This week, I came to the conclusion that I have allowed myself to drift off course from my original objective with regard to this website, which was-and is-to provide a platform for my writing. I have, therefore, decided that rather than exploring new topics every week on my blog, I will use it simply to highlight a new chapter from a current project. Once highlighted, I will add the chapter to the corresponding page of the site.
This week I am featuring chapter ten of the Aldana Incident. If you’re behind on the story, you can catch up here: The Aldana Incident
Melissa was awoken, after her second straight nearly sleepless night, by the phone ringing on the bedside table. “Hello?” she murmured into the receiver, blinking rapidly to adjust her eyes to the early morning light.
“Good morning, Melissa, this is Detective Phillips.”
“Good morning, detective.”
“We believe we have some new information about the case and we’d like for you to come back in today, so that we can share it with you and maybe get your reaction to it. Would noon be okay? I know that’s short notice, but we have a lot of material to go over, and we’re anxious to get started.”
There was something in his voice that made Melissa feel uneasy, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. She glanced at the clock, it was nearly 8:30. “That’s fine. Would you like me to tell Steve?”
“There’s no need for that. We’ve called him already. We’ll see you both here at noon. Just give them my name at the reception desk when you arrive.” With that, the line went dead.
Melissa pushed off the blankets and got slowly to her feet. She had already showered and dressed when the phone rang for a second time. She thought of Marc, but then dismissed the idea, feeling sure that he’d have used her cell, rather than the hotel phone. “Hello?”
“Melissa? This is Steve. Have you seen the story?” he asked, sounding on the verge of panic.
“No, and actually, I wanted to talk to you about that. I tried to find you yesterday to let you know, but you weren’t in your room.”
“To let me know what?”
The anger in his voice took Melissa by surprise and made her reluctant to continue. “Well, that reporter called me back again yesterday. Actually, he stopped by the hotel.”
“He stopped by?” Steve repeated.
“Yeah, like I said, we tried to find you, but…”
“I was out looking for the silver pick-up. What did he say?”
“He said that he’d had a hunch about the suspect, something to do with a news story from years ago in New York. He showed me a picture and asked if that was the guy I saw with Ana.”
“And?” he demanded.
“And I told him it was. Why? What’s wrong? Why do you sound so upset?” she asked.
“Are you going to the station today?”
“I’m supposed to be there at noon.”
“We can drive over together. I’ve got a copy of the paper. You can see it then. They’re not very happy with us about going to the press, by the way.”
At noon, they entered the tiny reception area at the station. A stern-looking female officer peered over a pair of reading glasses at them. “Can I help you?” she asked.
“Melissa Bancroft and Steve Fisher, here to see Detective Phillips.”
The officer picked up the phone and dialed. After a brief conversation, she replaced the receiver. “He’ll be right with you. You can have a seat.” She pointed in the direction of the lobby.
Together they crossed the room and each took a seat. “I just can’t believe it,” he said. “I’ve been trying to get my head around it ever since I saw the article.” He rubbed his bloodshot eyes and then looked up at her. “Where’s your husband today?”
“He couldn’t stay. He’s a professor at a university and with classes starting soon…” she let the thought taper off. “He caught the first flight back to Michigan yesterday.”
“He must be very dedicated to his work.”
“Something like that,” she said, sliding her index finger under a lock of hair that had fallen onto her cheek and tucking it back behind her ear.
Before he had a chance to question her any further, Detective Phillips strode into the lobby. “Good morning, folks. Thanks for coming. Can I get you something to drink? Coffee maybe?”
Melissa shook her head but not Steve. “Coffee would be great-black, please,” he said.
Phillips pointed to a closed door at the end of the hall, “We’re set up in that conference room. Terry’s already in there. You can go right in. I’m just going to grab your coffee.” He slipped past them into a coffee station and Melissa and Steve continued down the hall.
Steve and Melissa arrived at the closed door of the conference room, but stopped when they heard loud voices spilling out from within. The first voice she heard was one that Melissa did not recognize.
“Look, Becker, if you hadn’t let them out of New York in the first place, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. So don’t stand there and accuse us of mishandling the case.”
“You’re kidding me, right?” Becker shot back. “I remember the original case, so let’s not pretend that I’m the one who let this guy get away.”
“Look,” Roberts broke in, “my priority here is the safety of my own town, so you both need to…”
“Even now that we know what we’re dealing with? Who this girl is?” Becker fired back.
“If catching him was so damned important to you,” interrupted the unknown speaker, “why in the hell didn’t you put up roadblocks in New York?”
“No one saw him in New York. We weren’t even sure…”
“Weren’t even sure of what? That she was really missing? Is that why you sat around with your thumb up your ass for the first forty-eight hours when you should have been…”
In the hall, Detective Phillips rushed forward and knocked on the door. “Gentlemen,” he called in to them, “our guests are here.” An awkward silence fell over the scene as Steve and Melissa were escorted into the room and took their seats.
Finally, it was Detective Becker who spoke. “First off, I want to thank you both for coming back in here today. I’d also like to introduce you to Special Agent Mario Comarella.” The new arrival was a tall, muscular, Latino man in his early thirties. He had a boyish face with dimpled cheeks, full lips and a slab of straight, white teeth. To Steve, he looked more like a game show host than a federal agent.
“Agent Comarella,” Becker said, waving a finger in Melissa’s direction, “this is our witness, Melissa Bancroft.” Comarella flashed his brilliant, white smile and shook her hand. “And this,” Becker continued, pointing to Steve, “is Steve Fisher, the missing woman’s boyfriend.”
The manner of the introduction annoyed Steve, although he could not think of a way to protest without making himself appear petty. Nevertheless, being presented to Special Agent Dimples as nothing more than Ana’s boyfriend made him feel like a prom date who’d overstayed his welcome.
The agent immediately assumed the somber countenance that Steve was coming to expect from strangers connected to the case. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” Comarella said, in the soft murmur of a mourner at a funeral service.
Although the expression was becoming a common refrain in Steve’s life, the idea of grieving for Ana’s loss suggested a permanence that he was not yet ready to concede. Nevertheless, he knew it was kindly meant and so he simply nodded and shook the man’s hand.
“As I’m sure you’ve seen in the press,” Roberts began, “we have identified the first suspect, based on the photo that Melissa picked out.”
At the mention of the news story, Melissa and Steve exchanged a guilty glance that was not lost on Becker. “I do wish you’d come to us before going to the press,” he said, trying hard to keep the irritation from his voice. “Releasing too many details, too quickly can actually hurt the investigation and,” he added, staring pointedly at Melissa, “you need to be sure you’re choosing a more reputable spokesperson going forward.”
The color drained from Melissa’s face and she glanced at Steve, whose puzzled expression told her that she was not alone in her confusion.
“What’s done is done,” Comarella interrupted. “There’s nothing we can do about that now. In future, however, I must insist that insights obtained during this investigation are not to be shared with the press or with anyone outside of the investigation. Is that clear?”
“But the story’s all over the damned internet already,” Roberts said. “What’s the point of…?”
“It’s what?” Melissa asked, sounding shocked. “We just…the guy said he wrote for the local paper. We didn’t think…”
“Obviously not,” Becker shot back, before he could stop himself. “Had you thought about it, I’m sure you’d have realized that every newspaper has an online source these days and that any story on just about any online source can go viral in the time that it takes to copy and paste a link.”
Steve Fisher had had enough. “Don’t yell at her. I’m glad it went viral. Now we’ll have eyes all over the country looking for Ana. Nice to know that someone will finally be looking for her,” he snapped.
“Enough!” Comarella exclaimed, silencing the other two. “This isn’t helping us.” He walked over to a laptop that was open on the table and pressed a key. The man in the mug shot that Melissa had seen the day before appeared on a screen on the far wall of the conference room. “His name is Enrique Ramirez Valdez and he is currently working for a Mexican drug cartel known as La Costa.”
“Wait,” Steve interrupted, “La Costa? That’s not what the article said and anyway, Ana never did drugs a day in her life. There must be some mistake.”
The detectives exchanged a look but said nothing.
“Why would members of a Mexican drug cartel be interested in a landscape architect from upstate New York?” Steve asked.