Balloon Man

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Chapter 47

An hour later, Alma was officially discharged. Before she left, she made her rounds, checked on Papite, Remy, Jacob, Alouette and the others. Papite and Jacob were being released today as well, but Remy and the others had injuries requiring at least two more days of confinement to their beds. After hugs and kisses, Alma headed to her last stop: Cye’s room.

When she walked in and found it empty, Alma felt dizzy and scared. Turning, she raced over to the nurse’s station. “Where’s Cye Swain?”

“Oh, they moved him to ICU. The infection requires round-the-clock care. He’s in room 346.”

Alma ran to the elevator. It took forever to open then rose slowly up to the third floor. Alma had to check in at the nurses’ station, then was allowed to visit for only ten minutes.

Once she entered his room, she gasped. Cye wasn’t just pale—he was damn near yellow. Several tubes were sticky out of him and numerous machines beeped and blinked.

“Oh, Cye. Fight this! Don’t you give up on me. There’s something I have to tell you,” Alma whispered, tears running down her face. A few dripped onto Cye’s cold hand. “It’s about us, I never told you this, but we—”

“I need to change his dressing so you’ll need to step out of the room.”

Turning to the sound of the unfamiliar voice, Alma spotted a male nurse, his hands full of gauze and other medical supplies. “Oh, sure. Sorry. He’s just…a close friend and I have to tell him something in case he…”

Alma’s voice trailed off as the tears came faster. She had to tell Cye, let him know about the child they conceived so long ago, in case he didn’t make it.

“Should take me about fifteen minutes. Have a seat in the ICU waiting room and I’ll come get you when I’m finished.”

“Sure thing,” Alma whispered.

She made her way to the waiting area, pacing back and forth in front of the enormous window overlooking the city.

“You sure are a hard person to track down, Ms. Emmett.”

Alma turned at the sound of a familiar voice. In the doorway stood the detective who interrogated her the day before. It took a few minutes for her brain to dredge up his name. “You’re looking for me, Detective Booth?”

“I am. I understand from the staff you’ve been given a clean bill of health and discharged. I really need you to come to the station with me and sign the original statement you gave yesterday, plus answer a few more questions.”

Alma sighed. “Can’t it wait? I need to talk to Cye.”

“No, I’m afraid it can’t. A lot has happened in the last twenty-four-plus hours, and we need your help putting the pieces of this monumental puzzle together.”

Crossing her arms, unwilling to be told—again—what to do by others, Alma answered, “You can talk to me here just as easily as at the station. What do you want to know?”

Sensing the woman wasn’t going to budge, and considering what she’d been through and her fragile state, Detective Booth walked over and sat next to Alma. “Are you aware we arrested Mr. Lafuente?”

“I watched a news report yesterday. They didn’t mention names, but I assumed it was Cooter and Herme.”

“Your assumption is correct. After taking Mr. Lafuente into custody, we convinced him to tell us everything in exchange for the death penalty to be taken off the table. He cooperated and we escorted him back to his trailer. He showed us all the holes where he’d kept his victims and led us to the remains of several. Told us how he’d been partners for years with Jo Bob and others; how he used toys—especially balloons—and the promise of seeing the world’s biggest alligator, as tools to lure his victims.”

Alma shuddered as cold chills ran up her spine. “How many?”

Detective Booth glanced at his notes. “If he’s telling the truth, over one hundred.”

Alma felt the room spin. It took her a few seconds to regain her senses. “I don’t understand how I can be of any more help, Detective. I’ve already told you everything I know. What I saw. How we all escaped. What more do you want from me?”

“We have all the evidence we need against Mr. Lafuente. What we need now is information on Mr. Swain. You, and your sister, worked for him for years, so what I’d—”

Anger flooded Alma’s mind. “Are you trying to accuse me or Elaine of being—oh, what’s the word?—accessories or something? Is that why you’re here? You think we had some part in all this?”

“Calm down, Ms. Emmett. No, we don’t think that at all. Not now. I’ll admit in the beginning, we had our doubts. But after the arrest of Mr. Lafuente, the items we discovered at Foret LeBlanc’s residence after he died, and a visit from two FBI agents, we know neither you, your sister, or Cye Swain had any knowledge of what was really going on at Swarthmore.”

Stunned, Alma sputtered, “The FBI? Foret LeBlanc—he’s involved, too? Oh Jesus. When will this nightmare end?”

“The FBI received a tip two months ago and have been working the case since then. They honed in on Foret LeBlanc about three weeks ago, but didn’t have enough evidence to charge him with a crime. After his house blew up and they found the charred remains of his computer, their forensics team extracted the motherlode from the hard drive.”

Alma couldn’t stop shaking. “How in the world did the FBI get involved?”

“Two toddler boys were kidnapped in broad daylight in Wisconsin several years ago. They were less than three at the time. Their mother turned her back for a split second while loading groceries into her car and poof! When she turned around, they were gone. An investigation was conducted by the local police, including looking into the family, and came up with squat. Then, someone called the tip line and mentioned they saw a man with two young, blond-haired boys walking down the street, each holding a balloon and crying for their mama. The caller even said he approached the man, sensing something was wrong. The guy convinced him he was their father and the kids had thrown a fit in the store while shopping, so he took them out for a walk and bought them balloons. The tip didn’t come in until almost forty-eight hours later. By then, they boys were long gone and the trail cold.”

Confused, Alma asked, “But how did that little bit of information lead them to Foret?”

“It wasn’t until earlier this year, when the family of the two boys—the Weilands—had flyers made up using age progression software. A former employee of Swarthmore recognized them.”

Alma thought back to all the people employed at Swarthmore. There hadn’t been many. Jo Bob always told her it was because he feared hiring someone with devious intentions toward the children. The memory made her livid. Off the top of her head, she could only recall one person leaving during the last few years. “Cheryl? Cheryl Kincaid?”

Detective Booth scanned his notes. “Yes, that’s the name. You know her?”

Alma shook her head. “Not personally, no. I mean, I saw her a few times but never really talked to her. She was a part-time cook, but only worked at Swarthmore for a few months. Jo Bob told me he fired her because she got snippy with him.”

Detective Booth grimaced. “He lied. She fled to Wisconsin to live with her cousin in the middle of the night. Apparently, she witnessed some disturbing things go down between a strange, scary looking man and two boys. According to Ms. Kincaid, Jo Bob realized she’d seen too much and tried to kill her. She escaped and never looked back. The woman was terrified of Jo Bob.”

“Oh, my God,” Alma whispered.

“A few weeks ago, Ms. Kincaid saw the flyer and recognized the boys. It took her several days to get up the nerve and call the tip line. Said she recalled they looked like the two she saw that night. One of the agents flew up to Wisconsin last night and showed her a photo lineup. She picked out Cooter as the man she saw hurting the boys.”

“Wisconsin? My God, what in the world was going on at Swarthmore?”

“From what we’ve uncovered, a lot. They were kidnapping children based upon the wants and needs of their sick, demented clients. People paid a lot of money to get exactly the kind of child they wanted.”

“Why not just go through reputable channels to adopt? Swarthmore was full of boys waiting to find good homes!” Alma whined, her mind reeling from the news.

“Pedophiles and monsters don’t use easily-tracked methods to obtain their prey, Ms. Emmett.”

Alma was overcome with emotions. She couldn’t believe she—and Elaine—had been under the roof for years and never noticed anything amiss. How in the world could they have been so blind? Alma’s stomach rolled as the sick, disgusting reality slammed into her body. It took all she had not to throw up.

Detective Booth cleared his throat, sensing Alma’s internal struggles. “You really didn’t know, did you?”

Unable to find the words to respond, Alma simply shook her head.

“According to Special Agent Vinson, he spoke with Jo Bob two weeks ago. He went to Swarthmore under the guise of a gas company employee, saying there had been a leak in the area and needed to check their lines.”

“I remember that! Jo Bob seemed very agitated and angry after he left! I never could figure out why. I mean, I thought he was way too upset about a potential gas leak.”

“Well, that’s because Jo Bob caught the agent questioning some of the children about things not pertaining to a gas leak. According to the agent, Jo Bob insisted he leave. The agent switched topics quickly, and mentioned the mineral rights underneath Swarthmore were worth a lot of money since a huge vein of natural gas ran underneath it. That made Jo Bob forget all about the overheard questions posed to the boys. The agent said he’d put Jo Bob in touch with a reputable real estate agent and Jo Bob agreed. Another agent was scheduled to go undercover as the realtor, dangling the news of a potential buyer to gain entry. If it worked, it would give the agent a legitimate reason to poke around the place and search for clues without Jo Bob worrying.”

“I just can’t wrap my head around this. I never liked Cooter and always thought he was a weird man. But Jo Bob? Oh, God. I think I’m gonna be sick. Elaine and I worked there for quite a few years and I swear, we had no idea.”

“The FBI already knew that, Ms. Emmett. According to Special Agent Vinson, they vetted you out weeks ago.”

Alma grappled with the news. It took her a few minutes to formulate a question. “So, if you all already know all this, why do you want me to come to the station?”

“The FBI has some pictures they’d like you to look at.”

“Pictures?”

“Yes, images of several missing children. They’d like to see if you recognize any of them.”

Alma wanted to stay and wait for Cye to wake up, but the pull to help children won out. She nodded once and stood, following Detective Booth outside and to his unit.

It only took ten minutes to arrive at the police station. The parking lot was full of reporters and TV cameras, so Detective Booth pulled around to the back, which was cordoned off from the media.

Once inside, they walked through a maze of corridors until Detective Booth finally stopped at one and knocked. A gruff male voice answered, “Come in.”

Alma recognized one of the men immediately. It was the man she saw at Swarthmore posing as the gas man.

“Ms. Emmett, thank you for helping us,” Special Agent Vinson said. He motioned for Alma to sit on the other side of the table. Once situated on a cold, metal chair, Alma glanced to her left, noting the wall was covered with photos.

“These are pictures of missing children we’d like you to look at. Some have been missing for years. We believe, based upon our investigation, they may be connected to Swarthmore. Please, take your time and if you see any you recognize, put them into a pile. We understand this will be difficult, and something you should do alone. Simply knock on the door once finished.”

Alma waited until she was alone before rising from the seat and walking to the wall. Sweet, adorable faces stared back in silence, their cherubic faces frozen in time. Blonds, brunettes, some with freckles and blue eyes, some with dark brown eyes and even darker skin dotted the walls. The thing that struck Alma the most was they looked happy—carefree and innocent—and since they were on the wall, it meant they’d been snatched from their families.

Innocence—gone. Families destroyed by sorrow, torn apart by the gut-wrenching loss of their little ones, driving themselves insane with worry about their safety.

Every parent’s worst nightmare.

Swallowing a lump of salty tears, Alma started at the left side of the wall, staring at each picture, hoping and praying she had no spark of recognition, because the thought of the children passing through Swarthmore—right under her freaking nose—made her feel like a blind mole.

At the fourth picture, Alma’s heart fluttered with grief.

She recognized the smiling, freckle-faced boy with green eyes and a thick head of mahogany hair.

“Dear God,” Alma whispered as a shaky reached up and took the picture from the wall.

After an hour or so, Alma finished looking at all the images. There was a small pile of thirty pictures she’d removed from the wall stacked neatly on the table. She walked over to the door and knocked twice.

Detective Booth and Special Agent Vinson walked in seconds later. Alma pointed to the pile. “Those I recognized immediately. The others I didn’t. But, then again, there were so many children in and out, I guess it’s hard to remember faces.”

“You did just fine, Ms. Emmett. Just fine. This gives us a good starting point to identifying the remains we’ve uncovered so far. We’ll be contacting the families of the children you recognize and asking for DNA samples for comparison. How many did you find?”

Alma swallowed hard, forcing the tears back down her throat. The thought of the poor parents receiving a call from the police, only to have their hopes and prayers dashed by the news, made her want to collapse on the floor and sob. “Thirty.”

Special Agent Vinson picked up the pictures. “At least thirty families will have closure now and be able to move on. Thank you for your assistance Ms. Emmett. If we need you for anything else, we know where to find you.”

Detective Booth led Alma out of the room and down the hall. After a few minutes he said, “We found your car yesterday. I had one of the officers bring it here. It’s out back and here are your keys. If you don’t feel like driving, I’d be glad to take you somewhere and have someone take your car home.”

Biting her lip, Alma said nothing as she took the keys.

“I, uh, well, thought you might want to know we had your sister’s remains taken to Buie Funeral Home on Central. They suggested a cremation, considering things.”

“Thank you,” Alma muttered.

Alma turned to walk away but Detective Booth grabbed her arm. “Wait, Alma. There’s something else you need to know. It’s going to be a lot to swallow, but you need to know.”

“What can be worse than what’s already happened?” Alma asked.

“Depending upon how you view it, the news could be good or bad. Here,” Detective Booth whispered, handing Alma an envelope. “I suggest waiting until you’re home to open it.”

Alma stared at the paper, a heavy sense of dread filled her heart. She took it but didn’t open it, afraid her mind couldn’t handle more bad news.

“Your car is parked next to mine, right by where we came in at. You sure you don’t want me to take you somewhere?”

Alma didn’t answer. Instead, she turned and walked away, tears streaming down her face.

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