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Before She Disappeared


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The Boston public school system is a mystery to me. I grew up in a small community. One elementary school, one middle school, one regional high school. You stood at a corner, the bus came and took you where you needed to go with the rest of the neighborhood kids. Boston, on the other hand . . .

Public schools, charter schools, international schools. Forget local geography, such as Mattapan. From what I read, a high schooler could attend any public school in the city of Boston, using some crazy application process that probably made engaged parents want to shoot themselves and disengaged parents . . . well, that much more disengaged.

Given such madness, high schoolers didn’t rely on the traditional yellow school bus. Instead, they had student passes for the city’s mass transit system—the T. Reading about it gave me a headache. That headache returns now as I contemplate the map of Boston’s MBTA system.

The articles on Angelique’s disappearance listed her high school as Boston Academy, a program that prided itself on helping minority students prepare for futures in healthcare, medicine, et cetera. If Angelique wanted to be a doctor, her school choice made a perfect sense. From what I can tell, Boston Academy is a mere twenty minutes—and many confusing rail-bus-subway stops— away. Just to make it more interesting, I’ve managed to catch Boston in the middle of a massive update to the MBTA, guaranteed to cause delays, shutdowns, and random moments of sheer chaos.

I follow one of my printed-out maps to a local station where I dutifully sit next to the tracks, watching garbage blow this way and that. I made out some graffiti farther down the way, not to mention random stickers adhered to benches and signs, now faded with age. A tattered poster is fastened near the T sign…MISSING, it reads in large print. Below, barely visible after eleven months of weather: Angelique’s official headshot. I feel a moment of fresh sadness. Not just because this girl is missing, but because from here on out, she will be defined by this one image. Was she happy the day this photo was snapped? Thinking about school, dreaming about boys, or plotting her next adventure with her friends?

Or, if her disappearance really was a planned event of her own making, was she already working at the details even as this photo was taken? Hoping no one would look too close? Fearing someone might notice?

I try to study the smudged photo for answers, but of course it offers none.

A rumble along the tracks, then my train arrives. Except it doesn’t look like a train to me. More like a vintage trolley. Orange, single car, cute. I’m supposed to take the trolley a couple of stops, then transfer to a bus. I once worked a case in a state park where the entire search area was accessible only via horseback; how hard could this be?

At last I find myself standing in front of Boston Academy in South Dorchester. The school sits atop a grassy knoll, one of the few touches of green I can see. If Mattapan is densely populated, high on crime, and low on the socioeconomic totem pole, South Dorchester appears to be its kissing cousin.

The academy boasts an imposing three-story façade with broad windows and huge glass doors that lead straight to twin metal detectors. Behind the carved granite entrance, the body of the building unfolds in a series of tall brick wings. Each exterior window is the same size, and they are equally spaced, row after row after row.

The grounds provide a perimeter of patchy green grass interspersed with clumps of woody shrubs. Some rhododendrons, hydrangea, and what looks to be forsythia. None of it is terribly well tended, but still a nice respite from brick and concrete. I hear a bell tone from deep inside the belly of the school, signaling something. Students don’t come pouring out, so I continue my inspection.

I ’m curious about a number of things. First, it looked to me like Angelique’s daily school commute brought her within two blocks of the academy. From there, it’s a fairly straight walk from her bus stop to the institute’s front doors—which I’m certain, given the presence of the metal detectors, all students are required to use. One egress in and out. All schools, but particularly inner-city schools, are big on control.

I follow what I hope were her footsteps, passing a corner grocer, a liquor store, a nail salon, and a barbershop. I also note a sign for a chiropractor and a chain pharmacy at the opposite corner, doing bustling business.

Angelique had to cross the street to reach the front steps of her school. If she did that at the corner intersection, then her final stretch would be a hundred feet of grassy school grounds, tucked behind a low wrought-iron fence. Plenty of small bushes line the perimeter, but being right next to the street they are littered with disposable coffee cups, plastic water bottles, even nips of booze. I spot Fireball whiskey, three kinds of vodka, then Jim Beam, an oldie but a goodie. From the students or the neighbors? I’m not sure I want to know the answer to that.

Guerline had said Angelique’s backpack was recovered from underneath a bush near school grounds. Meaning, if I were a student and wanted to hide something . . .

I look across the street at the row of businesses facing the school. An entire block of them. Meaning dozens of watching eyes, potential witnesses, and security cameras. Whatever happened that Friday eleven months ago, it definitely didn’t happen here. This whole stretch is far too visible.

I continue around the block, down the side of the brick building. I have out my small spiral-bound notebook, jotting down a quick note of this, that. Mostly I’m counting security cameras, marking egresses, and mapping the bushes that fall in between. From time to time I stray onto school grounds, stepping over the low wrought- iron border to check out groupings of low shrubs. No trees, I notice. Nothing to interfere with the line of sight. Smart.

“Frankie Elkin?”

I glance up to find a big guy in a charcoal-gray suit staring at me from the sidewalk. He’s tall, probably six two, broad shouldered, and with the build of a midforties male who was once super fit and is still fit enough. His erect bearing and buzzed black hair marks him as former military, while his complexion . . . maybe African American or Latin or some blend in between? I can’t tell. Good-looking guy. Or would be if he weren’t regarding me with exasperation. Now, he casually smooths back his jacket to expose the gold shield clipped to his waist.

“Detective Dan Lotham.” I want to prove I can make educated guesses as well.

“Do you have permission to be on school grounds?”

“Um . . . My dog ate my homework?”

He gives me another look. I obediently exit the grounds onto the sidewalk. I already feel like a kid who got caught breaking curfew. I don’t expect Detective Lotham to like me. A civilian inserting herself into an official police investigation? I’m lucky if he doesn’t start with handcuffs and proceed to criminal trespassing charges from there.

It surprises me then, how much I find myself studying his face.

There’s something about his eyes, the way he regards me, so coolly and patiently. He reminds me of last stands and a bastion against the storm.

I halt four feet back. For a moment, I’m tempted to close the gap. The instinct catches me off guard and I flush a little. It’s my own fault. It’s been a long time now since I’ve allowed myself human contact. And just because I choose to be alone doesn’t mean I never feel lonely.

“Her backpack was here.” My statement comes out tentative. I swallow, continue in a more assertive tone. “Fourth bush in. You can still see a slight hollow worn into the ground, plus some of the lower branches of the azalea are broken.”

Clearly, my comment surprises him. The exact location of Angelique’s recovered pack wasn’t in the papers, proving I’m capable of learning some things all by myself. I continue quickly, without giving him a chance to demand I walk away, or lecture me on letting the professionals do their jobs:

“The front of the school is covered by at least six cameras between the academy’s security system and businesses across the street. The other sides are slightly less monitored, but traffic cams still capture each corner, plus again, more establishments across the way. As perimeters go, the academy is well supervised.

“Until we get to here.” I gesture to the area where we are standing. “No businesses across the street. No traffic cams midblock, no school surveillance.”

He doesn’t interrupt, just narrows his eyes at me. Meaning I probably do have it right, further pissing him off.

“There’s a side door halfway down this stretch of the school, an emergency egress, which I’m guessing is locked externally as a matter of protocol. It forces the students to enter through the front doors, where they’re subject to metal detectors and spot searches. Meaning there’s either not a single weapon or ounce of drugs in this one high school, or . . .” I shrug.

Detective Lotham rolls his eyes. There’s no institution in the world that’s contraband free and we both know it. Administrations implement controls and almost nearly as fast, the inmates figure out how to circumvent the system.

I warm to my subject: “Looks to me like the students stash their guns, knives, narcotics under the bushes here, probably first thing in the morning, then wait for a break between classes. Then it’s easy enough to prop open the side egress, scurry out, and recover the illicit goods with none the wiser. Meaning plenty of students know about this spot. Including Angelique.”

“There’s a second bolt-hole twenty yards down,” Detective Lotham drawls, probably just to prove I don’t know it all.

I shrug. Here, twenty yards from here—it doesn’t matter. Angelique’s backpack was left in a strategic location known by the students, not the administration. Meaning someone knew what they were doing. Meaning that someone might very well have been Angelique, stashing her personal belongings where she figured they’d be safe. Before she . . . ?

That’s the part I don’t know yet. The part nobody knows yet.

I ignore Detective Lotham and his relentless glower, turning in a small circle to sort out the rest in my mind. “Angelique had changed her clothes,” I murmur. “The clothes she wore to school were in her pack, along with her cell phone. Meaning once she’d exited the front doors of the school, she came around the side of the building here to stash her school bag. Except, she had to change clothes somewhere in between . . .”

I look across the street, then up ahead to the corner, where there’s a larger concentration of small businesses. I’m still trying to picture it in my head. “If Angelique had entered a store to change, she would’ve been caught on camera, and that would’ve been her last known location. Instead, the school is ground zero. So she must’ve walked around the block, school clothes on, backpack in hand, and then . . .”

My voice trails off…I glance at the detective. I think I know what happened.

__________________________________

From Before She Disappeared by Lisa Gardner, published by Dutton, an imprint of The Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Lisa Gardner.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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