1st Place – January 2023


By JJ Rushmore

“It’s the parents, Frank,” Stacey said. “It’s always the parents.” Stacey Margolis was my new partner, 25 and fresh from the academy. The ink on her criminology diploma from FSU still dripped with enthusiasm and naïveté. She was smart, pretty, and well put together, having been a collegiate gymnast. She was also single, but my prospects with her were thin because I was old enough to be her father.

“Let’s wait until we arrive at the scene before we arrest anyone,” I said. My experience as a detective with the Miami PD had taught me to follow the evidence. My brief time with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office hadn’t changed my mind. “At this point all we have is a 9-1-1 for a missing child.” I was anxious for a quick resolution, as much to impress the Sheriff as to find the boy.

Stallion Farms in Wellington village was sixteen miles from Palm Beach, but still close to all that money. The smallest lot in the subdivision was 25 acres, and the Kincaid property was not the smallest.

Wrought iron gates flanked by a pair of aerated ponds guarded the entrance. White fencing surrounded the property. The half-mile driveway meandered through a colonnade of majestic Canary date palms. A variety of bronze animal statuary dotted the landscape around a stucco-and-Spanish-tile mansion. Amenities listed on the county appraiser website included a pool and stables.

A diminutive maid ushered us into the drawing room. She melted into the background and stood sentry by the door.

A woman in tennis garb, presumably Mrs. Kincaid, perched on a pink fainting couch. She was a well-kept thirty-ish brunette with an athletic build. A man in her age group dressed all in white as a Panamanian don leaned on a white grand piano. I almost didn’t see him.

I introduced us, but before I could begin Mrs. Kincaid glanced at her watch.

 “Will this take long? I have a tennis date at three with Kyle at the club.”

“I thought Kyle left,” the husband said. “On tour.”

“Well, he’s back,” she huffed.

“You never said.”

“You never asked.”

I needed to stop the bickering. “The call indicated it’s only been a few hours,” I said. “Why did you report your son missing?”

“Thomas didn’t turn up for lunch,” she replied. “He’s never done that.”

“When was the last time you saw Tommy?”

“Thomas,” she said curtly. “We saw him after breakfast at seven thirty. We haven’t seen him since. And he failed to appear for his nine o’clock French lesson.”

“And where was that?”

“It was supposed to be here. In the drawing room. Pirrko teaches him.”

She said the name like it hurt her mouth. “And who is this Pirko?”

“It’s Pirrko, with two r’s. Pirrko Salmi. She’s our live-in au pair.” She rolled the r’s in the teacher’s name. “From Finland,” she added, as if that made a difference.

“We’ll need to speak with her.”

“Of course.” She waived at the maid. “Juanita, please?” The domestic nodded and disappeared.

“What does Thomas do to keep busy?”

The husband chimed in. “Boy stuff. He’s twelve. Since he lost Sammy, he spends most of his time riding his horse.”

“Who is Sammy?”

“He was his golden retriever. Sammy disappeared two weeks ago. He had a collar, a license, and a chip. He just vanished. We even offered a hefty reward. Never found him.”

Juanita returned with a young woman in tow. The newcomer was in her late 20s with shoulder-length blonde hair and the body of a supermodel. The au pair wore an A-line skirt and sleeveless top. She sauntered in as if working the crowd on a Paris runway.

The room atmosphere changed like the air before a summer storm. The Mrs. sat up straight, raising her chin. The husband glanced at the woman and turned away, staring out the windows.

Mrs. Kincaid performed the introductions. “This is Ms. Salmi, our au pair. Pirrko, this is Detective Harris. He’s here to help find Thomas. I know you’ll cooperate fully.”

I would have loved cooperating fully with her, but that wasn’t why I was there.

I nodded. “Ms. Salmi. Tell me about the last time you saw Thomas.”

“It was right after breakfast. He said he was going outside until his lesson.”

“To go riding?”

She shrugged. “He didn’t say.”

“And you didn’t see him again?”

She shook her head.

I thanked her and she left the room, her hips swaying like palms in a summer zephyr, as if dancing to a silent samba.

Stacey jabbed me in the ribs. “Close your mouth,” she said sotto voce. “You’re drooling in front of the suspects.”

“Sorry,” I whispered back. “Thanks.”

Mr. Kincaid had also fallen under Pirrko’s spell, staring after her as she left the room. Mrs. K, on the other hand, shot daggers in her direction. The enchantment broke when Pirrko glanced back at us over her shoulder and closed the door behind her. The look had more meaning than the situation warranted.

I cleared my throat. “Ahem. Mrs. Kincaid, what else might Thomas be doing outside if he’s not riding his horse?

“He likes to catch animals.” She shivered. “Reptiles.”

“What kind of reptiles?”

“I don’t know. Snakes, lizards, turtles—this is Florida, for God’s sake! They’re everywhere. He catches them on the property and keeps them in the stables.”

“Okay. At this point, I’d like Deputy Margolis to give the grounds and buildings a once-over—with your permission, of course.”

“Do whatever you need to.” She checked her watch for the umpteenth time.

Stacey left to search the property with instructions to keep in touch via radio.

The clock was ticking, and we had no clue as to the boy’s whereabouts.

“Mrs. Kincaid—does Tommy have a cell phone? A smart watch? Some device you use to track his location?”

“Don’t you think we’d have thought of that? He left his phone in his room, and we can’t find his watch on the app. But sometimes he lets the battery drain down. He’s not good about it.”

My thoughts swirled around a possible triangle between the parents and the au pair, and how that might have resulted in the boy’s disappearance. The wife jealous of the husband? Kidnapping the boy for attention? Or maybe it was a rectangle. Could the boy be involved? In love with his teacher and jealous of his father? Sort of a twisted Oedipus complex? Or was he in hiding to get his parent’s attention?

My radio chirped and I keyed my shoulder mic. “Go.”

Nothing at the swimming pool.”

“Roger. Check the stables. The boy keeps his reptile collection there. Look for poisonous snakes.”

“Roger that.”

Mrs. Kincaid suddenly seemed to have forgotten her tennis date.

“Mr. and Mrs. Kincaid—have there been any strangers on the property? Trades people? Deliveries?”

“Only the gardeners,” Mr. Kincaid said, “and we know all of them.”

“And the pool boy. But I know Fernando was busy the whole time he was here.” She blushed when she said it.

Mr. Kincaid placed his hands on his hips and stared at his wife.

I asked a few more questions, but there was no more to be learned at the house. I keyed my mic. “Sitrep, Stace.”

“The stables were full of reptiles—nine lizards, three snakes, four turtles, and a baby gator. Nothing poisonous.

“Are you sure? About the poisonous thing?”

“I’m a native, Frank. I know the difference between a corn snake and a coral snake. I’m now approaching the first pond.”

“Roger that. Which one? I’ll meet you there.”

“The one with the big alligator statue.”

Mrs. Kincaid gave me a puzzled look.


“We don’t have an alligator statue.”

Missing dog. Baby gator. Missing boy.

“Stacey? Stacey! Do NOT approach the alligator! It’s NOT a statue!”

She didn’t answer.

I bolted from the house and tore down the driveway, with the cruiser spewing dust and pebbles in its wake.

I still didn’t know which pond she was at. Of course I went to the wrong one first. By the time I arrived at the second one, the gator was snapping at Stacey’s heels as she hung by both hands from the branch of a poinciana tree.

“How’re you doing, Stace? Can you hang on?”

“For a little while. Why? What are you thinking?”

“I need to call Fish and Wildlife.”

“Like hell! I can’t hang on that long.”

“But gators are endangered! They’ll have my ass if I shoot it!”

“And I’ll have your ass if I lose a leg! Now shoot this fucker!”

The first two rounds from my .44 revolver just made it mad. The last four made him fodder for boots and purses.

The fish and wildlife folks found Sammy’s collar and license in the gator’s gut. The Sheriff’s dive team discovered Thomas’ body stuffed under a rock in the pond.

It’s not always the parents.

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