Prologue: Seven Years Ago
Disappearance can be far crueler than death, and at the age of thirteen, Maria Park had little experience with either.
She ran her nails along the metal arm of the office chair, click-click-click, back and forth. Noelle, her older sister, clutched Maria’s other hand protectively. She wanted to go home, but home was wherever their mother was, and nobody knew that. Seated on the floor beside them, knees drawn up to his chest, Maria’s best friend Vincent stared down the hallway at the investigation team. They were discussing his older brother, and though they weren’t being particularly loud, their voices seemed to echo ominously off the cold tile floor and bare walls of the Saturn Technologies building.
“Are they done with Henry yet?” asked Maria of nobody in particular. She hoped he wasn’t still angry at Mom. They’d been shouting a lot that morning. She’d told one of the federal agents about this when asked, and he’d smiled in a way that made her wish she hadn’t mentioned it.
“I told you, the investigators are still talking to him,” said Noelle, maintaining a stoic front. It was a skill she had to learn to survive at the police academy. “He’ll be out soon. You’re making Vince nervous.”
To unsettle Vincent was not difficult; he was a fidgety young man, one year Maria’s senior, whose nails were gnawed to the quick. “They think Henry did something to her,” he said. “They really think so.”
“Let’s not jump to conclusions, all right?” said Noelle. From what she understood, only a few people had accessed this floor of the building when their mother vanished. Five, specifically: her, her mother, her sister, and the Stein brothers, Henry and Vincent. Few people came to work on the weekend. If the worst had happened, Henry seemed like the most plausible culprit, but...
But the worst couldn’t have happened. There was no body. Henry couldn’t simply have erased their mother from existence. She had to be alive somewhere, but then, why didn’t she respond to their texts?
“No,” said Noelle, as much to reassure herself as to placate Maria, “they’re not going to arrest Henry today. They might have more questions later.”
“You think?” asked Maria.
“To help us find Mom.”
Reassured somewhat by her sister’s expert opinion, Maria ruminated quietly until Henry Stein’s office door swung open. The federal agent who’d been introduced to them as Ms. Singh stepped out, followed by Henry, who was downcast but not handcuffed. “If you think of anything,” said Singh, “tell us. The longer she stays missing, the harder this gets. Forensics will take your prints and DNA while we talk with her brother.”
Henry nodded and forced a crooked smile at Vincent and Maria before a lab tech led him away. Maria waved back, but Vincent only sighed. Recognizing their low spirits, Ms. Singh knelt down on one knee and addressed them both as Noelle watched.
“You’ve been very patient. I just need to talk to your uncle, and then you can all go home.” She rummaged through her briefcase and produced two lollipops, which she gravely presented to Vincent and Maria. The gesture might have been received with more gratitude if they’d been a few years younger. As it stood, Maria glumly fiddled with the wrapper, but didn’t open it, while Vincent rubbed and twirled the stick between his fingers.
“What if you can’t find her?” asked Maria.
A slow shake of the head and a brittle smile. “That shouldn’t concern you right now. That’s what professionals are for.”
“There were professionals on the Hindenburg,” muttered Vincent, with an uncharacteristic bite of teenage sarcasm.
“Listen,” said Ms. Singh. “I’m going to give you all my card. If you learn anything, let me know. I’ve got to go now.”
Vincent nodded glumly and pocketed the card as Singh rose to full height, handed two more cards to Maria and Noelle, and walked away.
“It looks like they’ve finished with the scene,” said Noelle. “I think we can get in, but stay quiet and don’t draw unnecessary attention.”
Her two charges nodded and rose to their feet. When they reached the machining room, Noelle inspected the door. She could see the place where Henry had pried it open with a crowbar. Smoke had been pouring from under that door not too long ago.
“So we smelled the smoke coming from here,” she said, thinking through what she remembered. “Vincent yelled for Henry, because we thought Mom was trapped inside... but when he broke in, she wasn’t there.”
A few hours before, all four of them - Maria, Noelle, Henry, and Vincent - had seen her mother enter that room and lock the door. At that point, she, Maria, and Vincent had decided to hang out in the office across the hall, which their mother shared with Uncle Johann. Henry went to his own office to rewrite a paper.
“If she left, I don’t know how all three of us missed her. We kept the door open.”
That was unsettling, but it was nothing compared to the second problem. Noelle and Maria had overheard the agents talking about the elevator records. The only ways to access the third floor of the building were the elevators and the emergency stairs, which had an alarm. Every time someone used the elevator, they needed to swipe their keycard.
And the keycard records were clear: nobody had used the elevator between the time Dr. Park entered the machining room and the time the police arrived. Furthermore, the cameras at the front desk captured no evidence of her leaving.
“It’s a hard problem,” said Noelle. Yes, that’s what it was. Once they solved the problem, they’d find their mother, and all would be well. She just had to keep the kids calm, and put on a strong face. “Why don’t we look around and think it through, one step at a time?”
She opened the machining room door and was greeted by the lingering aroma of smoke. The machining room held a hodgepodge of equipment and reagents. Cabinets of chemicals with obvious spill-marks lined the walls nearest the door, and a fabricator suite took up the entire back half of the room. Between the clutter, the fabricator, and the central table covered in power tools, there was little room to maneuver. Something faintly blue was splashed over the table and floor.
There were no doors but the one they entered by, and the window was closed tight. This was the room their mother had vanished from.
“When I’m trying to figure something out,” Noelle explained to Maria, “I think to myself, and consider every possibility. I investigate things closely. I look around."
Maria listened; she had the feeling that this would come in useful someday.
This is an interactive segment. Comment with suggestions for our sleuths. What should they inspect in the room? Once a reader has suggested an action, I will reply in the comments and, if relevant, will unlock some of the locked narration below.
LOCKED NARRATION: A Simple Answer?
LOCKED NARRATION: The Source of the Smoke
LOCKED NARRATION: A Belt?
“If they’re going to accuse Henry,” said Noelle. “They’d need to explain how...”
Vincent and Maria looked at her quizzically, but she didn’t finish the sentence aloud. Shutting her eyes, she inspected the floor.
“They might have tested with luminol. Maria, lights off, please.”
Maria flicked the light switch. With the window shades down, the room was dark enough now to see a faint blue glow spread across several wide areas of the floor.
“Why’s it glowing?” asked Maria, concerned. “Is it radioactive?”
“No. It’s a test for blood.” Seeing Maria’s alarm, Noelle hurriedly added, “But it also gives wrong answers, too. Maybe a reagent in the lab set it off, or some cleaning agent.”
Vincent bit his lip. “If it was blood, there was a lot.”
A series of unwanted ideas flashed through Noelle’s mind. There were power tools here. There was carbon cleaner, too, a big bucket of it. Acids for etching. And the fire could have been set by overloading the laser cutter deliberately, to cover up the smell. And the loud machining station could have covered up the sound of -
Noelle’s voice quaked a little as she tried to drive the thoughts away: “No, no, it would take too long. Even with that sink, there’s no way.”
“What would take too long?” asked Vincent.
“Nothing.” Collecting herself, Noelle shook her head fiercely.
“Mom’s still alive,” she said. “She must be.”
Having finished investigating to the best of their ability, the three were preparing to leave when Maria snapped to attention.
“Hey! A mouse!” said Maria.
“What?” Sometimes, Noelle wondered if her sister had some sort of attentional disorder. She’d never sought a diagnosis, but...
Maria pointed to the hulking fabricator. “A mouse just ran behind there. It was wearing something shiny. I don’t know what.”
Brow furrowing, Noelle crouched to peer under the machine. It was too dark to see and too loud to hear, but something was moving there. But why would a mouse be wearing anything? Was it some kind of lab specimen?
“Henry said they test stuff on the mice,” said Vincent, then added, noting Maria’s look of worry, “It doesn’t hurt them. But they don’t do it in here. They, um, test in the animal testing -”
The door swung open, interrupting these murine speculations, and Uncle Johann entered. “There you are. Um, you all shouldn’t be in here.” He didn’t meet their gaze. “Let’s get you somewhere safer. There’s - well - there’s - there’s something I need to tell you.”
It was then that Uncle Johann relayed the bad news. A thorough search of the surrounding area, including hospitals, buses, taxis, traffic cameras, and the morgue, had turned up not the slightest trace of Dr. Alice Palmstroem Park. It was as if she had vanished off the face of the earth.
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