Damn it! A silent Danny is just plain wrong.
He methodically sifts through dresser drawers while I go through the clothes hanging in the small closet. He hasn't said a word since we started searching the house for the kid.
"Looks like he plays a couple of different sports." I say while fingering the hockey jersey I find on the floor of the closet. He'd missed the clothes hamper. I sniff it gingerly and wrinkle my nose. A couple of days ago if the dried sweat odor is any indication.
"Yeah, looks like he's a busy kid." His voice is so subdued.
"Where would he go if he'd just seen his world go up in flames?" I pose the question half to myself and half to him.
The shoulder shrug is eloquent. "Maybe a teammate's house or a relative, if he has any."
"We need to check his dad's address book. Find out if there is any family." I leave the closet and head for the master bedroom. Danny just nods and stays to finish going through the kid's things.
Wrong, wrong, wrong, I tell myself silently. Ever since the Tanglewood/Sonny cock-up, Danny has shut down on me. He answers when spoken to but never instigates conversation anymore. Mac had gone Old Testament on him and Danny had never even tried to explain.
Or maybe he had but Mac wouldn't listen. I like Mac, I really do but Danny is my best friend and I don't know how to reach him now. He doesn't play hoops or go out for a beer after work anymore and all I'd get is a quiet smile and a 'not tonight, Don'. It's like he's punishing himself somehow.
Shaking myself loose of the questions I keep asking myself, I look around the master suite. Muted blues and greens predominate and the pictures on the wall above the dresser are all family oriented. Chris is a good looking kid and his mom had been a real beauty. I swallow hard at the memory of how I'd just seen her, a blackened husk of herself.
Oh shit, his dad was a cop. One photo shows him in uniform while the next one is a Christmas party at the 18th Precinct with him in plain clothes. There is Tom Baner, a detective about my age standing next to him and a couple of others I know by sight if not by name. I hate cop killers.
"Don, you find anything yet?" Mac's voice breaks me out of my reverie. "Captain Nestle from the 18th is here."
"Nothing that might tell us where he's gone. Plays a lot of sports but nothing that shows he's got family or friends he'll go to." I shrug helplessly. "An APB might bring in some leads."
"Nestle was doing that when I came in." His eyes canvas the room, taking it all in. "I called in Malone and his team."
Grimacing, I nod. "Hate to say it but if it's a case at the 18th, that's probably a good idea. Dad, well he kind of goes quiet when I mention them."
Mac's glance is questioning but a commotion down the hall brings us both to attention.
********* Danny Messer *********
Seems like a good kid, I think while making notes of the pictures on the walls. A horse is in three of them or maybe he's a pony. I don't know much about animals but he looks kind of small next to the dad. Part of me hopes Chris didn't see the explosion but I expect he saw it all. He's got to be feeling numb and lost right now.
Where did he go? What spells safety to him? My eyes keep coming back to the picture of him riding the pony around a sawdust track. The oak frame has some letters burned into it, 'Peso'. I wonder where you keep a horse in the suburbs.
"What have you found?" A harsh voice from the doorway brings me around. Old guy, screaming authority figure with the blue suit. "Messer."
All the hatred in the world is in his voice the moment he recognizes me. And I know him, too. Captain Harry Nestle, pain in the ass head of the 18th Precinct, just great.
"Sir, I haven't found anything to say where he might have gone."
"Get out." He's shaking with anger. "Get out of here now, Messer. I won't have you contaminating the investigation of the death of a good cop."
"Captain, you're in the middle of my crime scene. If you'll step outside, I'll give you what we have so far." Mac's voice shakes me out of my shock. "Messer, finish up and get back to the lab to start processing the evidence."
I nod. God, it hurts to hear the ice in his voice. His distain cuts me to pieces and hurts worse than any of the hatred I hear in the cops voices who only know my family name. Don gives me a sympathetic look but I don't acknowledge it. I don't want the mud on me to smear him. I've been drawing back since the whole Sonny cluster fuck and while it hurts to lose my best friend, it's safer for him.
I wait for them to leave and check the back of the pony picture. Sure enough there's a date of last fall and the name 'Brookes' penciled on the back. I'll check the phone book at the office. Maybe it's the name of the stables. Or I can just ask Monroe if she knows about it. She likes to talk about horses and riding.
Heading out, I tell Stella where I'm going. She nods and pats my shoulder. I don't look at anyone else, just get to the car and drive away. I think this might be the case. I'll finish it up and then go looking for a new job. Be the coward everybody seems to think I am and turn tail to run away. Someplace warm where nobody knows me and I don't have to worry about all the baggage I've got piled on my shoulders.
Maybe I'm finally ready to give up hoping for a break.
********* Martin *********
My day off is that much sweeter now I have a child.
Vin looks so adorable on top of Diamond. Pegasus snorts a little beneath me and I pat his long neck soothingly. He wants to gallop but my son's pony isn't up for that just yet. Actually, Diamond is old for a pony and the time is coming when he'll need to be put out to pasture. I've got my eye on a nice four-year-old Pinto that Adele Brookes told me about.
"Daddy, if you want to gallop, it's okay with me." A little voice says matter-of-factly.
"Maybe after we rub Diamond down and get him some oats, you and Pegasus and I will come back out for a longer ride." I offer and watch his eyes light up.
"Okay, Daddy," he pats his pony's neck. "C'mon, Diamond, we can go back now."
I chuckle and obligingly rein Pegasus back towards the stables, following my son who's trotting. Tying my horse to the rail outside the big barn, I go after Vin. He's already got Diamond in his stall and has his bridle off. I un-cinch then remove the saddle since it's still a little heavy for five year old hands. Leaving the stall, I put the tack on the pegs and stand with Vin's name on them. He's so proud of that.
Adele waves from the far end of the barn where she's introducing a new rider to her horse. This is an excellent stable and I'm so glad we found it. Vin lost enough this year, I didn't want him to lose anything else. And I'd forgotten how much I love riding. Mother and I rode twice a week when I was growing up. Riding with my son brings back all the good memories I'd hidden away at her death.
Scooping a bucket half-full of oats from the grain bin, I head back to the stall where Vin is currying and talking to his pony. "Good boy, Diamond. You were wonderful today. Does that feel good?"
I fill the empty manger in front of the pony with the oats and with a snort, Diamond steps right up to his dinner. Vin giggles happily and ducks around him to brush his other side.
"Thanks, Daddy. He likes oats almost as much as I like oatmeal cookies."
"We need to do some baking, don't we?" I hang up the saddle blanket to dry out. "I bet Jack would like some chocolate chip ice cream to go with a fresh batch of cookies."
"Oh yeah," he agrees with a vigorous nod. "And maybe some hot chocolate to warm us all up?"
"Are you cold, tadpole?" I worry I might have kept him out too long.
"No, Daddy, I'm good." His smile is bright. "I want to gallop with you and Pegasus."
"If you're sure?" I feel his fingers and they're warm enough. "Finish up and we'll take the scenic trail down by the river."
"Yeah!" He nods and starts brushing harder.
My cell phone vibrates and I keep in a sigh. Not now, please don't call me in. "Vin, I've got a call. Meet you outside in a few minutes, okay?"
Once I'm outside, I answer. "Fitzgerald . . . hello, Jack . . . oh no . . . I hate it when it's a child . . . okay . . . we're going for a gallop then we'll be home . . . it's lasagna tonight . . . we'll try and save some for you . . . take care . . . love you, too."
"Was it Dad? Is he coming out to ride with us?" Vin leans against my leg.
"Nope, tadpole," I put away my phone and swing him up in my arms. "He's got a case and has to work, hopefully not too late. Now, let's gallop."
He hugs me tight then swarms into the saddle when I lift him up. Pegasus is used to us riding double by now so he just rolls his eye at Vin until soft giggles erupt. Putting my foot in the stirrup, I seat myself behind him and gather the reins into my hands. With a press of my heel, Pegasus moves towards the bridle path that leads to the river. In the broad light of early afternoon, the trail looks inviting and within a few moments, we're galloping down to the river.
Vin is practically vibrating with joy as he clings to the pommel horn of my Western style saddle. A few moments and I rein Pegasus back to a trot. Vin rests back against me and pats the hand I have on his stomach.
"Thanks, Daddy, that was good. I wish we could go riding every day." The wistful tones make my heart hurt.
"I wish we could too, Vin. Maybe Dad and I will get different jobs so we can spend more time with you and our horses." I drop a kiss on the fair hair beneath my chin. My father still hasn't dropped any bombs on us that we know about.
"Maybe," he rubs my hand. "But then who would look for the losted people? You're really good at finding them. I like knowing if I'd ever get lost, you'll find me right away."
I hug him closer. "We will always find you, Vin. Just don't get lost any time soon, okay."
Mischievous blue eyes twinkle up at me. "I promise, Daddy."
********* Chris *********
I hide in the shrubs next to the barn. Mrs. Brookes has a newbie by the bridle and is headed for the beginner's circle. Waiting a couple of minutes, I listen hard to see if there's anyone else in the barn. The only sounds are the stamp and whickers of the horses. Sneaking in the back entrance, I head for the ladder that leads up to the hayloft.
Peso is still out in the pasture since we hadn't called ahead to say we were coming. I swallow hard and keep climbing the smooth rungs. There isn't a 'we' anymore.
Once up there, I head for the far corner where the bales are stacked three or four bales high. Dropping my backpack, I don't let myself rest. That would be too easy and I don't know how much time I've got until somebody comes in. Dragging the closest pile nearer me, I restack them to leave a gap two bales in. It's heavy work but I only stop when I need to listen.
I struggle to get the third bale on top, leaving a toe hold so I can get up and over when I have to. I freeze when I hear a kid's voice laughing. Then I scramble up and into the crawl space I've made. Breathing as shallowly as I can, I finally rest. Voices drift up from below and I listen to distract myself from the thoughts I don't want.
"Thanks, Daddy. Thanks, Pegasus. You're a good horse."
I think I recognize the voice. What is the little guy's name? Vin, that's it. And his father is an FBI agent, named . . . Fitzgerald. Well, both of his dads are fibbies. Dad and Mom had talked about them. Dad had sounded kind of disapproving but Mom had just laughed and told him not to be silly. 'True love conquers all', she said. I hold in a sob and bury my head in my arms atop my knees.
"We need to stop at the grocery store to get our cookie ingredients, Vin. Then we'll go home and make some for Dad." Mr. Fitzgerald says.
"Is Dad looking for someone losted?"
"Yes, he's looking for someone who saw something really, really bad and ran away because he was scared." His voice is sad. "But hopefully we'll find him quickly and get him somewhere safe."
"Are his parents looking for him, too? They must be scared."
There's a long silence then Mr. Fitzgerald sighed. "His parents are dead, Vin."
"Like Mama?" The little voice is really sad and I can't stop the tears anymore. I sob silently into my jeans.
"Like your mama, tadpole, only he lost both of them."
"Oh," he pauses for a long moment and I rub my nose on my knee. "Dad will find him and make it all better. Does he have grandparents to help?"
"I don't know, Vin. You know the team will find out all the important information and work until he's found. And his dad was a policeman so his friends will be looking, too." The FBI agent's voice is so sure of the outcome.
I'm not sure of anything anymore. Part of me wants to go down and talk to Mr. Fitzgerald. Let him take charge and decide what to do. But most of me wants to stay safe in the hayloft and pretend this day has never happened. My little hidey hole is warm and sweet smelling. I ache all over from the long walk and for the first time since I was as small as Vin, I want to take a nap. There's more conversation below but I just listen to the sounds instead of the words.
I really am tired.
It's dark when I wake up. At some point, I curled up on my side with my backpack as a pillow. The hard edges of the box have left a crease on my neck that hurts but I ignore the small pain in favor of listening to the sounds of the barn. You can't be impatient around horses. Dad always told me to take my time, to watch and listen to my mount.
I pinch my nose hard to concentrate on the small pain instead of the really big one inside my heart. The barn isn't really silent. There's the coo of a morning dove high above me; the rustle of maybe a mouse nearby; the occasional stamp of a horse's hoof. But no people sounds and that's good because I have to take a leak and I don't want to do it up here.
I'm still achy but once I stand up and move around, some of it goes away. Climbing out of my hiding spot, I listen again before moving towards the ladder. I don't want to spook the horses because that would bring Mrs. Brookes or her son Toby out to investigate. One of the horses whickers softly and I pause again, thinking soothing thoughts to reassure him.
Mom says animals can read your intentions better than humans can. I bite my lip and try not to think about her right now. I really need to piss. There's a sink and toilet in the office at one end of the barn but I don't dare flush so it's the bushes for me. I prop open the side door and take a moment to let my eyes adjust to the darkness. Walking quickly to the edge of the trail, I unzip and take a leak with a sigh of relief.
Shaking off the last drop, I zip back up and head back to the barn shivering. It's getting colder and I hope it's not going to snow again. Swallowing hurts a little and I decide it's safe to get some water from the tap to drink. While I'm drinking from the faucet, I wonder if there are any snacks left from Mrs. Brookes' morning classes. Wiping my face clean with my shirtsleeve, I investigate.
There's a box of Triscuits and I take a hand full to munch on. The bowl of apples looks good and I take one from the side where it's not so noticeable. I'll do some chores to pay her back. I wish I could just walk up to the house and ask for her advice but I still don't who I can trust. Dad had told me a place to hide but not who to talk to. Closing my eyes tight, I force back tears.
He probably didn't think the bad guys would kill both of them. He was always telling Mom and me to be safe. He should have taken more precautions himself. I'm suddenly so angry I want to hit something. They weren't supposed to die. My stomach hurts and for a bad moment, I think I'm going to throw up right here in the office. I sit down real fast and swallow hard a couple of times to keep from hurling.
Once I stop concentrating, I hear voices coming towards the barn. I freeze for a moment. It's too late to get up the ladder so I do the next best thing and slither across the floor to hide under the desk. Hopefully, it's just the Brookes taking a last look at the horses before going to bed. Tilting my wrist so I can feel my watch and the little light-up button, I see it's almost 11 pm.
Kind of late, isn't it? I thought they went to bed early because they got up before dawn.
What if it's not the Brookes?
The end for now