Frank Barron was surprised to get another call. Usually, the connections weren’t made this quickly between cases. Then again, he had entered a profile of the cases he was currently investigating into the FBI database, and law enforcement all across the country had access to it. An obvious pattern was beginning to emerge. Frank had information from Louisiana, Tennessee, and now Alabama. There was also a possibility that a child snatching in Nogales was related as well. Two dead bodies, four stolen children. It was the work of a madman. Or woman.
This time he didn’t need to ask permission to fly to Huntsville, he just went ahead and booked a ticket. He wanted to be there to speak with the officer in charge, and to examine the crime scene for himself. Time was of the essence. He was on a plane twenty-four hours later.
After making his way through the airport/car rental maze, Frank drove out to the small town of Piney Wood and met with the local homicide detective. After a lengthy briefing, Frank drove the few miles to Shady Meadows, following a hand drawn map, courtesy of the detective. He preferred to make the trip alone, so as not to be influenced or distracted by another’s take on the situation. Frank had read the report, knew the facts, heard all the suppositions and speculations at the police station. But for now, he wanted to form his own impressions, and interview some of the trailer park residents for himself.
He pulled up to a ramshackle fence out in front, or what was left of it anyway. He parked the rental car off to the side of the road. Frank wanted to walk in rather than drive. He thought he might miss something if he stayed in the car. Not much activity at the moment, but then it was noontime on a Thursday, and those that did work were at their jobs. The seniors were most likely having lunch, and the war hero was probably hung over.
He took off his suit jacket. The temperature had to be pushing ninety degrees and the humidity intolerable. He could hear a barking dog inside one trailer, another dog eyed him from a rickety porch. As he approached the rear of the complex, Frank could see the yellow caution tape forbidding anyone to cross. Did cops really believe that people obeyed instructions made from recycled plastic? Whatever. It was standard operating procedure.
Frank spent the better part of an hour in the sweltering trailer. He examined the back bedroom carefully. Though the forensic team had gone over the room with a fine tooth comb, sometimes a clue, or an object was overlooked. Frank didn’t see anything of import. He found himself staring at the swayback mattress, picturing the young woman lying there dead. He’d looked at all of the photos from the file, so he knew how she was positioned. The bruises on her neck in dark, ugly contrast to her fair skin. Little had been disturbed in the room, according to the woman’s brother. Sadly, he was the one to find her. Frank knew from the report, that the older brother, Wes Stryker, owned the rat trap, letting his little sis, Kerri, live there for free, her being in the family way and all. He’d come to see how she and the new baby were doing after coming home from the hospital. Though he had keys, he told the police he’d knocked to announce his arrival, and then entered the unlocked door when he received no reply. He found his sister dead in her bed, the baby gone. He used his cell phone to call 911, and had watched enough episodes of NYPD Blue to know that he should not touch anything.
After giving the arriving officer an in depth account of the situation, Stryker repeated it for the homicide detective. He admitted that the trailer home was lacking in many respects, but it was better than living in a shelter, or on the street, which is where she would have been if it weren’t for him. No, it wasn’t much, but she always kept it neat and tidy Stryker sobbed. Always.
Frank had to agree. Everything looked to be in order. Nothing knocked over. No sign of a struggle. The few baby things he spotted looked horribly sad and lonely, out of place. Tragic. There was no question she’d been killed for her child. Not to Frank anyway.
After a thorough going over, he called it quits. New discoveries were not to be on this day. The local police and forensic team might be inadequately staffed, but they knew how to do their job. Frank even took a moment to sit on the edge of the bed, where Kerri had been killed, hoping something might come to him. Some clue, some hint, some sign. It was not meant to be. Frank sighed and reminded himself those things usually only happened in the movies. Out of respect, he smoothed the covers where he’d been sitting. Leaving the tiny trailer, he checked his notebook. There were a few neighbors he wanted to speak to.
The interviews were short. The neighbors Frank was able to speak with did want to help, but no one heard or saw anything. One elderly woman mentioned that her dog must have been slipped some kind of tranquilizer since he was comatose for ten hours straight after going out for his last potty of the evening. But that wasn’t news either, as it was included in the original report. Frank was striking out and getting discouraged. Whoever ran this baby stealing operation knew exactly what they were doing. The perp might as well have been a ghost since absolutely nothing had been found. Not a footprint, not a hair, not even the glimpse of a shadow moving in the night.
There was one more name on the list however, but he was hardly even worth the trouble. A Vietnam vet by the name of Nathan Hicks. Sargent Hicks returned from his tour of duty missing his right leg, and although he was able to walk on his left, and could have gotten around on crutches, his preferred mode of transportation over the last thirty-four years was a wheelchair. Yes, the cops had interviewed him, but he was for the most part incoherent due to his longtime love affair with a bottle named Stoli. As a matter of fact, the homicide detective thought Hicks had died some years before, and was astounded to discover the man still alive. With the condition his liver must be in, surely it was a medical miracle.
If Frank Barron weren’t such a stickler for procedure, he might have skipped it all together. He’d come up empty so far, he figured a drunk wasn’t going to provide much insight. Then again, he had come all this way, and he was a by-the-book type of guy, so he walked up the wooden ramp to the front door of the trailer and knocked. An American flag hung from a window.
“FBI, Hicks. Open up,” Frank stated clearly.
“Couple questions, that’s it.” Frank waited. He heard muffled swearing and glass breaking. “I’m not leaving,” Frank said to the door.
More swearing, but the door opened. Frank flipped open his badge and introduced himself as Red.
“What is that? Some kind of code name?”
“Nickname. Can I come in?”
“Hell no. You can talk to me from right there. What the hell do you want, Mr. Red the Fed?”
This wasn’t going well. Not that Frank was surprised. The man reeked of cigarette smoke and booze. Dressed in camouflage, Hicks looked demented. Gray, wispy hair stuck straight out from his head, his mustache and beard masked swollen facial features. Surprisingly, his eyes were clear, and looked Frank over from top to bottom.
“I’m here about your neighbor. The young woman who was killed,” Frank answered the man.
“Cops already talked to me.”
“I’m aware of that. Just wondered if you remembered anything since then.”
“Didn’t tell them a damn thing,” Hicks said proudly. “Fucking pussies. They were never in the war. Never served their country.” The man was rambling.
“Did the cops tell you why she was killed?” Frank tried to keep the conversation on track.
“Nope. Why?” Hicks asked suspiciously.
“For the baby.” It must have made an impression. Frank noticed the man seemed to sag a bit in his chair.
“That must have been what he was carrying then,” Hicks mumbled.
“Who?” Frank demanded.
“The Hulk. I saw him. Didn’t tell those pussy cops. Didn’t tell them shit. Like they’d believe me anyway,” Hicks muttered.
“You saw the Hulk, and he was carrying the baby, is that right?” It took an act of will for Frank not to roll his eyes to the heavens.
“No, you dumb ass. I didn’t see the real Hulk, that guy’s green for Christ sake. I’m just describing him. Big guy. Huge shoulders. Tree trunk legs. You know, a hulk. And he was holding something. Musta’ been the kid.”
“See his face? Anything else?”
“Nope. It was the middle of the fucking night. And I was drunk, just like every night. I did see him though, out my window. Saw him sneak out the back.”
“But you didn’t tell the police this.”
“What are you deaf? I said I didn’t. I fought for my country. Lost my damn leg in the war. Those assholes treat me like dirt. Let me put it this way. If one of those guys was on fire? Would I help him? Sure. Just so I could piss on him.”
“They why tell me? About the guy I mean,” Frank couldn’t help but ask.
“Like your code name, Mr. Red the Fed. Now leave me be. I talked enough. My head is splitting and my mouth’s gone dry.”
“All right. I appreciate your help. I’m going to leave you my card, just in case you remember anything else,” Frank pulled a card from his pocket and passed it over. Hicks grabbed it and slammed the door.
Frank shook his head and walked slowly down the ramp. Unbelievable.
“Hey! Mr. Red the Fed,” Hicks called from the window.
“Yeah?” Frank turned around.
“Baseball cap. The Hulk was wearing a baseball cap.”
Frank saluted the flag.