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The Abducted: Odessa

The Abducted: Odessa

 

 

 

 

DBS Publishing LLC

Copyright 2016  by DBS Publishing LLC

Shakespir Edition

 

 

AMBER Alert

 

Odessa, Texas

 

Traffic was rough downtown, and Kim Forester was in a rush to get home. It had been a long day, and she was ready to relax for the remainder of the evening. She had just picked up her daughter, Natalie, from track practice and was a few blocks from their neighborhood when she suddenly remembered a phone call from earlier with her husband, Doug, reminding her to pick up some chicken for dinner.

She slammed on the brakes, halting at a stop sign as Natalie lunged forward, her iPad hitting the dashboard. “Mom!”“I’m sorry, honey,” Kim said, clutching the wheel.Doug was working late, Kim was too tired to cook, and they barely had any food in the house to do so anyway. She had planned to just pick up some fried chicken at the supermarket instead, but, in a hurry to get home, she had passed the Food Mart miles back without even realizing it. She groaned and brushed back her light brown hair with an elongated sigh.“What’s wrong?” Natalie asked, wearing a sleeveless top and jean shorts that she had changed out of after her track meet. Her hair was still damp from showering.“I forgot to stop at the grocery store,” Kim said.“For what?” Natalie asked, picking her iPad off the floor.“Dinner!” her mother snapped. She then took a deep breath and apologized as Natalie went silent. “I’m sorry. It’s just been a crazy day.”

She then made a U-turn and raced back in the opposite direction. She had just escaped the rush hour traffic, which, in the small town of Odessa, consisted of two lanes of stop-and-go traffic for about five miles.

The Food Mart was only a few miles away, but it was still a frustrating delay. She was tired, and her feet hurt. Her job as a medical records administrator could be stressful at times, and today was no exception. She took a back road, ending up at the busy intersection of Anderson and Main, as a news update played through the speakers.“It’s been a week, and police are still searching for local missing girl April Johnson, who disappeared last Monday after leaving a friend’s house in the late afternoon. Residents showed up at a candlelight vigil last Saturday evening to pray for Ms. Johnson’s safe return. There have been few developments in the case, and the investigation is still underway. While friends and family eagerly await April’s return, authorities urge anyone with information pertaining to April’s disappearance to contact the crime line immediately.”“I know her,” Natalie said.“You do?” Kim said, surprised.“I mean, I don’t know her, but she goes to my school. She’s in seventh grade.”“Oh, okay,” Kim said. She turned to Natalie with a look of concern. “I’m sure she’ll be okay. They’ll find her soon.”“That’s not what the other kids are saying.”“Natalie, stop it. That’s not nice,” Kim said.

The light at the intersection turned green, and Kim pressed on across the street and into the busy Food Mart parking lot.

They passed a utility pole with “missing” flyers stapled all around it, displaying young April Johnson’s smiling picture—her most recent school photo. After driving through three parking aisles, Kim was elated to find an open spot not too far away from the store. She immediately pulled in under the shade of an elm tree planted in the mulch of a parking divider. With the Cherokee idling, Kim turned to Natalie, noticing that her daughter’s full attention was on her tablet.“Are you waiting here?” “Yep,” Natalie said, swiping her screen.“Okay,” Kim said. “I’ll just be a minute.”“Got it.”

Kim unfastened her seat belt and opened the door, stepping onto the pavement in her worn loafers. She left the engine on and the air conditioner running. Her sleek black pants and teal top were like a kind of uniform, casual business clothes that didn’t vary much day to day, and she wanted nothing more than to get into an oversized T-shirt long enough to cover her underwear.

She grabbed her purse, told Natalie to stay put, and then ventured toward the Food Mart entrance. The automatic doors opened as a gust of cool air enveloped her in a soothing embrace that put her at ease. Five of the eight registers were open, with long lines at each one. Kim wasn’t surprised, but in any case, she would be back on the road soon enough. All she needed to do was to pick up one thing. In the deli section, she grabbed a ten-piece box resting under the heat lamps and made her way back to the checkout lines.

She headed to the express checkout line, tapping her foot nervously on the floor, waiting for the customers ahead. An elderly woman approached from behind, carrying a shopping basket with milk and eggs inside. “So crowded,” she said to Kim with an exhausted smile.“It sure is,” Kim said, smiling back.

The elderly woman glanced at a local newspaper near the checkout lane with April’s picture on the front page. “Just terrible,” she said with sadness.

Kim turned and glanced at the paper, shaking her head. “I’m so worried for that poor girl and her family.”“It’s scary that something like that can happen in our town,” the woman said.“I just hope they find her soon,” Kim said.

She turned back around as the line moved up and placed her chicken on the conveyor belt. She was close. She couldn’t wait to get out of the Food Mart and on the road again. In a few minutes, the fragrant box of chicken was rung up and paid for. She thanked the cashier and left the store in a hurry.

She approached her Cherokee with a strange feeling in her gut, which became all the more troubling when she saw the passenger door open and Natalie nowhere in sight. Kim slowed her approach and looked around, believing that her daughter might have stepped out of the car to stretch her legs. Then panic took hold. Natalie’s iPad lay on the pavement, face down, next to one of her sandals.“Natalie?” Kim asked, confused. She leaned inside the car through the open passenger door, crawled onto the seat, and looked in the back as her knee dug into a small white envelope, pushing it down into the seat. She got out and paced around the car, looking at the vehicles parked nearby, then at those more distant, hand shielding her face from the sun.“Natalie!”

Her heart raced as an undeniable anxiety grew within. She began to fear the worst. The faces before her, walking to and from their vehicles, were one giant blur. She dropped the box of chicken and increased her pace around the next parking lane over. All she could do was call out Natalie’s name again and again and hope that she’d come running toward her.

The Cherokee sat in the distance, still idling and ominous, as Kim made her way back to the Food Mart.

Maybe Natalie had needed something and decided to come in and find her. That could have been it. Short of breath and filled with dread, Kim rushed back inside the store and scanned the front checkout lane. She ignored the curious glances of shoppers who noticed her wide-eyed, distraught expression the minute she burst back into the store.“Natalie!” she called, voice louder than ever. “Natalie, where are you?”

She turned and rushed out of the store before the manager could make his way over to her. There was little doubt that she had made a scene. She ran back to the Cherokee, ignoring traffic along the way.

It didn’t make any sense. If Natalie was playing a trick on her, she’d never forgive her. There had to be an explanation. Then her knees started to buckle, and she felt lightheaded. She clutched the top of her vehicle to break her fall. She leaned against the window, disoriented, waiting for Natalie to return.“Ma’am, are you all right?” a young bagger asked her while pushing two carts toward the store.“It’s my daughter,” Kim said, frantic. “She’s not here. I was only in the store for a few moments.” She moved swiftly toward the boy. “Have you seen her? Her name’s Natalie.” She clutched the boy’s shoulders, a wild look in her eye. “Help me!”

People passed by with their carts, turning to see what was going on. She backed away from the bagger and toward the open passenger door of her Cherokee. “My daughter’s gone! Has anyone seen her?”

More people gathered around, concerned now and wanting to help.“I was only in there for a few minutes,” she repeated. “Natalie was inside with the air running and the doors locked…”

Kim whipped her head around and continued her desperate search. To strangers, she knew how it sounded. They would think her neglectful and naïve to leave her young daughter unattended, even if they didn’t show it on their faces.

A man offered her assistance, but she waved him off and walked away from her vehicle, quickening her pace. At the end of the parking aisle, near the front of the store, she saw a girl standing alone. In the blur that was Kim’s mind, the girl resembled Natalie in every way, from her long brown hair to her jean shorts and top.

Kim shouted out to the girl, ecstatic, and charged across the lot, unaware of a driver heading directly into her path. The driver of the SUV slammed the brakes, tires screeching, as its front grille smacked Kim and sent her tumbling five feet to the side across the hot pavement. A woman rushed to console the girl resembling Natalie, and as Kim lay on the ground losing consciousness, she could see that the girl wasn’t her daughter after all.

A group of concerned people circled her, staring down helplessly as calls rang out for a paramedic. Kim could only say her daughter’s name, repeatedly, until everything went black.

 

 

Crime Scene

 

The police were quick to arrive on the scene, clearing most of the parking lot, taking names, and stretching police tape down the third parking lane. There were several cruisers on hand, lights rapidly flashing, as well as an ambulance and fire truck. Brian Hayes and James Shelton, two plain-clothed detectives, got the call and arrived on the scene as quickly as they could. A potential kidnapping case in the small town of Odessa had the Ector County Sheriff’s Office on high alert.

The victim’s mother, Kim Forester, had been placed in the back of an ambulance parked close to her Cherokee, its engine recently shut off by one of the police officers. Natalie’s iPad remained on the ground with her sandal—nothing touched just yet as police collected evidence. The situation didn’t look good.

The news was whispered among the bystanders: Natalie—an eleven-year-old honor roll student from Sunshine Middle School—was nowhere to be found. Her mother had returned after running in to buy some chicken only to find her daughter missing and her car’s passenger door hanging open. Whatever had happened to Natalie had happened fast, and with another missing girl reported only a week before, the circumstances were even more troubling.

Natalie’s father, Doug, had been contacted and had raced to the scene from work as soon as he had heard. The parking lot of Food Mart was close to being marked as a crime scene. Worse yet, there were no witness accounts of the girl, no suspects, and no information leading to her potential whereabouts. She had vanished.

Senior Detective Hayes surveyed the scene as the police kept bystanders at a careful distance. A local news van was already on the scene but denied access. It was too early to release a statement. Authorities were quick to establish perimeters and cordon off the area accordingly. Hayes and his partner were there to find a girl who had vanished, and their every move since arriving on the scene was critical.

The detectives walked over to the ambulance where Kim Forester rested on a wheeled gurney with the cord from an IV bag lodged in her wrist. A slight bruise showed on her forehead. The paramedics explained that she had likely suffered from a panic attack, and they strongly advised that she rest and hydrate herself. Kim, however, found it impossible to stay put with her daughter missing. The last thing she could do was to relax.

Her husband, Doug, sat by Kim’s side, clutching her hand as a mustached officer talked to them from outside the ambulance. “We have to consider all possibilities,” he said, pen and clipboard in hand. “She could have simply wandered off.”

Kim shook her head, her face flushed and her damp hair clinging to the side. “That’s not what happened.”

Doug rubbed her arm to calm her. “It does sound unlikely, Officer. Something isn’t right.”

Kim cut in with a shaky voice full of anguish. “I was only in the store for a few minutes. The windows were rolled up, and the doors were locked. I don’t know what could possibly have happened.”

The officer scribbled onto his clipboard, eyes down. “We’re looking into it, Mrs. Forester. Your daughter couldn’t have gotten too far. We just have to find her.”

Doug released Kim’s hand and stepped closer to the officer, crouching within the close confines of the ambulance. “Have you talked to any witnesses? Someone had to have seen something.”

The officer nodded. “We’ve spoken with many people, yes. So far, no one has anything to provide us.”“That’s ridiculous!” Doug shouted.

Officers outside the ambulance turned their heads. The situation was getting more intense by the moment. Doug and Kim were obviously upset and at the mercy of the police, who could only do so much at the moment to provide them immediate comfort.

Senior Detective Hayes and Detective Shelton turned from the ambulance and approached their police captain, who had just arrived. Their ties blew in the winds as their pistols sifted from the holsters on their belts.

Captain Elian Vasquez surveyed the scene with a handheld radio to his ear and then turned to his approaching detectives, eager for answers.“Tell me something good, gentlemen.”

The captain’s dark-blue police uniform stretched slightly at his stomach. He had gained some weight over the past few months, which he had attributed to stress, but his clean-shaven face remained boyish. He’d been sporting a thin mustache lately, and no one could really understand why.Detective Hayes shook his head. “We’re taking it all in, sir. Looks like she may have pulled right from the vehicle.”

He had worked many cases in his five years with the Ector County Sheriff’s Office, but a girl disappearing from a parking lot was a first. Hayes was in his mid-thirties, with graying hair and light stubble on his cheeks.

His partner, Detective Shelton, a former police officer, was relatively new in town. As a black man from Chicago, he couldn’t have been farther from home. How he had ended up with the Ector County PD, Hayes didn’t know for sure. He had considered his partner quiet, resourceful, and eager when the situation called for it. Having worked together for two years, he believed that they made a good team.

Detective Hayes had a wife and two children. His partner, on the other hand, appeared to be a drifter of sorts, a quiet loner whose detective work was as impeccable as that of any seasoned veteran on the force. He remained somewhat of an enigma to Hayes.

Shelton paced around Kim Forester’s Cherokee and then turned to address the police captain. “Either this girl ran off and left her sandal and iPad, which doesn’t seem likely, or we’re dealing with a second kidnapping in one week.”“Always assume the worst,” Captain Vasquez said, with his eyes piercing and serious. “We just issued an AMBER alert. Now I want an APB out on this girl. Find her.” He paused and pointed toward the end of the parking lot, where two news vans now sat. “Keep them at bay and provide no comment until we figure out what happened here.”“Yes, sir,” Hayes said. He then turned back to the ambulance where he heard Kim Forester sobbing. “How’s the mother?” Vasquez asked.“Distraught,” Hayes replied. “She ran inside for a bucket of chicken and came back to find her daughter missing.” He glanced at the Cherokee as Detective Shelton took a series of pictures with a digital camera. “Just tragic…”

A police helicopter hovered overhead. There were at least a dozen police officers on the scene with their radios chattering as a wide search of the area was being conducted. Natalie’s age, height, and physical description were being passed through the channels.

There had been no suspect description or vehicle reported—that was, until an older woman with a red perm and wearing a summer dress approached the detectives with two police officers at her side.

Sergeant Kline, the tall officer to her left, began by introducing her. “This is Evelyn McDougal. She says she might have some useful information.”“Of course,” Captain Vasquez said, his cheek bones rising in a smile. “What can you tell us, ma’am?”

Detective Hayes pulled a notepad and pen from his pocket as the woman stepped forward. She adjusted her glasses and looked around nervously at all the sudden attention. Detective Shelton stopped taking pictures near the car and walked toward her, interested in what the woman had to say.“I didn’t see anything actually happen,” she said with her hands out. “I just want to make that clear.”“Understood,” Detective Hayes said. “Please. Just tell us whatever you can.”

She nodded, with her arm linked to Sergeant Kline’s for balance. “It’s just… I guess you could call it a hunch. I was parked over there,” she said, pointing one parking lane over. “And I saw a man wearing sunglasses sitting in a blue van. At first, I didn’t find anything suspicious about him. He could have been waiting for someone for all I know, but he was still there when I finished my shopping. Not in the same parking spot, mind you. He had moved somewhere else, like he was scoping out the place, changed parking spots. Isn’t that weird?”Hayes and Shelton exchanged glances as they listened with heightened anticipation.“What did he look like?” Shelton asked. “Any distinctive features?”

The woman thought to herself. “He had big sunglasses. Dark, slicked-back hair, I think. He looked young.”“Caucasian man?” Shelton asked as both detectives scribbled.“Yes, he was white,” she said.“Did you notice the make of the van? A license plate, perhaps?” Hayes asked.

Mrs. McDougal shook her head. “I didn’t pay him any special attention. He just looked odd sitting there after a while.”“Yes, but think about the van,” Hayes continued. “Any detail at all.”“It was old, ten, fifteen years. Slightly rusted. Think it was a GMC. There was a NASA plate on the front. I think,” she said. The detectives nodded while jotting down their notes as she continued. “I’m sorry, that’s all I can really say. I heard that a girl was taken, and my gut told me that the man I saw might have had something to do with it.”“That’s fine, ma’am,” Hayes said. “What you’ve told us so far is of great assistance.”“Yes, thank you,” Captain Vasquez added.

Detective Shelton looked to the officers, his eyes concealed behind sunglasses. “Please get a written statement from her before she leaves.”

The officers nodded as Detective Hayes handed the woman his card and told her to call them if she could think of anything else. It wasn’t the most specific of information, but they had a potential suspect and a vehicle, which was a big step forward.

Sergeant Kline escorted Mrs. McDougal away, leaving the detectives deep in thought. Captain Vasquez then signaled his second in command, Lieutenant Alex Van Hise, over from the crime scene.

“I want an APB on every blue van within a fifty-mile radius. Every block. Every parking lot. Every intersection,” he told the lieutenant with soft intensity. “This prick couldn’t have gotten far, and I’m inclined to trust Mrs. McDougal’s instincts.”

Lieutenant Van Hise, a fresh-faced, by-the-book type in his early thirties, held up an evidence bag up with an envelope in it. “We found this resting on the passenger seat.”“A letter?” Hayes asked, curious. There was no writing on the envelope itself, but as Van Hise held it under the sunlight, they could see a message showing from inside the envelope.“Figured we’d take it to the crime lab first,” Van Hise said. “Could be from the kidnapper or junk mail for all we know.”

Had Natalie’s kidnapper actually left a note? Such a turn of events would be a huge development and could quite possibly lead them right to the girl before it was too late.“Get that into evidence,” the captain said, “along with anything out of the ordinary, inside or outside the vehicle.”“I want that letter,” Hayes said, taking it from the lieutenant. “This is our scene. Detective Shelton and I will take it from here.”“Easy there, Detective,” Lieutenant Van Hise said. “We’re all on the same team here.”

He then backed away with his radio in hand as he issued an alert for a blue GMC van. The police helicopter jetted into the horizon, presumably in search of the blue van.

Sirens wailed in the distance as a small crowd neared a pair of barriers, approaching the scene. Odessa hadn’t seen such commotion in some time, but the story was already picking up steam: two missing girls in a small town within the same week.

Captain Vasquez pointed at Detective Hayes and Shelton with unflinching eyes. “Keep this thing quiet. Work fast, and find the girl.”“Yes, sir,” Hayes said with confidence.

The captain hurried off without another word, approaching a shiny cruiser with its lights flashing. It looked as though he was headed back to the station, prepared to report the latest developments to the higher-ups. Nothing could get a town riled up like a potential kidnapping.

Hayes knew that the captain had the responsibility of controlling the panic, while their responsibility was to find the girl. However, he and Shelton were also tasked with solving the April Johnson disappearance and had made little headway throughout the week.“You see anything yet?” Hayes asked his partner as they neared the ambulance.“Found a candy wrapper on the ground,” Shelton said. “Right outside the passenger door. Could be nothing, but I had ‘em bag it for evidence.”“Good.”

They arrived at the back of the ambulance in which Kim Forester rested, sitting up in a wheeled gurney with her husband at her side. The paramedics stood nearby, looking ready to leave.

Kim Forester’s face was puffy, red, and drenched in tears. Doug Forester looked up at the detectives, his pale face stricken with fear and his eyes watering. “Our daughter’s really gone, isn’t she?” he asked in a vacant tone.“We don’t know for sure, Mr. Forester,” Detective Hayes said. “But we’re putting all of our resources into finding her.”

Doug suddenly rose, angered, yet still clutching Kim’s hand. “It’s not good enough,” he said, pointing beyond them to the busy road in the distance. “Our little girl was taken. I’m sure of it. Now you find that bastard before he does anything to her, or so help me God—”“We will, sir,” Detective Shelton said. “Rest assured. We will find her.”

Hayes glared at his partner as though he couldn’t believe what he had just said.

Shelton leaned inside the ambulance and then held up the sealed bag with the envelope inside for Kim to see. “This was found on your passenger seat, ma’am. Does it belong to you?”

Kim leaned forward, squinting. “No. I don’t believe so.”

Hayes cut in. “We believe it might have been placed there by our suspect.”

Doug’s eyes widened. “What are you talking about? Like some kind of ransom note?” He stumbled forward, beside himself with frustration. “Well, open it already. What the hell are you waiting for?”

Shelton lowered the bag from view. “I’m sorry, but it’s evidence now. It could contain fingerprints or DNA, and we don’t want to corrupt it.”

Doug sat down, flustered and exhausted. He was noticeably on edge and conflicted between staying calm or going crazy. Hayes could relate, having a daughter of his own, but as with anything else, there were protocols and procedures. Nothing happened instantly, though in cases involving kidnappings, every second was crucial.“Just find her, please,” Doug said, wiping his tears. “It’s all we ask…”“We will,” Shelton said, receiving another perturbed glare from his partner.“Is there anything you can tell us, Mrs. Forester?” Hayes said, notepad out. “It’s our understanding that you were in the grocery store for approximately six minutes. Your daughter was waiting in the car with doors locked and engine running.”“I’d like to think that the doors were locked, but I just can’t remember,” she said in a strained voice. “When I returned to the car, I found the door open…” her eyes clenched shut as tears fell. “Her little sandal was on the ground. I knew someone took her. I just didn’t want to believe it at first.”“That’s enough, honey,” Doug said, rubbing her back. He then looked at the detectives with a stern expression. “Don’t you think so, Detectives?”“Yes,” Hayes said, beckoning his partner away. “We’ll be here when you feel like talking.”

They wished the couple well and walked back toward the crime scene as Hayes quietly admonished his partner. “You never promise the parents of a missing child anything. What is wrong with you?”

Shelton remained composed and not the least bit bothered by Hayes’s anger. “Technically the girl isn’t considered missing until forty-eight hours have passed.”“Knock it off,” Hayes said. “You damn well know we’re looking at a kidnapping here.” He then held up two fingers. “We’re looking at two kidnappings here, and what do we have? A man wearing sunglasses? A blue van? A ransom note, maybe?”

Shelton stopped and pointed down to the greasy fried chicken box at their feet. “What do you think? Should we put that in evidence too?”The hunt was on, and the detectives knew that they weren’t getting any closer to finding the kidnapper by standing in a Food Mart parking lot. There were answers that could only be found with a trip back to the Ector County station, ten miles away.

 

***

 

The bright and sterile forensics lab offered a satisfactory environment for examining the two most significant pieces of evidence collected at the scene: the sealed envelope and the candy wrapper. Both could carry enough DNA to track down their kidnapper. Their man wouldn’t know what hit him—though anyone foolish enough to leave their DNA behind at a crime scene deserved to be caught in the most expedited fashion.

Detectives Hayes and Shelton stood aside, wearing mandated lab coats, as Nancy, the lab technician, carefully unsealed the envelope with a heat gun in her latex-gloved hands. She had already swabbed the candy wrapper for traces of DNA, and the results were inconclusive. Despite this first blow to their investigation, Hayes and Shelton felt optimistic that their suspect wasn’t going to get far.

As they stood in the lab, observing Nancy at work, Hayes’s cell phone buzzed in his pocket. He reached inside with his gloved hand and pulled the phone out, sighing as the captain’s number appeared on the screen.“What’s going on, sir?”“Damn it, Hayes. I want you and Shelton in my office now.”“We’re in Forensics, examining evidence,” Hayes said.“In my office, now!” Vasquez shouted.

Hayes hung up and looked at his inquisitive partner. “Our presence is requested.”

Shelton shook his head, frustrated, as Nancy continued working the letter. “We’ll be right back,” Hayes told her.“Okay. Don’t take too long,” she said.

The detectives left in a hurry, discarding the lab coats in the outside quarantine room. They then left Forensics and moved swiftly down the hall toward the captain’s office in their suits and ties, ID badges dangling from their necks.

Captain Vasquez’s door was open, and there were many officers gathered around the captain’s television, which was mounted in a high corner of the room.

From his desk, Vasquez called to Hayes and Shelton, pointing at his screen. “I thought you were going to talk to the parents. What the hell happened?”

The detectives looked up at the TV to see Doug and Kim Forester holding each other before the cameras as lights flashed all around them. The news alert banner at the bottom of the screen described the event as an “exclusive statement from the parents of the latest kidnapped victim.”

Hayes’s mouth dropped open. Shelton wasn’t sure what to say. It was hard to think the parents would run to the cameras so quickly, but they understood that fear and desperation often brought out rash, impulsive decisions in people, especially when the life of a loved one was on the line.“This isn’t good, ladies and gentlemen,” the captain said, shaking his head. “The parents jumped the gun before we could even release a statement. Now we’re going to be left holding the bag.”

From the looks of it, the Foresters had simply walked to the camera crews in the parking lot, ready to talk. Doug held a wallet-sized photo of Natalie up to the camera, holding back his tears.“This is our beautiful daughter, Natalie. She’s an eleven-year-old honor roll student and the light of our lives. And today she is missing. I urge the community to help find her, please. It’s all we ask, and we couldn’t be more grateful for your assistance.”

The captain spun around to face the crowd in his office. “We need to take charge of this situation.” He smacked the surface of his desk with both palms. “I want all of you out there doing your part. Lead the search parties. Find this girl!”

So, officially, more or less, it was a kidnapping.

Hayes’s cell phone rang from his pocket. Anticipation ran high when he saw that it was Nancy from the lab. He stepped out of the office and answered.“Yeah, what’s up, Nancy?”“Detective Hayes? I read the letter, and I think you should get down here right away.”“Okay, Nancy,” he said. “Thank you.”

Hayes stepped back and moved away with a quick tap on Shelton’s shoulder. As his partner turned, Hayes signaled toward the hall, his eyes wide with excitement. They hurried down the hall toward the modest forensics lab, where most evidence in any case made its first stop. Standing in the dressing room–like divider between the station and the lab, they slipped on their robes, hair covers, and gloves and walked inside, where Nancy was examining the letter.“It’s a message,” Nancy told them, holding the sheet open with a pair of tweezers. “Could be a ransom note, but I’m not sure.”

Having dressed in robes, hair covers, and gloves, b

oth Hayes and Shelton rushed over, eager to get a look. The message had been written using letter clippings from magazines, like something out of a movie. Hayes’s eyes darted across each line, reading the message several times over.

I’ve got the girl. Don’t try to find her. You never will because I don’t want you to find her. Find Miriam Castillo, then maybe we can talk. Goodbye.“Miriam Castillo? Detective Shelton said, confused. “Who’s that?”

 

 

The Expert

Day 1

 

Miriam had gone through several different last names over the past few years. She had used her maiden name, Castillo, after the divorce from her husband, Freddy. Changing to her maiden name was one thing; changing it to protect herself and her daughter was something different altogether.

She was now Miriam Sandoval, a resident of Phoenix, Arizona, where she worked at the Youth and Family Services Bureau of the Phoenix Police Department. It had been one year since the celebrated Snatcher case—a case that had nearly cost her everything, and as she sat in her office that Tuesday morning, recounting the experience with a local reporter, it was hard to believe so much time had passed.

Phillip Anderson had been a notorious child predator, known as the Snatcher, who had plagued South Florida for years. He was also the owner and operator of Anderson Auto Salvage, a lucrative family business he ran with his parents and three brothers. The Anderson family was well known in the town of Palm Dale and had a contentious relationship with law enforcement.

But no one had ever suspected Anderson himself of being the man who had kidnapped children, holding them in a secret underground lair as his “playmates.” Miriam, then a police officer with the Lee County Police Department in Palm Dale, had found that out the hard way. She’d lost her partner, Deputy Joseph Lang, in the line of duty while pursuing the Snatcher—a moment she would never forget.

During the highly-publicized Snatcher case, Miriam did find Anderson, and in another way, he found her. He tracked Miriam down during the investigation, murdered her ex-husband, Freddy, and kidnapped her then eleven-year-old daughter, Ana.

Miriam had managed to find her daughter and stop the Snatcher through sheer perseverance, but it had come at a heavy cost. Ana was left traumatized without a father, and Miriam soon blamed herself. Her involvement in the case had been the catalyst for everything. With the challenges of reaching normalcy ahead, Miriam strove to regain her life however she could.

A year after moving to Phoenix, she was beginning to feel like herself again. The counseling had certainly helped, though she knew things would never be the same. Enough time had passed to allow her to be more open about the experience with the Snatcher case, and when a reporter from the Phoenix Sun had called to ask for an interview one early Tuesday morning, she said yes, in part to begin putting the past behind her.

 

Miriam sat at her desk, morning sun shining through the blinds in the window behind her. To her side was a wall filled with plaques, awards, and framed newspaper articles—a modest display of her achievements throughout her seven-year career in law enforcement. She looked beyond her computer screen at the reporter sitting across from her, setting her recorder on the desk and taking out a long, skinny notepad with a spiral binding at the top.

She sipped some coffee and then set the mug down next to a framed picture of Ana resting upright on her desk. She had dozens of files around her—another busy week—and the nice-looking bookcase in the corner behind her was filled with law enforcement regulations and mandated operating procedures. The police station was busy that morning as always, and Miriam’s recent promotion to lieutenant afforded her an office of her own—an exciting perk, she had to admit.

Her short black hair hung just above her earlobes, and she was dressed up for the interview in a coral blouse with black dress pants and heels, expecting to have her picture taken at the end.

The reporter had introduced herself as Tammy Shapiro, a local writer for the Phoenix Sun. She was an enthusiastic blonde woman dressed sharply in a gray blazer and pants with a professional aura beyond her years. Miriam felt comfortable with her and prepared to discuss the past despite her suppression of certain memories that brought too much pain.“Okay, Lieutenant Sandoval,” Tammy said, pressing a button on her digital audio recorder. “I’d like to thank you again for setting aside the time to speak with me.”“It’s my pleasure. And please, call me Miriam,”“Of course, Miriam.” Tammy paused and looked down at her notes. “How’s everything going? Are you more at ease now? How often have you found yourself contacted for interviews and appearances?”“That’s a lot to answer at once,” Miriam said with a laugh.“I’m sorry,” Tammy said. “I’ve been wanting to interview you for a while.”“Not a problem,” Miriam said, looking beyond Tammy as her boss, Captain Keith Watterson, walked by her office window, glancing inside. She found herself momentarily distracted but wanted to get back to the interview. “We’re managing,” she began. “Ana, my daughter, is almost done with the seventh grade. I have this wonderful job working with the best people in law enforcement and doing something that I’m passionate about. I never thought Phoenix would be so perfect for us.”“How does this compare to Florida in the heat department?” Tammy asked with a smile.“I’m used to it,” Miriam said with quiet laughter. Another email notification then popped up on her desktop. Her work inbox was filling up, and she could already sense that she’d be at her desk for a long time. “I’m learning to move on and enjoy life.”“That’s great to hear, Miriam,” Tammy said. She then leaned in closer with a playful smile. “Is there anyone special in your life right now?”

Miriam shook her head, perhaps too quickly, as Tammy laughed. “So, who’s the lucky guy?”

Miriam hadn’t planned on divulging personal details, but her reaction had seemed to have given it away. “I’ve been seeing an old friend of mine for some time now. He’s been great. A blessing.”

Tammy held her pen above her notebook, waiting. “Can I get a name?”“His name is Louis Garcia. We worked together. He was a detective on the force back in Palm Dale.”

Tammy beamed. “You met him on the job? That’s so nice. Is he still a detective?”

Miriam nodded. “No, he’s actually a schoolteacher now, teaching at the same school Ana attends.”“Wow… that’s so interesting. I’m sure he has plenty of stories for the kids,” Tammy said.“He sure does.”

Tammy then shifted gears to focus on something Miriam hadn’t thought about in some time. “So, going back to the Snatcher case. When you disappeared for two weeks, presumed missing, you were actually being held against your will by Phillip Anderson the entire time? I couldn’t imagine what you went through. The story of your escape is miraculous in itself. A lot of people wonder whether you plan to write about your experiences during that time.”

Miriam nodded, a growing uneasiness brewing inside. Tammy noticed her initial lack of response and elaborated. “I guess what I’m trying to ask, or what I think our readers are trying to understand, is why you’ve been so reluctant to talk about what happened. I completely understand your desire to stay out of the limelight, but don’t you think that a big part of closure is to let things go?”

Miriam thought to herself in a lengthy silence. Perhaps Tammy had a point. Shortly after emerging from her disappearance, Miriam had given a short press conference at the behest of her superiors but not many interviews after that. She had turned down multiple talk show and book deal requests. She had even turned down an offer to be interviewed by Barbara Walters.

While sharing her story may have provided the closure Tammy spoke of, Miriam wanted to bury the entire experience, though she’d never be able to completely scrub Phillip Anderson from her mind. His visage still haunted her dreams. Sometimes it felt as though he was still alive and watching her.

Miriam looked at Tammy and tried to answer as best she could. “I don’t mean to be secretive,” she began. “I’m very fortunate to have escaped. And I’m glad Phillip Anderson… is no longer able to do any harm.”

She then glanced a framed, front-page newspaper story bearing the headline Snatcher Dead! in big black letters.

Part of hanging up the front page in her office was what her counselor described as “taking control of the past.” But it didn’t seem to make things easier.“Not a day goes by that I’m not thankful. It’s just, with the Snatcher case, it was never something I wanted, and it’s certainly not something I want to keep thinking about. Phillip Anderson was a monster. He killed my partner and my ex-husband, and I don’t want to see him get the attention of a celebrity. He deserves to be forgotten, to fade into oblivion while the rest of us move on with our lives.”“I understand,” Tammy said. She then looked down at her notes in hesitation. “How is Ana doing? I imagine she’s had her own struggles as well.”

Miriam thought to herself as another email notification popped up. “She’s doing better. I take her to counseling all the time. The loss of her father hit her hard, and I imagine it’s something she’ll struggle with her entire life. Lou’s been great with her, but he made it clear from the beginning that he never intends to replace Freddy.”“What’s the best thing about your job today?” Tammy asked, moving to another topic.“Oh, that’s easy,” Miriam began. “Looking out for children is now my top priority. It’s a very rewarding thing, and at the end of the day, I really feel like I’ve made a difference.”“If you could just take me back,” Tammy said, holding her pen out, “to the moment when you were face to face with Phillip Anderson, knowing that one of you had to die.”

Miriam was taken aback by the question. Miriam could still see Anderson’s scarred face and soulless gray eyes. She could hear the thud of the thick chain cracking against his skull as she swung it repeatedly.

She could smell the dankness of the underground bunker and feel the grime and grit under her fingernails from clawing at the walls, trying to get free. Miriam opened her eyes, prepared to tell Tammy everything, when suddenly her office phone rang, startling her.“Excuse me,” she said to Tammy.

She didn’t recognize the number on the caller ID screen, chalking it up to a wrong number or nuisance caller. It was an out-of-state number, a Texas area code, which piqued her curiosity, and she decided to answer. “Lieutenant Sandoval speaking,” she said.“Hello, Lieutenant. My name is Detective Hayes from the Ector County PD, here in Odessa, Texas.”“Yes. What can I help you with, Detective?” Miriam asked.“I’m trying to reach a Miriam Castillo. We’ve been doing a search and have an urgent need to talk with her. I believe she works in your department.”“Well, Detective…” Miriam began as Tammy scrolled through her cell phone, keeping busy. “I’m not sure how you found me, but I no longer go by that surname. I changed it quite some time ago.”

Tammy lifted her head, wondering who Miriam was talking to.“Ms. Castillo?” the detective asked in a surprised tone.

Miriam sighed, feeling as though she had already said too much. “Yes, Detective.”“It’s very important that we speak with you. You see, a girl was possibly abducted today, and… well, I don’t know how to tell you this, but the suspect left a letter at the scene of the crime with your name on it.”

The timing of the call was stunning. Miriam’s heart sank. It was exactly what she didn’t want to hear. It was the very reason she had kept such a low profile since the Snatcher case, the same reason she had changed her last name and stayed out of the spotlight. Now this.“I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do about that,” she said. “There’s lots of crazy people out there who will pull names out of the air. I’m sorry.”“Ma’am, please,” the detective said. “At first, my partner and I were clueless about the name, then it hit us. You’re the detective who solved the Snatcher case.”

Miriam stood up, angered. “That is not my name anymore. Do you understand?”

Tammy tried politely not to stare as her eyes moved down to her cell phone, fingers scrolling.“I’d appreciate you respecting my wishes to be left alone. Thank you.” She hung up the phone, her hand and voice trembling.“Wow…” Tammy said with a laugh. “Sounds like they called the wrong person.”“Sorry about that,” Miriam said, sitting down. “Now, where were we?”

Tammy looked at her notes and pressed the record button. “We were talking about Phillip Anderson, unfortunately. The night you escaped.”“Yes, of course,” Miriam began. “He had promised to let the congressman’s daughter go if I fled the country with him. The girl was his most high-profile abduction. I agreed, of course, and he kept his word. He let her go. But I knew I could never leave the country with him. I could never leave Ana like that. So I fought back.”

Tammy bit her lip as Miriam’s office phone rang again. Miriam looked at the number. It was her caller from Texas. The detective. And it looked as though he wasn’t going to take no for an answer.“Pardon me,” she said to Tammy again, holding a finger in the air, asking for patience. Tammy nodded as Miriam picked up her phone again. “I told you that I’m not interested. Thank you and goodbye.”“Wait, please,” the detective pleaded. “Just one minute. It’s all I ask.”

Miriam held the phone impatiently and closed her eyes. “Go ahead…”“Yes, thank you,” said the detective. “All we’re trying to find out is why this guy seems to be interested in you. Could this, perhaps, be someone that you know or knew at one point?”“Not likely, but how could I possibly know?” Miriam asked, her patience ending.“There’s an eleven-year-old girl missing,” the detective continued. “As you know, the first forty-eight hours are crucial. We’d like to bring you in on this. It could make all the difference between finding her dead or alive.”

Miriam considered, conflicted. She had vowed never to take on a case that would put her or her daughter in danger of some psychopath. Nonetheless, the thought of a girl, helpless and afraid, got to her as nothing else could.“I don’t know what I could really do for your case. I have a responsibility to my department, not other random jurisdictions.”“We just want to talk,” he continued. “My partner and I would love to do a video call where we can explain everything.”“That won’t be necessary,” she said.“Lieutenant, this is the second girl to disappear in a week,” he said.“Detective Hayes…” Miriam said, feeling she had no choice but to relent. It wasn’t what she had planned for that day, but she couldn’t tell him no. Not with the lives of two girls at stake. She’d hear the detectives out at least. “Let me speak with my captain first.” She hung up, not saying another word. It’d be up to them to figure out the rest.

Miriam rubbed her forehead as Tammy leaned forward, intrigued. “Was that an out-of-state call? Are they trying to recruit you for some other mission?”“No,” Miriam said with finality. “That’s out of the question.”“But they do want your help, don’t they?” Tammy asked.“Sounds like it,” Miriam said. She then held up a cautionary hand. “Please don’t put any of this in your article.”

Tammy looked surprised, as if such an idea would never have occurred to her. “Of course not. Whatever you wish.”

Miriam then contemplated the quick turn of events in her day. She both dreaded the conference call with the out-of-state detectives but was also eager to learn more about their case. However, she thought Captain Watterson, her supervisor, wouldn’t be too happy with their request.

Miriam excused herself from the office and told Tammy she would return shortly. She moved fast down the hall, past cubicles and offices, as more coworkers arrived, coffee in hand. Miriam wore a smile on her face, greeting civilians and officers alike as she hurried past them on her way to the captain’s office. She received several second glances due to her dolled-up appearance, the sudden attention only slightly unwelcome.

Miriam knocked on Captain Watterson’s half-open door, his name engraved on the glass in big, gold letters. “Come in!” he called from his pristine desk.

She pushed the door open and saw that he was busy at his computer. He wore his decorated dress-blue uniform with captain’s bars on both sleeves.“Good morning, sir,” she began.“Morning. How can I help you, Lieutenant Sandoval?” he asked, attention still on his computer screen.

She approached one of the two leather office chairs in front of his desk and leaned against its backside. “I don’t want to take up too much of your time. It’s just… I received a call from a detective from Ector County, Texas.”

His hands stopped typing as he glanced up at her, glasses resting on the bridge of his nose. His thin dark hair was slicked back as always. He was a no-nonsense type but was also fair and just when it mattered. “Detective Hayes?” he asked.

Miriam pulled back, surprised. “Um, yes. How’d you know?”

He folded his arms and leaned back. “Because they’ve been calling around nearly every department looking for you. I got a hint of what he wanted. I must say, it’s a very strange case.”“They insist on talking with me, sir.” She then paced across the large red carpet, deep in thought. “I just don’t know what they expect me to do.”

Watterson’s chair creaked as he leaned forward and placed his hands flat on the surface of his shiny desk. “Now, I don’t want you to do anything that you’re not comfortable with.” He cleared his throat and then continued with a shift in tone. “But if you choose to assist with the case, I think it could reflect very well on our department. Good publicity, selfless and civic minded,” he said. “We’re nearing the end of our fiscal year. Consider, for a moment, potential funding.”

Miriam stopped and turned to the captain, slightly confused. “Are you saying that you want me to help these detectives?”“Just talk to them,” he said. “Get a feel for the case, then we can discuss it afterward. If you’re game, I’ll get their police captain on the line and work out the travel pay and expenses.”

Miriam nodded in agreement but felt an uneasiness in her gut. Quite opposite from what she had believed, the captain was all for it, and with his support, she found her resistance dwindling. Cases like this seemed to follow her no matter where she went.

 

 

 

The Suspect

 

He watched the Food Mart parking lot from within his blue GMC van. Dashboard vents blew cool air on his face, a relief on an otherwise hot day. He had been in the parking lot for what seemed like hours, waiting for his moment. He sat and watched vehicles come and go, mothers with children going into the Food Mart and then coming out with carts full of groceries.

He sucked on his straw, drinking the last of a soda that by now was mostly melted ice. His oversize sunglasses shielded his eyes, while the sun visors provided shade and privacy. He never remained in one parking space too long.

Despite his brazen actions, he was also a cautious man and always felt as though he was being watched. Paranoia was part of the game. That afternoon, he had come prepared to find someone, a child—a girl more specifically. Though as the hour slipped by, he would have settled for any child if the right opportunity presented itself. He was beginning to think maybe he should try again another day or in a different place. That was, until he caught sight of a Jeep Cherokee racing down the parking aisle and pulling into a space across from him, the driver in an obvious hurry.

He fiddled with the radio and looked down at his cell phone in an attempt to remain inconspicuous. Two lanky teenagers passed his windshield carrying skateboards, followed by a bagger pushing the cart of an elderly woman who walked right next to his van.

So many people, he thought. A smile then came to his face. But the more people around, the less likely anyone will pay me any mind.

He watched the Jeep Cherokee with growing interest. A woman quickly emerged from the driver’s side, rushing out. She said something to the passenger before shutting the door. Looking more closely, he could see the reflection of a girl in the passenger-side mirror, eyes down and preoccupied with something in her lap.

The woman—the girl’s mother, he presumed—closed her door and walked off rapidly toward the store with her purse over her shoulder. He turned back to examine the Cherokee and couldn’t believe his luck.

There, not twenty feet away, sat what looked like a girl all by herself, for how long, he did not know. Clearly, the mother would return soon. She had left the vehicle running. This gave him a limited amount of time. He spied on the Cherokee with a pair of small binoculars, ensuring that no one else was in the vehicle with the girl.

The doors were probably locked, and he would have to find a way in—an angle. But that was fine. He was prepared for this, as he had been many times in the past.

He grabbed his bucket and reflector vest and exited his van after turning the ignition off. Normally during any stakeout, he’d only run the van intermittently just to cool off for five to ten minutes. His van was, in fact, a former county-owned law enforcement vehicle he had purchased at a state auction years prior.

It had a caged divider separating the front from the back, making it difficult for anyone seated in the back to get out on their own. The van had worked wonders in the past, and he was prepared to spring into action with his latest experiment. The orange bucket he carried was filled with delicious fruit snacks. His vest indicated his role in a local charity. He also wore a lanyard with a fake name, ID, and badge number dangling from his neck.

He’d offer the candy as a treat, a gift, waiving the standard minimum donation of one quarter. Children were naturally suspicious, inquisitive beings. He had learned that much over the years, but his bright smile, calm demeanor, and American flag hat seemed to make both adults and children less suspicious of him overall.

He stopped at the hood of his van while looking at both ends of the parking aisle. For the moment, he knew that he stood out among the families, baby strollers, and elderly women parading through the parking lot, but he wouldn’t be long. He hoped to have things wrapped up in a jiffy.

He crossed the parking aisle, mere inches from the Cherokee. From the rear passenger mirror, he could see the girl looking downward, taking no notice of his approach, with the faint glow of her tablet screen upon her face.

The glimpse he’d had of her in the mirror convinced him that she was perfect. It would be a shame to have to abort the mission. He crept to the window carefully, keeping his peripheral vision on the girl to take notice of any sudden movements.

He looked around the parking lot again, on watch for the girl’s mother, but she was nowhere to be seen. No one seemed to notice or care about his presence, especially given his advantageous concealment beside a large truck, elevated to near eye-level with mud tires. This cast a comforting shade upon him and furthered his anticipation.

He brought his hand to the window and lightly knocked. The girl, predictably, jumped and looked up at him with a combination of fear and suspicion. He didn’t blame her, of course. She was perfectly justified in being wary of him.“Hi,” he said with a wave and a smile. “I’m David. Just walking by when I saw you sitting here. How are you doing? Good?”

The girl nodded nervously. Her fine brown hair lay across her shoulder, damp, as though she had recently showered. She was dressed in a sleeveless shirt and shorts. He reached into his bucket and pulled out a piece of candy in a colorful wrapper. “We’re handing out candy to raise awareness of the environment. You know, like clean air and water.”

The girl nodded again. Her hazel eyes were apprehensive, and she clearly wasn’t interested in a conversation with a stranger.“Would you like a piece while you wait for your mom?” he said in the nicest tone he could muster. The girl stared. She couldn’t speak, that much he understood. Though the more frightened she was, the more compliant she would most likely be. “How about you roll down your window a crack?” he said, holding the candy up. “Come on,” he added as the girl hesitated. “I’ve got an entire bucket here. I don’t want it to go to waste.”

He beckoned her some more as her face stared at him blankly, her arm slowly reaching for the automatic window button. She clicked on the button for a split second, and the window went down a crack. “Okay,” he said with a smile. “Here you go, sweetheart.”

He slipped the candy into the crack of the window, and she reluctantly took the piece while examining its sparkly wrapper.“Go ahead and try it, dear,” he said, his tone drenched with kindness. “If you like it, I’ll give you another piece, but don’t tell anyone, okay?” He looked around, feigning some kind of clandestine operation, one in which they were getting away with something.

As she held the candy in one hand, reserved, the girl finally spoke. “I’m fine, thank you.” Her free hand hovered toward the window button, and he quickly grabbed another piece and stuck it through the crack. “It’s so good. Trust me.” He then paused with a widened smile. “What’s your name?”

The girl simply shook her head in response. For a moment, he feared he was losing her. If the window went back up, no amount of coaxing would bring her out of that car. “Come on, sweetie. Tell me your name. I bet it’s really lovely.”“Natalie…” the girl said softly.“Oh, that is lovely.”

He pushed the next candy in as far as it would go and urged the girl to eat her first piece.“It’s for a good cause,” he said. “You want to make the environment better, right?”

Natalie nodded with uncertainty. Her facial expressions seemed stilted by caution. He swiftly turned his head, keeping an eye out for the mother’s inevitable return. He could see a good area behind him from the reflection in Natalie’s window. She slowly unwrapped the first candy, much to his delight, and held out the square yellow-covered chunk.“Try it,” he said with enthusiasm. “There’s more where that came from.”

She placed the piece in her mouth and chewed. Probably just wanted him to go away, but that worked for him just fine. The girl chewed slowly, eyes in deep concentration, trying to figure out if she liked it or not.“It’s good, isn’t it?” he said, closer now to achieving his goal. What Natalie didn’t know—what no one knew that day—was that he had injected the candies with a flavorless sedative, one so powerful that it worked in a matter of seconds.

Natalie chewed and chewed, clearly enjoying the taste. She swallowed as another piece fell into her lap. “A deal’s a deal,” he said, tipping the bill of his hat. “Don’t eat it all at once.”

She tried to take the piece as it fell into her lap, but it was already too late. Her eyelids were dropping, and he knew exactly what to do. He pulled a long rod from his pocket and stuck it through the crack of the window, pushing it toward the unlock button on her armrest.

Natalie’s head bobbed as her consciousness faded with startling speed. A click of the button, and the doors were unlocked. It was everything he needed. One swift glance behind him, and he opened the passenger door. Natalie practically fell into his arms. Her tablet dropped from her seat and hit the pavement below. He held her, elated. His plan had so far worked, but he wasn’t yet out of the woods.

It was a short distance between the Cherokee and his van, but the girl still needed to be carried, and anything could happen. He took her in his arms, and his gloved hand set the envelope down in her place. Hearing nearby footsteps, he yanked Natalie from the car and held her against his chest as if she was just a sleeping child. One of her sandals fell onto the ground, but he had to get moving.

He ran across the parking aisle toward his van with one hand pressed against Natalie’s back and the other gripping his candy bucket. He opened the side doors of his van and placed her on the carpeted floor in the back. In this instance, she wouldn’t have to be zip-tied or further drugged. His new sedative lasted for up to two hours, plenty of time to transport her.

After slamming the doors shut, he hurried around the van to the driver’s side, swung the door open, and hopped in, starting the engine. He took a moment to breathe and scan the parking lot, where activity continued unabated. Like a phantom, he was about to disappear, and no one had seen a thing. He was certain of this as he backed out and then floored it out of the parking lot, emboldened by his success. He was getting better at it. There was no doubt about that.

 

***

 

Miriam sat at her desk with Detective Hayes and Detective Shelton both on the screen of her computer monitor for their private one on one, in which she heard the known details surrounding Natalie Forester’s disappearance. They showed her pictures of the letter left at the scene that had specifically called her out by name.

Find me Miriam Castillo, then maybe we can talk, the letter had ended.

Whoever had cut and glued the tiny magazine letters to the paper didn’t seem to know that Miriam had since changed her last name. The message was chilling, nonetheless. “I don’t know who this person is,” she said, looking up at the detectives. “I think the best thing I can do is not be involved with this investigation. It’s clearly a ploy for attention.”

Detective Hayes nodded sympathetically. “We read all about the Snatcher case, Ma’am. I know the hell you and your family went through, but rest assured, that isn’t going to happen this time.”

Detective Shelton cut in. “We can put your family under protective watch during the investigation if you’d like.”

Miriam placed both palms flat on her desk and leaned forward, her mouth a single, straight line. “Gentlemen, that’s not going to happen. My daughter is in school. I take her to counseling at least twice a week. She’s getting better, I can feel it, and I’m not going to subject her to any more trauma. Period.”

Miriam’s decision seemed final to her, though the letter had undoubtedly intrigued her. Despite her tough exterior, she felt vulnerable inside, fragile even. “I just don’t know what help I could possibly provide you. I don’t do field work anymore. I don’t even carry a weapon.”

The two detectives glanced at each in thought as Hayes cleared his throat and leaned forward. “Your captain and police chief both are both supportive of the idea. I’m not trying to twist your arm, Lieutenant, but time is of the essence.”

Miriam got the message. They were boxing her in, leaving her little choice but to leave the safety of her desk and hunt another psychotic predator. She knew it.

She rose from her desk, ID badge dangling from the neck of her dress shirt, and leaned closer to the monitor.“You need to get this madman out of hiding, right? Lure him out. That’s what you need me for, isn’t it?” She plopped back down into her chair. “I’m sorry, but I don’t wish to be a part of it.”

The detectives looked at each other again, clearly disappointed. Hayes grimaced but nodded in understanding. “I understand your concerns,” he said. “If you change your mind, please give myself or Detective Shelton a call. I’ll send you my email as well. Thank you for your time.”

Detective Shelton waved and thanked her as well, but both men couldn’t mask the dispirited tones in their voices.

Hayes looked at his screen one last time and offered some parting words. “Just remember, Lieutenant. We’re here because two girls are missing. That’s it. There aren’t any tricks up our sleeves. We have no intention of using you. Detective Shelton and I, we just think that if anyone was to catch this sicko, you’d be the one. We’re asking for your expertise, that’s all.”

Miriam considered his words and cupped a hand over her chin, thinking. She wanted to help, but she had lost too much the last time, enough to make her wish she had never gotten involved, not that she had had much of a choice. But if there was any chance that she could help the two missing girls, it was her responsibility as a decent person to do something about it. She ran her hand down her face with a sigh, considering their plea. “I believe you, Detective Hayes. I really do. Let me think about it. I know time is critical, but I need to think about it first.”

Hayes appeared satisfied and told her that it was all they were asking for. “Just think about it,” he said. “It’s all we ask.”

 

 

On the Case

 

Miriam arrived at home after a long day, knowing that she and Lou had plans for a special dinner. They had been dating for just over a year, and it was their anniversary. Friends on the force, they had grown close during the Snatcher case and even closer when it was all over with. Their relationship blossomed and flourished naturally to something fresh and exciting.

Following the unimaginable loss of her ex-husband, Freddy, Lou had provided unconditional care and support to her and Ana. Miriam couldn’t help but fall for him, and they wasted no time deciding to move, together with Ana, to Phoenix. They lived in a three-bedroom house in Villa da Paz, a suburban community known as the Valley of the Sun.

 

Miriam sat thinking in her Nissan Sentra under a darkening orange sky as she postponed going inside. She could sense the inevitable decision before her. She was going to agree to help with the investigation. It wasn’t just the two missing girls; Miriam couldn’t help but wonder who was looking for her and why.

It could be just a random crazy person, but her curiosity was getting the better of her. She supposed that it was in her nature to find such things out. She had to get to the bottom of things. At heart, she would always be a detective.

It was six thirty p.m. Lou’s truck was parked next to her Sentra. Ana was supposed to be in her room diligently working on her homework. If only, Miriam thought.

She gripped her steering wheel, flushed with uncertainty. She didn’t want to put her family at risk again, chasing ghosts in the dark. Lou would object immediately, that much was clear. And just what would she tell Ana?

There was a lot to consider in such a short amount of time. The two girls Detective Hayes had told her about were still missing. Their names were April and Natalie, and with every minute, their chances of survival were growing slimmer.

Miriam grabbed her purse, opened the door, and stepped out of her car. The air was slightly cooler, and her cul-de-sac was quiet. She walked past her car toward the concrete walkway leading to the front door. Her yard, like many on her street, was absent of grass and filled with stones. A lone tree loomed in the middle of the front yard. Trim bushes lined the front of the house, planted below the windows.

Their garage door was always closed, still full of boxes they hadn’t unpacked yet. Time had moved so fast, and Lou, Ana, and Miriam were always so busy. She hoped that one day they could take a vacation and get away from it all. However, such a simple plan seemed further away than ever before.

The porch light was on, with the sun quickly descending below the horizon. Miriam was surprised to find it so late. Her day had been a whirlwind from the crack of dawn, and it wasn’t showing any signs of letting up. She walked inside and through the foyer into the living room, where the lights and television were on.

She heard pops and hisses from the kitchen and the aroma of ground beef and noodles in the air. Lou was cooking. She set her purse down on a lamp stand, kicked her heels off, and walked toward the kitchen, where Lou was making dinner. He was wearing a T-shirt and jeans and had his back turned toward her.“Hello,” she said and leaned against the refrigerator.

Startled, Lou jumped and turned. “Oh. Hi!”

Miriam laughed. “Did I scare you?”

Lou set the pan down on the burner and shook his head defensively. “No. Of course not.”“Sure thing,” Miriam said, approaching him.

He put his arms around her and pulled her close, giving her a kiss on the cheek. “How was your day?”“Fine,” Miriam said in an exhausted tone.

Lou backed away and returned to the stove while addressing Miriam. “I know that you’re tired, but this is going to be one meal you don’t want to miss.”“Oh, Lou,” she said. “You didn’t have to cook.”

Lou looked up, brushing back his slick dark hair. “It’s my pleasure, Miriam. We both need to take a break and celebrate.”“We could have just ordered a pizza,” Miriam said. But the delicious aroma in the air made her glad they hadn’t. She glanced at their circular table in the corner of the kitchen and saw two unlit candles in the center with a basket of bread and two of the nicest plates. The sight warmed her heart in ways she couldn’t express.“Now go relax while I get this ready,” Lou continued.

Miriam nodded, thinking. She hadn’t said anything about her plans yet. There was a lot to discuss, and in any case, she still hadn’t completely made her mind up about helping with the Texas kidnappings.“It’s been a long day. I’m going to take a shower first,” she said.“No problem,” Lou said. “This won’t be ready for another twenty minutes.”

Miriam thanked him and turned from the kitchen, looking around the living room. The house was organized and clean, just the way she liked it.“Where’s Ana?” she asked.“In her room doing homework,” Lou answered, pleasing Miriam, though she still needed to see it to believe it. Ana got good grades, but she was also growing slightly rebellious as she neared her teenage years, and Miriam was starting to notice.

She continued past the living room and down the hall—her and Lou’s bedroom on the left and Ana’s on the right, with a guest room next to it. Ana’s door was closed, but her light was showing in the space at the bottom. Miriam knocked several times before Ana called out for her to come in. Ana was sitting upright on the bed with a book in her lap and headphones hanging on her neck.“Hi, sweetie,” she said, approaching Ana’s bed.“Hey,” she replied.

Miriam noticed the textbook in Ana’s lap but wasn’t too keen with her doing homework in bed with her headphones on.“How was your day?” Miriam asked.

Ana shrugged, looking down. “Okay, I guess.”“What’s going on?” Miriam asked.

Ana avoided eye contact, furthering her mother’s suspicion. “You can tell me,” she said, patting Ana’s leg.

Her daughter closed her book and feigned a smile. “I’m fine, Mom. Really. Our teacher assigned us like four chapters to read tonight. She’s out of her mind.”

Miriam touched Ana’s knee affectionately while providing a comforting tone. “Oh, honey. Don’t say that. Your teacher works very hard so that you can learn things.”

Ana lowered her book and sighed. “Okay. I’m sorry. I’m better now. See?” She flashed a smile, but Miriam couldn’t tell if it was sincere.“You’ll be fine. It’s just homework,” Miriam said.

A brief silence came over them as Miriam’s thoughts drifted to the more serious matter at hand, the Texas kidnappings, which she couldn’t discuss with Lou. Not yet.

He seemed to be in such a good mood, and she didn’t want to put a damper on the evening, though it would have to come at some point later on. That thought filled her with dread. For some reason, she felt more comfortable confiding in Ana.“What if I told you that I was going to be away for a few days to investigate a kidnapping?” she asked.

Ana glanced up with no clear reaction, and at that moment, her silence said enough.“Nothing about us would be exposed. No one involved in the investigation knows anything about us.”“You’re not serious,” Ana said.

Miriam thought to herself and then provided not just an answer but her own plea. “There are two girls missing. Girls your age. The detectives leading the case want my help. One girl has been missing for over a week, the other a little over twenty-four hours.”

Ana sighed. “You told me that you were done with detective work. You promised.”“I know, but this isn’t the same,” Miriam said. “I have to do something, Ana.”

She looked at Ana’s cherubic face and noticed that her eyes were watering, on the verge of tears. She then leaned closer, pulling Ana toward her in a tight hug. “I promise that I’ll be okay. Nothing will happen to you or me or Lou or anyone else. I guarantee it.”

Ana nodded and said that it was okay. “I understand. I hope you change your mind, but I know you won’t.”

Though Ana was obviously upset, Miriam felt better for having it out there while coming to the honest conclusion that it was something she had to do. Telling Lou, she feared, would be much more difficult.

 

***

After her shower, Miriam slipped into a nightgown and entered the kitchen, where dinner awaited. The candles were both lit under the dimmed kitchen lights. The Beef Alfredo at the table looked delicious. As she sat, Miriam couldn’t remember the last time they had eaten at the table. Lou, it seemed, was determined to make the night memorable. He got up and walked to the fridge and came back with a bottle of champagne and two glasses.“You thought of everything,” Miriam said, impressed.“Not true,” Lou replied while twisting the cork. Then came the sound of a loud pop and champagne foaming to the surface of the bottle. “The violin player got stuck in traffic.”

Miriam laughed as he poured the wine, bubbling and cold, and handed her a sparkling glass. They ate slowly, enjoying the moment and being together.

She glanced at the wall clock and saw that it was ten past nine. She hadn’t mentioned a thing about going to Texas. It was the last thing she wanted to bring up. So, she continued to put it off.

Lou filled their glasses again, stood, and held his out for a toast. “To a remarkable woman. Thank you for making this past year so special.”

Miriam drank and then set her glass down as the candle flames flickered before her. She opened her mouth to speak, but Lou spoke first, beating her to it.“I’ve been waiting for the right moment to do this. What better time than now?” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a tiny velvet case.

Miriam watched as Lou went down on one knee and revealed a glittering diamond ring. Her hands sprang to her face, covering her mouth.“Miriam,” he continued. “I know we’ve only been dating a year, but I’m certain that you’re the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with. I hope you feel the same about me.”

In an instant, the nervousness of discussing the kidnapping investigation vanished, only to be replaced by an elation Miriam hadn’t felt in a long time.“Miriam, will you marry me?”

As he remained patiently on one knee, ring in hand, his words struck Miriam like a bolt of lightning. She felt weak-kneed and faint. There had been times when she thought she’d never marry again, times when she was content with a life consisting of Ana and no one else. Now Lou was asking her to change all that.

Miriam closed her eyes for a moment, taking it all in as tears slid down her cheeks. She imagined Lou waiting for hours on one knee, teetering back and forth, while she pondered her decision, but such stamina on his part wouldn’t be necessary. Her heart was ready to make her decision.“Yes, Lou. Of course, I’ll marry you.”

She stood up, taking his hand in hers as he rose from the floor, his face beaming with joy. He took her face in his hands and kissed her passionately as the candles burned beside them.

 

Miriam woke in the early hours of the morning when it was still dark outside. Her bedside alarm clock said 3:03 a.m. Lou lay next to her sleeping with his arm around her naked body. She felt relaxed, with lingering excitement from within. She and Lou were officially engaged. There’d be much to talk about, so much to plan and celebrate.

Despite her enthusiasm for the future, the missing girls, April and Natalie, came rushing back to her. She could still see their smiling faces from the wallet-sized photos Detective Hayes had shown her. Was it an emotional ploy to get her to join the case? If so, it was certainly working.

She had always wished she had been more vigilant in pursuing the Snatcher. She felt that she could have saved more of his victims before they perished. There was a predator out there, not entirely removed from her own world, and he was looking for her. Who was this person, and what was he looking for? Naturally, she was inclined to wonder.

Miriam took a sip from her glass of water on the nightstand and then tugged at Lou’s arm, trying to wake him.“Lou…” she whispered. “Lou, wake up. I have to talk to you.”“What is it?” Lou groaned. His eyes remained closed, and Miriam knew that he was barely awake.“There’s a job I have to do tomorrow. Could take a few days.”“Huh?” he said, not moving.“An investigation I’m assisting. Two missing girls in a town not too far from here.”“Huh?” he said again, opening his eyes. She guessed that her words had begun to sink in at that point. “What are you talking about?” he asked, lifting his head.“I’ve been asked to assist in the investigation of two missing girls,” she repeated. “Only issue is that it’s out of state, and I could be gone a couple of days. Maybe even a week. I’ll need you to take care of Ana while I’m gone.”

Lou plopped his head back onto the pillow, staring at the ceiling as though he couldn’t figure out whether he was dreaming or not.

He sat upright, exposing his bare chest as the covers fell away. “You’re not a field agent anymore. What would you be doing assisting an out-of-state investigation?”“Two detectives from Ector County, Texas, contacted me today and requested my assistance with a case,” she explained. “I told them I would think about it, and now I think that my mind’s made up.”

Lou twisted and turned, confused and agitated. “What are you talking about? They want you to look at files and stuff?”“They want me to fly there and act as an advisor.”

Lou sat up, shocked. “And where in Texas exactly will you be going?”

Miriam took a deep breath. “A town called Odessa.”

Lou’s eyes widened, and he nearly jumped out of the bed. “That’s not going to work, Miriam.”“Lou… listen to me,” she began.“No,” Lou said, slicing his arm to the side. “We agreed that you’d stay away from field work.”“That was your agreement,” Miriam said, rather defensively. “And that was over a year ago. I’m better now. I promise.”“The trauma is still there, Miriam. I can see it sometimes.” He paused, frustrated, and then held an arm out across the bed. “I worry about you.”“You don’t have to anymore. I can do this,” she said.“Those detectives need to do their own job and leave you alone,” he said, turning to the window, where stars glimmered in the night sky.“I have to help them,” Miriam said, her voice growing louder. “You know that.”“Then I’m going with you.”“No,” she said. “I need you to take care of Ana for me. Let me do this, and I promise no harm will come to us.”

Lou waved her off. “You can’t guarantee that.”

Miriam took his hand in hers with her eyes pleading. “You have to trust me. I need your support.” She paused, and silence came over them save for the circling ceiling fan above.“Okay,” Lou said, conceding. “Sleep on it first.”“I’m doing it,” she said.

Lou shook his head and pulled the covers back over him. “How could your boss agree to this?”“They want me to go,” she said.

Lou fell back against his pillow and stared at the ceiling. “I don’t know what to say, Miriam. If you must go, promise me that you’ll be careful.”“I will.” Miriam took a deep breath, and a stillness again fell between them.

Lou leaned in and said, “But I want to know everything there is to know about this case and what exactly you’ll be doing.”“Deal,” Miriam said as he pulled her closer. They hugged in the moonlight, holding each other tight, with nothing left to be said until morning.

 

***

Day 2

 

The next morning, Miriam made pancakes. She had already called Detective Hayes and confirmed that she was in. There was no going back now. Lou and Ana were both due at middle school within the hour. Miriam, on the other hand, was ready to take on a most unusual case. She poured their orange juice as they sat at the table and ate without speaking. As the grill steamed behind them, Miriam couldn’t help but see through her own ruse of earning their affection before she left on an investigation neither of them wanted her to be a part of. She hoped it wasn’t as obvious to them.“Did you finish your homework last night?” Miriam asked Ana as local news played from a portable radio on the counter.“Yes, Mom,” Ana said, taking a bite of pancakes.

Lou turned around to face Miriam standing by the kitchen faucet. “What time are you heading to the station today?”

Miriam stared out the window, deep in thought, and barely heard Lou’s question.“Hello? Earth to Miriam,” he said.“I’m sorry,” she said, snapping out of her daze and turning to face him. “I have to leave in an hour. Still need to pack though.”

Ana looked up from her plate, slightly sad. “How long are you going to be gone?”

Miriam thought to herself, trying to muster the best estimate she could. “My flight has been booked for four days.”

Lou pushed his chair out and stood up, walking toward Miriam with an empty plate, placing it in the sink. “I want you to call me every day. And please… please don’t try to do everything yourself. Let those detectives do their jobs.”“I’m only going there to observe and assist. The kidnapper left a note with my name on it, and I want to find out why.”“What?” Lou cried out. This was news to him.

Oh no, Miriam thought. She hadn’t gone into that with Lou, and now he was finding out there was more to it than he’d initially supposed.“It’s nothing,” she said, placing her hands on his smooth cheeks. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to put myself in any danger.”

Lou sighed and looked down, both sad and upset. “I don’t know, Miriam. It seems like you already are.”

She suddenly felt arms hugging her around the waist only to find Ana, up from the table, squeezing tight. “I’ll miss you, Mom.”

Miriam’s hands lowered and rubbed Ana’s warm back. “I’ll miss you too, honey.”

Standing in the kitchen with her fiancé and daughter close now in a brief embrace as if consoling each other nearly brought Miriam to tears. For a moment, she considered backing out, but she knew that if she did, she’d regret it for far too long. She had enough regrets as it was.

Lou and Ana said more goodbyes, with more kisses and reassurances, and then they were out the door, and she heard the car starting up and pulling out. She enjoyed the bittersweet feeling of the warmth in the sunlight of the kitchen window, if only to take a little piece of them with her. She assumed that once she arrived in Odessa, she’d need it.

 

Miriam arrived at the station later that morning with a small suitcase resting in the back seat, packed with four days’ worth of clothes. She had to check in with Captain Watterson, close out some things at work, and call Detective Hayes to ensure that her flight was set up—so many things to do with so little time.

The detectives planned to pick her up at the Midland International Airport near Odessa, where she would check-in at a local hotel during the duration of her stay. Hayes didn’t elaborate on who was paying for it all, but the money was most likely coming from their department.Miriam asked Detective Hayes what exactly they wanted from her again, and he reiterated that they were asking for nothing more than her guidance and expertise.“I trust you,” she had told him over the phone. “But if anything changes, I’ll be back on the first flight out of Odessa.”“Understood,” he had replied.

Her supervisor, Captain Watterson, was all for it, strangely enough, and Lou and Ana had come to terms with her decision. What else was holding her back?

April Johnson had been missing for more than a week, and Natalie Forester had vanished from a Food Mart parking lot only yesterday. There was no evidence that linked the disappearances of the two girls, but Miriam had a hunch that they were related.

Detective Hayes had sent her a text image of the “ransom note,” with the letters cut and pasted from a magazine.

Though lacking any distinct handwriting, the message was clear: the person intended to strike again. The arrogant, assured tone was reminiscent of how the Snatcher had carried himself. Whoever had taken Natalie had left the note, and they knew of Miriam some way or another.“Four days,” she said to herself. “Then I’ll go back home.”

She stepped out of her car and into the busy station parking lot. It was already half past nine. She grabbed her purse and approached the Phoenix PD building—a large three-story brick building. She swiped her card at the front entrance and walked into a busy lobby full of police officers and civilians going about their business.

Dressed in her black business-casual slacks and long-sleeved purple dress shirt, Miriam made her way down the long gray-carpeted hallway toward the elevators and headed to the third floor, where she worked alongside Records and Accounting.

Her hair was brushed back, and her light makeup accentuated her high cheekbones. She knew, in a self-conscious way, that she’d be meeting a few new faces that day, and she wanted to make a good first impression. Upon reaching the third floor, Miriam stepped out of the elevator and received several nods and greetings from coworkers as she walked down the hall to her office. Suddenly, Janice, a case worker, called to Miriam as she passed her cubicle.“Hey, the captain wants to see you,” Janice said, rising from her chair.

Miriam stopped and sighed quietly to herself. Not even at her desk yet and already being summoned to his office. She could only imagine why.“Sure thing,” she said.

Despite being summoned, she walked three doors down and unlocked her office door anyway, placing her purse inside. It would be good to establish the ground rules with Watterson before the trip. She wanted to make sure that she had the full support of the department before leaving. She’d never crossed jurisdictions in such a manner, at least as far as she could remember. She checked herself in the mirror and stepped back out into the hall.

She approached Captain Watterson’s office and could already see him sitting at his desk, typing on his computer. As she entered, Watterson greeted her with a hearty “hello” and asked her to sit. “I talked with Captain Vasquez, and everything is set.”“Yes, I spoke with Detective Hayes. My flight leaves this morning.”The captain pointed to a chair across from his desk and beckoned her to sit. “Close the door, please. If you don’t mind.”

Miriam turned to his thick glass door and gently closed it. She’d never been to Odessa before and had no knowledge of the town or its community. Hayes had described it as a small, close-knit town, a place where crime was low and kidnappings were relatively unheard of.

As she sat, Captain Watterson leaned forward with his hands folded. “We think you’ll be a tremendous asset to this unfortunate case. Make sure to update us on any progress, and please, do your best out there.” He smiled like a proud father as he looked at her, exposing wrinkles above his cheeks and on his forehead.“I plan to,” Miriam said. “I just hope I can help. I’m a little rusty with field work.”“I think you’ll do great,” Vasquez said. “With your skills, you’ll knock this case out in less than a week and find those girls before it’s too late.”

Miriam certainly hoped so too but felt troubled by their expectations. “I need a weapon,” she said outright. “I qualified six months ago.”“I’m sorry?” he asked.“I’m not going out there without a piece. And I need the clearance papers to board the plane.”

Captain Vasquez looked around and ran his hands across his crew-cut hair. “Yeah… we’ll get you set up. See the armorer before you leave.” He then pointed at her with sternness. “But don’t do anything rash out there. Keep things low-key.”“I will,” she said.

He handed her a file labeled with her name. “Here’s all your paperwork. The department put all of this together in a very short time, which should show you the degree of faith we have in your abilities.”“I appreciate it, sir,” she said, taking the file. “Good luck out there, Lieutenant. We’ll see you in four days. I want a daily report of your status.”“Yes sir,” she said. “Thank you.”

Miriam departed the captain’s office, file in hand. She swung by her office one last time to grab some files and case notes, placing them in a satchel. She was about as prepared as she was going to get. Her next stop was the armory. A 9mm Beretta would do just fine.

She left the station that morning feeling a nervous anticipation of things to come. She was excited but also afraid. Someone was waiting for her in Odessa, and they weren’t going to stop. Miriam’s mind raced with a profile of their suspect. White male, late thirties to early forties. She knew the type. If he turned out to be any different, she’d be surprised. She taxied to the airport with her carry-on luggage in the trunk. Uncertainty awaited her in Odessa, but she couldn’t remember a time in the past year where she felt so alive.

 

 

The Arrival

 

The flight to Midland International took just under two hours. As soon as they were settled in their seats, Miriam typed into her laptop, planning her next steps. She’d have to visit the crime scene and read every report and witness statement on file. She typed her assessment of both detectives and what she knew of them. Hayes was naturally interested in the Snatcher case and had acknowledged the similarities between the two cases, from the ages of the girls to their stunning disappearances.

Turbulence rattled the small plane as they prepared to land. From her window seat, Miriam looked out at the homes below them, surrounded by desert, much like Phoenix. It was mid-fall, and the heat index was lowering.

They hit the runway, and Miriam watched the runway blur past the windows. The twenty-passenger plane slowed and taxied to its gate farther down the runway, and Miriam was struck with the realization that she was doing this.

After landing, Miriam exited the gate and entered the moderately-sized terminal. She walked toward arrivals, pulling her small wheeled suitcase across the tile floor, past turnstiles and finally past the baggage-claim carousels and toward the exit.

The automatic doors opened, blowing warm outside air into her face. She continued outside to see Detective Hayes’s dusty silver Crown Victoria parked outside. Both men sat in the front seat and waved to her. Detective Shelton stepped outside of the car as Hayes popped the trunk. “Welcome to Texas, Ma’am,” Shelton said, taking her bag.“Thank you,” she said as he closed the trunk and opened the front passenger door for her to step in. She thanked him and settled back as he closed her door. There was a collection of empty Styrofoam coffee cups and wrappers on the stained, carpeted floor, and his ashtray was pulled out and filled with pistachio shells.

Shelton opened the door behind her and sat in the back seat as Hayes drove off, wipers clearing the dust from the windshield. The entire car needed a good cleaning.“The department’s about twenty minutes away,” Hayes said, merging into traffic.“Ector County PD?” she asked.“That’s the one,” Hayes answered.“What kind of police station does Odessa have?”

Shelton laughed from the back seat. Miriam turned her head and glanced at him, curious.

Hayes calmly interjected as they pulled onto a busy three-lane highway. “What my partner is trying to convey is that Odessa’s police department is second only to Mayberry’s.”

Shelton then cleared his throat and changed the subject to the case at hand. “Based on what you’ve read so far, Lieutenant, do you think our suspect is a local or an outsider?”“I think we’re looking for a Caucasian male, early thirties to late forties,” Miriam said.

Shelton glanced down at his open pocket-sized notebook. “That’s our assessment as well.”

Sunlight flashed against Miriam’s face between intervals of utility poles along the road. She then held her cell phone and sent Lou a text to let him know that she had landed while continuing the conversation. “Is he an outsider? I highly doubt it.”“I hope not. That’ll make him easier to catch,” Detective Hayes added.“That’s not always the case,” Miriam said. “If he’s local, he knows the area. He’s aware that the police are looking for him, and he’ll be doing his best to stay hidden.”

Hayes grabbed the hand mic from a police radio hanging below the dashboard, announcing their near arrival.

“This is Hayes. We’re back and en route to the station.”

After a brief pause of crackling static, a voice responded. “10-4, Detective. I’ll let the captain know that you’re close.”“Any update on the 207 from yesterday?” Hayes asked. Miriam recognized that as police code for kidnapping.“Nothing yet,” the dispatcher said. “Roger that. Over and out,” Hayes said, relinquishing the hand mic to its clip. They continued some distance, and then Hayes asked if anyone was hungry. “There’s a truck stop up the road we can stop at.”

Both Miriam and Shelton declined, and although she was hungry, she wanted to get settled in and get a feel for the town as quickly as possible. Four days wasn’t a very long time, but she wanted a schedule in which to push herself.

Shelton leaned forward and handed her a thick file folder. “Here you go, Lieutenant. This should catch you up on everything.”

She took the folder, opening it carefully to keep its contents intact. There were several reports, statements, documents, and photos paper-clipped together. April’s files were relegated to the left side of the folder and Natalie’s to the right.

April had last been seen leaving the house of a friend in the early evening on foot, with enough time to make it home for dinner, roughly two blocks away. Nighttime came and there was no sign of April, and her parents began to worry. A week later after reporting her missing, there had still been no sign of April despite multiple searches from police and investigators to friends and family.

Witnesses later reported seeing a blue van patrolling the neighborhood before April’s disappearance, a van described as “unfamiliar” by many of the residents. This same van had been described in another witness statement by a woman in the Food Mart parking lot. In cases involving missing children, Miriam believed that there were few coincidences.

Unfortunately, a countywide search for the van and witness questioning yielded few results, even after the news reported the most accurate description it could compile: rusty, GMC, late 1990s model with a NASA front plate. The license plate—the most important aspect of the van—was the biggest piece missing, and without that number, there was little authorities could do beyond searching for a van that had eluded them on all fronts.

Traffic began to slow. They soon reached a busy downtown area, twenty miles east of Odessa, with plenty of retail stores, gas stations, and restaurants all along the road. The Ector County police station wasn’t too much farther.

Miriam pondered the possible identity of the man in question. A profile had already been composed in the report: male, early thirties to late fifties, and Caucasian, based on the race of his victims. He was a loner but not a hermit. He most likely had a job, remained socially active, and carried himself in such a way that didn’t bring suspicion to him or his activities.

Detective Hayes turned and then pulled into a manned gate, presenting his ID to an armed guard, who then raised the barrier arm to let them pass.“Welcome to Ector County PD,” he said to Miriam as they drove over a speed bump and began to ascend a sharp rise leading to a large brick complex resting on top of the small hill. As Hayes circled the busy parking lot for a space, Miriam couldn’t help but feel a little nervous.

She could see news vans parked at the front of the building, their thick antennas stretched far into the sky, and wondered if they were there reporting about the missing girls. Hayes parked three rows from the station, a satisfactory enough distance from the news vans. They exited his dusty car and walked alongside each other, striding purposefully toward the station.“How much does the local media know about the case?” she asked.“Our department has released a few statements, but nothing substantial just yet,” Hayes said.“If we had something, I’d be happy to share it with them,” Shelton added.

There were four vans total, each with a reporter standing outside, microphone in hand, talking to cameras.“I don’t like this one bit,” she said. “I don’t want them to know I’m here.” She turned to the two befuddled detectives, first one, then the other, stone-faced. “My ex-husband was ambushed and murdered by Phillip Anderson—all because he found out who I was. Ana’s father is never coming back, and that’s something I live with every day. Sometimes it’s the first thought I have when I wake up in the morning.”

Hayes swallowed and nodded, respectfully quiet and seeming to understand. “I apologize… Our intentions are not to bring any attention to you or your family,” he said softly.“We can take the back entrance to the building if you’d like,” Shelton suggested.

Miriam came close to laughing at the suggestion, but she appreciated their new tone nonetheless. “It’s okay. I just wanted to make that clear.”“No media,” Hayes said, placing a hand over his heart. “I promise.”

They proceeded to the front entrance of the building, bypassing the news reporters, who took no notice of either detective or Miriam. However, the lack of attention didn’t prevent her from slightly shielding her face as they walked by. She had to assume that whoever had requested her presence through the mysterious “ransom letter” was also watching the news with satisfied glee.

Miriam stayed cautiously behind the two detectives as they entered the busy Ector County Police Department building. They led her past the front desk, through a security door, and then down a long hallway, with offices on both sides.

Detective Hayes was stopped a few times by plainclothes detectives, and as he chatted, Miriam tried her best to stay unnoticed. Hayes seemed to honor this and made no effort to introduce her to anyone. Rather than finding it rude, she was relieved.

Past the offices, they took a right turn down a corridor leading to the office of the police captain, Elian Vasquez, his name embossed in bold lettering on the surface of the glossy wood door. Miriam followed the detectives inside and observed Vasquez: a stout man, slightly overweight with his dark crew-cut neatly trimmed.

There was a television on behind him, displaying one of the local reporters talking outside that very department. Behind his computer monitor, he was surrounded by paperwork and file folders and was deep in thought, scribbling a report. He didn’t even notice their presence until Hayes lightly knocked on the inside of the office door.

Vasquez’s head jolted up, displaying tired eyes with bags underneath, though his dark-blue uniform was neatly pressed and tucked in.“You two,” he said, pointing at Hayes and Shelton. “Back from your little adventure, I see? Good, because I want answers.”

He had yet to take notice of Miriam. Standing in his office, she nearly felt invisible. Then, her single moment of anonymity about to disappear as Hayes stepped aside and stretched his arm toward her.“Sir, this is Lieutenant Miriam Sandoval from the Phoenix PD. She’s the woman we were telling you about.”

Vasquez narrowed his eyes at her, then leaned back in his chair with a subtle look of recognition. “Ah. Yes, Lieutenant Sandoval. My guys here told me that you’re willing to lend your expertise on this case. Normally, I’d be a little hesitant to bring you in, but I’ve read about you in the Snatcher case.” He suddenly stood up and held his hand out. “I’m Captain Elian Vasquez. Pleasure to meet you.”

Miriam shook his hand and gave a slight smile. “Thank you, Captain. I certainly hope I can help.”

Vasquez then pulled a paper from one of his files and set it square in the middle of his desk for everyone to see. By now, Miriam had memorized the words of the “ransom note.” The captain’s photocopy was ominous looking, with its carefully cut letters, oddly mismatched and random.“Did you change your last name recently?” the captain asked, curiously pointing to the “Miriam Castillo” in the message.“That’s correct,” she said.

Sensing Miriam’s reluctance to elaborate, Hayes stepped in. “That brings us to another point, sir. Miriam has been very negatively affected by media coverage in the past. We want to keep her visit here between the three of us only.”

Vasquez thought to himself and nodded. “Consider it done.” He turned around and glanced at the television in the corner behind him. A nearby a shelving unit displayed all sorts of certificates and awards. “The parents released their second statement a few hours ago. Our phones are ringing off the hook from every concerned parent out there. They all want to know if we caught this guy yet.”

One glance at the phone on his desk showed rapidly blinking lights on every line, and Miriam could see what he meant.“We’re going to Odessa today,” Hayes said.

Vasquez flipped through some files, distracted and antsy. “Good. Don’t come back until you catch this guy and find those two girls.”

Hayes signaled to Miriam and Shelton to leave, and they began to shuffle out the door.“We’re on it, sir,” Hayes said in a reassuring, parting fashion.

Vasquez looked up from behind his desk and glared at them. “Gentlemen, don’t let me down.”

Miriam assumed that she had been left out of the equation. He was, after all, their boss and not hers.“We’ll do our best,” Hayes replied.“If I wanted only an attempt, I’d get someone else on the case. Just do it. Fair enough?” Vasquez asked, staring them down.“Understood,” Hayes said, turning to leave.“Twenty-four hours!” Vasquez shouted as they left his office and went back down the corridor.

After the brief introduction to the captain, Miriam was led into the conjoining cubicles that comprised Hayes’s and Shelton’s office, complete with laptop and office phones. She took notice of Hayes’s family photos, framed and angled along his desk. He had a son and a daughter who looked to be in their teens. His wife was pretty—all smiles with long auburn hair and blue-greenish eyes. There were no such pictures on Detective Shelton’s desk, and she couldn’t help but be intrigued by him.

Hayes checked his messages and then packed his laptop in a carrying case as Shelton made some quick calls. Miriam sat in a chair between their desks, overhearing the conversations of a dozen other investigators commingled around them. The entire department seemed worked up in a kind of frenzy Miriam hadn’t seen since working on the Snatcher case. She waited patiently in the midst of a department immersed in itself, and with her cell phone in hand, took a moment to send Lou another text:

At the station now. It’s heated around here.

It was a quarter after three and school was out, which normally meant that he was at his desk grading papers. Thinking of Lou made her smile. She still hadn’t fully adjusted to him being a schoolteacher, and he had never given her a specific reason why he’d left the force.

Miriam didn’t mind. She liked the new Lou. Dating someone on the force was often complicated, as she had seen with many coworkers in the past. His marriage proposal the night before seemed almost like a distant dream, until the ring on her finger brought her back to reality, as did the loud voice of a sweaty, red-faced man peering over the cubicle and calling out to Hayes and Shelton.“You guys need to see this. Hurry!”

Hayes turned around and looked up, phone receiver against his ear. “What happened?”“Better get to the break room before the room fills up,” the red-faced man said. He wore a dress shirt and tie, similar to his counterparts, and began tugging at his tie. “The Forester girl,” he continued. “Her parents are back on TV, but this time they’ve got something. A note or something from the kidnapper.”

Hayes shot out of his chair as Shelton hung his phone up, following suit. Miriam was curious too. What kind of note? Was it really from him? There was only one way to find out, and that would be to hear what the parents had to say.

Miriam stood and followed Hayes and Shelton as they hurried to a nearby break room, already packed with a small crowd of investigators.

A flat-screen TV was mounted high in the corner of the room for everyone to see. Natalie Forester’s distraught parents stood before the microphones and an array of flashing cameras, delivering a new message to those watching. This time, however, it wasn’t just their words.

With his hair disheveled and face pale, tired, and shadowed with stubble, Doug Forester held up a sheet of paper sealed in a Ziploc bag. It bore cut and pasted letters exactly like those in the message left at the scene of the crime.“My wife and I received this in our mailbox earlier today, and we believe very strongly that it came from the person or persons who took our daughter.” He paused, turned the letter around, and cleared his throat. “I will now read the message with hopes that we can narrow our search down the person behind it.”“I can’t believe this,” Hayes said, shaking his head as he stared up at the TV. “Why wouldn’t he come to us first?”“I don’t know,” Shelton said in disbelief.

Doug Forester continued his statement, reading from the note as the break room crowd listened in silence.“This letter, which we received earlier this afternoon, says the following: ‘Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Forester. I just wanted to assure you that your daughter is fine and that no harm has come to her. I can’t guarantee that you’ll see her again, but with Miriam on the case, you might just have a chance.” Forester’s head dropped onto his shaking chest.

Both Hayes and Shelton turned and looked at Miriam, surprised to hear her name mentioned in the note.“So, he’s clearly a fan,” Hayes said.“The letter could have come from anyone,” Miriam said, staring forward.

On TV, Doug Forester lowered the note and looked back at the camera with watery eyes. “We delivered this letter to local law enforcement earlier with the hopes of extracting prints, but I would also like to take this time and plead with our daughter’s kidnapper to return her home and face no ill will from us. As long as she’s okay, we promise not to press any charges.”

Hayes turned to Shelton, confused. “Did you hear anything about another letter?”“No,” Shelton said, shaking his head.

Hayes thought to himself and then muttered “Vasquez” under his breath. “Why didn’t he tell us?”“I don’t know, but we need to find out,” Shelton answered.

Doug Forester then held up a photo of Natalie for the cameras. “To the kidnapper, I say this, Natalie is the light of our lives. Whatever you want, whatever we can do for you to secure the release of our daughter, I beg you to let us know.” Kim Forester leaned her face into Doug’s shoulder, sobbing as he rubbed her back. “Please. We know you can do the right thing. We’re at your mercy.”“A plea to the kidnapper?” Hayes said.“I think her parents are willing to try anything at this point,” Shelton said. “Can you blame them?”

Miriam backed away and stepped out of the room, deep in thought. The kidnapper appeared to be having fun with everyone involved. It was all a game to him, and for now, he appeared to be in complete control. She felt in her heart that there was still hope for the missing girls, but no amount of wishful thinking was going to change the fact that they were dealing with a sick and dangerous man.

 

 

Odessa

 

They reached the Texas town of Odessa by dusk. There was hominess to it, as there was to any small town: quaint corner stores, pubs with names like Cactus Jack’s, and even an old train station. In contrast with the old, were modern retail stores and a few fast food and restaurant chains. Odessa appeared to be a strange fusion of the past and the present.

The roads were nicely paved throughout the town, though on the periphery, there were several dirt roads, leading to the greater desert that surrounded the seemingly isolated town. They drove past the Food Mart, where crime tape still surrounded a small section of the parking lot. Miriam could envision the mysterious blue van parked among the cars of shoppers coming in and out of the store, which was operational again.

Hayes was at the wheel again, driving an unmarked patrol car equipped with a GPS display screen on the dashboard, police radio, and all sorts of bells and whistles Miriam hadn’t seen since her days as a detective. She realized then what she had missed about it—the thrill of the hunt, the testing of one’s skills, and the drive to not stop until the case was closed.

Shelton sat quietly in the back seat, as usual, and the news continued over the radio of the Forester parents’ address to the public. Reporters were already referring to the culprit as “the Chancellor of Doom,” which Miriam imagined him reveling in.

She was eager to dive into the case and utilize every lead they had, which wasn’t much. Hayes, however, insisted that she check into the Sand Spur Inn before nightfall.

It seemed as if the case so far was nothing but a series of false starts and insignificant leads, yet Miriam remained hopeful. She had four days to make a difference, and longer, she supposed, if absolutely necessary. She had never been one to quit.

 

Hayes turned into the Sand Spur Inn’s parking lot with a suggestion. “After you get checked in, I know a place nearby where we can get the best chicken-fried steak in town.”“Sounds good,” Miriam said.

 

The inn had a strange but interesting red-barn design with neon letters buzzing from the arch of its roof. Several small pine trees were planted around the modestly-sized parking lot, and there was even a shaded front deck with a line of rocking chairs on display. It was certainly different from anywhere else Miriam had stayed.

Hayes pulled to the front and popped his trunk. “Give the lieutenant a hand, would you, buddy?” he said to Shelton, who was already at the door. He then glanced at Miriam with a smile. “Your reservations have already been made, and the tab’s on the department. All they need is your name.”“Thanks,” she said, feeling slightly guilty even though the arrangement made perfect sense.

She stepped out of the not-so-inconspicuous silver Crown Victoria as Detective Shelton pulled her wheeled luggage past her and onto the wooden ramp leading to the front deck. There were a few people outside, older folks mainly, sitting on rocking chairs and observing Miriam with a seemingly keen awareness that she was an outsider. Or maybe she was just being paranoid.

She followed Shelton through the vintage wood double doors and into a lobby, decorated in log-cabin style, with deer heads and bear skins adorning the upper part of the walls.

A chandelier the size of a boulder hung high from the overhead rafters. The front desk was attended by a well-groomed older man in a bow tie and long-sleeved white dress shirt, talking on the phone. Shelton reached the desk and waited patiently as the man signaled that he would be just one minute.

Miriam looked around the vast lobby, where the echo of families walking down the halls with their luggage could be heard. To her left, she saw a crowded restaurant that smelled of steak and peanuts. To her right was a bar just as dark and full of patrons.“How can I help you?” the man at the counter asked with a gentlemanly Southern drawl.

His desk stood high in a way that allowed him to nearly hover over them. Miriam stepped forward to speak, but Shelton was already on it.“Reservation for Sandoval,” he said.

The man typed quickly, eyes on his monitor. “All right… I have a Miriam Sandoval. Check in today and check out Friday.”

Miriam stepped forward and set her purse down on the counter. “That’s correct.” She glanced at the man’s nametag. It simply said Rudy. He leaned down and emerged with two key cards, handing them to Miriam. “Your room is three eighteen. Welcome, and it’s a pleasure to have you here.”

She took her key cards as he then pointed down the hall. “Just take the elevator to your left. Anything else we can help you with, Ms. Sandoval?”“I’m fine, thank you.” Shelton followed along, pulling her small suitcase. They reached the elevator, and she pressed the button, turning to Shelton. “I’ll take it from here, thanks.”

He pulled the suitcase closer as she took the handle. “We’ll be outside,” he said.

With a ping, the elevator opened. Miriam moved aside to let out a couple that had several bags. By the time she stepped inside the elevator, Shelton had disappeared. The doors closed, and the silvery elevator brought her to the third floor, where spiral-patterned green carpet covered a long hall in both directions. A sign on the wall indicated that her room was to the right.

She walked down the empty, quiet hall, almost feeling as though she was the only person on the floor. She stopped at three eighteen, third door to her right, and slipped her key card into the slot above the handle.

A tiny light flickered green, and she walked inside. It was a simple enough room with a full-sized bed, pine desk, white-painted dresser, and small flat-screen television. There were pictures on the wall with painted canyons and desert. The heavy red drapes were closed, and she walked past the bathroom, pulling her suitcase along, then took a few steps back and closed the entry door, feeling a certain sense of relief. She was alone at last, if only for a couple of minutes. She sighed, then headed back downstairs again.

 

Miriam breezed through the lobby and went out the front doors to where Hayes’s idling Crown Victoria was waiting. Miriam got in and apologized for the wait.“Not a problem,” Hayes responded. “Sitting in cars is part of what we do.”

They drove out of the parking lot as the vast orange sky began to darken, shrouded in cloud. Miriam looked out the window as they passed old buildings and mom-and-pop corner stores. The sign for Maddy’s Diner blazed in the distance.

There was an old man sitting on the bench with a newspaper in his lap, staring straight ahead at nothing. Miriam could see his startling, wide eyes, unblinking and trance-like. It unsettled her. The kidnapper could be anyone, even him.

Their suspect was out there, that much she was sure of. Not several towns over, but there in Odessa, watching everything unfold with glee. That was her theory, and the only thing that made sense.

With the evening rush in full swing, Maddy’s Diner was crowded. Hayes found parking a spot in back, and they got out, stomachs growling with the aroma of fried beef in the air. Beyond the windows, Miriam could see the patrons at their tables and booths and girls in knee-high dresses taking orders and bringing out food.

Hayes held the door open, and Miriam entered the lobby. Each table inside had parlor lights with red-stained glass shades, giving the diner a uniquely vintage look. A few heads turned in their direction. The busy kitchen could be seen from a nearby counter, where fresh plates of food were set out under heat lights with the ring of a bell, just as in an old-fashioned diner, which this was.

Detective Shelton pointed to a booth in the corner, and they walked past a table of beer-drinking truck drivers in flannel shirts and net hats. Miriam preferred the anonymity of the corner, where she could do the watching as opposed to being watched. A ponytailed server named Samantha approached their table with bright red lipstick and a perky smile. They ordered coffee and three country-fried steaks after Hayes’s glowing recommendation.“I’ll have those orders right out,” Samantha said, walking away, notepad in hand.

For a moment, they were lost in their own thoughts. Hayes placed a thick file folder on the table and opened it. Shelton scrolled through his cell phone. And Miriam scanned the restaurant, ever mindful of being noticed. She noticed a few patrons reading local newspapers displaying the pictures of April and Natalie on the front page. There was an undeniable nervousness in the air, and Miriam took further note of the absence of children in the restaurant, or around town for that matter.

Hayes pulled a map from his file and unfolded it over the table. “We have to start somewhere,” he began, pointing at the map, with had several points already marked with Xs or circles. “April Johnson was last seen approximately two blocks from her house, where we can assume that she was abducted.” He then moved his finger directly across the map, stopping at another red circle. “Here is where Natalie Forester was taken, right from the parking lot of this Food Mart.”

Miriam could see that even when adjusting for distance on the map, the two locations were fairly near one another. This didn’t prove anything just yet, but it did establish a preference for a particular part of town.“Any updates on the blue van?” Miriam asked.

Shelton shook his head. “No. Nothing yet.”

Hayes hovered a hand over the map, a look of uncertainty in his eyes. “This guy could be anywhere right now. All we can do, though, is start local and branch out from there.”

Shelton then offered his take. “He could easily have had the van seized or disposed of.”

Miriam leaned forward and pointed to a spot on the map. “There’s a used car lot right here. We passed it earlier. Maybe he purchased the van there.”

“Or traded it in the minute the AMBER alert was issued,” Shelton added.

“Exactly,” Miriam said. “We can look into that, for sure,” Hayes said.“What about surveillance?” Miriam asked. “There have to be a few cameras around town, right?”

Hayes shook his head dismissively. “I’ve checked with commercial and public surveillance authorities. Of the few installed on businesses or traffic stops, only about two or three work.” His index finger glided along the map to a few marks he had made. “There’s a camera at the intersection of Doyle Road, here, and Dixie Boulevard, here. But that’s it.“It’s better than nothing,” Shelton said. “If this guy’s cruising around town, I’m pretty sure he drove through those intersections.”

Detective Hayes crossed his arms and leaned back into the vinyl padding of their booth, thinking. Miriam took a deep breath, feeling pressured to come up with something.“Phillip Anderson had multiple personalities,” she began, “from a little boy to a middle-aged Southern belle to an embodiment of his worst tendencies. He would use these personalities to his benefit to deceive and manipulate others, especially children. Our suspect is smart enough to not get caught but not disciplined enough to stay out of the spotlight. He wants the attention.”

Miriam paused, taking a moment as emotions came rushing back to her. The past remained vivid and inescapable.

“There are clear similarities between Anderson and our current suspect. The age of the victims, for instance. The motives for the kidnappings may be a little different. Anderson was collecting children to hold as prisoners through some sick need to be accepted by girls who supposedly ‘rejected’ him as a child. We need to establish the motives of our suspect and hope that helps us figure out if he’s going to strike again.”“And why he asked for you,” Shelton added.

Miriam glanced out the window as Samantha returned to their table with coffee.“I’ll be back shortly with your food,” she said, walking off.

It was darker outside now, and the streetlights had come on, brightening certain areas of the parking lot, though Hayes’s car was parked in the shadows. Miriam watched as silhouetted figures walked past the diner on the sidewalk, cars passing them with their headlights on.

She could have sworn that one of the vehicles, a two-door red classic Datsun, slowed down directly in front of the diner and stared into their window, the driver a darkened shadow. Why did she take notice of the vehicle’s make and model? The other cars that slowed down had pulled in, but the Datsun didn’t.

Instead, its tires squealed, and its engine roared as it sped off down the street in a haze of exhaust and burnt rubber. The spectacle was enough to get the attention of Hayes and Shelton, who paused in their conversation to look.“What was what?” Hayes asked.

Shelton turned back to Miriam and leaned close with his hands conjoined. “Do you think we’re being followed?”

Miriam shook her head in a daze of thought. “I don’t know.”

Suddenly a whack came across the nearby glass, startling them. Miriam jumped and saw both detectives reach for the pistols at their sides, and concealed by their coats. Inches from the glass stood an old man, the same old man she had seen on the sidewalk bench, newspaper in his lap and head nodding.

His thin, ruined face seemed to contort upon eye contact. His glazed, silvery eyes leered at Miriam with apparent disdain. For a moment, he just stood there, layers of dirty clothes and all, while rocking slightly to the side and clutching a newspaper.

Hayes hit the glass with the end of his fist. “Take a hike, buddy. Okay?”

The man slowly turned away with a grunt and walked off, swaying along the way. He disappeared into the shadows, but not before releasing the newspaper into the air, breeze carrying it past the windows.

Miriam couldn’t understand why he chose to stare at her, but something inside urged her to get up and chase after him, demanding to know who he was. Before she could put the plan into action, Samantha appeared with three plates of country-fried steak.

Probably nothing, Miriam said to herself. Just a crazy old man. Warm plate in front of her, she lifted her fork and took a bite.

 

 

Prisoner

 

“Wake up, little one,” a man’s voice said in a kind tone.

Natalie opened her eyes in a small, darkened room, illuminated by a single bulb in a ceiling fan that flickered intermittently above. She attempted to sit up in her disoriented state and found that her right arm was handcuffed to a side railing on the elevated bed she had been placed in. Her memory was hazy. She couldn’t remember how she had gotten into the stuffy room with its old-fashioned wallpaper, faded and peeling in some areas, and thick draperies covering the windows.

As he watched her, she couldn’t see the strange man’s features, nothing beyond his looming silhouette. His mere presence frightened her, and she didn’t know what to say. There was a tray of food and glass of water next to the bed on a wheeled stand. Natalie couldn’t remember eating, but she noticed some half-eaten mashed potatoes and what looked like hamburger. She was lying above the covers, wearing a large, ill-fitting shirt that went down to her knees, covering her underwear.

Though she felt like a patient, she was certain that she wasn’t in a hospital. Her gut told her she was in danger, and judging by the handcuff on her wrist, she was, in fact, a prisoner. She recoiled and quickly pulled the covers over herself, backing against the wall at the head of the bed.“It’s okay,” the man reassured her. “Don’t be afraid.”

Natalie had no idea where she was or with whom. She was certain, however, that the man before her was a stranger. A quick glance around revealed a barren space with some boxes stacked in the corner near a closet door. A nearby dusty bookcase stood against the wall, filled with books and magazines.

The fan whirled above, squeaking as it rotated. The room was foreign and ominous, like some bad dream, but even within her daze, she understood the reality of her situation.

Natalie tried to speak, but her voice came out in a strained whimper. “Where… am I?”

The man stopped inches from the foot of her bed and stared down at her. He was tall, with hair parted to one side, just above his right eye, and wearing a short-sleeved uniform—a collared shirt with a name tag and slacks. He raised a gloved hand, urging calm.“Don’t worry about anything right now. I want you rested and nourished.” He paused and walked to her food tray, taking the glass of water. He then held his other hand out, which held two small white tablets. “Here, take these. You’ll feel better.”

Natalie backed against the wall, pushing the matted hair hanging down sides of her face and reaching to her shoulders, Her mouth remained a straight line, further tucked in and refusing whatever the strange man was offering.“Come on, silly,” he said, further extending his hand. “I know your head hurts. It’s a natural reaction to the sedatives you took.”“I don’t want to,” she said softly, though he was right about the pain in her head. There was a faint throbbing that made it hurt to move. Her throat was sandpaper dry, and the glass of water in his hand was tempting. She moved her cuffed arm, causing the handcuff to clink against the railing. “What is this?” she asked. “Why…?”“Why are you handcuffed?” he answered.

She took the water from him with her free hand. He then took her cuffed hand and placed the two tablets inside, squeezing her palm shut. “You’re handcuffed because you need to rest.”

The man paused, taking a step back and reaching under the bed, from where he retrieved a stainless-steel bedpan. “You’re going to need this sooner or later,” he said, setting it down near a small nightstand next to her.

She gulped down half the glass of water and gasped for air as he paced beside the bed, remaining in the shadows. “It’s just aspirin, Natalie. You’ll feel better, trust me.”

Natalie. He knew her by name. She set her glass of water on the tray, followed by the pills, refusing them.

The man stopped and shook his head with a sigh. “You want to be in pain, fine. I’ll give you your choice, but if you keep pushing me, next time I’ll force them down your throat.”

No one had ever spoken to her that way, not even her parents at their angriest. She felt too tired to run and didn’t think she’d get very far anyway, not with her hand attached to the railing like a prisoner in a hospital ward.

Real fear began to grow from within, though she was hesitant to show her panic. His gloved hands gripped the railing as he leaned closer to her, revealing a glimpse of his acne-scarred face and brownish bangs hanging to one side. The bed creaked as he placed pressure on its side.

Natalie clenched her eyes, wanting to scream but lacking the ability to do so.“There, there,” he said. “We’re going to do some great things together as soon as you get better.”“How do you know my name?” she asked.

He stood over her with his hands out as though the answer was obvious. “Well, it’s kind of hard not to. Your face has been all over the news.”

His response befuddled and frightened Natalie. She felt as if she were in a dream, but no dream of hers had ever felt so vivid and real. She pulled at her handcuff again, harder than before, but there was no getting free. She dragged the handcuff along the railing until it stopped.“I want to leave,” she said, panic settling in. “I need to go home.”

She then jerked at the handcuff with all her might, thrashing around and shaking the bed with several useless air kicks.

The man gazed down at her with sympathetic eyes, visible even through the light reflecting off his glasses. “Please, Natalie. Calm down. You’re going to hurt yourself.”

An unsettling realization crept in that she was in real danger, and for a moment, she stopped moving. “Please let me go,” she said softly as tears streamed down her cheeks.

The man backed away with a nod and rubbed his chin in consideration, turning to face the barren wall to their side. “It seems that you don’t remember what happened.” He then paused and spun around, facing her. “I’d be happy to clear things up. That way, you’ll understand that there is little chance of you going anywhere.”

He approached the bed with his squeaky black loafers. “For the last forty-eight hours, your face has been all over TV. Your parents have been on TV. Everyone is talking about you. Isn’t it remarkable? Thousands of people die each day, but one eleven-year-old girl goes missing, and it’s ‘round the clock coverage.”

Natalie breathed in and shouted as loudly as she could, “Let me go!”“Hey!” the man said sternly, finger in the air. “Don’t push your luck. You will regret it if you do.”

She froze and went quiet.“That’s better,” he said, satisfied. “Now let me jog your memory. Yesterday you were waiting for your mother to leave the Food Mart. I approached you and offered you some candy, which you gladly accepted. The candy, however, contained a sedative, meaning that it was drugged with stuff that made you sleepy. You were out like that.” He clapped his hands together, startling her.

Natalie lay in horror, faintly recalling the scene. She could remember the man now. He had approached her in the parking lot, knocked on her window even. She couldn’t understand how he had gotten into the car or what he had done, but she could remember the candy. “What-what do you want from me?” she asked. The situation was too unreal to make sense of, and all she wanted to do was go home.“Patience,” he said, touching the bed railing again. “I’ll explain everything in time. I just wanted to let you know what happened. Everything should wear off in the next hour, but in the meantime, you should really take your Aspirin.”

He backed away from the bed and took the plate from her tray. “It’s morning now. I’ll make you some breakfast.” He smiled as though he was expecting a thank you in return, but Natalie said nothing.

The man turned and walked toward the rickety closed door at the end of the room as she sat up fully in the bed, prepared to lash out. “Wait!” she shouted.

The man halted halfway to the door, tilted his head, and then turned around. “Yes?”

She couldn’t think of what to say beyond pleading with him to release her. Suddenly, she had an idea. “My parents…” she began. “They have money. They’ll pay you whatever you want.”

The man shrugged in response. “That’s okay. I’m not after their money.”

She could feel the tears welling up in her eyes again. “Then what do you want? Please, just let me go.”

The man closed his eyes and lowered his head with a sigh. He then looked at her again, studying her. “I’m not going to hurt you. I want you to be comfortable, and while I know this is all very hard, things will get better, I promise.”

Why wouldn’t he listen to her? Why had he taken her? What did he want? Her mind suddenly recalled April Johnson, the girl from her school who had gone missing a week prior. Was there a connection? How long had she been in that room, and how far was she from home? Questions swarmed in her mind as the man made his way to the door.“I know you’re hungry,” he said, stopping. “And if you’re good, maybe I’ll bring you down a book or something.”

He continued to the door, opening it halfway and slipping through, careful not to reveal anything that lay beyond. Natalie waited in silence as the door swung shut, followed by the sound of several deadbolts sliding into place.

Feeling completely alone, Natalie shuddered at the thought of the man returning. She pulled at the handcuff again, reddening already visible mark around her wrist. Her breathing intensified as she lay on her side, sobbing into the pillow clenched to her chest.“Mom…” she said between breaths. “Mom. Help me.”

 

***

The man locked the deadbolts along the side of the door and walked away satisfied. He turned down a narrow hall, leading into a cluttered kitchen, with dishes piled in the sink and a window above the faucet revealing a small backyard surrounded by a privacy fence. The house was dark inside, with all blinds drawn and only a few lights on. The man wished that he could bring Natalie into the kitchen and make her breakfast as if they were a family, but such a decision, for the time being, was out of the question.

In time, he told himself.

He dumped the remainder of her food from the night before into a trash can and then washed the plate off in the sink. He was looking forward to making breakfast that morning. Everything, so far, had been going according to plan. A little bacon, eggs, and toast would make everything even better. Perhaps Natalie would eventually warm up to him. It was a little after 7 a.m., and he didn’t have to be at work for another hour.

 

The man went by the name Walter Browning, and he lived in a modest two-bedroom house tucked away among many other low-income housing developments on the outskirts of Odessa. Walter was twenty-nine and lived alone. He had a job stocking groceries at the Food Mart and attended night school every other weeknight at Midland Community College, two towns over.

For some time, Walter had been trying to get his life back on track. He was close to earning his associate’s degree and was also seeing a therapist. He had always been a loner, but the older he got, the less likely it seemed that he’d ever find the right companionship. One day, tired of trying to become the kind of person he was always told he had to be, Walter made an impulsive decision to seek such a companion. Someone who wouldn’t hurt him like all the others.

He had found that person in Natalie, and he wasn’t going to let her go anywhere. The past mattered little to Walter. Not the wife he had lost, nor his reputation after the pictures were found on his computer. Not the fact that everyone, after his disappearance, probably assumed him to be dead. None of it mattered anymore. He had a roof over his head and a new start.

Walter stirred scrambled eggs in a sizzling pan, taking in the delicious aroma while admiring the radiant morning light beyond the windows. His navy-blue polo shirt over a chair behind him at the kitchen table, where his Food Mart hat rested. At work, Walter never said too much. He didn’t like to draw too much attention to himself. He was polite and engaging when he needed to be, but his mind generally moved in a million different directions during the day, and conversation with coworkers often led to revealing too much about himself, or so he feared.

Walter stocked shelves morning and night, cleaned aisles, and sometimes bagged groceries. He had even been recently trained as a cashier. It was an easy job, and the hours were flexible. The Food Mart gave Walter a window into the town and its people. He had been looking for the right girl for a while. Having Natalie in his house gave him a sort of nervous thrill, and knowing that everyone was looking for her added to the excitement.

He placed two pieces of wheat bread in the toaster and pushed down the lever, whistling to himself. His earlier fears had subsided once he got rid of the blue van. The short-lived purchase was in the past, and it was back to driving his beat-up red Datsun. There were detectives in town looking for him. He had seen the AMBER Alert on his phone describing his van and knew that he had to get rid of it. Such a hasty move didn’t come cheap, but Walter was lucky to have a friend or two in high places.

He had heard the APB for the van on his police scanner shortly after abducting Natalie. Investigators would be searching the vehicle database for registered vans as well as anything reported stolen. What they didn’t know was that Walter had purchased the van out of state and it was now long gone. He had seen to that the minute he received the AMBER Alert.

Walter placed four strips of bacon in the pan. His stomach growled as they crackled and fizzed. A concerning thought suddenly entered his mind regarding Natalie. Her affection wasn’t going to come quickly or easily. It would take time, if it came at all. Walter had to accept that fact. There were no guarantees. He had a young, traumatized girl in his spare bedroom being held against her will. He was back at square one.

Once the food was finished, he made two plates of eggs, bacon, and toast. He then filled two glasses with orange juice and placed his plate on the table. Natalie’s plate in hand, he whistled his way down the hall and began unlocking her door with his free hand.“Heads up. I’m coming in,” he said, opening the door with a creak.

Walter looked across the room, only to see an empty bed with an open handcuff hanging from the railing. He blinked and rubbed his eyes at the impossible sight, but there was no denying what he saw. The girl was gone. For a moment, he lost self-control and dropped the plate onto the hardwood floor, spilling food everywhere as the plate broke into shards.“Natalie?” he said, rushing to the bed. “Natalie, where are you?”

Relax, he told himself. She’s still in here.

There were only so many places she could hide. Her sheets hung over the edge of the bed, concealing the space beneath it. She had to be there, hiding underneath the bed like a frightened child. Walter smiled, despite his anger at wasting food, and crept toward the bed, prepared to charge and subdue her.“Come on out now,” he said. “Now’s not the time to get on my bad side.”

Once she was caught, it would be time for a little dose of punishment. These girls had to learn somehow. He reviled the thought, but one thing was for certain; she’d never try to escape again.

 

***

Day 3

 

Miriam opened the blinds that overlooked the Sand Spur Inn parking lot. The sun was out, and there was plenty of activity below, traffic moving along at a busy intersection near the inn. She could see buildings across the street, canopies out front and signs for a coffee shop, a deli, and even a frame store.

Odessa seemed to have a little of everything. The town moved at its own pace. There was even a quaint fire station at the corner with two fire trucks parked in the open garage bay. She scanned the street ahead for a blue van, which was always on her mind. Her gut told her that their suspect was still in town. Two girls were missing, and within a couple more days, it could very well be three.

Steam flowed from the bathroom, where she had just taken a shower. Standing in her bathrobe, Miriam walked to the nightstand where her phone was charging. There was a good morning text from Lou and another text from Detective Hayes, telling her that they’d be at the hotel in fifteen minutes. The time on the clock radio indicated 7:15 a.m. The detectives weren’t wasting any time.

She sent Lou a message back, wishing him a good day, and glanced at the television that sat atop the small dresser at the foot of her bed. High on the wall above the television was an eight-point deer-head bust. Its sprawling antlers shadowed the wall. She had never stayed in a hotel room quite like this.

The news played on mute, displaying the weather forecast for the day. The high was eighty-one, with the low seventy-nine and mostly cloudy. There was no forecast for rain for the week, but judging by swards of dry brown grass surrounding the inn parking lot, the town needed all the rain it could get.

She walked toward a small desk in the corner, her bare feet against the plush carpet, and examined her notes from the evening prior. Notebook in hand, she sat at the foot of the bed and flipped through to her breakdown of each day. Her schedule could very well differ from what the detectives had planned, but she wanted to write it out nonetheless.

There was a lot of ground to cover, and their resources were limited. A pair of jeans and a dark-blue short-sleeved shirt lay across the recently made bed. Miriam couldn’t help herself. She had a compulsive need to make her bed no matter where she had slept.

Her suitcase sat in the corner of the room, nearly emptied. Her wristwatch, sunglasses, and pocketbook rested on the nightstand next to her phone. Her black hair was wrapped in a towel, and she knew she had to get ready, but just then a news report came on detailing a traffic accident not far from the hotel.

She received a text from Detective Hayes telling her that they were just pulling into the parking lot. Surprised, she walked to the window and looked out just as his silver Crown Victoria drove past the Sand Spur Inn sign, stopping near and the front lobby. Miriam turned around and rushed to the bathroom, already hurried and behind. It was going to be that kind of day.

 

Ten minutes later, Miriam made it to the car with her satchel of notes and files. From the front seat, Detective Shelton turned around and handed her a fresh cup of coffee in a warm Styrofoam cup. Hayes circled around the parking lot and pulled into the traffic as sunlight beamed into the car. Miriam shielded her face and sipped coffee as they hit the intersection with an exchange of pleasantries, Hayes asking her if she slept well and how she was doing.“Fine, thank you,” Miriam said. “It’s a very unique hotel.”“I know the spots,” Hayes replied, smiling.

Miriam looked around, glancing out the window as they drove past shops along Main Street that were just opening their doors for business.“So where first?” she asked. “I have some suggestions.” No one said anything, so she continued. “We should start at the Food Mart. I’m not satisfied with these witness statements. More people had to have seen this blue van. I want to talk to every employee and see what we can find.”

She paused, waiting for a response, but neither detective was biting at the moment. “Hello?” she said.

Detective Shelton turned his head slightly as though he was distracted. “I’m sorry, we’re listening. Please go on.” She could see that he was texting on his phone, while Hayes’s eyes were on the road.“I’ve been observing this town, its low buildings and flat terrain,” she said. “Everything is close and bunched in. There’s not a lot of space between anything—houses, businesses, or anything else. This leads me to believe that nothing happens around here without a witness or two.”“Sounds like a plan,” Hayes said. “We’ve got a plan of our own.”“What do you mean?” Miriam asked.“It’s not perfect,” Shelton added, “but it’s pretty damn good.”“I’d love to hear it,” she said, turning to her window as they passed an elegant town hall, arguably the nicest building in town. There were Greek columns at the front atop several cement steps, and water gushing from a glistening fountain in the front. Neatly trimmed bushes, statues of historical figures, and benches lined a smooth cement sidewalk that circled the area.

A few blocks down, the car slowed at a small police station, staffed by a limited police force she had yet to meet. She noticed Hayes turn his left blinker on, prepared to turn in. “The suspense is killing me,” Miriam said, leaning back in her seat with her hands out. They were acting strangely reserved, which had her suspicious.

Hayes pulled into the small, cracked concrete parking lot, where there were two police cars and six empty spaces. The police station looked old and certainly less glamorous than the town hall they had passed. There was faded wood paneling outside the rectangular building and tinted windows that gave no indication of what was inside. The flat roof looked weathered, much like the wood-carved white lettering displayed near the entrance that read “Odessa Police Station.”“Don’t mean to keep you in the dark,” Hayes said as he pulled into one of the empty spaces. “We’re still working out the details and don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.”

Miriam held the open notebook in her lap, looking down at the schedule she had made. A schedule, it seemed, they were already deviating from. “It’s okay,” she said, closing the notebook. “Let’s hear it.”

Shelton turned around to face her with enthusiasm in his eyes. He was clean-shaven as always and wearing a navy-blue tie over his light-blue dress shirt. She wondered what had been discussed during her slumber. Shelton spoke with a careful, methodical tone, explaining himself as though he was giving a deposition.“We know that this guy enjoys playing games. He likes to taunt law enforcement. He likes to taunt the parents. He’s obviously getting a kick out of this, but with each move, he doesn’t realize how much he’s giving away each time. The letter placed directly in the Foresters’ mailbox, for instance. I think there’s a good chance that he lives somewhere in town.”

Miriam thought that was obvious enough but kept her thoughts to herself. She respected Shelton, even if he was a little strange at times.“He’s confident,” he continued. “Confident enough to leave letters at the crime scene and elsewhere, and there will be more. The point is, Lieutenant Sandoval, our suspect is trying to lure you in. I say, if we’re ever going to have a chance at finding those girls in time, we need to lure him out.”

Miriam nodded as though she understood, but she still had questions. “Lure him out how?”

Shelton exchanged another satisfied glance with Hayes and then looked back to Miriam. “We’ll simply dangle a carrot at him and get him out of hiding.”

Miriam knew what he meant. It had been her immediate suspicion upon being recruited. The only question was, who were they planning to use as bait, another child or her?

 

 

The Bait

 

Walter stormed to the bed and ripped the sheets off, dropping to his knees and reaching under the bed, only to grab at air. It was as if she had disappeared. Stunned, he knelt and examined the single handcuff dangling on the rail. The two aspirin tablets lay on her tray, minus the glass of water. Walter turned quickly around and looked into the darkness ahead. Her hiding spots were quickly running out.“Natalie,” he called out, standing up. “You made me drop your breakfast. That was very bad. Now you’re going to make me late for work.” He continued his slow pass toward the closet, where he was certain she was hiding.

Never in a million years did he think that a child could escape from a pair of handcuffs. Maybe they were a defective pair, but he couldn’t recall where he had purchased them. He stopped in his tracks a few feet from the boxes stacked up in front of the closet. He noticed they had been pushed out slightly, providing the girl just enough space to open the thin wooden doors and slip inside.“What did you think?” he continued. “That you were going to run out of here when my back was turned?” He paused for a moment and attempted to talk in a lighter tone. “Come on, Natalie. I’m not angry.” He turned to look at the empty bed and then back to the boxes. “I’m actually pretty impressed. You’re a regular Houdini.”

There was no response, but he could feel her fear. He took another few steps toward the boxes, ready to swing open the doors. His smile dropped as his patience neared an end.“I’m going to count to three, and I want you out here now,” he said, pointing at the ground.

He found the mere thought of her escape ludicrous. The thought made him laugh despite his growing anger.“All right, Natalie. Last chance!” he said.

Before he could follow through on his demands, a stack of boxes came crashing down, revealing Natalie, pale and panic stricken, holding an empty water glass in one hand and a broken shard from the plate Walter had dropped in the other.

For a moment, they just stared at each other, Walter still stunned that she had escaped. Without a word, Natalie hurled the water glass at his face, scoring a direct hit and sending him stumbling backward. The pop against his cheek and the pain that followed sent him into a rage.

He swung his arms in the air, regaining his balance, just as she rushed toward him, screaming at the top of her lungs. She jabbed the glass plate shard into his side, puncturing deep into his flesh. Walter screamed in pain, his voice cracking, horrified to see a little girl shoving the glass deeper into his side.

Walter then swung his arm back and smacked her across the face with the impact of a man three times her size. Natalie flew back like a rag doll and hit the floor in a daze as she rolled to her side. Walter tripped and fell, flat on his back, and joined her on the dusty hardwood floor with the shard still protruding from his side.

 

Walter moaned as he struggled to push himself up. “You’re going to pay, you little bitch,” he cried out, drool puddling on the floor from his mouth.

His hands hovered carefully around the glass shard. It was going to have to come out; there was no other way around it. To his surprise, Natalie rose with her head down and a hand over her cheek. In response, he cocked his leg back as far as he could and launched it forward, pelting her in the gut with his foot.

She gasped and flew back farther than before, smacking into the wall. For a moment, his rage subsided as he looked at her motionless body on the floor, wondering if he had gone too far. A sharp pain clutched his side and brought him back to reality.After a few deep breaths, he closed his eyes and yanked the glass out in a single movement so swift and agonizing that he cried out in pain. And now his hand was also bleeding. He tossed the broken glass aside and quickly covered the throbbing wound with one hand, applying strong pressure, and pushed himself up, rising with pained relief in his eyes.

He looked over to Natalie and could see that she was still breathing. She’d live. He stumbled to the bed and yanked her white sheets off the bed, while tearing one sheet in half.

Warm blood flowed from the wound, soaking his hand in blood. He bent over to apply pressure and quickly got to work, folding the sheet around his waist in layers. The white of the sheet covering his wound turned to red faster than he could have imagined.

He limped over to Natalie where she lay on her side, holding her chest. “Get up.”

But he could hear nothing above a whimper. The thought of carrying her back to the bed made his side hurt even more. He nudged her back with the tip of his shoe, but she wouldn’t move.“I’ve got to go to work. I’m willing to overlook this for now if you get back into bed.” She still didn’t respond. He sensed that there was no reaching her. As he stood over her, pondering his next move, she said something low and faint.“What was that?” he asked, kneeling with a grunt. She whispered again, and he leaned closer, inches from her face.“Let me go,” she whispered.

Walter smiled and shook his head. He quickly grabbed her by the neck and yanked her upward, causing her to cry out. She tilted her head up, sobbing with eyes closed and her hair matted and wet.“How did you do it?” he shouted. “Tell me!”“I used a fork,” she cried out. “The one from dinner.” Her trembling arm rose as she pointed to the bed. “It’s under the mattress.”

Gripping her neck, Walter stared at the bed in wonder. “Really?” Without warning, he rose and pulled her up with him. He gripped her shoulder with one hand and the back of her neck with the other and pushed her along as she cried. With every ounce of adrenaline left, he picked her up and tossed her onto the bed with one quick heave.

Natalie lay there defeated as his wild hands searched under the mattress, pulling out the familiar fork. He stared down at her in a moment of bewilderment then grabbed her arm and handcuffed it back to the railing. He pulled at the cuffs a few times for good measure and then stuck the fork in his pocket.“I don’t know what you were planning to do next, but don’t do it. Don’t even think about it.”

Natalie turned away from him, crying into her pillow. It was hard for him to feel bad given the injury in his side, but he tried to sound less angry than before.“I’ve got a very busy day, and I just want you to promise me no more shenanigans, okay?”

She said nothing beyond her cries.“Okay?” he asked again with anger rising in his tone.“Yes,” she said softly, through heavy sobs.“Good then,” he said. “That’s good to hear.” He walked away without another word and left Natalie lying there, face buried in her tear-soaked pillow. Stomping up the stairs, he swung open the door and slammed it shut, too angry to clean up the mess in the room.

Walter walked into the kitchen, knowing that he had to clean the wound and would most definitely be late for work. He had never been late before, but that morning had been full of firsts, having a shard of glass thrust into his side being one of them.

He went to the counter and stared out the window into his backyard as the pain rushed back. His head hung low as he gritted his teeth in the sunlight. He lifted his head, opening his eyes to a clear new revelation. “Natalie’s not the right one,” he said under his breath. “This isn’t going to work. She’s too wild.” He sighed and then looked at his pale and sweaty reflection in the window. “I’m going to have to find someone else.”

As was his habit, Walter turned on a small radio sitting on the kitchen counter. With the pain throbbing in his side, he felt vulnerable, frightened even. He had some disinfectant in his medicine cabinet along with gauze and cotton balls. That’d do the trick. But first, his instincts told him to check the local news for updates. He was well aware that police were in pursuit of a blue van—an issue he had remedied the day before.

They were no doubt pursuing Natalie on all fronts, and Walter couldn’t decide on whether he even wanted her anymore. But he couldn’t just let her go. She’d seen his face and heard his voice. His blood was on her face from the hand he’d smacked her with. What was he to do?“Damn it, Walter,” he said to himself, leaning against the counter in pain. “You’ve really done it this time.”

He stopped thinking as the announcer’s voice on the radio suddenly gained his attention. They were talking about Natalie, and it was exactly what he wanted to hear.“Ector County Police Department are in possession of two letters purportedly written by the kidnapper of April Johnson, who disappeared last week, and Natalie Forester, who vanished from a Food Mart parking lot two days ago. One letter was delivered directly to Natalie Forester’s parents, taunting police and making demands for the local police to enlist the aid of Lieutenant Miriam Sandoval, the detective famous for solving the Snatcher case in South Florida one year ago.”

Walter lunged forward and turned the volume louder as sweat beads ran down his forehead.“Local officials have stated that investigators are in hot pursuit of whomever wrote the letters, which were reportedly constructed from letters clipped from magazine to avoid leaving evidence of handwriting. These ransom-like letters, police claim, are not a hoax but messages from the person they believe is responsible for the kidnappings. More details at the top of the hour in this small-town hunt for a dangerous predator.”

Walter turned down the radio, stunned and baffled. He had been busy throughout the night and early morning and had heard nothing of the supposed letters before. The news made no sense.“Letters?” he asked aloud. “What letters?”

 

***

Miriam walked with the detectives toward the police station with no clear understanding of Shelton’s plan. A uniformed officer exited the building upon their approach and looked up, surprised. He was young and athletic looking, in his early thirties, with dark, slicked-back hair and a clean-shaven face.“Detective Hayes. Detective Shelton. Good morning. I didn’t expect you here so early,” he said.“We wanted to get an early crack at everything right away,” Hayes said.“Is Sergeant Bennett here?” Shelton asked.

The two detectives then turned to Miriam almost apologetically.“Oh, I’m sorry, Lieutenant Sandoval. This is Corporal Taylor,” Hayes said. He then turned to the corporal and introduced him to Miriam.“Nice to meet you,” Taylor said with a smile and a handshake. For a moment, it looked as though he couldn’t take his eyes off of her.“Thank you, Corporal,” Miriam said. “It’s a pleasure.”“I swear I know you from somewhere,” he said with certainty.

Miriam shrugged without response, only to have Hayes cut in and eloquently blow her cover.“You might know the lieutenant from the Snatcher case.”

Astonished, Taylor’s eyes widened. “It is you!”

Hayes put a hand up, stifling the corporal’s enthusiasm. “Of course, we need to keep it on the down low. Lieutenant Sandoval is here as an advisor, given her experience, but we need her involvement kept out of the public eye, if you know what I mean.”

Taylor nodded. “I understand, but didn’t this Chancellor of Doom nut case mention your name in his last letter?”

Miriam wanted to ask the corporal why they weren’t patrolling the streets for the very same man he had mentioned. There was a level of complacency at the station that troubled her. She kept such thoughts to herself for the moment, trusting that the detectives knew what they were doing.“Were you headed somewhere?” Shelton asked Taylor.

Taylor shifted around on the concrete entrance slab, looking toward his patrol car. “Well, I was going to run to the Food Mart and get some coffee. The sergeant’s in a tizzy without it.”“How about we just have a look at the board first?” Hayes asked.“The board?” Miriam added. “Can someone please tell me what’s going on here?”“Yes, Lieutenant,” Hayes said. “I apologize. We’re getting right to it.”“I just don’t want to waste any critical time when we should be out there looking for those girls,” she said, impassioned.“It’s okay,” Shelton said, placing a hand on her shoulder with a sympathetic look. “We’re still on track. A good plan takes time, though. You know that.”

Miriam nodded, giving them the benefit of the doubt.

A car suddenly pulled into the parking lot, gaining everyone’s attention. The car, a red four-door Kia Spectra, parked and idled for a moment, its driver concealed behind tinted windows.“I think that’s her,” Corporal Taylor said.

Detective Shelton pulled out his cell and scrolled through the screen. “Yep. She just sent me a text a couple of minutes back.”

As the engine shut off, the driver’s side door opened, revealing a girl who didn’t look a day over thirteen. She was small and skinny, with long brown hair and jean shorts and a halter top. Things were finally beginning to make sense to Miriam.“Who is she?” she asked Shelton directly.

Shelton smiled, clearly proud of himself. “That is Wendy. She’s nineteen. Can you believe it?”

The girl waved and approached the group with a smile, her lips bearing the brightest red lipstick Miriam had seen in some time. Her cherub face was enhanced by finely applied makeup from eye shadow to rosy cheeks and mascara that made her look older and more mature, which Shelton explained as being precisely the point.“Our profile of this creep indicates a taste for mature children who act older than their age. Both April Johnson and Natalie Forester were smart kids, honor roll students, and quite mature for their age as described by their friends and family.”“Wait a minute,” Miriam said quietly as Wendy approached. “You’re not going to use that girl as bait, are you?”

Shelton laughed, waving Miriam off. “It’s fine. Trust me.”“Yes,” Hayes added. “We have some locations narrowed down. You should really see the board first.”I can’t wait,” Miriam said with a tinge of sarcasm.“Everyone, this is Wendy Dawson,” Shelton said.

Miriam and Corporal Taylor introduced themselves with smiles and handshakes. “Wendy’s a local from town,” he continued. “The police sergeant’s neighbor, actually.”

Wendy smiled and spoke with a childlike voice that nearly matched her appearance. “I just want to do what I can to help,” she said. “Parents are terrified around here now. Lots of them don’t even want their kids going outside.”“We can’t thank you enough, Wendy,” Shelton said.

Hayes turned to the closed double doors at the front of the station and held his arm out. “Shall we go inside?”

The corporal glanced at his patrol car, longingly it seemed, to the notice of Detective Hayes.“Give us a few minutes before you make your coffee run, please.”

Taylor nodded and pushed ahead, opening the doors for the group as they walked into the small-town police station that looked practically empty. The lobby was surrounded by tall counters that sectioned the area off into a square. An empty desk lay beyond the front counter, and Miriam could see another police officer pacing back-and-forth beyond the glass partition. They followed Taylor as he pushed past a swinging wooden divider between the lobby and the office area.“Sergeant Bennett is on the phone right now. He’s been tied up the past few days, as you can imagine,” he said.“How many officers work here?” Miriam asked, stunned to see so many empty desks sitting on the green vinyl flooring.“There’s three others. Two of ’em work the night shift. The other one’s out on patrol,” he answered.

They walked past several vacant desks and into a back room as sunlight beamed in through the slits of closed blinds along the way. As Miriam entered, it became obvious to her that the detectives had been busy. The room held a large whiteboard with a map of the city, a television showing static on the screen, and a table with stacks of files and paperwork.

The map was marked to designate the areas of the kidnappings and the nearest—and ultimately sparse—security cameras in the town. They had their own operation going, and things began to make more sense to her.“What’s my role in all this?” she asked as they gathered around the table, with Wendy pacing the room and looking at a nearby bulletin board of crime scene photos.“By now, he has to know that you’ve joined the case,” Hayes began. “We’re expecting another note very soon. And we’re also expecting him to strike again.”

Shelton pressed a button on a mixer board next to the television, which then began displaying black-and-white security footage playing at three times the regular speed. “Here we have six hours of footage from the two traffic light cameras in town. During the time both girls were abducted, there is no image of a blue van anywhere.” He stopped the video and continued speaking.“However, some three hours before the first and second kidnappings, we have this… He sped the footage along as the time code at the bottom of the screen went backward. The image then paused at a blurry image of a blue van crossing the intersection.“There,” he said, pointing at the screen. “We’ve got that van marked three times within the hour before Natalie’s abduction.”

Miriam approached the screen in disbelief. They couldn’t see the driver or the license plate of the van, as the image had been shot from the front, but she was certain, nonetheless, that it was the van they were looking for. She turned to the two detectives, impressed with what they had captured. “You guys have been busy, haven’t you?”“Don’t thank us,” Hayes said, slapping Corporal Taylor on the back. “The corporal here has been on this for the past day or two.”“Do you have any footage from the area where April was abducted?” Miriam asked.

Taylor looked down in disappointment. “Unfortunately not. The surveillance company wipes their servers every week.”

Miriam scoffed in disbelief. “Why would they do that?”

Taylor shook his head with a sheepish grin. “We don’t normally have cases of this, um… magnitude here in Odessa.”

Detective Shelton moved away from the screen and approached the big board, where the map was displayed. There, areas of the two abductions, across town from each other, were circled and dotted lines showed the assumed route of their suspect throughout town, with greater focus on the main business sector and through the town hall and parks. The working surveillance spots were pinpointed with thin thumbtacks approximately three blocks apart. They had highlighted a route through the downtown area and the nearest residential neighborhood, where April had disappeared, ending at the Food Mart parking lot.

A large circle had been drawn on the map, past elementary schools, public parks, and the Odessa Plaza, where young people often hung out. There was no doubt that their suspect had scoped these places out—that he had probably been scoping them out for a while. The only question was, why hadn’t he struck sooner?“He’s been biding his time,” Miriam said, observing the map carefully. The pattern before her was as clear as the highlighted circle that encompassed the territory of their suspect. “And now his game has started.”“That’s why we’re going to put an end to this thing and save those girls before it’s too late,” Hayes said.

Shelton stepped away from the board and picked up some glossy photos from the table, grainy black-and-white images of the van. “We’ve distributed these photos throughout the county and even sent some to the local news stations. So far, we’ve got nothing.”“He’s ditched the van by now,” Miriam said. “We need to find out where.”“In time,” Hayes added. “The important thing is that he knows that you’re on the case, or at least we think he knows that you’re on the case. We want him to think that everything is going just as planned.”

Miriam looked at Wendy sympathetically as the young-looking nineteen-year-old sat across from her at the cluttered table, quiet and attentive. “I’m sorry, but I do have reservations about this.”“What do you mean?” Hayes asked.“Do your parents know?” she asked the girl.

Wendy nodded enthusiastically. “Sure they do. And besides, I’m nineteen.”“It’s risky,” Miriam said. “We don’t know who we’re dealing with here.”

Hayes and Shelton exchanged glances as Corporal Taylor stood to the side, staying out of it. Hayes then leaned on the table next to Miriam and spoke with his most reassuring tone. “County investigators will be on site in unmarked cars. There will be at least another dozen police officers surrounding the area and ready to strike.”“I want to do this, Ms. Sandoval,” Wendy said, speaking out. “This is important for me. I’m planning on going to the police academy and working in law enforcement. It’s the best starting point I could ask for.”“I don’t know,” Miriam said, rubbing her head. “Do you really think this could work?”

Shelton cleared his throat. “You haven’t seen the final components to the plan.”

He then walked to the corner of the room and grabbed a large black plastic case by the handle and hauled it near the table. He pulled open the latches and opened the container, revealing an expensive-looking miniature drone helicopter, wrapped in protective padding, and complete with a control panel and several monitor screens.

Shelton continued. “As you’ve probably assumed, Lieutenant, this is a covert operation. We don’t want our suspect to know he’s being followed.”

He paused and then walked to the map, pointing at the corner of Main Street and Albany. “The drone will track his movements from the initial pick-up spot, here, all the way across town, probably along this route and hopefully right to his home,” he said, dragging his finger across the map.“At that point, we step in,” Hayes added.

Miriam leaned against the table, thinking. Shelton’s approach could take days depending on the assumption that he would strike again, on the assumption that he would go after their decoy, and the assumption that he was even still in town. She gathered her thoughts the best she could, took a step away from the table, and then offered her assessment.“I applaud the work you’ve done here so far, and Wendy, I admire your bravery and generosity.” She took a step back and examined the map on the wall. “I just need to think about this and assess ways in which it could be improved. Give me a minute.”

The detectives seemed satisfied enough, everyone nodding as Corporal Taylor leaned against the wall with his hands in his pockets, looking a bit tired. Miriam couldn’t imagine the hours he had spent viewing security footage the past day.“It’s a good plan,” Hayes said. “The best thing we have going for us now.”

Suddenly Sergeant Bennett rushed into the room, breathing heavily and looking distraught. He halted, surprised by the new faces surrounding him, but did his best to be polite.“Hi, sorry about that,” he said. “I’ve been tied up on the phone for hours, it seems.”

He was a tall, broad-shouldered man with tan, leathery skin and trim, gray hair combed to one side. He didn’t look like a man who spent a lot of time at a desk. He shook the detectives’ hands as though he was acquainted with them already and turned to Miriam with the same questioning look she had received from Corporal Taylor.“Miriam?” he asked.“Yes, Sergeant. Lieutenant Sandoval at your service,” she said.

He gently placed both hands around her hand. “It’s a pleasure. I can’t thank you enough for helping us out with this. I don’t know why this nut keeps asking for you in these letters, but with your help, we’re going to find him and stop him.”

Corporal Taylor took his hands out of his pockets and looked at Miriam, interjecting. “Yeah. Got some calls yesterday. Sounded like a nut or two who wanted to make sure you were in town.”

Shocked, Miriam turned around. “What? You’re just saying this now?”“Don’t worry, ma’am,” he continued. “I neither confirmed nor denied. They sounded like prank calls, frankly.”

Sergeant Bennett seemed dismayed by the revelation, knowing that Miriam wanted to stay out of the spotlight. “And I don’t suppose you logged the calls or tried to get a trace?”

Taylor shook his head. “Logged ’em, but they came from an unavailable number.”

The Sergeant ran a hand down his face with a sigh. “Please do a better job of keeping me in the loop, Corporal.”“Roger, Sergeant,” Taylor said, his face flushed with embarrassment.

Miriam felt as though she needed to step away for a moment and get her thoughts together. Too much, it seemed, was happening at once, and she was beginning to feel more like an outsider.“Do you mind if I take the car to the store?” she asked Detective Hayes.

He looked around, digging into his pocket, slightly confused. “We were hoping that you could consult with us first. We want to talk tactics and strategy and make use of the expert we’ve brought in.” “And we will,” she said. “I just want to get a feel for the town and pick some coffee up on my way.”“At the Food Mart?” Hayes asked. “Of course,” Miriam said. “What’s going on?” Shelton asked, approaching them.“The lieutenant wants to get coffee,” Hayes said, holding his car keys with hesitation.

Shelton turned to Miriam, surprised. “What? No, we need to strategize.” He then looked at Corporal Taylor, who was leaning against the wall. “The corporal here can get the coffee.”“Please,” Miriam said. “I’ll only be gone a minute. I need to go back to the Food Mart and look at the scene.”

Shelton seemed to study her with a fair amount of skepticism. “If you say so. It’s just a strange time to be making coffee runs.”“I need to take a drive and get my thoughts together. I’ll be much better use after that,” Miriam said.

Shelton and Hayes exchanged glances as Hayes reluctantly handed her his keys. “Thank you,” Miriam said. She then spoke to the room. “What kind of coffee do you want me to pick up?

“I’ll go with you,” Taylor said, grabbing his police cap from atop a filing cabinet.

Sergeant Bennett raised his head from his notes on the table. “That’s okay, Corporal. We’ve got a lot to do here.”

Taylor paused, hat in hand, and nodded with a slight look of disappointment.

“Folgers would be fine, Ma’am,” the sergeant added. “No problem,” Miriam said with a sudden perkiness in her tone.“Lieutenant Sandoval, are you okay?” Hayes asked, blocking her path as she walked toward the door.

She stopped and looked at his concerned face. “I’m fine, really. A quick drive through town will get my wheels turning.”

Shelton joined the conversation with an encouraging tone. “Just remember, you’re an asset to this case, whether you realize it now or not.”“Thank you, Detective,” she said. “I’m confident that we’ll get this guy.”

Hayes then moved out of her path, and she left the room with a wave and her satchel over her shoulder. Picking up coffee was indeed a part of the plan, but what she really wanted to do was get a layout of the town beyond what she had seen.

She wanted to think about Shelton’s plan and how it was going to work. She admired their tenacity and quick thinking, but setting up a trap, as she had experienced in the past, could sometimes backfire. Outside the room, she walked between the two rows of vacant office desks and through the lobby, where she pushed open the double door entrance and stepped outside, shielding her face from the sun. Traffic zipped past the police station as Miriam dug into her satchel for her sunglasses to give her eyes a rest from the brightness outside.

She approached the Crown Victoria and its dusty windshield and opened the driver’s side door, stepping inside. She started the car and pulled her notebook out, flipping to the page on which she had written her detailed schedule. She supposed it wouldn’t hurt to do some quick investigation.

The detectives had their hands full with their plan. And as much as she believed in the plan, she couldn’t sit idly and wait for the kidnapper to emerge. She was going to find him one way or another, and taking initiative was part of that.

 

 

Messages

 

April Johnson’s sprawling neighborhood was strangely quiet, with not a person outside in a yard or walking about. Miriam drove down the long road of nearly identical one-story homes, flat roofs, chain-link fences, and lawns in various shades green or brown green or brown, and some with no lawns at all. There were cars parked along both sides of the narrow, cracked-pavement road, and houses their blinds shut and doors and gates closed.

Empty trash cans sat at the ends of the driveways, some tipped over, partly lying in the street. She hadn’t seen a neighborhood like it in some time, a place with something unseen and threatening hanging over it. Hayes had told her that after April’s disappearance, it had become a place guarded and vigilant. She could sense people watching her from their windows even though there wasn’t a person to be seen.

Miriam circled the block only to see more empty streets and blind-drawn homes, toys littered throughout yards and empty kiddie pools and jungle gyms with no children around to enjoy them. It was as though the neighborhood was on lockdown. Yet, the visible toys could be invitation in themselves to the wrong person.

Farther down the road, she saw a station wagon pull out of a small driveway and drive toward her. She exchanged a quick glance with a blonde-haired woman with two girls in the back seat. A dog charged at her car from a fenced-in yard to her right, running along the chain links and barking. She looked ahead, glancing at the GPS on her phone. April’s home was near, a quarter mile down the road.

Miriam imagined how close April had been to her home before being kidnapped. There was no official evidence linking the blue van to April’s disappearance, just a guess. For all anyone knew, she could have run away from home. According to her parents, however, that was something she would never do, and Miriam believed them. Her disappearance was no coincidence. The self-described chancellor had confirmed as much in his latest letter.

Miriam approached April’s nice-looking house with its mixed river-rock yard and trimmed bushes under large windows with closed venetian blinds. There were two vehicles in the driveway, an Oldsmobile Cutlass and a Ford F-150. Miriam considered stopping and knocking on the door, telling April’s parents that there was still hope for their daughter and that Miriam knew what it was like to go through such a terrible ordeal. But she didn’t know if it would help. How could it?

April’s parents had said very little publicly. Miriam could imagine their fear, uncertainty, and absolute devastation. She slowed at their house, and from the corner of her eye, saw a woman open her front door across the street and step outside, glaring at Miriam’s car, being protective it seemed. She then noticed a man peer out his blinds from another house to the right. The woman grabbed the newspaper on her doorstep and slipped back into her home, closing the door, as the man continued staring, opening the blinds a bit, and Miriam saw that he was holding a phone to his ear. She sensed that her unfamiliar presence was raising suspicion and fear.

She drove past the Johnson house, leaving it behind in all its sadness. She imagined how many times the man in the blue van had circled the block, as she was doing, before finding his victim. What kind of vehicle was he driving now? And what, exactly, did he want from her?

She circled around and drove back to April’s friend’s house, roughly a third of a mile away. There were homes on both sides of the road until she reached a three-way stop with a cleared lot on one corner and sporadic leafless trees and brown grass on the other.

If their suspect was going to stop and lure, or force, a girl into his van, Miriam thought this would be the only spot where he could have done it without anyone seeing. Witness statements from residents in the area had been recorded in April’s file, with persons confirming that they had seen nothing unusual around the neighborhood during the time of April’s disappearance. But how was such a thing possible in broad daylight on a residential street?

With questions stewing in her mind, Miriam parked and stepped out of the car with the engine idling. She looked down across the rough patches of grass and pebble-strewn sand in front of her, with no expectations of finding anything useful. Such a fortunate discovery would be unlikely, but Miriam remained hopeful that she would find something… anything that would help.

The sun shone brightly down from the blue sky, a faint breeze rustling through nearby trees. Miriam scanned the ground below, noticing lines of black ants crawling in and out of a busy anthill. Her eyes then stopped at a small red bow in the sand. It could have come from anywhere, but Miriam had a hunch that it wasn’t just any bow. She crouched and picked it up, brushing it free of sand. Cautious, she looked around again, clutching the bow, and then got back inside the car, shutting the door.

There were many locations to investigate, but she didn’t want to be gone too long, plus she still had to buy coffee. She grabbed her notebook and scanned the list of locations she had written down and had planned to visit. The used car lot had piqued her interest. She had noticed several vans toward the back, older models, marked down with clearance prices. It was a start.

She felt compelled to at least stop by and ask some questions. The air from the vents cooled her face as she sat for a moment, weighing her options. She then shifted the car into drive and left April’s neighborhood with the next destination clearly in mind.

 

RC’s Used Car Lot was located downtown, a few miles from the Food Mart. Rows of used cars filled the premises. The gate was open with orange cones set outside, directing incoming vehicles, and a big OPEN sign leaned against the six-foot fence with barbed-wire topping the battered chain links.

The car slowly rocked over the bumpy pavement as she pulled into a small, roped-off parking lot. A single trailer sat on the perimeter, the office probably. Under a large canopy near the first row of cars, she saw a man in an oil-stained blue jumpsuit leaning under the open hood of a station wagon and doing something with the engine. He took no notice of her yet, and as far as she could tell, he was a mechanic. She wanted to speak with the owner and find out if there had been a recent purchase or turn-in of a blue van. Could their suspect have been so careless? Or confident? She certainly hoped so.

Miriam stepped out of the car as a cloud of dust breezed past her. A glance at her phone indicated that she’d been away from the police station for twenty minutes. She brushed her black hair back and continued toward the office trailer, listening as distant rock music played from the mechanic’s portable radio, resting on the ground in front of the station wagon.

Beyond the used cars, the lot seemed desolate. Nearing the trailer, Miriam startled at the sight of a large, frothing dog, dark brown with tired yellow eyes, chained inside a pin, water dish at its side. The curious mongrel didn’t jump or bark at Miriam. It only observed her.

Relieved, she walked up three steps to the trailer, opened the screen door, and entered, knocking her shoes on the floor mat. She felt the refreshing breeze of three oscillating fans positioned in different corners and blowing air.

There was a counter to her right with a logbook and bell, as though she were checking into a hotel. A big man with side burns and wearing suspenders sat on the other side of the counter and welcomed her as she approached.“How can I help you today?” he asked.

His dirty-blond beard was neatly trimmed, his hair was tucked under a green hat, and his skin was tan as leather. A name patch stitched to his overalls read “Kenny.”“Hi,” she began politely. “I was wondering if you could help me out.” She paused, considering showing her badge, but opted to play the part of a prospective buyer instead. “I’m looking for a van. Something to purchase, you know? Would you happen to have anything on site? Maybe a GMC model?”

Kenny rocked back in his chair, scratching his chin. “Well, gee. I’m sure we have some on site somewhere.” He then leaned forward, stood up, and stuck his hand out. “I’m Kenny, by the way. I didn’t catch your name.”“Julie,” she said. “Julie Andrews.”

Kenny narrowed his eyes, and Miriam hoped that her smile would seem genuine. “Well, Ms. Andrews. The funniest thing happened not too long ago. Are you sure you’re just looking for a van?”“What do you mean?” Miriam asked, confused.

Without answering her, Kenny walked to a back office and swung open another screen door overlooking the lot. He cupped his mouth and shouted to the mechanic until the man looked up, wrench in hand.“Hey, come on in here for a minute!” Kenny continued.

The man stretched his back and walked toward the trailer in a leisurely stride. He was short and skinny and wore an American flag bandana. He took a sip from a can of soda clutched in his hand. Miriam waited patiently as he climbed up the stairs and walked inside, sweat beads on his face.“Yeah, what is it, Kenny?” he asked.

Kenny led him to the counter, where Miriam stood with her arms crossed and resting on its glossy surface.“This here is Mrs. Andrews. Now, why don’t you tell her what you told me?”

The young man did a double take at Miriam and seemed genuinely astonished to see her. “Well…” he began. “About two hours ago, a boy came up here on his moped and delivered a letter. Said it was for a woman. Gave me fifty bucks to give it to her when she came in.”“And?” Kenny said, impatient.

The young man thought to himself for a moment and then spoke enthusiastically as though it had just come to him. “Oh yeah. He told me that the woman was going to ask about a van and that her name is Miriam.”“You know this woman?” Kenny asked her.

Miriam seized up, stunned at what they were telling her. She leaned over the counter, inches from the young man’s sweaty, oil-streaked face. “This boy. Who was he? Do you know him?”“Nah,” he said. “Never seen him before.”“Where’s the letter, Jared?” Kenny said.“Damn, man. I gave it to you.”

Kenny searched the cluttered desk, brushing aside magazines and paperwork, until his eyes lit up with excitement. “Ah! I think that’s it. Just two hours and already buried under all this stuff.”

From the papers, he pulled a sealed bag with an envelope in it. Miriam stared at it, barely able to contain herself. “I’m… I know Miriam,” she said. “Let me see the letter.”

Kenny pulled the bag back defensively. “How do we know that?”

Miriam remained calm, telling him with a smile, “It’s an old friend of ours. We lost our phones the other night, and, well, I don’t want to get into all of it, but he knew that Miriam or I would be coming here.”“Really?” Kenny said with an arched brow. “How much is it worth to you?”

Miriam threw her pocketbook against the counter and opened it. She searched inside and pulled out a twenty. “That’s all I have. Now please, let me have the letter.”

Kenny took the money, looked at it closely, holding it up between both hands, before folding it and sliding it into the breast pocket of his shirt. Miriam thanked the men and wished them a good day, walking out of the trailer without looking back. She tried not to add any more fingerprints to the bag. “Can you sign the ledger, please,” Kenny called out.

She turned, rushed back inside, and flashed her badge at the men, surprising them. “I’m Lieutenant Sandoval with the Phoenix PD, investigating a missing child’s case. I’ll be back to get statements from you gentlemen soon.”

She turned around and left, leaving both men in a state of confusion. Descending the stairs, she walked into the sandy parking lot, wasting no time. In the background, she heard Kenny yelling, “We didn’t do nothing wrong!”

Hands busy, she tore open the sealed bag and pulled out the envelope. She stopped and looked around the lot, wondering if whoever had left the letter was watching her.

Who was she dealing with? What was his game? She opened the neatly trifolded single sheet of white paper, upon which the words were typed this time instead of being cut from a magazine. A copycat? The change made her suspicious, but the tone was entirely the same.

Hello, Miriam. If you’re reading this now, you’ve proved to be the fine detective I know you to be. Rest assured, I am a very careful man. You will not find the van at the salvage yard. I paid at least five different strangers to pass this letter between themselves, so I wouldn’t waste your time trying to track that down either. Here is what I’m offering you. I will help you find Natalie Forester, but you’ve got to do your part. Your mission, if you should accept, is to drive to the Food Mart parking lot and wait for further instructions. No police. Only you. At this point, what do you have to lose?

She quickly re-folded up the letter and looked around some again, noticing Kenny and the mechanic watching her from a window in the trailer. They looked away when their eyes met hers and moved back from the window. Miriam was at a true impasse. She couldn’t decide if she should immediately call the detectives or pursue her mysterious letter writer on her own. She knew he could be luring her into a trap, but the desire to find out what waited for her at the Food Mart took precedence. She was going to do it.

 

Miriam’s absence from the police station had resulted in a few missed calls from Detective Hayes. She, however, was too focused on the mission at hand to worry about it. She sent him a vague text message assuring him that she’d return to the police station soon.

His reply said, Please hurry. We’re hoping to have this sting operation set up within the next few hours.

She didn’t like to keep them waiting or in the dark, for that matter. It wasn’t right, but the note was a breakthrough. Someone was playing games, and she was going to find out who it was. There was no time to spare. She sat at a red light in an intersection, gauging her options. The detectives needed to know about the letter, but its writer warned her to arrive at the Food Mart alone. Was it worth the risk?

The light turned green, and Miriam raced ahead with the Food Mart parking lot in view and the letter still vivid in her mind. It was clear that the man had taken an unhealthy interest in her. As a result, she felt an overwhelming sense of uncertainty. The main advantage her adversary had was that he knew who she was, whereas she had no idea. She hoped that would change soon enough.

Miriam careened over the curved road leading to the parking lot, driving too fast, and with one objective in mind: park and wait. Being a sitting duck, however, wasn’t the most appealing option. She would have to be mindful of her surroundings and be ready to call for backup.

The man had so far been careful in his approach, but his eagerness was beginning to show. With Shelton’s plan, there was a reasonable chance that they could draw him out into the open under the watchful surveillance of the police, but what if the plan failed? If they couldn’t draw him out, they’d be back at square one, with their chances of rescuing the girls growing slimmer by the house. Miriam considered all of this as she pulled into the Food Mart .

The business was open, and the crime-scene tape that had cordoned the area was gone. In its place were cars filling the row as though nothing had happened. Miriam passed hurried-looking shoppers, pushing carts along past her and then appearing in her rearview mirror.

Did the man randomly pick Natalie, or was she a part of the plan all along?

She circled the building and passed a loading dock and several stacks of milk crates. She didn’t see anyone around but kept in mind that she could be being watched. One could never be too careful. There were two county dumpsters, full to the brim, enclosed in a chain-link fence. Miriam thought of parking behind them and then surveying the area on foot. She felt close, closer than she had since arriving in Odessa, but she continued to acknowledge that she was playing the kidnapper’s game and that he was currently making the rules.

Would he really divulge the whereabouts of Natalie, or was that just a ploy? And why no mention of April? Miriam was worried. She was already deviating from what the detectives had planned, and they were no doubt growing curious concerning of her whereabouts back at the station. Maybe even growing upset. She could send Hayes a text and let them know what was going on, but would they stay in place, or blow the entire mission? She wondered what Lou would tell her, and then the answer became all too clear. He’d insist that she get away from the Food Mart immediately. Calling him wasn’t an option. Miriam had to trust her instincts. She slowly passed the dumpsters, and her tires crunched the pavement below.

Nothing wrong with a little reconnaissance, she thought, circling around to the front of the building as the lane narrowed.

The Crown Victoria coasted around the other side of the building, circling back to the parking lot. Miriam brought the visor down to block the sunlight as its bright rays struck the windshield. She slowed and stopped at the side of the building as a few cars passed, driving slowly through a crosswalk. She waited and considered where she could go to get a good view of the entire lot. Once clear, she drove ahead and down an aisle, parking near the cart return. Her hand hovered over the ignition key, and she slowly turned it, shutting the engine off.“I’m here, you son of a bitch,” she said under her breath.

She grabbed her cell phone and sent Detective Hayes a quick text. Sorry I’m taking so long. At the Food Mart now and picking up coffee.

Within a moment, her phone buzzed back with a new message. Hayes urged her to hurry up so they could get started. She answered, telling him that she would, and then stuck her phone in her pocket while feeling the pistol holstered at her side. Was her deception tantamount to lying? She was going to the Food Mart just like she’d said she would. If she found a clue along the way, what would be the harm?

For the time being, Miriam sat and waited, carefully observing the parking lot. She was facing toward the entrance of the store, a few parking aisles ahead. She looked at every nearby car to see if anyone was sitting inside and watching just as she was. She half expected to see the man sitting at the wheel of some recently purchased beater, and then making direct eye contact. Despite her hopes, she didn’t see anyone. All the vehicles were empty. She repeatedly glanced at her rearview mirror, ever cautious of a stranger’s approach.

There seemed to be no one around beyond typical shoppers, but Miriam waited. She pulled the letter from the envelope once again and read his words carefully. She had been instructed to wait for further instructions like something out of a Mission Impossible episode, or a treasure hunt, or a wild goose chase. The note’s details were sketchy at best.

How exactly was she supposed to communicate with him? How would she know if he was there and vice versa? Perhaps the whole thing was one sick charade to keep her wasting time and waiting for answers that would never come. Despite these questions, Miriam sat there, watching. Ten minutes passed, and she saw nothing beyond shoppers coming and going. Another text came from Hayes, asking her status, and she wasn’t sure what to say. His persistence was wearing on her, and making her feel guilty.

Leaving soon, she sent back, leaving it at that, but knowing he must be suspicious by now. It was the best she could do given the circumstances. Feeling as though nothing would be accomplished sitting in the car, Miriam opened the door and stepped out, prepared to enter the store. She stayed low and scanned the parking lot, sunglasses concealing her eyes. A police siren sounded in the distance, gaining her attention, then soon fading away. There seemed nothing left for her to do but to go inside and buy some coffee. The letter had spoken of clues, but so far there were none.

Miriam walked toward the store, looking over her shoulder and all around her, just as a large SUV pulled into the parking aisle she was crossing. A man was at the wheel, with a woman in the passenger seat and some children in the back. She moved quickly past the vehicle and approached the store at a steady pace, her right hand lowered at the side of the windbreaker she was wearing to conceal her firearm.

She passed a woman placing paper bags of groceries in her trunk. The site of Natalie’s disappearance was only a few spaces away, and Miriam did a quick circle to cover the area, trying not to look too obvious. In the spot where Natalie’s mother’s car had been parked was a fancy jet black Chevy Impala, with other cars parked on either side. Miriam scanned the ground for a letter or anything of interest but saw nothing. She knelt on the ground next to the sports car as though she had dropped something and looked underneath, seeing a fresh oil stain.Her letter writer was playing games. There was nothing of importance, no further instructions or notes. Wherever the man was, he was probably laughing at her. Rising from the pavement, Miriam shielded her frustration and continued her walk toward the Food Mart entrance. She nodded and smiled at a passing couple and then entered through the automatic doors as cool air blew into her face.

She walked toward the front of the checkout lines and stopped. Three of the six cash registers were open. It was still early, and there weren’t too many customers just yet. Three women worked the registers as a younger dark-haired girl shifted between the three, bagging groceries.

At the customer service desk to her right, Miriam watched as a well-groomed man behind the counter, wearing a tie and vest, assisted an elderly woman with a money order. It seemed like business as usual at the Food Mart. No one approached her with another letter or seemed to even take notice her overall.

She continued across the clean, white-tiled floors, past the registers and bargain bins and toward the shopping aisles, searching the signs for the coffee aisle. She turned down the third aisle as light pop music played from the speakers overhead. She searched the shelves for Folgers and found a thirty-ounce can of classic roast, which she believed would suffice.

She left the aisle and walked to the registers, choosing the express line, where a man in cargo shorts and a boonie cap was ahead of her purchasing some fruit. Miriam eyed him suspiciously, along with the customers in line at the other registers. The middle-aged cashier rang the man up, asking him about his day, as Miriam glanced at the tabloid magazine rack and then turned to watch the man in cargo shorts walk off with his bag of fruit as the cashier turned to her with a smile.“How are you doing today, ma’am?”“Great. How are you?” Miriam asked.“Doing wonderful, thank you.”

The cashier rang up the Folgers just as the young, blonde-haired girl bagging groceries approached her register and spoke to the cashier almost in confidence. Miriam couldn’t help but eavesdrop.“Walter called in sick today, just to let you know.”

The cashier placed ran the coffee over the scanner and turned to the bagger. “Are you kidding me? He was supposed to cover my register today.” She paused and looked at her watch. “I have an appointment in an hour.”

The girl shrugged. “I’m just telling you what Sheila told me.”

Fully distracted, the cashier continued as Miriam patiently waited. “What happened? Why did he call in?”“Heard he was sick. You never know with that weirdo.”

The cashier sighed and ran a hand down her face. “Sick? He was just trained last week. We had a deal.”“I’m sorry,” the girl said. “Talk to Sheila.”

The cashier turned back to Miriam, visibly stirred, and then tried to feign a smile. “I apologize,” she said. “That will be $6.29.”“No problem,” Miriam said.

She paid with her card, and as the receipt printed, she had an idea. It might have been a stretch, but the mention of a sick employee piqued her interest. The words they spoken rang out like warning bells—weirdo, called in sick, and trained last week. Could there be any possible connection?“Excuse me,” Miriam said, taking the receipt. “I’m sure you’ve heard about the girl who vanished from this parking lot the other day. Did anyone get statements from the employees? Do you know of any employees who drive a blue van?”

The cashier looked at Miriam with a reserved expression. “Um. Are you with the police?”

Miriam nodded with a smile. “I don’t mean to put you on the spot, but yes, I’m assisting with the investigation.”

The cashier shook her head. “I think it’s just terrible what happened to that girl. They spoke to a bunch of us, but no one saw anything. I really hope you find her.”“And the blue van?” Miriam asked. “Anyone come to mind?”

Pausing, the cashier thought about it. “I don’t think so. I saw the AMBER Alert that day mentioning a blue van, but no one here drives one that I know of.”

Miriam could tell that the last thing the cashier wanted to consider was that one of their employees had played a part in Natalie’s disappearance. She hoped, however, to get the woman to say something, anything, even if by accident.“What about this Walter individual?” Miriam continued.

The cashier jerked her head back, surprised at the implication. She then looked around as though she wasn’t sure if she should be talking to Miriam in the first place. “Walter?”“Yes,” Miriam said. “What’s his last name?”

The cashier responded with a nervous laugh. “I don’t know if we can give out that information.”“It’s okay. I’m just following up. If there’s anything helpful you can provide, that’d be great,” Miriam said in a calm, reassuring tone. She certainly didn’t want to spook the woman.“No one drives a blue van here that I know of,” the cashier repeated curtly.“If I could just get his last name please,” Miriam reiterated.“It’s Browning,” the cashier said. “Walter Browning. But he’s harmless.”“What kind of vehicle does he drive?” Miriam asked. She could see in the cashier’s flustered face that she was pushing it, but she had come to the Food Mart for answers, not just coffee.

The cashier looked around again and then waved to the man at the customer service desk.“It’s okay,” Miriam said. “I’m just curious. You do understand that we have to explore all possibilities, don’t you?”“I’m sorry. It’s not my place,” the woman said. “I’m just a cashier.”

The man appeared almost immediately and asked the cashier what the issue was.“This woman is asking questions about employees,” she said with a nod toward Miriam.

The man eyed her with concern but remained polite. “How can we help you today, ma’am?”

Miriam decided to forego any sense of impropriety and got right to the point. “I’m investigating the case of Natalie Forester, and I have some questions about your employees, Walter Browning being one of them.” She noticed two people waiting behind her in line and stepped away with the man as he walked her to the customer service counter.

Suddenly the cashier called out to Miriam as though she’d had second thoughts. “He drives a red Datsun, just to let you know.”

Miriam turned and thanked her as the man leaned close to her, speaking quietly and with concern about creating a scene. The tag on his vest identified him as the assistant manager. “Look, Ms.…?”“Sandoval,” Miriam said.“Ms. Sandoval,” he continued. “We want to help the investigation however we can, but I cannot have my employees being questioned in such a manner.”“I understand,” Miriam said. “I don’t wish to make anyone uncomfortable. There are just a lot of unanswered questions, and we’re at a crucial time in finding Natalie.”

He folded his hands and leaned back with a nervous nod. “And you’re free to ask us anything you wish. Our team has been more than cooperative the past couple of days. We pray for Natalie’s return, but please, if it’s answers you want, I’d expect something more official, more professional.”“I understand,” Miriam said, holding the grocery bag of Folgers. “Thank you for your time.”

She turned and left the store, knowing that she wasn’t going to get more information from them without drawing the attention of the police. It was best to take whatever clues she had and leave. Their suspect hadn’t given her anything as he’d promised in his last letter.

She walked outside through the automatic doors, wondering if Walter Browning was a dead end. She stopped and quickly scribbled his name in her pad, noting that he drove a red Datsun, at least according to the cashier.

Just outside the door, her legs froze in place with a brief recollection of the night before. She was sitting at a corner booth in Maddy’s Diner with Detectives Hayes and Shelton, watching the parking lot. She could clearly remember a red Datsun slowly driving by, as though the driver was watching the place. It could be a coincidence, or it could be the piece of a puzzle tying everything together. Nonetheless, she considered it something well worth looking into.

A passing car snapped her back to reality, and she hurried back to the Crown Victoria while looking all around her, not quite out of the woods yet. She dug into her pocket for her cell phone, prepared to call Detective Hayes and tell him about their newest lead, when suddenly she noticed newly placed flyers on the windshields of all the cars in the parking lot, including hers. One glance at the flyer and she could see that is was an ad for an auto parts store. They were having a buy-three-tires-get-one-free sale, stated in big, bold letters. The flyer flapped in the dry wind under the windshield wiper as she approached the car, pressing the remote unlock button on the keychain.

She grabbed her cell phone and scrolled for Hayes’s number. The messages asking her whereabouts had ceased for the moment. She owed them an update at this point, a name at least that could help with the investigation. Her attention then reached to the flyer on her windshield, and as she went to take it off, she noticed a writing on the other side.

She grabbed the flyer and scanned the parking lot, looking for any signs of movement, any remembered changes. A few people walked to their vehicles, carrying bags and pushing carts filled with groceries, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

She couldn’t see if anyone was watching her, but she felt a presence. There was no sign even of the person who had placed the flyers on the windshields, but Miriam had an idea. There had to be a link—a clue the man had mentioned in his last letter.

Miriam ducked inside the car, slamming the door, locking the locks, and feeling safer once she was less exposed. She flipped the flyer around and read the sloppy hand-writing as her heart thumped in anticipation.

I waited for you, but you took too long. I’ve taken the liberty, however, of providing you a push in the right direction. All you need to do is to take advantage of Johnson Discount Auto Parts’ amazing deals. For a limited time, promotional code 811VKQ will get you an amazing deal. Hint: look under mufflers. This is all I’m giving you. Remember, don’t tell your buddies on the force. This is between you and me.

The brief message was a further ploy to keep her guessing, and Miriam couldn’t help but go along with it. The thought of the man standing at her vehicle only moments before made her apprehensive about pursuing the matter on her own any further, but Miriam was never one to shy away from confrontation. She put the address of the auto parts store into her GPS and set the cell phone on the center console. She was only two miles away.

Her hand turned the ignition in haste, and she backed out of her parking space. The dashboard clock indicated that she’d been away from the station for some time, but it was the furthest thing on her mind. She was in pursuit of a dangerous man, and nothing was going to get in her way.

 

 

The Hunt

Miriam raced through downtown to the auto parts store three blocks ahead. She had managed to pass every intersection with ease, just as each traffic light turned yellow. Now with each clue, the messages seemed to direct her closer to some kind of answer, or so she hoped.

She was certain that whomever had composed the messages had no intention of being caught. No one would willingly give themselves up in such a manner. The man was most likely leading her into a trap. There seemed no other plausible reason for the letters in the first place, but she wasn’t going to allow him to get the better of her.“Whatever you find here, take it to the station,” she said to herself.

She hadn’t felt the thrill of a pursuit in a long time. Her desk job with the Family Investigation Unit had protected her from field work. As her heart raced with anticipation, she realized that she had missed the thrill of pursuit for some time.

For the first time in the past year, she felt alive and unafraid—an emotion more refreshing than any counseling session could ever provide. She was going to catch the man behind the letters. With only a few days left in Odessa, it was all that mattered.

Miriam slowed at an intersection as Johnson’s Auto Parts came into view. The small building was on her left, in a sandy lot with the mountains silhouetted in the background. She turned at the green traffic arrow and pulled into the front of the store, where a few cars were parked.

The Crown Victoria idled as she took a moment to think. The man could be close by. He could even be waiting inside the store for her, but such a scenario seemed hard to believe. She sent Hayes a text message, promising that she wouldn’t be much longer. It was mostly true. She just didn’t mention her last stop before doing so. Her phone then vibrated with Hayes’s speedy reply:

Get back here already.

Angry, just as she expected. She knew that she was pushing it but didn’t want give up yet. She was getting somewhere. The car pinged as she opened the door and stepped outside, carefully looking all around her for anyone watching.

She grabbed the flyer, stuck it in her pocket, and as she shut the car door. She approached the store onto a sidewalk, leading to the front door. A bell sounded from above the door as she walked in, eager to investigate. The store had a few customers strolling the aisles, and no one looked her way. There was a clerk at the front counter, a teenager searching through the tail light rack, and a father and son walking down the oil aisle.

Rather than immediately talking to the clerk, Miriam circled the aisles to make sure that she was safe. She then went down an aisle of car parts, stopping at a hanging three-ring binder with a book inside as thick as a phone book. An idea came to her in line with what she had strategized in the car. She opened the book and scanned the muffler section, where various numbers corresponded with vehicle models.

She came across 811VKQ, the same alphanumeric digits written on the back of the flyer, and then located a muffler for a Datsun 510, the very classic model she had envisioned. The connection was clear. All she needed now was an address.

Was the kidnapper willing to give himself up so easily? There had to be a catch. Miriam made note of the muffler type, scrawling the item number into her pocket notepad. She approached the front counter and took a deep breath.

The skinny clerk looked up from his magazine as Miriam approached with her best smile.“How can I help you today?” he asked.

Miriam handed him the torn piece of paper with the item number on it. “I’d like to see if you have this muffler in stock. It’s for my husband’s Datsun.”“I’m sure we do. It’s a popular model. Let me just take a quick look in our system and I’ll let you know.” He typed quickly on the keyboard of the outdated computer on the counter as Miriam patiently waited. She could see the green digits of the computer monitor reflect onto his glasses. He nodded with a smile and told her that they had the part in stock.“How much is it?” she asked.“Forty-nine ninety-nine,” he responded. “Would you like me to get it?”

Miriam hesitated a moment, thinking. “I’m not sure,” she said. “I only came here to check to see if you had one in stock. Does your store deliver?”“Yes, ma’am. We do.”“Can you look to see if my address is in your system?” she asked.“Sure,” the clerk said while trying to mask his slight confusion. “What’s your phone number?”

Miriam felt her pockets and gave a look of panic. “Darn it. It would be my husband’s number probably. I don’t remember. If I had my cell phone on me…”“Okay, what’s your husband’s name?” the clerk asked, clearly trying to get things moving along as another customer approached and stood behind Miriam.“Walter Browning,” Miriam said, her voice lowered. She looked behind her only to find the teenager standing there and scrolling on his cell phone.

The clerk typed quickly and leaned closer to the screen as though he had found something. Miriam grew ecstatic upon seeing a faint address reflected in his glasses. “I have… 2051 Alamo Drive. Is that correct?”“Sure is,” Miriam said.

The clerk tapped on the desk and looked at Miriam for direction. “So, would you like us to ship the part, or did you want to go ahead and pick it up today.”“I’m sorry,” Miriam said, appearing flustered. “Walter wanted me to check on muffler prices, but he didn’t say whether he wanted me to get it. I guess that’s why he always comes here instead.”“That’s quite all right,” the clerk said, with a look of relief that their business was coming to an end clear on his face. “Is there anything else I can help you with?”“That’s all. Thanks, and sorry for the confusion.”“No problem at all.”

Miriam turned and let the teenager step up with his purchase. She scanned the store on her way out, half expecting her suspect to jump out at her at any moment. Did he plan on her figuring out the address, or were the digits provided meant to further confuse her? Either way, she felt like she had the pieces she needed to close in on her mysterious pen pal and end the entire ordeal.

She looked out the store windows for any new vehicles nearby or someone watching her from a distance. Traffic cruised along past the store at a steady rate, with no one seeming to watch the store. She felt safe enough to walk outside, even though he could be near.

What would he think when she drove to the address? Would she find anything at the house of Walter Browning? A thought suddenly occurred to her that her suspect, whoever he was, could very well be pushing her in the direction of an innocent man.

It was at times like this that Miriam felt she could use some guidance from the detectives, her supervisor, or even Lou, but she felt alone and without options. She had gotten too far to simply turn back, feeling both trepidation and excitement at what she would find. “Just go to the address first, and call for back up from there,” she said to herself while exiting the store.

The car engine hummed as Miriam backed out of her parking spot, keeping a careful eye on her surroundings. If she got even the slightest hint that she was being followed, she would return to the station, but as she pulled out of the parking lot and back onto the road, no other vehicle appeared in her rearview mirror.

Her phone GPS indicated the address as being a mile and a half from the auto parts store. Arrival in 3 minutes. The thought gave her jitters. Someone was waiting for her. The notes had stopped. Nothing had been left on her windshield and before leaving the auto parts store, she had checked under the car for tracking devices.

She took a left at her first three-way stop as directed by the GPS, driving in silence and deep in thought. The turn brought her into a residential neighborhood with several small and identical two-story town homes packed along the street. The driveways were barely big enough to fit one car, though Miriam had only one vehicle in mind.

Another glance in the rearview mirror showed no one following her, though she could feel his presence. He had to be watching her from somewhere, awaiting her arrival. There were hundreds of possible scenarios before her, and she couldn’t decide on which one was the most likely. Her journey, it seemed, was being fueled by curiosity alone.

No, that wasn’t true. She had a mission.

One right turn ahead, and she had less than a mile to go. Her heart raced as she envisioned the house: small, probably, and indistinctive, like many of the carbon copy homes on the block. She had believed that their suspect lived on the outskirts, isolated from others, and was surprised to consider that he was operating in plain view of a busy neighborhood.

His name repeated in her mind: Walter Browning. Food Mart employee. It all made sense. Of course, however, he could very well turn out to be the wrong man, causing Miriam to end up back at the drawing board.

Such a notion ended when she turned onto Alamo Drive and saw a four-door red classic Datsun parked in the narrow driveway leading to a single-car garage with a closed door. The numbers on the house near the front door matched those she had been given at the auto parts store: 2051.

Ever cautious, Miriam coasted past the house and parked across the street. She noticed that the two windows in front had their blinds drawn. There was no sneaking a glance inside, but she was confident that the occupant was home. He had called in sick, after all. Was this her mastermind? The man behind the letters? Were two girls being held against their will behind the brown, wood clapboard siding of the house? There was only one way to find out.

Her phone suddenly vibrated. It was Detective Hayes. He must have tired of sending her text messages and receiving only vague responses in return. She answered, prepared to hear his frustration.“What’s your ETA?” he asked, omitting a greeting.

Miriam hesitated for a moment and did the best she could. “I’m on my way back now. But I saw something, and I’m going to check it out.”“What thing? What are you talking about?”“When we were at Maddy’s Diner last night, a Datsun crept past the parking lot like it was watching us.”“Okay?” he said after stunned pause. “So what?”“There’s this house that I’ve got a gut feeling about. I’m just going to circle around and get a license plate, then I’ll be back at the station in no time. I’ve got the coffee.”“Where are you at?” he asked directly.“I’m on Alamo Drive.”“We need you back at the station. We’ve got a major operation to plan.”“Ten minutes is all I ask,” she said. “The address is 2051 Alamo Drive.”

He sighed and then spoke like a stern father. “You have my car. Not just my car, but the department’s car. We need your help with this. Please hurry back.” “I will,” she said. “I’m sorry to keep everyone waiting.”

There were other voices coming through in the background, and Hayes sounded distracted. “I have to get things started. We’ll be waiting,” he said, hanging up.

Miriam understood his frustration and felt torn between returning to the station or pursuing the address further. However, there was only one clear answer. She turned off the engine and stuck her phone in her pocket. The pistol she hadn’t fired in six months rested against her hip in its holster. She had her badge, her notes, and her wits. It was time to ask Walter Browning some questions. There were houses along both sides of the streets, but no one was outside. The sun was shining bright and everything was quiet—peaceful even.

A six-foot wooden privacy fence surrounded Browning’s backyard. The front consisted of patches of dirt and overgrown weeds. She scoped the area out before getting out of the car. No one had followed her as far as she knew. It appeared that, for the moment, she was safe.

Miriam exited the car swiftly and walked straight toward Browning’s driveway. If Walter was indeed waiting for her, she would be ready, but she was also prepared for it all to be hoax. Birds chirped from above as a quiet breeze caused the trees in between the houses to sway slightly. In a neighborhood where most of the yards were beds of stone, she heard a lawn mower in the distance. She walked up his driveway with a sharp eye, seeing that the front windows had their curtains drawn. A cement path led to a patio screen with a front door that appeared to be opened a crack. He was home after all!

There were a few plastic lawn chairs on the small porch next to a potted cactus. As she neared the door, she heard something faint and indistinctive coming from inside. The television was on, but there was something else—a muffled, drawn out sound. She stopped inches from the door and listened. Part of her wanted to storm inside and drag Walter Browning out for questioning. Instead, she opened the patio screen and knocked against the door, waiting with her hand near her pistol. There was no answer, so she knocked again. A strange feeling came over her as though something wasn’t right. Had she been lured into a trap? If so, she’d never forgive herself.

Stay focused, she said to herself. She slowly pushed the door open and looked inside the darkened house. She could see a small foyer with a living room around the corner and light from the television flashing. Her attention then went past the living room and toward what looked like a kitchen where the muffled noise persisted. She tried to block out the background television noise and focus on what sounded like a person calling for help.“Mr. Browning?” she called out, but again no one answered.

She slipped inside as daylight shone into the gloomy interior of the small house. The door creaked with a coming breeze and Miriam crept toward the living room, where the edge of a recliner came into view.

“Natalie?” she whispered. “April?”

There was no response, but the sound continued from past the living room and toward the kitchen. It sounded like someone crying. Upon closer inspection, it sounded like someone was yelling for help. Miriam’s pace quickened when she suddenly halted upon the sight of a man sitting in his recliner with the back of his head toward her, not moving. She went for her pistol, gripping the handle and waiting. Whoever was sitting in the living room in front of the flashing television hadn’t noticed her yet. He could be sleeping, and Miriam wanted to keep it that way until she found the source of the noise.

She continued past the kitchen and turned to see two rooms, one with its door closed with several locked deadbolts and one open. She peered inside the open room and saw a nightstand with a digital alarm clock and an empty beer can on it. Next to the bed was an open closet displaying several men’s shirts on hangers. There was also a computer table. She then moved toward the closed door and listened against its surface. Her heart raced upon hearing the cries of a girl inside. “Let me out of here!”

Miriam’s hand immediately went for the doorknob, but it was locked. It even had a keyhole, which was odd for a bedroom door. She began unlocking the deadbolts when she suddenly heard movement coming from the living room. She backed away from the door and moved swiftly past the kitchen again and at the edge of the living room entrance.

The raucous daytime talk show cheering suddenly cut out and everything went silent expect for the sobbing that continued from the room. She heard the man groan as he stood, causing the recliner to squeak. She peaked around the corner and saw him standing in the dark room, scratching his head and yawning. He was tall, skinny man with stubble on his acne-scarred cheeks. His bathrobe was open, exposing bandages wrapped around his waist and over his white undershirt. For a moment, he just stood there in a daze as though he had awoken from a deep sleep. He then looked around in confusion at the sound of his front door creaking. Miriam’s breathing intensified as she drew her pistol and waited. To fail at her mission was to fail not only the two captive girls but her own family as well. Lou would be enraged to find out she had taken things so far. Her entire career could end in a second with one false move.

On a table next to the man were bandages, bottles of antiseptic, and a pair of scissors. Most frightening of all, however, was a .45 Magnum sitting out in the open within an arm’s reach of the man. He turned around and faced the blank television, stretching, and Miriam saw her chance.

She rushed into the room, pistol aimed, and went immediately into arrest mode. “Freeze!” she shouted.

Terrified, the man spun around with shocked ferocity. “What the fuck!” His face was stunned beyond words. Miriam kept her aim steady as her index finger caressed the trigger.“Who the fuck are you?” he shouted even louder.“Hands up!” she said.

She could see his legs tremble as his hands went slowly into the air. His face was a mass of confusion and disbelief.“Walter Browning?” she asked.“What are you doing in my house?”“Are you Walter Browning?” she repeated in an authoritative tone.

He shrugged as though her question didn’t make any sense. She then had the slight feeling that something was off. Someone had led her to this destination, and the last person who looked responsible stood four feet from her.“Yes,” he responded. “What the hell do you want?”“I’m with the Ector County Police Department, and you’re under arrest. Where are the girls?”

 

Walter appeared gawky and nervous, with youthful bangs hanging to the right side of his face. She glanced at the bandages wrapped around his waist as he grabbed a nearby pair of scissors.

 

“Drop it!” she shouted.

 

They fell to the ground in an instant as his arms wavered.

 

“Turn around and put your hands on your head.”

 

Rather than nervously complying, Walter stayed frozen. The house was cluttered with old furniture, and a dank staleness was in the air on account of most of the windows being closed.“Don’t make me ask again!”She noticed fear in his eyes, which led her to believe that she had come to the right place. He repeatedly glanced over her shoulder, staring at the door behind her with great concern. For a moment, it looked as if he might be signaling to someone. Miriam turned in an instant and saw no one there. When her attention went back to him, Walter jumped to the side in a fury and grabbed the Magnum, swinging his arm in her direction.“No!” she shouted.On instinct, she fired two rounds into his chest at the same time he took the shot. Gunfire exploded in deafening blasts on both sides. His shot grazed her ear and sent her tumbling back just as his body collapsed with a heavy thud, two gaping holes in his chest and blood gushing onto the floor. His gun lay on the ground, still in his hand.

Miriam rushed over and kicked it away. A sick feeling permeated her gut as though something had gone terribly wrong. Everything had happened so fast, she barely had time to think.“Why?” she asked in an anguished voice. “Why didn’t you just listen?” But his lifeless body gave no response. His eyes remained as wide as they had been when she stormed into his living room, his mouth agape in shock.Miriam backed out of the living room in haste and did a sweep of the adjacent kitchen and then turned to the hall, where one room remained locked. Her hands moved quickly with the turn of each deadbolt. She swung the door open and then pressed her back against the wall. No one came rushing out. The air was still. Silence followed.Miriam leaned halfway past the door frame and peeked inside. Below a flickering light and a ceiling fan, she could see a girl curled into a ball under the covers and whimpering softly. Miriam’s heart dropped at the sight, and she rushed inside.

She reached the bed and could see that the girl’s right wrist was handcuffed to the bed railing. She looked desperately around the room for the other girl but only saw the single frightened child below—one bed, one girl, and nothing else.“It’s okay, sweetie,” Miriam said while leaning on the bed. She lightly touched the girl’s exposed head, causing the child to recoil under the sheets. “I’m Miriam. I’m a policewoman, and I’m here to take you home.”The girl paused and then looked out from the covers with her frightened eyes exposed. “Where is he?” she whispered.“He’s gone. Don’t worry, no one is going to hurt you.” She brushed the girl’s stringy hair back with a calm look. “Can you tell me your name?” she asked.“Natalie,” the girl said nervously.“Nice to meet you, Natalie. You’re going to be all right. Is there anyone else in the house? Do you know a girl named April?”

 

Natalie shook her head with dried tears showing on her face. “No one. Just him.”Miriam felt strangely defeated despite finding Natalie. She couldn’t imagine how she would even begin to explain everything to the detectives. She took a moment, holstered her pistol, and wrapped her arms around Natalie, hugging her tightly as the girl cried. “There, there,” she said. “We’ll get you home in a jiff.”She released Natalie and dug for her cell phone, ready to call Hayes and tell him the news, but she couldn’t find it.

They had a dead kidnapper on their hands, and no matter which way they sliced it, the outcome would be problematic. They’d ask what an out-of-state investigator from the Phoenix Family and Children’s division was doing in the house in the first place.She went back into the living room for her cell phone and found it cracked and busted on the floor where she had fallen. Her hand swept her earlobe as warm liquid soaked through her shirt. She’d been hit and was bleeding. Her head hurt and she began to panic. She needed a phone. Any phone. She did a quick search of the kitchen, and she saw a landline affixed to the wall, much to her relief. Before she could call the police, however, the phone rang with a loud old-fashioned clang. Miriam answered quickly and was met by crackling static.“This is Lieutenant Sandoval. Hello?”There was no response, and she considered hanging up. As she brought the phone away from her ear, she suddenly heard a distorted voice on the other end.“Who is this?” she asked, patience nearing an end.“Very well done. You found the house,” the man began. The low distortion on his voice covered any trace of personality, and she had the sudden realization that the person on the other end of line had been the one who led her to Walter’s house.“You saved the day, Miriam. You should be proud of yourself. We make a great team, don’t we?” He paused for a response, but Miriam was too shocked to provide one.“I knew I could steer you in the right direction. Imagine my surprise when I saw you pass by Walter’s house. I helped you, sure, but you figured out a lot on your own. I had you at a fifty-fifty chance.”“Who are you?” she repeated. “How did you get this number?”A satisfied laugh came from the other end. “I don’t think I’ll be sharing that information with you, unfortunately. Did you kill him? Did you kill Walter?”Miriam didn’t answer. She only listened as the insanity of the situation unfolded. “Oh yeah. I bet you couldn’t wait to pull that trigger.”“W-Why…?” was all she could muster.“To get you back in the game, Miriam. Poor, young, susceptible Walter. I told him to be more careful. I hope little Natalie is okay. Pity that April can’t share in your moment of success.”“You son of a bitch,” Miriam said angrily. “You wrote those letters? If you know anything about April’s disappearance, I demand that you tell me now.”He responded with more calm and measured laughter. “Demand? Yes, I know plenty about her disappearance. In fact, I have her right here. Where that is, you may never know. Walter was just a primer to get things going. Think you can solve this thing without my help? It’s going to be exceedingly difficult, but I wish you luck.”

 

“Please…” Miriam pleaded. “This has gone far enough. You have the power to make a difference here. Let April go. Her family is worried sick about her. The entire town is up in arms.”“I know,” he interjected, “and it gives me great satisfaction.”Miriam glanced into Natalie’s room. The girl still lay in bed, frightened and under the covers. The call was surreal and filled Miriam with disbelief. Who exactly was she dealing with? The sickness in her gut engulfed her, causing a momentary faintness.“April’s not the only one,” the man continued. “I’m just getting started. You passed the first phase. Are you good enough to stop me? Time will tell.”“I’m going to kill you,” Miriam said. “I’m going to find you and kill you for what you’ve done to these girls.”“I’m sure you will try,” he said. The call cut off, leaving Miriam with mass confusion swirling around in her head. The dead man in the living room may have been taken Natalie, but there was someone else out there—someone cunning and possibly more demented than she had ever encountered. She was a huge part of the case now, whether she liked it or not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The Abducted: Odessa

One year after defeating the Snatcher, Miriam settles back in to a quiet, low-key life, still working for the Phoenix PD. Meanwhile, a kidnapping occurs in a small Texas town. The kidnapper specifically mentions Miriam in a note left behind, prompting local officials to seek out Miriam for her assistance and expertise. But finding the missing child is just the first step in a twisted game of murder, deceit, and revenge.

  • ISBN: 9781370150595
  • Author: Roger Hayden
  • Published: 2016-12-27 18:50:14
  • Words: 40087
The Abducted: Odessa The Abducted: Odessa