Fiction: ANA DIA

Dah

D. A. Helmer


Ana Dia disappeared from Beverly Hills Gateway neighborhood on a blistering day in June of last year. She was fourteen. After two days of failing to uncover clues over her sudden disappearance, and with the feeling that it was an abduction and not a runaway, the Los Angeles Police Department called the FBI.

    Ana Dia was with her fourteen-year-old school friend, Jenny Staple. They had spent the afternoon on Rodeo Drive enjoying their first week of summer break. Later, according to Staple, they took buses in different directions to their homes, and according to the FBI report, the last person to see Ana Dia was the neighborhood mailman at around five-fifteen-p.m. He saw her getting off the bus a few blocks from her house. They said hello to each other as she walked in the direction of the park instead of going to her house in the other direction. She then vanished.     

    It has been said that if a child is missing for more than thirty-six-hours then hope for finding them, or worse, for finding them alive, is slim to zero. The FBI worked the case day and night for two more weeks with nothing to show. The Feds at least wanted a body for the parents to bury, to have closure. They worked all the angles, especially the runaway angle. I thought they had worked that one too hard and were too desperate to prove themselves right––they emotionally crushed Ana’s parents with their clumsy arrogance and baseless insinuations. Finally, the Feds needed to let it go. Ana Dia didn’t run away. She had had an idyllic home life with loving parents and a caring extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents, along with a healthy social life. 

    For a parent to not know what happened to their child is the worst of living nightmares. Your child is there in the morning, then gone, vanished without a trace by the afternoon and your heart turns black, and, on most days, you are gasping for air as if some invisible punch to the gut had emptied you. On other days you can’t get out of bed because you have no soul left, no light. You lie there under the covers shivering, dying, turning to ice. When a child vanishes the chilling emptiness that lingers is a frozen hole that can never be filled––even if a body is recovered.

    The Ana Dia missing child flyers were glued, taped, and stapled by the thousands to every telephone pole, business window, train station, bus station, and airport, from Los Angeles to San Diego, up to San Francisco, and all cities, small and large, in between. UCLA had funded the printing and distribution of the flyers, the billboard slots, and the primetime radio and TV spots

––even though Ana’s parents were celebrated professors at UCLA there was no ransom being asked for by the abductors. 

    Friends of the Dia family flew to Nevada and Arizona and did the same plastering of flyers in the major cities in those areas. Other friends and family posted flyers in the desert areas: Anza Borrego, Joshua Tree, and the Sultan Sea, along with the entire San Bernardino Mountains.

    For nearly two weeks the news coverage was a constant flood of updates on Ana Dia’s disappearance, but the updates were empty gestures. There were no real updates, because there were no new developments. It was just the media’s looping sensationalism created to keep viewers attached to the tube. It was about program ratings disguised as heart-felt-caring from pseudo-somber news anchors and chatty talk-show hosts. They were good actors without dignity, with only that one word on their minds: Ratings. A high-profile missing child case becomes a media executive’s gold mine. The corporate advertising slots had tripled in cost during the Ana Dia coverage. The media chiefs had turned the disappearance into a contemptible carnival midway with the news anchors as their deplorable midway barkers. Even though it was a high-profile investigation there was too much Federal and local cop manpower on a probe that was going nowhere. After two weeks it was time to lighten the load. The FBI packed up and moved on to the next child abduction case, the LAPD returned to its regular city crime-busting, and the Ana Dia media coverage deflated to a sentence or two every few days. But there was still some lingering FBI presence, the two token agents, for the Dia family to contact anytime they had questions, even though the Fed’s answers were always the same, “We’re doing the best that we can. We’re always looking for new leads. If any new developments come up, we’ll contact you immediately.”

 

    Arnie Bender, Dave Wells, and I were having lunch at Abe’s Deli when Nick and Bridget Dia walked in. We recognized them from TV news shows they had appeared on and from the many newspaper photographs that appeared daily for about two weeks. The Dias were in their late-thirties. Nick Dia was dark-haired, lean, and handsome, with an intelligent face, and big, dark eyes. Bridget Dia was dark-haired, lean, and gorgeous, with an equally intelligent face, and big, dark-green eyes, like the color of avocado skin when the sunlight hits it. Both were renowned professors of astronomy. And it was obvious that the weight of their missing daughter had caused them to sag, bend, and break. When they walked over to our table, they held onto each other as if to stop the other from collapsing to their knees.

    “Mr. Stone. We apologize for interrupting your meal,” said Nick Dia, in a soft, quiet tone. “We were told by some people in your building that we could possibly find you here. The woman at the counter pointed you out.” He stopped talking, took a deep breath, and said, “We need your help.”

    Bridget Dia shook her head up and down a dozen times with quick snaps, like a puppeteer was in control of her. Nick Dia pulled her in tighter to his body. She stopped the head gesturing and stood still, and her dark green eyes overspilled with grief, while her beautiful face seemed to roll and fold into bundles of pain so thick and heavy that her skin looked like it would fall to the floor from the weight of it all. Her eyes welled with tears. Nick pulled her in even tighter. She buried her face in his shoulder for a few seconds, and then turned and looked at me.

    “My daughter is alive, Mr. Stone,” she whispered, with a wet, shaky voice, “I just know she is.

I–I just know it.” Her head snapped up and down again several times, while her eyes were closed. “Please, help us find her.” On that last line her eyes popped open, like window-shades had snapped up, making her eyes appear as dark scabs over something that was slowly dying.  

    “Friends of ours who used your service directed us to you,” added Nick. “They said that if anybody could find Ana, then it would be you, Mr. Stone.”

    His dark eyes penetrated mine like they had physically entered my head, as if to pull the whereabouts of Ana Dia out of my brain. Bridget shook her head rapidly, agreeing with Nick, while her jaw and lower lip trembled, as if she were trying to say something else, but nothing came.

    I was in the booth on the opposite side of my friends, who were sitting together. I got up and invited the Dias to sit with us as I crammed myself next to Arnie Bender and Dave Wells, which left part of my bottom hanging off the bench, and my legs stretched into the aisle. The three of us were paralyzed by the Dia’s immense desperation, by their contagious sorrow. We just stared at them the whole time, speechless, our expressions taking on the heartbreak of their loss. 

    The world is concrete-hard and razor-sharp, and filled with psychopaths and pedophiles who rise out of the skin of God’s dark side. They were once the purity of egg and sperm, only to evolve into heartless monsters feeding off the blood of others. And nothing shows more how hard and sharp the world is than parents who have had their children stolen from them.

    “Mr. and Mrs. Dia,” I said. “We, my associates and I, can’t do anything more for you than the FBI have already done. They were complete in their investigation, and …”

    “Ana’s alive, Mr. Stone!” snapped Bridget Dia. Her voice cut like a stropped blade and it felt like it had sliced my tongue to silence me. “The FBI believes that Ana is dead. Even without a body, they believe she is dead. That is not complete enough for us.”

    Her gorgeous face had taken on the severe expression of a mother that you don’t want to argue with. Nick Dia put his arm around her shoulder in an almost condescending manner, as if to stop her from talking. Bridget yanked her body away from him and threw his arm off her. Nick put his hands out in front of him, palms toward us, as if to gesture, okay, okay.

    “We have a copy of the FBI file regarding the investigation.” She slid a manila folder across the table. “At least the part that we are allowed to have.” She looked me square in the eyes and said, with a steady, firm voice,

    “Before you say no, please, read it.” She paused, caught her breath, and wiped tears from her eyes.   “We can’t stop here.” Said with a staccato deliver, “we just can’t.”

    Bridget Dia leaned across the table and came close enough to my face so that I could smell the mixture of heavy sweat and stale perfume, like she hadn’t taken a shower in a week. I could smell the fear of losing her daughter, of losing her mind, her marriage, her life.

   “This is our only hope, Mr. Stone,” she whispered, “it is our last card.”

    It has been estimated that about ninety percent of marriages disintegrate after losing a child to the hands of an abductor. From what I had observed the Dias were, as a couple, on their way to becoming a part of that hopelessly high percentage.   

    It was a hot day. Stifling even. The loud sunlight crashed through the deli window as if to execute this grieving woman. It hit the side of her face with a soundless slap, which made her skin bleach out, and her dark, green eyes became illusions, so far away and falling farther away. And, suddenly, all her wounds, sorrow, grief, anger, and resentment, had fallen into my life by the weight of her desperation.

 

    By the time my associates and I started to work on the Ana Dia case she had been missing for about three weeks. The three of us, along with Millie Bender working from the office as our phone-answering service and our research specialist, eight hours a day, scrutinized every page, every paragraph, every line, of the FBI report. Of all the people interviewed by the Feds, which included UCLA teachers, and students of both Dias, plus neighbors, gardeners, pool cleaners, window washers, and so on, it was the mailman that gave Arnie Bender a gut feeling that we needed to probe deeper into his statement. Because something felt incomplete.

    Brian Whitaker, a U.S. Mail carrier for twenty years, had told the Feds about a small white pickup truck, maybe used for landscaping, that had pulled in behind the bus while Ana Dia disembarked. The Feds brushed it off as normal activity in a neighborhood that had the presence of so many landscaping trucks. It was nothing unusual, said the Feds.  

    Whitaker, a short fifty-year-old, with a large forehead and thick, silver hair combed straight back, above dark, bushy eyebrows, was walking his route when Arnie Bender and I located him a block from Ana Dia’s house. His short stature was made animated by the bulbous size of his belly along with a ball-shaped face and chipmunk cheeks. His deep-blue eyes were set forward like enormous spotlights, and they were bright and alert. Though he carried a lot of body weight he was light-footed, like a gazelle, and strong, like an elephant. He seemed to walk on his tiptoes and had a distinctive bounce to his gate. His voice was on the falsetto side.

    “Was there anything else, some other detail that you missed telling the FBI?” asked Arnie, “Something about the truck? The tires, the bumpers, scratches or dents?”

    “Well. Um. I did notice a sign on the passenger door,” said Whitaker, while holding his chin between his right thumb and index finger, as his head bobbed up and down, agreeing with himself.

    “And the color of the sign, the background, the lettering?” I asked.

    “Black letters on a white background. Big, bold block-style letters. Nothing fancy,” answered Whitaker, “And after Ana got off the bus, like I had already said, she walked in the direction of the city park.”

    “What was written on the sign?” I asked.

    “From the sideways perspective that I had it was hard to make out.” Whitaker stopped talking, and his head tilted up slightly while his eyes lifted farther as if ready to roll into his head, “Ah. Um. The first two letters were KL, and the third, maybe an E or a B. Some smaller letters were underneath the larger ones that I couldn’t read.”

    “And the truck?” asked Arnie.

    “The truck?” asked Whitaker.

    “Yes. The truck. What did it do then?” replied Arnie.

    Whitaker had been putting mail into a drop box that was about thirty-feet behind the truck, which gave him enough time to observe the activity. Ana Dia stepped off the bus, looked back, saw Whitaker, waved, and said hi. She then walked in the opposite direction for about a hundred feet and turned into the park, which was a popular place with teenagers. The bus pulled away and the truck then drove down the street and turned into the park.

    “So, you didn’t get a look at the driver?” asked Arnie.

    “No. The back window was tinted. Maybe smokey grey. But I could see movement. Like when the driver had a clipboard in his hand, flipping the pages sort of fast, like he wasn’t reading them at all. He seemed to be looking through the windshield and not at the clipboard.”

   “And the Feds shrugged their shoulders and said, okay, we’ll keep that info in mind?” I asked.

   “Yeah. Something like that. It seemed incidental to them,” answered Whitaker. “They didn’t even write it down.” There was an obvious disappointment to his tone. His expression turned somber.

    “What were the agents like?” asked Arnie.

    “They were older. Probably older than me. And tired looking.”

    “Like they were biding their time until retirement?” I asked.

    “Yeah. Just like that,” answered Whitaker with a quick response, while his spotlight eyes widened and grew brighter, as if they had zeroed in on something suspicious.

    Arnie and I looked at each other and nodded with our lips pressed tightly together.

    “Oh.” Whitaker said quickly, “The bed of the truck was clean. Without garden debris. I thought that was strange. There were no tools anywhere.” He pressed his thin, almost non-existent lips together then nodded several times rapidly. His lips made a faint, pink line, as if a dash had been penciled in just above the chin.

    “What about a license plate number?” I asked.

    “It was too far away. My vision is not what it used to be,” replied Whitaker. “I really need to make an eye examination appointment. I should be wearing glasses for distant reading.”  

    Arnie and I thanked him, and as we walked away Whitaker called out, “Mr. Stone, Mr. Bender.” He ran toward us, as light as a gazelle, even with the added weight of his letter satchel. “One more thing.” he said, “There was a bumper sticker on the right-rear bumper with extra-large letters. It was torn across the top. But I did make out “SAN”, but the rest of the letters were missing, and below that it said, GUN CLUB.” 

    “Good job, Mr. Whitaker.” I said, “It could mean something.”

    “What color was the sticker?” Arnie asked.

    “Red. Deep red. With yellow letters. Bright yellow,” answered Whitaker.

    “Did you tell this to the Feds?” I asked.

    “No. It had slipped my mind,” replied Whitaker, as he shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t think it would have mattered to them anyway.”

 

    Later that day at the office with Arnie Bender, Millie Bender, and Dave Wells, we learned that Wells had interviewed a few professors at UCLA. According to Wells’ report, one of the professors, who was from San Luis Obispo, held a tight-crusted resentment toward Nick and Bridget Dia over the “way-too-much fanfare” the two Nobel prize winners had constantly received.

    Professor Jack Arnold, a tall, skinny, totally bald man of about forty-years old, with a head as round as a soccer ball and laced with bulging veins that seemed to be holding his skin to his skull, had stated,

    “It was too much.” Said with a baritone voice, “It was as if the rest of us didn’t count.”

    Jack Arnold was a nervous man with deep, almost hidden, dead-grey eyes and thin, dark eyebrows. Wells said that Arnold never looked at him when answering the questions.

    “They had everything,” continued Arnold, with heated resentment, “The big Academic prize, the movie-star looks, a house that I certainly couldn’t afford, in a neighborhood that I could only dream of living in, and a gorgeous daughter who was ahead of her class in everything she did.” He stopped, pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket, and wiped the sweat from his head, which made his eyebrows rise like the wind had blown them upward. “It doesn’t surprise me that Ana was abducted, not one bit.” Said with the conviction of a hateful man, “The two of them, and especially Nick, had gained a number of enemies on this campus.”

    “Were these enemies all professors like yourself?” asked Wells, “Would any of them have been so hateful, in the way that you are, that they could have committed this heinous crime?”

    “I have this feeling …” replied Arnold, with a quick snap of his tongue, “That you are indirectly asking me if I had anything to do with the abduction.” He wiped his head and the back of his neck with the handkerchief, while his hidden grey eyes appeared to come forward from his head, as if they were separate entities ready to attack.

    “I am making no assumptions,” replied Wells, “I’m just asking question. Looking for leads.”

    “In my opinion,” said Arnold, with the heartlessness of a dire enemy, “they got what they deserved.” Sweat poured down his face, dripped from his chin, and landed on his white dress shirt, “And I have no sympathy for them.”

    “That’s a damn harsh statement,” said Wells, with an edge of anger, “One would think that a man of your intelligence and education, and a father, would have at least a grain of compassion for the Dia family.”

    “If you’re looking for compassion, Mr. Wells, then go to a Buddhist temple. But from me you’ll get the truth.” Arnold wiped his head, neck, and face again, while his eyebrows fluttered, and then he asserted, “We are done here, Mr. Wells. And don’t harass me again, or there will be a lawsuit filed by my attorney.”

    Professor Jack Arnold walked away with the ticked-off body language of a school boy who had been disciplined by a teacher.

    Of the other professors that Wells had interviewed, none of them had expressed the resentment, anger, or loathing, that Professor Arnold had held. In fact, no one else on the campus––teachers, or clerical staff––had aligned with Professor Arnold’s one-sided perspective. All of them had had wide-open compassion for Nick and Bridget Dia. Though, one of the professors had led Wells to one of Nick’s students who was, as he put it, “angry and emotionally broken” over the low grade that she had received on her final. The student, twenty-one-year-old Sara Klein, from San Luis Obispo, had left for Cabo San Lucas a few days before the abduction for a two-week vacation with friends before starting summer school. She was unreachable.
    Back at the office, Millie Bender had been on the phone calling the gun clubs of the dozens of cities that began with letters SAN, including, Santa Maria, San Diego, Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and so on, for information on their members. None of the clubs would comply without seeing a warrant. With the two indignant people from UCLA connected to Nick Dia, and both from San Luis Obispo (SLO), Arnie Bender, Wells, and I decided to head north to SLO after Millie Bender was able to get the color of the SLO gun club bumper sticker: Red with yellow letters. But before going there I got a court order for the gun club to turn over the club’s member list to us. On that list was Noah Klein, which we had connected to Sara Klein. We learned that Noah was her cousin.

    To cut a long story short, we discovered that Noah Klein was a thirty-year-old loner living in a trailer in the back country of San Luis Obispo. His occupation was garden maintenance. We drove out to his place to ask a few questions. The white pickup truck with the torn bumper sticker and tinted smokey-grey back window was parked in the dirt driveway. When he stepped out of the trailer-home to see who had pulled onto his property Noah Klein held a shotgun in which he had then pumped a round into the chamber. He was a short, woolly man with a small Afro of black hair and a full-face beard, so only his dark eyes peered out from what looked like a bushy ball. Standing there barefoot in ripped and dirty jeans, wearing a soiled white tank top, and with an extremely hairy-body, Noah Klein looked like a pet chimpanzee. Taking no chances, we had spread out so that Arnie Bender, Wells, and I, covered the front of the trailer from three sides. Arnie with his .38 Colt, Wells with his .357 Magnum, and me with my .38 Ruger. Without incident Noah Klein lowered the shotgun to the ground and raised his hands.

    Ana Dia was inside locked in a bedroom which had make-shift bars attached to the windows. She had been well taken care of and was in good physical condition. Ana had had everything that she needed to stay comfortable: food, clothes, bathroom access and so on, but she was emotionally traumatized. While Arnie Bender held Ana Dia in his arms she shook like a leaf on a stormy day, and she sobbed uncontrollably. She had been missing for four weeks. 

    Noah Klein was not a pedophile. He had not raped nor physically abused Ana Dia in any way. But he was emotionally unstable and had been under the care of a psychiatrist, who said that in his head Noah had an unnatural, intimate love affair with his cousin Sara––which caused him to act like he was protecting her. By the time the FBI, the local sheriffs had arrived, Noah Klein had confessed to us that his motive for the abduction was driven by his cousin’s staggering depression over her low grade, and he wanted Nick Dia to emotionally suffer, like Sara Klein had suffered. Sara knew nothing of Noah Klein’s plan for the abduction, and Noah had no idea how long he would have kept Ana, but that he was going to take her back to where he had abducted her. It was all crazy to him. He was confused and blathering while he kept apologizing to Ana Dia.

    I asked him how he did it, abducting her in the park. He said that he had had two rabbits on a leash. He also had one arm in a sling, faking an injury. He said that he had set himself up in her path so that she would see the rabbits and see him struggling with one arm to get the pets into his truck. Ana, of course, offered to help. When she bent down to place the rabbits inside on the floor of the truck, Noah gagged her with chloroform. He said the park was empty of people, no witnesses. It was just luck. He had had no real plan other than luck. Due to the fact, that Noah Klein had not physically harmed Ana Dia, he was handed a second-degree kidnapping charge with a reduced sentence of eight years in prison. While in a non-juried court, where he had pleaded guilty to all charges, Noah Klein apologized profusely and expressed a sincere remorse to the judge, and to Nick and Bridget Dia for the distress that he had caused them.

    To wrap it up, my associates and I had made sure that Postman Brian Whitaker was acknowledged for his keen sense of awareness and for his attention to detail. It was with his help that Ana Dia was found and returned to her parents. The Mayor of Los Angeles presented Mr. Whitaker with a key to the city along with the ten-thousand-dollar reward money from UCLA for helping Joe Stone and Associates in the recovery of Ana Dia. 

When asked by the press about their incomplete and failed investigation into the whereabouts of a missing child, the FBI had no comment. 

3 comments :

  1. What a great story, it took a stranger to care enough to help find her and thanks to him she was returned safely the authorities weren't following up. The parents weren't giving up they knew she was alive , that special bond allows you to know when your child is here or not. Awesome story thanks for sharing

    ReplyDelete
  2. One word brother BRAVO

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  3. Grabbed me from the get go! More, more, more!

    ReplyDelete

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