MY HEART SANK as I watched more than a dozen ghostly figures move around in a seemingly random fashion.
If I looked closer, however, there was some rhyme and reason to their motion. Some seemed to be in conversation with an unseen second person. Another was going through the motions of unlocking a car. Still another was focused intently on the ground.
The figures had varying degrees of solidity. Some were wraithlike, others looked nearly normal.
The one thing each figure had in common was a glowing outline, like someone had traced around them with a fluorescent piece of chalk. The outlines were all blue.
I knew two things.
One, I was the only one who could see this little Trav-mob. I knew that Adam and Ward were staring at me, wondering what I was looking at, but I couldn’t reply, not yet, because…
The second thing I knew was that there would be one figure outlined not in blue, but in red. And that was important.
I didn’t answer right away, just stared at the milling figures, in particular the red one that was crouched down, looking under one of the hedge plants that lined the sidewalk.
I had hoped never to see this sight again.
I’d been getting along just fine without the hocus-pocus for the last year. And damned if I was going to start depending on it now. Who knew what can of worms it might open? Better to work this case the old-fashioned way.
I closed my eyes, took a couple of deep breaths.
No, thank you.
I opened them again. The knot of scurrying bodies was gone.
“Trav. Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Sorry. Just… uh, trying to visualize the route they might have taken that would have missed Rodriguez.”
I mentally went back over the conversation I had missed. “Yeah, families. That’s probably our next step.”
We got back into our vehicles and drove to the Patel place.
The Patel home was on a cul de sac, same street as Taggert’s, but in a newer section. Their house was bigger, with a three-stall garage. The yard was well-kept, but not to the same degree as Taggert’s.
Mr. Patel answered the door. I watched his eyes light up. But they quickly dimmed, his shoulders slumping as he realized we were not bringing any good news. He invited us in, managing a gracious, if hollow, smile.
I introduced him to Ward, then asked, “Mrs. Patel isn’t home?”
He shook his head. “She decided to go in to work. I am working from home today. You know, just in case there was some news.”
Riswan Patel was around forty, with just a touch of gray at the temples framing his wide-set face. His Indian heritage was clear, but he spoke with no accent. He wore suit pants and a white dress shirt, sleeves rolled to just below his elbows.
Ward was a little smarter this time, emphasizing that we would probably be going over familiar ground, and apologizing in advance for asking questions he had answered dozens of times previously.
“Please, come in and sit,” Patel said.
He motioned us to the living room, where we arranged ourselves–Ward and I claiming a soft, overstuffed couch, Adam in a wingback chair. We declined the usual offer of something to drink. Patel sat in a love seat opposite the couch.
Ward walked the man through the day of the girls’ disappearance.
No, he had not seen any strange vehicles or people in the neighborhood.
No, Sophie had not been acting oddly.
No, it wasn’t strange to allow Sophie to bike by herself to the pool.
“We’ve always believed parents live too much in fear, never letting children be unsupervised,” Patel said. “Some families don’t even let their children walk three blocks to school. We were proud of Sophie’s independence. We never dreamed that here, in this neighborhood, those paranoid fantasies were the truth…”
His voice trailed off. He squeezed his eyes shut. It took some time to get himself back together.
“I’m sorry,” he finally said, voice hoarse from holding back tears, “what else can I tell you?”
Ward shook his head. “I don’t think I have any more questions right now. Can we see Sophie’s room?”
Patel nodded. “It’s upstairs.”
He led us to the second floor and into a room just to the right of the stairs. It was painted robin’s-egg blue, with the standard collection of posters of cats and boy bands on the wall. A neat desk sat near the window, with a MacBook at its center.
“Computer Forensics has been through it completely,” Adam said. “No strange email or chats. All her Facebook friends check out, real people. They even traced the IP addresses of every computer that visited her profile for the last six months. Nothing.”
Ward nodded. He made a show of poking around a little bit, but didn’t find anything.
We trooped downstairs and stood by the door.
“Are you going to see Michelle now?” Patel asked.
“Yes,” Ward replied. “Then we will want to talk to your wife. Can we visit her at work?”
Patel nodded. “I’ll call and tell her to expect you.”
“Anything we should know before we talk to Ms. Day?” Ward asked. “Tell me a little about the relationship between Sophie and Ella.”
Patel didn’t answer right away. When he did, his voice was tight once again. “Sophie doted on Ella. From the time she and Michelle moved into the neighborhood, Sophie was always looking out for her. And Ella idolized Sophie. When Michelle asked Sophie to watch Ella this summer while she was working, both girls were thrilled.”
“Twelve is a little young to be a full-time sitter, isn’t it?” Ward asked.
“Our daughter is very mature for her age, Mr. Ward,” Patel said. “All you had to do was watch the two together to see how good Sophie was with Ella. But the truth is, while Michelle was paying Sophie for her time, it was understood that my wife would be keeping an eye on the girls as well.”
“But your wife wasn’t here the day the girls disappeared.”
Patel shook his head. “No. Sanjana worked from home much of the time, but on this particular day, she needed to go into the office.”
“I see,” Ward said.
Patel leaned forward in his chair. “Gentlemen, please. If I can ask just one thing of you. When you talk to my wife, try not to bring up this topic. It has been tearing her apart that she wasn’t here.”
“We don’t know that it would have made any difference. The girls would still have biked to the pool,” I said.
“Even so. You will have an easier time interviewing her if you don’t upset her any further.”
Ward nodded. “We’ll do our best.”
He looked at his device again, flipping his finger upward to page through his notes. “Now, what about Mr. Dawson? Ms. Day’s boyfriend?”
“We don’t know Joshua well,” Patel said. “But he and Michelle had been seeing each other for some months. She has not had very good luck in men. Please don’t misunderstand me. It’s not like there was a parade of men coming and going from her house. There have been a handful of boyfriends since we have known her. Joshua seemed, well, a cut above the sort of man she had previously been seeing. He has a good job, doesn’t spend a lot of time in bars. He has always seemed trustworthy. We were happy for Michelle.”
“He didn’t seem unusually interested in Ella?” Ward asked.
Patel’s lips wrinkled in distaste. “We watch television, Special Agent. We know it is almost always the father or the boyfriend who is found to be guilty in cases like these. I have had to answer questions—” He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “—that no father, no man should have to think about, let alone hear. I have given your investigators complete access to our house, my computer here at home, and also at my office. My understanding is Joshua has done the same.”
Ward glanced at Adam and me. We nodded.
“You understand I have to ask?” Ward said gently.
Patel nodded. “It is worth noting that Joshua has stood by Michelle through this entire crisis. Even though, as I said, his entire life history and actions have been scrutinized by the police and the media.”
Ward nodded. “Well, sounds like Ms. Day could use someone like that. And it sounds like you have been good friends to her as well.” He pulled a business card out of his breast pocket.
“I know that you have answered these questions again and again, and I am sorry that the investigation hasn’t borne much fruit. But, we are doing everything we can. If you can think of anything, anything that might help us, please call me. This is my cell number. You can call it anytime of the day or night.”
Patel nodded. “Thank you.”
“We’ll stay in touch.”
On the street, Ward turned to us.
“Do you agree with his take on Dawson?”
Adam and I exchanged glances. We both shrugged.
“Patel was right, it is often the boyfriend,” I said. “He’s been under a microscope since the first day. But no one has found anything the least bit dirty about him.”
Ward ran a hand through his hair. “The more you dig into this, the fewer clues you have.”
“That’s why they pay us the big bucks,” Adam said. “So, the Day place?”
Ward nodded. “How far?”
“Just down the block. We can walk.”
We started down the sidewalk. A flash of movement caught my eye, and I turned back towards our cars, to see a faint, red-tinged image of myself getting in the Mustang.
I turned my back on Red Trav and followed Ward and Adam along the sidewalk.
The neighborhood had obviously been developed in stages. Taggert’s place was late Fifties or early Sixties. The Patel’s was only maybe ten years old.
Michelle Day’s was somewhere in between. It was a single-story ranch, with a two-car garage. It had redwood siding that was a little faded. The grass was long, but not unkempt.
An older Nissan SUV was parked in the garage, and a little Subaru sedan was in the driveway behind it.
Ward raised his hand to ring the doorbell. But before he even touched it, the door swung open.
“Finally!” exclaimed the woman who opened the door.
Like the Patels, Michelle Day was around forty. Average height, with light brown hair cut in a short bob. She wore faded jeans and a Packers sweatshirt, and greeted us with an exasperated sigh.
“It’s about time. We’ve been waiting for you!”
“Excuse me?” Ward began. “I’m not…”
Ms. Day cut him off. “Please. We know why you’re here. And we’re anxious to get started.”
She waved a hand. “You’ll understand. Please, come in.”
Ward narrowed his eyes and glanced back at us. He raised an eyebrow.
Adam and I both shrugged.
We all trooped into the house, taking a left into the living room.
“Here they are, just like you said,” Ms. Day said proudly.
Ward and Adam looked confused. Fortunately, I was still behind them, or they might have seen my jaw drop. I wasn’t confused at all, just stunned.
On the couch, sipping from a bottle of water, and looking at us with interest, sat Morgan Foster.