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The Midnight Roadby Tom Piccirilli
Flynn remembered the night of his death more clearly than any other in his life. The black details of it forced him from the wild slopes of his dreams back to the beginning of his pitch through the ice, down into the dark waters below and the midnight road beyond.
There'd been a moment's premonition as he drove up the long narrow curve of the Shepards' driveway to their minimansion. A faint whisper of what was to come. The storm had ended a half hour earlier, but a heavy burst of wind had rattled loose a cluster of icicles high in the canopy trees. They slammed down against his hood so hard and unexpectedly that he overreacted and jammed the brake, his dead brother's '66 Charger going into a lissome power slide. He eased off the pedal and turned the wheel directly into the spin. They were the relaxed, familiar motions of someone who'd done a lot of street racing in his youth. The positraction got the car straightened almost immediately. The tires hit a dry patch of brick and let out a squeal like an animal cry of fear.
His stomach tightened. It was the kind of bad vibe he usually made an effort to ignore. Before his death he'd been an even bigger idiot.
There were no streetlights here in this chic area of the North Shore, close to the Long Island Sound. Maybe it was a sign of wealth, having to wind your way through the night all on your own.
He looked out the frosted driver's side window, seeing the world like watching a film noir. Black and white, intensely sharp around the edges.
From the moment he saw the two pale figures wafting like white lace on the snow-filled front lawn, meeting and parting and joining again in the moonlight, he had fifty minutes left to live.
Flynn's headlights flashed across the terrain and immediately the grim nerve worked through his chest again, twitching under his heart. Late November, locked in the worst winter in a decade, night having dropped like your grandmother's velvet drapery, and there in the frozen yard were the girl and a dog prancing about, no parents in sight.
It wasn't a good sign but he didn't want to jump to conclusions. Most anonymous tips to Child Protective Services could be traced back to the neighbor across the street or on either side of the home in question. Except the Shepards had no neighbors within view. Dense lots of brush rose up
around the huge house.
It was a three-tiered home built in the late seventies when art deco was losing ground and the holdout architects were really blowing their cool. You had a nice little family residence hidden within a bunch of mortar and rock face, metal and large, well-lit empty windows like wide, blind eyes. It looked schizo as hell and Flynn couldn't imagine living in such a place, even if it did sell on the open market for a mill and a quarter, maybe a mill and a half.
The tipster had said a child was in danger at this address. No other comment. There didn't need to be one. It was all CPS needed. If somebody said a kid's welfare was at risk, you had to move. You catch the call, you take the ride, even in a snowstorm.
The girl stopped traipsing and stood at attention in her white ski suit and snow boots, watching him. The dog was a French bulldog, all white except for a black ring around one eye, wearing a white knitted sweater and little plastic booties. It sat at her heel with its chin up, head cocked, staring intently at Flynn as he stepped from his car. The only color in the world seemed to knife out from the huge windows and the twin bronzed lanterns bordering the two-car garage.
In the glow he saw the girl was about seven. A swathe of snow clung to her chin. Her breath blew white streamers that burst against his belly as he approached. The dog's breath broke across his legs.
He had to play it carefully. This was always a little tricky. If he approached the kid and she got spooked, screamed and ran into Daddy's arms, then the potential for big trouble went off the chart. You had to try to keep things easy and friendly. Just introducing himself as an investigator for Suffolk County CPS put everybody on the defensive. All kinds of hell could break loose. Fisticuffs, maybe worse. Nobody wanted to be called a child molester, not even the ones who were guilty of it.
That's one of the reasons why most investigators were women. A woman could appeal to the wife, seem less threatening to the husband. Flynn still wasn't quite sure how he wound up on the job, but one of the big perks for him was when some bitter, middle-aged ex-high-school jock who liked working over his old lady and kids decided to throw down and Flynn could cut loose. It was childish, he had to admit. But you took your action wherever you could.
Men weren't really wanted in the ranks. They had to take evaluations and psych tests semiannually to make sure they were trying to save kids for the right reasons. The shrinks had to weed out the CPS dudes who jumped out of broken marriages just hoping to find some beautiful young teen in trouble. Wanting to nurture her with poetry and bubble baths, maybe woo the mother just to make it look right on the books. The peds hunting fresh meat. Flynn came into work every day and faced cagey, cautious attitudes tossed at him all day long from nearly every corner. It pissed him off, but he tried to understand. You never knew where the next big breakdown or blowup might come from.
It was late. He should've been here over an hour ago, but the storm had hit while he was stuck in traffic on the Expressway. Nobody could get anywhere as the freezing rain came down and the slush on the road turned to ice within minutes. Even cars that weren't moving started to slip sideways into the median. Within a half hour there were a hundred fender-benders as drivers tried to roll off to the shoulder, park and wait it out. The storm didn't last long, but the freeze was so bad that everybody had to get out of their cars and start hammering away at the layers of ice on their windshields.
He didn't want to frighten the girl. She didn't really seem spookable, standing there looking at him, but he wanted to go extra easy. She took two steps through the snow, her blond hair squeezing out from around her white plastic hood, framing her cute face.
"Who are you?" she asked.
"I'm Kelly." Then, pointing to the dog, "This is Zero. What are you doing here?"
"I'd like to speak with your parents."
"Aren't you cold out here this late, Kelly?"
"Yeah," she told him. "I wanted to see the storm, but my mother wouldn't let me until it had stopped. We're about to go inside. I'd invite you in, but I'm not supposed to do that. How about if you stay right where you are until I get to the door, then you can follow, all right?"
"Sure," Flynn said.
Smart kid. Practical, even. He always got thrown by smart kids. He'd be getting ready to talk baby talk and they'd suddenly start speaking like college grads.
More icicles clattered in the trees overhead. Flynn walked back and leaned against the Charger, watching the girl make her way to the house, the small dog fighting his way through the drifts.
There were strict codes on how investigations were supposed to proceed, and he adhered to them pretty well, despite the occasional self-defensive brawls. He'd been with CPS for five years and neither his boss nor the District Attorney's Office ever gave him any static. He was proud to know in his heart he'd saved lives. He'd put child molesters behind bars. He'd gotten good people with anger issues and drug problems the help they needed.
He was the best caseworker CPS had because he didn't have much of a social life to interfere, which sort of put the whole thing into a spartan perspective, if he stopped to think about it. He rarely did.
Flynn slipped twice just stepping up to the front door.
Mrs. Shepard answered before he got a chance to stomp the snow from his shoes. Kelly stood behind her, and the dog sat behind Kelly. Flynn got the feeling he was entering a very orderly household. One of those intensely domestic homes that ran with military precision and generally creeped other people out.
Mrs. Shepard kept a flaccid smile soldered in place. She stared at him through the storm door and said, "Yes? How can I help you? What's this about?"
There were rules. Too many of them, but he did what he could to make them work to his advantage. You had to be up front. You couldn't rope anybody into anything. Couldn't sneak in and snap pictures, no matter what you saw. You had to ask to be allowed to look around the house. They could deny you. They could claim you were an intruder. They could shriek about lawyers. You tried not to shake them up too much for fear they'd take it out on the kid. The child's welfare always came first.
He told Mrs. Shepard his name and showed his identification. He explained he was with CPS and that an anonymous complaint had been registered. She nodded as if she knew all about it and let him inside. He clarified his position and asked that he be allowed to check the house. While he spoke, he casually surveyed Kelly Shepard. No bruises on her face or arms that he could see. She seemed like a regular, happy kid.
Flynn waited to register Mrs. Shepard's response. There wasn't any. The lady just kept smiling and said nothing. The bulldog sat there looking sort of humiliated to still be wearing the booties.
"Mrs. Shepard?" Flynn asked.
Finally the woman said, "Yes? What is it you want? What do you think goes on here?"
"Mrs. Shepard, as I said--"
"Mrs. Shepard, I--"
"I just told you. I'm Christina."
She was all riptide intensity. Flynn could sense the conflicting tensions inside the woman but had no idea what they were or how they would affect him. Her smile looked scraped into her face by a fishing knife. This lady's teeth were drying out, the high gloss fading. The faint aroma of scotch trailed from her. She was maybe thirty, quite attractive, with burnished copper hair that fell in two wide, sweeping currents. The glaze in her eyes kept him from getting any kind of a real bead on her.
Now might come the questions, the defensiveness. She might grab Kelly and hold the kid out in front of her like an offering. Some of them did that. Some parents stripped their children in front of Flynn to prove there were no bruises. Some broke down and dropped to the floor. Some went for a kitchen knife. You never knew what might be coming next.
He'd given the spiel he was supposed to give. He'd amended it a bit to make it sound like he had a little more authority than he actually did. If he snapped the sentences out fast enough, he came off like a cop with a court order. It was good to lay it down on the line as hard as he could. It set the parameters and usually let him know which way things would go. Whether they'd confess or go for the shotgun in the closet.
He waited, feeling the current riding up his back. He knew she'd be different, that she was going to pull something new here.
"Would you like some tea?" she asked.
There it was. That was a first. No one had ever offered him tea before. "No thank you," he said.
"How do we proceed?"
"Do you have any other children?"
"No, Kelly is our only one."
"I'd appreciate a tour of your home."
"And what will that prove? If I'm beating my child to the point that a neighbor--the nearest of whom lives several hundred yards away--can hear her screams, wouldn't she be battered? Are you looking for pools of blood?" The smile had downshifted into an almost amiable grin, except it was way too wide.
"I'm just doing an on-site evaluation. It's very standard."
"Not for me it isn't."
"I realize that. I'm very sorry, Christina, but once a complaint has been lodged we have to follow up."
"This late? It's almost Kelly's bedtime."
"The storm kept me. Again, I apologize for the intrusion."
Christina Shepard was given to dramatic movements. Swinging herself around and gesturing with her hands like she was scrawling signatures in the air. Kelly and the dog intuited her motions and stepped along with her, keeping just behind her. It was a weird kind of ballet he was watching, the three of them so gracefully maneuvering around in the front hallway.
"All right," she said, giving him the thousand-watt leer again. "Let's take a tour of my home."
She walked him through it, all three floors. She offered to open drawers even though he said it wasn't necessary. She opened them anyway. Her hostility came off her in waves, the way he expected. But there was something more there. Flynn couldn't figure out what it might be, and his curiosity was really starting to bang around inside him. He stared at the side of her face as she led him from room to room, propping open armoires and dressers.
She put her hands on him only once, gripping him by the upper arm and steering him toward the master bedroom's private bathroom. This lady had some serious muscle. He felt her coiled strength and the furnace of her agitation. She opened the medicine cabinet, grabbed a handful of pill bottles and started reading off labels. "Zyrtec, this is for allergies. Flexeril is a muscle relaxant for my husband, Mark, who has a bad back. Zoloft is medication for depression. I suffer from it. Surely that's not a crime."
"No, it's not," he said.
"Thank God for that. Would you like to speak to my daughter? Ask her questions?" The mask slipped another notch as she called for Kelly. The girl and the dog paraded into the bedroom like Marines landing on a foreign beach. "Foul questions, no doubt. What kind of a man wheedles his way into working with children every day, Mr. Flynn? What thoughts go through your piggy mind?"
He let it slide. She had a head full of serpents herself, he decided. He'd heard a lot worse on the job and Christina Shepard didn't seem angry with him so much as she appeared flush with clashing forces.
Flynn turned to the girl and said, "Kelly, I work for people who look after children in case someone is hurting them. Maybe even a friend or someone in the family. It happens sometimes. Do you have anything you want to say to me?"
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