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Where is the Evidence

Captain Jamison, nicknamed ‘Grizzly’ because of his gruff manner, was an imposing man, both physically and metaphorically. He had to be. Growing up in Detroit was tough in the sixties, and for decades after the 1967 riots, anyone who wanted to be somebody had to fight for a place to thrive. He was one of the lucky ones. His father had owned a profitable business in Black Bottom. He was used to community support, and in all his time as a street cop, he never forgot that support. He returned it to his community then, and now to his officers, but still his mannerisms intimidated most of them. Not Maureen Thompson, she had fought her way to the top as well, and loved him as one loves a dear, favorite uncle who has led the way to success.

She knocked on his door before she opened it.

“Come in,” he growled.

He sat slumped over a stack of reports on his desk, disheveled and pale, as if he held the world upon his shoulders, and as such, it was a fight he couldn’t win.

“You okay, Cap?” she said.

He sat up and attempted to smile at her. “Fine. Just fine.”

He could say that, but she was under no obligation to believe him.

Jack stepped into the office after her. Jamison placed both hands on his desk as if by doing so he could gather strength from it. He sighed and said, “What do you two want?”

“We wanted to talk to you about the cases we are working on,” said Maureen.

“I’ve just finished your reports. What I want to know,” he glared at Jack, “is why I have a report from an officer who is supposed to be on medical leave.”

Maureen said, “My fault. I called him last night. Got a call while on scene at a murder.”

“This one.” He picked up a file. “Says here, there was a body dump at the river.”

“That’s where the evidence points. A Taiwanese boy, between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, maybe nineteen, stabbed and left there for us to find. While there, I received a second call about another boy. He didn’t make it home last night.”

Jack spoke. “Evan Fischer, nineteen. He’s been missing nearly twenty hours now.”

“I called Jack because I was working with rookies last night, Cap. Didn’t want to send them on a missing child case.”

“Why do I get the feeling you two think these cases are connected?”

Jack looked at Maureen. She took a deep breath when she caught his eye, and said, “Well, we have two witnesses down the hall that seem suspiciously connected to both of them. One is a cashier from the same Walgreens where Evan Fischer works. I pulled her in because she lied about picking up a prescription for Percocet for the boy. It’s a heavy painkiller. It suggests that Jack’s suspicion that he’s been in a fight is correct.”

“That weird second sight thing?”

“Yes,” said Jack.

“But no direct visual evidence.”

“None, Sir,” said Jack. He added, “The second witness is the manager for that same Walgreens.”

“What’s his story?” said Jamison, rubbing his jaw.

“He recognizes the tattoos on Maureen’s Taiwanese boy.”

“He told you that?” said Jamison.

“No, but it is very obvious he recognizes the tats.”

“So this manager knows both Evan Fischer, who you believe has injuries, and the dead Taiwanese boy, who also, according to these photos, was in quite a fight. And in your minds, without any evidence to corroborate this collaboration, these two cases are linked because….” Captain Jamison pursed his lips.

Jack stuttered, “J-j-just let us continue.”

Jamison waved him on.

“During my interview with Heathe, he confirmed a tip that Maureen got from him earlier in the day when she interviewed him at the store. Evan has a girlfriend named Bree. Coincidentally, a girl named Sobrina Morelli –.”

“Let me interrupt you. The Morelli gang?”

“Not confirmed, but possible. She quit Walgreens before Christmas, which is why Evan now has a full time position there. The manager says she was pregnant and looked beat up, but he wouldn’t confirm it. Says she might have fallen.”

“Which is it, beat up or injured falling?” said Jamison.

Maureen said, “We have yet to confirm, Sir.”

“Seems that a lot still needs to be confirmed. Well, Balmario’s team has been following the Morellis. His report says there was a possible retaliatory event last night that may have included one or two of their members. Did either of your witnesses bring that up?”

Maureen said, “No.”

“How long have they been in the hold?” said Jamison.

Jack said, “Almost two hours now.”

“Hold the cashier for obstruction.”

Maureen said, “Captain, I’d like to release her and put a tail on her. If Evan Fischer is really the one taking the Percocet, she may lead us back to him.”

“Done. We have three undercovers on the street. I will let them know.”

“Thank you.”

“I think we can put some pressure on Heathe, the other witness, Sir,” said Jack.

Jamison stared at Jack, waiting for him to continue.

“He frequently makes purchases to indulge in, in the back offices of Walgreens.” Jack made a semi-obscene pumping gesture with his hand.

Jamison scowled. “He told you this?”

Maureen said, “No, Emilia Rodriguez, the cashier, indicated as much.”

“That’s hearsay,” said Jamison.

Jack said, “Yes, but she says everyone knows. We can corroborate.”

Jamison looked at Jack, but pointed to Maureen. “She can corroborate. You can take advantage of your sick leave. You’re outta here.”

“Sir,” said Jack, squirming. “I’m just trying to help.”

“And I appreciate it, but I need you at your best. If you are seeing this with your mojo, I need your head clear, and your partner, bless his heart, is not in any shape to be helping you with this. Take care of him first.”

Maureen looked at Jack and shrugged her shoulders.

Jamison told her, “Let the cashier go, but put the fear of God into her. Hold Heathe. Let Vice work him. If they can prove his indiscretions, we can hold him; otherwise, we have to let him go. In the meantime maybe someone should find Sobrina Morelli.”

“Yes Captain. We’ll get right on it,” said Maureen.

“You’ll get right on it. He’s outta here.”

As Jack stood to leave, someone knocked on Captain Jamison’s door.

“What now,” he said. “Come in.”

An officer from Dispatch stepped into the office waving a piece of paper. “Just in, a BOLO from the FBI in Stockton, California, CARD division.” CARD was an acronym for Child Abduction Rapid Deployment. He handed it to Jamison.

“Wonderful,” Jamison said, sarcastically. “We have another missing boy. Have either of you seen this one?” He showed them the picture.

Jack fell into his chair. Maureen grabbed his forearm and took the flyer. “Yes, Captain. This is one of our own. Jonathan Tyler is Jack’s son.”

Captain looked at Jack with a laser-focused stare that pinned him to the chair. “Your plate is full. Get outta here.”

“Yessir,” said Jack who attempted to stand. It was clear he was in shock. Maureen held onto his arm as he shuffled toward the door.

“Get him out of here, and don’t let him come back,” said Jamison.

“Got it,” said Maureen as she hauled Jack out the door.

He leaned against the outer wall.

“You okay?” said Maureen.

He scrubbed his face and then grabbed his hair. “Gotta see Tomi,” he said.

“Go, Jack. Get out of here. We’ll find your boy, Jack. You know we will.”

She clapped him on the shoulder and left him glued to the wall where he stood, trying to regain some strength to move again.

She couldn’t imagine what Jack was feeling right now. All she could see was her own little one, waving goodbye this morning at the window. She would do everything in her power to save her little Michael from such a fate.

She had no doubt that Jack would do the same. 

Featured

Circumstantial at Best

Chief Inspector Maureen Thompson and Senior Inspector Jackson Tyler had just finished gently grilling Emilia Rodriguez who they had pulled in for questioning about the disappearance of Evan Fischer, aged nineteen. His grandmother, Claudine had reported him as a missing child. Sra. Rodriguez had picked up a pain prescription written for him. Claiming that she was just an errand runner, she refused to say anymore.

Seemingly demoralized, she cowered in the first interrogation room.

Maureen said, “Maybe if she sits there long enough, she’ll be more cooperative.”

Jack had doubts as he watched her deflate in the chair.

The two of them entered the second observation booth to observe Rodney Heathe, the manager of Walgreens, where Evan worked. Maureen had sequestered him in the room next to Emilia Rodriguez who worked for him. Arms crossed and chin defiantly jutted forward, he leaned against the wall in the far corner of the interrogation cell and stared at the mirror, challenging those behind it.

“He obviously knows his way around,” said Jack.

“Or he watches too many cop shows,” said Maureen. “For someone who highly values an employee like Evan Fischer, it seems very strange he knows so little about him.”

“He’s very put together,” said Jack, noting the silver suit, cut to perfection, cobalt tie that matched his eyes, and polished nails on obviously manicured hands.

Maureen nodded in agreement. “Not this morning, though. When I interviewed him at the store, he was a wild bird. It looked like he threw on his clothes in a hurry, as if I caught him in the act. Know what I mean?”

“Hmm,” said Jack, wondering how Heathe spent his time in the back offices.

“He was together by the time I went back there, more business, less breathless. Not quite this arrogant, but it was obvious he was capable of it.”

Jack raised an eyebrow. “Maybe he was exercising before you came the first time.”

“Yeah, right, exercising.” Maureen scoffed. “When I showed him this…,” she opened her phone and shared the picture of the tattoos on the shoulder of her river victim, “…I could swear he recognized them. But, he claims no. Claims he doesn’t know anyone who practices mixed-martial arts, that he isn’t from the neighborhood, just works there. He didn’t lie about that. However, this is an interesting coincidence. He lives in North Corktown.”

Jack’s spine stiffened. What was the deal with North Corktown? “The phantom caller,” he said.

Maureen nodded her head. “The one who hung up on you.”

Jack stared at Heathe, trying to read something, anything, but there was nothing to read except a haughty attitude by a man affronted by entrapment in a brick cell.

Jack said, “Let’s do this.”

Jack entered before Maureen and said, “Mr. Heathe, please take the seat.” He pointed to a chair on the opposite side of the table, away from the door.

As he sat across from Rodney Heathe, he placed his phone on the table between them. “This will be recorded.”

Heathe glared. “That’s fine, I guess.”

Maureen sat and added, “It’s protocol.”

“Fine,” he reiterated.

Jack said, “State your name for the record.” It was a by-the-book routine when interviewing suspects, not necessarily witnesses as they already knew their names. He didn’t know why he was asking such a formality of this man, but his instincts told him to do so, so he did.

Maureen quickly caught Jack’s eye and questioned him with an eyebrow.

He glanced back with a mental shrug.

Rodney Heathe looked at the two of them and said, “She has my name.”

Maureen said with the sternness of a mother scolding a child, “State your name, please.”

Mr. Heathe leaned over the recorder and said very deliberately, “Rod-ney Hea-thhhh-huh. What am I being charged with?”

Maureen said, “Mr. Heathe, we are not here to charge you with anything at this time. We are here to find out what you may have remembered since our talk earlier today.”

He shrugged. “I don’t know what you want me to say. Evan Fischer was…is…an employee of mine. He didn’t come in today.”

Jack said, “When was he supposed to arrive?”

“I told her already,” he nodded toward Maureen.

“Well, tell me again.”

“Don’t you people confer?”

Maureen stood up. “Inspector Tyler, would you like some coffee? How about you Mr. Heathe? Would you like some?”

Jack sat back into his chair and looked at her. “Sure,” he said, with a question in his voice. Then it dawned on him. Heathe wasn’t going to talk with a woman in the room. Heathe had to know she would be right outside, behind the mirror.

Maureen said politely, “Mr. Heathe? Coffee?”

The man was wily. It was clear he could tell something was up. “Is this like good cop, bad cop stuff?”

“No, sir,” she said. “That’s not real. We don’t play those games in real life.”

Like hell we don’t, thought Jack.

“Yes. Thank you. Coffee would be lovely,” Heathe replied. When she left the room, he visibly relaxed.

“So tell me the story from the start,” said Jack.

“You can get your information from that perky policewoman.”

“Perky,” said Jack. “First of all, she is Chief Inspector. You don’t want to mess around with her.” Challenging Heathe with a stare, Jack thought, “You are so lucky she left to get coffee. She could break you in half.”

Heathe stared back, but then something in his expression changed. “She said that Evan is missing. I guess that explains why he didn’t show up for work at nine.”

“Probably,” agreed Jack.

“She asked me a bunch of questions, and I answered them.”

“Like what?”

“Things like what kind of employee he is, is he part-time or full-time, does he have a girlfriend.”

“And what did you say?”

“I told her. He was one of my best employees, always on time, a good worker. He’s been working for me for two years, never missed a day. I just moved him up to full-time to take the place of another employee who left right before Christmas.”

“Oh? Who was that?” Jack sat forward and rested his arms on the table, knowing he was about to get some information that Heathe had not shared before.

“An employee named Sobrina. Sobrina Morelli.”

Morelli? Jack leaned back and scratched his head, gazing offhandedly at the mirror. He knew Maureen was on the other side slotting the name into her mental files. The Morelli brothers were part of a gang that roamed throughout the city. He wouldn’t be surprised if they were involved with mixed-martial arts and that avenue of the human trafficking business.

He said to Heathe, “So, Evan Fischer is part-time, and takes a full-time position after Sobrina Morelli leaves.”

“Yes.”

“Why did she leave?” said Jack.

“Something about a pregnancy, I think. She came in looking kind of beat up one day and informed me she was quitting?”

“What do you mean, beat-up?”

Heathe shrugged. “I don’t know. She had a bruise on the side of her face and one on her forearm. She could have fallen. I didn’t ask her.”

“But she quit the job, and you moved Evan into the slot.”

“I was able to give him more hours, yes. He said he needed them. He is a good employee. It was logical.”

Jack was quiet for a moment. Maureen knocked on the door and came in with two coffees. She nodded to Jack, held up her phone, and then slipped out again.

Jack slipped his phone off the table and set it on his thigh to turn it to silent mode. It was still recording. While Heathe sipped at his coffee, the screen flashed. Jack clicked on Maureen’s text, “Evan’s girlfriend is called ‘Bree.’”

‘Bree’ could be a nickname for Sobrina. Surely, Heathe put that together. Jack looked at Heathe. Maybe not. “Mr. Heathe, you said that Sobrina was beat up.”

“I said she looked like she was beat up. She could have fallen.”

“Or someone could have hit her. Did you say Evan had a girlfriend named Bree?”

“Something like that.”

“Have you ever seen Evan display a temper of any kind?”

“What?”

“Is Evan the kind of guy who could get rough with his girl?”

“How the hell should I know? And why would I care?”

“Well, Sobrina was one of your employees. Didn’t you care about her?”

“Her personal hours are just that, personal. I don’t ask questions. And what does that have to do with Evan?”

Jack’s screen flashed again.

The text from Maureen said, “MMA.”

“Mr. Heathe, is it possible Sobrina got her injuries in a fight, like say…mixed martial arts?”

“How many times do I have to say this? I don’t care, and I don’t ask about my employees’ affairs. I care if they are doing their jobs well. That happens? I don’t have a problem.”

“Okay. Fair enough.” The screen flashed again.

She had sent a picture.

Jack put the phone back on the table. “I have one more question for you right now.” He tapped his phone, and then showed Mr. Heathe the picture of the tattoos on the river victim’s arm. “Mr. Heathe, you said earlier you didn’t recognize these.”

Heathe looked and then arched away from the table. He turned his head toward the door.

“It seems you do recognize these tats, Mr. Heathe. I don’t want to hold you for obstruction, so tell me the truth. Where have you seen them?”

“I…I.” Mr. Heathe crossed his arms across his chest and bowed his head. “I don’t know anything about those tattoos.”

“Oh, come on. It’s obvious you recognize these. Where have you seen them?”

Heathe struggled to regain composure. Jack could tell he was working on a story. Jack prepared for a tale about tattoos, knowing that there was a good chance he wouldn’t hear the truth about these particular renderings.

“Spit it out, Heathe. All I am asking for is the truth.”

“I see tattoos all the time. I can’t say where. I see them everywhere. Doesn’t everybody? Maybe I saw these, maybe I saw others. I don’t pay attention.”

“Well, how about this. Have you seen this?” He scooted a small scrap of paper across the table with the words ‘go ask alles.’

Heathe said, “Why are you showing me this piece of garbage?”

“This was left on Chief Thompson’s window this morning. I want to know if you put it there.”

“Of course not.”

Recognition flashed in Heathe’s eyes. Jack didn’t know if it was the note itself or something on the note. Maybe he knew the name Alles. Maybe he recognized the handwriting.

“Who is Alles? Does he know Evan?”

“How should I know,” Heathe said. He banged tightly closed fists on the table.

“You know what? I am going to take a break. You sit here and think about tattoos, truth, and the consequences of lying during an investigation. And remember, one of your best employees is missing, and we are trying to find him.”

Jack grabbed his phone, stood, and strode out the door.

He said to Maureen, “I see what you mean. He recognizes these tattoos. He seems more afraid than Emilia Rodriguez does. He recognized something about this as well.” He handed the little piece of paper to Maureen. “You have one more question for Rodriguez.”

“I do, huh? Okay.”

 

Maureen knocked on the door to alert Emilia Rodriguez she was stepping in. She sat down and said quietly, “You seem calmer.”

“Yes. I feel better, thank you.”

“I have one more question for you. I noticed that after you told Mr. Heathe I was there to speak to him, that you were quite nervous after that. What was he doing in his office?”

“Oh, you cannot ask me that. It is none of my business.”

“Was he indiscreet?” said Maureen, in a gossipy voice.

“It is none of my business what he pays for. None of my business.” She shook her head.

“Do you think other employees know about his back office purchases?”

Emilia Rodriguez nodded her head. “Yes. I think they do.”

Maureen glanced at the mirror and nodded. Jack understood.

He stepped back into the room with Mr. Heathe. “Rodney Heathe,” he said, “seems you are quite the player. What is it? Girls? Boys? Both? Did you see the tattoos on one of your visitors? Is Alles one of your playthings?”

“I have no idea what you talking about,” snapped Heathe.

“I am talking about getting a little action in the back office. Who do you pay? Do you pay Alles? Is he or she a private contractor, your pimp, or your madam?”

“That, that is…I am scandalized,” Heathe retorted.

“Me too,” said Jack. “Unfortunately for you, I am sure that with a little inquiry, I can find out exactly what you do during your break time, and who you contract with. Get comfortable. You’ll be sitting here for a while.”

With that, Jack left the room.

Featured

This is Personal

Jack Tyler hated it when people hung up on him. How many seconds did it take to be polite, to say, “I’m sorry. Wrong number?” As a police officer, he now felt obligated to follow up on the call in case someone was in an abusive situation. He glanced at Tom, who slept soundly, tucked safely into a hospital bed. The beep of the monitor was steady and reassuring.

He redialed. He let it ring five times before he gave up. He replayed the call in his head. The person on the other end gasped. Why? Because he answered as the police, and the caller was not expecting that? Or had the person gasped because they had been caught? Dammit. What other sounds had he heard? A car passed. Bells jangled. People laughed in the background. Then the line went dead. This was ridiculous. He traced the call. It originated in a phone booth in North Corktown, probably in front of a bistro, or a bar. Someone misdialed and became flustered when Jack answered as the police. He wished whoever it was a safe day.

He walked back to the chair by Tom’s bed and sat down.

Tom’s head rolled toward him.

He took Tom’s hand. “Hey, Tomi. Are you waking up?”

There was no response.

Jack said, “Come on, Tomi. It’s time to wake up.” He gently shook Tom’s hand. He stared at his partner. The nurses had told him to keep talking. It didn’t matter what he said. Hearing his voice would be enough to awaken his partner. “I have news from California. Hank called. Told me my youngest son, Jon, ran away. Again. Again, Tomi. More than once. Can you believe that? He’s been gone for…” 

…a bus ride from Stockton to Detroit would take about thirty-five, thirty-six hours. Geezus. Could it have been Jon on the phone?

He squeezed Tom’s hand and said, “Hey, Fly. I have to make a quick run out of here. When I get back I will fill you in on everything.” He ran the backs of his fingers across Tom’s cheek and watched Tom breathe for a moment. Then he grabbed his keys and ran. 

 

He parked across the street from an establishment called Marchesi’s Bar and Grill. The mysterious call had come from the phone booth in front. The place was quiet. There was a sign on the door that read, “Doors open at 4 pm.”

“Why would Jon call from here?” said Jack. 

He would use the booth at the Greyhound bus station, wouldn’t he? Maybe it was out of order. If Jon was the caller, why didn’t he say something when Jack answered? Jack muttered, “Because it wasn’t Jon, doofus.” 

Now that he’d thought it, he couldn’t get the notion out of his head. Jon was not a talker, especially on the phone. His son had never said more than a few words to him. If Jon had come this far, and if he had called, would he hang up the second he heard his father’s voice? It was possible. They didn’t know each other at all.  

Jack pulled back onto the street and drove a large loop that included the Greyhound  station. He didn’t expect to see Jon. Why would he? But it didn’t stop him from making a second loop. “Think, Jack. Which direction would he walk?”

He stopped at a light. “I would go downtown.”

Jack headed for the Avenue. A strong, young boy could have easily walked a mile or more by now. He scanned the storefronts looking for a brown-haired boy that looked like he did as a teenager: sullen expression, hair hanging over his eyes, tall and gangling.

Forty minutes later, he again pulled across from Marchesi Grubs and Suds and parked on the street. He did not have a current picture of Jon to show to anyone, so there was no reason to wander into the bar to question people. It wasn’t open until four, anyway.

He turned on his phone’s recorder. “Call Greyhound for a list of drivers on the route from Stockton. Call Meghan….” He rubbed his brows, soothing the angst that tightened there at the thought of having to speak to her. “Get a current picture from Stockton PD.” He shut his phone and leaned against the backrest.

Maybe Jon was inside a building when he passed the first time. Maybe he walked toward the river instead. Maybe he had a long-distance friend that picked him up. Jon could be anywhere. He could have gone to Sacramento again, or to Los Angeles this time. What if he went to San Francisco? San Francisco was where he was born. It seemed like a logical place to go. Why would he come all the way to Detroit without calling first?

Because, in Jack’s experience, sometimes kids ran away looking for an estranged parent. 

His phone buzzed. “Inspector Tyler, Detroit PD.” He hoped his phantom caller was on the line.

“Jack, it’s Maureen.”

His heart sank. 

“Dispatch out.” The line clicked between them.

“Jack? You there? There’s been a development. Can you come to the shop right now?”

“Yeah, I guess. I’m a few blocks away.”

“What’s going on?”

“Tell you when I see you.”

 

Maureen waited for Jack in the small booth behind the interrogation mirror, staring at the nervous woman sitting in the cell on the other side. Her clasped hands rested demurely on top of the cold metal table. Her body jiggled, probably because her feet were drumming the floor.

Due to a tip from one of the pharmacists at Walgreens, Maureen had pulled Emilia Rodriguez from her job as cashier. If the tipster was correct, Evan Fischer could be in a lot of trouble. Rodriguez’s boss, Rodney Heathe, had a shit fit, but honestly, she didn’t care. Maureen had pulled him off the job at the same time. He was fluffing his feathers in the box next to this one.

The door to the observation booth opened, and Jack stepped in.

“Jack, thanks for coming,” said Maureen. “How’s Tom?”

“Still out. I was in the neighborhood because I just found out my youngest son has run away. Can you believe that?”

“Oh Lordy, Jack.”

“This is the third time. No one notified me about the first or second times. Anyway, someone called while I was sitting with Tomi and then hung up. Never spoke a word. It was a long shot, but I had to check it out. I traced it to a booth in North Corktown.”

“Not far from the Greyhound station.”

“Exactly. Truthfully, I have no idea how Tom is doing right now, but I had to see if the call was from Jon. I have been driving around looking for him.”

“Geez, Jack. Should we put out a BOLO?”

“I don’t know that he’s here. He could be anywhere.”

Maureen fiddled with a torn slip of paper in her hand.

“What is that?” said Jack.

“I don’t know. I found it on my windshield under a wiper. It was there when I left Walgreens the first time this morning. I thought I would show it to our guests to see if they recognize the handwriting.”

She handed the note to Jack. He turned it twice before settling it to read. “It’s really hard to read. It looks like it says, ‘Go ask…it looks like Alice or Allis.”

“Yes.”

“On your windshield?”

“Yes.”

“Someone put it there.”

“Had to. There was no other way for it to be stuck under the wiper like that. I could use a second on these interviews. You up for it?”

He said, “Yes.”

Maureen nodded to the mousy woman in the booth. “This one is a cashier at Walgreens. She apparently picked up a pain prescription for Evan Fischer yesterday evening.”

“Oh.” Jack nodded. “Then, it was Evan’s battered face I saw, asleep on a pillow.”

“Seems so. Anyway, when I spoke to her at Walgreens this morning, she denied knowing him, explained she was only part-time, and didn’t speak much to other employees. That may be true at work,” said Maureen, “but if my informant was correct, Emilia returned after her shift the day before, to purchase a full script of Percocet prescribed for Evan Fischer.”

“It seems you did not get the truth this morning.”

“Not from either one of them.”

Jack’s left eyebrow raised in question.

“Tell you about that after we interview this one.”  

Jack and Maureen entered the small interrogation room. Emilia Rodriguez shrank into her chair, more mousy and terrified than before.  

As they sat across from her, Jack said, “Senora Rodriguez, I have to notify you that we are recording this interview.” He set his phone on the table.

She nodded.

Maureen said, “Tell us what you know about Evan Fischer.”

“Is he in trouble?”

“Yes, I think he is, and I think you know that,” said Maureen. The mother tiger rumbled in her chest.

Rodriguez’s eyes jumped from side to side as if she was watching for cars before crossing a road.

Maureen said, “Just tell us what you know.”

“Nothing.” She shook her head back and forth. “Nothing.”

“Ma’am,” said Jack. “You lied to my colleague this morning. Why did you purchase a prescription for a boy you don’t know?”

Emilia Rodriguez was a clam, locked tight and uncommunicative.

Maureen slipped the scrap of paper with the cryptic writing across the table. “Is this yours?

Emilia shook her head, no.

Jack said, “Do you know what obstruction is?”

She said, “Yes, yes, I know.”

Maureen said, “Who is this? Did he or she ask for the prescription?”

Emilia curled over the table.

“Was the prescription for Evan?”

Emilia rocked into the table and away, again and again, counterpoint to the side-to-side jumping of her eyes.

Maureen reached across the table and laid a hand upon her arm. The poor woman stopped rocking, though her eyes continued to jump. Maureen said, “Was – the – prescription – for Evan?”

Emilia moaned, “I just run errands. That is it.”

Jack said, “If this is a forged prescription, we can charge you with accessory. You really need to talk to us.”

Maureen said, “Who? Whose prescription was it?”

Emilia Rodriguez sat tall and focused squarely into Maureen’s eyes. “I have nothing to say.”

Like a cat watching a mouse, Jack stared at Emilia Rodriguez.

Maureen very much wanted to know what was going on in that head of his. She said to Emilia Rodriguez, “You relax here a moment.” 

Emilia said, “Thank you,” and closed her eyes.

To Jack she said, “We need to speak to one another.”

The second they were outside the door, Jack said, “No. I am not seeing through her eyes.”

“Okay. I wasn’t going to ask that,” she said.

“Oh, well…I was trying to figure that out.”

Maureen had learned when last she worked with him that Jack often saw details of a crime while it was in progress. He saw it as if he were there, looking through the eyes of someone who was involved.

Jack mumbled, “I know. It’s a weird affliction.”

“Strength, Jack. It’s a weird strength. When are you going to realize that?”

He shrugged and stared at Emilia. “Poor woman. She is terrified.”

“The question is, by whom?”

“She’s resolute. Whomever she is protecting means a lot to her. She isn’t going to tell us anything,” said Jack.

Was it unwillingness to speak to a cop, or simple furtiveness? Maureen didn’t feel any waves of guilt off her. However, she said, “I don’t believe she was only an errand runner.”

“Agreed,” said Jack.

“I don’t get the impression that she acted out of mischief,” she added.

“So, what is your choice here?” said Jack.

“Well, I can arrest her for obstruction, but what is the point? She isn’t the one we want, obviously.”

“Obviously,” Jack said.

“I could put a tail on her. Maybe she will lead us to Evan.”

“Why don’t you let her sit here while we speak to the manager? We can decide after that,” said Jack.

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What Does the Wild Bird Know

A light drizzle had left a hazy screen on her car’s windows. Maureen Thompson flipped on the windshield wipers and watched them clear, swish, swish…swish, swish. Her home, inviting and cozy, sheltered by a dripping overhang of branches, glittered against the dark veil that draped the early morning hour. Was the title of Chief Inspector worth the pain of leaving her family on the other side of that door?

A little face appeared under the curtain of the front window of her home. Her youngest, Michael, waved at her. She blew him a kiss. He blew one back. Then she put the car in reverse and pulled away from her cozy nest.

She punched in the number for Dispatch. As she turned the first corner, her Bluetooth buzzed in her ear.

“Dispatch.”

“Yes. This is Chief Thompson. Can you locate and push me through to Jackson Tyler? He might be using his private phone.”

Her earpiece was silent as she left her neighborhood and turned toward the freeway. Then it buzzed. “Thompson.”

“Any news?” Jack’s voice was a whisper.

“You must be sitting with Tom. How is he?”

“In and out. I think he’s trying to wake up. What’s going on?” She heard him get up and walk across a tiled floor.

“Balmario reported that one of his informants told him about a turf ‘disturbance.’ I say that with a grain of salt. It was a border dispute turned fight club. A kid had his face smashed in. Aggrieved parties took revenge. Word on the street is that the avenger was a boss, and the euthanized party was Taiwanese.”

“Your river vic’?” Jack said.

“I don’t know yet.”

“You think Evan Fischer was involved?” said Jack

Maureen sighed. “You mentioned that his father was named Conti.”

“Who is in witness protection.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard the rumors,” said Maureen. “I’m just covering all the bases, following a hunch.”

“Geez.”

“I am going to Walgreens to interview Evan’s colleagues and to pass around some pictures. I know you want to sit with Tom. I just wanted to keep you in the loop.”

“Yeah, thanks. I was planning to go to Walgreens later today. Do you want me to accompany you now?”

“Not at this time. I want you to tell your partner when he wakes up that we are all praying for him.”

“I will. Thank you.”

 

Walgreens was pervasively quiet, but not in a peaceful way. Drab monotone made the place feel haunted, like she’d stepped into a German Expressionist film. Ghostly floor personnel stocked shelves floating quietly from aisle to aisle in isolated silence. The cashier, a lone sentinel at the front of the store, stood like a mannequin staring listlessly into space. The only bright spot of color was a group of three young women, possibly teens, whispering and giggling over a make-up display. When they saw her looking at them, they quickly fled the store without buying anything. Probably truant, she thought, and possibly shoplifting.

Maureen Thompson wasn’t here for that.

The clerk at the front counter was in her late fifties, early sixties. Her dark skin looked sallow against the green Walgreens’ tunic. Her garish pink lipstick did nothing to counteract her pallor. Her gray hair was mid-length and heavy, and teased into a weird puff on the top of her head before it cascaded down her back. It was a young style for a woman of her age. Brown overtones suggested that she periodically dyed it. Rounded shoulders created a mousy effect that negated her restoration efforts. As Maureen approached, she fussed with the hem of her tunic. Then she smiled with a grin that was as faked as her hive of partially restored hair. “Welcome to Walgreens,” she said with a slight accent.

Maureen held up her credentials. “I’d like to speak to the manager.”

A startled look creased the cashier’s brow. She left the counter and hurried down the nearest aisle where she slipped into an ‘Employees Only’ door. A minute later, she came back through it. “He’s on the telephone.” Her eyes shifted from side to side as if to assess traffic before she crossed a road. “He comes soon.” Then she hustled back to her place at the front counter. Not once did she smile again, even in a fake manner.

After three minutes, the manager joined Maureen. “I am in the middle of a crisis,” he stated before introducing himself as Rodney Heathe. His disheveled appearance was that of someone who had hastily thrown on clothes to greet her at the door.

Maureen held up her credentials. “I appreciate you are busy, but can I trouble you for a few moments? I am inquiring about one of your employees, Evan Fischer.”

“Of course,” he said. He fiddled with his cobalt tie, making it more crooked than it was a moment ago. Was he always nervous, or was he just reacting to her presence? “Evan Fischer, ideal employee until this morning.”

“This morning,” she said, as she wrote it down. “And you expected him at what time?”

“I expected him at nine. He’s worked here for two years and has never been a second late. He’s one of my best employees.”

“Full-time or part-time?” she said.

“Full-time since last Christmas,” said Heathe. “May I ask what this is about? Is he in trouble with the law?”

“No, Sir,” said Maureen. “Evan did not go home last night, and his grandmother is worried about him. As of now, we are considering him a missing person. Any information you can give us could help find him. Sometimes information that doesn’t seem relevant is very relevant.”

“Of course, of course.” Mr. Heathe wrung his hands, clearly worried. “He has a girlfriend,” he said.

“Do you know her name?”

“Brianna, Brenda, something like that,” said Heathe.

“Something like that,” said Maureen.  “Which is it? Brianna? Brenda?”

“He refers to her as Bree.”

Maureen said, “Is this Evan?” She showed Mr. Heathe the screenshot that Jack took of the picture in Claudine Fischer’s house.

“Yes, that’s him. That’s Evan.”

“Have you ever heard him talk about mixed martial arts?”

“No,” said Heathe.

“Do you know any kids around here who mix it up?” said Maureen.

“I wouldn’t know about that. I don’t live in this part of town.”

“I have another picture I’d like to show you. It isn’t pretty, but maybe you would recognize this person.” She showed him a picture of her river victim.

Heathe grimaced. “Is he dead?”

“Yes he is. I know it’s disturbing, but have you ever seen this boy?”

“I don’t want Evan to be in trouble.”

“Why would you think Evan is in trouble?”

With a brusque wave, Heathe turned away and said, “No, I have never seen this man. I don’t know where Evan is, and I am a person short today.”

Something about Mr. Heathe was a sharp rock in Maureen’s shoe. “Sir, I have one more picture. This one is easier, I promise.” She showed him a picture of the tattoos on the victim’s neck and shoulders.

Heathe recoiled.

“Please, Sir. If you recognize these tats, it may help us find Evan.”

“No.” He shook his head. “I do not recognize any of these pictures except Evan’s. I have business to attend to.” His arms were crossed, and his jaw was set. It was obvious the interview was over.

Maureen closed her picture app. What was he hiding? She said, “Okay, Mr. Heathe, I am going to give you my card. Call if Evan shows up, or if you hear or see anything. May I have permission to speak to your employees?”

“I’ll let my people know.” He flapped away, a battered and caged bird set free.

Even though Heathe claimed he did not recognize the dead boy, when she showed him the tats she could swear there was recognition. What was she dealing with here?

Maureen didn’t learn much interviewing the other employees on duty. Following her instincts, she decided to approach Mr. Heathe one more time. Maybe his memory was a little clearer after thinking about her questions.

She walked to the pharmacy counter, which was closest to the “Employee’s Only” door.

“Did you need something from the pharmacy?” asked the pretty woman on duty.

“No, I wondered if you could let Mr. Heathe know that I’d like to speak with him one more time.”

“Of course. Excuse me.” She exited a door to her left that ultimately led to the hallway behind the “Employee’s Only” door. When she returned it was through that door. “I’m sorry. Mr. Heathe has apparently slipped out. He had some personal business to attend.”

“I see,” said Maureen, nodding. “Well, he has my card. Ask him to contact me when he returns?”

“I will.”

“Thank you.”

As Maureen left the store, she thought, “Personal business. Yeah, right.” Disheveled clothes, nervous affect, Heathe was definitely on her follow-up list. She couldn’t drop the notion that he was hiding something, but if her suspicion was correct, she couldn’t factor that any of Heathe’s omissions related to the case in front of her. As she approached her car, she noticed a small piece of torn paper stuck under the wiper on the passenger’s side. Someone had scrawled some letters into it using an empty pen. She held it up to try to make out what it said. It could be a name.

As she unlocked her door, she searched for people hanging around the lot. The three cars parked at the far end, were empty, probably employee cars. There was no one on either side of the street gawking, lurking or even walking. She held the tiny slip of paper. Was it happenstance, or had someone added another piece to her puzzle? The lab would figure it out.

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Balancing Act

(Author’s Note: This is late. I am sorry. When I read the first version before posting, like I always do, I just didn’t like it. So, yesterday I rewrote it in between meetings with students. Then, I got up this morning, and rewrote again. Enough. This version works. I am happy.)

Senior Inspector Jackson Tyler sat on his couch sipping black coffee after sleeping solidly for eleven minutes short of two hours. It was not enough but he could not turn off his mind, and he wanted to be by his partner’s bedside when he awakened.

Tomio Dubanowski was recovering from a second surgery to repair bleeding vessels undetected during the first time doctors mended his savagely attacked body. He had been unconscious when Jack left him and took the call from Maureen Thompson, Chief Inspector for the 12th precinct. She was at the river investigating a murder and needed him to check out a missing child case. He now thought it possible that their two cases were connected.

Evan Fischer, the son of a mob boss turned state’s witness, had not come home to his grandmother, who was his only guardian. Admittedly, at nineteen, he could be sleeping it off somewhere, but Jack’s instincts screamed that was not the situation.  One, Evan was an avid reader of mixed martial arts magazines. Two, Jack had crashed a street party of mixed martial artists in front of Evan’s building when he arrived to investigate the call. Three, Maureen’s river victim had died from a knife wound, probably sustained during a mixed martial arts fight. To top off the night, while he and Maureen were in the morgue, a vision attacked him. He saw Evan’s face on a pillow, battered and bruised as if he had been fighting. It was more than possible; it was probable that their cases were connected.

Jack glanced at the clock on his microwave. The hospital opened its doors in twenty minutes. He wanted to call the precinct to ask if anyone had heard of a character named Rat Snatcher. He had been with the others in front of Evan’s building, and was the only reveler that did not run away when Jack approached them.

He could call the precinct from his perch next to Tom’s bed. Right now, he needed to get moving.

 

He stood in the doorway of Tomio Dubanowski’s darkened hospital room.  Heavily sedated, he looked so small and quiet, aspects so unlike Jack’s perception him. Each exhale was followed by a deep inhale. Out, in…out, in…out, in. Thankfully, he breathed without help. Jack let this peaceful moment superimpose the nightmare of their arrival at the hospital. That night, Tom, broken, gray, and lifeless lay crumpled on a gurney. Jack, helpless and lost, stood on the sidelines as medics wheeled Tom toward the mysteries of surgery that ultimately saved his life.

The steady rise and fall of his partner’s chest lulled his own breathing rhythm until it matched Tom’s. The attached monitors beeped quietly calculating blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen saturation – tracking life, Tom’s life. Slowly, Jack’s heart beat in tandem with it. Tom was safe: safe from crazed serial killers,  safe from his job…from their job, safe from the world.

Tom’s fingers fluttered and he mumbled. It sounded like he said, “Jack.”

Jack moved the large padded chair from the corner by the door and set it as close to Tom’s bed as he could.

“Tomi,” he said, whispering. He yearned to touch him. Would the nurses kick him out for disrupting his sleep? He couldn’t take that chance. So, he sat and watched, hands in his lap, fingers laced together, and whispered again, “Tomi. Are you here?”

Tom didn’t answer.

The hospital was quiet this early in the morning. Most visitors came during their lunch hours or right after work. He would be the only visitor on the floor until then. The peacefulness of it was welcome. The noise from the monitor faded from his awareness, and Jack’s eyes slowly closed.

Beep, beep, beep.

Jack jerked awake.

Tom had not awakened, but the monitor indicated that something was off. Terrified, Jack grabbed Tom’s hand. Tom shifted his head a fraction of an inch toward him and his eyes cracked open. He struggled for a second. His fingers flexed within Jack’s grasp. Then his eyes closed, his body relaxed, and the monitor resumed its regular rhythm.

But, Jack’s heart did not calm down. His eyes flicked from Tom to the monitor, and back to Tom. Whatever the monitor had responded to was over. Tom’s vitals returned to their steady rhythms.

He set Tom’s hand onto the bed and smoothed his fingers into a relaxed position. He couldn’t stand the thought of letting go, so he kept his hand on the bed and scooted it toward Tom’s wrist until he could feel the warmth of Tom’s skin against his fingertips. He sat and watched. Out, in…out, in…out, in.

Mesmerized by the symphony of breath and machine, Jack fell back to sleep.

Until his phone buzzed.

Jack jumped up.

He grabbed it as quickly as he could, but Tom’s machine went crazy for a second before it calmed again.

He strode to the door.

It was Hank, his father. His father had been Hank to him since Jack’s divorce. Too many harsh accusations and disappointments flew between them to consider their relationship that of a father and son.

“Hank,” he whispered.

“Why are you whispering? Are you all right?” said his father, also whispering.

Hank didn’t know about Tom. Jack didn’t want to tell him, so he stepped out of the room to speak to his father without having to whisper. “I’m fine. Are you all right?”

“I’m fine. Your son isn’t.”

Jack’s heart felt like it stopped. He couldn’t breathe.

“Jack? Jack, you there?”

“Hank?”

“Jack. It’s Jon.”

“Oh, God, oh God, oh, God.”

“He’s run away again.”

“What?” Jack jogged down the hall toward the elevators. “Again?”

“This is the third time.”

“I-I didn’t even know there was a first time!”

Hank didn’t answer.

“Hank?”

Still no answer.

“Dad?”

“When was the last time you talked to either of your boys?”

It had been too long. Rick, his eldest, usually initiated calls once every few months. Jon never did.

Hank said, “You should probably call Meghan. She and Phillip are worried sick. This is the third day he has been gone. There are posters all up and down the state.”

“What? No. Kids don’t usually go that far.”

“Yet, there you are in Detroit.”

It was Jack’s turn to be quiet.

Hank said, “He went to Sacramento the last time. Lived on the street for a day and a half. He was hauled into jail with a bunch of other homeless people.”

“Good God.” Truancy officers were probably hounding the household, looking into every nook and cranny of Meghan’s and Phillip’s lives. He was surprised no one had called him.

A thought rolled through his mind, “third time’s a charm,” not surprisingly, supplied to him in his father’s voice.  Hank used it often during Jack’s childhood. Probably still did. He was sure both his boys heard it as a nudge in their minds as well.

Hank said, “Call Meghan.”

“Yeah, yeah. I will. Thanks for the heads up, Hank.”

“I liked Dad better.”

“Yeah, well…thanks. Talk soon.” Jack hung up.

He had not talked to Meghan since last year when he called to see if his cards had arrived. His sons never acknowledged them, and he sent money every holiday, and every birthday. He always called to make sure the cards weren’t stolen from the mailbox in front of their house.

He dreaded talking to Meghan. The phone rang four times and flipped to the message app. “Meghan. It’s Jack. Three times?”

His youngest son had run away three times. Why? What the hell was going on that he felt the need to run away? He knew without a doubt that Phillip, in the unenviable position of being a stepparent, was good to his sons. Meghan could be a witch, but she loved her boys.

The machine hung up on him.

He dialed again, waiting for the app to pick up. If anyone was guilty of not showering those boys with love, he was. He did what he could, but it was a fact, they were estranged.

“It’s me again. Call as soon as you get this.” He clicked off.

He flipped through his numbers and dialed Rick.

Rick answered in a voice gravelly with sleep. “Dad?”

“Sorry to wake you.”

“No, no. It’s okay. You heard about Jon.”

“Rick. What is going on there?”

Rick told Jack about Jon’s stay in his best friend’s closet and his adventure in Sacramento. His brother had just wanted unstructured time to himself. Mom and Phillip were great, but they believed that idle time was bad for kids.

“So, let me get this straight,” said Jack. “He ran away because he wanted to read books?”

“Yeah, and just be, I guess. It didn’t even seem to bother him that he was thrown in jail. Dad, you have to know – he’s bullied at school. Real bad. That’s why he joined the fight club. He’s kind of dreamy and…well…he’s soft, Dad. Let’s put it that way.”

“Sensitive,” said Jack. “He’s sensitive, Rick. It takes some balls to leave a cushy situation to be homeless, even for a short while.”

“I guess,” said Rick. “Anyway. If he doesn’t turn up in a day or so, the FBI will initiate a national BOLO.”

If they hadn’t already initiated one. Why wasn’t the FBI crawling through his life and business? Had Meghan not told them that he was the biological father?

“Dad, I’m really worried he’ll become a statistic. Dad?”

“I’m listening, Rick.”

“Maybe you should come out here.”

“Rick. Tom’s in the hospital.”

“What?”

“He was injured during our last case. He’s still in intensive care.”

“It’s a shit storm, Dad.”

That was an understatement. “Yeah, it is. I left a message for your mother. If you hear from her, let her know I called.”

“I will, but I’m sure she’ll call back if you left her a message.”

“Call me anytime. You hear me? About this or anything.”

“I’m fine Dad, but I’ll let you know when we find Jon.”

Jack said, “I love you,” but Rick had already hung up.

Jack was torn. He yearned to sit next to Tom, to watch him breathe, to give him strength. He also wanted to run through the busy streets of Detroit, Michigan screaming Jon’s name. What was the statistical chance that his son would run this far? He clamped his fist to the center of his chest, and pushed hard to keep his heart from ripping into pieces. What about his case? How was he supposed to keep his head in the game?

Until his ex-wife called, Jack could do nothing for Jon. There was no indication that he was in Detroit. Until Walgreens opened or some cop spotted the missing boy Evan Fischer on the streets, Jack could do nothing to help him. Again, he was on the sidelines, helpless.

Tom mumbled softly. Tom needed him now.

Jack returned to the chair and sat next to him. Here. He could stay right here, and give his partner strength. Out, in…out, in…out in….

Featured

Earning Money Is Not Success

Knock.

Knock, knock.

The dream wavered.

Bang!

The basketball hit the backboard.

His brother jumped and caught it as it rolled off the rim.

“Dang it,” his father yelled.

He waved his hands to get his big brother’s attention. “Throw here, throw it here.”

Instead, his brother threw the ball at the net.

Bang!

It hit the backboard and dropped in.

The dream wavered again. He knew it was dream because his father left the family before he was old enough to play when Dad and his brother took to the courts. He was the little brother, not old enough to join, the stay-at-home-with-Mom kid.

He cracked his eyes. There was a shelf to his left. Not part of a ball court. He slipped back into sleep, but the dream was gone. He yearned to play with his father, which was probably the cause of the dream, especially now that he was in the same town, Detroit Michigan. Who would have thought?

Bang! Bang! Bang! Was someone pounding on a door?

Crack! The door hit the wall when it flew open.

He sat straight up and looked at the man standing in the doorway to the utility closet he’d rented as a guest bedroom for the night. Bony as a skeleton, the man’s weathered face sported tattoos that curled around his temples, scrolled over his cheeks, and down his neck.

“Up and at ‘em. Cook’s been slavin’ in the kitchen by hisself.” The tattooed man leaned over the foot of the cot, lifted it, and then dropped it. The legs bounced on the cement floor.

The boy woke completely.

The man sneered. “Did you hear me, Topo?”

The boy bolted to the edge of the cot as far from the man as he could get. The green and gold jacket he had somehow placed over his face during the scant hours of his sleep fell to the floor. He mumbled, “My name is Sawyer.”

“Eh. Sawyer, Topo, Topino, whatever. Get up Mouse. Restroom on the left has a small shower if you need hot water to wake up. Courtesy of the Boss.”

He assumed the ‘Boss,’ was Charlie Marchesi. “Thanks,” he said. He picked up his jacket and hugged it.

With the tattooed man out of his space, Sawyer pulled the bedding off the cot, hastily folded it, and stuffed it back where he found it, on the top of the shelving unit. Seven minutes later, he was showered and dressed again. As he stepped into the hallway, the tattooed man threw a white full-body apron at his chest. One of the ties flicked him in the eye.

“Ow,” said Sawyer. His eye watered, but he could not afford to be angry with a host who gave him a place to stay for a few hours of work. He gritted his teeth and flipped the apron’s neck strap over his head, tied the waist straps around his waist, and followed the man into the stifling kitchen.

The cook, a man as tall and as wide as a door, hulked over the stove. Five forty-two in the morning and the grill was hot, two gigantic slow-cookers steamed, and two slabs of salt pork were on the cutting board. Clearly frazzled about Sawyer’s tardiness, he yelled, “Quit gawkin’ and get to work.”

“Get that bacon sliced,” said the cook.

“Uh, okay. Where are the knives?” said Sawyer.

The cook turned and glared at him. “Don’t you know nothin’ boy? The slicer is on that counter over there. Plain sight.”

“Uh, uh…can you show me how to use it?”

Fire shot out of the cook’s eyes. To the tattooed man he said, “Whatcha bring me? A dimwit?”

The tattooed man grabbed Sawyer’s arm. “Here, I’ll show you once how to use this thing before I get outta here. Look sharp at what I do.”

He grabbed the pork, slammed it onto the slicer and showed Sawyer the technique. Sawyer was quick, he’d always been quick, so he hustled for thirty minutes, slicing first one slab and then the other filling trays with side pork. By the time he had sliced all the meat, he had filled three industrial sized trays with it.

“Bring those trays over here,” growled the cook.

Sawyer’s hands shook, a deep tremble, the kind that worried the bones. The kitchen was hot, but he was chilled and running on empty. He said, “Sir, I need to eat. Last night I was promised breakfast if I stayed to work the kitchen. I’m only here to pay for money owed on my room.”

The cook stopped grilling bacon. He knocked the side of the spatula he held in his hand against the grill, set it on the sideboard and rounded on him. “Firstly, ain’t nobody ‘round here calls me ‘Sir’. Name’s Hawg. Second, you think you done paid for that room?”

“Ten dollars. That’s all I owed.”

Hawg laughed, but it sounded more like a gruff bark.

It scared Sawyer.

“Ten whole dollars plus seven for breakfast, and you’re workin’ minimum wage, so I guess that’s your answer.”

“I was told breakfast was free.”

“Empty those buckets. There’s a grease bin next to the trash in the back.”

Hawg added, “You can have any extras that don’t get plated or that fall short of ‘excellence’.” He said the last word with a flair suggesting haute cuisine. “I will hold them for you.”

Sawyer’s trembling intensified. “I am sorry, but I need to eat.”

“You need to empty those buckets. Get going,” barked Hawg. He turned back to his grill. “Stupid kids. Where does he find them?” He looked over his shoulder at Sawyer. “I said, get moving!”

Begrudgingly, and too hungry to put up much of a fight, Sawyer grabbed a bucket in each hand and hefted them. Immediately, he set them down to get a better grip. He lifted again, took one step, felt the strain in his shoulders and back, and set them down again. He took three more steps, setting the buckets down after each to reposition his hold on the thin metal handles.

The back door banged open. A younger man almost as big as Hawg stepped in.

“Where the hell you been?” yelled Hawg.

“Had some business upstairs.”

“Take those buckets from him before I break yo’ head.”

“That’s such a nice thing to say.”

The big man at the grill came at him, but the kid puffed up like a grizzly and stood his ground. Hawg stood nose-to-nose with him and growled, “You be disappearin’ again, Snatcher, you’ll find yourself in a cage.”

Snatcher said, “You wish, Hawg. You plan to run this kitchen by yo’ self, Piggy?”

Hawg whacked him upside the head with his spatula. It left a mark on his cheek. “Go ahead. Sass me again. I already gots me a new boy.”

Snatcher laughed, though he covered his cheek with his massive hand. He grabbed an apron off the hook by the door and threw it over his head. He strode to Sawyer, who was a deer frozen in headlights, and took the buckets from him. Then he stomped out the door, easily swinging a bucket in each hand.

“What you standin’ there for. Wash those pans,” yelled the cook.

Startled out of his stupor, Sawyer gaped at him. Hawg raised the spatula.

Sawyer was elbow deep in the sink, washing pans, when Snatcher came back in. He leaned over Sawyer’s shoulder and whispered in his ear. “Mind yo’ business here. Hawg will watch out for you, but if Marchesi catches you slacking, one of them will beat you to a pulp. Believe me.”

Oh, Sawyer believed him after getting a glimpse of the kid they carried in last night. He didn’t know the particulars about Evan, but he did overhear that it was payback for a fight of some kind. He would have nightmares about his mangled face for years.

He eyed the big cook who turned his back on them while he fried platter bacon. Then he looked at the big kid standing beside him. “Who, who are you?”

“Rat Snatcher. But, you, Cutie, you can call me Rat. Anytime.” He winked.

Sawyer didn’t roll that way, but he felt like a stupid fourteen-year-old that had just been flattered by the star quarterback of the football team. He edged away from Rat, and as he did, Hawg handed him a platter of bacon, four runny eggs, and a generous, greasy stack of pancakes.

“Syrup’s on the counter over there,” said Hawg. He glared at Rat Snatcher. “Well, you plan on standin’ around?”

Rat stepped up to the sink. “Naw.” He grabbed a pan and started washing.

Featured

A Moment of Peace

Maureen Thompson pulled into her driveway and set the brakes. She clung to the wheel of her dusty car, hanging on with the intensity of someone who knew how one senseless act could rip away all that she had. Where was the family of the young Taiwanese teen who lay in cold storage while they investigated his death? Were they in this country? Did they go to work every morning acutely aware of his absence? Did they come home every evening hoping to see him, to be devastated all over again with hopes unrealized? Were they in Taiwan looking deep into the eyes of each person they met, searching for recognition that they belonged to a boy those persons may have seen during their travels? Had he left of his own free will, or had someone stolen him? Either way, he left a family behind that was now broken.

Her porch light was on, small, but welcoming. Her tabby sat on the front step preening. It looked up as if to say, “Come on in.”  She imagined her two dogs curled in sleep upstairs upon a child’s bed. The house itself was dark, except for a dull, flicking light pulsing against the curtains in the front room. Larry, her husband, had been on the road for weeks. He was probably sleeping in a cramped position on the couch in an attempt to wait up for her.

Brutal, replayed memories of seeing the Taiwanese teen thrown away like trash at the river’s edge receded into the background as she deliberately let go of the day. She opened her car door and carefully closed it so it clicked shut.

The tabby waltzed down the steps and shimmied around her legs as she reached down to stroke its fur before she climbed the steps.

She quietly closed the solid front door behind her, and without making a sound, slipped her keys into the glazed ceramic bowl on the entry table. She glanced into the living room where a wall of photos told the story of her life, starting with black and white childhood photos of her and her husband, colorful photos of their marriage and family milestones, culminating with current photos of each of her children. One of Larry’s slippers peeked over an arm of the stuffed leather couch. Otherwise, there was no way to tell that anyone was watching the soundless infomercial that played across the wide screen TV that flickered over the fireplace.

Maureen hung her coat on the coat rack next to the table, and unbuckled her gun. This she placed in a locked safe in a cupboard under the staircase that led to the upstairs bedrooms. She slipped off her shoes and lined them up against the wall under the first step. It was one of her habits, in case there was an emergency call.

“Maureen?” Larry gruffled. She glanced his way. He was hanging onto the back of the couch, holding himself upright. He smiled. His wild unkempt mop flopped over one eye, and a scruffy shadow darkened his slack and sleep-dented cheeks. Anyone else would think he was someone who was still half asleep, but she saw fire sparkling in his eyes.

“It’s me, Baby. How long have you been out here?”

“Since the kids fell asleep. What time is it?”

“Late.” She sank into the couch next to him, pulled the scrunchie from her hair, and then vigorously scratched her scalp.

Larry smiled softly.

She grabbed his hand and leaned her head on the back cushion, grateful to be home.

“I’m glad you’re safe,” he said. “Tough night?”

She rolled her head to face him and smiled. “I’m sorry our reunion night was wrecked.”

“No worries. You know that.” He squeezed her hand reassuringly.

She did know that. Larry knew exactly what he’d signed up for when they married during her cadet training. Three kids later, he still waited for her patiently. “You have no idea how appreciated you are,” she said, as she leaned against him.

“Really? How appreciated am I?” He smiled roguishly.

“Very.” She turned her body toward him and pressed her breasts against his shoulder. Tentatively, she kissed the corner of his smile.

“I see how it is,” he purred. He ran his fingers through her thick long hair.

“Yeah?” She arched her neck. His touch was heaven.

He wrapped her in his arms.

She melted into his solid heat and kissed him again.

Gently, but with the determination of a man who knew exactly what he wanted, he pushed her onto the couch and crouched over her, careful that he didn’t pinch her under him or pull her hair in anyway.

“Kiss me already,” she said, as her body responded to his considerations.

His lips touched hers, primly at first, but when she arched up against him, he deepened their union. A fire flared as she felt her body swell in response. When he lowered himself against her, she had no recourse but to rut against him.

“That’s it,” he growled. “Bedroom. Now.” He jumped off her and ran up the stairs. Maureen shook her head, heart palpitating at the thought of getting her night with him. She jumped up and raced after him, unbuttoning her company shirt as she did so.

It had been so long since the last time they were together that they both climaxed within minutes. She did not care. He lay next to her, the love of her life, and she was safe and had another day with him and with her children.

She felt the pull of sleep. However, she needed to wash away the case. One boy was dead, another missing. She couldn’t let go of the idea that somehow the two cases were related, though she had no reason to think it.

She carefully climbed out of their bed and stepped into the bathroom. She intended to turn on the water for a hot bath, but she heard a tiny voice behind her.

“Mom,” her six-year-old said.

She pulled her robe together and tied the sash around her waist. Then she turned, and gathered him in her arms. She walked back to his bedroom, whispering, “I missed you, lovey pumpkin. Did you have a nice day with Daddy?”

“Yes. Where were you?”

She laid him on his bed. “At work.” She pulled his blankets around him and lifted his stuffed owl off the floor.

He grabbed the toy and cuddled it. “Did you catch the bad guy, Mom?”

“Not yet, Honey, but I will. You go back to sleep. I will see you in the morning.”

He shut his eyes and snuggled under his blankets.

“Good boy, Michael,” she said. She kissed him on the forehead and ran her fingers through his hair. Of all her children, her youngest looked the most like his father. She gazed at him until his breathing deepened. Then she checked on her other two. They were both sleeping soundly with dogs at their feet.

Deciding that taking a bath upstairs would be too disruptive, she went back to her bedroom to gather a set of pajamas and her toiletries. She took them to the downstairs bathroom where her only choice was to shower. It would be fine. The hot water was what she really wanted, as hot as she could stand it in order to wash away the terror of investigating dead and missing teens. Her family deserved at least that much from her.