THEY SAY SOME PEOPLE have a premonition about calamity before it strikes. But Jane Madison felt only irritation when her cell phone rang as she waited in the Mardi Gras crowd to order shrimp po’boys. Checking caller ID, she decided to ignore the call when she saw it was Melanie. Her stepdaughter probably wanted to change her order, but after standing in line for more than twenty minutes, Jane was finally up, so changing was not an option.
The man ahead of her received his order of fried shrimp, calamari, and beer. Loaded down, he turned suddenly and almost crashed into her. Not for the first time that day, Jane wished she were elsewhere. Ordinarily, she avoided Mardi Gras Day in New Orleans, but Melanie was at the age to be enthralled by the uninhibited and often near-depraved behavior all too common at the event. So Jane had reluctantly agreed to take her, even though it meant having to also bring Max. The other possibility for Melanie’s calling was that Max was awake. If he were, Christine would know what to do. Having her best friend along made the day a bit more tolerable for Jane.
Teething had made Max cranky and restless lately, but so far he’d been surprisingly docile just watching the goings-on around him from his stroller.
Her cell phone rang again. Apparently Melanie wasn’t giving up. Now loaded with two large bags and three soft drinks, Jane looked around for a place to set everything down, but there was no open spot, just hordes of people, literally a crush of humanity. Grumbling, she turned back to the vendor’s cart and with a murmured apology transferred the load to his counter and fumbled to click her phone free of her purse. Sometimes Melanie could try the patience of a saint. “What is it, Melanie?”
“Mom, Max is gone!” the girl cried. “Come quick! He was here a minute ago, and now he’s disappeared!”
Jane shifted to allow an impatient customer access to the vendor’s condiments. “What do you mean, he’s gone?”
“Just that! Didn’t you hear me? He’s disappeared.” Melanie’s voice caught on a sob. “Hurry! We’ve looked everywhere, but there are so many people!”
“How could he be gone?” She was used to Melanie’s overreacting. Even the girl’s friends called her a drama queen. “Let me talk to Christine.”
“She’s not here,” Melanie insisted. “A lady fainted and Christine went into the hotel lobby to help and Julie and Anne-Marie were here and we were talking and Max was in his stroller under the balcony just where you left him and then he was gone!” She drew a shaky breath. “Mom, I’m so scared.”
“Christine didn’t take him with her?”
“No, no! Listen to me!” Melanie’s voice went up another notch. “I’m serious, Mom. He’s gone. Someone took him and his stroller and everything!”
Jane felt the first real stirrings of alarm. “Don’t leave,” she ordered. “Stay where you are, Mellie. And don’t hang up. I’m on my way.” Food forgotten, Jane hurriedly headed back the way she’d come. People took one look at her face and shifted out of her path.
“I can’t just stand here and wait, Mom!” Melanie said in a shaky voice in Jane’s ear. “We’re going to Jackson Square.”
“Don’t you remember? We saw some policemen there when we were trying to find a place to—never mind, Mom, I’m going there. It’s only a block away. I have to hurry!”
Jane barely managed to avoid crashing into a man outfitted in Native American garb, complete with a full feather headdress. With a muttered apology, she skirted around him, keeping the phone pressed to her ear. “I’m a block away, Melanie. Don’t go any farther until I get there.”
“There’s a cop on a horse! I’m going over.”
“Okay, but don’t hang up,” Jane ordered.
Melanie gulped and burst into wild sobs. “Mom, I don’t know how it happened! We were all just watching the floats and—”
“Just calm down, Mellie. You can tell me when I get there.” Surely there was a logical explanation. Babies didn’t just vanish, although in a teeming crowd, it would surely be easier to kidnap— She stopped herself. She would not go there. She would not think the unthinkable. “Can you see Christine?”
“Not really. I told you, she went into the lobby. I mean, I saw the EMTs trying to get through. The lady who fainted is inside and so is Christine.”
Christine was the practice manager for a team of internists. Although she’d had no formal training as a nurse, she would certainly know what to do if someone fainted. “I can see the EMT unit now, Mellie. I’m going to stop and talk to Christine just to be sure she didn’t take the stroller.”
“We saw her run over to the lady, Mom! She didn’t take Max.”
“I’ll just double-check.”
The sidewalk was choked with people, but Jane finally reached the hotel where the ambulance was now loading the woman inside. Spotting Christine, she tried forcing her way through the crowd, but she was quickly blocked by an EMT.
“Ma’am, you’ll have to stay back and let us do our job.”
“I understand, but I have to talk to—”
“I’m sorry, but you can’t talk to anyone just now.”
Jane craned her neck to look around him and managed to catch Christine’s eye.
Christine’s gaze went wide with surprise. “Jane. What is it? What’s wrong?”
“Do you have Max?” Jane called over the EMT’s shoulder.
Christine looked confused. “Max? No. What—”
“He’s gone.” Frantically, Jane surveyed the sidewalk fronting the hotel where she’d left them. It was still choked with people cheering madly as the parade floats lumbered past. There was no sign of Max or his stroller.
“Where are you headed now?” Christine asked. “I need to get my things inside the hotel and I’ll come over.”
“Melanie is at Jackson Square. Hurry, Christine.”
Turning, Jane headed in a rush toward Jackson Square, a full block away. In the distance, the three tall spires of St. Louis Cathedral reached high into a sky that was so clear and blue, it almost hurt to look at it. She put a hand to her heart. Please, God, don’t let this be happening.
As she pushed through the reveling crowd, she told herself Melanie had to be overreacting. Still, she had a sick feeling in her stomach. The possibility that Max really had disappeared was simply too frightening to be real.
Finally, on reaching the square, she drew a desperate breath, searching for Melanie. How would she find her in this crowd? She pressed the phone to her ear. “Melanie, where are you? Talk to me.”
“I’m on the steps of the cathedral, Mom. Look, over here with the cops. You can see the horse. And I’m waving.”
With a rush of relief, she spotted Melanie standing with three uniformed policemen. Jane quickly headed toward them.
One cop held the reins of a horse, which stood patiently, unfazed by the chaotic goings-on. Melanie’s friends hovered near her, looking frightened, their eyes scanning the crowd. As Jane approached, she saw a female officer speaking to one of the cops—issuing orders? With a nod, he quickly mounted, cut through the crowd, and disappeared in the direction of the river. Jane did not want to think of that dire possibility.
Melanie was crying, gesturing with her hands as she talked while her eyes anxiously searched the area. Jane’s hope that this was all a mistake faded. Down the block on Bourbon Street, floats lumbered past, but in the parklike square, teeming with hundreds of people, how would they be able to find a baby, even in a stroller?
Like Melanie, her frantic gaze swept up and down the square. But there were so many people, so much confusion. Shops were closed, sidewalks jammed. Streets leading off the square were blocked off to accommodate the crowds. Balconies groaned with the weight of those lucky enough to have access. There was an occasional stroller, Jane noted, but none was a familiar blue with yellow-and-blue-plaid trim. With her heart beating frantically in her chest, she approached Melanie and the cops, two men and one female officer.
“I’m here,” she said, as Melanie launched herself into Jane’s arms. Looking over the girl’s head, she asked, “What can you tell me about my baby?”
The policewoman spoke. “Are you Mrs. Madison?”
“Mom, I’ve told them we shouldn’t waste time talking! We need to be looking for Max!”
Jane caught Melanie’s arms and angled back enough to see her face. “Mellie, be calm for a moment. Please. Let me talk to these people.”
“I’m Officer Cox, Mrs. Madison,” the woman said, extending her hand. Jane shook it, nodding mutely. “We’ve talked to Melanie, trying to get details of exactly what happened. She says she and her friends have thoroughly searched the immediate area where the stroller was parked. Meanwhile, NOPD officers have fanned out looking. But maybe there’s a logical explanation. She tells us that there was another adult—”
“Christine O’Brian,” Jane said, nodding. “I just spoke to her. She’s over there.” She waved her hand vaguely. “Some kind of medical emergency. She did not take Max with her.”
“And there was no one else with you today? No one who might have felt it okay to take the baby?”
“Without asking me?” Jane stared at her. “No, of course not.”
Cox pulled out a small memo pad. “And how old is the baby?” she asked, pen poised.
“Six months. He has b-blue eyes and blond hair.” Jane swallowed, struggling to keep calm. “He’s wearing a red shirt and denim overalls. White sneakers. He’s in a stroller. Navy blue and blue-and-yellow-plaid trim.”
“Could he have crawled out of it?”
“He couldn’t have climbed out on his own. He—” She turned to Melanie. “Max wasn’t out of his stroller, was he?”
Melanie’s face crumpled. “No, he was asleep. Just the way he was when you left him with me, Mom.” She pressed the fingers of both hands against her lips. “I’m so scared, Mom!”
“We’ll find him, Mellie.” Jane squeezed the girl’s shoulders gently before turning back to the police officers. “How could a baby in a stroller just disappear?” But even as she asked the question, she knew the answer. The stroller didn’t just disappear. Somebody had been watching, and when the teenager and her friends became distracted by the fainting woman and the parade and the sheer frenzy of Mardi Gras, that someone had seized the moment to take her baby.
That was the moment when Jane’s concern escalated into terror.
“As I mentioned, I’ve alerted all units in the area, Mrs. Madison,” Officer Cox said, touching the radio attached to her belt. “I’m sending out a B.O.L.O.”
“It means be on the lookout.” She spoke briskly into her radio and received a squawked response that was unintelligible to Jane.
As they stood, isolated by the trauma of a missing child, people milled about enjoying Mardi Gras. Some were in costume, others not. Some were drunk, but most were simply reveling in the abandoned spirit of carnival. Jane’s gaze strayed beyond Jackson Square where the river formed the east boundary of the French Quarter. Kidnapping a child on a day meant for celebration was obscene. Had she looked into the face of the person who’d taken Max while mingling with the crowd that day?
“Approximately how long has it been since you actually saw the baby, Mrs. Madison?”
Jane struggled to focus. “Twenty—maybe thirty minutes, no longer. I left to get food.” She looked at Melanie. “How long after I left did Christine leave, Mellie?”
“I don’t know. Pretty soon, I guess. You weren’t even out of sight.”
“Meaning it could be thirty minutes, give or take,” Officer Cox said. Without stating the obvious, both knew a person could travel pretty far in that much time. Even in this crowd.
“We’ve got to find him!” Jane felt panic rising in her chest. She stopped, drawing a breath to try to collect herself. With her hand on her heart, she spoke again. “I’m sorry. This is just . . . so—it can’t be happening!”
“Please. Come with me.” Cox caught Jane’s arm and gently guided her toward the cathedral with Melanie following behind. “Let’s get out of the crowd.”
As they headed to the steps of the cathedral, she added in a reassuring voice, “I know you’re worried, but there are hundreds of uniformed policemen on duty today. They’ll call me if they spot Max. Meanwhile, let’s try to reconstruct what happened. There could be a logical explanation.”
“Like what!” Jane cried.
“Someone could have wheeled it away by mistake. Many of these strollers look alike.” The possibility was so ludicrous that Jane didn’t bother contradicting her. No parent on the planet accidentally claimed a stroller with a strange baby in it.
Jane’s cell phone rang. She clicked to talk . . . hoping, hoping. Maybe, just maybe—“Hello!”
“It’s Christine. I’m trying to find you. Where are you?”
“Near the steps of the cathedral. One of the officers is on horseback. You should be able to see him. But Christine, we can’t find Max.”
“Are you serious? He’s disappeared?”
“Yes. Oh, Christine . . .” Her voice broke. “I can’t believe this.”
“I’m on my way, Jane. I’ll find you. Meanwhile, I’ll be praying.”
Turning from Jane, Cox spoke to both officers standing by. “Head over to the hotel where Max was last seen. Someone there might have noticed something.” The officers nodded and headed out. “I’m here, Jane.” Christine, breathless from running, slipped an arm around Jane’s waist and gave her a reassuring hug. “Thank goodness I was able to find you.”
“This—” Jane turned to Officer Cox. “This is Christine. She was with Max and Melanie when I left to . . .” she trailed off, swallowing hard.
“Surely someone saw—” Christine broke off.
“We’re working on that now,” Cox said. She refocused on Jane. “Are you certain Max was in his stroller when you left?”
“Yes, of course. I checked to see that he was sleeping. He’s teething. I knew if he woke up, he’d be grumpy. He would want . . . me.” Her voice caught. No time to break down now. “So, yes, he was asleep in his stroller when I left,” she said emphatically.
“Mom, let’s call Dad,” Melanie said. As always, when Melanie was distressed, she wanted her daddy. Christine slipped a comforting arm around the girl’s waist. Jane gave Christine a grateful look. With every passing minute, Jane, too, felt the need for Kyle’s support.
“Max was definitely asleep in his stroller when I left,” Christine said.
With the policewoman leading, they all hurried up the steps to the cathedral. The steps were shallow and worn from the footsteps of the faithful and wide enough to accommodate a crowd. A single look at the officer’s expression, and people parted like the Red Sea. An attendant standing at the doors moved aside to let them enter.
The sudden hush inside felt almost eerie. Jane glanced toward the altar with its display of religious symbols and quickly turned to focus on Officer Cox.
For some time, Christine, who was active in her church, had been urging Jane to explore the lack of faith in her life, but she’d resisted. It wasn’t that she objected on any philosophical grounds; it was just that she’d never found it particularly . . . relevant. Her life was full and . . . well, busy. On Sundays, rather than getting dressed and going to church, she liked to sit around, read the paper, have a leisurely brunch . . . resting up for the demands of the coming week.
She felt suddenly fearful that she might pay a price for her attitude.
“Try to recollect anything unusual you might have noticed, Melanie.” Cox spoke in a calm voice. Jane guessed her tone was intended to steady Melanie and focus her thoughts. “Was there anyone who appeared out of place or was suspicious looking?”
“I-I didn’t see anything or anybody like that.” She turned to Anne-Marie. “Did you see anything?”
Her friend shrugged. “What was there to see? We were talking, we were all watching the parade and then—”
“And then Max just . . . disappeared!” Melanie said, her voice climbing in panic. “We have to do something!”
“Tell you what.” Cox touched Melanie’s shoulder. “Let’s sit down over here to talk. All of you.” With a tip of her chin, she indicated that Melanie’s friends as well as Jane and Christine should follow. But Melanie shifted free of the cop’s touch.
“We shouldn’t be talking at all!” she cried. “We should be looking! We should block off stuff! We should go inside bars and any place that’s open! We should stop people and ask if they’ve seen Max. Whoever took him will get away if we don’t do something right now!”
“We are doing something, Melanie,” the policewoman said calmly. “Please. Sit.” She waited while the group reluctantly perched on the edge of a pew.
“The incident has been reported. Right now officers are on the lookout for Max, but we can’t ‘block off stuff.’ It’s not possible in this crowd.” Her tone turned brisk. “Now. Let’s go over the past half hour once again to be sure we haven’t overlooked something. You first, Mrs. Madison.”
Jane drew a deep breath. Inside she felt as agitated as Melanie, and she wondered how long she could keep from falling apart. “We stopped at the sidewalk in front of the hotel, beneath the balcony because it wasn’t quite as jammed with people, to watch the parade. I left Max with Christine and Mellie to get some food. There were two friends with her.” She looked at Christine. “Right, Chris?”
“Yes. And the stroller was right there when I left to help inside the hotel.”
“You noticed nothing unusual?”
Christine paused to think. “No. But I was there only another minute or two after Jane went for food. I told Melanie to watch Max and left.”
Cox turned to Melanie. “Tell me exactly what happened from the time Mrs. O’Brian left.”
“It was—” Melanie began with a guilty look at her stepmother. “Some guys we knew were on a float that was passing by, and the parade stopped, right there. You know how it is, everything’s moving and then it’s not. It was only for a minute, Mom, honest.” Her lips trembled as she met Jane’s eyes. “They said when the parade was over that they knew someone on Bourbon Street who had rented rooms with a balcony and they were going to watch the rest of the parades from up there. They invited us too. So then it started up again and they left and we turned around and Max was gone!”
“This is the first I’ve heard about boys on a float,” Jane said sternly. “Did you forget you were responsible for your baby brother?”
“No, Mom.” Melanie dashed at tears in her eyes. “I swear to you, it was only a few minutes.”
“But long enough for someone to steal Max.” Jane knew her words were hurtful, but her concern was for her baby now, not Melanie.
“Mom, please call Dad! Please. We need him. He’ll know what to do.”
Until a few minutes ago, Jane had been hesitant about calling Kyle in case the whole thing turned out to be a false alarm. But now, with her stomach in a knot and her mouth dry with fear, she knew it wasn’t a false alarm. She sent Officer Cox a questioning look.
“It might be a good idea to call your husband, Mrs. Madison.”
JANE REACHED KYLE AT his office on Poydras, but it was thirty minutes before he managed to get to the cathedral. They gathered on the front steps outside, where the crowd seemed to have lessened just a bit.
On the phone, she’d been unable to tell him much except that Max had disappeared. He’d wanted details, but there were none. Now his fierce gaze swept past Officer Cox’s serious face and Melanie’s tear-drenched cheeks to lock onto Jane.
“Has he been found?”
He looked stunned. “There has to be a mistake.”
“We’ve looked—” Jane paused, knowing her voice wavered. “They’ve fanned out to search, but the crowds are monstrous. They haven’t turned up anything. It’s as if he disappeared into thin air.”
“That’s impossible. He must still be here somewhere. Someone is bound to’ve seen him. You gave them a description of his stroller?” He glanced at the police officer.
“Of course, Kyle.” Jane rubbed her temple where a sharp pain throbbed.
Officer Cox moved to them, putting out her hand. “Mr. Madison, I’m Sharon Cox, the investigating officer.” With a brief nod, he shook her hand.
“Now that you’re here, I’d like to suggest we go to the police substation. It’s a better place to talk. Once we’re there, I’ll explain—”
“I don’t think we should leave,” he said in a firm tone. “And what’s to explain? We should be combing the area, knocking on doors, questioning people, looking into garages and courtyards.” Glancing outside, he raked a hand over his face. “This is a nightmare.”
“Everything you mention is being done, Mr. Madison. N.O.P.D. is on the scene—has been from the start—but we’re hampered by the crowd. What we need now is to piece together exactly what happened.”
“How can you be certain Max is nowhere nearby?”
“I can’t say that with certainty,” Sharon said. “But we’ve found no trace of him. No one has seen anything suspicious.” Like Kyle’s, her glance strayed beyond the narthex to the reveling crowd outside. “At least they’ve seen nothing that might be construed as suspicious beyond ordinary Mardi Gras madness.”
“It’s all my fault, Dad!” Melanie cried suddenly.
Jane knew Mellie needed reassurance from Kyle. She needed to hear him say he understood her fear, that he wasn’t angry with her. She needed a hug from her daddy. But from the grim expression on his face it didn’t look as if she was going to get any such thing. “Max was with Melanie and her friends, Kyle,” Jane explained, trying to keep the tremor from her voice.
“With Melanie?” He frowned darkly. “Why was he with Melanie? Where were you?”
“I went to get us something to eat from a vendor . . . Julie and Anne-Marie were with them—”
“You left our son in the care of a bunch of teenagers to get junk food?”
Melanie made a distressed sound. “Dad, just listen. Please.”
“Hush, Melanie.” Kyle waved the teenager quiet, keeping his gaze laser sharp on Jane. “I’m waiting to hear what happened,” he told her.
“You can’t say anything worse to me than I’ve been saying to myself, Kyle. The kids were hungry. I went to get food. Christine was with them. It never occurred to me that anything like this could happen.”
“Christine?” He turned to glance at Jane’s friend then back at Jane.
“There was a medical emergency,” Jane said. “Christine lent assistance. She—” Jane stopped, not wanting to cast blame on Christine or Melanie.
Kyle’s steely gaze turned to his daughter. “So how could Max disappear if you were watching him?”
Melanie was crying again. “We—we got talking and suddenly the parade stopped and this float was right by us. There were some guys we knew from school on it. They were laughing and goofing off and everything. They threw us tons of beads and stuff. It was just for a few minutes, Dad,” she said, pleading for understanding. “I know I shouldn’t have taken my eyes off Max! But I thought he was safe on the sidewalk right beside me!”
“Clearly he wasn’t beside you,” Kyle said.
“But he was only a few feet away, honestly.” She put both hands to her cheeks. “I mean, I don’t know how long it was, minutes really, but when we looked, he was gone!”
Jane slipped an arm around the girl’s shoulders, trying to console her, while inside she was sick with terror.
Kyle stood with his hands on his hips. “Can you estimate how much time passed before you noticed your baby brother was gone?”
When Melanie seemed unable to talk, Cox spoke up quietly. “We’ve covered all that, Mr. Madison. The parade stalled for about five minutes, so I don’t see how it could have been much longer than that.”
“But more than long enough for someone to take the stroller and melt into the crowd, then head for only God knows where,” Kyle said in a flat tone.
“Possibly,” the officer conceded.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Melanie cried. “I didn’t mean this to happen. I’m so sorry.”
Jane drew the girl closer. “We know, Mellie. And we’ll find him. You’ll see. We will.” She looked up into Kyle’s eyes, her chin tilted. “We will!”
They all turned to look as the cop who’d been mounted on horseback appeared, dismounting and moving reverently toward them. His glance skimmed the Madisons before moving to Sharon Cox. “N.O.P.D. has found the stroller.”
Jane pressed her fist to her heart. “Oh, thank God!”
The cop gave her a sympathetic look. “I’m sorry, ma’am. The stroller was abandoned . . . up on the Riverwalk.” In one hand he held a tiny sneaker. “This is all we found. There was no sign of the baby.”
© 2010 KAREN YOUNG