Authors: Rayven T. Hill
Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller, #Suspense
He snapped open the collar and removed a padlock hanging through a hoop in the leather band, the key still in it. “Hold still,” he said. She meekly obeyed. He wrapped the collar around her neck, and fastened the lock through a metal loop, clicked it shut, and removed the key. He stood back and surveyed her, cocking his head to one side, stuffing the key in his pocket.
“That should do it,” he said.
“Are . . . are you going to leave me here?” she managed to ask, looking at the floor, avoiding his eyes.
He raised her chin so she was forced to look at him. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. You have to stay here for now. Maybe not long. Maybe a long time. I don’t know. It’s your fault, you know.”
He grabbed a horse blanket tossed across a stall door, and threw it her way. “This will keep you warm. You need to keep warm. And you’ll need to sleep.”
In a moment, he was gone, his short legs carrying him swiftly across the barn floor, closing the door behind him as he left.
Thursday, August 11th, 6:00 PM
JAKE plopped the packet of steaks down on the end of the barbecue. He admired them. Red juicy and thick, just as he liked them.
The Master Chef barbecue was already hot, flame licking at the grate, the smell of charcoal filling the air. A container of tangy barbecue sauce was ready when needed. A pot of coffee was busy percolating on the side burner.
A few feet away, a solid homemade picnic table was covered with a plastic cloth, the table piled high with paper plates, utensils, salads, and other summertime treats.
A pair of large speakers on the deck was softly pumping out the mellow voice of Johnny Cash singing about a ring of fire. Somewhere far away the rumble of a lawnmower could be faintly heard.
Matty was running around the back yard, chasing a soccer ball. Annie and her mother stepped out the back door, carrying more plates of food. They arranged them on the already over-loaded table.
“There’s enough food there for an army,” Jake said, eyeing the table.
Andy Roderick glanced over to where Jake was looking. His wife and his daughter were both good cooks, and he always enjoyed these little get-togethers. Of course, lots of food was always a bonus. He grinned at Jake. “Well, I for one am going to eat more than my share.”
Annie’s father was fairly tall, unlike Annie and her mother Alma. And, unlike his wife, he spoke softly most of the time. His looks were a bit deceiving. He could be mistaken for the CEO of a major firm, a banker, or a high-flyer on Wall Street. He was none of those, but content to manage his small trucking company, doing mainly local deliveries.
Matty came running up. “Grandpa, come and play soccer with me.”
Andy looked down at Matty and grinned. “Sure Mate,” he said, taking the offered ball and kicking it toward the back fence. They chased after the ball.
Annie approached Jake as he was dropping the last steak onto the sizzling grill. “As soon as those are ready,” she said, “we can eat.”
Jake looked over his shoulder. Annie’s mother was fiddling with something at the table. He grinned at Annie. “So far, it’s been a wonderful night.”
Annie slugged him on the shoulder. “Just be good.”
Andy had brought a six-pack of Corona. Jake took another swig of his first. “I’ll try.”
In a few minutes, the steaks were done to juicy perfection. They took a seat at the table. Jake thanked the Good Lord for the food and they all dove in.
Matty was chattering away about having too much homework. Annie and Alma were talking about some boring stuff the guys had no interest in, while Jake and Andy discussed the state of the Union, football, and Thrush’s new bright red “mad hot” performance mufflers.
Jake’s cell phone buzzed in his pocket. He stood and moved away from the chatter at the table. “Hello?”
“Oh Jake, it’s Amelia James.” She spoke fast, excited. “I tried your regular number but got voice mail, so I called your cell. It’s Jenny! She called! She’s ok, but I don’t know where she is.”
“Try to calm down, Mrs. James,” he said. “Do you remember exactly what she said?”
“She just said, ‘It’s Jenny, I’m ok, but don’t know where I am.’ That’s all she said, and then it went quiet. She was gone, but it sounded like the line was still open. And then, I heard a voice. A man’s voice. He swore, and then I was disconnected, and I heard a dial tone. I dialed star 69, but it was a private number and I couldn’t return the call.”
“That really is good news Amelia. It’s been almost two weeks, and she’s still safe somewhere. We’ve been following a few leads. Nothing firm yet, but we’re still confident we’ll find her.”
“What can I do? Can I do anything?” The excitement in her voice was still there, mixed with anxiety. “I’ve already called Hank and filled him in.”
Jake looked at Annie. She was watching him. He covered the phone and said to her in a loud whisper, “It’s Jenny, she’s ok.”
Annie stood quickly and came over to Jake. She was smiling, her eyes lit.
“We’ll let you know. We’ll keep in touch Amelia,” Jake said into the phone. “Let me talk to Annie about this and decide where to go from here.” He said goodbye, and clicked off the phone, shoving it in his pocket.
Annie looked at him. “Well?”
“Jenny called her mother. She said she was ok, but didn’t know where she was. That’s all she said before she was cut off.”
“At least that’s some good news. Actually . . . that’s great news.”
Jake glanced at the table. Annie’s mother was looking at them and scowling. When they returned to the table, Alma glanced at Jake and frowned.
She raised her chin and looked down at Annie. “I thought tonight we were just supposed to relax. Is it necessary to mix business with pleasure all the time?”
Annie looked sharply at her mother. “Mom, a girl is missing and we’re trying to find her.”
“Well, I’m sure it can wait until tomorrow.”
With some difficulty, Jake was holding his comments back. He opened his mouth a couple of times as if to speak, and then clamped it shut. He looked at Andy, who seemed uncomfortable enough to hide under the table.
Andy frowned and shook his head briefly at Jake, as if to show his disagreement with his wife. Jake nodded at him and reached for another baked potato, stabbing it savagely in two. He bit his lip and doused the potato with butter and sour cream.
“There’s nothing we can do right now. Yes, it’ll have to wait until tomorrow,” Annie said, “and hopefully tomorrow is not too late. This poor girl has been missing for more than a week, and her mother is frantic with worry. Have a heart, Mother.”
Alma sniffed and looked away. “It can wait another day.” She looked at Matty. “Sit up straight. You’re slopping ketchup all over.”
Annie wanted to tell her to mind her own business, but instead she took another bite of salad and held back her comment.
She regretted she’d never been close to her mother. They seemed to clash over almost everything. It’d been that way as long as she could remember. She loved her mother dearly, but the line between them was always there.
Her father, however, was much different. All of her happy childhood memories seemed to revolve around him. He would read her to sleep almost every night. She could vividly remember his voice as he mimicked the talking animals in her books. He could make her laugh and they giggled together and had so much fun.
She remembered when he would toss her high in the air, her head brushing the ceiling, and then catch her safely on the way down. She had no doubt he would catch her. She always felt safe with him.
She was relieved when the evening was over. The company was gone, all was cleaned up, and Matty was tucked safely in bed.
Annie and Jake were in the kitchen. She threw her arms around his neck. “I know you were bursting at the seams, but thank you for keeping your mouth shut.” She kissed him gently on the lips for a long time.
Jake was glad then, he had.
Friday, August 12th, 8:33 AM
“ANOTHER ring went missing yesterday,” Chris said.
“I’ll get down there this morning and take a look at the recordings. We’ll see what shows up.”
Jake clicked off his cell phone.
The phone had been on speaker and Annie had heard the conversation. She pushed her chair back from the kitchen table and stood. “Do you need me there?” she asked.
“I think I can handle this one. Do you have some plans?”
“I need to do some client billing and sort out a few other things.”
Jake leaned back and looked up at Annie. “I spoke to Hank too,” he said. “A judge wouldn’t issue a court order for the release of the phone records of Jenny’s call to her mother because there’s no evidence she’s in danger, and no official police investigation. Hank also said, since Jenny appears to be ok, the police still aren’t making it a priority to find her.”
“Well, I want to make it a priority.” She looked at the ceiling a moment, and then continued, “I think I’ll check out the road on the other side of the swamp this morning. That’s about all we have to go on.”
Jake looked worried. “I don’t like you to go out there alone,” he said. “Can’t you wait until we can go together?”
Annie smiled at him. “I appreciate your concern, but I’ll be quite all right.”
“Just be careful.”
“Jake, there’s nothing to be concerned about. Just because Bronson’s car may’ve been in that area at one time doesn’t mean there’s anything dangerous there.”
“You know what’s strange?” Jake was thinking as he asked. “Jenny appears to be ok, but Bronson is missing. If he has abducted her, what’s his reason? Why do we have his car? Did he abandon it? If so, why . . .”
“It’s possible he has her held somewhere, and his car was stolen. We know the driver of the vehicle wasn’t him.”
“If we could find that driver and find out where he got the car from, that could lead us to Bronson, and to Jenny.”
“That appears to be a dead end,” Annie said. “The description of the driver is too vague.”
Matty wandered in the room. “Ready for school, Mom.”
Annie leaned down and straightened the collar of his shirt. She kissed him on the forehead. “Got your homework?”
“Of course, Mom.”
Jake gave him a bear hug. “See you later kiddo. Be careful crossing the street.”
Matty rolled his eyes. “I’m not a little kid, Dad.”
Jake laughed out loud as Matty swung his backpack over his shoulder. “Bye, Mom. Bye, Dad.”
Annie watched him leave. The front door banged. “That kid is about as smart-mouthed as his father,” she said.
Friday, August 12th, 9:05 AM
JAKE parked the Firebird in the last spot of a row of parking spaces, as far away from other vehicles as possible. He didn’t want another driver to open their door and ding his machine.
Chris was leaning against the wall outside the security office door, his arms folded, waiting for Jake. A grin split his face as Jake approached. He beckoned for Jake to enter the office, and followed behind.
Jake offered his massive hand and they shook. “Good morning buddy,” Chris said.
Jake grinned. “Good morning, now let’s get to the bottom of this.” He looked across the room.
A small table was set up holding a bank of equipment and a couple of monitors. A control board contained a row of electronics switches, and allowed the view on the monitors, during playback, to switch from one camera’s recording to another.
Jake sat and hit a couple of buttons. The monitor showed a top view of all cases. “Which case is the one with the missing item?” he asked.
Chris pointed at the monitor. “That one.”
That left four recordings that would be of interest. The two inside the showcase, the one fastened to the register showing the top of the case, and the overhead camera. Jake stabbed at the controls a couple more times, isolating the recordings he wanted to view.
Starting with the overhead camera, he watched from the beginning, the recording running at fast speed. Each time a customer finished viewing items at that case, he stopped the recording, and examined the interior cameras, which showed a clear view of the inventory at the same time-stamp. On the third check, something was gone. A ring had been removed. Switching back to the overhead recording, he could see a customer had purchased the item.
“False alarm. Next.”
He continued the ritual, switching back and forth between recordings, clicking buttons, leaning in, pausing, viewing, staring. He sat back and yawned.
By now, Chris had returned with a couple cups of coffee. Jake worked off the lid and took a few sips before continuing.
Click, pause, view.
He back-stepped the camera a few minutes. “Watch closely,” he said, as Chris leaned in.
Jake switched one monitor to the overhead view, and the other to the register view. He set it to play in slow motion.
The overhead view showed a man in his mid thirties. He was tall, had dark hair, and a goatee. He stood at the case holding a large envelope. The salesgirl removed a tray of rings from the case and set them on the counter. The register camera showed a clear view of the tray.
Jake and Chris watched, looking back and forth between monitors. The thief held the envelope in his left hand. He moved it horizontally above the tray as he distracted the girl’s attention by looking at her and speaking. When her attention was diverted, his right hand moved under the envelope, hidden from view. The register camera clearly showed him slip a ring from the tray, and draw his hand back. The move was invisible to the girl as well as the overhead camera.
Jake zoomed in on the man’s face, hit a button, and in a moment copies of the thief zipped from the printer.
“I’ll slip down to the police station and make a report,” Jake said. “Maybe this guy’s been around awhile, so I’ll run through some mug shots as well. I have a friend there and I’ll get him to check for shoplifters in the database, and see if he pops up.” He pointed to the monitor, which showed a live view of the jewelry area. “In the meantime, get somebody to keep an eye on that, and see if he shows again.”