The Safest Place on Earth
by Mark Best


.....Chastity Reiling's picture stared down at me as I sat on the sofa. She looked to be about ten in the picture, four years younger than she was now. I had seen more recent pictures of her, and she was fast becoming a beautiful young woman. But when I thought of her, I thought of that gap-toothed kid, playing here, in what was to her the safest place on earth. I saw her opening presents on Christmas morning, playing with her puppy, watching cartoons. And I thought of everything that was supposed to come, studying for finals, introducing her nervous prom date to mom and dad, bringing her own kids by to see the grandparents. I didn't want to think about Chastity not coming home.

..... Agent Penny Moore handed me a cup of coffee and sat down next to me. It was warm, but it could have been heated sewer sludge for as much as my taste buds were working. Moore took a deep drink of hers.

..... “Did you work many kidnappings when you were with the Bureau, Dan?”

..... “One,” I answered. My silence told her how it turned out. “This is my third since going private. We got the victim back both times.”

..... “Let's hope your streak holds up.” A Beaver County cop whose name I never got came into the living room. “Agent Moore, Mr. Brogan, they want you in the study.” We followed him out of the room.

..... Cameron Reiling's study was a mosaic of tasteful success, with an emphasis on appearance over function. Two opposing walls were lined with matching wall to wall, floor to ceiling bookshelves. The hardback volumes were arranged by size, with the shortest books on the outside building in pyramid fashion towards the middle. The books were pristine, with no cracks in the leather bindings. On the center of each shelf was a bronze bust, 16 in all, of figures from history, literature, and music. I wondered if they came as a set with the bookshelves.

..... There were four other people in the study. Moore's partner, Henry Kazmerski, was about my age. We had been at Quantico at the same time but only knew each other by face until yesterday. Captain Maury Daniels of the Beaver County Police was seated next to Kaz on a taupe sofa by a picture window. Reiling's attorney, Tom Vandermaleen, was seated behind the desk. I hadn't met the fourth man, but I knew who he was. He didn't know me though...

..... “Who are you?” the fourth man said. “Agent Moore, who is this civilian and what...”

..... Vandermaleen interrupted him. “Mr. Brogan is an investigator in the employ of my office and is involved at the direction of the Reiling family. Dan Brogan, meet Harold Stultz, head of the Pittsburgh office of the FBI.”

..... Stultz looked up at me. “Brogan? I've heard of you. Last thing I need is an outsider who couldn't cut it at the bureau messing up my case.”

..... I smiled at Stultz. “Long way from San Diego, isn't it, Harold?”

..... Stultz's ears turned red. Two years earlier, the San Diego field office had blown a major racketeering case they had been working on for five years. Stultz took the fall, and instead of the deputy directorship he was expecting, he was transferred to Pittsburgh which, while a great place to live, is not exactly prestigious career enhancement within the Bureau. The word was that nobody missed him much in California.

..... “Mr. Brogan was investigating Chastity's disappearance as a missing person case before the first note arrived,” Tom said, trying to defuse Stultz's anger. It didn't work. He seemed to like lawyers almost as much as he did smart mouthed former agents turned PIs.

..... “Okay, hotshot,” Stultz said. “I've read the reports, but suppose you tell me everything that happened from the beginning.”

..... I sat down and, for the third time that day, told it from the top.

****

..... It surprised me to hear a strange voice on my private number. “Mr. Brogan, my name is Cameron Reiling. Tom Vandermaleen recommended you. I hope you don't mind me using this line.”

.....Reiling was well known in Pittsburgh's business community The Post-Gazette once referred to him as the Sultan of Suburban Sprawl. His company, Reiling Associates,  may not have built every subdivision, industrial park and shopping mall in the greater Pittsburgh area, but it seemed that way.

.....“No, Mr. Reiling. It's no imposition at all. What can I do for you?”

..... “Well, it's a delicate matter. Can you come out here? To my home.”

..... I don't usually accept such invitations. I have office hours and usually have enough business come to me on my terms. But I had no other appointments that day -- and Reiling could definitely afford my rates. “I'll be there in an hour, Mr. Reiling.”

..... Reiling's home was in an upper class subdivision in Beaver County, just a few miles from Pittsburgh International Airport. When the new airport was built a few years ago, it put the neighborhood under a major flight path. Residents had complained of rattling windows and fears of plane crashes, not to mention a major dip in property values. The landing routes were changed, allegedly in no small part to Reiling's influence, so that some less well off citizen's a few miles away got the worst of it, but the area was still subject to a cacophony of jet engines just a few hundred yards from the ground.

..... The Reiling home was three stories high, built at the end of a cul-de-sac, with a bigger yard than any of its neighbors. The exterior was faux brick, with rust and eggshell trimming. There were flower boxes on all the first floor windows with foliage color coordinated with the house. The lawn was freshly mowed and the hedges neatly sculpted. The only things that kept the house from looking like a model home were a soccer ball and a pink bike in the driveway.

..... I parked and made my way to the door. Someone I assumed the owner of the bike answered. She was about seven. Her hair was wet and she was wearing a red swimsuit with dolphins on it. “Who are you?” she asked.

..... “Dan Brogan. I'm here to see your father. He's expecting me.”

..... “That's what they all say. Then they try to get him to give money for the whales or something.”

..... “There are no whales in Pittsburgh,” I told her. That earned me a giggle and an invitation into the house.

..... The entry hall was as elegant as the exterior. The hardwood floor shined from its twice weekly waxing. A curved stairway, with an ornate banister the same shade as the floor, rose to an upper level that overlooking the foyer. Above that was nothing but ceiling. Cathedral ceilings. I had been in many houses in many planned communities and always marveled that people chose to have 30 foot high ceilings instead of two or more rooms. But I'm a pack rat and need all the storage space I can find. During a blackout a few months back, I went looking for a flashlight and found two spelling tests from eighth grade.

..... “Mr. Brogan?”

..... I turned around. Cameron Reiling had dark coarse hair flecked with gray streaks, cut as if he'd copied The Beatles in 1964 and never changed. His face was imperfect but handsome, given character by the few pockmarks and a shaving nick on his chin. He was wearing charcoal trousers, a pale blue polo shirt and a navy blazer with gold buttons. Maybe he had a yacht docked out back.

..... Reiling ushered me into his study. Instead of sitting behind his desk, he sat next to me in one of the matching red leather chairs. He eased into the chair like a man much older than forty. Looking over his shoulder out the back window, I could see the corner of an in-ground swimming pool. No boat, though. Once we were seated, he got down to business.

..... “My daughter Chastity is missing,” he said.

..... “For how long?”

..... He continued as if he hadn't heard me. “Actually, maybe missing is too strong a word. It has only been a few days, and she has been getting more headstrong lately. I guess she gets it from her old man.”

..... “When did you last see her?” I asked again.

..... “It was Friday, five days ago. I had a doctor's appointment that morning, so I didn't go into the office. I offered to drive her to school, but she said one of her friends was picking her up. She also told me she would be staying over at her friend's Ashley's house that night. I came home around noon, and stayed in bed the rest of the day. I heard he come in, but I was half asleep and didn't get up. I don't know when she left.

..... “Late Saturday, we just figured she was staying one more night. It wasn't unusual. We saw very little of her on the weekends. My wife called the girl's house Sunday morning before church. Chastity had never been there. She was never supposed to stay over.”

..... “Have you notified the police?”

..... “No, I don't think that is a necessary step. I wouldn't have called you if my wife hadn't insisted. A few weeks ago, Chastity disappeared for three days. My wife called them that time, but it turned out she hadn't run away. She had been staying with Ashley. It was quite a spectacle, having a police car in front of our house and our 'missing' daughter come waltzing in like nothing happened. We were, I assure you, not amused.

..... His cavalier attitude didn't surprise me. I deal with many runaway kids, and most suffer from parental disinterest. I still look for them, though, and bring them back. Home with their families, dysfunctional though they may be, is almost always safer than on the streets. I took out my notebook. “What's Ashley's last name?”

..... “Long, I believe. My wife knows more about my daughter's friends than I do -- she can give you all that information.”

..... “I'll want to talk to her, too. Do you have any idea where else your daughter might go?”

..... “Mr. Brogan, we both know what teenagers are like, particularly the girls. My daughter, well, I suspect a boy may be involved. And you know how the press can be. I don't want her name slandered in the community. I just want her back and the boy . . . dealt with.

..... “And by dealt with, I assume you mean formal charges? If that is the case, a police report is . . .”

..... “I do not mean formal charges,” he interrupted. “And before you speak your thoughts, I am not referring to anything as crude as violence. But I happen to be a man not without, shall we say, some influence in certain circles, and trust me, if a boy is involved, I will deal with him. You just tell me who. The how will be my business. Do you understand?”

..... Oh, I understood alright. Reiling's reputation for dealing with those who crossed him were legendary. He once bought a magazine that had run a negative piece about him and fired everyone from the managing editor down to the janitor. I could picture the boy's father finding his promotion denied at work, or the kid receiving a series of rejections when he began to apply to college. And as for financial aid, I had no doubt Reiling had plenty of contacts in banking --and he wouldn't be shy about using them. He wouldn't use me, though.

..... “Mr. Brogan, where are you going?” he asked, as I stood and walked toward the door.

..... “I don't want to work for you.”

..... “I beg your pardon?”

..... “I don't like you. Now if you try to use your “influence in certain circles” to punish me for this, well, so be it. I'll bill you for my mileage to and from downtown.”

..... I left the study and headed towards the front door. As I passed the staircase, a voice said “Are you the detective Cam hired?”

..... She looked to be about 30, but a hard thirty. Her hair was blonde, pulled back in a severe bun that stretched the wrinkles of her forehead taut. This made the crow's feet around her eyes more pronounced. They were sad eyes, bloodshot from crying and so puffy that any guess at a color would be just that. She was wearing a yellow summer dress with floral print and tan sandals. She didn't paint her toenails.

..... “I'm the detective he tried to hire, Mrs. Reiling.”

..... “Are you Mr. Brogan? The one Tom recommended?”

..... I nodded.

..... “Then I don't understand. Why didn't Cam hire you?”

..... “As I said, he tried. I declined.”

..... A knowing smile broke through her mask of despair, very slight. She probably didn't even realize she was doing it.

..... “Before you go, could we talk for a moment? Please? I just made iced tea. We can have some while we talk.”

..... I followed her. I had seen the kitchen when I left Reiling's office, but I noticed his wife took me around the other side of the house, through a sitting room and dining area, instead of past her husband's den.

..... The kitchen was very large and very modern, with an island in the middle and lots of shiny black counter space. A pot was on the stove, piping steam upward into a vent that hung over the island area like a canopy. A young woman in a domestic uniform was chopping celery while watching a soap opera. She quickly switched off the television when the mistress entered the room.

..... Mrs. Reiling told her we were going to sit on the patio. She took a pitcher of tea off the window sill and asked me to grab glasses. I picked up two tall plastic glasses that matched the floral design of the tea pitcher and followed her out the sliding door.

..... The patio was enclosed by transparent mesh and overlooked the swimming pool I had seen through the window. The little girl who answered the door was now playing in the pool, doing cannonballs, then climbing out and checking the deck to see how far her 66-pound body made the water splash. A black Labrador bounded around her while she was out of the water, and then tried to skirt the tidal wave that came from her next jump. The maid brought us a tray with sugar cubes and lemon wedges. I added both to mine while Mrs. Reiling took a very small slice of lemon and squeezed a few drops into her drink.

..... “I have a confession to make. I was listening. From the steps, I can hear everything said in the study.” She took a sip of her tea and gave me that smile again. “You didn't like my husband.”

..... “I still don't.”

..... Another smile. “I didn't like him much at first either. I was only fifteen when we met. Cam was doing a project for graduate school, something about target audiences and advertising. I never did have much of a mind for business. Anyway, Cam came to our high school and asked all the girls in my home economics class to complete this survey.

..... “Each week he came back and interviewed us in small groups, and then as individuals. All my friends thought he was something. I was bored. But he seemed to take to me, even though I was the youngest girl there. After about two months I agreed to date him. We married the day I graduated high school. Six months later, Chastity was born.”

..... “Your husband mentioned something that happened a few weeks ago, when Chastity went to a friend's house for a few days and didn't let you know. Have you checked with her friend?”

..... “Yes, that was the first thing we did. She had told Cam she was going to Ashley's house. That's the girl she was with last time. I was up in Butler with Faith,” she said, looking out at the pool. By now, the Lab had joined her in the pool and seemed to be trying to dance with the little girl. “Faith is involved in competitive gymnastics. She has meets almost every weekend, and practice most afternoons. With Cam working, Chastity has been left on her own. We used to be so close. She would tell me everything. But lately, she seems so sad. When I ask, she always says it's nothing. I guess I thought it was silly teenage stuff. Or maybe she feels like I don't have time for her.

..... “Mr. Brogan, all I've ever wanted to be is a wife and a mother. I realize that sounds simplistic in this day and age, but I feel completely fulfilled in my role. It's all I've ever wanted, but it is all I have. We will have no more children, There are no more children in my future, Mr. Brogan, just Chastity and Faith.. I cannot lose one of my babies.” Mrs. Reiling spoke directly. There was no quaver in her voice or reservoir of tears waiting to break. There was an honesty and desperation in her eyes.

..... “Do you have money of your own, a checking account or credit card without your husband's name on it?”

..... “Yes, I have a Visa in my name.” She went into the house and emerged with her charge card. I asked if I could use her phone, called my office, and charged a standard retainer and three day's rate on her account. I wrote her a receipt and told her she'd just hired me.

..... Mr. Reiling was still in his den when I returned, but was now sitting behind his desk. “Have a change of heart, Brogan?”

..... I put my copy of his wife's receipt in front of him. “I am employed by your wife to find Chastity. I report to her. You will give me any help I require, answer any questions I ask. And, just for your information, I used to work for the government. If you choose to exercise your power in certain circles against me or anyone connected with this case, I will call an old friend at the Internal Revenue Service. Rich people are her favorite targets.”

..... This last part was a bluff. The only person I knew with the IRS was a woman who mailed out forms to people who requested them. But it worked. As I left his office, Reiling looked like a whipped dog.

****

..... After that, I continued to the group. I interviewed Chastity's teacher, Ms. Binnato; her best friend, Ashley Long; and Matt O'Conner, the young man Chastity has been seeing.. The interviews were tape recorded, transcripts of which I provided to Agent Kazmerski this morning. The day she disappeared, several people report that Chastity was not herself. She spent a hour at the school nurse's office complaining of nausea, skipped her last class, unusual for her.

..... “Mrs. Reiling was with Chastity's sister Faith at her gymnastics class, and did not notice anything odd when she last saw her that morning. Mr. Reiling said Chastity was quiet when she told him she was staying at Ms. Long's that evening, but figured it was just a teenage girl thing. No one saw her after that.”

..... “Why didn't you call the authorities before yesterday?” Stultz asked.

..... “Before yesterday it was still a missing persons case. The letter telling the Reilings that Chastity had been kidnapped was only delivered last night. As soon as it arrived, I advised my clients to call you, and they did. I had informed Captain Daniels of what I was doing, as well as the Beaver County BOE security people before I interviewed anyone at the school.” I didn't mention that, unofficially, I had cop friends showing her picture around. There are a few places teenage runaways invariable show up, and the cops know them all.

.....Stultz sat back in his chair. Short people who are self-conscious of their height always sit the same way, with their butts resting on the base of the seat back instead of on the seat, their shoulders thrown back like a stripper on a bad tip night. It had to be uncomfortable, which could account for Stultz's personality.

.....“Okay, you can go, Brogan.”

..... “I can stay,” I said.

..... “No, this is a federal case now. You're out.”

..... Vandermaleen cleared his throat. “Mrs. Reiling has asked that Mr. Brogan be kept on. For this reason, my office has retained him. I am the Reilings' attorney and Mr. Brogan is my representative. He stays.”

..... Stultz's ears turned red.

..... “I'm here strictly as an observer, Harold. Just think of me as a fly on the wall.”

..... “Flies have a way of getting squashed,” he said.

..... Tom threw me a look and I let it go. Getting Stultz mad at me wasn't going to help get Chastity back.

..... In the living room, Vandermaleen took me aside. “Tread lightly, friend. Stultz is an angry little man. He's not exactly in his superiors' good graces, but he can keep you away from this, working for me or not. I have to be in court in an hour. Page me if anything breaks.”

..... I walked Tom to the door and took the long way around to the kitchen, where I found the two field agents. Stultz had commandeered the den as his situation room, probably because the bronze icons were the only people in the house he could look in the eye. But I knew people like Stultz when I was in government service. He was smart enough to know his own limitations, and would quietly let Moore and Kazmerski run the investigation, stepping in at the end when credit and glory were all that was left. But at least he wouldn't screw anything up.

..... Kaz was talking on a cellular phone and Penny was reading something. She looked up when I came in and went right back to her reading. I saw that it was my report on the missing persons case. “What were your thoughts on the boyfriend,” she asked.

..... “I thought O'Conner was telling the truth about not knowing where she was, but I felt he was holding something back. I was planning to talk to him again last night before we got the ransom note.”

..... “Correction. There was no ransom mentioned in the note.”

..... “Right.” That had been nagging at me. It was an odd note. There were no threats, and no mention of any ransom. Just a message saying that Chastity had been kidnapped and that further instruction would follow. Usually, a ballpark sum is mentioned to give the mark a chance to get the money together. It was very amateurish. “Sloppy and unprofessional. How do the parents' alibis check out?”

..... “The mother has a dozen witnesses, including little Faith. Three even volunteered videotape of the meet. The father's secretary confirms he had scheduled a doctor's appointment for that morning and told her he wouldn't be in. The doctor, "he consulted his notes and continued, "a Doctor Argus, he confirms he did have a minor procedure scheduled that morning and that Reiling did show up. I'm wondering about our alleged victim. You think Chastity might be trying to get a little attention?”

..... I shrugged. “She hasn't been either parent's top priority lately. A father who is always at work, mother devoted to little sister's extracurricular activities. That might be enough to make her crave attention, but it seems a little drastic. My money is still on the boyfriend being involved.”

..... “I know. He gave Chastity a ride to school that morning and has no convincing alibi for after school. At least nothing he wanted to mention in front of his parents.”

I nodded. My own interview with him was unproductive. An overbearing father who has watched too many episodes of “Law & Order” tended to negate whatever interrogation techniques I used. Besides, without a badge or evidence of a crime, I didn't scare him. But now it was an official investigation.

..... Reading my mind, Moore said “Well, Kaz is running errands for Stultz. Wanna come with me and talk to Romeo again? Strictly as an observer, of course.” She smiled.

****

..... Matt O'Conner lived about two miles away, in a subdivision that mirrored the Reilings'. The O'Conner home, however, was one of the smaller houses on the block. When I was here last, it was early evening and Matt's parents had been present. Now school had just let out and we were hoping to catch the boy alone.

..... It took several bangs on the screen door to penetrate the throbbing bass of the rock music from inside, but finally Matt appeared from around the corner. He didn't recognize me until he opened the door, and then didn't seem happy to see me. I caught a brief whiff of marijuana on him.

..... “Mr. Brogan, hi. Did you find Chastity yet?”

.....“No. Matt, this is Special Agent Moore of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. You don't mind if we come in, do you? There are a few questions we need to ask you.”

..... “Well, actually,” he stuttered, but we were already past him. I led Moore to the living room where I had conducted my first interview with the O'Conners. As soon as we walked in, someone yelled from the basement, asking Matt to bring a Diet Coke down with him. I recognized the voice. I looked at Moore moved my head slightly towards the open cellar door.

..... “Let's talk downstairs,” she said, walking down the stairs. Matt started to protest, but stopped when he felt my breath on the back of his neck.

..... “You should always let a lady go first, Matt,” I said.

..... The basement was semi-finished. An eight by eight rug covered a section of the cement floor. A once classic living room ensemble of sofa and matching recliner was arranged on the carpet, and a girl was arranged on the sofa. When she saw us, Chastity's friend Ashley Long quickly dropped her joint into the ashtray, then, realizing that it was still lit, grabbed at it to try and snuff in out. Instead, she knocked the ashtray off the coffee table and onto the floor.

..... I walked over to a metal utility shelf and shut off the stereo while Moore reached down and picked up the lit joint. Holding it under her nose, she smelled it as if to verify what it was, then fixed her cop look on Ashley. The girl was already self-conscious, although whether it was from the drugs or her state of undress I wasn't sure. Her white blouse was closed with only one button, and her barely needed bra was pushed aside, partially exposing one of her breasts.

..... Matt started to mutter some excuse, but I interrupted him. “When the boyfriend and the best friend of a missing person are involved with each other, it tends to complicate things.” Ashley, suddenly aware of her exposure, pulled her shirt closed.

.....“Why didn't you either of you mention this to me last week? How long have you two been...” I tried to think of a polite way to describe what they where doing, but every polite word I thought of made me sound like my grandmother. I settled on “together?”

..... “Please don't tell Chas, okay?” Ashley finished buttoning her blouse. “Matt and I just started messing around after she broke up with him.”

..... Penny shot me a look. It was the first we had heard of it. “When did you two break up, Matt?”

..... “We didn't,” he said. “I mean, we did, about a month ago, but then I told her I was sorry and we started going out again.”

..... “You apologized to her?” Ashley interrupted. “I thought she apologized to you.”

..... Penny put a hand on the girl's shoulder. “Maybe we should talk out here,” she said, sounding more like a guidance counselor than a government agent as she led Ashley away. She was playing good cop. That meant I had to be the bully bad cop.

..... I waited until the ladies were out of earshot. “You didn't mention breaking up when we talked the other day.”

..... “You didn't ask. I mean, it wasn't important. Sure, we broke up, but we were back together a week later. It was nothing. We went to the freshman dance the next weekend.”

..... I rubbed my chin. “I don't know. She breaks up with you, disappears a few weeks later. It's a little lame, Matt.”

.....He looked scared. “No way. I don't know anything about why she disappeared. And I was the one that broke up with her.”

..... “Why did you break up with her?”

..... The teen looked at his hands instead of answering.

..... “You're right,” I said.” Don't tell me. We really should be talking to the police.”

..... “No, wait.” O'Conner reached under the couch cushion and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He lit one and looked at his hands. ”What she'll probably say is that I broke up with her because she wouldn't, you know, go all the way. But that's not it. She just wasn't ready for anything serious. I'm getting my learners' permit in three months, and I'll be driving by Christmas. Chastity still acts like a kid. She has ten o'clock curfew. How can you have a relationship with someone like that?”

..... “But Ashley is more grown up?”

..... “Yes, she is. I mean, I tried making it work with Chas, but she just wouldn't let go of the little girl.”

..... I nodded, sagely. Just two guys talking chicks. “So, you're sleeping with Ashley?”

..... Matt grinned and started to reply, then stopped. “What does that have to do with all this?”

..... “Well, since you and Ashley seem to be in a relationship, it could have something to do with Chastity's disappearance.”

..... “Hey, what do you mean?" His show of bravado was fading fast. "I, uh, I don't want to talk about this anymore.”

..... “What's going on here?” Matt's father had come in while we were talking. I had met him when I first came to speak with his son. He was loud, and tended to verbally bully his wife and son. That interview was fairly unproductive. I had a feeling this one was heading that direction.

..... “Someone answer me,” he said to Matt. He then looked at me. “You're the detective that's looking for that Reiling girl. I thought we made it clear last week. Matt hasn't seen or heard from her.”

..... “I just had a few more questions for your son.”

..... “You should have called me. My son already told you everything he knows about the girl.”

..... O'Conner's loud voice brought Penny and Ashley back into the room. “Things have changed, Mr. O'Conner. It's not a missing persons case anymore.” I watched the kids' faces for reaction. “It's a kidnapping.”

..... Matt and Ashley both appeared shocked. It was genuine. Matt's father just stared at me. “You dare question Matt about a criminal matter without me present? The police have no right to question a child without a parent or a lawyer. Your superiors will-”

..... “I have no superiors, Mr. O'Conner, and I am not with the police.” I didn't mention the woman with me was a federal agent. Moore was in a gray area here. “However, you should be expecting a visit from the FBI any time now. Word of advice. They don't like being yelled at any more than I do.”

..... O'Conner squared off as if to hit me, but I had seventy pounds on him and I knew what I was doing.He might be arrogant and angry, but he knew his limitations. “Get out,” he seethed.

..... I smiled. “I got what I came for. See you around, Matt.” Penny and I left.

****

..... “I don't care who's paying you, and I don't care what kind of a goddamn hotshot agent you were. This is my investigation, and from now on you have no part in it. None!”

..... Stultz threw his shoulders back when he was done screaming, trying to add a few inches of intimidation to his 5' 7” frame. It didn't work, but I couldn't blame him for trying. Cops hate kidnappings -- they seldom turn out well. At the first sign of trouble, the kidnapper might kill the victim to keep themselves from being identified; and even if you get the victim back, you still have to deal with the emotional upheaval, and the aftermath of possible physical or sexual abuse.

..... Everyone was in a bad mood anyway, but the call from O'Conner's attorney just pushed Stultz's thermostat to boil. I couldn't blame him. If Matt and Ashley were in any way suspect, my interference could have tainted things. But I was fairly sure they were innocent, at least of this.

..... I went back in the living room and sat with Moore. She had been in the office with Stultz first, and from the decibel level had gotten a good dressing down, too. But Harold could affect her career, unlike mine. “Everything okay?”

..... She shrugged. “Stultz likes to blow off steam, but he's more interested in looking good. I clear cases, and I'm a woman. That makes the office, and by extension, Stultz, look good. But I guess I'll be the one getting coffee for the next few days.”

..... “Mr. Brogan?” It was the young patrolman. “There's a call for you. Lieutenant Cates of the Pittsburgh Police. Mr. Stultz suggests you take it in the kitchen.”

..... The maid was again watching a soap opera, but she turned it down when I picked up the phone. “Hi, Maddy.”

..... “Dan, I think I might have something on your missing girl.”

..... I grabbed the phone tight. “You found her?”

..... Cates paused. “Moon Township Police found a body that matched your description, in a ditch near Robinson Town Center. I'd been asking around about runaways, and the chief remembered. County Police should have the info in a few minutes, but I wanted to give you the heads up. I'm sorry.”

..... “Thanks, Maddy. With any luck it won't be our girl,” I said, the hollowness of my words echoing in the silence.

..... “Yeah,” she said. “Maybe not.”

..... I went back in the living room and told Moore what I had learned, and together we went in to tell Stultz. “How sure are we it's Chastity?” he asked.

..... “Pretty sure,” said Captain Daniels as he entered the room. “I guess someone else got the news before I did.” He looked at each of us before settling on me. “My compliments.”

..... “What do you mean pretty sure?” Stultz demanded.

..... “Age and size are right. No one there had a picture of her, but she was wearing a Moon High band jacket with her name on it, and an engraved Movado watch.” We heard an agonized scream from outside the room. Mrs. Reiling, on the landing, had heard the news of her daughter's death. Penny went up the steps and held her while she cried. Stultz went to inform Mr. Reiling, and the rest of us made the gruesome journey to the county morgue.

****

..... The coroner's office allowed Tom Vandermaleen to make the identification. Even though he had known her since birth, it took him a minute to be sure, but once he was certain, his face told us before the verbal identification made the sad fact final. The coroner pulled the sheet back up. I didn't want to look. I knew I'd have to, but I had only seen pictures of Chastity and I would have preferred it to stay that way. I put a hand on Tom's shoulder as Kaz pulled out his cell phone and stepped away from us.

..... “Oh, God, Dan. Why did they kill her? The Reilings would have paid anything to get her back. Why even send a note if they were going to kill her?”

..... “I don't know, Tom. Maybe she tried to escape.” Or maybe, I thought, she was already dead when the note was sent. Banishing the smiling picture of Chastity from my mind, I asked to see the body. The morgue clerk looked at Tom and he nodded. He then pulled the sheet off and stepped back.

.....I have seen many of corpses in my day, both the newly dead and ones that had been gone awhile. Chastity definitely fell into the later category. Someone dead a day or two, even in a warm Pittsburgh early fall, would still be easily identifiable. Chastity had been missing for two weeks, and nature seemed to have taken advantage of the time. It was obvious that the teen had died before the note was sent.

..... I took my cell phone out and called Maddy.

..... “Was it your missing person?” she asked.

..... “Yeah, it was. Do you think you could get me a copy of the ME's report?”

..... “I thought you were hand and hand with the Fibbees on this one.”

..... I looked across the morgue floor at Kaz, who had finished his call and was now coming towards me. “Somehow I don't think the relationship is going to work out,” I said before hanging up.

..... Kaz came up to me and shrugged. “I guess you know what's coming.”

..... “Yeah, but you better tell me, anyway. Harold is a stickler for detail.”

..... “Okay. As of now, you are no longer a part of the investigation. This is now a federal homicide case, and no civilians can be involved. We will provide Attorney Vandermaleen with progress reports, but we will accept no interference from his office or anyone affiliated with it.” He shrugged again. “You know how the game is played.”

..... I looked over towards the coroner's aide, who was putting Chastity back into a metal drawer. “Funny, I didn't know we were playing a game.”

****

..... The next morning, Maddy faxed me a copy of the M.E.'s report. I didn't need it. My part of the case was over. But Chastity had been a big part of me for a week, and I needed some sort of closure.

..... There is a blunt prose to autopsy reports. The medical examiner is coldly professional, and describes his patient as another man of science might describe a fungus. This was no different. Chastity's name was never mentioned. She was just “The deceased, a thirteen year old female, 5 feet, four inches tall.” I read that the deceased had been dead from the day she went missing, the approximate number of days arrived at by the insect larvae removed from her body. I read that the cause of death was a broken neck, and that she had suffered a severe trauma to the head prior to the fatal blow. I read that the concussion caused by this trauma would have likely caused her to lapse into a coma if she hadn't been killed, and that the two month old fetus had already begun to spontaneously abort prior to its mother dying.

..... I had to read the last part three times before it sank in. Chastity had been two months pregnant. But it had only been two weeks ago that she broke up with Matt, after he pressured her to have sex. Matt was not a reliable witness, but I knew from other reports that they had attended the dance at school the weekend before, while she was pregnant. Assuming he forced himself on her, why was she still with the boy over a month later?

.....I mused over that for a while, then reached for the phone book and turned to the section that listed local doctors. I found what I was looking for almost right away. Satisfied, I folded Chastity's autopsy report and slipped it into my pocket as I left the office.

****

..... Reiling was in his study. When I walked in, he was holding his youngest, now only, daughter, in his lap. Although she looked like she had been crying, she was laughing now, bouncing about and giggling as her father tickled her. I felt the bile rising.

..... Faith saw me first and got very quiet, her eyes lowered in guilt. I felt for her. She was devastated by her sister's murder, but happy that she had all of her daddy's attention. Despite what happened to Chastity, life still seemed like a safe place for Faith.

..... “Sweetheart, would you go play outside? Mr. Brogan needs to talk to me, I assume.”

..... “Can I go over to Missy's house? Her mom is cooking hot dogs on the grill.”

..... “Sure,” Reiling said. “Give daddy a kiss.” The little girl through her arms around her father and made a loud smooching sound before scampering off. I was glad she left. This wasn't for young ears.

..... “My family is in mourning, Brogan. The police tell me my daughter was dead before we ever hired you, so I guess that leaves you off the hook. You have been well compensated. We have no further business.”

..... “I just had one quick question. The last morning you saw your daughter, why did you see a doctor?

..... “I don't see how that is any of your damn business,” he said indignantly, but there was fear behind his bravado. I felt sick. This was one time I didn't want to be right. But I knew I was.

..... “It will come out, Reilling. Argus is a urologist -- I checked. As soon as they question him and discover you had a vasectomy, they will put it together. How old was your daughter when you started molesting her?”

..... Reiling didn't blink. He sat down and took a sip of his scotch. “You bastard. If you are going to make such, such slanderous accusations, perhaps we should have Vandermaleen present.”

..... “Bring anyone you want. Everyone will know pretty soon. I'm talking to Kazmerski and Moore as soon as I leave here. It will only be a day or two later the papers get it.”

..... “Maybe you should call your FBI friends. I heard Captain Daniels tell them he got a search warrant for the O'Conner boy's place. I am sure they will turn up ample evidence for an arrest. As for the conviction, he will plead guilty, involuntary manslaughter, if he knows what's best for him. Three years in Shuman Center, full freedom when he is eighteen. Otherwise, he'll be tried as an adult and this will follow him always. Your accusations will sound like rants.”

..... “Have you ever heard of DNA tests?” I asked. “Chastity's unborn baby is as good as a fingerprint.”

..... “I will tell you this once, Mr. Brogan. Matt O'Conner will be arrested and convicted of the murder of my daughter. There will be no need of DNA testing. I told you, I am a man who gets what he wants. If you ever make these accusations publicly, I will sue you for slander and have your license.”

.....“You're willing to frame an innocent boy for this? You are the sickest sonova...”

..... “Exactly what is innocence, Mr. Brogan? Was Chastity innocent? Is anyone? My daughter was pregnant, yet she never mentioned being raped. Is that what you call innocence?”

..... I suddenly went cold. The coroner's report wouldn't be available to Reiling yet. “Daniels will find it interesting that you know the results of the autopsy already.”

.....Fear flickered in his eyes momentarily, and then was replaced with smugness.

.....“Chastity told me, of course. We were very close. She shared everything with me.“ He picked up a picture of his daughters off his desk and stroked the image of his youngest. “With any luck, I can keep Faith from making the mistakes her sister made.”

..... “Well, getting yourself snipped to keep you from knocking up your other daughter is a start.”

..... “Get out, Brogan. Now. You are finished in this town if you ever repeat this, this vile accusation to another person.”

..... I walked up to him and jerked him out of his chair so we were eye to eye.

..... “Then you better finish me, because I will bring you down for this. Faith won't go through what Chastity did, no matter what I have to do.”

..... I threw him against the wall, and left without a backward glance, not sure of my next move. I was seething, but he was right. The police would be inclined to believe the worst about the boyfriend and the best about the father. He was a victim, too, in the public eye. More people would listen to him than would listen to me.

..... I heard a soft sob and saw Mrs. Reiling on the staircase, where I had seen her the very first time.

..... “Mrs. Reiling, I'm so . . .”

..... “Thank you, Mr. Brogan, for all you've done. I don't think there's anything more you can do here. Goodbye.”

..... I tried to say something else and realized the futility of it. I walked slowly to the door before turning to look at her again. Mrs. Reiling descended the steps and walked up to me. She stood on her toes and gave me a kiss on the cheek. I touched her cold arm and watched as she turned and walked towards her husband's study. I debated staying, but this part was not my fight.

..... From the Reiling stoop, I saw Faith enter a door three houses up on the left. I thought about Reiling's question about innocence, about whether it existed, and if it did, how could I save it?

..... The gunshot was loud against the calm of September boredom, loud but not disruptive. All was still at peace around the house. I knew what had happened without going back in. I knew then that I would lie for her, claiming that she pulled the trigger in self-defense. The police would know I was lying, but they would still write the report the way I told it. And the judge would know we were all lying, but he would turn a blind eye to Justice's unique service. Mrs. Reiling had lost her daughter, her husband, and her trust in the world. No punishment man could inflict would hurt her any more than she had been.

Copyright © 2005 by Mark Best.



Mark Best wrote his first crime story about a crooked boxing match in third grade, and his first private eye story in seventh grade. Several years later, he was published. His fiction has appeared in Hardboiled, Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine, Blue Murder and Over My Dead Body, among others. He once placed Second in the International Imitation Raymond Chandler Writing Competition. Currently, he lives in Knoxville, TN, with his wife, two kids, and two cats. He can be contacted via e-mail.

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