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“Hattie peered around the station. The other officers appeared to be elsewhere. Debating whether she should stay or go, she hesitantly sat down.

Austin shifted. “Thanks for dropping the box by. Riley got caught up with orders.”

Silence filled the room.

They now had a reason to talk to one another, and yet coming up with anything to say was difficult. Hattie couldn’t have predicted the tragic events that would bring them together again. And while she liked Austin, she didn’t like being stuck in the middle of Mason and the local officers. Neither of them was letting her in. Mason was slowly shutting down emotionally, and it was only a matter of time before he completely lost his way. The officers couldn’t share information with her regarding the case because of her relationship with Mason. Either way, she was at the shit end of the stick and the curt behavior was beginning to wear on her. Impatience lined her eyes. When Austin stood, anger gradually rose as she watched him. 

“Why are you doing this?” she asked, staring deeply into his eyes.

“Doing what?”

“Mason claims that someone’s been following him for weeks. He thought it might have something to do with Lucca. I kept telling him that he needed more sleep. But then he mentioned a silver Camaro.” Hattie hesitated. “One minute the car’s there, the next, gone. I know you still own your silver Mustang. Why are you following him?”

“How is he?”

Hattie blinked in astonishment. “How is he? That’s how you respond?… He’s devastated. He can’t even walk into his daughter’s room without breaking down. He still sets his alarm for swim practice, not wanting to accept that Lucca won’t be waiting in the car. He goes by the school to pick her up, only to remember that she’s not coming out. He calls the Koon’s, thinking that Lucca and Sailor are still together. The only person he’s ever loved has vanished, and not a single person can explain why. But you’re pointing fingers at him. And you didn’t even answer my question.”

“We haven’t been able to officially eliminate him from any wrongdoing.”

Hattie shook her head in disbelief. “He let you flip his home and property upside down. He gave you hundreds of personal belongings. He came down here four times at least to be interrogated in the back room along with taking several polygraph tests, which he passed each time. He even gave you DNA, and you still can’t cross him off your list, but you’ve eliminated everyone else? Why?”

“I can’t discuss the case with you. It’s unethical and you’re too personally involved.”

Hattie scoffed, then looked away. “You never questioned me about Lucca. Why?”

“You were nowhere near the mountains that night, and I have questioned you, just not officially.” Austin grabbed the box of bracelets and shoved them under the desk. “But now that you’ve mentioned it, I have a few questions.”

Hattie shifted uncomfortably as her heart skipped a beat. The copper was about to file through her mind. He had a knack for reading peoples’ thoughts and rarely missed a step.

“Since you’ve known Mason, has he ever done anything strange or out of the ordinary at certain times of the day?”

“You know he suffers from blackouts,” Hattie said, wondering why they were asking the same questions over and over.

“I’m not referring to his blackouts. I’m talking about something a little more personal or physical.”

“I don’t understand.”

“For example. Someone who has been in the military…”

“Mason’s never been in the military,” Hattie interrupted.

“I’m just going with the obvious example. Hear me out,” Austin said, tossing Gunner a bone. “Guys that have spent years in the middle east or wherever, dealing with horrific situations, sometime return home disoriented and confused. Sometimes very angry. Adjusting to civilian life can be painful for some people. They’re just not equipped for the lifestyle after spending years overseas. Many of them develop PTSD, but anyone can suffer from the symptoms. Cops, firefighters, foster children, and so on. It just means…”

“I know what PTSD is. Mason’s never had an issue with his job.”

Austin nodded, knowing that Hattie wasn’t aware of Mason’s turbulent childhood or his father’s murder. Knowing so, he hung onto his original thought. “If you’re suffering from PTSD or blackouts and it’s hindering your daily routine, strange things can happen sometimes. A husband might wake up choking his wife without even realizing it. Another person might disappear for hours into the night, only to return home with no memory of walking away. In one case, a man woke to find blood spattered all over his bedroom, and his girlfriend was lying next to him, stabbed to death. After months of chasing false leads, the evidence led back to the boyfriend, but the boyfriend had no memory of the incident, and as you can imagine, was devastated. He had completed four tours in Iraq with special operations. He even had a purple heart.” Austin looked into Hattie’s bewildered eyes as horror washed over. “What I’m trying to ask is, have things ever become physical? Has he ever seemed like himself one minute, then, a completely different person the next? Has he ever grabbed you, choked you, or touched you in any way that seemed out of the norm?”

Hattie felt numb. Hutch had thoroughly spooked her and her skin tingled.”


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