Vanished in the Night(6)

By: Eileen Carr

“Ms. Osborne—” Frank started.

“Could you just cut to the chase?” She threw her hands in the air. “Please?”

Frank glanced at him and grimaced. Zach rolled his eyes. Rodriguez could take down a belligerent drunk, bust in a door, and drive a squad car 110 miles an hour through traffic, but give someone bad news? Especially a woman? He turned into a whimpering puppy.

“There’s no easy way to tell you this.” Zach leaned forward and braced his elbows on his knees. “A body was found this morning in a construction site in downtown Sacramento. We have reason to believe that the remains might belong to your brother, Max Shelden.”

The hands flew to her mouth and the hazel eyes got even bigger. “Oh.” She swayed a little.

Zach stood up and led her to a chair. “I’m terribly sorry for your loss.”

“No. Oh, no. Oh, poor Max. What happened? How did he . . . die?” She choked a little on the last word. Her eyes brimmed.

“We don’t know yet. It might be a while before we figure all of that out.” Zach looked around and saw a tissue box on the coffee table. He grabbed it and handed it to her.

“Do you need me to . . . do I have to . . . identify him or something?” She looked up at Zach, her face full of questions.

He squatted down next to her so she wouldn’t have to crane her neck to look at him. “He’s been, uh, gone for a while. There’s really nothing for you to identify. The medical examiner will be making the ID based on dental records.”

She blinked rapidly. “I don’t even remember what dentist Mama took him to. I went to Dr. Stanzig, so maybe he did, too, as a kid. I don’t know who he went to later.”

“Later?” According to Dinsmore, Shelden had died when he was still a kid. There shouldn’t be a “later.”

“Yeah. You know, after he ran away.”

This wasn’t making sense. It didn’t help that her brain was buzzing with a white noise that made it seem like the police officer’s words were coming from far away, distorted with static. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t considered that this might be a possibility—that someday some official person would show up on her doorstep and tell her Max was dead. She had acknowledged that it was possible that Max would never come back.

Somehow she’d thought she’d know, though. She’d known the moment their mother died. Veronica had been asleep in the chair next to the hospital bed, and it was as if she’d been slapped awake when the rasp of her mother’s labored breathing finally ceased. It wasn’t the absence of noise that woke her from her fitful sleep, but a feeling—a new absence in her life, a new rock to carry around in her chest. She had known the instant it had happened.

She’d really thought the same thing would have happened with Max, that there would have been some ripple in her soul when he was gone forever.

Veronica had hoped, dreamed, that one day Max would show up on her doorstep, arms open wide with forgiveness and love. If Max was going to find her, he probably would have done it a long time ago. Still, she always listed her telephone number, even though most of her coworkers didn’t, especially the women who lived alone. People fixated on nurses in unhealthy ways sometimes.

But she’d wanted to make herself easy for Max to find. Plug her name into Google. Pick up the white pages at the local library and flip it open to O. She’d be there, waiting for her prodigal brother to come home and be greeted with a feast.

She could quit all that now. Change her number, her name. Move to a different city. Max was never going to come find her. Never going to come home and forgive her.

“I’m sorry. Why isn’t there anything for me to identify?” She shoved her bangs aside and looked into the steady, dark eyes of the detective crouched in front of her. What was his name? McKnight?

“The medical examiner is still working on the time of death. It’s been . . . a while.” He took her hand.

His was big and warm and a little rough. Patients always teased her about her hands. Blocks of ice on the best of days. They felt brittle now, as if they might break.

The cop let her think over what he’d said about Max being dead for a long time. The little one was getting antsy, but the big one with the deep, dark eyes was just breathing with her. She swallowed hard and stilled herself. She knew how to focus. She was quite capable of pushing her emotions into the background and functioning.