’m sure I can deal with her once she’s back home. I just need some help in getting those names, you know?’

  Even with an older kid who’d run amok, the lady was still wearing a sturdy pair of parent blinders. She might not have come out and said it, but if Bobby had a buck for every time he heard a parent tell him, ‘My kid wouldn’t do that,’ he’d be a millionaire. My kid wouldn’t have sex at fourteen. My kid wouldn’t do meth. My kid wouldn’t smoke. My kid wouldn’t drive drunk. My kid wouldn’t shoplift. Statistics say 80 per cent of teens have screwed up in at least one of the above categories, but not My Kid. Like the invisible ghost ‘Not Me’ who wreaked havoc in the Family Circle comic strip, it was always Somebody Else who was a fuck-up or a bad influence. There wasn’t much more he was going to extract from the lady.

  ‘Where’s your husband?’ Zo asked.

  ‘Work.’

  ‘Where was he Friday night?’ Bobby asked.

  ‘Don’t know, don’t care,’ Debbie replied icily. ‘And I’m thinking that’s none of you all’s business, seeing that Elaine’s the one who didn’t come home.’

  Ouch. He’d definitely hit a nerve, but Debra LaManna wasn’t giving up anything to the cops without a fight, including dirt on her cheating spouse. ‘We’ll need to talk to him,’ Bobby replied, closing his notebook. Then added, ‘I’m not gonna beat around the bush, Mrs LaManna. I know you’ve had some problems with your older daughter, so let me ask you, is there a reason why Lainey might not want to come back home?’

  Debbie’s eyes flared like a cornered animal. ‘You cops are something else! I don’t know who the hell you think you are. Because my older daughter’s a piece of shit means my younger one is, too? Means I’m a horrible mother and the kids just can’t wait to get away from me?’

  The grandfather clock started to chime the hours down the hall and no one said anything.

  Debbie stroked the ponytail, eyes focused on her lap. She sucked in a sniffle. It was the closest thing to an emotion Bobby had seen besides pissed off. ‘Just find her. Please,’ she said finally in a small voice.

  ‘That’s what we’re trying to do,’ Bobby replied softly. ‘Does Elaine have access to a computer?


  ‘In her room. Todd gave her his when we moved.’

  ‘What’s her email address?’

  ‘Damned if I know. I don’t email her.’

  ‘Does she have a MySpace? Facebook? An AOL networking account?’

  ‘What?’ she asked. It was obvious Debbie didn’t know what he was talking about. Most parents didn’t. Obviously, no one had asked her that question yet. But then, Bobby suddenly caught a flicker of something other than confusion in her brown eyes. A flash of fear, perhaps, like the mother of a toddler who’s wandered out of sight in the backyard suddenly remembers that her neighbor has an in-ground pool. MySpace, Facebook, AOL. A creepy mental picture had popped into Debra LaManna’s head, perhaps from newspaper articles she’d read or Dateline segments she’d caught, expounding the dangers of the internet for kids. ‘No, no,’ she said, defiantly, catching herself, not letting her thoughts go there. ‘Elaine’s allowed to use the computer for homework, and some video games – that’s it.’

  ‘Do you mind then if we take a look at the computer, as well as her room?’ Bobby asked.

  She shrugged again. The fear was dismissed as quickly as it had surfaced. The lone tear had dried up. My Kid wouldn’t do that. My Kid knows not to go in the pool when an adult’s not around. ‘G’head. It’s a mess. She’s a slob, you know.’

  ‘Thanks for your cooperation, Debbie,’ Bobby finished, rising.

  ‘Third room on the left,’ she answered without looking up, as she crushed out another cigarette.

  14

  Thumb-tacked posters of Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner from Twilight movie fame, Jesse McCartney and most of the cast from the TV show Heroes covered light pink walls. The twin bed was not just unmade – it was everywhere, as if it had exploded when the alarm clock went off. Cardboard boxes filled with books, comics, trophies and what looked like miscellaneous junk were pushed against the walls. Clothes spilled from others. Obviously Elaine had not completely unpacked yet from her move. The drawers were not emptied, but Bobby knew it would be pointless to ask Mom what, if anything, was missing.

 
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