By Dave Creek
Detective Edward Galvan nodded at the uniforms standing outside Patty Keller’s house and took the rough concrete steps toward the front door two at a time, hope mixing with concern. A mother and child missing for the better part of a year don’t just appear out of nowhere one night, he thought. And if they do, the mother doesn’t just immediately disappear again. It doesn’t make sense.
An image of his own beloved family flashed unbidden into his mind, but he pushed it aside — this was work time, and thoughts of his wife Debbie and children Ethan and Kathy had to wait.
It was a warm night; the inner wooden door leading into Keller’s living room stood open. Galvan knocked lightly on the outer screen door while holding his shield so she could see it. Keller, who was sitting on a couch next to a thin blonde girl of ten or eleven, waved him in.
Keller put an arm around the child’s shoulders and squeezed. Then she stood, extending her hand toward Galvan. The top of her head barely came up to his chin. She had wide eyes and a model’s cheekbones, and thick shoulder-length hair.
“Detective Edward Galvan.”
“I want to thank the officers outside for understanding, and waiting outside.” She indicated the girl and spoke quietly. “Heather’s become so used to avoiding the police — she sees a police car or anyone in a uniform and she gets so scared.”
Galvan glanced over at the girl, who had curled up into one corner of the couch, legs folded beneath her, arms hugging herself. He kept his own voice low. “Why’s she so afraid of the police?”
“It’s her mother — my sister, Rebecca. She disappeared with Heather about a year ago.”
“And tonight she came back.”
“For about ten minutes. Dropped Heather off, then was gone again.”
“Why’d she disappear in the first place?”
“Same old story, one I’m sure a detective like you has seen a million times. A custody thing.”
“Involving Heather’s father?”
Keller nodded. “The bastard. Name’s Douglas. He beat Rebecca, sometimes right in front of Heather. She’d leave him, then he’d promise to be better and she’d go back to him. Then he’d beat her again. You know the pattern.”
“It’s a tough one to break for some women.”
“Well, finally Rebecca had enough. The courts were moving too slowly. She took Heather and left. Didn’t even tell me where she was going.”
“Did you have any contact with her at all this past year?” Galvan saw Keller hesitate, quickly said, “You’re not going to get in trouble if you have. I just need to know whatever you can tell me about what’s been going on.”
Keller took a deep breath. “I talked to her a couple times on the phone. She said she was on cheap phones that she’d throw away afterwards — “
“Burner phones, they call them.”
“Yes, that’s it. Not that I’d know how to trace her, or even want to. She just let me know she was OK, and so was Heather.”
“Did she ask for money or any other kind of assistance?”
“And tonight she just showed up without any warning.”
“Just like that.”
Galvan asked, “When she left here, how’d she act toward Heather?”
“What do you mean?”
“Did she make it a casual goodbye, or like she wouldn’t be seeing her for awhile?”
“Well, I guess I did notice that. She gave Heather a long hug, told her to be good for me, then a couple kisses on the cheek and another long hug.”
“Did she say where she was going?”
“No. But I can guess.”
“Me, too. Where’s her husband live?”
“Not five blocks away, right here in the Highlands. Gives me the creeps that he’s so close.”
“Give me that address.”
* * *
Galvan radioed dispatch and requested a uniformed unit to head toward Douglas Stoker’s home, but when he heard their ETA he realized he’d get there first. Most likely, he thought, I’m being melodramatic and once I get there, I’ll find Douglas Stoker sitting and watching TV, wondering what all the commotion is about.
Then dispatch called him back. “We’ve had a report of shots fired at that location you gave us,” the dispatcher said. “I’ve told the uniforms to step it up, respond Code Three.” That meant lights and sirens.
“Ten-four, dispatch,” Galvan said. “I’m coming up on the scene now.”
Galvan pulled up in front of Douglas Stoker’s two-story frame home. As he got out of the car, he saw a mirror image of the scene at Patty Keller’s house — inner front door ajar, outer screen door closed. Bright lights inside the living room. A woman sitting on a couch, head down, hands folded in front of her. No visible weapon.
No sign of Douglas Stoker.
A police cruiser’s siren wailed from about a block away.
Even from the street, Galvan could tell this woman had the same wide eyes and prominent cheekbones as Patty Keller, and similar thick shoulder-length hair. Some dominant genes in this family, he thought. That has to be Rebecca Stoker.
The police cruiser pulled up behind him. He told the uniforms, a man and a woman, “We’re going to talk to that woman sitting on the couch. I don’t know whether she’s a victim or a possible suspect. We’re also keeping an eye out for her husband.”
The female uniform asked, “Is he a victim or a suspect?”
“We don’t know yet. Let’s go.”
Galvan pulled his Glock and started up the sidewalk toward Douglas Stoker’s house. As he drew close to the doorway, Rebecca Stoker looked up at him for an instant, then lowered her head again.
Keeping his firearm at his side, Galvan eased the screen door open. “You might as well come on in,” Rebecca Stoker said. “It’s all over.”
On the other side of the living room, a man’s body was lying on its back. Galvan could see at least two bullet wounds in his chest. He hadn’t even bled out that much.
Galvan told the male officer, “Get EMS here.” That officer nodded and headed back toward the cruiser. The female officer stayed by the doorway.
“It’s no use,” Rebecca Stoker said. “He’s gone.”
“Where’s the gun?” Galvan asked her.
She pointed toward a far corner of the room. “Over there. Once I did it, I didn’t want it near me anymore.”
“I have to read you your rights.”
“My rights? That’s a joke. I had the right to be beaten. I had the right to live in fear for years at a time.”
Galvan put away his Glock. “I have to ask you to stand up.”
Rebecca Stoker stood. “I was out of time,” she said. “I had to give Heather a decent life, a regular life.”
“A regular life would’ve been one where her mother isn’t in prison.”
“I won’t make it to prison,” Rebecca Stoker said, and grabbed the top of her hair and pulled it off.
A wig! She dropped it to the floor and said, “You know there aren’t any screenings to detect ovarian cancer? By the time I knew I was getting sick, I was already in hiding with Heather. A few months ago I came out of hiding to be treated — they got as far as one round of chemo before telling me we’d found it too late. I just had months to live.”
Galvan wasn’t sure how to respond at first. Finally, he said, “I’m sorry.”
Rebecca Stoker said, “So, you see, I didn’t have a lot of time left. I kept my head shaved to remind me of what I was facing. I had to make sure I could make a good life for Heather. I knew giving her over to Patty would work out — they adore one another.”
She fought back tears. “But Douglas — damn him! How could I protect her from him?”
Galvan said, “So you came here.”
Rebecca Stoker indicated the still body on the floor. “And did that.”
Galvan could just make out the wailing siren of the EMS wagon. He pulled out his cuffs. “I have to ask you to turn around.”
She did, and Galvan placed the cuffs around her wrists. He didn’t make them as tight as he could have.
“It was all I could do,” Rebecca Stoker said. “Don’t you see? Heather deserves a safe house to live in. That’s all I wanted for her, was a safe house.”
“You did that, Rebecca. You surely did.”
The EMS medtechs got out of the ambulance and headed toward the house. Once they passed Galvan on what would be a futile mission to save Douglas Stoker, he waved the female uniformed officer over. She took Rebecca Stoker’s arm and led her toward the police cruiser, as Galvan allowed himself a moment to think of Debbie and Ethan and Kathy, and how he intended to sweep each of them up in his arms once he got home, and wished he could never let them out of his sight again.
Dave Creek mostly writes science fiction, but is also enamored of crime fiction. His books include two short story collections – A GLIMPSE OF SPLENDOR, and THE HUMAN EQUATIONS – and a novel, SOME DISTANT SHORE. His most recent work is THE SILENT SENTINELS, a novella.
Find out more about Dave’s work at www.davecreek.net and on Facebook at Fans of Dave Creek.
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