Chapter 9: The trail that led to nowhere
Armstrong called Alex well into eight more hours of their trip.
“Detective Rivers,” he answered into his phone.
“Rivers, it’s Officer Armstrong. We have more information on the where a bouts of Matthew. For right now anyway.”
“The Dallas World Aquarium. We think that’s where he is going today.”
Keeping his eyes on the empty road, Alex squinted his eyebrows curiously. “Why the hell would he go to an aquarium? Isn’t that sort of public?”
“Well that’s the point. I read an article about psychopaths and their behavior. It said that they tend to perform normal day to day activities. Going to the park, playing with kids and what not. Either that or it’s because someone tipped us off. Whichever, go to the aquarium and be ready. We have eyes looking for where he is staying, but nothing yet. Anyways, an aquarium might mean something to the Parks, so I am going to talk with Mrs. Parks about it and see.”
Alex widened his eyes once he remembered that Armstrong didn’t even know he had brought her along. “Yeah, about that,” he paused, preparing himself to get yelled at. “I might have sort of... uh...”
“Get to the point Rivers I don’t have all day.”
“I took Maria with me.”
“You what?” His voice became low and croaky.
Alex bit his lip, becoming anxious at the silence. “Sorry?”
“Bloody hell Rivers, when are you going to start listening to me. Be glad you are already to far away because I would make you turn right around. Whatever, it’s too late now, we don’t know why he would be out and about. There is a possibility he could be with other people, but I don’t want you to worry about them. Focus on Matthew. I called the DPD and told them to have officers on backup if you need them.”
“So we don’t know why he is there?”
“No idea. My other thought was that maybe he wants to be caught.”
Alex felt Maria nudge him with her elbow, and looked over at her to find a confused look on her face. Alex then held a finger up and mouthed ‘hold on.’
“Send me the address and I’ll be there soon. We’ll be in the city in an hour.”
“Will do, Rivers. Be careful. He is dangerous and we don’t want what we got on our hands. And if you find him, don’t cause a ruckus. We need this as private as possible. Which means-”
“No reporters, no yelling, and no tackling. I got this,” he said before ending the call.
“What was that about? Did they find her?” Maria asked, worry spread across her face.
“No, but Armstrong seems to think they are going to the aquarium today. Does that mean anything to you? The aquarium?”
Maria sighed and closed her eyes. “That’s where he would take her when he didn’t want to be around me, or for her to see me. He wanted to make sure she didn’t ask questions. I always found it strange because I live with her and she would have to see me at some point. I guess he just wanted to hurt me even more,” said Maria.
“Has she ever seen the-the...”
“The bruises? No. Not while they were still noticeable.”
“Does that scare you?”
“Yes. I’m always worried that she won’t recognize me. Or worse, be afraid of me. I know I’m... scary. People stare, and whisper and point. I can’t have my own daughter be afraid of me too.”
Maria looked away, biting her lip and shuffling her fingers. Alex sensed she was uncomfortable, so he started talking to distract her.
“Why do you think he would bring her to Dallas?”
She raised her eyebrow. “Umm... I don’t... oh.” Her gaze drifted down by her feet and she spoke quietly. “That was where he first touched me. Or, grabbed me rather.” She didn’t spend more than a few seconds before changing the subject. “Shouldn’t he be hiding?”
Alex decided not to talk about the first time he touched her, so he moved on like she did. “Well Armstrong said that he might want to be caught. Or maybe he is meeting someone there in an open area to avoid suspicion.”
“What would he need from someone else?”
Alex shook his head trying to find an answer to Maria’s question. “I don’t know. Drugs maybe,” he said, knowing that that wouldn’t be the logical reason.
“If he gets that stuff anywhere near my daughter I swear to god.”
“Hey, relax. Don’t get yourself worked up. He wants you to be upset. Don’t give him what he wants. And my guess is that someone is helping him. Give him a new identity, trade something. Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve seen that happen.”
“I hate this. I really, really, fucking hate this.” She slammed her fist against the door. “Why couldn’t he just be the same man I fell in love with?”
Alex, confused by what she meant, kept one hand on the steering wheel, but took Maria’s hand in the other. Matthew had always been the same man. He had always been like that. It just got worse as time went on. “It’ll be okay.”
“Will it, Alex? Will it? Because I don’t think so! Right now he has my daughter and is running from the police while I sit here pregnant with his child that he forced me to have!” Maria stopped after realizing what she said.
Alex pulled the car over to the side of the road. There weren’t many other cars driving with them because they weren’t in the city yet, but he wouldn’t forgive himself if there were an accident. Alex put the car in park and unbuckled his seat belt so he could turn towards Maria, who had tears running down her olive skin.
“Why did he force you to have it? I thought he just... did it to please himself?” Alex asked so quietly that it was almost impossible to hear.
Maria gave a sarcastic laugh, trying to hide her emotions. “Yes well, life isn’t always that simple, and unfortunately that is what happened this time. And with Natalie.” She sniffed wiped away her tears, then continued talking. “When I told him a I was pregnant with Natalie, he got mad because he didn’t believe he was hers. So he told me that after her he was going to make sure I had another baby and it was his, and I would have no choice. I would have kept them anyway because it’s my baby and because I want them. I still tear myself apart about it though. Going back and fourth in my head all night wondering if I should or shouldn’t. Even though I didn’t have a choice. Matthew would have decided for me. You should have seen the way he looked at me when he said that to me. I thought I was going to die. I had never been so scared in my entire life because I knew at that moment it wasn’t just about me. All of a sudden I had a child that could be hurt. I couldn’t have that happen. I thought that was it. And... I hoped that was it, I wanted it to be over so I wouldn’t have to go through it anymore, and neither would she. I thought that... I though that if I was dead it would be better. I think I still do.”
Alex hung his head and closed his eyes, squinting them to the tiniest bit, allowing himself to see very little. With that last bit of vision, he examined Maria’s wrists and finally came to the conclusion that it was Maria who had engraved those scars on what once was her beautiful, soft, innocent skin. It wasn’t Matthew who had put those scar there, it was her.
“Maria, I hope you don’t mean that.”
“Oh trust me, I do. Not as much now. But back then, I wished for death so often it felt like a memory. Even before Natalie I had always wanted kids though. I wanted to have a family. I just didn’t want it with him.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, what did he do? When he thought Natalie wasn’t his?”
She readjusted her position and pulled down the sleeves on her shirt when she realized Alex was looking at her wrists. “It was horrible,” she sobbed. “I only remember some of it before I blacked out. I just remember him looking at me and pushing me up against the wall choking and kicking me. I guess after that I blacked out. I woke up the next morning and he was gone. I couldn’t look at myself the next few days without breaking down. That’s why we don’t have mirrors.” Maria, this time, let a tear roll down her cheek before finishing her story. And with a deep breath she started again. “But this time, when I found out I was pregnant, I prayed that the test was wrong.”
Alex knitted his brows together, not sure he could handle any more of Maria’s story. “Why? I thought you wanted to have kids?”
“I know, and I did. I still do. I just couldn’t imagine bringing a child into such a terrible world. If anything happened to them, I would never forgive myself, because it would be my fault. And yes, Natalie is okay, but he has gotten so much worse since then. I was always terrified that something was to to happen. To me, Natalie, and the baby. I still am, and he’s not even here. I hate myself for letting this happen.” She balled her hands into fists, her fingernails tearing through the flesh on her palms.
Alex thought more about Maria and her past, then thought about what he saw in her house the day they searched the house. He hesitated to ask his question, but figured if there was a time, this was it. Maria had already poured out so much she had been forced to hide. She spent almost a decade with that awful man who didn’t allow her to feel anything except fear. He made her act like nothing was wrong, and that they had a normal, loving relationship. It only made Alex wonder how someone could be so cruel. But when Alex was around, Maria was able to feel vulnerable. She felt safe and protected knowing that she had someone she could talk to. With him, she didn’t have to hide anything, and not because he was a cop. It was more than that. Both of them could feel it.
“Maria,” the light brown haired man started.
“Yes?” She shuddered, her hands still in a tight ball. Her flesh still tearing. The only reason she did it was because it took her mind off all the pain she was feeling inside.
“When me and Enrique were looking through the house, there was a box in one of the closets. It said... Anthony on it.”
She bobbed her head up and down and sucked her teeth. “I was wondering when you were going to ask about that.”
“Mhmm,” she hummed. “You are quite nosy. But, please, I don’t want to talk about it. That is a time in my life I would not wish to relive. Maybe some other time.”
Alex nodded, not expecting that she was going to tell him in the first place. “I understand. But when you are ready, I’ll be here to listen.” He reached over and grabbed Maria’s left hand again, unfolding her fingers, and intertwining his with the hers.
“Thank you,” she said, letting her body ease.
The aquarium wasn’t that much further, and they had arrived to their destination sooner than they anticipated. And Alex, much to Maria’s dislike, made her stay in the car, for he was unaware of the possible dangers.
Alex walked briskly passed the roped lines where only a few people stood. A few of them scoffed when Alex cut in front of them, but became quiet once they saw his badge.
He approached the older woman with greying hair at one of the ticket booths and spoke once the woman looked up.
“Hi, I am with the LPD, I am looking for someone and I think they might be here. A guy and his daughter, she is four.”
The aging, overweight woman had a black hat with the company’s logo, and bright pink lipstick that was smeared on sloppily. “Listen hun, we get a lot of kids.” She leaned forward and sneered, her yellow tinted teeth shining with spit. “You might want to be more specific.”
Alex pulled out his phone and opened that photo app. He scrolled though and found the picture he took of the photo with Maria, Natalie, and Matthew that was on Natalie’s dresser. He showed it to the woman, who’s name was apparently Debra.
She barley glanced at it before wheeling her chair over to the computer, trying to make him leave. “Sorry hun, haven’t seen ’em.”
“Okay, listen, uh... Debra. I need to find these two people because someone very important to me needs them found. Now, I want you to actually look this time, and tell me if you’ve seen either one of them.” Alex raised his voice out of frustration.
Debra slid her glasses up the bridge of her nose and took Alex’s phone, giving the picture a closer look. “Nope, sorry. Like I told ’ya, lots of guys come in with kids. I’m as blind as a bat anyway. Can’t see nothing.”
“Is there anyone else I can talk to? Another worker? Photographers? Please, this is extremely important.”
“And so is my lunch break. Now step aside hun, or I’ll have security remove ’ya from the premises.”
Alex muttered a few choice words, hoping Debra’s hearing was just as bad as her eyesight. Thinking of another way to find them, he backed away from the desk. Fuming, he turned to go back to the car, but stopped when a finger tapped him on his shoulder.
“Excuse me?” They said with an accent that sounded familiar.
Alex spun around, his short tasseled hair moving as he did. “Uh, yeah?”
“My name is Adam. I couldn’t help but over hear your conversation with Debra,” he started. He was a good looking guy, black hair that was slicked back with gel. His eyes were dark; they were the kind that you could easily get lost in. And he had a Puerto Rican accent that was undistinguishably identical to Enrique’s.
“Yeah, she wasn’t much help,” Alex said.
“You got that right. She isn’t a, well... a people person. Anyway, I’m head of security, and I will be much more help than her. We have camera’s if you want to take a look,” he offered.
Alex tilted his head to the side. “Hold on, how do you know about this?”
“Right, I guess it isn’t a good idea to take word from a random stranger. Shaun, err, Armstrong called and told me that you would be coming.”
Now that Alex knew this Adam guy was aware of what was going on, he simply said, “Lead the way.”
He followed Adam through a door that read staff only. The two of them walked down a long hallway that smelled like fish and salt water. He could barley work in the building back in Lansing, forget a fish smelling aquarium.
There were different doors on each dark blue wall of the hallway that led to different habitats, or stored food. As they reached the end of the hallway, the smell subsided, and Adam unclipped a key chain from is belt buckle. He grabbed his ID and scanned it on the lock. Adam unlocked the door and opened the door that said security on it in bold black letters. There were a ton of TV’s on the wall, and three computers. Two of which had people working on. One woman, who was Asian with silky long black hair, and another guy and blond hair.
“This is Michelle, and that’s David,” he informed him, closing the door behind them.
David stood up from the grey leather chair and walked over to Adam. “Pleasure,” he said, holding out his hand.
“David is my coworker and Michelle is my personal assistant.”
With an eye roll, she stood up. “That’s hardly the case, Adam.” She shifted her gaze from Adam towards Alex. “I’m his boss, and girlfriend. He just can’t handle the fact that I’m in charge of him.” She gave Adam the side eye. “Anyway, what can we do for you?”
“I’m with the LPD. We are trying to find this guy and his daughter. I think he might be here. All I want to do is look at camera footage,” Alex explained, hoping that he would find some piece of valuable evidence, and that the long car ride was for nothing.
Michelle nodded. “Yeah sure. We can look at footage and check computer data. But tell me why we should trust you. We get a lot of wackos in Texas, so give me a good reason.”
Alex stared at her blankly. He had no idea why Adam offered to help. He didn’t even know him a few minutes ago. Michelle either. And he hadn’t exactly expected to be threatened by two people throughout the course of ten minutes. Unsure of what to say to the woman, he looked at Adam, praying he would know what to say to his spunk girlfriend to make her calm down.
“Because we know each other,” Adam said simply.
Alex knitted his brows together. “Yeah, if the last ten minutes count.”
“True, but I can actually do know you. But we’ve never met until today. I’m Enrique’s brother. I guess I should have told you that in advance,” he explained. As Alex looked at him more, he saw the resemblance, aside from the eyes. Enrique’s eyes were a lighter brown.
“Oh, you’re his brother,” Alex said.
Adam tilted his head back and fourth. “That would be me.”
Alex raised his eyebrows. “He talks about you a lot. Enrique. I know you guys had some problems before, but he talks about you all the time.”
Adam’s cheeks flushed. “He talks about you a lot too.”
“Yeah. Rique’s a weirdo. Never had friends while we were growing up. He gets really excited when he has a good one.”
“Anyway, so know that you know I’m not a crazy person, can I see the tapes?”
Michelle stepped closer to Alex. “Can I see your badge, officer?”
He couldn’t lie, Michelle scared the crap out of him. Alex gulped and pulled off his badge from his belt, and showed it to Michelle.
“Very well. David,” she called out, “put on the front gate tapes from this morning.”
Michelle, Adam, and Alex, all walked over to the computer. Alex grabbed out a chair from the back table that had papers scattered on it, while Michelle sat where she before, and Adam took his chair next to her.
“So, who are we looking from exactly?” David asked while putting his feet up on the desk and tucking his hands behind his head.
Alex pulled up the picture from his phone again and showed it to everyone. “The husband and the kid. Their names are Matthew and Natalie Parks.”
Michelle smacked her lips together. “Well that won’t do us any good. They could have used a fake name, ID. Could have snuck in the back for all we know. Maybe even pretending to be the UPS people from this morning. No one would suspect a thing.”
Alex rubbed his temples. “Great. How long do you think this is going to take?”
“Don’t know. Aquarium opened hours ago. Could take a few minutes or the rest of the day.”
Alex stood up from the chair, his legs happy to be moving after the long car ride. “Well in that case I need to go back to the car. I’ll be right back.” He left the room, not waiting for anyone to respond, then made his way back down the hallway and to car that was still running.
Maria jumped as he opened the car door.
Trying to regulate her breath, she whispered, “I thought you were supposed to be finding them. Why are you back so quick?”
“Well I was, but then I realized that it was going to take a lot longer than I thought it would. And I didn’t want you to have to sit in the car any longer than you had to. I talked to the security people and they are going to help us,” he explained.
“So they are here.”
Alex smacked his lips together. “We don’t yet, but we have to stay and watch the tapes from this morning.”
“Fine. As long as I get my daughter back.”
Alex brought her back to the security room. They were all still sitting in the exact same positions as before, eyes glued to black and white screens.
“Anything yet?” Alex asked walking in, Maria standing close behind him, examining her new surroundings.
“Whoa whoa whoa,” Michelle waved her hands in the air at the sight of Maria. “This is not a party. You can’t just bring people in here.”
“Relax, she is with me.” Even though Alex had only known Michelle for less than an hour, she already drove him crazy.
“Oh, you’re the mom of the missing girl,” Michelle said bluntly, using her condescending tone.
“And you’re the bitch who doesn’t think before she talks,” Maria snapped back, feeling the need to defend herself. Alex would have too if he hadn’t already found out that there was no winning with Michelle. Alex didn’t know why Adam had chosen her out of the girls in the entire world. She was too snarky, and bitchy if you asked him.
“Okay, okay, why don’t you sit down Maria,” Alex told her while pulling out another chair. “Anything yet?” He repeated, for no one heard him the first time.
Adam shook his head in dismay. “Not yet.” He looked down at his walkie talkie which had started speaking. He listened carefully, for the crackling noise was all you could hear. “Code yellow in the swamp exhibit,” he repeated to the group.
“Code yellow? What’s code yellow?” Alex narrowed his brows.
David turned towards her, his chair squeaking. “Lost kid. Usually one’s that stray to far from their parents.”
Maria and Alex leaned forward, and Adam raised his hand up. “Don’t get to excited. It could be anyone. I’ll be back.”
“Let me come with you,” Alex walked over to Adam who was walking to the door.
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
Yet again, Michelle chimed in, making Alex hope that it was Natalie even more.
“Yeah, we don’t need some amateur getting us fired. We aren’t even supposed to let you in here.”
“Well you know what, I work as a detective, and officer in the capital of Michigan. I wouldn’t call that an amateur. And I am her because not only my job requires me too, but because I want to be here. So the only reason you would get fired would be because you are getting in the way of me doing my job.” He turned his attention to Adam and changed his tone. “Please. Come on Adam. If you won’t do it for me, do it for her.” He looked towards Maria, then continued in a whisper. “She’s been through a lot, and so far I haven’t been able to do that much for her. I need to be able to do something, and right now sitting here watching tapes isn’t getting us anywhere.”
Adam scoffed, only to make it seem like Alex had forced him to let him tag along to avoid Michelle’s fury. “Fine. Let’s go.”
Adam knew the aquarium like the back of his hand; he knew exactly where he was going without hesitation. The swamp exhibit had alligators, fish, turtles, and a few other creatures Alex didn’t know the name of.
He was quick to spot another worker with a crying child, and much to Alex’s disappointment, it wasn’t Natalie Parks.
Alex closed his eyes for a brief moment, trying to convince himself that the tape would reveal something if it hadn’t during the time they had been gone. Or better yet, he would find something on the way back so he didn’t have to walk back empty handed. But, that’s exactly what he did.
The walk back to the security room was quiet, until Adam spoke. “You have to tell her.”
Alex rolled his eyes. “Tell her what? That the kid wasn’t hers? Yeah, I was already planning on that.”
“No, not that. Tell your girl you like her.”
Alex laughed nervously. “Okay person I just met. First of all, she is not my girl. Second of all, I don’t like her. Well, I mean, I do like her, just not in that way. And third of all, I met her like a week ago. Do you always ask personal questions?”
“Wow, Rique was right. You really don’t like accepting your feelings. I mean, come on Alex. The way you talk about her, it says something. You don’t find what you two have. Not anymore. And you and me have known each other for a long time. Just not in person. But just think about it, you two would have the greatest love story ever.”
“Let me guess, you write too.”
“You could say that.”
“God, you are just like your brother.”
Adam shrugged. “We get that a lot. And don’t change the subject. I see the way you look at her.”
“Who?” Alex said jokingly, all for the sake of making Adam irritated. If he was anything like Enrique, and he definitely was, getting him flustered would help Alex to lighten the moment.
Adam rolled his eyes. “Maria.”
Alex gave him the side eye.
“And,” Adam continued, “I also see the way she looks at you. You care about each other. And its more than just friends or a client. She strikes me as the person who won’t admit her feelings too. But you have to. You have to take that first step.”
Alex stopped walking as he processed Adam’s words. “How come I’ve known you for an hour and you’re already giving me relationship advice?”
“What can I say, I’m a friendly guy.” He shrugged again.
“But seriously, I don’t love her. She is married. She has kids, man.”
“True. But from what I can tell she doesn’t like who whoever she is married to. And I’m guessing he is the one who caused all of this.”
Alex sighed and continued to trudge his feet on the carpeted floor, while the blue light shone on his face. “You’re right. He is a really bad guy, and Maria doesn’t want anything to do with him. But I can’t blame her. I’m sure you’d agree if you knew the whole story.”
Adam looked around the man in front of him. “We got time.”
“Nope. Uh-uh. It’s too depressing. Plus, I’m not allowed to.”
Adam raised his hands in mercy. “Wow, that is not how I pictured you to be. Armstrong said you were all ‘let’s break the rules’ and stuff.”
“I am. You can bet on that. But I can also be serious when I need to be. Unlike your brother.” As he said those words, Adam saw that same look overcome Alex’s face that he had seen when he talked about Maria. It was really indescribable. But he looked different. Which only made him believe Alex liked Maria even more. Even though Alex knew that Adam had to be wrong, he knew that there was no denying that there was something between them. Something more than friendship, but less than love... right? Falling in love with her now seemed like a joke.
The two of them continued walking, and throughout their short journey back to the security room, Alex couldn’t stop thinking about what Adam said. He cared for Maria deeply. He had never felt more comfortable with anyone before. But to go and confess affections to Maria now seemed liked a bad move. Not just because Matthew and Natalie were missing, but because she was carrying his child, and scared to death of everything. She didn’t need anything else to worry about. Besides, the only met a week ago. It seemed too fast to jump into anything, especially since he didn’t even know exactly how he felt yet. But still, every time he thought of her, he seemed to fall more deeply in whatever he was feeling, quicker than he could comprehend. He had been out of the game for so long that he barely knew what the game meant anymore. If he had feelings for her though, would he tell her? Maybe. Right now he needed his sole focus on finding Matthew and Natalie.
Even if it killed him.
Alex felt a huge wave of anxiety and sadness take over him when they got back to the security room. He knew that telling Maria the kid wasn’t hers was going to snuff out that last little shred of hope she had, and it was killing him in the inside.
He felt Adam pat his shoulder before going in, and before even being able to give himself that mental pep talk, Adam opened the door.
Maria got up on her feet and stared at Alex, forcing him to watch as her face went from hopeful, to completely destroyed with emotion that he could tell she was trying so hard to hide.
“It wasn’t her,” he said, seeing her fall into that hole of never ending sorrow again.
She crossed her arms across her chest and looked at floor.
“Maria,” Alex started, but was stopped before he could continue.
“No. Don’t say anything.”
“Alex! Leave it,” she snapped before running her fingers through her hair and pushing past him to get out of the room.
David looked back at the screen in dismay, Adam and Alex sharing the same face.
“Damn,” David whispered.
Alex slumped over on the chair and let out a long sigh. He stayed like that for a few seconds replaying how quickly Maria’s sentiment changed.
“I’ll be back,” he told the three of them, adjusting his belt.
“Where are you going?” Michelle asked as if she she knew everything about him.
“To talk to her.”
“I’m pretty sure she doesn’t want you to.”
“I’m pretty sure I know her better than you, and frankly I don’t care what you think,” he argued, astonished at how Adam, such a nice guy, settled for her.
He ran down the hallway in the direction that led to the outside and just as he hoped, he found her sitting on a bench watching little kids with their parents.
Walking over to her, he was trying to think of something to say, but couldn’t, so just sat next to her in silence for a few seconds until he found the words.
“I wouldn’t have expected you to come out here.”
Looking at the cement, she answered, “If I’m alone I will just break down and then I’ll be mess. I can’t do that in front of all these people. It’s better to just hide it.”
“Even from me?”
Her silence said it all.
Alex grabbed her hands and looked at her even though she wasn’t meeting his eyes. “Maria you know you don’t have to hide what your feeling from me. You don’t have to be so strong through all of this. It’s okay to crack. It’s okay to let it all out. When you do I promise I will be here for you.”
She stared blankly at the motion in front of her, watching as it all became a blur. One tear fell, but she wiped it away before more followed.
Alex looked at her eyes then followed to where they laid. It was a little blond girl with hair shorter than Natalie’s and a tad bit too dark to be her. The little girl was holding her mother’s while jumping up and down, excited to see all the animals. Alex stare at them before they disappeared inside. Looking back at Maria, he noticed she was falling apart quickly, the blonde girl making her feel even worse.
“Can we go in the hallway please?” She asked, light tears started to fall and her bottom lip, which just about all the healed besides the long scar they would leave behind, quivering.
He knew what she meant by this. “Yeah, come on.” Alex wrapped his hand lightly around her waist and walked with her side by side. He heard a small kid whisper to their parents asking why Maria’s face looked weird. He would have given them a glare if they were older, but they were just kids. They didn’t know any better, and he knew Maria was thinking the same thing because she had mentioned Natalie had never seen her when she looked like this, even with a full face of makeup.
Once they were inside and the doors closed she started crying, and even though he wasn’t completely sure if she would push him away or not, which he stared realizing would probably no longer be a worry because she was pushing him away less.
“I know, I know.” He cradled her head, feeling a portion of his shirt become wet.
“I just want this to be over.”
He squeezed his eyes shut with heartbreak. It was getting really repetitive seeing her like this, and what made him angry was that none of this would happen if it wasn’t for Matthew. He was ruining so much of her and Natalie’s life. She wouldn’t be feeling this way if it wasn’t for him. Now it wasn’t even about justice for him, it was about revenge. But he would never admit that to anyone. Especially Maria and Armstrong.
Eventually he heard her let a breath out and look up at him with her eyes red and swollen.
“Anything you want to talk about?”
She shook her head. “No. I just want her with me.”
“We’ll get her. I promise. I will not rest until I do.”
She gave a drained nod. “Let’s go back inside before Michelle starts talking about how I look too.”
“I think you look beautiful.” Alex smiled at her while she walked beside him, noticing that the child not being Natalie hadn’t destroyed her hope after all.
Not yet anyway.
David pressed his lips together in doubt when they walked in and turned briefly to look at Alex. “Are you sure that guy said they were coming here?”
Alex nodded as he finally took a seat next to Maria. “Yeah. I talked to him while I was driving here.”
Michelle leaned back in the chair and put her feet up on the desk like David. “Well, settle in everyone. This might take a while.”
The five of them scoured the screens, looking for any faces that looked like Matthew or Natalie, long after the aquarium closed. By then it was eleven o’clock, and there had been small codes on the walkie, but nothing relating to what Alex yearned for. It was just a few rowdy teenagers, a penguin getting loose, which turned out to be a false alarm, and a raging woman David had to deal with.
When that day’s tapes played with no vital information, the last few people walking out of the doors before closing, Alex came to the conclusion that Natalie and Matthew weren’t there. Not to mention every time he looked over at Maria she was trying to keep her eyes open.
“Me and Maria are going to get going. Give me a call if you find anything,” he said while struggling stand up from the seat; his legs had gone numb because of the long hours they had sat there.
“When,” Adam corrected. “If Shaun said they might be here, then we will find them. I’ve known him a long time. When he says something like that, he is ninety-nine percent sure. Trust me.”
Alex rolled his eyes, not convinced by what Adam told him. He limped slightly over to Maria who straightened her her black dress once she had stood up.
“You and Shaun, when did you guys meet?” Alex asked.
Adam tilted his head to the side. “We met when we were in college together. We went to the University of Michigan together, studied crime scene investigation then went to the police academy. As you can see it didn’t really work out for me. But if you are questioning his trust, don’t. He is a good guy, Alex.”
Alex nodded. “We’ll be back tomorrow,” he finalized, still iffy on whether Armstrong was trustworthy as Adam said he was.
Maria and Alex both followed the hallway, avoiding looking at the shiny black tile floor that the bright light reflected off of.
“I really needed to get out there,” Alex said, pushing the door open that led to outside. The fresh cool air surrounded his skin, and he suddenly felt free.
They were well into their meal when Alex felt the air change and saw Maria’s face change.
He tilted his head to the side and squinted his eyes, as if he was reading her. Which he was. As a cop, he learned to read body language, and over time, he had gotten particularly good at it. Though it was a blessing and curse at times.
“I hate when you ask me that. It’s nothing, don’t worry about it.”
Alex shook his head slightly and leaned forward. “Nope, that’s not going to work this time. Something’s wrong. I know that look.” It was true. He did know that look. He knew all of her looks. He knew each individual one, and knew what each of them meant.
Maria let out a heavy sigh, trying to hold back her tears. “I’m just worried. I can’t stop thinking about her. She is out there with... with him, while I just sit around and wait for something for happen. That’s what I’m doing. Sitting and waiting. It’s killing me.”
Alex reached out across the light wood table and grabbed Maria’s hand. It fit perfectly in his. He had expected her to flinch, but she stayed still.
“I know. But I promise you, I am going to find her. I don’t promise a lot, but when I do, I never break it.”
Maria’s eyes flickered up at Alex. “Can I ask you something?”
“Why,” she started, trying to find the right words. “Why do you care so much? I mean, you take me into your home, offer to go to the doctor with me-”
“And we sleep in the same bed,” he interrupted, blushing. Maria’s eyes widened in embarrassment, and her face turned bright red. “What? It’s the truth,” he joked. “And I don’t know. I guess that...” His voice trialed off as he was unsure of what to say. There wasn’t really a way to describe why he cared. He just did. Maybe it was instinct, or maybe it was something else.
Maria nodded, trying to understand what Alex meant.
They both fell into a comfortable silence, hers full of confusion, yet relief, and his full of compassion.
The next day was the same as the last. The sat all day in the same seats, Maria getting up to go to the bathroom every hour, Alex groaning uncontrollably, and Adam raising his arms and stretching.
“Four days! Four days we’ve sat in there, and nothing!” Alex yelled as he pushed open the doors that led to the outside once again.
“Alex, calm down, please,” Maria said, following behind him, feeling her chest tighten.
Alex ran his finger through his messy light brown hair. “I can’t calm down! He is still out there, Natalie it still missing, and we haven’t made any progress!”
Maria’s gaze fell to her stomach and she rubbed her bump with her hand. Her eyes burned as a lump formed in the back of her throat. “Yes, I am aware of that. But you aren’t allowed to freak out because if you freak out, I am going to freak out, and I won’t be able to calm down.”
Alex closed his eyes and wiped his palms on his pants. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I just feel like I failed you. It’s been almost two weeks since I got the case, and I haven’t found anything. I just expected it to be solved much faster.”
Maria held out her hand and waited for Alex to grab it. Naturally, he took it and when he did he felt all the anger leave his body. He didn’t even want to imagine how Maria felt, yet is was him who was throwing a fit over two people he hadn’t even met.
Once they had gotten in the car again, Alex turned the air on, and breathed in the warm air as it blew on his face as John Legend’s All of Me started playing on the radio. He enjoyed the air while it lasted, knowing that once he got out of the car he was going to be cold again.
Alex was about to pull out out of the parking place when he took his hands off the wheel and looked at Maria with admiration. “I don’t understand how you stay so strong through all of this. You keep yourself together like it’s nothing.”
“I keep myself together with tape. I am anything but strong.”
“How come you do that?”
“Whenever I compliment you you deny it. Why?”
Maria looked away for a few seconds thinking about what to say. “I’ve never realized that until now. But I think it’s because I’ve been beat down so many times that my self-esteem and self-confidence is nothing now. I don’t look in the mirror often, but when I do, I see failure. I see nothing but a waste of space, and a failure at everything. I can’t save myself from a situation I know I should get out of, I can’t take care of myself, I can’t be alone. I can’t even be a mother to my daughter. What kind of person is that?”
He looked at her, his eyes soft. “You know that is not true. You couldn’t get out of that situation without dying, no one expects you to do everything alone or be able to be alone, and I am sure you are a great mom to Natalie.”
“I don’t think a great mom would be with a police officer looking for her kid.” She waited for him to say something, but he said nothing. “See? Failure.”
Alex stared off at the empty parking lot in front of him, deciding whether to tell the story or not. He sighed, then started speaking. “Two years ago there was a case. A missing kid, about the same age as Natalie, maybe a little younger. The mom and the dad came in whenever we called them to ask questions and they participated. The father was always a mess. He could barley say her name. The mother was upset too, but she was calm. Too calm. And not like she was trying to keep herself. She would go on rhat she was breaking down and beating herself up over it as if I had forgotten in the last five minutes. A month went by and the father was still a mess, mother was fine. At the end of the second month, I found out the mother had killed her daughter. The father had no idea. You are not a bad mother. She was a bad mother. Never tell yourself that you are a bad mother because of something you can’t control. You hide you pain because you don’t how to display it and you don’t want to people to see you vulnerable. There is a difference between that and putting on an act because you have no sympathy.”
Maria wiped her eyes before she looked back over at Alex. Her honey brown ones that had some black makeup smeared underneath, met his, and this time, neither one of them looked away. It seemed as though the both of them got lost in the others.
Alex shifted in his seat, closer to her, but not breaking eye contact.
“Alex,” she breathed, her heart accelerating faster and faster. Just as it had done so many times before when she had a panic attack. Except this time, it felt good. It felt exhilarating and thrilling as it sent a rush through her body, and butterflies in her stomach. As Alex looked at her, she felt something she couldn’t recognize. It had been too long for her to understand how shew as feeling. Eventually, she looked back and fourth between his lips and his emerald eyes. Not thinking twice, she leaned further too, and could suddenly feel the detective’s breath collide with her own. Their foreheads touched as they breathed the same air, and her body tingled when Alex moved his hand to touch her arm. From there, he traced it along her skin. Her damaged, yet beautiful skin.
Alex’s mouth went dry, his palms sweaty and clammy. There was something Maria had that everyone else didn’t. He couldn’t out a name on it, but it was there. It became harder to breath as he leaned in even closer, only being able to smell Maria’s sweet cinnamon scent. It sent a gust through his body. Deep down they knew that this was the last thing they should be doing. The absolute last thing. Yet, they were doing it anyway. It was so wrong, but the feeling... the feeling was so right. This sensation that they were both experiencing, felt right. It felt good. It felt... normal.
“C-can I kiss you?” He whispered.
She knew she shouldn’t. She really shouldn’t. Nevertheless, she nodded, now questioning this even less because he asked. He asked for permission.
Maria’s dusty pink lips brushed against his a few times before they pushed them together. The heated air blew against their skin; yet it couldn’t cool the warmth it they had created. Maria let out a small moan as Alex continuously pushed his lips against her full ones. It tasted and felt so good. Making both of them want this moment to last for forever. For once, Maria believed that maybe those past nine years were for this. Maybe it was so she would get here, and find happiness. With herself, and Natalie, and Elena, and Alex.
If it were anyone else, Maria would have pulled away to second guess herself. But this was Alex. It was safe. Comfortable. Normal. If she had shared this moment with anyone else, she would have been in tears with guilt and fear of getting caught and beaten again. But again, this was Alex, and somehow, that made everything different.
Everything in that moment was perfect. The music playing softly in the background, the air that they were now sharing, and most importantly each other.
Slowly, with the tingly feeling still in their hearts, they pulled back, breathlessly.
No one said a word, for their kiss and expressed every word.
Maria bit down hard on her lip, and held her fingers against her lips, yearning to feel that kiss with every part of her body.
Suddenly, pulling them from their intimate moment, was a knock on the window. It was Adam, a wide smile on his face.
“I found something!” He yelled from the outside.
Alex scoffed and rolled the window down, his lips swollen. “What do you need Adam?”
Adam held up a hotel key card and smirked.
Confused, Alex squinted his eyes.
“It’s a hotel key card from the place twenty minutes away.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Maybe its Matthew’s key card.”