Thousand Words for January 14, 2018

Sasha Vildmer sat in a plain little room at police headquarters and cursed his luck, cursed his friends, cursed the white-painted wooden table at which he sat. But most of all, he cursed the three men who had gotten him into his present untenable situation.

     The detective who had put him in this little room came back; unaccountably, he knocked before he cracked open the door. It must have been the beginning of a ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine they were setting up for him. “Mr. Vildmer?” the detective said through an inch crack.

     “Yeah,” Vildmer answered back.

     The detective opened the door the rest of the way and stepped in. Behind him was what Vildmer presumed would be the bad cop. He was straight out of central casting: big, broad shouldered, heavy black mustache, and–a bit over the top–mirror sunglasses. All he was lacking was a toothpick in his mouth. He said nothing but moved to lean against the wall next to the large dark window from which Vildmer was certain the entire ordeal was being audio and video recorded. Detective Thompson sat in the other chair at the white table, with a corner separating them–the collegial corner, as it was called at the Police Academy. Vildmer didn’t know it by that name, but he recognized that what was happening was that he was being seduced.

     Thompson laid the file folder on the table and squared it up. “Sasha, we’ve got a little problem,” he said, loosening his tie and rubbing his hand over his face. It was standard practice: to portray the good cop as vulnerable and needy. The bad cop was playing his role too, glaring at them from the other side of the room while behind the glass, the camera whirred.

     “We?” Vildmer said.

     “I’m hoping you can help me, Sasha,” he said. “You’re the only one who can.”

     Nice, Vildmer thought. He’s using my first name in every exchange, he’s using a passive construction, he’s using singular pronouns as much as possible–textbook ‘good cop.’ Vildmer snorted. “What do you want?” he asked.

     “I need your help on this abduction,” Thompson said over the glare from Mirror Sunglasses.

     There was a pause while Vildmer considered this. He didn’t need the time–he would give the detective what he asked for, not because of the little performance, and certainly not out of some altruistic feeling for the girl–she was already dead and she wouldn’t get any deader–but because it was in his self-interest to do so. He knew it, the jerks who had gotten him into this thing in the first place knew it, and the prosecuter would know it too. But Vildmer enjoyed the little dance, the drama of it. “I don’t know anything about that girl,” he said.

     Thompson looked at Mirror, who, for the first time, looked away. “We’re not asking you to testify, Sasha,” Thompson said, the apology dripping in his voice. Mirror didn’t break, wouldn’t break in a million years, probably–but Vildmer had a hard time keeping the curl away from the corners of his mouth. He kept his eyes on Thompson. We just need a little hint, a word about where to look.”

     “Don’tcha have any leads?”

     Again, Thompson did the hand-over-face move; Mirror was staring levelly at him again. “Not so much,” the detective said. He reached down and opened the folder. On top of the substantial pile of papers there was an eight-by-ten glossy of the girl, probably a school photo. She was sixteen, pretty, blue eyes and long dark hair parted in the middle and combed to the sides. Her skin was clear; no makeup and no need for any. Thompson had studied a number of photos which had been provided by the family; it had been felt by the experts upstairs, the psychologists, that this shot would, of the ones available, generate the most sympathy. There were others–there were ones of a little girl in a ballet costume, there were ones of her in a checked shirt riding in the back of a pickup truck, there were ones of her wrapping a box with Christmas paper. Thompson peeled the photo off the piled and positioned it carefully so that it would be constantly visible as he continued. “Deborah Louise Harrell, born December 17, 2002 in Louisville, Kentucky. Father Henry Gavin Harrell, mother is Helen Louise née Stephenson. The father is an attorney specializing in corporate mergers, mother was a local television personality in Louisville, moved to part time work after the child’s birth.”

     “Yeah, Helen Stephenson, Channel 2 News,” Vildmer said. “You can’t live in Louisville and not know Helen Stephenson.”

     As a matter of fact, Thompson had never heard of her, and he’d lives in Louisville for nearly two decades–but he wasn’t much of a TV person. When the former jewel of Channel 2’s news operation’s daughter went missing, it was a huge local news story despite the fact that Helen Stephenson had not been a regularly scheduled part of the broadcast in nearly two decades. She had appeared from time to time–Christmas specials and the like. Her daughter was so well behaved, well spoken, and reasonably photogenic that the executive producer had actually allowed the girl, a charming six-year-old at the time, to appear with her mother in a six-minute spot on child nutrition one year.

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