James is smiling.
I find myself curious about this. My brother is a bit... strange. He is quiet; he is
awkward; and he does not smile often. But, sitting across the breakfast table, he is
smiling -- at me.
I'm not sure what to do, honestly. This has to be a first. If it isn't, then I'm at
least certain he hasn't been this happy to see me in a very long time. For some reason,
his smile feels unsettling. I'm being silly; he's smiling, not pointing a gun at me. Why
do I feel this way? The smile I return I'm sure is too brief and more than a little
awkward, but he just goes about pouring his bowl of cereal like nothing is out of place.
I can't shake this feeling, but I don't know why I have it in the first place. All I can
do is go back to eating my own bowl of Alphabets before the letters get soggy. I already
see four different words in the milk beginning to bloat: abaxial, brazen, avow, lull.
That's a total of fifty points in Scrabble.
Dad has worked another all-nighter. His keys aren't in the bowl on the counter, and
his coat isn't on its hook by the door. It's not that unusual. He is putting in a lot of
hours lately. There is a lot for him to wrap up down at the precinct before we move, and
we're supposed to be catching a plane for London, England tomorrow. For some reason,
though, his absence bothers me. Why? Am I just having an off morning? I know I'm not the
happiest person in the world right now, but this is a new level of weird for me.
Ever since my mother's death, it's almost a tradition in our house not to say
goodbye. Nobody sticks around long enough to warrant one. The three of us -- Dad, James,
and I -- are coming and going all the time. Always in passing, it seems. I grab my
winter coat from its hook by the door and leave without any words to my brother. Should
I have asked him what he was happy about this morning? Maybe there was something he
wanted to say but was too awkward to say it? I can believe that. If there is something
for James to be happy about, he doesn't know how to express it like most people. He
doesn't talk much. He's not a very sociable guy.
Gotham is cold this time of year. There is a fresh sheet of snow on the ground from
the storm last night, and I am further reminded that Dad hasn't come home by the
pristine nature of the steps. Why does this bother me? I don't know... It shouldn't. I
have enough on my mind right now without this unwarranted anxiety creeping in.
Bess Keller is an excitable, friendly, and slightly vapid girl that lives three
streets down in my district. She's also my best friend, and I wouldn't have her any
other way. Of all the things in America to leave behind, I'm going to miss her most. I
haven't heard from her in a couple days, but she's never fell through with our plans
before. I'm sure she's just been busy with the holidays. Not everyone has parents who
work through the holidays like I do.
The streets seem even more gray than usual as I walk to her apartment building.
Everything is murky -- gloomy, even. I'm really not very happy about moving to England,
but I have little choice in the matter. I'm not a normal girl with normal hobbies. I
don't know anyone in Gotham who would understand my world besides my father and brother.
I haven't even told Bess about my school -- I can't. As far as she knows, I attend St.
Hawkins Preparatory School for Girls. If she knew the truth... Well, if she knew the
truth, she'd honestly be thrilled -- but then I'd be expelled. I'm not fond of that
idea. I know I'm transferring to a new school near the beginning of spring term, but I
still can't tell her. My kind don't take exposure very lightly.
But I'm excited to see Bess today -- excited, and also very sad. We have plans to go
ice skating in the park, and then we are going to hang out with some boys at the arcade.
I didn't tell Dad about the second part, but what he doesn't know won't kill him. He
wouldn't let me go if I told him, and I really want to just get out on my last day here.
I just want this one thing. He will scold me for it later. He always finds out about
these things, and then we argue. But I'm beyond caring right now. If he hadn't accepted
that job in London, today would have been just a normal day. I wouldn't be saying
goodbye to my best friend whom I've known since kindergarten, and I wouldn't have this
unsettling ball of ice sitting in the pit of my stomach. This is his fault.
Bess's apartment building seems weirdly alive. The halls are dark, but there is a
whispering in the shadows as I walk down the row of doors on her floor. I'm imagining
things -- I'm sure of it. But, then, why does Mrs. Galley look at me with such sad eyes
as I pass her in the hall? She knows something -- something bad; that's my first
instinct. But, no, it's my imagination. I'm making everything seem worse than it is
today. I'm in a worse mood than I thought. I need Bess; she'll cheer me up. I'll still
cry tonight, but at least she can make me laugh today.
There are strange voices coming from the other side of the door. I can hear Bess's
mom, too, but she sounds wrong. Am I imagining the tightness of her tone, too? I knock,
and suddenly everything goes dead silent. There's the hurried sound of heels on tile.
That's Bess's mom. The door is whipped open, and I notice an almost panicked hope on
Mrs. Keller's face before it fell into an exhausted worry. She has dark circles under
her red, puffy eyes. She's been crying. Mr. Keller is behind her now, and I know
something really is wrong. Mr. and Mrs. Keller have been separated for almost seven
years now. Mr. Keller does not live with Bess and her Mom. In fact, I think I've seen
him, like, twice since he moved out.
Bess is missing. She hasn't come home in two days, which is most unusual for Bess.
Unlike me, Bess always tells her parents where she is going and what she is doing. Mrs.
Keller says she had gone down to the convenience store on the corner, but never came
back. She is hugging me. This is all happening quickly, and I don't have time to react
-- but, through the empty spaces between Mr. and Mrs. Keller's bodies, I see Dad.
When the reality of the situation hits, it hits hard. Bess is really missing, and, if
the GCPD is at her apartment, then it can't be good news. I make sure to return Mrs.
Keller's hug, but I can't hold myself back. I have to know what they know. This is why
Dad didn't come home last night. He's been trying to find Bess. I'm furious. Why didn't
anyone tell me? I'm her best friend! I could have been helping, too!
That's exactly why Dad didn't tell me. If he had, no locked door would have kept me
home while they went out looking for her. I know this is the reason, but I can't help
raising my voice. In front of Mr. and Mrs. Keller and two GCPD officers, I'm fire and
ice as I yell at him. I could have been helping! I've helped him before! He knows...
That's exactly why he wouldn't tell me -- why he won't give me details. He doesn't want
me to get myself hurt. He doesn't want me to disappear, too.
The way they look at me, the words Dad has chosen -- Bess isn't just missing. Bess
has been abducted. The room is dead silent when I voice my observation, and the
eyes that look back at me from all around have a hollowness. It's true. I want to know
what happened -- what evidence they have to suggest this -- but Dad does not want me
I'm no longer thinking rationally. Ironically enough, there's a part of me that knows
this, but I'm too riled to listen. My Dad is calling my name, but I'm already running
down the long hall. He won't chase me. He knows he can't catch me, and he knows where
I'm going. I only have a few minutes. He'll be calling a cruiser to pick me up and take
me to the precinct. That's okay. I only need a few minutes to look; I just need to see
the scene for myself. I'll go with the cruiser willingly after I get a look. My Dad
should know better. All of Bess's files will be on the computers there.
I'm sprinting down the snowy sidewalk, and I catch a patch of hidden ice. It doesn't
even slow me down. I'm in a forward roll and back on the run before I can feel the cold
of the snow on my hair. Dad made sure I took Judo as soon as I could lift my leg high
enough to qualify as a kick. I don't even think about these things anymore. It's
instinct. There's an open manhole in my way, bordered front and back by caution rails,
and I'm hurdling over them. I can't be detoured. I'm going to be cutting it really close
as it is.
The convenience store comes into sight, but there is no police tape over the door.
The store isn't a crime scene. There will be nothing to see inside; it would be a waste
of time to check, and I don't have time. This is my last day in Gotham, my best friend
has been abducted, and I have to find her.
There's an alley between the convenience store and neighboring, abandoned apartment
building. I'm turning into the narrow crevice as a Ford Interceptor screeches to a halt
opposite the alley. The car doors are slamming and two men are calling my name: Officer
O'Dally and Officer Michaels. I'm not stopping. I'm not even looking. I can see the
yellow tape far down the alley -- near the back street -- and then I am sliding through
the snow under the crossed strips yelling "POLICE LINE DO NO CROSS".
O'Dally and Michaels are running down the alley -- I can hear their boots crushing
the snow. I'm breathing heavy, and the cold air has my lungs burning -- but I see
everything. The fresh snow doesn't make it easy, but the signs of struggle are still
clear to me. Even the snow from last night did not fully cover the streak of blood on
the ice below. Somebody had been dragged out into the back street, still bleeding.
Possibly still alive. But... That's all. I know that's all there is to see. There
are no more footprints, there's no dumpster to check for abandoned evidence, and there's
nothing hiding under the snow. I would know. Dad's always said I've had a gift with
these things. It's my photographic memory. If there were something here to see, I would
have seen it.
There are hands on my shoulders, and I struggle for a moment. I want to make sure I
have everything in the picture. I want to remember the pattern of the red smear and the
way the hardened snow from before last night was turned up in uneven clumps. It's a
pattern, and it says a lot about the struggle. Bess had put up a good fight, but she did
not win. And it was Bess. There is enough blood here to have taken a sample.
Forensics will have identified her. This is the GCPD's evidence.
I give in, and they take me back out to the street and waiting cruiser. It's a short
ride to the precinct. This happened so close -- right under their noses. I know this
building like the back of my own hand, and they let me walk down the hall to my father's
office alone. There's no window in there -- no other exit -- and they know I won't try
the air ducts again. They'd be expecting that. I'm not leaving this time.
Behind Dad's desk, I sit in the old office chair and glance toward the door. The
blinds are closed, and it's quiet on the other side. I only have a few minutes. Dad will
be here to chew me out for my recklessness as soon as he's done talking to Mr. and Mrs.
Keller. The computers here are far outdated, but that only makes it easier for me.
I crack my knuckles for good luck, and then I bring up the console commands. I'm
self-taught, but I've never met a person who can out-hack me. I'm signed into my
father's computer in about ten seconds. Barring the current circumstances, I should be
proud of that -- but I'm busy. I'm looking for things. I know my way around the database
pretty well by now. Bess's file comes on the screen, and I'm reading fast. Their
observations are dry and lacking, but it's just as I expected. The blood was a match for
Bess. It's labeled an abduction, possible homicide. I was expecting this, but I think my
heart just stopped reading it.
That's it. There's nothing else here. I'm angry again, and I can feel frustrated
tears stinging my eyes. I've been involved with plenty of Dad's cases, but never like
this. It's never been about someone I love. I think I'm going to throw up -- it's not a
game this time. This isn't just some John Doe, this is Bess.
Dad is throwing the door open, and I don't even try to hide the fact that I'm in his
computer. I think he's going to yell at me, but the steely look in his eyes fades almost
instantly when I look at him. I must look awful. I'm-- I'm crying. And not just a few
tears anymore. I barely notice him cross the room, but he suddenly has me in a hug. He
hasn't hugged me since... I can't even remember.
I had a short breakdown. Dad says it's normal. When something happens this close to
home -- to someone you love -- it's different. You can't prepare for something like
this. I've seen dozens of abduction cases, and I know there are very low odds of finding
a victim with so little evidence -- even less of finding them alive.
Dad stays with me for as long as he can, but he is in and out of the office. On top
of all this, he is still trying to close out his desk and put his affairs in order for
his last day on the job. I can't take this. Bess is missing, and he is still leaving for
London tomorrow. We are still leaving for London tomorrow. I can't! Dad tells me
there's nothing we can do but hope for the best -- hope that Bess turns up soon. I'm not
even listening anymore. I'm hollow, and his office is being emptied around me.
It's late when Dad drives us home. I go straight up to my room, and I have half a
mind to go right back out the window -- but he knows the deal by now. He tells me there
are officers in the street below making sure I don't go out the window. It's dangerous,
he says. Someone just kidnapped a girl like me -- Bess. But... Bess isn't a girl like
me. I've never wanted the break the International Statute of Secrecy before tonight, but
it is hot in my mind. I'm tempted. But... I can't. It's not just about me.
My room is empty with all my things packed, and I'm not sleeping tonight. In the
darkness, I see the alleyway beside the convenience store. I seen the coarsely turned
snow and bloodstained ice, and I'm looking over every little detail as if I were
standing there right now. There has to be something.
There's a knock on my door, and I bolt upright. Somehow, it's morning. No! The
flight takes off at ten, and it's... seven-thirty. I want to go back there, to the blood
and snow, but I'm out of time. Dad is being gentle with me, I know -- repeating the same
thing over and over, that Mr. and Mrs. Keller will call us on his cell if Bess turns up
and the Chief says he'll keep us updated. It doesn't make me feel better, but I'm rushed
out the door all the same.
James is downstairs, ready to see us off. He's quiet, but that's normal for him. He's
about to go out, too. Just waiting to say goodbye before we catch our flight. We don't
hug. I don't think we ever have. There's a strange feeling in my gut as we pass him on
our way out the door, but I'm in too much of a rush to think about it. Even in the taxi
on the way to the airport, Dad keeps me busy by going over a mental list of things we
might have forgotten. Everything's accounted for, though. I made sure of that days ago.
Passing through airport security is a long and arduous process. We make it to our
gate just in time to board, and it seems like seconds later the pavement is fading out
the small window of the seven-forty-seven. I feel so defeated -- so empty -- and, soon,
I'm just drifting. There's no layover for overseas travel to England, and, when I wake
up, the pilot announces our descent into London.
It's been three days. I haven't left our new apartment yet. Something is bothering
me, and I don't even know what. It's just a feeling, but it's consuming. It's about
Bess. I've missed something. I know it -- there's something. I need to think, but the
image of the crime scene doesn't help. There's nothing there, and all I feel is
frustration. Dad calls to say he will be late, and I just go up to bed. I haven't been
sleeping. With so many questions and thoughts in my head, it's just about impossible.
It's worse than the first night. Something is eating at me, and I'm starting to get
really angry with myself. I close my eyes, wishing I could just not care. I wish I were
like James, in all his awkward emotional dislocation.
It hits me so suddenly, and my gut tightens with instinct.
I'm back in Gotham three days ago, pulling my suitcase through the kitchen. Dad is
asking me if I have remembered everything, and I'm answering automatically. James is
standing there by the door, waiting for us to say goodbye. He's quiet. He has something
in his hands -- his keys. He does this often, fiddling with things subconsciously. His
fingers are intertwined with his key-chains. He has so many; they're the one thing he
collects. But... there's something that catches my eye now. A small, pink sandal
dangling from a golden chain, just like the one Bess always had on her keys. Is it
Bess's? I cant' tell. I need a closer look.
But I'm thirty-five-hundred miles away.