Amara’s next stop was the one she most dreaded. Zachary Coleman’s parents. When she’d phoned the father, his raspy, monotone voice penetrated her heart and sent an ache through her chest. The man’s joy was gone. Back in Property Crimes, she dealt with her share of angry and frightened people, but that paled in comparison to this. The Colemans lost their son. How did a person deal with that? When Amara’s dad died, the pain had been deep and overwhelming. How much more at the loss of a child?
The death of Benjamin Reyes, the five-year-old boy who triggered the investigation into Cotulla, at least had a silver lining. Nearly fifty other children saved because of his bravery. Had that eased the pain for his parents? Could it?
And the Colemans had nothing like that to cling to. Their son died and nobody could tell them why. Natural causes or OD or bad luck or homicide. Would any of those reasons be better or worse than the others? Zachary was gone, and he wasn’t ever coming back.
Dr. Pritchard had texted last night to let her know the boy’s body was being released to the parents. The funeral was scheduled for tomorrow, with visitation at the home today. The family would be swamped with phone calls, mountains of food, and outbursts of crying.
And a detective who wanted to pry into every aspect of the dead teenager’s life and dig up all the dirt she could find.
She pulled behind the row of cars lining the street in front of the Colemans’ address. The residence sat on a huge lot—had to be at least two or three acres—on the outskirts of Helotes, a small city on the northwest side of San Antonio. Mature trees obscured most of the house, a testament to the home’s age.
She donned her jacket and strode up the driveway, her stomach fluttering and fingers jittery. What to say wasn’t the problem. Knowing what not to say was. She’d watched other detectives go through this, and there was a fine line between getting what you needed and not creating additional pain for the victim’s family. Usually, there was no way to do one without the other.
Three teenagers—two boys and a girl—came out the front door of the sprawling one-story brick home and passed her on their way to the street. None of them spoke or made eye contact. A man stood off to the right of the house beside the garage, smoking and watching her. He nodded and flicked his cigarette to the ground, then crushed it with his foot.
“SAPD?” he asked.
“Yes.” Her cop aura must be strong today. Or she was the only Hispanic he expected.
He walked toward her. “I’m Zach’s father. Paul Coleman.”
She shook his hand. Her heart ached at the sight of his bloodshot eyes and facial stubble. “Mr. Coleman, I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Thanks. I, uh, I hope it’s okay if we go in the back door? My wife . . .” He cleared his throat. “Lori’s inside with everyone and I’d rather she not have to go through this right now, if that’s okay.”
“Absolutely,” Amara said. “Lead the way.”
They walked through the grass and circled behind the house to a large patio. A huge swimming pool, complete with diving board and slide, glistened as the sun reflected off the tiny waves created by the robotic cleaner. A few people clustered near the back door and the pair passed through the group. One man patted Mr. Coleman’s shoulder as he walked by. The rest averted their eyes and stopped their whispering.
He opened the screen door and held it for her. “It’s just in here to the left. My office.”
She stepped inside and caught a glimpse of the crowd in the front. The hushed talk and symphony of sniffling told her all she needed to know about what it was like up there. No laughter. Everyone afraid to make noise for fear they’d somehow interrupt the sanctity and somberness of the moment. This day was all about pain and suffering, tempered with the brief joys of a shared memory or long-unseen family member.
“Right here,” Mr. Coleman said.
She walked into the room and stood until he motioned toward a fabric-covered recliner. She sat and waited until he closed the door and sank into the chair behind his desk.
“Can I get you some water or something?” he asked.
“Oh, no, sir. Thank you. I only need to ask a few questions, then I’ll be out of your way.”
“You’re not in our way.” He pulled a tissue from a box on the desk and dabbed under his eyes. “To be honest, I appreciate the distraction. At least it makes me feel like I’m doing something, you know?”
“Yes, sir. Can you—”
“You’re from Homicide, right? Do you think my son was murdered?”
She shifted in her seat. “I don’t know. There’s no evidence that points toward that, but anytime we have an unexplained death, we investigate.”
“So you don’t think the toxicology report will tell us why Zach died?”
What’s the right answer? “There’s every reason to believe the lab results will provide answers. In the meantime, though, we want to ensure we’ve been thorough in our investigation.”
“Just in case?”
She nodded. “Just in case. Now, can you tell me a little about your son? What he was like, how he was doing at school, stuff like that?”
One corner of his lips turned up. “Zach is . . . was a teenage boy. Going to be a senior in high school this fall. I’m sure you know what they can be like. He had his share of girlfriends. No one serious as far as I know. Above-average grades. Could’ve been near the top of his class if he tried harder.” His half smile disappeared. “I suppose every parent thinks that. No sports or anything. Spent most of his free time playing video games online or glued to his phone.”
She rested her hands in her lap and paused for a moment before speaking. “I understand these questions can be difficult, but it’s important we ask them.”
“No apologies. Please. We have to know what happened.”
“Mm-hmm. Was he popular at school? Any best friends?”
“Popular? No. He wasn’t much of an extrovert, but Zach had a few friends he hung out with on what I’d call a casual basis. Nothing regular.”
“Yes, sir. Would it be possible to get a list of those friends?”
“Of course.” He scribbled on a sheet of paper, then handed it to her. “Those three are the ones he spent most of his time with. You passed them on your way in.”
“Thank you.” She folded the paper, slipped it inside her jacket, and stared at the blank page of her notepad. “Did Zachary have any enemies?”
“Anyone who’d want to kill him? I can’t imagine he did, but these days, who knows? I mean, you see it on the news all the time, right? Some high school kid shoots up the place because a girl turned him down or a teacher laughed at him.”
“I understand. Did Zachary have a job?”
“He worked part-time at Target as a stocker. Maybe twenty or twenty-five hours a week. Enough to get some spending money and pay his car insurance, but not much else.”
“What kind of car?”
“Ford Mustang. Racing red with black leather interior. Zach loved that car.” He chuckled. “Lori and I fought over that one. She wanted to get him something safer. Said I only wanted to relive my youth. Can’t say she was wrong, but . . .” He scrubbed his hands over his face. “Can you imagine? If he’d died in a car wreck instead? I’d, uh, always have the guilt on top of everything else.”
She jotted a note to give him time to recover. “Sir, was your son planning to continue his education after high school?”
“Planning? Seventeen-year-olds don’t plan things. Computer science. That’s what he wanted to study. Zach loved anything to do with technology, but computers were his thing. We were deciding on a college over his Christmas break this year.”
“Got it. Did you see your son the day he went to the water park?”
“Yes.” He pointed at a drafting table. “I’m an architect. Do as much work from home as possible. Zach shuffled in here early that morning looking like he just rolled out of bed. Probably did. Anyway, he said he was going to stop by and see Grandma—my mother—at the retirement home after he left the water park. Wanted to know if I had anything that needed to go to her.” He grabbed another tissue. “That’s the kind of boy he was.”
“Sounds like a sweet kid,” she said. “Your mother lives where?”
“She’s got a little cottage over at Green Horizons. We tried to get her to move in with us, but she wouldn’t have it. Do you need to speak to her? I haven’t told her about, um, you. I didn’t want to upset her more than she already was.”
“No, sir. That won’t be necessary. That morning when Zachary stopped in here, was there anything unusual? Did he seem upset? Worried?”
He concentrated on the ceiling for a few moments. “Nothing I can remember.”
“Okay. Did he go to the water park often?”
“Not really. As far as I know, this was his first time this summer. He wasn’t much of a water guy. He’d hang around our pool with friends sometimes, but not often.”
“I understand. Mr. Coleman, I need to ask a few questions that are a bit more personal. It’s important, and I’ll do my best to keep them to a minimum.”
He gestured for her to continue.
“Was Zachary your only child?”
“Yes. We wanted more”—he scratched the back of his neck and looked away—“but it never happened.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Was there any tension in the home? Either between you and your wife or either of you and Zachary?”
“Nothing between Lori and me. With Zach, the usual, but nothing serious. Money, grades, staying up all night and sleeping all day. Same as every other teenage boy.”
“Has anything out of the ordinary happened lately? People you hadn’t seen before? Missing work? Stuff like that.”
He hesitated as the door opened and a blonde-haired woman with smudged mascara poked her head inside the room. She glanced at Amara, then turned to Mr. Coleman.
“Honey,” she said, “can you come up front for a while? I need to lie down for a few minutes.”
He nodded. “Be there in just a sec. Lori, this is Detective Alvarez.”
Amara stood and clasped her hands in front of her. “Ma’am, I’m so sorry for your loss.”
The woman’s thank you was distant and rote. She turned and disappeared from view.
Amara pulled a business card from her jacket pocket and slid it onto the desk. “I don’t have any more questions now, but I wonder if I could see Zachary’s room before I go? If you’ll just point me in the right direction, I’ll be out of your way as soon as possible.”
He massaged his forehead and sighed. “Could we do that another day? My wife, um, when she said she needed to lie down . . .”
Amara’s throat tightened and her shoulders sagged. His wife is on Zachary’s bed. “Of course. Would it be okay if I called you on Monday?” With the funeral tomorrow, a Friday, that would give them the weekend to rest.
“That would be fine,” he said. “Thank you for understanding.”
“Yes, sir. Thanks again for your time. I’ll show myself out.” She exited the house the same way she’d entered and wandered toward the street. At the garage, she stopped to peek through the side door. Zach’s red Mustang sat there, flanked by a white SUV on the far side and a black sedan near her.
Should she have asked for permission to check the sports car? See if there was anything in there that might help? No, not today. That could wait until Monday. She’d intruded enough for now.
If there were clues to the teenager’s death, they’d be in his car or his room. Nothing about his parents seemed suspicious, but if they were involved somehow, they’d already had plenty of time to clean up things. Let them bury their son.
She sat in her car for several minutes and debated whether to attend the funeral tomorrow. If she played the odds, there was a good chance the killer would be there. The vast majority of murders were committed by people who knew the victim. But spotting the perpetrator at a funeral was the stuff of TV shows and movies. Besides, if today’s visitation was any indication, there’d be a big crowd at the service.
She pulled away from the house and headed for the office. With no official need to attend the funeral, she’d skip it. Avoid the danger of the investigation becoming too emotional. Personal.
Instead, she’d spend the day doing something that sent trickles of dread through her body. She knew it made no sense. She worked out. Stayed in shape. But that didn’t erase the fear. Going after a possible murderer was nothing compared to the anxiety tomorrow would bring.
She’d be in a very public location surrounded by throngs of people.
And she’d be wearing her bathing suit.
(C) Tom Threadgill, Network of Deceit; Revell a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2020. Used by permission from the publisher.
After her rescue of nearly fifty kidnapped children made international headlines, Amara Alvarez gets what she’s worked for: a transfer to San Antonio’s Homicide Division. Reality sets in quickly, though, as her first case, the suspicious death of a teenager at a crowded local water park, brings chaos to her personal life.
As the investigation moves forward and she increases the pressure on the suspects, Amara finds herself under attack by cybercriminals. Her every move is being potentially watched online, and she’s forced to resort to unconventional methods to find the killer. With few leads, she fights to keep her first murder investigation from ending up in the cold case files.
Tom Threadgill is back with another riveting page-turner featuring the detective who is willing to put everything on the line to see that justice is served and lives are protected.
About Tom Threadgill
Tom Threadgill is a full-time author and a member of American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW). He is currently on the suspense/thriller publishing board for Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas and lives with his wife in rural Tennessee.