Chapter 3: El Diablo
Her parents’ house was a brick rambler that her father, Frank, had built himself. Jason pulled into the driveway, parking next to Frank’s F-150, and in front of the two-car garage. The garage housed Frank’s tools and fishing boat along with Ruth’s Ford Taurus.
Michelle glanced at the clock on the dashboard. “We’re late. My mom’s probably already cooked dinner.”
“It’s barely two O’ clock.”
“Pop the trunk.”
They carried their luggage inside, along with whatever presents they could manage. Michelle led them into the living room without ringing the doorbell. They walked into the kitchen and dining room, the smell of cooking meatballs and sausage in the air.
Frank stood from the dining room table, a cup of coffee, and the local paper nearby. He was a tall, burly man with a full face, short feathered hair, and a brown and white goatee. He grinned at Michelle. “Shelly.”
Ruth aka Ruthie turned from the stovetop, where she tended several simmering pots. Michelle’s mother was tall for a woman with a paunch and fleshy hips. Her hair was still blond, but mixed with white. “Nice of you to join us, honey.”
“Merry Christmas, Mom. Merry Christmas, Dad,” Michelle said.
“Merry Christmas,” Frank said.
“We should put our stuff in my room.”
Frank smirked. “It looks you’re moving in.”
Jason said hello to her parents and they carried their luggage to Michelle’s childhood bedroom. A queen-size bed dominated the small room. Framed photos hung from the walls of Michelle with her family, or with friends from high school and college. There’d been multiple photos of her and Danny the first time Jason had visited, but Michelle had since put them in the closet. Her Penn State diploma hung on the wall as well. Bachelors of Science in Elementary Education.
Jason left the room, headed for the kitchen. At least that’s what she thought. She went to the bathroom, then walked toward the kitchen. She stopped along the way. Jason was in Frank’s office, looking at the team pictures of girls’ basketball teams.
“What are you doing?” Michelle asked.
Jason turned from the photos of the six to eight year-old girls in shorts and basketball jerseys. “Just looking. It’s nice that your dad coaches.”
“He loves it.”
When they returned to the kitchen, Michelle hugged her father, then her mother. Ruth also planted a lipstick laden kiss on her cheek. Jason received a strong-gripped handshake from Frank and the same lipstick kiss from Ruth. Jason discreetly wiped the lipstick.
“What can I do to help?” Michelle asked, her gaze sweeping over the pots on the stovetop and the already set dining room table for eight.
“It’s all done,” Ruth said, wiping her brow.
“I told you I would help.”
Ruth held out her hands. “Well, I wasn’t sure. You were supposed to be here yesterday.”
“Jason had to work.”
“Well, I didn’t know if he had to work today.”
Michelle gave Jason an I-told-you-so-look.
The doorbell chimed.
Ruth said to Michelle. “You can get the door for me.”
Michelle went to the front door as everyone sat at the dining room table to visit. Michelle opened the door to find Officer Danny Gibbs standing in his Loganville Township Police unform holding a plate of cookies. He was tall, like Jason, but more muscular and athletic. He was more rugged too with a strong jawline and a scar under his left eye from a fight with a heroin dealer.
Danny smiled. “Merry Christmas, Shelly.”
She smiled back. “Merry Christmas, Danny.”
“My mom asked me to drop off these cookies for your parents, and I needed to talk to your dad.”
“Of course.” She stepped aside and waved him inside. “They’re in the dining room.”
He stepped inside, shutting the door behind him. He stood perilously close to Michelle and whispered, “You look beautiful.”
She blushed and stood frozen, catching her breath.
Michelle opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out.
“Must be nice.” Danny walked into the dining room. “Merry Christmas, Frank. Ruthie.”
“Merry Christmas, Danny,” her parents replied in unison.
“My mom wanted me to drop off these cookies.”
“Oh, that’s so nice of her. Please thank her for me,” Ruth said.
Michelle walked into the dining room.
Ruth moved her centerpiece to feature the plate of cookies.
“What’s up, sport,” Danny said, lifting his chin to Jason.
“Not much,” Jason replied, barely above a whisper.
Danny turned his attention to Frank. “I wanted to talk to you about the girl who disappeared.”
“Isn’t it awful?” Ruth said, sitting down after displaying the cookies.
Danny nodded to Ruth. “It’s the worst thing I’ve since Heather Sample disappeared.”
“Have a seat,” Frank said, gesturing to the table.
Danny sat across from Frank, removing his hat and setting it on the table. Michelle sat next to Jason.
“How’s it going?” Frank asked.
“Not great. We have nothing.” Danny looked around the table. “I would appreciate it if you would keep this between us. A lot of people know this, but still.”
“Of course,” Ruth said.
“The parents don’t even know if she made it home from school or not,” Danny said. “The parents both work two jobs, so they’re not home when she gets home from school.”
“That’s terrible,” Ruth interjected. “She’s only six.”
Danny acknowledged Ruth, then turned his attention back to Frank. “Nobody saw her enter their apartment and the place was locked. No sign of a struggle. We canvassed the neighbors, but they didn’t see or hear anything.”
“What about her friends?” Frank asked. “The kids that ride the bus with her and walk home from school with her?”
“She doesn’t ride the bus. She’s a walker at Loganville Elementary, but she doesn’t have very many friends. She’s only been at Loganville for a few weeks. Nobody remembered seeing her walk from school to home. She was in school that day.”
Frank leaned back, rubbing his goatee. “Are there any cameras on the route from school?”
“There’s a convenience store, but they record over their tapes every night.” Danny let out a heavy breath. “This girl disappeared without a trace.”
“Did anyone mention a work truck or a van with a ladder rack?”
“When I was working the Heather Sample case, one of the witnesses talked about a suspicious van with a ladder rack.” Frank had retired from the Loganville Township Police two years ago.
Danny drew his eyebrows together. “Why? Was it suspicious?”
“The witness said it was parked on the street for hours, but she never saw any workmen. It was a block from where we thought Heather disappeared.”
“Did you ever find the van?”
“What’s her name?” Michelle asked.
Danny turned to Michelle. “Nina Diaz. I think her parents are illegals. They didn’t report her disappearance for almost three days.”
Frank shook his head. “She might’ve been taken by a coyote. These illegals come here with help from a coyote, then they owe. If they don’t pay, maybe the coyote snatches their kid. It might be worth asking the parents.”
“Good idea. I’ll let Detective Gaines know.”
“Is the FBI involved?”
“Two guys from the regional office. Not much help so far, although one of the agents can speak Spanish.”
Frank grunted. “They were no help with Heather Sample.”
Danny hesitated for a second then said, “There’s another thing that’s strange with this case. The mother. She seems a little off. She’s claiming it was el diablo.”
“The devil,” Jason said.