Gone Missing – T.J. Brearton

Katie stepped onto the porch and laced up her sneakers. In the Northeast, mid-August, dawn came at 5:30 a.m. Over the mountains, a smattering of salmon-tinged clouds heralded the sun. She lunged to stretch out her calves, bent forward to loosen her thighs and lower back. Today’s target heart rate was 122. Target heart rate was 220 minus her age, 33, multiplied by 65%, since jogging ideally increased a person’s heart rate by that amount. Or so Runner’s World had told her. She left the house, walking first. Her sneakers were springy and new, ready to launch her forward. She began her run, falling into her rhythm, feeling fit. Running was one of life’s secret pleasures. She’d run rain or shine, only warned off if the thunder was too close, or if there was lightning. This morning was pristine, redolent of pine and mown grass, alive with birdsong. The air was damp from a cool night, a nice change from the recent heat wave.

She turned down Everett Road, headed into Loop Three, tuned in to the beating of her heart. Always her heart, but then also this morning, memories of her mother. There were three loops Katie alternated. Loop One was the shortest and stuck close to the small town. Loop Two widened out a bit and featured a steep hill. Three was the longest run. All of the loops wound up passing Footbridge Park, her way back home. As her muscles warmed and her stride lengthened, her thoughts swung from her mother to David, her husband, and to the rest of her family. There was always gossip in the family, usually about Glo’s financial troubles. But the latest gossip seemed to be focused on Katie, and whether or not she was going to get around to having a baby.

Her stepmother – who had no biological children of her own – thought that thirty-three was heading into “high-risk” pregnancy territory. Her sister just wanted to be an aunt. No one knew that Katie and David had actually been trying for months. Her mind cleared the further she ran, thoughts dropping away at last. She stayed focused on her heart and imagined it doing its work. The sun now painted a yellow smear above the rolling horizon and she ran toward it, picking up a little more speed, starting to break a sweat. When she reached the park, she saw a vehicle alongside the road. A white minivan. She slowed down a bit, staring at it from a distance. Seeing vehicles at the park wasn’t unusual – plenty of people who worked in town drove over to take their lunches while gazing at the river, sipping coffee from paper cups.

But it was only six in the morning, too early even for breakfast. She transitioned from jogging to walking and took her pulse while she watched the vehicle, wondering if it belonged to someone local. She thought maybe she’d seen one like it recently, parked at the grocery store. It was something – when you’d been in a small town for a while you came to recognize everyone’s car. Just maybe not this one, yet. Her pulse was at 128. Not bad. Pretty close. The road dead-ended at the footbridge spanning the river. She continued walking toward the bridge, keeping an eye on the minivan.

It didn’t look like it had been parked there overnight – no dew covering it. And she thought she caught a faint scent of exhaust in the air, like it had only just recently arrived. Katie glanced behind her. The only other way home was to run the loop backward. But the thought of doing that – of turning around because of some minivan sitting by the quaint little park making her nervous – seemed irrational. She blamed Facebook for filling her feed with stories about women attacked while jogging and clowns lurking in the woods. Or news sites like CNN with their gossipy, sensational reporting. She longed for a headline which read: “Despite Recent Crimes Assholes Have Committed, Women Are Still 99.9% Safe Going for a Run.” It was like being afraid of flying.

Everyone had heard it by now – the drive to the airport was 100 times riskier than the flight to their destination. Plane crashes were just more dramatic, better headlines. She picked up the pace, jogging again, and was starting to pass it when she heard a sound coming from inside the vehicle. An infant crying. She stopped. She listened. Definitely a baby, squalling quite unhappily. Maybe her ears were playing tricks, and the sound wasn’t coming from the van. But the nearest house was too far away for it to carry. A dog barked on a distant street.

The river burbled nearby. The crying continued. The park consisted of several picnic tables, a barbecue pit, a wooden swing set, and a climbing wall for the kiddies. Hiking trails threaded the woods for dog-walking and nature-viewing. Katie scanned the trees, but there was no one around. Her phone was zipped into her running skirt. She always brought her phone on a run, even when her preferred jogging shorts were in the dirty laundry and the phone banged against her leg a bit, some old grocery receipt crunching around with it. She withdrew the phone, then hesitated. Would calling the police be an overreaction? What would she even say? Hi, I’m jogging past Footbridge Park in Hazleton and there’s a baby crying. Please send help – it may have a poopy diaper.

I can’t be sure, officer, but it might also need feeding, so please bring formula. If you can… make it organic. Her husband would still be sleeping. No need to disturb him. She opted to text. On my run. A baby is crying near the park. Just checking it out. Call the cops if you don’t hear from me lol. She put the phone away.

It could’ve been her imagination, but the baby’s cries seemed to be growing more frantic. Katie approached the minivan, hoping to catch a glimpse of an adult-sized figure moving around in there, tending to the child. But the windows were tinted. Her mind flashed on another recent tragedy in the news – not as recent as the joggers, but still fresh enough in her mind – a man who’d left his baby in the car and gone to work. Even though the vehicle was white and reflected the sun, it would be getting hot in there soon. “Hello?” She raised her voice an octave. “Hello? Anybody in there?” The side and rear windows were dark, but she was able to get a clearer look through the front. It wasn’t a perfect view, but she saw a child’s seat in the back with a small figure harnessed in. “Hey, baby, shhh. It’s okay, baby.

” The baby was not soothed. Katie tried the front passenger door first, found it locked. Her pulse quickened. What if the baby was trapped? Now she would have a real reason to call the police. But when she tried the side door, it opened. Katie rolled the door back and leaned in. “It’s okay. It’s okay, little one. I’m here. I’ll help you…” Dark in the van.

She put a foot up on the step and leaned in. Whoever these assholes were, they were going to get a piece of her mind when they showed up. Who put a baby in the very back seat of a minivan, so hard to access? She stepped all the way in and stretched past the middle seats so she could at last get a clearer look. In proximity, the infant’s cries sounded a bit strange. “It’s alright, here I am, here I—” Katie’s words caught in her throat. She recoiled, pulling her arms against her chest. She started to back away, ready to turn and leap from the vehicle. Something was very wrong. Hands reached in and shoved her back. She sprawled over the seats and landed on the floor, her thoughts a jumbled alarm.

What was happening? She flailed and kicked instinctively, connecting with nothing. The silhouette of a man moved across her field of vision. When she tried to sit up, he smashed her on the head, knocking her back to the floor. The door slid closed with a bang. The engine started. Then she was moving, the van was moving, they were driving away. Chapter Two Investigator Justin Cross had overslept and hurried out the door to work. He picked up coffee at the convenience store where he usually stopped in the morning. The clerk gave him a funny look. “That color looks good on you,” she said.

He had no idea what she was talking about until he glanced at his hand holding the coffee. Three of his fingernails were painted lavender, one of them light blue. His thumbnail was daubed with red. “Ah man,” he muttered. The people behind him in line were having a good look. Cross tried to smile as the clerk pointed to a rack of household items near the register. “Nail polish remover, small bottle, right near the tampons.” He collected the item, and the other customers were gracious enough to admit him back to the front of the line. One of the customers was Laura Broderick, a forest ranger with the Department of Environmental Conservation, wearing a bemused expression. “Something you want to talk about, Justin?” Cross paid for his coffee and nail polish remover.

“Had my girls this weekend.” He hurried out of the store, ignoring the impish grins. Sitting in his car, he squinted at the tiny instructions on the bottle. He had no idea how to do this, but he was probably going to need paper towels. Cursing, he backed out of the convenience store parking lot and headed up the road to the state police substation. It came flooding back along the drive – little Patricia (Petrie, for short), getting her fingernail paints out of her backpack and convincing him in her adorably squeaky voice to let her “do his nails.” He’d compromised with the one hand, and she’d happily gone to work. They’d had to stop twice because of her sister, Ramona, who’d been getting into the lower kitchen cabinets. Twice, Ramona had gone after the bleach beneath the sink and Cross had to eventually barricade the cabinet doors. Maybe the three beers and two glasses of Scotch after their mother picked them up that evening were what had caused the brief memory lapse.

The hangover pulsed in his temples as he drove the winding country road to the substation. He justified his drinking: For one thing, his heart ached each time the girls had to go back to their mom, Marty. The emptiness was so big, the silence so profound, he had to fill it or go crazy. For another thing, those girls, as much as he loved them, were totally overwhelming. Without Marty, he floundered around like a three-legged goat. The substation was a simple little one-story building they called “the house.” Cross had a plan as he pulled in: He was going to rush to the bathroom and use the nail polish remover. Let them make their jokes about him having a sensitive stomach – if he got caught with painted nails, he’d never live it down. They’d call him Boy George or something for the rest of his career. Inside, though, the place was lively, and the only attention Cross was paid came when Trooper Billy Farrington put down the radio transmitter he was holding and said, “David Brennan just called 911.

” “Brennan?” “Yeah, you know who I’m talking about?” “I think so. He has the place on Cobble Ridge?” “That’s the one. Wife is Katie Calumet. She kept her name or whatever. He’s worried about her.” “Why’s he worried?” Cross had the nail polish remover in his pocket and was eyeing the bathroom door. He kept the offending hand behind his back, coffee in the other. “She was out for her morning run, stopped somewhere near Footbridge Park, sent him a weird text.” “What does ‘weird’ mean?” “And then he says she never came home. Uhm, yeah, weird I guess because she said something about a kid crying.

A baby.” “Where is Brennan now?” The phones rang, but Cross ignored them. “That’s just it,” Farrington said. “He went down to the park first, says he found something. Then he made the call.” “Found what? A baby?” Farrington put on his duty belt, smirking. “Ah, no. Don’t think so.” The second trooper in the substation was Maize, talking on one of the phone lines. “Maize? What’d the guy say he found?” “He said a toy,” Maize said.

The other phone kept ringing until Farrington grabbed it. “Troopers.” Cross looked around. The two other troopers on shift were working road patrol. Cross stepped closer to Maize as she hung up. “Where are Crowley and Redford?” Cross asked. “Crowley is halfway to Plattsburgh, running radar,” Maize said. “Redford is holding the scene of a truck that swerved to avoid a deer and dumped its firewood across Route 9. Dispatch polled the call – the only posted deputy is in the middle of a pickup order. So, we’re closest.

” Farrington hung up the phone. Finished fixing his belt, he gave his pants a hitch and said, “Looks like it’s you and me, Cross.” He then hesitated. “Unless you need to talk to BCI first?” “No,” Cross said, thinking it sounded like an over-reactive husband and after a quick statement he’d be back in the office. “Let’s go.” He grabbed some paper towels from the bathroom and followed the state trooper out. Trying to drive and scrape nail polish off at the same time was a feat, but by the time they’d reached the park, Cross had gotten rid of most of the paint. He let the rest go for now. The sight of David Brennan standing there by the footbridge was enough to wipe Cross’s mind of any of his own petty problems. Brennan looked like an anxious mess.

He was pointing at something on the ground, his eyes wide, lips flapping even though no one was yet in earshot. Farrington flipped on the deck lights and hopped out. Cross pulled his unmarked car beside the cruiser. They both walked over to Brennan. “I didn’t touch it,” Brennan said. Cross saw what he was talking about: A baby’s rattle lay on the ground. He stuck out his hand and introduced himself and Trooper Farrington. Brennan’s eyes caught the flashing police lights. “I’ve been through the woods. I walked all the trails, I called her name.

I’ve been here since seven thirty, called at eight. What took you guys so long?” Cross nodded sympathetically. “Why don’t you explain to me exactly what’s happened. Let’s step over here, okay?” He led Brennan onto the harder blacktop, eyeing the soft shoulder. There were tire tracks there which could have now been muddled by Brennan. The distraught husband lowered his head and spoke, as if to the ground, gesturing with his hands. He told Cross that Katie, his wife, went for a run a few mornings a week. She had three different patterns, but they all led past the park. “And that’s when she texted me. She was right here.

” “Okay, do you know anyone who recently had a baby? Would it have been someone she knows?” “We know the Harts, who just had twins, still in the hospital. Otherwise there’s Megan Hasselbeck, but she’s down in Schroon Lake. No, no one we really know. And she would’ve said so if she knew. Wouldn’t have just said ‘baby.’” Cross put his hands on his hips and surveyed the scene. Farrington had set out a couple of cones. The good news was the park was away from the main roads. It was still early, just before nine, and a Monday. School wasn’t in, so no kids were likely to have come through.

Workers in the area came down to have their lunch, but that was a ways off. “So, what do we do?” Brennan was growing more frantic by the second. He was a big man, over six feet, two hundred pounds. He wore his blond hair back in a man-bun, but his beard was threaded with gray – Cross thought he was forty or forty-five. Cross didn’t know much about the couple, only that they had some money, either on her side or his, or both. Rumor was they divided their time between Hazleton and New York City, where they also had a home. “You’ve tried to contact her, obviously.” “About 100 times. Nothing. When I send a text, I don’t get that little notification – ‘delivered’ – you know what I mean? And calls go straight to voice mail.

So her phone is switched off, or…” “Can I see your phone? Show me that text.” “Yeah, yes. Sure.” He thumbed the screen then handed over the phone. On my run. A baby is crying near the park. Just checking it out. Call the cops if you don’t hear from me lol. “And you were pretty sure she meant this park?” Cross asked. Brennan scowled.

“Well, yeah.” “Not the baseball park or anything like that.” “Like I said, she has one of three runs she takes; she’s pretty routinized. But they all come right by here. It’s the way back to our house, unless she wants to turn around and go back.” “I understand. But she could start in one of two directions, right? We’re fairly close to your house. She could come by here first or wind up here near the end of her run.” “Yeah, sure. But she usually winds up here.

Sometimes she takes a little break…” “Who else would know about her running habits?” Brennan gave him a sharp look. Then he softened with a sigh. “She’s probably told Gloria. Her sister.” “Gloria live around here?” “No, no. She’s down in Brooklyn. Their parents are in Manhattan. That’s it. That’s the whole family. But, I mean, people see her.

She’s been running up here for two years, so…” “Okay. And no way this is a prank or anything? She’s not having you on? It’s not your birthday or anything…” “No, absolutely not. Nothing like that. Katie wouldn’t do that. I mean she’s got a sense of humor, but, no.” “And you guys are doing alright?” Brennan narrowed his eyes, defensive again. “What do you mean?” “Getting along. Your… you know, ah, relationship.” “We’re fine. I know what you’re doing – Katie wouldn’t run off.

Ever. We’re solid. Even if we’re having a… We always work it out. We’ve got a strong marriage.” Cross nodded and Brennan looked away, gazing over the river. He bit at his lower lip. His hands were shaking. “It’s gonna be okay,” Cross said. Brennan didn’t look convinced. Regardless of the man’s insistence, Cross had to decide how seriously to take the possible disappearance.

He still had Brennan’s phone. They were going to need to look at it some more, but right now Brennan would consider it his lifeline to Katie, and so Cross handed it back. “Just hang tight for a minute.” He walked to Farrington. The trooper had placed a dozen small cones around and was tying crime scene tape to a tree, getting ready to spool it out. “You want me to secure it, right?” An area marked with cones and tape was going to draw onlookers and the press. On the other hand, if something untoward had happened to Katie Calumet, it was a necessary precaution to protect the integrity of the scene. “Yeah, go ahead.” Cross looked at the rattle lying in the dirt between the grass and blacktop. Maybe Katie had heard something and run off into the woods.

He’d had a baby raccoon or porcupine in the woods outside his house before. Temporarily abandoned by a foraging mother, the baby animal’s cries sounded eerily like a human’s. Maybe Katie had seen the rattle left behind by someone, heard an animal, then run off into the woods, fallen, struck her head. It wasn’t a big area, probably less than two acres. A quick search could resolve the question. His gaze shifted to the tire tracks. People parked down here all the time; the tracks meant little. But together with the rattle lying beside them, the text message, the distressed husband… Farrington stretched the tape across the narrow blacktop lane that led to the footbridge, Cross moving beside him. “Do me a favor, trooper – when you’re done, let’s see if we have a tire tracks specialist on call. Or at least a CST trained in tire casting.

If not, we’ll have to recall someone.” “Got it.” Cross ran a hand over his face. Something in his gut said to act fast. Or maybe it was the hangover, still sitting just behind his eyes. He needed to call his supervisor.

.

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