A runaway teen. A dying wish. A shallow schoolyard grave…
Series: Sydney Brennan PI Mysteries, Book Seven
When PI Sydney Brennan is hired to find a man’s missing niece, memories of her own troubled teenaged years make the hunt a personal priority. But she can’t refuse a man’s deathbed request, either: to uncover a boy’s long-forgotten, final resting place at a shuttered juvenile center.
Once Sydney commits to tackling both high stakes assignments, life gets complicated. Locating the missing teen is only the first hurdle on the runaway front, and someone demonstrates an alarming interest in the cold case. With the young victim decades in the ground, who are they protecting? And why?
Can Sydney expose the shady correctional facility’s grim secrets before more skeletons are buried? Maybe even her own…
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“I didn’t realize you were a woman,” said the man in his late forties sitting on the other side of my heavy, wooden desk.
I knew what he meant—in my occupation and with a name like Sydney, it was a common mistake—but I waited to see if he’d dig himself a deeper hole. He’d come in asking if my boss was around, so it could only get better.
Deaf to his own verbal missteps, he continued, “I don’t think my wife knows you’re a woman, either.”
He abused the hat in his hand, twisting it and tapping it against his leg. (Since when did men start wearing hats again? Men other than hipsters, that is, who aren’t exactly thick on the ground in Tallahassee.) I wondered if there was a pile of gray lint beneath the chair, cast off when his hat struck the leg of his matching pants and gathering like dryer filter fuzz.
I tucked my red curls behind one ear and asked, “Is it a problem? That I’m a woman?”
The man blushed, looked at my face just long enough to confirm that yes, I was watching him blush, then looked back down at his hat. “No, I don’t guess so. I mean… no.”
I considered offering him a drink, but feared it would confuse him even more about my gender and vocational identity. “Why don’t you tell me what brings you here. Mister…?”
He glanced up again, momentarily relieved to have a question he could answer. “Clint. Clint Spencer. I, uh, I actually live over by Ocala, but I had to come to Tallahassee on business. My wife figured while I was here, I might as well drop in…”
His voice trailed off. There’s not much to look at in the front room of my office—some filing cabinets, bankers boxes crammed with additional files tucked under tables, my computer and printer, a couple of framed prints—but he was doing his best to find something.
Here on business, huh? His short, dark hair was simply cut, buzzed up the back and sides in what might be the #3 in a 1950s barbershop poster. The outdated style combined with his graying temples to make him look older; I revised his age down to mid-forties. He didn’t have the confident demeanor or the wardrobe to be a lobbyist (his suit was well cared for, but definitely off the rack). This was personal.
“Mr. Spencer, what do you need from me?” I asked, sharply enough for him to focus on me instead of the cobwebs in my windows. (Note to self: clean the windows.)
“I’m sorry, Mrs.—Miss—Brennan. It’s my niece. We need you to help us find her.”
“How old is she?” I asked.
“Have you contacted the police?” I asked.
“No,” Mr. Spencer said, and his hat fidgeting escalated to mangling. “It’s complicated.”
“We’re not her guardians. And the people who are—the person who is—her foster parent… Well, let’s just say she’s not exactly doing a helluva job.” There was a slight creaking sound as he dealt his hat a twisting, potential death blow, but I don’t think he noticed.
“Mr. Spencer, why don’t you start at the beginning.”
He told me his sister-in-law had long been estranged from her family. “She died several years ago, and by the time Debbie—that’s my wife—found out, our niece had already been taken into foster care. We had our hands full with our own kids, and they’d placed Addy with a real nice older woman, so we figured maybe it was for the best.”
“Addy’s your niece?” I asked.
He nodded. “But we contacted Addy’s foster mother and started visiting. You know, just trying to get to know her because she’d never even met us before. This probably went on for a year, and things were going well. But Debbie has some health issues, and they flared up bad for a while. It took us close to six months to get her straightened out.”
Mr. Spencer sighed, and for a moment I fancied his breath had made the Spanish moss sway in the live oak outside. Instead, a breeze had picked up. Whether it was the last gasp of winter or first of spring, I couldn’t tell.
“Once Debbie got back on her feet, we realized we hadn’t heard from Addy’s foster mother in a long while. She didn’t answer her phone, the house was empty, and there was a different caseworker that wouldn’t talk to us—it was a mess. We finally found out the poor woman had fallen and broken her hip, and Addy had been placed somewhere else, with us none the wiser.”
Mr. Spencer rubbed his nose in that I’m-a-man-with-allergies-not-feelings way. I pretended to make a note on the yellow legal pad next to me to give him a chance to recover himself. He pulled a handkerchief from somewhere and honked into it once, loudly, before continuing.
“It’s all such a bles-sed mess,” he said, pronouncing the word with two syllables like a proper Southerner. “We got a lawyer that didn’t do us any good. Addy’s been through three families and just as many caseworkers in the past two years. The woman who has her now won’t let us see Addy, and she’s got so many kids in her house she must have to do a head count every night. Except she doesn’t, apparently, because Addy’s gone.”
“How do you know she’s gone?” I asked.
He bowed his head, as if he’d done something nefarious. “One of my wife’s friends is a substitute teacher, sometimes at Addy’s school. She lets us know if Addy misses, and she gave me a call last week. I went by the house, and the foster woman told me Addy had chickenpox. But she was lying. I know because we almost didn’t visit Addy when our youngest was spots all over, but Addy said it was okay, that she’d already had them.”
Now it was my turn to sigh. I felt for the man, but… “And she hasn’t been reported missing? What about truant by the school?”
“They’re off this week, so it’s only been whatever days she missed last week.”
There went that potential out. “Mr. Spencer, don’t you think it would be better to hire someone who lives closer to Ocala? I could recommend someone—”
“My wife wanted you,” he said.
I couldn’t imagine why, since I’d never met the woman.
“And we’re pretty sure Addy came to Tallahassee,” he continued. “So far as we know, she’s still here.”
The Spencers had done some legwork on their own. A neighbor of the current foster mother didn’t much care for the woman. Between talking with the neighbor, the substitute teacher, and a couple of Addy’s friends (thanks again to the teacher), Mr. Spencer and his wife pieced together that Addy had been seeing someone. Someone older.
“Addy said she was moving to Tallahassee with this guy. One of her friends took a picture of them together. I don’t know anything about that stuff, but she said she could email it or whatever,” he said.
“Do you have a name?” I asked.
“Troy Cantrell. That’s got everything we know about him,” he said, sliding a few sheets of paper across my desk. The top page looked printed from a home computer. “And I put Addy’s friend’s phone number down at the bottom. The rest is anything else I thought you might need—birth certificate, foster mother’s address…”
I skimmed quickly, trying to find anything that would justify me not taking the case. There was no father listed on the birth certificate. “What about her biological father?”
“He’s dead. I think somehow he caused the split in the family, but I don’t know any of the details. My wife’s family never talks about it.”
So no immaculate conception, which meant I couldn’t object on religious grounds. Were I religious. That still left me one solid area. “Mr. Spencer, since she is a minor, and you aren’t her guardian, and her disappearance hasn’t been reported to the authorities, I’m concerned about some of the legal issues. I’ll need to speak with my attorney before I can agree to look for your niece.”
He nodded. “I understand, Miss Brennan. And I know Addy probably just sounds like one more runaway, one more kid who finally found the trouble she’s been looking for. I’m not going to lie; she can be disrespectful—never to us, but so I’ve been told. I don’t think she’s into drugs, but there’s a good chance that loser she took off with is. But her life doesn’t have to be like that. My wife and I would like to give Addy a home, a real honest-to-God family that’ll stick with her until the day she dies.”
He leaned across my desk with his secret weapon, a four-by-six photo of a lanky girl in denim shorts, squatting in the grass. She looked familiar, the way all kids look familiar until their faces set into adulthood. Long, brown hair hid half her face as she leaned forward, hand hovering over a cat with its paw extended in play. The camera had caught the moment she realized she was being watched, and the transition from an expression of innocence to wariness was unsettling. I tried to hand the photo back to Mr. Spencer, but he backed away.
“That was taken three years ago. We don’t have anything more recent, and I didn’t have time to make a copy. I’m in town for another day, so if you could let me know by tomorrow afternoon, I’d appreciate it. I’d rather not leave her photo behind if you won’t be needing it. Thank you, Miss Brennan,” he said. Then he rose and exited my office with his mangled hat in hand.
I stood to watch him walk down the front steps, then pause and look both ways for his vehicle on the street. He never put his hat back on his head, just threw it on the passenger’s seat when he reached his car, a light-blue sedan. I sighed, fanning the picture back and forth in my hands as if it were just another piece of paper, a flyer from the mailbox.
But those eyes… those haunted brown eyes.
“Well, shit,” I said to no one in particular, picked up the phone, and dialed a familiar cell phone number.
The voice of my attorney and friend Roger Weber greeted me brusquely with, “Sydney, I hope you’re not in jail, because I’m really not in the mood.”
He was in a mood all right, one consonant with the gray skies and the increasing wind outside. “Not this time. Do you have a few minutes to touch base today, say around six or six-thirty?”
He was silent for a moment, presumably consulting his calendar. “I’ll be at the office at six-thirty, but I can’t stay long.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “It won’t take long. I just need a little advice about how to take a case without losing my PI license.”
His sigh resonated over the phone. “Of course you do.”
* * *
“I hope you’re going undercover as a homeless person,” were the first words out of Roger’s mouth that evening.
Head bowed over his desk, scribbling notes in the margins of a thick, binder-clipped document, I’m not sure when he’d glanced up long enough to see what I was wearing. (For the record, a faded navy-blue T-shirt I couldn’t recall buying peeked from beneath my jacket, over gray sweats with no holes.)
“I’m going from here to self-defense class,” I snapped, feeling defensive already. I’d failed to grab a late-day snack, which meant I’d either drop to the floor or kill someone in class. “And I’m dressed fine. It’s not at one of your fancy gyms with key cards and saunas and… juice bars.”
I had no idea whether Roger had a gym membership, but if he did, it would be a fancy one. Of course, I also didn’t know what benefits fancy gyms actually offered, since I avoided gyms in general. And fancy things, come to think of it.
Roger glanced at me sharply. “You mean you have class with the outlaw?”
Outlaw was his way of referring to my friend Glenn. “You know he’s not an outlaw. I mean, he might have been,” —I wasn’t sure what biker gang he’d been in back in the day, and The Outlaws wasn’t out of the question— “but he’s not anymore. He’s a respectable businessman.”
Roger rolled his eyes. Okay, Glenn owned a bar. But as a criminal defense attorney, most people would say Roger had no room to talk.
“What’s on the schedule for tonight, advanced shiv technique?” Roger asked. “Molotov cocktails made out of Schlitz bottles?”
Hands on hips, I bit my lip against my first response, instead saying, “I’m not sure Schlitz ever came in bottles. So what crawled up your butt and died, counselor?”
Roger ran his fingers through his dark hair, worn a little longer than usual, before raising the fat document and waving it like a challenge. “A lying bastard of a witness. And a particularly ambitious and amoral assistant state attorney.”
Flopping into a chair, I said, “I thought all the best ASAs already lived up your butt.”
An almost-smile flickered across his face. “In their dreams.” He tossed the paper back on his desk and added, “Sorry, Sydney.”
I shrugged. “You’re allowed. It’s Monday.”
“I should not be ‘allowed’ to be an asshole to you anytime,” he said, meeting my eyes like a good adult. “And it’s Tuesday.”
“Whatever. You’re forgiven,” I said, sliding lower in my chair as my blood sugar continued to drop. Roger’s loosened tie hung awkwardly, and the circles under his eyes matched his elegant gray suit. I asked, “Anything else have your boxers in a bunch?”
Roger and I have worked together for years, but he is a very private person. I’d only recently gotten a head count on his ex-wives (three). I wasn’t surprised when he shook his head and asked me, “So what’s the case that requires my considerable expertise?”
I told him about the Spencers and their tangled road to establishing a relationship with, and the safety of, their niece. When I finished, he leaned back in his chair, making it rock even though it wasn’t designed to do so.
“The only thing worse than criminal law is family law,” he said. “You have to deal with just as much dysfunction and drama, if not more. There’s still a strong likelihood of somebody’s life becoming irrevocably messed up. And your clients aren’t in jail or prison, so you actually have to see them.”
“Most attorneys have to see their incarcerated clients, too. They haven’t learned that’s what investigators are for,” I observed, earning another almost-smile. Roger’s refusal to see clients was legendary, and anyone who worked as a second chair attorney or investigator quickly learned what it was to become the Voice and Face of the Man.
“I’ll need to talk to someone who specializes in family law,” he said. “My instinct is that you’re right to tread carefully. It’s illegal to aid a runaway without notifying law enforcement.”
“What if the niece were emancipated? How would that change things?” I asked.
Roger’s mouth twisted and he shook his head. “Again, it’s been a while since I was exposed to any of this stuff, but my recollection is that it’s a lot harder to do in Florida than you might think. For a minor to be cut loose prior to the age of majority, generally, both parents have to consent. If the minor is orphaned… I don’t know, I guess there’d have to be a guardian ad litem.”
That meant someone appointed to specifically represent the child’s best interests, and even more time spent in court to make that happen. “I hate to be a pain,” I said, face squinting in anticipatory apology, “but the guy asked me to get back to him tomorrow afternoon.”
“That’s fine. I have to be somewhere,” —he checked his watch and rose— “now, actually. But I’ll make some calls after. Theoretically you should be okay looking for her, but if this girl is a runaway, things will get complicated when you find her.”
“Of course they’ll get complicated,” I said, reluctantly standing from what had become a comfortable chair and following Roger to the door. “She’s a teenager.”
But I’d soon discover her hormones would be the least of my complications.
“You’re not doing it right,” Glenn observed, gruff voice emotionless.
For some reason that annoyed me. Not that Glenn was critiquing my technique, but that he was doing it so calmly.
“It worked, didn’t it?” I demanded, feeling a sudden impulse to grab the large man by the reddish-brown braid hanging down his back and swing him around the dojo like I was some bad-ass ninja superhero. I grinned at the image.
Glenn’s eyes twinkled in response, either because he read my mind, or because he was teasing that he had other athletic pursuits in mind.
“It worked on Doug,” he said, in the same tone of voice one might use to say you beat Charlie Brown. He pushed the cuffs of his long-sleeved T-shirt up to reveal fuzzy, golden arm hair, then reached down and pulled my chunky classmate to his feet. “That doesn’t mean it’ll work when you really need it to. No offense, man.”
Doug had lost a few pounds since we’d started this small special class together last year, but it’s true that he still was not the most physically adept person I’d ever met. He paused on one knee on the mat to catch his breath.
“No offense taken,” he said, standing, face flushed. “I’m here to learn. And after all, she is a PI.”
Doug believed my job was like an 80s television show with a catchy theme song. Bless his heart.
Our sensei Vince approached with another student, Maria, and said, “Glenn’s right. Sometimes poorly executed technique is worse than no technique at all.”
He motioned for the former biker to join him on the mat, and I felt a thrill of anticipation, as I always did watching the two men spar. Glenn had half a foot of height and fifty or sixty pounds on our pale, dark-haired sensei, but Vince always came out on top in the end. Sometimes it took some time, and a fair bit of trash talk, for him to get there, though. I wished I had popcorn.
This time was disappointing, all methodical demonstration of technique. Glenn and Vince faced each other, Vince in his black martial arts uniform and Glenn in dark-gray sweats. Glenn grabbed the smaller man’s arm.
“You’ll want to soften him up first,” Vince said, slowly thrusting the heel of his hand toward Glenn’s nose. “Head butt, kick, strike to the face. Whatever you can do in the situation. Then the wrist lock.”
Vince moved from the strike to grab at Glenn’s hand on his arm. “As you peel his fingers off, you’re moving into the wrist lock. You need to get a feel for this. Your hand’s probably gonna be sweaty, and it’s probably gonna be smaller than your attacker’s.”
Glenn twisted away as Vince wrenched his wrist and used his other hand to push Glenn’s arm, and with it the rest of his body, toward the ground.
“Be careful with the arm bar,” Vince said, pressing his forearm against Glenn’s upper arm while he gripped Glenn’s twisted hand. “You have to control him—”
Vince slid his forearm lower, toward Glenn’s elbow and then past it. Glenn demonstrated that the elbow was now free to move, flexing it first toward Vince’s face, then toward his body. Finally, Glenn dropped the elbow, regaining the upper hand as he pivoted and faced Vince with a scary smile. “Or you’ll regret it,” Glenn said.
They walked through it again from the beginning, slightly faster, but this time Vince maintained control of Glenn’s arm.
“Take him all the way to the ground, onto his belly. Then you can dislocate the shoulder,” Vince said, demonstrating the motion, “or—”
He executed a series of blows to Glenn’s back and head, slowly at first, then faster and faster, alternating flashing forearms, stiff hands and fists.
Glenn blinked hard when Vince offered him a hand up, as though something may have landed. “Show-off,” he said.
I worked with Doug and Maria and a couple of newer students a little longer, but we’d hit our usual finish time and most of our energy was spent. Class drifted apart rather than officially breaking up ten minutes later.
“Remember, Red, this isn’t theoretical for you,” Glenn said, meeting me at the door.
“It’s not theoretical for anybody in here,” I said, avoiding his eyes while waving goodbye to Doug. “That’s why we’re the special class.”
“Yeah, well, you’re extra fucking special,” he muttered.
I didn’t want to risk stinking up my jacket by putting it on over my sweaty shirt, so when I stepped outside, the cool, humid night air slapped my damp skin like a pissed-off prom queen.
Walking next to me, Glenn drawled, “Who gets hijacked in a canoe?”
“On a first date,” I added softly, tracing the dojo’s brick exterior with my fingertips and trying to make out the vague, sweet scent of something blooming.
The once exuberant posters in the window of the Indian travel agent next door had faded to various shades of blue in the streetlights, making every destination look vaguely intergalactic. We’d both parked on the street, and though it was mostly deserted now, my little Cabrio, Cecil, was invisible tucked in front of Glenn’s ginormous dark tank. Glenn reached out as we drew alongside his truck and gently held my arm to stop me. “How are you holding up?”
“Well,” I said, turning to him, “Mike and I have been out a few more times, and we have plans for this weekend, so no real harm done.”
Glenn shook his head. “I’m not talking about your goddamn love life. I’m talking about what’s in here,” he said, tapping a finger to my temple.
I resisted the temptation to lean into his touch, replying, “I’m fine.”
“Uh-huh,” he said, nodding, suddenly finding the pavement beneath us very interesting. “Did you tell him?”
“Tell him what?” It took me a moment to clue in (oh, about our relatively recent absolutely illegal excursion that resulted in a dead bad dude but a still living us). Blood and heat rushed to my face. “Is that what this is all about? You’re afraid I’ll rat you out?”
Glenn pressed his palm against the passenger door, my instinct said to prevent him from punching it. “You’re the most goddamned, hardheaded… do you really think that? After everything we’ve been through, do you really think I’m worried about covering my own ass?”
“No,” I admitted, my facial flush transitioning to one of guilt. Which is just as red as indignation, but not nearly as righteous.
“I’m not even saying you shouldn’t tell him,” Glenn said, leaning against the truck. “But be careful. Always consider the consequences a step past where you think you need to. I’m just trying to watch out for you, Syd. You’re like the kid sister—”
“You had a wild night of passion with?” I asked, forehead wrinkling, voice faux confused.
A soft laugh fought through his mustache. “Yeah. I realized that wasn’t the best metaphor as soon as it left my mouth. But you know what I mean.”
I scooted next to him, resting my backside against the truck. “I do. Back at you, big guy.”
We stood in companionable silence, nodding at Vince and Maria as they left the dojo together. Vince wasn’t much taller than Maria, who was in the neighborhood of my own modest height. Both had dark hair, but Maria’s tended to curl, and a few waves crossed her face as she leaned slightly toward Vince.
“What do you think?” I asked softly. I had the impression Vince and Maria had been spending a lot of time together lately.
“I think I maintain good relationships with my friends by not getting involved in their love lives,” Glenn said.
His voice was even, but I thought I heard a hint of reticence that was not theoretical in nature, something specific to Maria. Maybe because she had a law enforcement background she never talked about. She was just as close-mouthed about her current job, which was probably still as a law enforcement officer. Glenn had a complicated relationship with LEOs, and the law in general.
Come to think of it, that relationship meant he often had good insights—or actual information—about other people who shared complicated relationships with the law.
“So I’m looking for this kid,” I said.
“A teenaged runaway, in Tallahassee with an older boyfriend—”
“How much older?” Glenn interrupted.
My mouth twisted. “I don’t know. I just got the case today, and I haven’t decided whether to take it or not—”
“Ha!” he boomed.
I rolled my head on my shoulders, stretching out my neck, and didn’t bother arguing. “I haven’t had a chance to track down his particulars yet, but my impression is early twenties. He might be using or dealing, but if so, I’d say he’s a bit player. Either way, they’re up from Ocala, so he’ll want to hit the party scene.”
“And you want to know where they’ll go,” Glenn finished.
“The big man isn’t just a pretty face,” I said.
“Indeed,” he replied, and I smiled as he smoothed his mustache ostentatiously, the moisture in his eyes and sweat at his temples reflecting the nearest streetlamp. “I can pretty well guarantee I won’t be seeing your guy at Cooper’s, but beyond that, it depends on whether he has connections. If he doesn’t, he’ll probably be like any other young man with more testosterone than sense and go for the flash.”
That made sense to me.
Bars in Tallahassee occur in clusters, like an infectious disease. Some cater to the wine-and-cheese crowd (adults associated with state government and in denial about living in a college town), but more serve the I-swear-I’m-21 crowd. Although young when I moved to Tallahassee, I’d been past the first flush of legal drinking, so I didn’t know the scene very well. Glenn suggested a couple of clusters, one almost equidistant from the Florida State University and Florida A & M campuses, and another out on Tennessee Street that made me shudder. It was an area of town I avoided.
“Don’t suppose you’d want to go with me?” I asked.
He leaned in and raised his caterpillar brows. “You really think anyone will talk while I’m hanging over your shoulder?”
“Good point,” I admitted reluctantly. More than a decade older than me and much scarier (imagine that, a grizzled biker dude who’s scary), Glenn didn’t exactly fit the club demographics. I pushed off the truck to stand on my own two feet. “All right, I gotta go.”
“I hope you’re headed for your refrigerator,” Glenn said, circling his truck as I fumbled to get in my little hatchback. He continued, “Little as you are, you still scare me when you’re hungry.”
I tossed off a quick one-finger salute and heard his rumbling chuckle as I closed the door behind me.