DCI Frank Prosser leaned on the counter and watched the custody sergeant process another ‘customer’. He’d spent much of his working life in places like this – custody suites, interview rooms, cells. At least now he had his own office.
You'd have thought he'd have better things to do with his Sunday mornings. He’d given his life to the police force, but he wasn’t on duty right now. This was purely personal. It had been for the last eight years. He was indulging an obsession that, at times, gripped him to the exclusion of all else. It consumed him and he gave it far too much of his off-duty time.
It was an obsession he'd shared with his wife before she died, but he had to wonder whether he would have given so much of his time to it if he'd known how little he had left with Mary. Rubbing gritty eyes, he sighed. Who was he kidding? Of course he would have.
These days, his search was as much a homage to Mary as it was for himself. He’d promised her, when she lay dying of cancer, that he’d never give up and so, here he was, following another lead to another town, another police station and another duty sergeant who hovered between nervousness and defensiveness.
Sometimes, the local police could be downright hostile at the intrusion of the big city DCI. As if he cared what was going on; what petty politics and scams he was intruding on. He wasn’t there on official business and the workings of the stations held no interest for him. There was only one thing he cared about. Alex.
While he waited for the sergeant, he idly watched the prisoner being processed. From what he’d heard, the kid had been caught shoplifting at a small corner shop and had trashed the place before the shopkeeper subdued him. He’d then resisted arrest and attacked a police officer. Par for the course in places like this, although not usually on Sunday mornings when the cells tended to be full but the traffic at the front desk light. That’s why he liked to do his visits on Sundays. There was always a chance one of the street kids in the cells would be the one he was looking for, or at least hold the key to finding him.
Drumming his fingers on the counter, Frank tried to contain his impatience. He’d been travelling half the night and was tired and irritable. For years, he’d follow hints, leads, suggestions – ghosts, and it had got him precisely nowhere. Eight years of chasing ghosts and all he had to show for it was an astronomical fuel bill and an ulcer.
Thank god he had such great kids. After Mary died the family could so easily have fallen apart. His biggest fear was they’d hold it against Alex. He had broad shoulders, but Alex….
Alex had been barely nine years old when he'd disappeared. He’d gone to school one morning and never came home. The event had devastated the family, almost torn it apart. The entire community had gone into shock, especially when it came to light that Alex wasn’t the only one. In all, four young boys of around Alex’ age had been snatched from rural communities within a twenty-mile radius. They’d all gone to school and never come home. Vanished without a trace.
That was eight years ago, and Frank was still searching, still grabbing at leads that just weren’t there, still hoping, still believing. Or was he? Did he still believe? Did he believe Alex was alive out there somewhere, let alone that one day he’d find him?
A harsh cough brought him back to the room. The kid needed to take care of himself. That cough sounded nasty. Frank almost said so but bit back the comment with a small smile. Lacey was always telling him off for trying to be everyone’s dad. Not everyone appreciated it, and he was pretty sure this kid wouldn’t. He might as well save his breath.
Frank observed the kid for a minute. He couldn’t tell, by looking, if it was a boy or a girl. Slender shoulders drooped over jean-clad thighs and long, greasy brown hair straggled out from under a dirty grey hoodie, obscuring the face. The long, slender hands that hung between scrawny knees suggested a female but the general appearance was genderless. Frank knew it was a boy, of course, because he’d heard the police report, but the kid was no beefcake.
“Hey kid, it’s your lucky day,” the custody sergeant said, putting down the phone Frank hadn’t noticed him pick up. “You’re free to go. Your dad’s here to pick you up.”
“What?” The boy’s head shot up, and Frank was shocked by the expression in his eyes. He was a pretty kid. Young. Fourteen maybe. Not at all happy about being caught out by his father. Frank could appreciate that. His children were good kids, but they'd had their moments.
“Seems like your dad’s got some pulling power, kid. He’s on his way down to pick you up.”
“No. No, he can’t. I-I won’t.”
Frank took a better look at the boy. This was more than just worrying about a lamping from his dad for getting into a bit of trouble. The kid’s eyes flicked everywhere, panic sparking in their amber depths. For a moment, they met Frank’s and he took a mental step back. There was something compelling, and worryingly familiar about those eyes. The colour was extremely unusual, a light honey gold with starbursts of glowing amber. It couldn’t be.
Suddenly, the boy sprang with cat-like grace, catching Frank with one shoulder, then spinning almost three-hundred-and-sixty degrees to slip past him and head for the door. He'd have made it too if the door hadn’t opened as he reached it. The boy froze, then skittered backwards until he slammed into Frank.
Frank grabbed his arms to steady him and the boy went wild. It took everything Frank had to hold him, and he would have had to fight harder still if the boy hadn’t started to cough. In the end, it was the cough that subdued him, not Frank.
“Easy, Sacha. You’re in enough trouble as it is. Don’t make it worse.”
Frank’s attention was diverted to the man who’d sparked off the boy’s frenzy. He was tall and good looking, well dressed in an expensive suit, and Frank would have bet money that the Rolex on his wrist was genuine. He certainly didn’t look like the kind of guy who’d have a son like…Sacha? There was something wrong here. Very wrong.
“I’m sorry, officer. Sacha is rather…highly strung at the moment. I’m afraid he hasn’t been taking his medication. I’ll get him in to see the doctor in the morning, and he’ll be fine. I won’t let this happen again, I can assure you.”
“Fuck you,” Sacha ground out, still struggling weakly, even though the rasp in his chest led Frank to believe it was struggle enough to breathe. He loosened his grip on the boy’s chest but had to haul him in again when he almost squirmed free.
“Easy, boy. I don’t want to hurt you, but if you don’t stop fighting me you’re going to get hurt.”
Sacha’s snarled response was lost in another fit of coughing.
“Can I get some water here?”
“Yes. He can take some of his pills. It will calm him down.” The man rummaged in his pockets and came out with a bottle of pills. The effect on Sacha was immediate and dramatic. Frank had plenty of experience holding on to angry kids in custody suits, but there was something about Sacha’s desperate struggles that had a whole different dimension.
“Easy. Will you please calm down? I don’t want to hurt you, Sacha but you’re not making it easy for me.”
“I’m not taking those fucking pills.”
“Okay, Alright. No one’s going to make you do anything. Just calm down and talk to me.”
“Sacha.” The word rang out and Sacha froze. “Stop this nonsense right now. Your brothers and sisters are waiting for us, and you know what kind of trouble they can get into. Take your medication, apologise to the officers, and let’s get the hell out of here.”
Sacha sagged in Frank’s arms and nodded his hanging head. The man held out the pill bottle and Sacha raised his hands to take it. It was then the man realised Sacha’s hands were cuffed.
“Those won’t be necessary any longer. Sacha will behave himself now. If you could take those off and get his things together I’ll take it from here.”
His voice set Frank’s teeth on edge. Something about the whole situation didn’t ring true. This was more than just a son kicking off at his father. Frank exchanged a look with the custody sergeant who nodded.
“I’m afraid it’s not as easy as that,” the other police officer said. “Your son has committed serious criminal damage, resisted arrest and assaulted a police officer, twice now. We can’t just let him go.”
“I told you, he’s not well. Let me give him his medication. He’ll calm down and won’t be getting into any more trouble.”
Frank was seasoned enough to note the edge in his voice, and the shudder that passed through the boy in his arms. There was a serious threat in there that Sacha hadn’t missed.
“Pass me the keys,” he said. The custody sergeant narrowed his eyes but tossed them over.
Frank had to let go of Sacha to unlock the handcuffs but kept a tight grip on his upper arm. He was on high alert now, but Sacha made no attempt to run.
“I’m going to take these off,” Frank said to Sacha, forcing the boy to look him in the eyes. “One wrong move and I’ll have you in a cell quicker than you can blink. You and I need to talk, Sunshine and I can make it easy or hard on you. Don’t make come down hard or you’ll regret it, understand?”
Sacha glared at him, his amber eyes flashing. Frank wondered for a moment if the man was right about Sacha needing medicating. There was definitely a spark of madness in the glowing golden depths. Eventually, the boy dropped his eyes and nodded, holding out his hands for Frank to unlock the cuffs.
Sacha rubbed his wrists when they were freed from the metal shackles. Frank caught one of his hands and examined it. There was a band of raw, broken skin around his wrist, possibly from fighting the cuffs. Possibly. To Frank, it looked as if the inflamed wounds were older, deeper.
As he held Sacha’s hand, he noticed something on his arm, just above the wrist. Heart thudding, he reached out to push up his sleeve, but Sacha snatched his hand away.
“What the fuck…! Leave me alone.”
“Come on, Sacha, let’s go.”
“Not so fast. Sacha has some questions to answer, and he’s not going anywhere until he’s done.”
“I’ve already dealt with this, upstairs. I’ve cleared everything up. The shopkeeper isn’t going to press charges, and I’m sure the officer who was ‘attacked’ will be sympathetic to Sacha’s condition.”
Frank glanced at Sacha who was hanging his head, looking defeated. Something squirmed in the pit of his stomach. He squared his shoulders. “I’m afraid it’s not quite that simple. Your son is out of control, and I’m not letting him out of here until I’m certain he’s not going to be a danger to himself or anyone else.”
The man snorted. “Sacha isn’t a danger to anyone. I keep telling you. Let me give him his meds and he’ll be fine.”
“What are they for?”
“What? They…. He has mental health issues.” The man seemed uncomfortable, but that in itself wasn’t unusual. Many parents were uncomfortable with talking about their child’s mental illnesses.
“What kind of mental health issues?”
“Well…. Aggression. Delusions. Paranoia.”
“Is he schizophrenic?”
The man, not so much uncomfortable now as growing angry, drew himself up and glared at Frank. It was water off a duck’s back. “No.”
“I think it would be best to speak to his doctor before we let him go, just to make sure he’s being properly taken care of.”
“Are you suggesting I don’t take good care of my son?”
“Your son assaulted three people today, sir. He trashed a shop and scared the hell out the customers. He’s out of control, and I’m not letting him out of here until I’m sure he’s not going to do it again.”
“He won’t do it again. I’ll give you my personal guarantee. Trust me; when we leave here he's going nowhere. I'll take him to the doctor in the morning and until then I won't let him out of my sight.”
Frank glanced between Sacha and his father. He was winging it big time. He had no jurisdiction here and was lucky the custody sergeant was going along with this. He must have been as uneasy about the situation as Frank was. Frank had based a career on going with his hunches, and this time the little voice in his head was screaming at him. If that man was Sacha’s father he’d eat his badge—and he might have to if he was wrong.
“I’d still sleep easier in my bed if I got him checked over first. Can we take him to an interview room?” Frank asked the custody sergeant, who nodded uneasily. He pressed a button on the intercom and asked for assistance.
“Look,” the man said clearly trying to rope in his growing irritation, “this is getting out of hand. My son is ill. He needs to be home with his family. I took my eye off the ball. I knew Sacha was being tardy in taking his medication, but I didn’t know it had got this bad. I’ll take care of him, I promise. I’ll make sure nothing like this happens again.”
The words all made sense. They even sounded sincere. Frank glanced at Sacha, whose eyes were on him. There was something desperate in them. Sacha was pleading with him silently. Pleading for what?
“Why don’t you take a seat, and we’ll see if this can be straightened out as quickly as we can.”
Frank motioned for Sacha and the man to take a seat. Blustering, the man did as he was told. After a long hesitation, Sacha also complied, sitting as far away from his ‘father’ as he could.
Frank took the custody sergeant to one side. “I owe you,” he said to the man, who was watching Sacha carefully. “You’ve got every right to kick my arse out of here.”
“Something stinks to high heaven, and if you’re the one taking the shit that suits me fine. I’ll tell you one thing – if that man’s the kid’s father, I’ll eat my hat.”
“My thoughts exactly. Can I have a quick look at the kid’s effects?”
“I shouldn’t, but….” He slid a plastic bag across the desk. Frank opened it and looked inside. There was precious little. A set of keys, a few coins, a cheap mobile phone and a piece of folded paper. Having little interest in the rest, Frank slid out the paper and unfolded it. It wasn’t a piece of paper. It was a photograph.
Frank whirled, in time to see the man having an intense and entirely one sided, whispered conversation with Sacha. Sacha closed his fingers around whatever the man had forced into his hand and raised it.
Sacha froze as Frank strode across the room and caught his wrist, forcing his fingers open. Frank shook the pills into his own hand and released Sacha. “I think it would be wise to wait for the doctor, don’t you?” he said, holding his hand out for the bottle. After a hesitation, the man slammed it into Frank’s hand, then got to his feet.
“This is bullshit. I don’t have time for this. You have my details. Call me when you’re ready, and I’ll send someone to collect him.” He glared at Sacha, who shrank back. “Behave yourself. I’m warning you. One more step out of order and you won’t be the only one paying the price.”
Frank didn’t see him walk out. He was too busy watching the horror, despair and resignation fly across Sacha’s face.