Sergeant Luckenstiehl wandered around the park, smiling at the children at play, nodding to their parents who were grilling hamburgers and brats and hot dogs – and the occasional steak – and setting the picnic tables. He would soon have to politely decline offers of food. “Regulations,” he would say with genuine regret; these people really knew how to barbecue.
He looked up; there were still a couple of hours before the sun would set behind the 25-story housing complex. The park was in the building’s hollow quadrangle, and Luckenstiehl respected how nicely the residents kept it.
A child ran up to her mother. “Mom! We can’t find Prissy and Janet anywhere!”
Luckenstiehl casually made a quarter turn away from the conversation.
“Oh,” Mother said quietly. “Didn’t I tell you? They went to live with their grandparents.”
“Awwww! Will they come back and visit?”
“I don’t know, honey. You have other friends. Now, run along and play for a little bit longer. Dinner will be ready soon. Go on.”
The girl rushed back to the swing set to report her findings. Luckenstiehl casually turned back to face the mother. Teresa Palmer, he recalled.
“It’s so hard to explain to children,” she said, her hands fumbling with the napkins.
“Yes, ma’am, it certainly can be,” he agreed neutrally. “Did Sarah often play with the Hemmers children?”
“Well, sometimes, of course.” Luckenstiehl took note of the slight tremor that had entered Teresa’s voice when she was talking to Sarah. “They were in the same class in school and the family lived on the same floor.”
“The same floor as you and Mr. Palmer, you mean.”
“Yes, that’s right.” She misjudged the edge of the picnic table and the mustard fell to the ground. Luckenstiehl merely watched as Teresa bent to retrieve it.
“Did you and Mr. Palmer know the Hemmerses well?”
“Just enough to say hello in the hallways, really. We didn’t socialize with them or anything.”
“Did the children visit in each other’s homes?” Luckenstiehl asked.
“Um…” Teresa cleared her throat. “Not … not that I can recall, no. They just played in the recreation center.”
“As you say, she has other friends. She’ll forget them by and by.”
“Yes, I’m sure she well.”
The sergeant nodded politely at her and wandered away.
A judicious three minutes later, Dave Palmer handed off his spatula to a friend and went to talk to his wife.
“What was that all about?” he whispered.
“Sarah asked where the Hemmers children were and the sergeant heard her. He was asking if the kids played together a lot and if we knew the family well and if the kids were in each other’s homes.”
“I told him the truth, and he seemed to accept it.”
“I hope so,” Dave said. “Even though they’ve been sent up, those damned Hemmerses haven’t stopped causing trouble. We’ve got to teach Sarah not to say everything that comes into her head.”
“If you’ve got any good ideas about how to accomplish that…”
Dave grunted. “The hamburgers’ll be ready in just a few minutes. I’d better get back.”
Sergeant Luckenstiehl kept up his patrol. He heard another child tell his parents, “I like picnics! It’s more fun being out here than in the dining area like we do in the winter.”
“Yes,” the boy’s father said, “it certainly is nice out tonight. But there’s nothing wrong with the dining area. Keep eating.”
Luckenstiehl moved along. He neared a table of older people.
“No, I didn’t know them,” a man was saying. “But I heard they were writing things that were critical of the government. About reinstating all of the Bill of Rights.”
“Some people just can’t appreciate safety,” a woman said.
“Or picnics,” a second man said, and they all laughed.
“Well, it’s a shame about the children,” another woman chimed in, “but I’m glad the parents are gone, if that’s the sort of trash they were. And the kids will be raised better by other people.”
“Patriotic people,” the first woman said.
Luckenstiehl made a mental note of the conversation and the name of the first man to speak: Donald Feasley. Mr. Feasley would have to be questioned. Someone close to the investigation had talked too much, and Mr. Feasley would be the first link in finding that person.
The sergeant continued his walk around and through the park, checking on his men at the exits and saying hello to the residents.
Just before the sun went behind the western end of the building, a loud whistle was heard throughout the quad. The security forces had completed their routine inspection of the residences. Families began packing up their picnic gear and securing the grills and saying goodnight to each other.
The Palmers gathered their things and called their daughter back to them. They exchanged a nervous look, wondering whether they would find security personnel waiting in their apartment when they got back – like the Hemmerses had the week before – merely because the children had played together.
Sergeant Luckenstiehl took one last sniff of the early evening air, rich with the scent of well-prepared food. Just once, he thought, I’d like to have one of Fred Hartmann’s brats. He shook his head and went to dismiss his men.