“. . . something unspeakable . . .”
Stanford hits repeat and listens to the whole message again.
“The girl you’re looking for is here. 2310 Santa Barbara. You have ten minutes before I do something unspeakable.”
The message fizzles here. A few more words are spoken but he has difficulty making them out. A few voices overlap and try as he might, Stanford cannot parse them. Instead, he’s working with what he has — those three sentences. And that word.
Does anyone talk that way? So formal and robotic, like reading off a script. No one uses words like “unspeakable” when they talk unless they’re trying to impress fellow tenured professors at a cocktail party. It’s not the kind of thing normal people say.
And it’s certainly not the kind of thing Alan Maple would say.
He rubs his brow. He hasn’t been a detective for very long — only two years this winter. The more experienced members of the squad still look at him like he’s green as spring grass. He ought to be looking at today as a win. He did, after all, finally catch the slippery bastard who evaded his mentor for two decades. But, playing the message again, he only feels defeat. Alan Maple was handed to him, and the circumstances left him with more questions than answers. The girl may be his only clue. She is safe, and for that he is grateful. But the events that led up to her rescue were puzzling. Confounding, even.
Her brother, for example, who was found with her but never reported missing. In terms of providing information, he is far less able than her.
The DNA and footprints were of three — the girl, the boy, and Alan Maple.
And the voice that called the tip line, which did not belong to Alan Maple. Maple had no reason to tip them off, having successfully remained on the run for so long.
Alan Maple. Or rather, what was left of him.
“The girl can’t tell us anything.”
Stanford casts a glance toward the pair in the interrogation room through the two-way mirror. They’d tried to set it up as child-friendly as possible. Lot of light, plenty of toys, even brought in an iPad to play music and movies. But so far the kids inside aren’t biting. The girl appears to be rocking and singing a song under her breath while her brother runs circles around the room.
“And the boy?” he asks, knowing it’s a silly question before it is even out of his mouth.
Detective Pecks arches a brow and says nothing. Stanford rubs his brow.
“Alright. Thank you. I’ll take it from here.”
Pecks gives a slight shrug. “The parents are on their way. You have thirty minutes,” she says, and walks out. He knows what she thinks of him — an upstart, the youngest detective on the force with something to prove, trying too hard. Maybe he is trying too hard. Without a clue as to how to proceed, he re-enters the interrogation room. The girl doesn’t look up when he enters. Her brother continues to buzz about the room like a busy bee, flapping his hands happily and bumping into walls. As he closes the door behind him, he hears her soft singing.
“March and May are pretty
September is just fine
But love if you are with me
January is Divine”
“I know that song,” he says. “Kind of an old one. Do you like old songs?”
She doesn’t answer, but looks up and keeps singing.
“Do you mind if I sit?”
The singing stops.
“You’re Detective Christian Stanford,” she mutters, looking at a spot on the wall behind him. “You’re thirty-one.”
She has repeated this line each time she saw him since their first meeting. He hadn’t initially offered his age, but she asked repeatedly, staring past him in a daze until he answered, then latched onto the number for dear life. His years in the academy and stint as a beat cop have prepped him for blood, bullets, hardened criminals, and many other things of the unsavory nature. Special needs children, however, is another matter.
“Yes, that’s right,” he says, taking a seat across from her. “Naomi, right?”
“That’s a good age.”
“Asher is also nine. We’re twins. That means two.”
“Yes it does.”
Asher is running in a noisy circle around the room. He’s a handsome boy, tall and vibrant. Once in a while he pauses to grab something out of Naomi’s hand. She’s been building random shapes out of Legos, Stanford notices, and handing them to her brother to take apart whenever he becomes too restless. She seems to do this completely out of habit.
Stanford looks her over, not for the first time, trying to find some clue to break through her guard, or at least peek around it. She’s a fragile, slight little thing. At nine, she looks like a skinny six-year-old to the untrained eye. In the original missing person’s report her mother had noted her issues in both communication and eating, expressing genuine concern that in a high stress environment she may starve if nothing else befalls her. Her number obsession and repetitive speech were also noted as coping mechanisms. But she’s clever. He can see it in those gray eyes she keeps trying to hide behind strands of brown hair. Her shields are up, but they can’t hide her spirit.
He starts to ask if she could tell him what happened, then stops himself. Pecks has obviously already asked all the usual questions and gotten nowhere. The girl has been through a terrifying ordeal, and continuing to press her would only shut her down further. Her brother runs himself into the nearest wall, bounds backward, and lets out a laugh. Naomi holds out a lump of blocks she has haphazardly stuck together. Asher grabs it and, shrieking with glee, begins to break it apart. Stanford mimics her as she starts building another. They build in silence for a few moments as Asher continues his happy circling around the room.
“Your brother really likes these,” he says.
“He likes to dismantle them,” Naomi says without looking up. “He has dismantled eleven so far. That’s one more than ten. At home the most he’s done at one time is twenty-nine. That’s nine more than twenty.”
“You like ten and twenty?”
“They are round numbers. And they have a zero. I like round numbers more than other numbers.”
Stanford arranges the Legos on the table in a manner he hopes is nonchalant. In front of himself, not her, as to not invade her space. “I like numbers, too,” he says. “Sometimes I count cars on the streets.” She doesn’t look up. “Or books on my shelf. I have ten books on my top shelf.” This is a lie. He has no idea how many books are on his office shelf, but Naomi glances up at this and just as quickly looks down again. “I count people, too. Especially if I’m in a new place and I don’t know anyone.” Naomi looks at him again but he pretends not to see. “I was in a new store the other day and I counted over a hundred people. A hundred has two zeros.”
She looks at him, then at the Lego pieces in front of him. He has built simple little furniture and walls and arranged them in a particular way. A way he knows she would recognize. Asher wanders past him. He holds out a jumbled lump he has assembled and the boy happily takes it.
“I counted three.”
Stanford’s heart leaps with excitement. He quickly pulls himself back and pretends to clear his throat. “Oh yea?” he says, pushing a few more pieces into place.
“I was one. There was the man. He was two. Although I guess he was there first, so maybe he’s one and I’m two. Then Asher came and he’s three.”
Asher gives no indication that he recognizes his name and continues his happy babbling and pacing.
“And then four?”
Naomi looks up. “You’re four,” she says. “And that other lady is five, and then the other people, they’re six, seven, eight, and . . .”
He waits for her to account for every member of the rescue team before interjecting.
“What about the other one?”
Naomi says nothing. She’s turned back to the Legos.
“Naomi?” he prods gently. “Wasn’t there a four? The one who helped you and Asher. From the bad man?”
“YOU are four,” she repeats. “You are four, and that other lady is five, and . . .”
She lists through the members of the rescue team again. Stanford drums his fingers against the table and thinks. After a moment, he has the right question.
“How did you go from one to two?” he asks, and hands another jumble of Legos to Asher.
“I was one,” she says slowly. She has started lining up the Legos in front of her, sorted neatly by colors and sizes. “Then that man took me to the room. He was wearing brown shoes. He was short. He had a bad smell in his mouth, but not under his arms. His eyebrows were thick. The chairs in the house were creaky. They creaked when I sat on them. He made me sit on one, then the other. And he looked at me. He has two eyes, eight toes, ten fingers, and one . . .”
“That’s alright,” he says, interrupting her. He knows what she’s seen, and is incredibly grateful that all he did was make her look. “Tell me,” he continues quickly before she could follow that chain of thought. “How did you go from two to three?”
Naomi looks toward her brother, who is laughing and singing gibberish to his own reflection in the large two-way mirror. “Asher came. He made the bad man stop.”
“Asher made him stop.”
“He did.” He tries to say this like a statement rather than a question. He can tell by the glaze threatening to take over her eyes that she dislikes being doubted. To get answers, he must keep her from drifting off again.
“Asher must be strong.”
“He is. I didn’t know he was that strong. I knew he was stronger than me ’cause he’s bigger. He’s ten and a half pounds more than me. And one and three-quarters inches taller. I don’t like half numbers. Or quarter numbers. Or three-quarters numbers. They don’t make sense. I don’t get why they don’t just call them two parts, or three parts, or four parts.”
“That’s a mystery to me, too.”
Naomi falls silent. Stanford continues to build and casts a glance at his watch. The children’s parents should be arriving soon. His time is running out. Though he may be able to meet with them for further statements in the future, he doubts he will be able to get anything more useful out of Naomi once she walks out the door. He finishes building the walls around the little room he’s arranged and leaves a space for a door.
“There’s two doors.”
He starts. “I’m sorry?”
“The house had two doors. There’s the one where you and the lady and the other people came in, and there’s the door in the back, where Asher came in.”
“Asher came in the back.”
“He opened the door. The second door. Then he came in and talked to the man. I didn’t hear all of it. I was asleep. Sort of. I was dizzy. Then he dismantled him.”
Stanford wrings his hands. “Dismantled?” he asks cautiously.
“Like with the blocks.” Asher makes another pass around the room. Naomi hands him two new blocks. “He took him apart.”
The door opens just as he’s about to ask a follow-up question. Pecks sticks her head in.
“The parents are here,” she says. “Like we thought, they had no idea the boy was with his sister. They thought he was at school. You might want come out and talk to them.”
“Oh,” Stanford stammers. “But I was just . . .”
“Mommy!” Naomi shouts. Her eyes light up for the first time since they picked her up. She leaps out of her seat and runs out the door. Pecks follows. Stanford gets to his feet with a sigh and suddenly notices how quiet the room has become.
Asher has stopped his chattering and running and is standing quietly in the corner of the room. Stanford gives him a smile.
“Come on,” he says. “I’m sure mom and dad will be thrilled to see you.”
Asher doesn’t move. Instead, he raises his head slightly and meets Stanford’s eyes for the first time. He blinks, and Stanford wonders for a moment if he’s gone insane as the boy’s eyes change from brown to blue, as if a window shade had been pulled down.
“You saved her,” the boy says. The voice coming out of his mouth is not the one that has been chattering and laughing for the past hour, but a different one. A stiff, adult voice. A familiar one. “Thank you.”
He blinks again and his eyes are brown. The smile returns to his face and he half runs, half skips out of the room after his sister.
To Be Cont’d