The Vanishing Season – Dot Hutchison

“Eliza, help me out here.” I glance at Cass. “With?” “What is it with Mercedes and sunflowers?” Our third teammate stops fluffing the arrangement of sunflowers in the vase on the filing cabinet and turns to face my desk, where Cass and I are sitting. “Cass, you’ve known me for how long now, and you’ve never asked?” Cass shrugs, but as with most of her gestures, she does it with her whole body. Even the chair our feet are resting on moves with the full-body ripple. “I guess it never seemed important enough to ask.” “And it is now?” “No, but now I’m bored and you have a fresh delivery of them.” I tune them out—they’ve been doing this a lot longer than I’ve known them—and check the time on my phone, then look to the empty desk set just a bit apart from ours. Bran is late. Bran is never late. He is, in fact, compulsively early for everything. “I like sunflowers because they reach for the sun, always.” “Oh, God, you and your metaphors.” Okay, so there’s a larger-than-average possibility that I’m looking for Bran less out of concern and more out of a wish that his sudden appearance will derail the friendly bickering. Cassondra Kearney and Mercedes Ramirez met at the FBI Academy some thirteen years ago, and both went into the Crimes Against Children division.

Until recently, they were on different teams, but not quite a year ago there was a division-wide restructuring to account for the greater workload all the teams were facing, and our unit chief, Vic Hanoverian, decided we’d benefit from a fourth member. He gave us Cass, who’d been loaned to us on a particularly hellish and personal case two years before. Of the various Quantico-based CAC folks, she was the most temperamentally suited to our team, he informed us. He was clearly trying not to laugh during that little speech. We are, without question, Vic’s favorite team, largely because Bran and Mercedes were his partners until his promotion, but loving us doesn’t mean he doesn’t also enjoy poking us with sticks. Or rather, poking Bran with a stick. Bran was already outnumbered with just me and Mercedes. Cass makes it a pretty hopeless situation. “Eliza? Eliza!” Cass’s elbow in my side makes me flinch. “What?” “What do you think?” “What do I think? What do I think .

about . the thing I was obviously not paying attention to?” Both of them snicker, though Mercedes shakes her head. “Situational awareness, Sterling. Try to practice some.” “So what do I think about what?” I ask rather than dignify that with an actual response. “Is Mercedes a sunflower?” Cass repeats. “You know, this is exactly the kind of conversation that gives him nightmares.” They look over at Bran’s desk and burst into laughter. They don’t even have to ask who “him” is. It’s comforting, this team dynamic, even if it is still a little terrifying at times.

When I graduated the academy, I was sent back to Colorado, to the Denver Field Office. My mother was relieved—if I absolutely had to go into such a dangerous, unladylike career, at least it was where she could nag me face-to-face about it—but I was a little disappointed. I’d wanted to go to new places for more than just the seventeen weeks of the academy. Then, four years ago or so, I was offered a transfer to this team. It took a little while for all of us to adjust. “His bag is here,” Mercedes notes. “Look, you can see it poking out from the well of the desk.” Huh. So it is. “In with Vic?” “Or Yvonne, if something’s breaking and she’s still pulling all the data down.

Is she in her office?” Cass and I both strain to see Yvonne’s office, but the door is closed and the windowless space doesn’t give us any hint if the team’s technical analyst is in yet or not. “So Eliza, have you put The Dress up on Craigslist yet?” Cass asks. “If I give you a fork, will you go play with an electrical socket?” She grins at me, unrepentant. Before either of them can offer more suggestions regarding my never-been-used wedding dress, the door to Vic’s office—up at the top of a slight ramp that turns toward a conference room a half floor up—opens and Vic steps out to lean against the rail. “Good morning, ladies.” “Good morning, Charlie,” all three of us chorus. Normally he smiles and tells us to save it for Eddison. Today . “You’ve got a case, local. Richmond.

” We share looks between us, then turn back to him. Mercedes says what we’re all probably thinking. “Okay?” “Eddison will join you at the car. Watts’s team is taking lead on this one, but you’ll be working with them.” Eddison’s—Bran’s—absence suddenly strikes me in a new, worrying light. “It’s a kidnapping, isn’t it?” I ask. “A little girl?” “Yvonne will send you the files in a minute. She’s just tagging the last few things sent over.” Which means yes, but he doesn’t want anyone else in the bullpen gossiping about it. I slide off my desk—Cass hops, because she’s a little too short to manage the slide with accuracy—and the three of us gather what we need in under thirty seconds.

Local, so we don’t need our go bags. We do need our coats—hello, late October. None of us like carrying our purses out in the field if we can avoid it, but leaving them in the cars is equally uncomfortable, so what can’t hang on our belts gets shifted to the pockets in our pants and coats until they bulge like chipmunk cheeks. In the elevator, our tablets ding with the incoming file. I flip mine open. “Brooklyn Mercer,” I read aloud. “Caucasian, eight years old, blonde hair, blue eyes. Disappeared . yesterday.” Cass yelps.

“Yesterday? And they’re just calling us in now?” “Disappeared while—shit—walking home from school in the afternoon.” “Mierda.” I reach out and jab the stop button on the console, and the elevator shudders to a halt. “It’s always elevators,” Mercedes muses. “Sterling?” “Just . give me a minute.” I smooth a hand over the crown of my head, checking that my hair is still back in its tightly braided, somewhat severe bun. November 5, just a week and a half away, will be the twenty-fifth anniversary of the day eightyear-old Faith Eddison, with her blonde hair and blue eyes, disappeared while walking home from school and was never seen again. Bran will look at the pictures of Brooklyn Mercer and part of him will, inescapably, see his sister. This time of year, this kind of case, I can’t help but wonder how long it took him to stop seeing Faith when he looked at me.

And whether or not it was still happening after we started dating three years ago. I release the stop and the elevator lurches back into motion. “I guess we know why Watts has lead,” I sigh. “Eddison and I will both be banished to fringe work. I look too close and he is too close.” Mercedes nudges my foot with hers. “Vic wouldn’t give this to us unless he and Eddison were both sure he could handle it. He’s got us to back him up.” Cass nods. “We’ve got him, and Watts isn’t going to let him push himself too far.

” We’ll see, I suppose. Sometimes we only recognize our limits once we’ve passed them. 2 True to Vic’s word, Eddison waits for us at the car. He’s Bran off-duty, when he’s my boyfriend. But right now, just as Cass and Mercedes become Kearney and Ramirez once we have a case, he’s Eddison, the Charlie to our angels, and rather pissed about the entire fucking world, if it’s all the same. Which isn’t entirely uncommon for him. He’s careful with his anger, works very hard not to lash out except in appropriate or useful directions, but he’s had that rage curling under his skin far longer than any of us have known him. Twenty-five years, from what his mother says, and it’s not hard to connect those dots back to Faith. He’s already in the driver’s seat of the SUV, hands clenched white-knuckled around the wheel. The radio is off instead of turned low.

I climb into the front passenger seat, Kearney and Ramirez taking the back. Kearney is the only one who can comfortably sit behind Eddison; she’s the only one short enough. Halfway up the parking level, Watts’s team splits into two black SUVs identical to ours. They’re actually Cass’s old team; this is the first case we’ve worked with them since Cass came to us. Eddison lets them pull out first, leading the way down the levels of the garage, and he takes up the rear, our own little cavalcade Richmond-bound. For several minutes, uncomfortable silence grips the car. I wake up my tablet screen again and clear my throat. “Brooklyn Mercer. She and her neighbor usually walk home from school in the company of her neighbor’s older brother.” Eddison’s hand is so tight around the steering wheel one of his knuckles cracks with the strain.

After a moment, I continue. “The brother, Daniel, had a field trip yesterday, not expected to get back to his school until evening. His sister, Rebecca, went home sick before lunch. Arrangements were made to pick up Brooklyn, but they fell through for some reason. We’ll have to ask what happened there.” “Her parents?” Eddison asks, his voice tight. “Both work. Brooklyn usually either stays with Rebecca until one of her parents gets home or locks her house up tight. There are chain locks on the insides of the doors, so no one else can just walk in when she’s home alone.” “When did they notice she was missing?” Kearney asks from the back.

“Eight o’clock. Her parents got home late and realized neither of them had picked up Brooklyn. They checked with the neighbors in case she went there, but she hadn’t.” “When did they call the police?” “Nine-thirty. They did a search first, walking between the house and school to see if she’d fallen or maybe just stayed at the school.” I squint at the screen, zooming in on the scan of an officer’s scrawled notes. “They called the school’s emergency number and got connected to the principal. He and the school’s resource officer walk the buildings and grounds together before leaving each day. That was around six, and they didn’t see her there.” “Siblings?” “Only child.

Police came out en masse, started a grid search, and joined the family in knocking on doors through the neighborhood and the next ones over. They got Brooklyn’s picture out to hospitals, fire stations, malls, and news stations.” Ramirez taps out a note on her screen. “Richmond’s only an hour and a half away; why didn’t any of us get the AMBER Alert push on our phones?” “Uuuuuummmm . ” I swipe through the scant handful of pages in the file. “They don’t always do the push alert to the broader area if they don’t have reason to think it went beyond local territory,” Eddison answers. “Actually,” I say, fighting against the seat belt so I can twist and better see all three of them, “it doesn’t look like there’s an AMBER at all. No suspect or vehicle description, so it doesn’t fit the criteria of the alert. Not enough information to reasonably assist the public in identification.” “Have they called it into NCMEC?” Ramirez asks.

“And NCIC and VCIN, but not until this morning. Looks like the day-shift captain got in this morning and raised hell.” From the corner of my eye, I can see Kearney open her mouth, glance at the driver’s seat, and bite down on whatever she wanted to say. If it’s anything like what’s running through my head at the moment, it’s about the likelihood of the Richmond PD getting heavily retrained on missing kid protocols. There’s no real reason for the family to know that you should always call the police before you start searching. The police would rather be irritated by a false alarm than have a kid be missing for hours before they’re notified, but most people operate on the instinct to not bother the police until they know for a fact something is wrong. That the Mercers called after an hour and a half is actually not terrible. At least it was only an hour and a half. But there’s also not much reason for a family to know that your next call after the police should be to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. From the initial call, the police are the ones who should enter the information into the Virginia Criminal Information Network and the National Crime Information Center, but the family is supposed to call into NCMEC.

The faster the child’s description and details can be spread through the networks, the better the chance of finding them. Brooklyn was missing for over twelve hours before anyone thought to get her information beyond Richmond. The night shift screwed this up, and badly. “Any sign that she did come home?” Kearney asks. “No. Backpack is gone, a note from her mother is still on the counter, snack is still in the fridge. No signs of attempted entry around any of the doors or windows. Mail still in the box at the end of the driveway. Apparently she usually gets it on her way in.” Eddison’s thumbs beat anxious tattoos against the wheel.

“Any listed predators in the area?” “Not sure yet. Yvonne’s got a note here that there are a fair number of dings on the registry, but it’s going to take her some time to sort it by crime.” The sex offender registry covers a lot of ground, from the sick and violent to the drunk and stupid. People learn a neighbor is on the registry and immediately assume the worst, which can be problematic in a case like this. Any time we have to spend convincing a neighborhood that the man who drunkenly pissed in an alley, thereby exposing himself, is probably not the one who kidnapped a kid, is time we should be spending actually looking for the kid. “Are her parents her biological parents?” asks Ramirez. “Yes. No prior marriages for either of them, and they’re still married and living together.” If Brooklyn was adopted or fostered, or if one of the parents was a step-parent and the other biological parent was still out there somewhere, it would give us specific people to research. There’s this mental checklist we all have, going down all the obvious questions so we can figure out what we know and what we don’t, what possibilities we can eliminate right off the bat.

Eddison lets go of the wheel long enough to adjust the air-conditioning. Stupidly or not, we’re all wearing our coats, which means the heat is a bad option. “Any links to other cases?” “None obvious. The few other open missing kid cases in Richmond mostly happened a while ago. Suspected runaways, two parental abductions. Only two that have been labeled probable stranger abductions, both several months old. A fifteen-year-old girl and a six-year-old boy.” “Ages don’t connect into a pattern,” notes Kearney. “Neither does appearance. The boy is black; the girl is Latina.

Different parts of town, different schools, different social circles. Neither had anything in common with the other. Yvonne is running both of them against the Mercers just in case.” “What’s the neighborhood like?” Ramirez asks. She has her tablet open to a map of Richmond. “Pretty solidly middle class, it looks like,” I reply. “Mostly families or empty nesters. Yards and driveways, individual mailboxes, maintained streetlights and well-lit roads. Up enough for a homeowners’ association, but mostly so they can limit the number of college kids renting out. Must be a hot-button issue, because it’s in the officer’s notes.

A handful of stay-at-home moms, one stay-athome dad, but otherwise dual-income households or single-earner/single-parent, plus two houses rented to groups of students.” “Do the Mercers have any pets?” “Two cats, both accounted for. We’ll check with the local pet shops and shelters, see if any recent adoptions stand out.” Kearney taps a note into her version of the file. “Is Brooklyn the kind of kid who could be lured with a pet?” “Don’t know; we’ll have to ask.” The rest of the way to Richmond, we dissect the scant file, exchanging questions. Kearney writes down the ones we can’t answer, which are most of them. A few minutes from our destination, Watts calls my work cell rather than Eddison’s. If Eddison is in a car, Eddison is driving. There are very few, and very specific, exceptions to that, because he’s a terrible passenger.

I flick the Bluetooth connection on. “Sterling.” “Ready for assignments?” Watts asks, her voice distorted by the car’s speakers. “Yes, ma’am.” “Jesus, Sterling, don’t call me ma’am. Ramirez, I want you with the family. You’re the best for that on either team. Stay with them, be their focus, explain what the rest of us are doing. To the best of your ability, keep them calm, or at least contained. Eddison, please keep in mind these are Vic’s orders, not mine.

” Eddison’s lips twitch. On a better day, it might be a smirk. “Understood. Where do you want me?” “You’re still second in command on scene, so I want to make sure you meet the day-shift captain and whoever’s in charge of the state police contingent. After that, I want you with Sterling. Sterling, you and Kearney are going to start with the neighbors Brooklyn usually stays with after school. After that, Kearney, you’re going to pair with Burnside. There’s some construction in the back of the neighborhood, an expansion. I want you two to check the sites. You’ll have some of the local cops with you.

Sterling, Eddison, you’ll head to the front of the neighborhood and the school. Map Brooklyn’s route, then talk to the administrators and her teachers. The crossing guards are gone for the morning, but they’re all coming in early for the afternoon shift so you can talk to them before they need to be at the intersections.” “Roger that,” I answer. “Sterling, you know what I’m going to ask you to do?” “Not let the Mercers see me?” “As best you can. Mrs. Mercer is hysterical, and her husband isn’t much better. And while I’m not one to assume you look like every blue-eyed blonde in the world, I’ve got to say you actually do look a lot like this one.” I study Brooklyn’s picture on my tablet, then flip the visor down to look in the mirror. Watts is not wrong.

It’s one of the things I honestly never anticipated when I decided to join the FBI. I was worried about how I looked, yes, but that’s because I’m the kind of blonde and pretty that makes me look really young. It’s only been in the last year or two that people have stopped asking me if it’s Take Your Daughter to Work Day when I walk into a field office, despite the badge and gun at my hip. I was worried about whether or not anyone would take me seriously, if I’d have to be constantly struggling to get people to listen and answer and obey. So, I made myself a list of rules for work and followed them religiously. Wear only black and white—stark, severe, not remotely girly or young. Keep my hair in a bun or twist, equally stark and severe, and make sure it’s not high enough to be confused for a ballerina bun. Use minimal makeup, enough to look professional but not enough to look like I’m trying too hard or like I enjoy makeup. (I do. I love eye shadow.

And lip stains. And gloss. The shelves next to my vanity look like a Sephora annex.) In hindsight, I can admit I was entirely too worried about it. Even as my wardrobe and style has shifted, as I’ve become more comfortable with the feminine creeping in thanks to the excellent example of Ramirez and other female senior agents, I still think about it. But looking too young used to be my only concern. It never occurred to me that I’d look too much like a victim, that it could cause a family pain. And then I came to Quantico and learned about Faith Eddison, and saw pictures, and saw the way her parents both had to take a deep breath before they said anything the first time they met me. Faith as a child was blonde and blue-eyed, and maybe her hair would have darkened over time— maybe she wouldn’t look remotely like me. While it was one thing to know that, it was another to see your son holding the hand of a woman only three years younger than your daughter would be now, with the same coloring as the child you lost.

I never really wondered why it took so long for me to meet Bran’s parents after he and I started dating. The picture on his filing cabinet at the office was enough to warn me. I flip the visor back up as we pull onto the Mercers’ street. It is a zoo, with police cars— marked and unmarked alike—parked everywhere. Neighbors and friends and family members and complete strangers mill around yards and the street. News crews and vans are scattered anywhere there’s a space for them that isn’t technically on someone’s property. One house has a lemonade stand converted to a volunteer sign-up station. “For fuck’s sake,” sighs Ramirez. “This is a goddamn mess.” At my side, Eddison scrubs at his jaw with the hand not curled into a fist.

.

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