Detective Sydney Valentine is called in by a couple of friends to help find their stolen baby; by Danielle Lenée Davis.
"Tell me what happened," I said.
"After Patrick left to go to the store, I went upstairs to take a nap after letting Rusty out." Veronica glanced at Rusty, their Golden Retriever, and sighed. "I've been so tired lately."
"I came home and saw Rusty pacing and whimpering outside the sliding glass door." Patrick looked at Veronica. "I'm surprised you didn't hear him."
She whirled towards him. "I told you." Her face crumpled like the discarded tissues on her lap. "I fell asleep." Her hand shook as she dabbed at her crimson nose.
"Well, like I told the officer earlier... I let Rusty in and he ran past me... to Lucy's room," said Patrick. "Her crib was empty."
"How did the intruder get in?" I looked from one to the other. "Was the door unlocked?"
"I locked it when I left for the store," said Patrick, glancing at Veronica.
"I unlocked it when I ran out to tell you to get orange juice and diapers." She looked down at her hands. "I don't remember locking it when I came inside."
Patrick sighed. "I found this on the floor by the door." He'd placed a pink and white sock over his thumb. "It's Lucy's." He bit his trembling lip.
"Do you have a photo?" I asked.
"Yes. It's a duplicate of the one we gave to the officer to use for the Amber Alert." Veronica opened their baby album and handed me a five by seven inch photo. It fluttered in her hand.
This photo, dated a month ago, showed Lucy at two weeks of age. I realized that was the last time I'd seen her and made a mental note to start making more time for friends and family. The photo showed a ruddy-faced baby with wisps of light brown hair, big brown eyes, and long eyelashes. My heart sank. "How friendly are you with the other people in the neighborhood?"
"We're pretty good friends with a couple of them. The Bakers and Morrisons," said Patrick.
"I'll need their contact info. Anyone else?"
Veronica tapped Patrick's arm. "Remember Mrs. Pennybecker? She was always calling me. I forgot to mention her to the police."
"Why does she call?" I asked.
"I don't know. She's next door and I see her often since her mailbox is in the same bank of receptacles as ours," said Veronica, looking at Patrick. "I'm surprised we haven't heard from her today. She must know what happened by now."
"I'll need her phone number from you. Is there anything else you can tell me?"
"No," they said simultaneously, shaking their heads. Veronica wrote down the three phone numbers and handed them to me.
"Okay." I stood to leave and they walked me to the door.
Veronica touched my arm. "Syd, I know this isn't your case and you're doing us a favor. Thank you." Her eyes pleaded. "Find our baby girl."
I squeezed her hand. "I'll be in touch." I stepped outside to a warm, sunny day, but the Santa Ana winds whipped around me. The garbage had been collected while I'd been indoors. Several plastic garbage and recycling cans littered the streets and neighboring yards. Dust danced in the air and stung my cheeks. I fished in my purse for a ponytail holder to contain my copper-colored ringlets. Otherwise, I'd soon end up looking like a rodeo clown gone mad. "Crap! Crap, crap, crap!" I'd given my car, a Nissan Altima, its semi-annual washing yesterday. Now a layer of dust and grit covered it like a thin velvet cloak. "Crap!" I wanted to kick the tires, but that would look silly.
I angled into my dusty car and called Mrs. Pennybecker, but there was no answer so I left a voicemail. I drove to the Bakers' home, a small Southwestern style house. Toys, in various states of disrepair, were scattered throughout the patchy lawn. I rang the doorbell, but didn't hear it. Nobody came to the door. I could hear the TV blasting. I banged on the door and waited a short time before someone opened it. "May I speak to Carmen Baker?"
"Speak," said the woman standing in the doorway. She wore a green, tight-fitting tank top that stopped several inches above her belly button. A tattoo covered her abdomen. She wore low-slung jeans and the top of a pink thong peeked out.
"I'm Detective Sydney Valentine. I'm working on the abduction of Lucy Harris. Have you heard about that?"
"Yep. It's so sad," said Carmen, leaning on the doorjamb with her hand on her hip. "Veronica had a hard pregnancy." She chewed her gum hard. I smelled Wrigley's Juicy Fruit.
"Do you know if anyone had an unusual interest in her pregnancy?" I asked.
"Nope. Did ya' talk to their pet sitter? Ida? She might know... well... maybe not 'cause I haven't seen her 'round lately."
I wondered why Veronica and Patrick didn't mention a pet sitter. "Do you have contact information for Ida?"
"Sorry, but nope. All I know is Patrick called from the hospital to ask me to look in on Rusty in the backyard a few months ago 'cause Ida couldn't come. She was pregnant and havin' a hard time herself." A child wailed in the room behind her and she turned her head towards the sound, but still hadn't invited me in. "That reminds me. One time I was at their house and Lucy started cryin'. Veronica acted like she didn't hear her. It was like she didn't want to be 'round her own kid. Weird, huh?"
"Perhaps. One more question. Had you seen anyone lurking in the area lately?"
"Nope. Didn't see nobody, but I'm pretty busy with my own kids. Takes an evil person to just up and snatch somebody's kid right out from under 'em like that. Doesn't it?"
"Evil or sick." I gave her my card and snapped my notebook shut. "Thanks for your help." I walked to my grit-mobile, still thinking about giving it a good swift kick. I spoke to several other residents living nearby, but nobody saw anything out of the ordinary.
The next day, I gave Patrick and Veronica a call and mentioned Ida to them. Patrick said Veronica had been hospitalized a couple of times during the pregnancy due to complications. Ida had morning sickness at about the same time as Veronica, and had vomited in his presence when he'd gone to her home to pay her. He told me her health issues prevented her from continuing to pet sit. He hadn't heard whether she'd delivered, but gave me her address and phone number. I called her and set up a time to see her at home tomorrow. I also called the Morrisons, who lived two blocks over. I made an appointment with them for later in the afternoon.
It was Saturday, and I drove to the San Sansolita Boxing Club to speak to Lydia, the manager, and maybe get in a workout while there. Sometimes Lydia hears or observes things that might prove beneficial to my investigations. I found her in her office eating a ham and cheese sandwich and Ruffles potato chips.
"Hi, Lydia." I plopped down in a rickety chair opposite her oversized oak desk that had seen better days. Her office was warm and musty. She wore a San Diego Chargers jersey and her dark wavy hair was pulled back into a high ponytail. She took a sip of her Coke, making slurping noises. Condensation ran down the side of the can and soaked into her desk blotter, making rings each time she put the can down.
"Hey, Syd. Heard you're looking for Lucy." She picked up a couple of chips, stuck them in her sandwich.
"That's why I'm here. Have you heard any talk about it?"
"No, but I'll tell you what... that friend of hers... Carmen... ain't no friend."
"Why do you say that?"
"She thinks Veronica's had it too easy... pampered, you know? And she's been sayin' that Veronica doesn't like her own baby. Carmen feels sorry for the kid."
I leaned forward. "Do you think she'd take Lucy?"
"Don't know, but... like I said, she sure ain't what I'd call a friend."
I thanked her, changed clothes, and started my workout. The gym was dingy, with faded paint peeling off the walls, and exposed pipes. Buzzers squawked, signifying the start and end of rounds. Coaches shouted at their boxers. The thump of gloves hitting speed bags, heavy bags and sweat drenched bodies added to the ambience. People came here for a serious workout. Smooth talking flirtatious guys and women who were dressed to thrill were non-existent. Gym-goers typically donned worn out sweats, baggy shorts, and raggedy T-shirts. I'm no exception. I wore black shorts and a faded blue Nike T-shirt.
I hit the speed bag and thought about the case. Why hadn't Carmen Baker invited me into her home? I jogged on the treadmill a bit too long. My legs heavy, I shuffled to the locker room. As I looked in the locker for my shampoo, I noticed a missed call on my cell phone. Mrs. Pennybecker had returned my call and said she'd call again another time. The Caller ID displayed 'Restricted' and she did not leave a phone number. I showered, dressed, and drove to the Morrisons' home.
Kim and Dave Morrison lived in a two-story house. A six-foot tall cedar fence enclosed the backyard. A garden of red and pink roses grew under the window facing the street. The lawn sparkled with moisture from the sprinkler system. As I strolled towards the front door, it opened. A petite woman with chin-length glossy black hair stood in the doorway.
"Kim Morrison?" I asked.
"Yeah. You must be Sydney Valentine." A slight smile curved her lips as she held the door open for me. Her husband, who reminded me of a young Richard Gere, came into the eat-in kitchen after I had taken a seat.
"Can either of you think of anyone who may have shown an interest in the Harrises before or after Lucy's birth?" I asked.
"Only Mrs. Pennybecker. She sometimes talked about them when I saw her, but we don't know her very well," said Kim.
"I've been unable to reach her. Do you happen to know where she is?" I asked.
"I saw her put luggage in her car a day or so ago," said Dave, looking at his wife. "I didn't see her leave though."
"I heard that her mother had a stroke and she had to go to Seattle. That's all I know," said Kim, shrugging her shoulders.
"Where's Mr. Pennybecker?" I asked.
"Her husband and two-year-old daughter were killed by a drunk driver about three years ago. She tried to adopt a child last year, but I heard it fell through. Such a tragedy," said Kim.
"Yes. Tragic." I handed her my business card and stood. "If you think of anything else."
"Well... there's something else," said Kim.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Carmen's my friend, well more like an acquaintance. Anyway, I can't help but wonder..." she glanced at Dave. He gave a small nod. "...her husband's in sales and is on the road a lot and she complains about being stuck at home with the screaming kids all the time. Her words, not mine."
"What does this have to do with Lucy's abduction?"
"She's really jealous of Veronica. I mean... I'm not saying she'd do anything. I couldn't say, but I thought you should know."
"Thanks. That must not have been easy for you." I turned to leave. Their landline rang and Kim excused herself to answer it.
"I hope you find her soon." Dave walked me to the door. "They're good people."
I went home and tried calling Mrs. Pennybecker again. Her voicemail was full.
The next day, I went to Ida's home. Boxes, bubble wrap, and packaging tape were scattered in the living room. "When did you start walking Rusty, the Harris' dog?" I asked.
"I don't remember the exact date, but it was in Veronica's first trimester." She was barefoot and wearing an oversized white tee shirt and grey cropped leggings. Her nails were painted the color of dark sweet cherries. She appeared fresh-faced and a single braid of hair hung down her back like a thick rope down to her waist. She dropped towels into a box, filling it to the top, then taped and labeled the box with a Sharpie.
"How did you initially meet them?"
"Our husbands met through community softball. Jacque told Patrick that I used to do pet sitting." Her husband, Jacque, was in the military and had been overseas for several months. He was out of town setting up their off-base housing. He would be home in another day or so, she told me. I saw their wedding portrait on the fireplace mantle. They were an attractive couple, with toothy smiles, blonde hair, and blue eyes.
"When was the last time you pet sat for them?"
"Oh boy. Let's see." She looked towards the ceiling as if she expected to read the answer to my question up there. "It was before I got huge with Chris." She glanced in the direction of the bassinette. Their baby, asleep in a bassinette in the living room, wore a pale blue onesie with balloons on it. A teddy bear in the bassinette wore a T-shirt with 'Chris' embroidered across the front.
"Do you remember the approximate date?"
"Not really. Maybe three months ago?" She frowned. "Patrick called me right after that, but I told him I couldn't take care of Rusty for a while."
"When you were last there, did you notice if anything seemed off?"
"No, but they have a neighbor that made an effort to ask about our pregnancies. I think her last name was Pennybacher or something."
"Yeah." She shrugged. "Maybe."
I thanked her and left. I walked a couple of doors down and spoke to one of Ida's neighbors that appeared to be home. The neighbor had been surprised that Ida had already had the baby. She did say, however, that Ida quickly grew quite large and understood why Ida may have stopped pet sitting.
I then paid a visit to Veronica's family members; some suspected that Veronica might be suffering from postpartum depression. Some had planned to discuss it with Patrick. Nobody had anything else to add.
The next day, I walked to Veronica and Patrick's home, surrounded by a redwood fence in the back and an iron one in the front reminding me, ironically, of a fortress. I could've called, but talking to people in person lets me see their facial expressions and body language, which you miss on the telephone. They were both home. We, again, sat on their sectional sofa.
I leaned towards Veronica, whose eyes were puffy. I tried to use my soothing voice. The voice people use when speaking to a frightened child, the elderly, or someone on their deathbed. "How are you feeling?"
"What do you mean?" She sat up straighter. "Besides being worried out of my mind for Lucy, I feel fine."
"How do you feel about being a mother?"
She stiffened. Her eyes grew wide and then narrowed. "Not you too!" Her face flushed.
"My sister thinks I've got postpartum depression." She folded her arms in front of her body and her chin shot in the air.
"And you don't." I leaned back in an attempt to appear less threatening. "When I spoke to you about Lucy's disappearance you mentioned being tired lately."
"Of course I've been tired. I just had a baby!" She turned to her husband, who had raised his eyebrows.
"Well, honey, you have been sleeping a lot and not as attentive to Lucy as I had expected you'd be," said Patrick. He moved his hand over one of hers.
Veronica shoved his hand away. "Really? This is the first I've heard of it." Her eyes shone with unshed tears.
"I didn't want to upset you. I thought you'd snap out of it, whatever it was."
"Snap out of what?" She glared at him. "Do you think this has something to do with me?" Her hand flew to her throat. "That... that I did this?"
"No. You did forget to lock the door though." He shrugged and glanced at me.
Veronica sprang from the sofa as if it was on fire. She hurried from the room and stomped up the stairs, crying all the way. A door slammed.
Patrick threw up his hands and sighed. "I'd better go talk to her." He stood.
"I'm sorry. I'll let myself out." I opened the door, taking care to lock it, and went home. I decided to pay another visit to Ida tomorrow, since her husband should be back. After that, I planned to speak to Carmen again.
The next afternoon, I drove to Ida's house. Two cars were in the driveway so I assumed Jacque had come home. I rang the doorbell and waited.
A man answered the door and introduced himself as Jacque. He wore Levi's and a T-shirt, but no shoes. I followed him into the living room. He sat next to Ida on the sofa as she changed Chris' diaper. Chris, awake with arms and legs flailing, was a girl. With a name like Chris, you never know. She handed Chris to Jacque, picked up the baby wipes and soiled diaper, and rushed past me towards the kitchen. She had a small towel draped over her shoulder. I got a whiff of baby powder, poop, and vomit that smelled like sour milk. In other words, Eau De Baby.
"I was so worried because Chris was born early. I wish that I could've been here." He cradled Chris, cooed, and kissed her on the forehead. "She seems to be doing great though. Don't you think?"
"Yes, it seems so." I sat in a chair and smiled as Chris stared at me, wide-eyed and drooling.
"Excuse me. I'm going to take her to her room and put her down for a nap." He stood and padded up the stairs, singing softly, as he rocked Chris in his arms.
While he and Ida were gone, I called dispatch for backup. When I finished the call, I turned. Ida stood a few feet away, glaring at me. I hadn't heard her approach.
"What do you think you're doing?" she whispered. She crept towards me like a panther. I took a step to my left. She moved to her right. Stalking.
"Chris isn't your child." I prepared to defend myself.
"You bitch!" She lunged and grabbed me by the shoulders. Her manicured claws inched towards my neck. I brought my hands up and outwards, breaking the hold. I danced away from her. She dove towards me. I stepped aside and hit her square on the side of her face as she whizzed past me. I shook my hand out. She lay on the floor and touched her face. "You... hit me. Chris is my baby." She sat up, pulled her legs towards her chest, and rocked. "Please... don't take my baby," she whispered.
"Her name is Lucy and she's not your baby." I backed against a wall and rubbed my hand.
"What did you say?" Jacque came down the stairs and hurried towards us.
"Chris is Lucy, the Harris' baby," I said, keeping an eye on Ida.
"Can't be. She's our baby." He looked at Ida. "Right, Ida?" Ida continued to rock on the floor. "You sent me a picture of the baby bump."
"Veronica can't take care of Chris the way I can." She looked in my direction, but appeared to look past me, not really seeing.
"Ida? You sent me pictures of when you brought her home from the hospital." Jacque scrambled towards her and grabbed her by the shoulders. He shook her as if she were a ragdoll. "Tell her Chris is our baby! Tell her!"
Ida stared at her husband and shook her head. "I'm... I'm sorry."
He released his grip. She went limp and slid to the floor in a fetal position. Jacque stood and turned towards me, his face a pale mask. "How did you know?"
"Her eyes are brown."
"So?" He shrugged and swiped the tears streaming down his face with the back of his hand. "Lots of babies have brown eyes."
"You and Ida have blue eyes. It's not genetically possible for you and Ida to have had a brown-eyed child." Someone knocked on the door. I was closest so I opened it. My backup had arrived.
I'd discovered later that Ida had suffered from a hysterical pregnancy. Rusty saw her take Lucy out of the house while Veronica slept.