Authors: Stacy Dittrich
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective, #Thrillers, #Suspense, #Psychological, #Women Sleuths, #Police Procedural
“Nothing. She left to take her son, Austin, to preschool, forgot his book bag, and came back. But she didn’t see a single, living, breathing soul the entire time she was in the neighborhood. She said she was in such a hurry to get the book bag, she didn’t pay attention to whether Hanna was still out in the yard. After Hanna turned up missing, she ran and got Austin out of school right away.”
“You’ll need to get the department shrink or victims’ advocate here to prepare the Parkers for reunification at best, and death at worst. Also, don’t forget to let all the family members know that every psychic and fruit loop from here to Cincinnati might be calling.”
Coop nodded, and I suddenly had a thought.
“When Mrs. Brewer came back to get her son’s bag, did she take him in the house with her or leave him in the car?”
“I didn’t ask since I was trying to get her to nail down everything she could remember. You think the kid could have seen something? By the way, that kid is really cute, and Mom isn’t too shabby looking either.”
I was already heading toward Melissa Brewer’s house, and Coop started to follow. A woman peered out the front window as we approached the door, which she opened before we knocked.
“Ms. Brewer, I’m Detective Gallagher. Detective Cooper just informed me of the conversation he had with you, and I had a few more questions.”
“This is the third time. There’s nothing else I could possibly tell you—other than I’m terrified for my son and heartbroken for the Parkers!”
“When you came back to get your son’s book bag, did you leave him in the car or take him inside with you?”
“I left him in the car.” She quickly added, “I was only in the house a few seconds.”
It was obvious she was lying—I could tell immediately. But why would she lie? There was no evidence pointing toward her or involving her in any way. She fidgeted for several minutes as I looked around at the house, at her, and at her car. Then, the reason she was lying came to me. I was a mother too, and I could’ve knocked myself in the head for being so stupid.
“Ms. Brewer, if you’re worried about us looking at you for child endangerment for something as minor as leaving your son in the car when you ran into your house, please don’t worry. I’ve left my four-year-old in the car for a few minutes to run inside my own house before. It’s really nothing to stress over as long as he’s secure in his car seat and you have the car keys. Now, let me ask again, how long were you inside the house?”
She put her hands on her face and let out a deep breath.
“When I came in, I grabbed his book bag and started for the door, but the phone rang. It was my mother asking me to schedule something, so I had to look at my calendar, coordinate with her, and pencil it in. It was five minutes tops. I swear.”
It was the following answer that presented the first hope of the day. I asked if she parked in the driveway. She said she was in a hurry and had merely parked along the curb in front of the house before running inside. The direction her car was facing would have given her son a clear view of the Parkers’ front yard.
“Where’s your son now?”
“He’s taking a nap. I just laid him down when the other detective left,” she said apprehensively, the frown lines deepening in her face.
“Please, bring him down here. I need to talk to him.”
Melissa initially looked like she wanted to argue, but apparently decided against it.
I was good at interviewing children. My years spent investigating juvenile sex crimes required me to interview hundreds of them. If Melissa’s son, Austin, saw anything today while he was waiting in the car, I would find out what. Hearing the cries of a small child, I sympathized with Melissa for a brief moment, knowing what a horror it is to wake a four-year-old in the middle of a nap, an act that would leave the child crying and whining for the rest of the day.
Coop was right. Austin Brewer was adorable, with brown hair and large brown eyes, which he was rubbing furiously. His round, chubby face was scrunched up, and his fists were clenched, not happy that his dreams of teddy bears, candy, and puppies were interrupted. Melissa set Austin down in front of me, and I bent over so I could be at his eye level.
“Hi, Austin. My name is CeeCee, and I’m a police officer. I’m sorry I had to wake you up from your nap. You were pretty tired, weren’t you?”
He nodded slightly, while grabbing on to Melissa’s pant leg. I took my badge off my waistband and offered it to him.
“Here’s my badge. Do you want to hold it?”
Austin stayed in the safety zone of his mother’s legs for a few minutes before reaching out and taking the badge. He broke out into a smile while he looked at it.
“Now, Austin, I have a very important job for you, and, if you’re okay with it, I’ll pin my badge on your shirt and make you an honorary police officer. What you’ll have to do is go into the other room with me and help us catch a bad guy. Would you like that?”
“What’s oniwary?” he asked.
“Hon-or-ary. It means you would be a very special little policeman.”
“Okay!” He nodded furiously.
He was thrilled. He threw my badge back at me, puffed out his chest, and pulled his shirt out, wanting his badge. After I pinned the badge on Austin’s shirt, I made him hold up his hand while I swore him in as the youngest police officer in history.
With Melissa’s permission, Austin and I headed into the family room and sat on the floor in front of his toy police cars and fire trucks. I began asking Austin all the familiar questions to make him comfortable with me: “What’s your favorite television show? What’s your favorite toy?” These were a few. I noticed a pack of crayons on a play picnic table near us, which I grabbed for my next series of questions. I held up each crayon and asked Austin to tell me the colors. Then I let him color on a blank piece of paper nearby. After that, I asked him to count to the highest number he could, which was twelve. Then I felt confident to start asking Austin about the disappearance of Hanna Parker.
“Austin, do you remember when Mommy forgot your book bag today before preschool?”
“Yup—she was drivin’ fast!”
“When Mommy went inside to get your book bag and left you in the car, do you remember seeing anyone outside?”
My heart began to beat a little faster as I crawled closer to Austin and took his right hand.
“Austin, do you remember what Hanna was doing when you saw her?”
“She was playin’ with the mailman,” he said, pulling his hand from mine and picking up a red crayon to color a picture of a fire truck.
At first I was shocked until I realized what Austin was saying.
“Austin, do you mean he had a uniform on?”
“Yup, the mailman.”
I grabbed the dark blue, light blue, and gray crayons from the pack and held them up.
“Do any of these crayons look like the color of the mailman’s uniform?”
He looked up from his impending masterpiece, irritated that I had interrupted his creative streak. He quickly grabbed the light blue crayon from my hand and shoved it forward.
“What did you see Hanna do with the mailman?”
“She got into his car and they drived away.”
That was it. Calmly, but with an extreme sense of urgency, I went through the crayons with Austin to find out the man’s race, hair color, and the color of his car. Using Austin’s play cars, I learned the man was driving a brown full-sized van. Satisfied that there wasn’t anything more to get from Austin, I got up to leave, taking my badge back and replacing it with a junior deputy sticker badge. That made his day.
As I grabbed Coop on my way out the door, Captain Kincaid was in the front yard walking toward us. No matter how much she irritated me, I had to admit Naomi Kincaid was a striking presence: tall and blonde, her hair always in an elegant chignon or bun, her blue eyes sparkling. She might look severe sometimes in her classic matching slacks and shirts, but she managed to make an impact as a beautiful woman who looked like she meant business.
“I was just looking for you two. Corrine Parker said you guys came to Melissa’s house. Did you find anything?”
“We’ve got a description of the suspect and need to get it out on the air immediately. He’ll be a white male wearing a light blue uniform, maybe even coveralls from a local factory. He’s got dark brown hair, tall, and drives a full-sized brown van. That’s all I’ve got. This is unquestionably a stranger abduction.”
“Damn it!” she said. “We’re almost at two hours.”
Kincaid started walking quickly, almost jogging, to her unmarked SUV to give the dispatcher and other listening officers the description of the suspect and his vehicle.
I was filling Coop in on my interview with Austin Brewer when Kincaid came back.
“They’re getting it out. The juvenile detectives and uniformed officers have the sex-offender listings and are knocking on doors right now. But I don’t anticipate this guy went home.”
“I doubt it. Let’s contact all the uniform shops and dry cleaners to see which businesses or factories wear a light blue, coverall kind of uniform.”
“I’m on it,” Coop said, heading toward his car.
“We also need to ask Mrs. Parker and her neighbors if anyone has had any plumbing, electrical, contracting, or landscaping work done. Maybe someone will recognize the van. The suspect has been watching Hanna and knew exactly when to take her,” I suggested.
“Do you suppose he saw Austin Brewer?” Kincaid asked.
“I don’t know, but just to be on the safe side, we need to have Melissa Brewer keep a tight leash on him. At least until we know more.”
“Consider it done. By the way, as if you didn’t know, you’re the lead investigator on this case.”
“I kind of assumed that. Right now, I need to figure out where to go from here.” Kincaid was already walking back to the Brewer house.
There were rumblings coming from news helicopters making their way to the area. Something as serious as an abducted child was one of the few times I welcomed the local media. Although our department had its own helicopter in the air searching for Hanna, the news helicopters were extra eyes. The more help the better.
I walked to my car and called the dispatchers to ask them to find any reports of stolen brown vans in the last six months within the county. The dispatcher I spoke with was less than pleased. They already had enough going on with putting out the Amber Alert and monitoring all radio traffic. My request would take an enormous amount of time. Their resistance was anticipated, and I quickly thanked the dispatcher before hanging up.
I called my husband, Eric, and told him I was going to be late. He had already assumed this by watching the news. Eric is a uniformed officer with the department and usually works on the night shift. Currently, he’s training a new officer on the afternoon shift, but today was his day off.
“How late do you think you’ll be, hon?”
“No idea. Where are my two beautiful girls?”
“They’re next door at Chloe’s playing ‘run from the bad guy.’ They saw the news.”
“Fabulous. I’ll see you soon. Love you.”
Over the next five to six hours I walked miles. Nothing else could be done until I got all the necessary information back. I assisted the uniforms, other detectives, and civilians, all out searching for Hanna. We looked in drainpipes, under fallen trees, in the woods, in the trees themselves, under parked cars, porches, garbage cans, Dumpsters, and everywhere else we could think of. By the time I got home, it was very late and I was exhausted. Kincaid gave me a maximum four-hour break to rest, during which she would take over. Cases like this don’t stop. Not one person stops until the child is found.
Sheriff L. Richard Stephens and Chief Paul Raines, numbers one and two of the department, came into my office later that afternoon for a briefing. Naomi Kincaid was in tow. The sheriff was clearly under great stress, but his face never showed anything other than kindness, as did his voice. A pleasant-looking man in his fifties with thinning brown hair and a growing middle, the sheriff rarely showed concern. It was unsettling to see him so upset.
“What have we got, CeeCee?”
“Nothing. Zilch. Right now I’m just waiting for dispatch to get through the list of stolen cars to see if there were any vans matching the suspect’s.”
“There’s nothing else we can do right now?” the chief chimed in, as frustrated as the rest of us.
“I don’t think so,” I answered. “We’ve got over one hundred uniforms and civilians searching through every sex offender’s house in the county, and neighboring counties are doing the same. The Parkers’ phone logs have come back, and there’s nothing suspicious or helpful on those either. The kidnapper isn’t stupid. It seems he’s had this planned and taken every possibility into account.”
“CeeCee,” the sheriff began, “you’re the one who knows how these sickos think. Can you come up with anything?”
“Not really. I don’t know enough at this point. If it is a sex offender, which would be an easy assumption, most of them believe they’re stronger and smarter than the cops. They get off on knowing we don’t have a clue as to who they are, and that’s an important part of their fantasy. But what I’m counting on is the grand finale of the whole fantasy. They want to actually sit across from a detective and tell him or her how smart he thinks he is and how much he got away with. Some of them want to get caught just for that reason—to tell the cops how smart he is. It may be one hell of a long shot, but hopefully, this animal thinks like that.”
“But you’re not sure,” Kincaid added.
“Chances are very slim that’s the case. There’s never a guarantee with anything. Naomi, you know that.”
Everyone remained silent. The sheriff leaned forward as he let out a deep breath. He began to speak when I noticed Coop standing in my doorway. Everyone else followed my gaze to see Coop, who looked like he’d come down with the flu; his face was a light shade of green. I was a little concerned. Coop does not usually look unsettled.
“What’s the matter?”
He put his hand on the door frame, as if he needed it to maintain his balance.
“We found Hanna Parker.”