I DROVE THROUGH a McDonalds, wolfing down an Egg McMuffin as I left my car in a small gravel lot beside the station. It was home to an odd assortment of vehicles, including two wrecked black and whites, a half-dozen impounds, our personal vehicles, and four dark sedans. I would describe them as nondescript, except they pretty much screamed “Fed.” Or maybe Men in Black.
Heading into the building, I swiped my key card on the panel next to the entry door. It opened onto a narrow staircase. The landing at the top of the stairs opened into the squad.
It was a big, open room in need of a coat of paint. Beat-up desks, most of them pushed together in facing pairs, crowded the floor space, leaving only the narrowest of paths in between. The air smelled of burnt coffee, making me grateful for the Mickey Dee’s in my free hand. Not exactly Jamaican Blue Mountain, but better than the tar I drank most mornings.
Most of the desks were empty and missing their chairs, which had been pushed up toward the center of the room, where a large conference table sat. You could get a dozen people around the table, but there were easily twice that in the room. Some had been able to get chairs around the table, others had pushed desk chairs into whatever gaps were available. A few more people perched on desks and, in one case, a low filing cabinet.
Five FBI agents stood ramrod-straight at the far end of the room from me.
I’ll say this for the Feebs, at least they didn’t try to grab the chairs near the donuts.
Leon hadn’t been joking about that. He knew sugar and fat were as important to meetings as markers and a whiteboard.
One of the Feds actually held a cup of coffee, the first time I had witnessed an FBI agent consume food. I had begun to wonder if the FBI treated a cop shop like humans in Fairy Land: eat or drink nothing lest you be trapped there for eternity.
In front of the white board stood a woman. She was the kind of trim that’s the best you can do in middle age, a few years younger than Leon, so mid-forties, and African-American. She wore the standard fem-Fed uniform of dark suit, skirt and low heels. Straight hair, shoulder-length, framed a face that was probably expressive in her off-hours, but gave nothing away in this environment.
Leon perched on the corner of a desk to her right.
“I think everyone’s here,” he said.
She nodded, and looked us over, her gaze sharp, her mouth a tight, narrow line.
“Special Agent Kelly will be conducting the briefing this morning,” Leon continued.
“Thank you, Captain,” Kelly said with a small nod. “Thank you all for coming. We have some new faces with us today, both from the Bureau and the Department, so with apologies to those of you for whom this will be a repetition, I will start pretty much from the beginning. There have been some inaccurate and speculative reports in the media, so don’t be surprised if you hear some things that are different from what you think you know about the case.”
She flicked her fingers up the screen of a black tablet she held in one hand.
“Fifteen days ago, Sophie Patel, age twelve, was babysitting her neighbor, Ella Day, age eight, while Ella’s mom was at work. This was a common arrangement between the families when Ms. Day had to work during the day on a weekend.
“At one thirty-eight p.m. Sophie sent a text to Ms. Day saying she and Ella were going to bike to the playground, about twelve blocks away.
“Ms. Day arrived home a little after four. Finding the house empty, she texted Sophie that the girls should start home. After a half hour, she grew concerned. She went to the Patel’s house next door. The Patels had not seen their daughter, and a phone call to Sophie’s cell went to voicemail.
“Ms. Day and Mr. Patel drove to the park. Ms. Patel stayed behind in case the girls showed up. The girls were not in the park. The parents retraced the girls’ assumed route, but could find no sign of them.
“They contacted local law enforcement, who issued an Amber Alert. Captain Martin dispatched two black and whites, one to the Patel residence, the other to begin canvassing the neighborhood.
“More officers were added to the search throughout the night. The decision was made to treat the case as a potential kidnapping, and the Bureau was called in. A neighbor two blocks over, a Mr…”
Another flick on the tablet.
“…Taggert, was mowing his lawn and reported seeing two girls on bikes ride past his house at about two p.m. Sophie’s cell phone was found about three blocks from that location, near a residence at 2891 31st Street. The cellphone…”
She held up the device, encased in an evidence bag.
“…was still powered on. No damage, other than some scratches. No prints other than Sophie’s. Several texts and voicemails received but not viewed. No outgoing traffic other than the text to Ella’s mother prior to their departure.
“To date, we have received seventy-five calls to the tip line, but none have been helpful. We’ve talked to every person along that route who was home at the time. No one saw anything suspicious. No strange vans, no unfamiliar people.”
“All of that you know,” Kelly finished. Her eyes swept the room, ending with the knot of Feebs next to her. “I have asked the Bureau’s field office for some extra assistance and I’m pleased to report they have sent us a senior profiler to lend a hand. This is Special Agent Matthew Ward.”
She indicated the Fed who was holding the coffee cup. He tilted it in our direction with a nod.
“Special Agent Ward is new to our field office. We hope a set of fresh eyes might shake something loose. He will be working with a subgroup Captain Martin has assigned. While this case is still a high priority, as we all know, the chances of finding victims alive decreases exponentially with each passing day. Both our agencies also have other work. The subgroup will focus on this case only, with the ability to request other personnel and resources as needed. All tips and leads will go to them. Captain Martin will continue to be our chief liaison to the media.”
I heard a soft snort behind me, followed by a sneeze.
Except it wasn’t actually a sneeze. In the soft exhale, I could hear the word bullshit.
I turned around and saw the raised eyebrows of my partner, Adam Yount. He was leaned back in his desk chair at my ten o’clock.
“Shut up, you asshole,” I whispered back. “You don’t know they’re cutting us loose.”
He rolled his eyes. “Right.”
“Something you gentlemen want to share with the rest of the class?”
I hastily turned back. Kelly was fixing me with an icy stare.
Trying to keep from looking like a kid caught passing notes, I shook my head.
“No, ma’am. Sorry.”
Her eyes shifted to Adam. “Are you suffering from allergies, Detective?”
Now it was Adam’s turn to try and keep a straight face.
He cleared his throat.
“Not that I know of, ma’am.”
“Maybe you should have your throat looked at.”
She continued to stare at us for a beat longer, then turned toward Leon, who was also trying to look impassive.
“Special Agent Ward will team with two officers Captain Martin has selected.”
She scratched at the tablet some more.
“Detectives Becker and Yount.” She looked up, eyes scanning the room.
Adam and I raised our hands.
She nodded, the look in her eyes saying she thought Leon could have made a better choice. “Of course. Well, if you gentlemen aren’t too busy, perhaps you can join us in the captain’s office to discuss the next phase of the investigation?”
“All right, then. Thank you to those who gave up office and desk space for our staff. We’ll try to clean up and be out of your way before lunch. Thanks for your cooperation and hospitality. Remember, this is just another phase of the investigation, no one is quitting. Full resources are still being expended to bring those girls back to their families safely. We’ll all stay in close touch. Anything else?”
There wasn’t. People stood up, chairs scraped on the tile floor.
“You know how you can tell when a Feeb is lying?” Adam asked softly, as we pushed our own chairs back to our desks. Leon was huddled with Kelly, Ward, and the rest of the FBI folk. It would obviously be a few minutes before we were needed.
“Don’t,” I warned, glancing over at the brass.
“Her lips are moving.”
“Christ, Adam. What is wrong with you? She already demonstrated she has super hearing. You trying to make this even worse?”
“How much worse can it get? She pretty much just told us we’re on our own.”
“She gave us this Ward guy.”
“Yeah, a profiler who is ‘new to the field office.’” He snorted, making air quotes. “What do you bet he’s fresh out of the Academy, and the reason we’re getting him is because no one with actual mojo wants any part of this mess.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Sure, I don’t. And Leon is going to be the media liaison because he is so skilled with the press.”
There wasn’t much I could say to that. I shook my head, thinking how my partner had changed in the last year.
Adam was a couple inches taller than my five-ten. He’d been skinny, almost gangly when we’d first met, but had been putting in some pretty serious time in the weight room. He’d filled out quite a bit. He was still slim, but was now all muscle. He wore his wavy, blond hair longer than most cops, but it suited him. His lean, gristly physique and sleepy blue eyes gave him kind of a surfer-dude look.
When he had first been assigned to me as a detective trainee, I felt like I had been given a Labrador puppy, all curiosity and energy, tripping over paws he hadn’t grown into yet. Adam had been wounded in the line of duty last year, and it had changed him.
Like I said, he’d started hitting the gym after his shoulder wound had healed, and as his body had gotten harder, so had his attitude. He didn’t suffer fools gladly, and bristled at anything he thought stood in the way of doing his job.
A year ago, I would have had to force an opinion out of him. These days, I worried that shooting off his mouth at the wrong time would hurt his career. Bureaucracies only reward the right kind of truth telling. I had learned that the hard way, and had been trying to keep Adam from repeating the mistakes I’d made.
“Look at the bright side,” I said. “We’re on this full time, don’t have to work it in between other cases. And who knows, maybe Ward will be all right.”
“Don’t hold your breath.”
“Trav, Adam.” Leon called us from where he stood with the Feds. “My office.”
We stood up. Kelly and Ward split off from the other agents, and the five of us headed into Leon’s office.
It was a tight squeeze. Leon’s office was maybe the size of two office cubicles. There were two guest chairs in front of his desk, but no room to bring in any more. We knew better than to offer the chair to Agent Kelly. So instead, we pushed them back toward the wall. I put my foot up on one, and rested my arms on my knees. Adam learned against a filing cabinet that filled one corner of the room. The Feds stood between us.
Agent Kelly looked us up and down.
“Captain Martin tells me you are two of his best.” She put just the right amount of doubt into her tone.
“You might have gotten off on the wrong foot with them, Ms. Kelly,” Leon said. “But I wouldn’t have recommended Detectives Becker and Yount if they weren’t two of my most focused, serious investigators…”
Leon might have continued singing our praises, but he was interrupted when my pocket broke into song.
Specifically, the Eighties chestnut Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone), by that legendary Canadian supergroup, Glass Tiger.
I dug into my jeans pocket with difficulty, finally prying the phone out, desperately trying to silence the notification tone, but the song went on and on as I fumbled with it, getting to the seven-word contribution to the production by that other Canadian superstar, Brian Adams, before I was able to get it shut off.
I think I mentioned my smart phone was a fairly recent upgrade to my personal tech. Sam had procured it for me and helped me set it up. But he had buried some bug in it that, without warning, caused the ring and notification tones to change from the defaults to a random selection of some of the absolute worst songs from the 1980s, my pick for the decade when popular music reached its lowest point.
I refused to give Sam the satisfaction of knowing he’d got me with a good one, and had been trying to fix it myself. I actually thought I had gotten it licked, but obviously not.
“Problems, Detective?” Kelly inquired sweetly. Adam had one hand over his mouth, desperately trying not to burst out laughing. There was no smile on Leon’s face. He just shook his head. Ward looked from his superior to mine, but obviously decided the wisest course was to stay out of it and kept his mouth shut.
“Just a task reminder, sir. Ma’am. Sorry.”
“Must be pretty important, to have such a…distinct ringtone.”
“Just a friend’s idea of a joke, ma’am. I…”
My attempt to slough off my faux pas died in my throat. My poking at the phone had finally resulted in the display revealing the reminder I had put in before leaving my apartment.
The text said Remember to clean out your closet.