Ronnie was the one child in the Simpson family to escape from the abuse and grow up in a normal home without being bounced from place to place or ending up on the street.
That was what the others all thought.
That was what Ronnie told herself.
When Ronnie could remember.
Release date: January 12, 2018
Publisher: pd workman
Print pages: 425
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Dusty Coleman came home from work to an empty house. It was odd for Ronnie and the children to be gone when he got home, but there might have been something on the family calendar that he had failed to notice. A piano recital or Little League game. Maybe a birthday party. He showered and changed. When the house was still empty when he finished, he went down to the kitchen and looked at the dry-erase calendar on the wall. There was nothing indicating a scheduled activity.
He tried Ronnie’s cell-phone, but she was notorious for not answering it, so he didn’t panic when there was no answer. She was having a conversation and it was buzzing away in her purse, or she was driving and the hands-free wasn’t kicking in, or one of the kids was crying and she just wasn’t available.
Dusty popped a couple of frozen waffles in the toaster and got himself a beer. Maybe he should put some macaroni on to boil so that there would be something for the kids to eat when they got home, heading off the hungry-grumpies at the end of what had probably been a stressful day for Ronnie.
But if they had gone to a birthday party or stopped at the food court in the mall, they wouldn’t be hungry and it would be a waste of his time.
At six o’clock, he was starting to worry. He called and messaged Ronnie several times. He tried Margret, a friend from work, to see if Ronnie had talked to her.
“I haven’t heard from Ronnie in a few days,” Margret said, a frown in her voice. “You don’t think something has happened to her…?”
“No… no, nothing has happened. I’m sure it’s nothing. She probably told me where she was going and I just forgot.”
“Have you called the hospital? Maybe one of the kids had an accident. You’re not allowed to keep your phone on, so she wouldn’t be able to answer you.”
“It’s nothing,” Dusty said. “She’s fine.”
But he made a call to the hospital just to be sure. None of their names was on the admissions list. He started calling the names from the list Ronnie kept on the fridge. A quick reference of numbers of her friends and the children’s little friends. She didn’t trust the cell-phone directories and complained that they always ended up losing numbers.
He looked out the window for the car, hoping to see her pulling up. He paced, regretting the waffles now sitting like a lead weight in his stomach.
Finally, he called the police.
“I feel a little silly,” he explained, “but I think my wife and my kids are missing… I can’t reach her, I’ve called all of her friends. They’re always home by now…”
“What’s your name, sir?” the police dispatcher asked calmly.
“And what is your address?”
He gave it. He knew his tone was terse. He was worried and he wanted to tell his story, not to have to give them all of the routine details.
“What is your wife’s name, and how old are the children?”
“Ronnie Coleman. And the kids are Mandi, she’s four, and Dane, just about six.”
“Has anything happened to indicate that they might be in danger?”
“No. Just that they’re not home. I called the hospital, but they haven’t been admitted.”
There was a long pause as the dispatcher typed information into her computer. Dusty had an uneasy feeling that she knew something, but he brushed it off. What could the dispatcher possibly know that he didn’t, when he had just called the information in?
“I am dispatching a police unit to come and talk to you,” she told him, giving nothing away. “ETA is about… ten minutes. When is the last time you saw or talked to your wife, sir?”
“Not since this morning. She often calls me over lunch, but not today…”
“Have you had an argument recently? Any domestic problems?”
“No, nothing like that.”
Dusty paced, answering more routine questions, until he finally saw the police car pull up in front of the house.
“They’re here,” he told the dispatcher.
“Thank you, sir. I hope everything turns out all right.”
Dusty Coleman looked pretty much like Omar had imagined him while listening to a replay of his phone call. A thirty-something blue collar worker. Medium height, muscular build, hair that was close-cropped but not shaved. He had five o’clock shadow, but was clean and smelled of soap.
“Mr. Coleman? I’m Omar Bluff. I’ll be heading up this investigation.” Omar held out his hand and Dusty shook it. Good firm grip. Fleeting eye contact. Dusty turned and looked out the window as if expecting his wife to roll up any minute.
“Dusty. Just call me Dusty.”
“Fine. Can we sit down, Mr. Coleman?”
Dusty was too restless to sit down. He circled the living room, looking for a place to settle, but couldn’t select a seat. Omar sat down anyway, powering on his tablet and flipping through the files that Jane Withers had sent to him, arranging them so that he could put his fingers on whichever one he wanted in an instant.
“Please walk me through your day today,” he told Dusty, touching the record button on the tablet app. “From the time you woke up this morning, anything that you can remember, whether it seems significant or not.”
“I was worried that you were going to tell me I had to wait twenty-four or forty-eight hours before I could report them missing,” Dusty confessed. “I don’t know how I could have gotten through the night, let alone a whole day or two.”
“Where children are involved, we don’t wait,” Omar said. “The two of you haven’t had any custody issues? You are both custodial parents? No separation, the kids are both of yours?”
“Yes, nothing like that. Everything has been fine.”
“Right. If you could tell me about your day, then…?”
Dusty did his best, attempting a chronological narrative. But he kept jumping forward to coming home and discovering that they were gone. Omar had to keep directing him backward, making him go through his day a step at a time, listening for anything that sounded off, considering Dusty’s alibis, and analyzing his emotion and the words that he used.
“And you haven’t had a fight recently?”
“No, nothing. I mean, nothing serious. Worries about finances, chores getting done, normal stuff like that. Nothing… we don’t have any big issues. We’re a happy family.”
“Neither of you were seeing someone else?”
Dusty looked floored. “Seeing someone else? Like, dating? An affair? No, certainly not. Ronnie had the kids all day, she couldn’t exactly carry on an affair. And me… I’d never… I love Ronnie. I’d never cheat on her.”
In Omar’s experience, everyone who cheated said at some point that they never would. And everyone lied.
“Has anything unusual happened? Strange phone calls? Hang ups? People you don’t know who recognize her?”
“How did the two of you meet?”
“Uh… at work, actually. Ronnie was hired on as a temp receptionist. So I saw her every day… thought she was kind of cute… we went out a few times and it all just fell into place.”
“Does Ronnie have any family? What do you know about her past?”
“No, she’s on her own. I gather her parents were killed in some kind of car accident. She didn’t have any siblings. We’re her only family.”
“You don’t know the details of how her parents were killed?”
“It upsets her to talk about them, even casually. So, I don’t know much. Just that they’re dead.”
“How about her childhood and her life before the two of you met? What can you tell me about that?”
Dusty shook his head, frowning. “I… don’t know. She didn’t talk about herself. It was just… we didn’t really talk about it.”
Dusty paged restlessly through the reports on his tablet. “Mr. Coleman… your children were picked up at the park today. By themselves, no supervision.”
He gaped. “They’re safe? Why didn’t you tell me you found them? Where’s Ronnie?”
“Ronnie was not with them. They were alone.”
“Well, what did they say? Where did she go?”
“She told them she would be right back and then never returned.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. She wouldn’t leave them alone there. And she’d never leave and not come back again!”
Omar didn’t give Dusty any of the other information available to him. As the spouse, Dusty was the most likely suspect in Ronnie Coleman’s disappearance. They would give him no more information than necessary and then would wait for him to slip up.
“Where did she go?” Dusty demanded. “Someone else must have seen her. There are always people at that park. The other mothers must have seen her if she left the kids there.”
“What park?” Omar said.
“The park over by the school. Isn’t that where they were? You said the park, and that’s the one that they go to…”
“No, that’s not where they were.”
Coleman looked baffled. “Why would she take them to a different park?”
“You don’t have a guess?”
Dusty didn’t come up with one. Omar watched the doubts fly across his face. Omar could think of plenty of reasons. The kids wanted to go somewhere new. It was near an errand that she wanted to run. She was meeting someone else and needed to do it away from people that she knew, who might slip up and say something to her husband. It was unusual behavior. When people who follow a routine suddenly break the routine and do something out of character, that was worth looking at.
“I want to see the kids. Where are they? I have to see them. They should be home, I’ll need to put them to bed.”
“The kids are being taken care of right now. You’ll see them in time. Right now, we need to be concerned about your wife and what might have happened to her.”
Dusty nodded. “You’re right,” he agreed. He looked out the window. Still, Ronnie didn’t drive up to the house, full of explanations as to what had happened that made her abandon their children at the park and disappear for hours.
“What kind of car does Ronnie drive?”
Omar already knew this. They were way ahead of Dusty on the investigation. Let him flounder behind, trying to figure out what they knew and what was still a secret.
“A white Mazda, about ten years old.” Coleman gave him the plate number.
“Any car trouble lately? Something that might have left her stranded?”
“No… not really… but finances have been tight. We haven’t had it in for a while and there’s a few things that needed to be checked out. We were just waiting, you know, until we had a bit more cash to get it fixed up…”
“Sure,” Omar agreed. He tapped the tablet for a few minutes, letting Dusty sweat it out.
“You haven’t found her car?” Dusty asked. “No sign of her anywhere?”
“I didn’t say that,” Omar said.
“What’s that supposed to mean? Have you found her or not?”
“We have not found your wife, Mr. Coleman. Maybe you could help us with that.”
“Help you?” Dusty’s voice rose. He stared at Omar. “What do you think I’m trying to do? Why do you think I called you? I’m scared for her. I don’t know where she is or what I can do. Don’t you understand that?”
“You called the hospital. Why?”
“To see if something had happened to Ronnie or one of the kids. If one of them had gotten hurt, Ronnie would have to turn off her phone and wouldn’t have been able to answer when I called. So I just called there to… to be sure.”
“What made you think that one of them might have been hurt?”
“I was just checking. Nothing made me think they might be, but they were missing. It was unusual. I was just checking.”
“Right. How late was your wife getting home at that point? What time does she usually get home? She hasn’t ever been that late before?”
“Sometimes she’s later getting home, but I always know where she is and what she’s doing. So I don’t worry. But today… there wasn’t anything on the calendar. I couldn’t remember her telling me she was going to be anywhere special. She’s never that late without telling me why.”
“What time is she usually home by?”
“Well, if Dane has Little League, or piano, then maybe five-thirty…”
“So she wasn’t even an hour late and you were calling the hospital.”
“She’s usually home before me. Other than when they have something scheduled. There wasn’t anything scheduled, so she should have been home at four-thirty. She was almost two hours late getting home. And I’d called everyone on the list. Everyone who might know where she was. I was getting scared. It was just to reassure myself that nothing had happened to them.”
Omar said nothing.
“Did you find her car?” Dusty asked. “I don’t understand what you’re telling me.”
“Yes. We found her car.”
“But… Ronnie wasn’t in it? So where’s Ronnie? Was it stolen? Carjacked?”
“No, it doesn’t appear so.”
“She just parked it and went shopping or something, and never came back?”
Ronnie Coleman hadn’t gone shopping. Her wallet and purse were still in the car. There was no sign of any violence, but the lab boys would be checking for any minute drops of blood or other evidence of what had happened to her.
“Does that sound like your wife?” Omar asked.
“No… no, she would never leave the kids at the park, or leave her car and never come back. None of this makes any sense.”
Dusty appealed to Omar.
“Do you know what happened? Can you explain it to me?”
“I’m afraid not, Mr. Coleman. Your wife is missing. It would appear she might have been the victim of a crime. But at this point… we are just as confused as you are.”
Dusty rubbed his eyes, suddenly looking exhausted. “Where are my kids? Mandi and Dane will need to go to bed, and someone will have to explain to them…”
“They are taken care of tonight,” Omar said. “You don’t need to worry about that right now.”
“Taken care of?”
“They were turned over to Social Services when they were abandoned at the park. Once they have a chance to evaluate the situation they will be returned to you. But being abandoned like that triggers an investigation.”
“But that was Ronnie, not me. I should be able to go and get them back.”
“Not the way it works. They have to satisfy themselves that this is a safe environment. I’m sure they’ll be talking to you tomorrow.”
Jane Withers was ready for Omar when he returned. She sat expectantly with her fingers hovering over the keyboard, waiting for instructions.
“Background on Dusty Coleman is already started,” she said. “So far no red flags, but we’ve only just begun. Ronnie Coleman, however…”
“She has a record?” Omar guessed.
“No. She doesn’t exist.”
Omar lowered himself into the chair beside her so that he could see the reports that she brought up on the screen.
“She’s a ghost?”
“Never existed until she started working at Starcan, the company that Dusty works at now. At that point, she applied for a social and started working.”
“A Veronica Stern, born June first, twenty-three years old. Only problem is, Veronica Stern died at age two.”
“So she created a paper trail for herself. Professional?”
“Doesn’t appear to be. Professionals usually develop an identity very thoroughly. Library card, gym, social, driver’s, everything you can think of. Ronnie’s trail is very low-key. Minimal. A social and a fake driver’s. Nothing else. No credit cards, her name is not on the house or on the car registration. Her marriage license and children’s birth certificates. Everything else kept below the radar. No store loyalty cards, library, gym.”
“Phone, email, social networks?”
“Her cell is in Dusty’s name. I can’t find any email or social networks. We’ll have to get her computer and take a look.”
Omar studied the screen. “So what was she running from? Criminal past? Abuser? Someone who just wanted to start fresh?”
“What did her husband say about her past and her family?”
“It upset her to discuss them, so he didn’t. He thought that her parents were killed in a car accident.”
“I’ll check for car accidents six or seven years ago, just to be sure. Also any missing persons reports around the time that she assumed her new identity. She came from somewhere.”
“But where? She could be from out of our jurisdiction.”
She shrugged. “I’ll keep it narrow to start with. We’ll widen the net if nothing shows up.”
Omar had watched the videos of the children’s interviews with Mrs. Vital, the social worker. Mandi, age four, hadn’t had much to say, other than that she wanted to go home to her mother. Dane was almost six and was more articulate in his interview.
“Where did Mommy go?” Mrs. Vital asked him.
“She went to the car.”
“Why did she go to the car?”
Dane considered the question seriously. “Maybe she forgot something,” he suggested.
“What do you think she forgot?”
“Were you guys hungry?” Vital asked.
“We were hungry when the police came.”
“Yes, you were. But you’d been at the park for a long time, then. Were you hungry when your mom left you there and went back to the car?”
“What did Mommy say when she went back to the car? Did she say she was going to go get some snacks?”
He shook his head and looked around the room restlessly. Omar got the idea that he was normally a pretty active little boy and not used to having to sit still for long. But the interview room, although made to look cozy and furnished with toys and teddies, was an unfamiliar place and he stayed in his seat.
“She just said… ‘I’ll be right back,’” he reported.
“And did she come right back?”
He shook his head vigorously. “We played for a looong time. Usually we can’t stay for a long time. But we got hungry, and Mandi got dirt in her eye, and my hands were cold.”
“So she just let you play there for the whole time? And then you got sad because she hadn’t come back from the car?”
“Uh-huh,” Dane agreed. “Where is she? Can we go home now?”
“I still need you to talk to me. Did you see your mom go back to the car?”
“I want you to think about it, Dane. Did she get into the car?”
He was hesitant. “Nooo…”
“Did she get anything out of the car?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did she have a bag or a suitcase in the car, like she was going to go on a trip?”
“Did she talk to anyone else at the park? Any of the grown-ups?”
Dane thought about it. “No.”
“Did she usually talk to others?”
“My friends’ moms. But they weren’t there. It was a different park.”
“Yes, it was, wasn’t it? Did your mom say why you were going to a different park today?”
“She didn’t say that there was something special about it?”
“Or that she wanted to meet someone there?”
Dane played with his sandy curls. He looked around the room, getting up on his chair to look around. Then he sat back down again.
“I want my mom. Is she coming here?”
“Where did she say she was going, Dane? She must have told you.”
“No. She said, ‘I’ll be right back.’”
“Did your dad go to the park?”
“No,” he shook his head, brows drawn down, at such an idea. “Daddy doesn’t go to the park. Daddy goes to work.”
“He never goes to the park?”
“And you didn’t see him at all today? He didn’t go to the park to surprise your mom?”
“Did anybody go to the park to surprise your mom?”
“A special friend? Did your mom have any special friends?”
Dane chewed on the end of his finger, this question apparently not prompting any memories. “No.”
“When she went to the car, was there anyone else around watching her? Standing nearby? Did anyone talk to her?”
He gave a frustrated sigh, scowling. “No,” he huffed.
“Where did she go after she went to the car?”
Dane shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Did you see her walk away from the car?”
“Or get into someone else’s car?”
“Was there anyone at the park who made you feel scared or icky?”
He arched his eyebrows and shook his head, scornful at the idea. “There were no strangers there.”
“Did you know the other kids playing at the park?” Vital questioned in surprise.
“Or their parents?”
“Then they were strangers.”
“No,” Dane asserted. “They weren’t strangers. You’re not supposed to talk to strangers. But they were nice.”
Vital nodded, understanding. Omar rolled his eyes at this, but was used to this common misconception among children. Strangers were scary monsters. People who tried to steal you or rip your clothes off. People who were nice to you were obviously not strangers. A stranger could be recognized by his scowling face or scary music that accompanied his entrance. Vital had obviously run into this situation before as well. She didn’t try to force understanding, just continued to question him.
“And when you started to feel tired and cold and hungry, you talked to the adults and told them that you wanted your mom.”
Dane agreed. “They helped us and gave us snacks and mittens. Then the police came to help and gave us a ride in their car.”
“That was nice, wasn’t it?”
“But they left Mommy’s car there. Where is Mommy?”
“We’re still looking for your mommy. Did she say she was going to visit a friend today?”
“Or to run errands? Maybe she had some shopping to do?”
“No. She went shopping yesterday.”
“Maybe she forgot something.”
Dane shook his head with all of the assurance a five-year-old could muster. He yawned widely, making no attempt to cover his mouth.
“Where is my mom? When can I go home?”
“We’re going to let you sleep over at someone else’s house tonight. Then we’ll work on getting you back home once we know it is safe.”
“It’s safe. I want to go home.”
“I know, sweetie,” she agreed. But she didn’t tell him that he could.
They had slept at a respite home, and went back to Dusty Coleman the next day. Omar met up with them and Mrs. Vital at the respite home to observe the reunion and to see what he could divine from it.
Mandi and Dane were reticent with the social worker. No smiles. No childish chatter. Each clung to one of Mrs. Vital’s hands, looking at Omar and then Mrs. Vital’s unfamiliar car with nervousness. Omar followed the social worker’s car in his own vehicle and stayed to the side, unobtrusive, when they got out at the house.
Dusty was watching for them and hurried out the door as soon as the social worker got out of the car to unbuckle the kids from their booster seats.
“Mandi! Dane!” He called to them and hurried down the sidewalk in stocking feet. “Oh, I’m so glad to see you!”
He didn’t look like he had slept a wink the previous night. There were dark circles under his eyes and he hadn’t bothered to shave that morning. He crouched down and gathered the kids into his arms, hugging them tightly, eyes brimming with tears.
“I’m so glad to see you. Are you guys okay? Are you all right?” He looked at their faces, and then hugged them again.
Mandi, who had been mostly silent during her interview and the intervening time, was noisy.
“Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!”
“What is it, Mandi?”
“Yes, Daddy’s here. What do you want? Are you okay?”
He hugged her to him tightly, grinning at Dane over Mandi’s shoulder.
“I missed you kids so much last night! Are you okay? Did you sleep okay last night?”
“We had to sleep at a lady’s house,” Dane announced. “A lady we didn’t even know!”
“I know, Dane. But you are back home now. You can sleep back in your own bed tonight.”
“I missed it!” Dane said with a dramatically weary sigh.
Dusty laughed. “And how about you, princess? How did you sleep?”
Mandi was still pasted to Dusty, lying limply against him. Her eyes were glazed and far away, like she had just woken up.
“I want Mommy.”
“I know, princess,” Dusty agreed. “I do too.”
Dane addressed his father in a stern tone. “Where is Mommy?”
Omar was interested to note that Dane assumed that his father knew exactly where Ronnie would be.
“Mommy didn’t come home yesterday. We… we don’t know where she is. But I’m sure the police will find her, and they’ll bring her home safe and sound. Okay?”
Dane scowled at this. He looked over his shoulder at Omar.
“That policeman came with us. Does he know where Mommy is?”
Dusty followed his gaze to Omar and stood back up, straightening from his crouch at the children’s eye-level. He picked up Mandi with him, not shifting her from the spot where she had landed, her arms still around his neck.
“Do you know anything?” Dusty asked, as if nervous what the answer might be. He acted as if he believed that Omar knew more than he did about where Ronnie was. Whether that was true, or whether he knew exactly where Ronnie or her body now resided, Omar wasn’t at all sure.
“We haven’t found your wife yet,” Omar said. “Have you heard anything from her? Had any phone calls? Any friends who have called you up to talk about it?”
“No,” Dusty said flatly. “No one knows anything about where she could be.”
“Unless you can give us something, we have very little to go on.”
“There must be some clue of what happened to her… isn’t there anything in her car? Something to suggest…” he trailed off, looking frightened by his own words.
“Mr. Coleman… I don’t believe that your wife just walked off the face of the earth. Somebody did something. Somebody knows something. And the most likely person is… you.”
“You think I did something to my wife?” Dusty demanded, his voice rising in anger. “I was at work all day! You know that, didn’t you check with the others? I was at work all day, I couldn’t have done anything to her.”
“You’d be surprised how many times we hear that line. Maybe you snuck off at some point. Or maybe you hired someone, or talked someone else into helping. There are ways around alibis. Nothing is ever ironclad.”
“I didn’t do anything to hurt my wife. You need to be out looking for her.”
“I don’t know. The hospital. Put out news announcements asking for help. Hand out flyers. Go door to door. Surely you have a protocol!”
“The protocol is to wait twenty-four hours. You really want me to do that?”
“I want you to do something!”
“And I am. Right now I’m seeing that you get your kids back, which is the thing that you were most concerned about last night.”
“I was concerned about getting the kids back and about my wife.”
“You keep saying ‘my wife’ instead of Ronnie. Is there a reason you are having problems saying her name?”
“Ronnie. I don’t have any problem saying Ronnie’s name. I’m just trying to impress on you how important it is to me that you find her. She’s not just a random woman. She is the woman I love. The mother of my children. Please find her.”
“We’re doing our best, Mr. Coleman. And we will continue to work on it.”
Dusty rubbed Mandi’s back, his eyes misting over. He closed them for a moment. “Okay,” he agreed. “Thank you.”
“Anything?” Jane asked, coming upon Omar while he was rubbing his eyes, stinging and dry from staring at the computer screen for too long. “Looks like you need to take a break.”
Omar sat back in his chair and looked up at the statuesque blond.
“It’s got to be the husband,” Omar said. “There’s no indication of foul play. If it was a kidnapping, carjacking, or murder, her purse wouldn’t still be sitting in the car with her wallet in it. It’s like she just walked away.”
“But wouldn’t the husband know to take her purse and wallet if he wanted to make it look like a carjacking? Maybe whoever it was got interrupted.”
“If he got interrupted, then where the hell is Ronnie Coleman?”
“Have you had any luck tracking down her previous identity?”
“No, ’fraid not. I’ve checked back ten years, but generally, anything older than that has been archived and warehoused. Active cases should still be on the computer network, but that’s going back to before everything was standardized and integrated into a single database. Not much we can do if it never made it onto the integrated database. Some jurisdictions are still working their way backward, adding old information onto the system. Others just have an arbitrary cut-off and only cases that were opened after that date are required to be entered into the system.”
“Or there’s the possibility that she was never reported missing. If her family thought they knew where she had gone, or she had no family, she may never have made it to the missing persons database at all.”
Jane nodded, conceding this point.
“You’re right, of course.” Jane leaned on Omar’s chair. “You know, though… if she’s done this before, maybe it’s not the husband. Maybe she just takes on a new identity every so often.”
“You think she walked away from a four-year-old and a six-year-old? That’s pretty cold for a mother.”
“It’s been known to happen. Mothers have been known to kill their children too. At least she didn’t do that.”
“She could have just walked away,” Omar admitted. “But without even the cash in her wallet? If you were leaving your life behind, wouldn’t you at least take the cash with you?”
“Yes… of course I would.”
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