The Third Call

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Chapter 17

“You sure this is it?”

Marcus tapped on the door of a small older house just outside the downtown core, in a part of town that was both commercial and residential, between a house that had been busted for drugs just the year before and a two-story house with a pizza takeout restaurant on the main floor. Right, the perfect spot for druggies when they got the munchies and didn’t want to walk too far.

He kept that thought to himself as he rested his foot on the single concrete stoop and knocked again on the screen door after figuring out the front bell was broken. “Yeah, unfortunately,” he said. “I pulled up the address. She was sent here.”

Behind him, Charlotte was dressed in her deputy shirt, her dark hair pulled back. His cruiser was parked out front, and he still had his sunglasses on. He heard footsteps over the squeak of the floor inside, and the inside door rattled as a woman pulled it open. She appeared to be in her seventies, short, a little on the plump side, with gray shoulder-length hair.

“Can I help you, officer?” she said, frowning, as she opened the screen door. She was in a bulky shirt and pants, and her other hand rested on a cane.

“Are you Rita Halloway?” he said.

She didn’t smile as she nodded. “Yes, I am. What is this about?”

“I’m Deputy O’Connell. A little girl by the name of Eva Colbert was brought here last night.”

“She’s still sleeping, last I checked,” Rita said. She pushed open the door, and Marcus took that as an invitation to step inside. Charlotte followed.

He heard a TV in the other room and pulled off his sunglasses tucking them in his shirtfront, and he took in the dated kitchen at the front of the house. It was clean, with a cast-iron fry pan on the small white stove and a glass of water on the counter.

“Ma, who’s here?” said a tall lanky man with light hair and a beard, about his age. He wore jeans and a loose faded T-shirt. “Oh, the cops…”

Marcus didn’t miss the alarm. That was just something that happened when he showed up, as if people expected him to know everything they were hiding.

“These deputies are from the sheriff’s office,” Rita said. “They’re here about the little girl dropped off last night. Jay, can you check and see if she’s awake yet?”

The man glanced over his shoulder to the hall and then started down it without saying anything.

“Is there a problem, Deputy?” Rita asked. Her voice was deep, husky.

Marcus stepped into the middle of the kitchen as Rita rested her hands on the counter. He knew Charlotte was right there. He found himself taking in the neat and tidy room. “No, I just wanted to check on Eva and see how she was doing. I was the deputy who took her call last night. It was a traumatic thing for her to go through. Is that your son?” He gestured with his chin.

Rita hobbled a few steps forward with her cane. “Yes, he’s helping me out here.”

Marcus hadn’t remembered seeing the man’s name on the list as part of the household, but then, social services didn’t always seem to keep the most accurate records.

He heard voices and spotted Eva holding Jay’s hand as she walked barefoot toward them, wearing an adult’s T-shirt, her hair a mess, her eyes haunted. He walked over to her and squatted.

“Hey, Eva, remember me from last night? It’s Deputy O’Connell. I wanted to come on by and check on you and see how you are.”

Jay was still holding her hand, and she looked up to him and then over to Rita, the foster parent responsible for her. He wondered if she was looking to them for permission.

“Deputy O’Connell, where is my mommy? Is she with you?”

He lifted his gaze to Jay and looked pointedly at his hand, holding Eva’s. Jay let it go and walked away, back into the dark living room, lit only by the flat-screen TV.

“Eva, I told you already, your mommy isn’t coming,” Rita said. “She’s in jail. The police took her. She did a bad thing. That’s why you’re here. She won’t be coming to get you.”

Marcus dragged his gaze to the woman. In the living room, Jay was now sitting on the sofa in front of the TV. The news was on, and he didn’t miss the fact that the sofa was covered in what looked like bedding, blankets and a pillow.

Eva’s lip trembled. How could the woman be so cruel?

“Eva, I know this is a scary thing for you, but I promised you I would see that you’re safe,” Marcus said. “Hey, come on, have a seat here at the table.” He pulled out a chair and lifted her onto it, then pulled out another one. He wondered if she’d had anything to eat. “Are you hungry? Did you get anything last night? How about something now, breakfast?”

He didn’t have a clue what else to say. He lifted his gaze over to Rita, who seemed to get it, as she reached into a cupboard and pulled out a bowl. Maybe she understood what was expected of her.

“I’m hungry,” Eva said, and he didn’t miss the tears in her eyes. “Can I see my mommy?”

“Hey, listen, I know you want to see your mommy,” he said. “I’ll tell you what. Let me see what I can do, but how about we get you some breakfast first? We’ll see that you get everything you need.”

Charlotte was watching Rita, who pulled out a box of cheap generic cereal and dumped some in a bowl, followed by skim milk from the fridge. So this was it? He pulled his gaze away, hearing Charlotte saying something about the milk, or maybe the cereal, or maybe something else entirely.

“You promise you’ll take me to my mommy? I don’t want to stay here,” she said in almost a whisper. He knew well she didn’t want the old woman to hear, and for a minute, he could see how scared she was, in a strange house with strangers. He couldn’t imagine how he’d have felt if he were her. Rita put the bowl of cereal in front of her on the table. Cold and sterile—that was how this seemed to him.

“There’s your breakfast, Eva. Come on, eat up,” Rita said, then turned toward Marcus. “Don’t start getting it in her head that she’s seeing her mother, because I don’t want to hear about it every hour, every day—and then the crying. Eva, at this point, you won’t be seeing her. Deputy, you should know better.” She walked away back into the kitchen. “Do you want some juice or something, too? Not sure if I have any. Considering the hour you showed up here, I wasn’t prepared…”

Marcus took in the watery cereal. Not the best breakfast, and it wasn’t lost on him how the woman sounded as if this were in some way Eva’s fault.

“No juice,” Rita said. “Looks like Jay drank the rest of it. I’ll have to go to the store later and figure out something for dinner. Jay, I need you to head out to the store for some groceries!”

“Hey, Eva, slide around and eat,” Marcus said, not liking how the old woman was talking.

Charlotte was standing in the kitchen, her arms crossed, looking around at everything. He knew by her expression that she wasn’t impressed.

“I’m going to do everything I can, Eva,” Marcus said. “This is just temporary, okay?”

Her eyes seemed hollow, filled with tears, and he rested his hand on her shoulder, feeling how small and thin she was.

“You remember Charlotte?” he said. “She was on the phone with you last night when you called in. Well, I brought her with me. That’s her there.”

Eva put the spoon down after taking a tiny bite. Her expression said enough about how bad it must have tasted. “She was really nice,” she said, then turned her head. “She’s pretty, too.”

Marcus stood and gestured to Charlotte. “Charlotte, come on over and sit with Eva. I just want a word with Rita.”

She must have understood, as she stepped in front of him, and he rested his hand on her shoulder, touching her as she sat and scooted her chair closer. She slid her arm around the little girl, comforting her. She just needed someone to give a damn.

He stepped into the kitchen, where Rita was leaning on her cane and extending a hard look his way.

“Deputy, when you come in here and give the girl all kinds of false promises, you’re not helping her,” she said. “She’ll be whining and crying, and I can’t have that. You think I’m not sympathetic? I am. I’ve been doing this a long time and have lost count of the number of kids dropped off here in the middle of the night because they were yanked from parents who couldn’t look after them. I’m providing her a bed and three meals until something permanent can be found, but she needs to understand that she won’t see her mother again unless the courts say she can. I’ve seen these kinds of things over and over with these kids. It’s more than likely she’ll never see her mother again. She’ll be in and out of places, and then she’ll be angry because she’ll feel she’s been abandoned—which she has. Let’s be honest. I’m not getting too attached, because she’ll be gone to some other place soon. Could be tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. Never know when. You understand there’s no permanence here, so don’t make it harder for her.”

Marcus was standing in front of her, his back to Charlotte and Eva. He knew she couldn’t hear, as Rita had thankfully kept her voice low. He was well aware of how this place wasn’t the ideal spot for a little girl, and hearing just how bad it was made him sick to his stomach.

“Your son lives here?” He gestured with his chin, darting his head to see around the fridge and into the tiny living room.

“For now,” Rita said. “Had to move him onto the sofa to give the bedroom to the girl.”

He wanted to see the room, maybe to settle something in his mind, so he gestured to the hallway. “Down this way?”

She just nodded.

“How many kids are you fostering right now?” he said as he walked past the table, where Charlotte glanced up to him, her hand lingering over the back of Eva’s chair. Something told him no one was doing what was best for this little girl.

“Right now, today?” Rita said. “Just her, but I can have two or three at any one time.”

The house was small. He took in the bedrooms—three, he thought. The open door at the end of the hall revealed a double bed, an old dresser, and a guitar in a case in the corner. What looked like men’s clothes were in the closet. He didn’t miss the deadbolt on the door.

“This is where she stayed?” He took in the room and then the windows, which were locked.

“This is it,” Rita said, looking down at the bed with its old quilt and pillow. “As I said, a bed. I’m right next door, and I’m a light sleeper, so I can hear her.”

“You lock the door,” he said.

Rita seemed to stand her ground. “At night? Yes. As I said, I’m a light sleeper, so I can hear her if she needs to go to the bathroom. I haven’t lost one of these kids and am not about to start. You think I don’t know that they don’t want to be here? They never do, but they’re in my care, and I’m not taking any chances with a runaway in the middle of the night. Now, if that’s all, Deputy, I’d like to get her settled in.”

Into what? he wondered as he started back down the hall to see that Jay had stepped out the back door, and cigarette smoke was coming in.

“Jay, move away from the house if you’re out there, smoking!” Rita called out. “Can’t have that lingering back in here.”

Marcus took in Charlotte and the plea on her face. She was sitting close to Eva, who had barely eaten anything of the watery cereal, which now looked like mush. He rested his hand on Eva’s head, and she looked up to him.

“I’m going to go see your mommy,” he said, “but I’m going to stop back in and see you later. You think you can be brave just a little bit longer?” He couldn’t look at Charlotte, because he knew well she was ready to dig her heels in and not leave the girl there.

“You won’t forget?” she said.

The last thing he wanted was to see the spark of life in her eyes diminish in any way.

“No way, not a chance,” he said. Then he gestured to Charlotte as he started to the door, taking in the old woman talking to her son out back. Charlotte was leaning over Eva and brushing her hair from her face, then pressed a kiss to the top of her head—just something else he really loved about that woman.

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