Authors: Jana DeLeon
Mathilde had been clear from the start that she hadn’t seen the girls on the island or anywhere else, despite personal items belonging to the girls that were found on her property. She also claimed that this visit to the sheriff’s department was the first time in over a year that she’d been off the island. Based on the question marks drawn in pencil around the typewritten transcript, it was clear that the old sheriff hadn’t believed her, but he didn’t have any good reason to hold her.
So he’d let her go.
According to his mother, the people in Vodoun had made their displeasure more than apparent. She said the anxiety level in the town was unlike anything she’d ever seen. She’d been a teen herself at the time and remembered not being allowed to go outside unless her mother was with her. The shops in town were almost empty, the streets vacant. Some people even kept their kids out of school and church.
As the weeks passed, and no more children went missing, the town slowly returned to its normal routine. And the case went cold.
Had Mathilde Tregre taken those girls? And if she had, why wait thirty-six years before claiming another victim? Everything in him screamed that this was wrong—that they’d missed something then and he was missing something now. But he had no idea what.
He closed the folder and sat back, frustrated with all the information that only created more questions. The facts of the cases were simple: thirty-six years ago, three girls had disappeared from Vodoun, and now Erika. There was no reason, save the doll and the past presumption that Mathilde was somehow involved, to assume the two were related. But if one did assume they were related, then the logical explanation was that the same person had committed both crimes.
If he assumed that the same person had committed both crimes, and that person wasn’t Mathilde Tregre, then that meant the perpetrator had either moved away and just returned or had been in prison and was recently released. If they’d been living somewhere else for thirty-six years, Holt had no doubt that similar cases would crop up in the national database.
He accessed the national database for missing children and put in the case information for Erika and the girls from thirty-six years before. Then he ran a query on all inmates that had been released from prison that year that had been in for crimes involving children. The national database would take a while to process, but his prisoner query was back in minutes, listing two men recently paroled after serving on pedophilia charges. Both were listed at New Orleans addresses. A quick query returned the name of the parole officer that both men shared.
Holt checked his watch. Only seven a.m., but there was still a chance the PO would answer a call. On the fifth ring, he was about to give up, when a sleepy voice answered. Holt explained to the man who he was and why he was calling and the sleepiness left his voice almost immediately.
“Give me a minute to get to my computer,” the man said.
Holt heard the sound of doors opening and an office chair squeaking. A couple of minutes later, the parole officer was back on the line. “Both men clocked into their construction jobs every morning this week at
eight a.m. and didn’t leave until six p.m.”
“How reliable is the foreman tracking their time?”
“Very. The guy was a fourth-generation cop who retired into his uncle’s business. If the cons have any construction skills, he puts them to work for me, hoping they’ll turn around and not go back in when they see they can make a good living with honest work. He’s been pretty successful.”
“Only thirty minutes and they bring food in for the workers. And the job they’re working is on the south side of New Orleans. They couldn’t even make it to Vodoun in thirty minutes, much less back to the site to clock in.”
Holt sighed. “I agree. Thanks for the information.”
“I’ll ask around. If I come up with anything, I’ll let you know. I’m really sorry you caught this. I hate the kid cases.”
“Me, too,” Holt said, and hung up the phone.
He stared out the window and frowned. Just because those two guys were accounted for didn’t mean it wasn’t an ex-con. It could have been one paroled outside of the area. Someone with a friend or relative to visit close by that had run across Erika by chance and took her.
But that didn’t explain where the doll came from.
And that was the big fly in the investigative ointment. That doll implied planning and plotting. That doll meant everything had been premeditated, and
meant someone had been watching for a while, just waiting for the right opportunity.
Which meant someone local.
Holt shoved the chair back and left the office, certain he needed another cup of coffee before he compiled a list of every Vodoun resident and started crossing them off one at a time. He’d barely made it back to his desk before the phone started ringing. One glance at the display told him he wasn’t going to like the call. It was his uncle, and Holt could think of only one reason why he’d be calling the sheriff’s department this early.
“Morning, Jasper,” Holt answered.
“What the hell were you thinking taking the department’s boat and running around the bayou over some nonsense cooked up by a crazy woman? I called the office trying to find you and the dispatcher told me
everything, so don’t even try to deny it.”
“I’m not trying to deny it. Sarah is convinced her daughter was taken by the woman on the island. Either I checked it out or she was going to.”
“Then let her do it. It’s not your job.”
“No, it’s yours. Last time I checked, the department was supposed to investigate the disappearance of children. That’s what I’m doing. I’m assuming you wouldn’t want two missing people in Vodoun, and that’s exactly what we’d have if Sarah went into the swamp alone.”
“That woman is a waste of this town’s time and resources.”
“It wasn’t a waste.”
There was dead silence for a moment, then his uncle responded. “Don’t tell me you found something.”
“We found a barrette. Like the ones Erika was wearing when she disappeared.”
“So what? Dime-store barrettes are hardly evidence that the girl was there. It could have been dropped by anyone.”
“Yeah, but this particular barrette happened to be in a glass jar on a shelf in the old woman’s cabin. That seems awful strange to me.”
His uncle cursed again, and Holt knew he was more than pissed that the whole thing hadn’t been the exercise in futility he’d assumed it was. With this evidence, his uncle had no choice but to authorize a full search of the island. Of course, a full search in Vodoun meant Holt and whoever else he could muster up to help. But there was the not-so-small issue of someone shooting at them to be taken into consideration before he started letting people volunteer.
“There’s more,” Holt said.
Holt told him about the shooter, glossing over just how close their escape had been.
“It must have been the old woman, right?” his uncle asked.
“That’s the logical answer, but what if it wasn’t? We don’t really know all that much about the woman. All these years she’s been out in that swamp, and yet people in Vodoun have only seen her a handful of times and her mother a handful before that. Some have never seen her at all. How do we know she doesn’t have a husband or kids or other family living out there with her?”
“We don’t, which is all the more reason not to run out into the swamp half-cocked and with a civilian. Especially that particular civilian. What were you thinking, bringing Alex with you?”
“It was the only way we could get Sarah to stay put. With her emotions running high, Sarah would have been a big liability. Alex was the better choice if one of them had to go.”
“And what about Bobby? I still think he took the girl. Surely someone’s got a line on him by now.”
“He hasn’t been sighted at the border, and there’s been no activity on his bank account or credit cards.” Holt recounted the story Bobby’s neighbor had told him about the movers. “It doesn’t feel right.”
“Well, if he was going to kidnap his kid and make a run for it, he’d hardly do it in the middle of the day when someone could easily see him and mention the moving truck to Sarah.”
“I guess,” Holt said, still feeling that Bobby was the wrong direction to look. “I’ll follow up. Try to find the moving truck.”
“I don’t suppose I have to tell you not to set foot on that island again without a warrant. And it’s going to take at least a day to get one. I mean it, Holt. Not one foot, or I’ll get out of this bed and toss you in jail myself.”
Holt looked out the window at the blinding sheets of rain blowing across the parking lot. “No problem,” he said, thinking that was likely going to be the easiest thing he agreed to that day.
“I’ll get a warrant, but I want your attention focused on finding Bobby. Is that clear?”
* * *
SCRATCHING NOISE AT THE
window woke up Alex, and she bolted upright in bed. It took her a minute to remember she was in the guest room at Sarah’s house, and once she did, everything that had happened over the past twenty-four hours came flooding back.
No light crept through the bedroom window, so she knew it wasn’t yet dawn. She also knew that Sarah took great care in her landscaping, and that no hedges or trees would be allowed to extend close enough to the house to scrape the sides. There was no plausible explanation for the sound that had wakened her.
She sat stock-still, wondering if perhaps she’d been dreaming. Perhaps her mind had been playing tricks on her, but just as she was about to climb out of bed, she heard it again—a faint scratching sound, like the sound of something sharp and hard rubbing against the window pane.
She slid out of bed, hoping the hardwood floors didn’t creak as she slipped over to the window. Easing the heavy curtain to the side a tiny bit, she peered outside into the darkness. The scratching noise sounded again, this time directly in front of her. She raised her gaze just above eye level and that was when she saw him.
He was sitting on the branch of a tree, about a foot from the house, staring at her with those black eyes. She brought her hand up over her mouth to stifle a cry. Her pulse spiked and she took a step back from the window, dropping the drape back in place.
But she could still feel its eyes on her.
“It’s there, isn’t it?” Sarah’s voice sounded from the doorway, causing her to jump. “The crow. You saw it.”
There was no point in lying. Alex was certain the look on her face had already given everything away.
“On a branch just outside the window.”
“It’s toying with us,” Sarah said, a blush rising up her neck and onto her face. “Bring my baby back!” She strode across the bedroom and yanked the drape completely back.
Alex gasped in horror as Sarah screamed.
The doll Alex had seen on the island sat on the branch where the crow used to be.
Alex grabbed Sarah’s hand and pulled her cousin out of the room. She had no idea what to do, but knew she couldn’t get her head right with the doll staring at her. Before she could change her mind, she grabbed her cell phone from the kitchen counter and pressed in Holt’s number.
“Get to Sarah’s house quick,” she said.
“On my way,” Holt said, and disconnected the call without question.
Sarah stood in the middle of the kitchen, her body taut, her expression full of fear. “What’s happening to my baby?” Sarah wailed, and started to sob.
Alex gathered her cousin in her arms and stood there in the middle of the kitchen, rocking her and trying to soothe her, but having absolutely no idea what to say. The reality was, Alex was scared, more scared than she’d ever been before.
Except for that summer.
Everything seemed to come back around to that summer, no matter how much she tried to push it aside. She’d never faced it before. Had pushed it far down in her memory, pretending it didn’t matter since it was so long ago. Now, it had come back to roost. And at the time that Sarah needed her to keep it together the most, she was lost.
It took Holt less than ten minutes to arrive, which told Alex that he’d already been awake, dressed and somewhere other than his cabin when she called. Apparently, a good night’s sleep wasn’t going any better for Holt than it had for her.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, as soon as she opened the front door.
Alex waved him in and looked over at Sarah, who she’d finally gotten settled at the breakfast table with a cup of tea. Her cousin’s pale skin and sunken eyes worried her. Sarah couldn’t afford to let her health slide, but Alex didn’t know how to alleviate her worry. Especially now that she was as worried as Sarah.
“Follow me,” she said, and headed down the hall toward the bedroom, Holt close on her heels.
As soon as they were out of earshot of the kitchen, she gave Holt a recount of the morning’s events. He looked a bit irritated when she told him about the crow, and Alex knew he thought he’d been summoned here for a bit of overactive imagination, but when she told him about the doll, his jaw set in a hard line and he pushed past her to the window, flinging the drapes back.
The doll, soaked with rain, sat on the branch of the tree, its black eyes staring at them. Holt muttered a low curse and strode down the hall, out of the house and into the storm.
Alex followed him around the house to the window. He stood about ten feet from the tree, studying the ground beneath it.
“No footprints,” he said.
Alex held one hand over her forehead to shield her eyes from the rain. “Could the rain have washed them away that quickly? I know it’s pouring, but—”
“Are you sure the doll wasn’t already in the tree the first time you looked out?”
“I think I know the difference between a crow and a doll,” she said, glaring at him.
“I know. Never mind.” He pulled a digital camera from his jeans pocket and took a couple of photos, then pulled on a pair of gloves and carefully removed the doll from the tree.
“I have evidence bags in my truck,” he said. “Let me get this situated and I’ll be inside.”