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Stocker Park was on the south end of Kendall Street, just past the train tracks and the abandoned Texaco station. It was dumpy place even when I was a kid. My first impression this time around was that the years hadn't done it any favors.

The basketball court was a jumble of broken asphalt. The soccer field was an uneven patch of sun-hardened mud. The kids' playground was gone altogether, mercifully bulldozed and sold off for scrap.

The only facility anyone bothered maintaining anymore was the public pool, and that was where my business was. At least twenty police cruisers had converged there, plus unmarked cars, fire engines, and ambulances. There were also vans from four different news channels.

I was about to cross the line of yellow police tape when a rookie stopped me. His name tag identified him as Patrolman Rocco. "This is an active crime scene, sir. No civilians."

He tried to mean-mug me as he said it, putting on his best tough guy impersonation. He was too baby-faced to pull it off.

"I'm not a civilian. I'm here to see Detective Tanner."

"Got a badge?"

I did. Unfortunately, it wasn't numbered, and it said "private investigator" instead of "municipal police." It was good for bluffing my way past security guards and desk clerks. But it was about as official as a Cracker Jack prize

"Listen, kid. I'm a special consultant. Your boss called me an hour ago. My name is Dillon Cross."

Rocco the Rookie puffed his chest up. I could tell it was about to turn into a scene, when Sergeant Hernandez noticed me. "He's okay, rookie. Let him in."

The rookie stepped aside, not bothering to lift the police tape for me as I crouched under. Hernandez caught up with me on the other side. "Thanks for coming, Dillon."

"Any time. Where's the boss man?"

"Locker rooms," Hernandez said. "He's got a full debrief for you."

I nodded in the direction of the news vans. "What are you telling the vultures?"

Hernandez shrugged. "Teen prank gone wrong. Drugs. Mass hysteria. The usual."

It wasn't fancy, but it would do. Lurid enough to explain all the cruisers and flashing lights. Boring enough to make all the Boomers change the channel and forget about it.

We swung by Hernandez's cruiser. He rummaged in his patrol bag, and handed me a plastic ID badge to wear around my neck. It told anyone who cared to look that I belonged here.

Again, I glanced to the news crews. "You think you can get rid of them?"

Hernandez grunted in the affirmative. He pulled out a used HAZMAT test card, with the letters FEMA printed clearly and prominently across the top. Some unidentified stain had turned the card's lower half a bright, scary red color.

Sometimes, the best way to sell a lie was a convincing prop.

While Hernandez went to scatter the vultures, I made my way to the small brick outbuilding, the one housing the showers and the locker rooms. I found Detective Miles Tanner leaning against a sink, looking haggard and nursing a Marlboro Light.

The cigarette was a bad sign. I'd known Miles for years. His old lady had made him quit almost a decade ago, when their first daughter was born. He only ever smoked when he was rattled.

And he didn't rattle easy.

"Aren't there regs against smoking at an active crime scene?" I asked.

Instead of answering, he flicked his ashes into the sink next to his. No smart-assed comeback. No razor sharp insult.

I decided to get down to business. "What can you tell me about the stray?"

Tanner finished off his cigarette and lit another one. He fished for his notebook. "Wyatt Collins. Age 17." He followed with a brief physical description. "Straight-A student at Patton High. Captain of the varsity football team. Popular. Well-liked. No enemies, no trouble at school, not so much as an after school detention on his record. He was here swimming with his friends around quarter-to-five this afternoon, when he suddenly disappeared. No sign of him in the pool. No one saw him leave."

"Witnesses?"

"No one saw anything except the girlfriend, two classmates, and the lifeguard." There was a subtle emphasis on that last one.

"That lifeguard. What did he see?"

Tanner started to read the kid's statement, but apparently thought better of it. He dropped his second cigarette in the toilet without finishing it. Then he ripped out the page with the statement, crumpled it up, and tossed it in alongside the cigarette. A quick flush, and it was like neither one ever existed.

"Witnesses are on the bleachers. Go ask them yourself."

 

###

 

I used to be a Hero.

That's what they tell me, anyway.

Fact is, I'm nothing special. I was even less so as a kid. Just a know-nothing punk who took a detour through the wrong wardrobe, and found more witches on the other side than lions.

I got lucky. I made it home.

Not many kids who end up in other worlds do. If they don't get eaten, soul-sucked, or enslaved, some greedy S.O.B. fills their heads with notions of magic, adventure, and heroism.

Maybe one time out of a hundred, it's true. The rest are being lied to and manipulated. Or worse.

Bottom line, I don't think I was much of a Hero. I'm still not. I'm just the guy who works like hell to bring those other ninety-nine cases home.

###

 

As soon as I walked by the pool, I got a good indication of what had Tanner so rattled. The place just felt wrong. Not evil, exactly. More like unsteady. Like the whole scene was made of carefully balanced playing cards, and would collapse if you so much as breathed too hard.

Out beyond the fence, Sergeant Hernandez worked his magic. The news vans and assorted gawkers were pulling back to a "safe distance."

I made my way to the bleachers. I decided to start with the lifeguard. "He" turned out to be a she, another High School kid named Tara. The other three were sitting in a tight group, consoling each other. She was sitting apart.

Not a friend. Barely even an acquaintance. She wasn't going to lie for the others.

If anyone was going to give me the straight story, it was her.

I pulled the girl away so we could get some privacy, leading her over by the diving board. "Want to tell me what happened?"

"Why? Are you some kind of shrink?"

I told her I wasn't, but it didn't put her any more at ease. Every question was met with some variation of "I don't know what I saw."

I decided to switch tactics. "How well did you know Wyatt Collins?"

The girl shook her head. "Not well. We went to different schools. I only ever saw him here. Maybe once a week."

"I hear he's a good kid. Everyone likes him. That sound about right?"

"Yeah. He's nice."

Something in the way she said it—too stiff, too fast to agree—told me she wasn't being entirely truthful.

"He ever cause you any trouble?"

She didn't answer right away.

"Tara, listen to me. You're not a suspect. Even if you were, I'm not a cop. I'm just trying to find a missing kid. Whether he was a jerk or not."

That disarmed her a little. She cast a quick glance over at the bleachers, leaned in, and lowered her voice. "He used to pick on a couple of the younger boys. Middle-schoolers, I think. At first it was just trash-talk. But a couple of weeks ago it got cruel. And rough. I had to kick him out of the pool."

"What caused it?"

Again, the girl made sure the other kids weren't paying attention. "He caught them staring at his little queen bee. He got jealous."

I didn't need to ask which one she meant. Of the three kids huddled on the bleachers, only one was a girl. She was also wearing a swimsuit that was far too revealing for someone her age. I could see how she'd get the attention of a kid in with his hormones running ape on him.

"This bullying. How rough are we talking?"

"He was holding one boy's head under the water. The other one was hitting him and trying to make him let go."

"That's when you kicked him out?"

The girl nodded. "Yeah. He was real mad about it."

"So what happened today?"

She let out a nervous sigh. "You'll think I'm crazy."

I rolled up my sleeve, showed her the jagged scar on my forearm. "You know how I got this?"

She shook her head.

"I got it falling off a giant bird, in a land where goblins and pixies are real. I was using the bird to fly away from a three-headed dragon, who was under the control of an evil wizard at the time. I fell through a stand of fir trees, got banged up real good, and had to hide in a troll burrow while the dragon torched the forest looking for me."
I rolled my sleeve down. "Now. You going tell me anything crazier than that?"

The girl didn't say anything for a minute. Then her story came pouring out.

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