They picked up their pace as they advanced toward the auto body shop. Inside the small customer service area, they encountered a guy with the name STITCH sewn on a patch above his left breast pocket. Babs snickered in spite of herself.    
            “Yeah, I get the occasional eye roll whenever someone notices it,” Stitch informed her. “How can I help you?”

            “We’re looking for a Mason Aussman,” she said. “We were told he works here.”

            Stitch cast a glance at Dominik. “You friends of his?”

            Dominik winced. “Not necessarily. We just want to talk to him about a few things.”

            “Employees aren’t allowed to fraternize during working hours. His lunch break’s at one, if you want to come back then.”

            Babs saw her husband start to move away and quickly intervened. “It has to do with his children. We’re concerned for their health and well-being.”

            Stitch narrowed his eyes. “You from some sort of state agency or something?”

            “No,” Babs answered. “We live down the road from him, and we’ve noticed how his kids always seem to be…” She wrinkled her nose.

            “Like they’ve been neglected?” Stitch filled in. “Yeah. I know what you mean. The couple of times I had to go by there to pick him up and bring him to work, I’ve seen them. So sad, but what can I do? So this is just a little humanitarian intervention thing you two got going?”

            “More like a Christmas present for Harold and Aimee,” Babs implied. That last little bit, including the fact that she knew the children by name, was enough to convince the guy they were on the up and up, and only meant well.

            Stitch sighed and drum-rolled his fingertips on the counter top. “Awright. Stay right here. Oh, and good luck.”

            Babs thanked the man, who exited through a rear door. Glancing up at Dominik, she saw him canvassing the place. “What?”

            “Just wondering if we should take this out back where there’s less chance of someone overhearing.”

            “The place looks empty.”

            “Right now, but that doesn’t mean someone can’t come walking through that door.”

            A soft ding-dong let them know someone was entering through the rear entrance. A man wiping his hands on an oil rag walked up to them.

            “I’m Mason Aussman. Whaddaya want to see me about?”

            Babs felt a little nudge against her back. She took the cue. “It’s about your children, Harold and Aimee.” As she expected, the man automatically went on the defensive.

“Do I know you?”

“We live down the road from you,” she continued, using the same line Dominik had used.

“And you are?”

She laid a hand to her chest. “I’m Jessica. This is my husband, Tuffy.”

“Tuffy, eh?” Aussman grunted. “Like you’re some tough guy Santa, Tuffy Claus?” His tone made it clear he wasn’t buying anything she was selling. Dominik refused to rise to the bait, crossing his arms over his chest instead.

Babs lowered her voice as she leaned over the counter. “Mr. Aussman, we’re worried for your children.”

The guy took a step back. “I don’t give a fuck what kind of stories you’ve heard. My kids are fine. Now go bother someone else.” Waving his rag at them, he pivoted around and strode stiff-legged out of the customer service center.

“That went well,” Dominik wryly remarked.

“Now he’s on the defensive. He’ll be on the lookout for others to show up.”

“Well, he’ll have to learn to live with disappointment,” he groused. “Let’s get out of here.”

“And go where?”

“To find Harold Aussman.”


“The boy told his teacher he was going to the bathroom, but he snuck out of the school instead. They don’t know he’s run off yet. We need to find him before they do. And definitely before they notify his old man.” Putting his arm around her shoulders, he led her out of the shop and back across the street to where they’d parked. Babs noticed the sheriff’s car was gone as she threw a leg over the seat. Glancing down at her display, she saw the little white dot that was their next destination.

“Gotcha,” she heard Dominik confirm. “Any idea which direction he went when he left?”

“Negative,” the elf working communications responded.

She placed a hand to the jingle bell transmitter in her ear. “Is this Doodlepuff?”

“Hey, Babs! Yeah!”

She kept her eyes on the map. “Is that dot the school?”

“Sure thing, toots.”

She mentally rolled her eyes. Yes, that was definitely Doodlepuff on the comm, as if the Brooklyn accent wasn’t already a dead giveaway. “Do me a favor?”

“Anything for you, doll. Just name it.”

“Throw up the location of the Aussman home.”

“What are you thinking?” Dominik asked.

She held up a hand to stay his question as she waited for the next indicator light to appear. As she’d suspected, it wasn’t too far from the first location. “Thanks, Doo. Babs out.” She cocked her head at her husband. “If you were a seven-year-old running away from school, with the obvious intent of running away from home to escape the abuse you’ve been suffering, where’s the first place you’d go to?”

Confusion crossed his face. “The kid’s heading home? Why?”

“To grab what he can’t bear to leave behind. We better hurry.”