The Vander Police Department was bustling with activity when Frank arrived at nine o’clock sharp, as it typically was on Monday mornings. Frank entered the briefing room still radiating contentment from the weekend, but was taken aback when he saw the front page of The Vander Chronicle taped to the whiteboard. The headline read “Angels of Vander: Another Woman Vanishes” in bold print. Frank scoffed at the newspaper’s melodramatic nomenclature as his good-natured attitude dissipated. He took a seat a split-second before Litchfield strode through the doorway. The Deputy Chief wasted no time before diving into the briefing.
“This,” Litchfield boomed, gesturing to the newspaper headline. “This is what our town is becoming. This is what is happening on our watch.” Jesus Christ,Frank thought, rolling his eyes. Just when his opinion of Litchfield was beginning to improve, the man uses a glorified tabloid for theatrics in a police briefing.
Frank managed to glean the important points, despite Litchfield’s song and dance. Vander’s newest missing citizen was Amanda Zaleski, known as Mandy to her family and friends, a thirty-three-year-old elementary school teacher and mother of two. Her husband Brad had reported her missing after she had left the house that afternoon to visit her sister across town and never returned. Mandy’s sister claimed that she never made it to the house. Her car was found on the shoulder of Pioneer Avenue with a punctured front right tire later that evening.
The briefing only lasted ten minutes, but it was enough to exhaust Frank. Processing the new disappearance while having to put up with Litchfield’s buffoonery was a lot to ask of one man. He walked to the station parking lot with his head down, the familiar itch of anxiety beginning to reappear. When Frank reached his cruiser, he slouched behind the wheel in contemplation as the automatic gate to the lot creaked open and shut. He kept the car off, ignoring the rising heat of the day and allowing himself a quiet place to think.
Frank would never hear the detectives admit it, but he knew that the investigation was at a momentary dead end. Their theory, as far as he surmised, was that someone was causing these disappearances, but unless a modus operandi magically revealed itself, the department was stuck spinning its wheels. Frank’s chest was gradually tightening, his breaths becoming more shallow. He thought of his wonderful weekend with Valerie and Cade, and his anxiety melted into irritation. He had only been offered a short reprieve from his internal disquiet before thoughts of the disappearances had invaded his mind once again, which didn’t seem fair. It was also becoming increasingly frustrating to Frank that the disappearances were causing this reaction in him at all. I’m a cop, for fuck’s sake.
Frank swiped at his brow with the back of his hand, his eye stinging from sweat that had found its way in. He turned the car on, blasting the air conditioning. As he threw the car in drive and exited the parking space, his irritation grew.I’m so goddamn useless in all this. Frank pulled up to the gate and stopped hard, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel restlessly while the mechanism creaked the gate open. I’m the asshole who’s gonna be scraping drunks off the sidewalk while there are innocent people missing. Parents, spouses, children worried sick. The gate finally stopped its painfully slow journey and Frank pulled erratically out onto the street. The dispatcher came over the radio.
“We have a drunk and disorderly outside Paul’s Liquor Store.” Frank checked his watch. 9:20 on a Monday morning. A drunk outside a liquor store, Frank thought. Now who could have seen that coming?He waited for someone else to respond. The radio was silent, and Frank sighed. Looks like I’m getting dealt shit cards today.
“Officer seven-one-two responding,” Frank uttered with a complete lack of intonation. He drove swiftly to the center of town, and as he approached Paul’s Liquor Store, he could see a small crowd forming. Frank pulled diagonally into the space directly in front of the store’s entrance, taking note of the disheveled, scraggly man shouting and swaying from side to side.
It was Keith Brenner, one of Vander’s most infamous drunks. He was wearing a torn flannel shirt despite the heat and tattered jeans that looked as if they had been soiled the night before. Matted tufts of hair stuck up in every direction, and his thick beard was damp with saliva and malt liquor, most likely from an Old English forty. Keith’s bloodshot eyes bulged wildly when he noticed Frank’s cruiser approaching.
Frank turned on his body cam. If history was any indication, his confrontation with Keith could turn violent. He was normally very respectful to Frank, at least when he was sober, but all bets were off when he was drinking. Keith was screaming at Paul Nethers, the owner of the store, who was keeping a safe distance from the deranged man but continuing to argue with him. Frank approached Paul from behind, placed his hand on his shoulder, and lightly nudged him backward. He shot a stern expression toward Paul, who understood the gesture and walked back inside his store. Keith screamed obscenities until Paul was completely out of sight.
“What are you doing, Keith?” Frank asked, speaking as if Keith was a teenager who had just broken curfew.
“It’s a FREE goddamn country!” Keith shouted, spittle spraying from his lips. He looked at the crowd that had grown to roughly a dozen. “What?! Mind your fuckin’ bisniz!”
“What’s the problem?” Frank asked softly. Keith snapped his wide-eyed gaze back to Frank.
“The problem?” Keith sounded offended by the question. “The problem’s that I’m out here, mindin’ my own bisniz, and this guy,” Keith said, pointing into the store, “he tells me to fuck off.” He raised his arms in mock bewilderment. “Just mindin’ my own bisniz.” Keith’s slurred diction was partially caused by the alcohol, but Frank knew that it was mostly due to his upbringing.
“Really? Because what I’ve been hearing is that you’ve been making the morning pretty unpleasant for the people around here,” Frank said, motioning toward the onlookers.
“I have RIGHTS. I can…”
“Why don’t you go home Keith?” Frank interrupted. Keith was visibly shaken by the question.
“I, umm, I can, there’s, umm,” Keith stammered. “I have the right…”
“What’s the problem, Keith?” Frank repeated, this time in a nurturing tone. He took a slow step closer. Keith looked once again at the crowd, then cast his eyes down toward Frank’s shoes. His shoulders slumped.
“Hilly kicked me out,” Keith muttered. He began to break down in tears and Frank closed the gap between them. He put his arm around the man’s shoulders.
“Come on, you can sleep this off at the station,” Frank said, ushering the sobbing man to the cruiser. He opened the rear door and helped Keith in, ensuring that he didn’t hit his head. He walked around to the driver’s side and got in, making no acknowledgement to the shrinking crowd. As he settled into the front seat, he flipped the bodycam off and fired up the engine. He left the liquor store parking lot, headed back to the station.
“I’m sorry,” Keith mumbled when they were almost to their destination.
“What’s going on with you and Hilly?” Frank asked earnestly. Frank couldn’t remember a time when Keith and Hilly weren’t fighting, but she rarely resorted to throwing her husband out onto the street. The department had responded to a few domestic disturbance calls at their trailer park residence over the last few years, each of which ended in the two of them reconciling their differences, at least until the cops left. Whatever Keith did to anger his wife this time must have been serious. When he received no response, he took a quick glance into the backseat. Keith was sprawled out, arm over his eyes, asleep. Frank let out a breathy laugh and turned back forward. Why help solve the real cases when I have this?
They arrived at the station and Frank helped Keith to a holding cell, where another officer would supervise the drunken nap. He guided Keith to the cell bunk where he sat down with a thud, tipped over onto his side, and immediately fell asleep. Frank gave the officer on duty an amused grin as he left the detainment area, walking back through the station toward the parking lot. As he walked by the break room, he noticed three officers crowded around the coffee pot, laughing and joking with one another. He changed course and entered the break room just as two of the three officers were leaving. He grabbed a plain white coffee mug out of one of the hanging cabinets and poured himself a cup. The one officer left in the room with Frank was Sergeant Maggie Arnold. Frank had attended the Academy with Maggie a handful of years before, and he considered her a good cop and a good friend.
“What’s goin’ on, Mags?” Frank said, nodding toward the two officers striding away.
“I had a very pleasant conversation with Gloria Wilson this morning,” Maggie said, grinning. She was more than happy to recount the story for Frank.
“Oh Christ, what’d she do now?” Frank asked, smiling in anticipation and taking a sip of the highly mediocre coffee.
“Well, not only is her nonexistent neighbor still working for the Soviets, but now he’s also the Antichrist and there’s a good chance he’s ushering in the end of days. I’ve marked my calendar for the rapture this evening, per her request,” Maggie said, smirking through the last few words. Frank had a mouthful of coffee as she finished, and he struggled to swallow and laugh at the same time. This caused both he and Maggie to laugh even harder.
“She gave me the same bit about Russian spies the other day,” Frank said after catching his breath. “That apocalypse thing is new, though. I’m gonna have to remember that one.” Frank downed the rest of his coffee and set the empty mug on the counter. He and Maggie stood in silence for a few moments, faces relaxed and content, enjoying the light atmosphere brought on by their laughter. Maggie’s expression slowly faded to one of somber contemplation.
“Can you believe what’s going on? Two weeks ago Vander was so quiet, you could have mistaken it for a ghost town,” Maggie said, looking blankly past Frank. His expression mirrored hers, and he looked down at his feet.
“I feel kind of useless,” Frank said, looking back up at Maggie. “What good am I doing chasing drunks and idiots around town when there are three missing people out there?”
“John and Oscar know what they’re doing,” Maggie said, locking eyes with Frank. “We’ll find them. Don’t worry, Franny.” She giggled as she walked past Frank, patting him on the shoulder and exiting the break room. Frank sauntered out a moment later.
He made his way to the Detective Room, where he leaned against Kotching’s desk and stared at the cluttered whiteboard containing information on the disappearances. At the top of the whiteboard, “Angels of Vander” was written in large letters. Frank groaned in disgust. The fact that The Chronicle’s phrase had infiltrated the department’s vocabulary was asinine. He shifted his gaze down to photos of Katheryn, Jackie, and Mandy that seemed to stare straight into his soul. Words covered every available inch of the board, color-coded to delineate personal information from possible leads. None of it was new to Frank. The longer he stared at the board, the more his skin began to crawl. For the first time in days, the urge to smoke clawed its way back to the front of his mind. Frank tapped his foot incessantly and chewed on his thumbnail as he thought about the “Angels”. He had no desire to imagine what horrors were being inflicted upon them, in fact there wasn’t even any evidence to suggest any kind of suffering as of yet, but found himself doing it nonetheless. Images of torture and pain flashed before Frank’s eyes. A young woman handcuffed to a radiator, most likely an image supplanted in his memory from a movie he watched too young. A dingy basement with a stain-covered mattress. Screaming and crying. A body found in the woods.
Frank shivered as a chill went up his spine. He removed his hand from his mouth, suddenly aware that he had been gnawing on his thumb. He hadn’t bit his nails since he was a child. He touched a hand to his forehead and felt beads of sweat, despite the air conditioner loudly cycling stale air through the department. The need for nicotine couldn’t be ignored now. Frank stood up from the desk and hastily made his way through the department. The further he walked, the faster his feet moved, and when he exited the building he practically jogged to his cruiser. He fought the impulse to smoke the Marlboro right there in the car, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to mask the odor and that any number of his fellow officers or superiors could see him. Frank got in his cruiser and tried to make a quick escape, but was stopped once again by the painful slowness of the automatic gate. Frank jittered and squirmed in the driver’s seat as the gate took a millennium to open and stomped on the gas as soon as there was enough room for the patrol car to squeeze through. He flew down the street, moving considerably faster than the speed limit. He caught himself biting his thumbnail once more as he shifted lanes, nearly clipping the bumper of the car in front of him. Frank was stopped by a red light at every intersection he approached, and had to fight the compulsion to flip on his lights and blow through each one. He would have done it if not for the threat of consequence if he was caught using his siren when there was no emergency. His insatiable nicotine addiction mixed with thoughts of the Angels, bloody, beaten, and miserable, and when he pulled the patrol car behind the Home Depot, he felt as if his internal organs were turning to mush and his chest was collapsing in on itself.
He parked the car with a screech and got out, leaving the door open wide as he popped the trunk and rummaged through his emergency bag. He removed the pack of smokes and lighter, feeling safe in the nook, surrounded by walls. In an instant, Frank had the cigarette in his mouth. He lit it and inhaled the bitter, gray smoke, feeling a wave of euphoria ripple through every fiber of his being. He closed his eyes and savored every last fleeting moment of the nicotine in his system. The cigarette burned down to the butt and singed Frank’s fingers, shocking him back to reality. He dropped it to the ground, stamping it out with the heel of his boot. He pulled a second one from the pack. This one seemed to last longer, the effects being less euphoric, but still heavenly. When it was gone, he stamped it out in the same fashion as he had the first, retrieving a third stick from the pack. Now that the first two cigarettes had soothed him, he decided to take his time on the third, leaning against the rear of the car and crossing his ankles. He thought he probably looked like a uniformed James Dean.
When he was almost finished, inhaling the last long breath the cigarette would permit, a tall, burly man wearing an orange Home Depot apron came around the side of the building carrying a wooden palette. He jumped when he saw Frank, unaccustomed to seeing anyone loitering behind the establishment. Frank was just as startled as the employee, snapping his head toward the man while letting the cigarette turn to ash in his hand. The two locked eyes, both unsure of what to do. The man nodded his head once as a hello, a gesture that Frank returned. The employee dropped the palette against the wall, turned around, and disappeared around the side of the building. Frank breathed a disappointed sigh, putting out the cigarette. He was disappointed in himself, and how he was making the department look. Instead of doing his job, he was parked behind a hardware store sneaking cigarettes like he was still a teenager back in Chicago. I need to quit, Frank told himself, just as he had a thousand times before.
Frank sprayed himself with cologne, popped a piece of gum in his mouth, and got back in the cruiser. He stared out the windshield at the beige wall in front of him. He was frustrated that his vice was interfering with his duties as a man of the law, but he didn’t regret indulging in it. His mind was quiet, and he felt ready and able to perform his job to the best of his ability. Frank pulled the car out from behind the store and was headed toward Frontier Avenue when the dispatcher’s voice resonated through the radio.
“Check welfare on a Patricia Buford, address 2670 Alta Vista Drive.”
“Seven-one-two en route,” Frank said into the microphone, making a quick u-turn. He drove toward Alta Vista Drive, his thoughts turning to Valerie and Cade. This was another routine, dull task, but this time, Frank was happy to do it.