Can you tell what's wrong with this picture?
I’ve framed the photo. It sits in my cubicle in the same spot it has occupied for the last two years. It’s a reminder for me to work harder. A reminder of all the pain that was caused by moving too slow.
Seventeen kids went missing that summer. Snatched from their bedrooms without a trace of who had done it. This case cut deeper than any I worked on before. Every day another parent would come to me and ask “why haven’t you found my baby yet?” And I would have to say “I’m trying. I promise.” After the sixteenth disappearance, we got a photo in the mail. There was writing on the back. Two words.
If you didn’t know better, you might think the picture was kind of beautiful. It’s of an old gravel road that winds delicately up a hill. The picture is taken from the middle of the street, the lens aiming up its path. One side of the road is lined by a patch of bright autumn leaves that look like they’ve recently fallen. The leaves are matted down slightly, as if by a heavy rain. In the center of the road there is a small basket. The camera is angled so you can’t see inside of it. On either side of the road there are gigantic pine trees that cast crisscrossing, haunting shadows.
Our department was able to find this location but there was no evidence. No basket in the street. Nothing in the woods. They dismissed as a false lead, but something about the photo got to me. I kept it on my desk for the next year, just trying to figure out what it meant. All I wanted was to tell those parents what happened to their kids.
There was just something off about the picture. Something that felt really unnatural about it. I thought about it all the time. The basket. The leaves. The pine trees. Then one day it clicked. Fallen leaves and pine trees. Pine trees don’t have leaves. They have needles. Needles don’t turn those colors and they don’t fall off in the fall. The pile of leaves wasn’t natural.
After a year of staring at the picture, a year of telling parents that I couldn’t find their kids – I finally figured it out. I dug a hole where the leaves were in the photo. There was a basket buried underneath the dirt. It held a child’s skull. Dental records matched it to Michael Blasters. One of the children who had gone missing.
I ordered an excavation of the area. The other kids were buried nearby.
Only one complete skeleton was found. It was a child that disappeared only a few days before we got the photo. Unlike the rest, her body was in a coffin.
There was a note pinned to the front of her dress. The same handwriting as the photo.
“48 hours of air – you could have saved her.”