James Andrus

The Perfect Scream


Detective John Stallings shifted in the seat of the county-issued Impala so his Glock didn’t bite into his hip when he turned to look at his partner, Patty Levine. It had taken him a while to get used to the blond hair and pretty face, but now he viewed her like any other cop-only meaner and with a better punch. The Police Memorial Building, or PMB, rose in front of them.

Patty was studying a document in the battered gray-metal pad case where she stored notes and calendars that went back years. She held up a photo and said, “Zach Halston, twenty-one, senior at the University of North Florida. May be out at the beach with some fraternity nerds. Mom hasn’t heard from him in ten days and she’s worried.”

“Great, so now we babysit frat boys?”

“What else do we got going on? This is a nice, lower-stress change of pace.”

Stallings gave one of the noncommittal grunts that had gotten him through nineteen years of marriage. Well, eighteen with a year sabbatical. What he didn’t say out loud, what he’d never mention to another cop, was that he did have better things to do. He had conducted a relentless, secretive search for his daughter, Jeanie, who had disappeared three years earlier when she was sixteen. If his bosses at the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office knew he was working his own daughter’s case he’d have a lot to explain. As it was, the command staff and his immediate supervisors had gone above and beyond the call to help Stallings. The case was open and a detective still did some checking, but Stallings had a schedule of talking to other missing-persons detectives across the country and searching the Internet for any clues on sites about missing kids and runaways. That’s why he resented this jerk-off assignment.

After a minute of brooding, Stallings said, “Any idea where the frat boys are?”

“The father says they’re at one of the mom-and-pop hotels over in Atlantic Beach. It might be slow checking on partying college kids in the morning. Maybe we should grab an early lunch if we don’t find the right hotel in the first few tries.”

Stallings nodded and sighed.

“You look tired. What’s wrong?”


“What’s your favorite phrase? Is today the day?”

“C’mon, I know you went through the academy ten years after me, but they had to still be preaching it.”

She shrugged her muscular shoulders.

“Is today the day that changes your life?” Stallings shook his head. “Just a way to keep you alert and not fall into complacency.” He had said the phrase at the start of every assignment since his early road patrol days. Lately, he’d taken an active role in changing his life and it was showing results. His wife, Maria, had been much more open to talking and his father, whom he had not seen in twenty years, was now part of the family again. Sort of.

Patty looked out the window and said, “You think we should consider another assignment for a while?”


“It doesn’t bother you that the other units call us the ‘spring break patrol’ or ‘runaway round-up’?”

He snorted. “And looking for burglars in Hyde Park is better?”

“You know nothing we do here can undo the past.”

Stallings looked down and sighed. “But it can make me feel better about the present.”

Patty didn’t answer, but he sensed her frustration. This was his choice. She’d had to take any detective bureau assignment she could to get off road patrol. She didn’t have the same perspective as him. At least she had gotten some homicide experience with a few cases that required all the detectives in crimes/persons to work together. No one would’ve guessed that Jacksonville, Florida, was the crossroads of the South for deviants and killers.

Stallings said, “Let’s see what happens today and worry about tomorrow later.”

Lynn mumbled the common “yeahs” and “un-huhs” as she absently listened to her mom go on and on about the problems she was having with the built-in vacuum system at their house in Hyde Park. Then she heard her mother say, “Are you still there, sweetheart?”

“Yeah, Mom, I hear you.” She may have heard the words, but all of her attention was focused out the windshield of the blue Chevy Suburban she’d borrowed from work. The Thomas Brothers Grocery and Supply chain treated her well. They paid her top dollar to keep their books, gave her time off when she needed it, and did little things like loan her a giant killing machine without asking any questions whatsoever. Again she heard her mom say, “Can you hear me, sweetie?”

Lynn smiled. She could tell how old she was when she’d met someone based on if they called her by her first name, her middle name, or a nickname. Her parents and siblings as well as anyone she knew as a very young girl, before she started school, never called her Lynn. Everyone else did. Her mom called all the kids “sweetheart” or “sweetie.”

Before she realized it, the conversation was over and her mother said, “All right, sweetheart, you be careful.” Lynn knew her mother was paranoid about her children’s safety, even a twenty-four-year-old child like herself. The slight tremor in her mother’s voice ate away at Lynn a little bit at a time.

She closed her cell phone and looked down the nearly empty street leading out to International Speedway Boulevard, one of the main roads of Daytona Beach. And she thought downtown Jacksonville was shitty. This hellhole seemed to be nothing but rednecks and bikers. Every block along US 1 was jammed with strip bars and tattoo parlors. She couldn’t believe she’d liked this place when she was a kid. Even the boardwalk down by the beach was a second-rate parody of a real boardwalk like Atlantic City’s.

But she had to remember why she was here and what she was trying to accomplish.

This was a mission, not a pleasure trip.

The morning was a wash, but looking for the missing frat boy got easier after lunch when a lot of the fall break crowd started to stir after a night of club hopping. That’s what caught Patty’s eye as they drove past the Pelican Harbor Inn-a line of buff, tanned young men leaning against the cheap metal rail of the two-story motel along the eroding beach east of Jacksonville.

Patty smiled. “Fraternity nerd alert.”

Stallings whipped the Impala into a spot at the next hotel a few feet away from the hedge that separated the rundown buildings. “Don’t kids go home for Thanksgiving break anymore?”

“Not when there are a few extra days off school. Now they party.”

“Hey, you can’t park there,” called a dark-skinned, Middle Eastern man when he saw the two detectives turn toward the Pelican Harbor Inn.

Stallings held up his badge from his belt without a word and the man waved him on. He could hear the music blaring from an open door as he and Patty took the outside stairs up to the second floor. The windows pulsed to the heavy bass as the detectives approached the boys in the outdoor hallway.

The closest boy, wearing a T-shirt that said REHAB IS FOR QUITTERS, turned his head slowly toward them, his eyes moving to the guns and badges on their belts; then he hopped off the railing to greet them.

“Is there a problem, officer?” asked the young man in a voice loud enough to be heard over the music as he waved his hand behind his back to get the others off the railing.

Stallings shouted, “Cut the music,” and waited as one of the boys scampered into the first room. A few seconds later there was silence. His ears still rang, but now he could hear the waves break over the narrow beach. He smiled and said, “That’s better.”

“Was that it?” asked the group’s spokesman.

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