Slow night in Dewey Beach. The high-noon drinking of Running of the Bull sent many to an early bed, and those who filtered out of the bars at closing time looked shell-shocked. Assault reports trickled in one or two per hour; no major noise complaints; few drunk and disorderly. At 2:38 a.m., Sgt. Cliff Dempsey thought about something to get him through the next few hours – a Watchamacallit from Royal Farms will do the trick. He pointed his cruiser towards Rehoboth Beach when two women flag him down from a side street. He rolled down his window.

“Our friend is missing,” one said. Heading back to the station to get some flashlights, Dempsey told me this happens all the time – someone gets drunk, wanders off, wakes up somewhere else. Under a tree, say. Maybe next to a stranger. Maybe in their own bed.

He grabbed two flashlights and gave one to the MIA’s friends, who looked like garden-variety mid-thirties professionals. She’s a nurse, explained one. She’s careful, smart. She doesn’t do stuff like this. When we’re out of earshot in the dunes, Dempsey grumbles. People do stupid things when they drink, he said, pointing his beam under pine trees, in between rows of bushes.

A soft rain begins to fall.

“Good,” Dempsey said. “If she’s outside, that’ll wake her up.”

We scan a few blocks and loop back to the squad car. Thirty minutes later, Dempsey’s cell rings. After a minute’s talk, he hangs up.

“They found her,” he said.

“Where?” I ask.

“Back of a minivan,” he said. I grimaced. “Probably nothing,” he added evenly.

We pulled up to a house on Clayton Street, where the search party stood around a petite blonde in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt. She’s alert, cognizant, her arms crossed tight against her ribs. Dempsey asks how she is.

“I’m okay,” she said quietly. “I’m scared, but fine.”

“What’s the last thing you remember?” asked Dempsey.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess being with Julie in a restaurant.” Her hands dropped to her hips, where they brushed over what look like handkerchiefs. “My pockets are pulled out,” she said.

Dempsey disappeared into the garage with the MIA. Her friends huddled close together, speaking in low tones.

“I just feel like it’s so sketchy,” one said. “She goes missing, she doesn’t remember a damn thing…”

Another yawns.

“What good timing, though,” she said. “I’m so tired.”

Dempsey poked from the garage and waves me in. The minivan was registered to a woman in her mid-thirties from Pennsylvania. Opening the side door revealed a van with two car seats and a floor littered with baby toys. The Pennsylvania registration said the van belonged to a mother of three.

“If anything happened, it didn’t happen in here,” Dempsey said. “Look. There’s no room.”

As Dempsey explained to the search party that he found no evidence of sexual assault, I watched frowns spread from face to face. Didn’t he check? One asked. Weren’t there tests to do? A UV lamp, or something? Anything? Dempsey said they could call him if anything new developed.

We were on the road another half hour before his phone rang again.

“Now they think she was raped,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“She had sand on her ass. You know how you get sand on your ass?” he asked, his voice rising. “You sit down in the sand when you’re trying to take a piss, that’s now.” He takes a deep breath. “Look, I know I sound like an asshole,” he said, his voice softer. “But when you see shit like this all the time, isn’t it hard to believe this’ll be any different?”

We arrived at the Sea Esta II hotel and parked in a circle of orange light. I listened to Dempsey’s shoes clop up the stairs and I waited, staring at the building siding. Eventually I heard a door open, a pair of bare feet thumping unevenly on wooden planks, and the rasp of a lighter. A few minutes later, sobbing. A man sobbing. Someone said she was married, I remember.

It took a while for Dempsey to come out. Putting the cruiser into reverse, he said he was heading to Beebe Medical Center, where the girl will get a full examination. He’d drop me off at my car.

The color was gone from his cheeks. He looked tired and defeated. It would be all right – he was right, she was fine, her blood panel spotless – but nobody knew that, then. He was a guy who would spend the next few hours dealing with a shaky husband, a scared woman and a few stony people who would inevitably blame him if things ended poorly.

“Night, Cliff,” I said, and walked to my car.

Slow night in Dewey Beach. The high-noon drinking of Running of the Bull sent many to an early bed, and those who filtered out of the bars at closing time looked shell-shocked. Assault reports trickled in one or two per hour; no major noise complaints; few drunk and disorderly. At 2:38 a.m., Sgt. Cliff Dempsey thought about something to get him through the next few hours – a Watchamacallit from Royal Farms will do the trick. He pointed his cruiser towards Rehoboth Beach when two women flag him down from a side street. He rolled down his window.

“Our friend is missing,” one said.

Heading back to the station to get some flashlights, Dempsey told me this happens all the time – someone gets drunk, wanders off, wakes up somewhere else. Under a tree, say. Maybe next to a stranger. Maybe in their own bed.

He grabbed two flashlights and gave one to the MIA’s friends, who looked like garden-variety mid-thirties professionals. She’s a nurse, explained one. She’s careful, smart. She doesn’t do stuff like this. When we’re out of earshot in the dunes, Dempsey grumbles. People do stupid things when they drink, he said, pointing his beam under pine trees, in between rows of bushes.

A soft rain begins to fall.

“Good,” Dempsey said. “If she’s outside, that’ll wake her up.”

We scan a few blocks and loop back to the squad car. Thirty minutes later, Dempsey’s cell rings. After a minute’s talk, he hangs up.

“They found her,” he said.

“Where?” I ask.

“Back of a minivan,” he said. I grimaced. “Probably nothing,” he added evenly.

We pulled up to a house on Clayton Street, where the search party stood around a petite blonde in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt. She’s alert, cognizant, her arms crossed tight against her ribs. Dempsey asks how she is.

“I’m okay,” she said quietly. “I’m scared, but fine.”

“What’s the last thing you remember?” asked Dempsey.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess being with Julie in a restaurant.” Her hands dropped to her hips, where they brushed over what look like handkerchiefs. “My pockets are pulled out,” she said.

Dempsey disappeared into the garage with the MIA. Her friends huddled close together, speaking in low tones.

“I just feel like it’s so sketchy,” one said. “She goes missing, she doesn’t remember a damn thing…”

Another yawns.

“What good timing, though,” she said. “I’m so tired.”

Dempsey poked from the garage and waves me in. The minivan was registered to a woman in her mid-thirties from Pennsylvania. Opening the side door revealed a van with two car seats and a floor littered with baby toys. The Pennsylvania registration said the van belonged to a mother of three.

“If anything happened, it didn’t happen in here,” Dempsey said. “Look. There’s no room.”

As Dempsey explained to the search party that he found no evidence of sexual assault, I watched frowns spread from face to face. Didn’t he check? One asked. Weren’t there tests to do? A UV lamp, or something? Anything? Dempsey said they could call him if anything new developed.

We were on the road another half hour before his phone rang again.

“Now they think she was raped,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“She had sand on her ass. You know how you get sand on your ass?” he asked, his voice rising. “You sit down in the sand when you’re trying to take a piss, that’s now.” He takes a deep breath. “Look, I know I sound like an asshole,” he said, his voice softer. “But when you see shit like this all the time, isn’t it hard to believe this’ll be any different?”

We arrived at the Sea Esta II hotel and parked in a circle of orange light. I listened to Dempsey’s shoes clop up the stairs and I waited, staring at the building siding. Eventually I heard a door open, a pair of bare feet thumping unevenly on wooden planks, and the rasp of a lighter. A few minutes later, sobbing. A man sobbing. Someone said she was married, I remember.

It took a while for Dempsey to come out. Putting the cruiser into reverse, he said he was heading to Beebe Medical Center, where the girl will get a full examination. He’d drop me off at my car.

The color was gone from his cheeks. He looked tired and defeated. It would be all right – he was right, she was fine, her blood panel spotless – but nobody knew that, then. He was a guy who would spend the next few hours dealing with a shaky husband, a scared woman and a few stony people who would inevitably blame him if things ended poorly.

“Night, Cliff,” I said, and walked to my car.