Vanished in the Night(11)

By: Eileen Carr

She hadn’t understood that as an eight-year-old. She’d been terrified that Dad might send Mama away next and the only target left in the house would be her. The slight nausea of shame crept up her throat. Her mother had been a human shield for her; could anyone blame her for dulling the pain with booze?

At first it was wine. Then Celeste had discovered vodka, which is not nearly as odorless as everyone says. By the time Veronica was thirteen, she could recognize when her mother was on a bender by the scent when she walked into the house.

Eventually the booze had killed Celeste—and it had probably killed Max, too. If she hadn’t been drinking, maybe Mama might have looked for Max. Maybe it wouldn’t have been too late. Maybe they would have found him before he ended up nearly unidentifiable and alone in a construction site.

Maybe he would have told Veronica that it was all okay—that he didn’t blame her for anything.

She finally laid her head down on the table and cried.

It was well past dark by the time Zach and Frank got to Veronica’s father’s house. The porch light was off, but there was a light on inside and the blue flicker of a television set. The yard needed to be raked, but Zach liked the smell of the leaves as they crunched underneath his feet.

Frank kicked the leaves aside as he marched up the steps and rang the doorbell. He jingled the change in his pocket and glanced over at Zach as they waited. “Takin’ him long enough.”

“It’s not like he’s expecting us,” Zach observed. They hadn’t called ahead because they’d wanted to see Osborne’s reaction to his stepson’s death up close and personal.

Frank rang a second time. This time Zach heard footsteps heading toward the door.

The porch light was flipped on and the door opened. According to his driver’s license, George Osborne was in his late fifties. He hadn’t exactly aged well. He still had a full head of hair, liberally sprinkled with gray, but it didn’t look clean. His face was slack and heavily lined and a lit cigarette dangled from his fingers. His paunch stretched the T-shirt he wore, and even in the dim light of the entryway, Zach could see the network of spiderlike veins across Osborne’s face. That might have to do with the beer bottle that dangled from his hand. Not exactly a poster child for clean living; more of a terrible warning than a shining example.

“What do you want?” Osborne leaned against the door frame and looked from Zach to Frank.

“We’d like to have a word with you, Mr. Osborne.” Zach flashed his badge. “May we come in?”

Osborne didn’t budge. “Not without a warrant.” He gave a little snort, as if the situation was funny.

Frank stepped up onto the top step so he was toe-to-toe with Osborne. “You got something to hide in there?”

Osborne didn’t move a muscle. “Maybe I do. Maybe I don’t. Either way, you’re not coming in.” He turned his head to the side and spat into the bushes.

“It’s about your stepson,” Zach said.

Osborne looked confused for a moment. “My what?”

“Your stepson,” Zach repeated. “Max Shelden.”

Osborne’s eyebrows went up a little and he stood up straighter. “I haven’t heard from that kid for twenty years at least. I got nothin’ to do with him.” He moved back into the house and started to shut the door.

Frank stuck his foot in the doorway. “That’s because he’s been dead about that long.”

Osborne froze for a second and then said, “That would explain it.”

“Can we come in and talk to you about it?” Zach asked again, stepping up behind Frank.

Osborne looked at Zach, narrowing his eyes a bit. “I still don’t see any warrant.”

“You really want us to come back with one?” Zach leaned in. He was tired of the crap.

Osborne was a tough guy—he got it. But if they all had to drop trou right now and pull out rulers, Zach would win because he had the badge and the gun. He knew it. Frank knew it and clearly Osborne knew it, too, because he decided to back off. Classic bully. Zach would bet his left nut that Osborne only picked on people he thought he could beat. People who were smaller and weaker. People who backed down in the face of confrontation or were bound by rules and regulations. Zach had seen Osborne’s kind before plenty of times. He didn’t like playing their games and he didn’t like them.