For complete disclaimers, see part 1.
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The clock struck seven as Matt flipped his cell phone shut. No answer at Julie’s house, no answer on her cell, and no answer at the school. Grabbing his keys from the key board next to the garage door, he called out- "Skylar, lock the front door and get in the car!"
Skylar, sharply disappointed that his aunt hadn’t shown up, and not understanding the seriousness of the situation, did as asked, sulking as he made his way toward the garage door. "She didn’t come," he pouted, throwing himself into the back seat of the car and belting himself in.
"I know, buddy," Matt said, belting himself in behind the wheel. "We’re gonna find out why." They drove the streets of Woodland, headed toward Julie’s house. Everything looked quiet, locked up tight. "Skylar, run up there and ring the doorbell," Matt said, eyeing his sister’s house. The dome light flashed on as the 8 year old climbed out, scurrying across the manicured lawn and bounding up the stairs to the front door. Matt watched as his son reached up, pressing the doorbell, then stood, bouncing on the balls of his feet. He could barely make out the boy’s voice as he called his Aunt Julie’s name. The boy rang again, then turned to face his father’s SUV, shaking his head. "Come back, son!" Matt called out.
Back on the trail again, Matt made his way to Woodland Elementary, where his own child would be starting classes in two weeks. He drove around the building, looking for something, anything that might give him a clue. His heart fell when he spotted Julie’s white Miata in the teacher’s parking lot. Pulling up beside it, he turned off his SUV. "Stay in the car, son," he said absently, letting himself out.
The car was quiet, hood completely cool to the touch. He tried the door handle on the driver’s side, surprised to find it open. That, in itself, was very wrong. Julie loved that car, and never left it unlocked. He saw Julie’s purse in the passenger seat, and nearly fell to his knees. "Oh, god," he whispered, heart pounding.
He hurried back to his own car, grabbing his cell phone, having to redial the three numbers four times before his shaking fingers would allow him to dial correctly.
"What is it, Dad?" Skylar asked, fear lancing through him as he sensed his father’s fear.
"Hang on," Matt said, holding the small phone to his ear. "Yeah, I need a policeman here right now. I think my sister’s missing."
The seven minutes it took the police to show up seemed like the longest seven minutes in Matt’s life. He sat on the hood of his car, Skylar curled up in his lap.
"Get in the car and stay there," Matt said into the boy’s ear, lifting him off his lap as Matt got to his feet. The squad car pulled to a stop in front of Matt and Julie’s cars. A tall man stepped out of the car, putting his hat on as he pushed the door closed.
"Evenin’," he said, walking over to Matt. "Are you Matt Wilson?"
"I’m Officer Barrow. Tell me what’s going on."
"My sister is missing." Matt did his best to hold it together as he told his story, starting from the last time he’d spoken with Julie that afternoon. The policeman was attentive, writing down the details as they were revealed. After Matt had finished his story, the officer, scratched his chin, re-reading over some of his notes.
"Alright. Here’s where we stand, Mr. Wilson. Your sister is a grown adult. She’s 28, not some kid. The problem is so many cases of folks disappearing is nothing more than the person not being in the place they’re expected to be. Did she maybe run off with a friend or boyfriend?"
"You mean the one she filed a report on this afternoon?" Matt asked, growing angry. "That’s not Julie’s behavior, I’m telling you. She has disappeared, and I want to know what the hell you guys are going to do about it!?"
"Sir, I need you to calm down-"
"There is no way I’m going to calm down! My sister is missing!"
"Sir," Officer Barrow said, hands raised in supplication, but he stopped himself, noting something on the ground two parking spaces away from where Julie’s car was parked. As the light was fading, he removed a small penlight from it’s hiding spot in his shirt pocket, squatting as he shined the small beam on what had caught his attention. The droplet had dried, but the beam caught the deep, rich red.
The night was filled with red, blue and white emergency lights, the squawk of radios punctuated the air. The parking lot was filled with units, and a tow truck that was loading the white sports car to take back to the station for processing.
Detective Grace Cowan spoke with one of the crime scene investigators, the swirling lights glinting off the badge that hung around her neck. "I remember this woman," she said, looking at the drivers license that was in the purse left in the car. "She was in the station earlier today." The African American woman could still see the petit blonde sitting, waiting for what Det. Cowan now knew, was a report against her ex-boyfriend. She’d already spoken with the responding officer who took the initial report from the potential victim’s brother. Looking at the scene now, the white Miata heading down Freemont Street, and only a small bit of blood remaining, she couldn’t help but wonder what had happened today. CSI had taken samples of the blood, which would be sent off for testing. Was it Julie Wilson’s? Who knew.
"Detective?" one of the officers said, stepping up beside Grace Cowan. She turned to him in question. "We’re just about done here. Anything else before we head out?"
"Nah," she said, waving him off and surveying the scene one more time. "See you back at the station."
Without another word and a nod, the officer gathered up his supplies and crime scene kit, and began to load up.
"So, what do you think of all this, Gracie?"
Grace looked up, her partner, Brian Wong standing next to her. He reached up, adjusting his tie as she watched. He met her gaze. "I don’t know." The dark woman took a deep breath, smelling the night air. "Something isn’t right here."
Brian chucked. "You would say that. Personally, I think this chick went off with a new boyfriend. Maybe that’s why the old ones following- pissed that she’s got someone else."
"And the blood?" Grace drawled. Cops were skeptical by nature, but Brian was almost downright harsh.
"Could be anybody’s." He shrugged. "Some kid riding around the parking lot today, fell and skinned his knee."
"And the fact that Julie Wilson’s purse- including her wallet, license, house keys- are still in the car? An unlocked car, might I remind you."
"I dunno. I just don’t think you need to get your panties in a twist yet." Brian walked away, headed toward the car they’d arrived in, grabbing a pack of cigarettes from the glove compartment. This was always his signal that he was finished with an investigation.
Grace could only stare after him, a bit of disgust curling her lip ever so slightly. She had lost respect for the man long ago. He had come onto the force eleven years ago as a cocky upstart, who had worked his way through the ranks. Seven years his senior, and with four more years experience on the job, Grace didn’t have much patience for him anymore. She’d learned ways to ignore him while still working alongside him. Most had. Brian Wong had few friends on the force, but it didn’t seem as if he minded. As Grace watched the slight Asian man light the tip of his smoke, she thought it was quite tragic, really, that he was such an ass. Brian was highly intelligent, but seemed to lack a lot of the gut instinct that Grace had. He always called it her woman’s instinct, but Grace felt it was simply a matter of paying attention to what was around you, things that weren’t always perceived visually. If Brian didn’t see it with his own two eyes, or hear it with his ears, it didn’t happen.
Grace had once gone to a medium at a town fair to have her fortune read. The woman, Mystic Robin, had told her that she felt all cops were psychic in their own way. Perhaps, but either way, Grace knew there was nothing more that could be done in the school’s parking lot. It was time to pack up and head back to the station for the shit-load of paper work that would keep her late again.
Sure that everything was as it should be, Matt loaded Skylar, Bonnie and Clyde into his car. When he’d arrived at Julie’s, everything was exactly as he knew she’d left it. Not a thing out of place, clean and kid-friendly. Skylar’s video game systems had already been set out, ready for the insertion of the boy’s favorite games. The one thing that had probably troubled him the most was walking in to two desperate dogs. One had already peed in the corner, unable to hold it any longer, while the other had nearly clawed through the glass to get out into the backyard as Skylar opened the door for him. Both their water and food bowls had also been empty- something Julie would never have allowed.
Taking one last look at the small, neat house, Matt got the engine started and pulled away from the curb. Damn it, Julie. Where are you? Glancing in the rearview mirror, Matt could see Skylar, head leaning against the glass, hand absently petting a needy and confused Bonnie. He knew his son didn’t fully understand what was happening, for which he was truly glad. Even so, the disappointment oozed off the boy in waves, which made Matt feel sad.
"Hey, kid, want to play Mario Brothers when we get home?" he asked, meeting tired hazel eyes in the reflection of the mirror.
Skylar shook his head. "Nah."
"How about some Dairy Queen? Get you one of those cones you like, dipped in the strawberry stuff?" Matt said, hopeful. The boy shook his head. With a heavy sigh, the older Wilson turned his attention back to the road ahead. His mind was abuzz with what he should do. He should probably make some calls of his own when he got home- Julie’s friends, co-workers, anyone who might know anything. What he wanted to do was go hunt down Ray and beat the living shit out of him. The only reason he didn’t was because he couldn’t leave Skylar alone, and wasn’t about to subject his little boy to that.
As Skylar disappeared upstairs with Julie’s two dogs, Matt stayed down in the living room, pacing and constantly glancing at his phone, which was ridiculous. He knew in his gut that his sister wouldn’t be calling. All his own phone calls made, no one knew a damn thing. Matt walked over to the front door, staring back at his reflection, the night beyond acting as a mirror. He looked at himself, taking in the light brown hair that needed a trim, and the dark shadows that were green eyes, just like Julie’s.
Stepping out into the warm night, Matt hugged himself, looking up at what could be seen of the stars. He remembered when Julie and he were younger, growing up in the country lanes of Pueblo, Colorado. They would sneak out to the corn silo and climb the narrow ladder up the tall, metal building. They’d find comfortable places to perch at the top and stare up into the night sky, trying to count stars or figure out where a falling one was headed. Being seven years older, Matt had tried to explain to his younger charge just exactly what the night sky was made up, and not the crush Oreos Julie thought it was.
He smiled at the memories, though it was a very sad smile. What he wouldn’t do to have Lori by his side right now, putting an arm around his waist and filling him with the logic of her Capricorn mind. Looking up into the heavens again, he sighed. "I need you tonight, Lor."
The stacks of newspapers had already been sorted through, just to make sure the dates were in order. Chronology was important in collecting. Next, the bottles had all been taken from the shelves and washed with super hot water and soap, drained and dried to perfection.
Sergio sang along with his La Triviata soundtrack as he stirred the big pot on his stovetop. The smell was nauseating, but they needed protein. His dog, Romper, was scratching and whining at the back door.
"Stop it, Romper!" he called to the mutt, who quit scratching, but not whining. Turning back to the pot, the man smiled. "Only the best for them." He reached over the hot burner and turned the heat off, continuing to stir with his other hand. After a moment, he brought the wooden spoon out of the pan, brown contents plopping back in as he brought it up to his nose. Wincing at the strong smell, he dropped the spoon back in and removed the huge pan from the heat.
Sergio snatched one of the cans from the trash, eyeing the label. It read that it was full of protein and vitamins, and just what every happy, healthy dog needed to live a long life.
Within moments, Sergio had a tray filled with three steaming bowls, stainless steel, three neatly folded napkins, and three Styrofoam cups of water. Heading over to the top of the basement stairs, he stopped, listening. The aria of the opera began to swell, the intensity and passion of the vocals and music blending together to make Sergio feel like his heart would swell and pound right out of his chest. He felt the sting of tears at the sheer beauty of the music. As soon as it ended, he began to descend the wooden stairs, careful to keep his forearms or knuckles away from the sharp-edged cement of the walls. He’d been meaning to file that down since he bought the place nine years ago.
The wooden steps thudded dully beneath the soles of his shoes, the dishes on the tray making noise of their own with each step. At the bottom, Sergio balanced the tray carefully on one hand as he reached up, tapping the naked bulb, the sudden light painting eerie shadows across his face. Getting a solid hold on the tray again, he continued on.
The first room in the large, unfinished basement was used as storage. Boxes and plastic tubs were stacked neatly, clear labels on their tops and sides to identify the contents. An old, metal dog crate, used to train Romper when he was a pup, sat in the corner, now filled with the fake, packaged fireplace kindling.
Two doors dotted two of the walls. One door lead to a small, finished laundry room- washer, dryer and hanging rack for those clothes that weren’t to be dried with heat. The other door led to another room, this one more primitive than the first- dirt flooring, low, pipe-riddled ceiling, and one window punched into the wall, though it had been blacked over years ago. Within that room, there was another door. This door was made of thick wood planks, and had a sturdy lock. The door was maybe four and a half feet high, which made entering difficult, especially with tray in hand, but Sergio had yet to dump anything.
The thick wood of the door kept any sounds from within from spilling out into the rest of the basement. The guy at the hardware store had promised as much. Sergio was glad the clerk knew his stuff.
Setting the tray down on a TV tray he had set up just to the side of the door for this purpose, the building inspector dug the key out of his pocket and inserted it into the lock. One quick turn of his wrist and the door squeaked open slightly. The door wasn’t made with the usual doorknob- it was there in looks only, as well as to hold the door shut when he locked it again. It didn’t function, however, as a regular knob.
Once the door was fully open, no light spilled out, only the smell of unwashed flesh a damp mildew. Sergio ignored it, grabbing the tray off the TV tray, and ducked down. The walls slightly cracked toward the floor, the foundation of the house needing some work, which Sergio intended to do next summer. It allowed water seepage when the back lawn was watered, thus the mildew in the air. The room was dark, and it took Sergio a moment for his eyes to adjust. After several long seconds, he reached up blindly, looking for the chain, yanking hard enough for the naked bulb to come to life. He smiled at what was revealed.
Joan watched, truly unsure what exactly her protégé was doing. As odd of a character as Remmy was, she couldn’t help but like her. She did the moment Josh had called her to the front of the store the day the brunette had applied. Now, as she watched, her newest employee carefully stacked cans of Hormel chili, which was on sale, in an ornate display, that had already reached about three feet tall. Joan didn’t want to disturb her, as she didn’t want an avalanche of chili scattering across the tile floor.
When Remmy had finally come to a point where it was safe, Joan cleared her throat. The young woman glanced over her shoulder at her boss. "Hey, Remmy."
"Hi." The brunette grinned sheepishly.
"Uh," Remmy turned and looked at her creation, hands tucked into the back pockets of her jeans. "Keeping busy." She turned back to the older woman.
"So I see," Joan said, trying to hide her amusement. "Tell you what, Josh comes in at one, so when he gets here, why don’t you come back into the back with me and I’ll show you how to do inventory paperwork."
Remmy grinned, her already pretty face becoming beautiful. She nodded enthusiastically. "Okay. Great."
"Great." Joan took in the display again. "This looks great." She grinned wide as she walked away, shaking her head.
Unphased, Remmy continued building her pyramid, heading to the counter when a customer needed her. As promised, when Josh came in to work, Remmy headed to Joan’s office in the back, just past the public restrooms. She cringed, able to hear the bottle blonde’s poor choice in music.
Entering the tiny office, Remmy glared at her boss, who sat behind the desk. "Is it necessary to listen to gangsta rap? I really have no desire to go rape my girlfriend and then knock up my buddy’s ‘bitch’."
"Well, it’s not my fault you have no taste," Joan said dryly, glancing up at the younger girl who stepped into her office. "Have a seat." Remmy did as she was told, mildly uncomfortable as her boss studied her. "So, you’ve been in town about as long as you’ve had this job, right?"
"Yep. About fifteen minutes longer, actually." Remmy, never able to fully sit still, tapped her fingers against the scarred wood of the chair arms, eyes darting around Joan’s office.
"Where are you staying?" Joan asked, turning her gaze back to the computer on her desk, and the ancient DOS-based system that ran the store’s business.
"Maple Tree Motel," Remmy said absently, snatching a pen off the end of Joan’s desk. She read the words printed in red on the white plastic tube of the pen: DOUG’S AUTO. "Who’s Doug?"
"My husband. You feel safe there? At the Maple Tree?"
"Eh," Remmy fiddled with the pen as she shrugged. "I’ve lived in worse."
"Oh yeah? That’s a scary thought," Joan smirked. "Listen, I don’t know if you’re interested or not, but my husband and I have been looking to rent out the attic to someone. See, I inherited my dad’s house a couple years back, and this sucker is huge. Anyway, he was a painter and had the attic set up as his studio- water, kitchenette, fully functioning bathroom. So…" her voice trailed off as she studied Remmy.
"We were thinking around three hundred."
"A week?!" Remmy nearly flew out of her chair. "I only pay two twenty-five at the Maple Tree."
Joan chuckled. "No, a month. Three hundred a month. You’d have your privacy. There’s an outside door leading up to the upper floor of the house, which is a short stair-case away from the attic. It’s not huge, but it’s not tiny, and it’s safe and clean."
Remmy chewed on her bottom lip, head slightly cocked to the side as the offer bounced around in her head. She pictured her motel room, remembering her scream that morning from the roach that had scattered when she’d turned on the bathroom light. Grossed out, she had quickly dressed and hurried to work. She brought the pen up, lightly tapping it on the side of her head. "What about a laundry facility?"
"I’ve got a brand new set from Maytag in the basement."
"I see," Remmy nodded. "Annnnd, your husband would be okay with this?"
"Of course! Hey, we just want to get it rented. If it’s not you, it’ll be someone else, but I figured I’ve give you first crack at it." When there was still no answer forthcoming, Joan grabbed the pen she kept tucked behind her ear and jotted down her address and phone number. "If you want to come look at it- no pressure to- give me a call, or drop by. ‘K?"
Remmy took the sticky that was stuck to the end of the desk, looking at the address before tucking the paper into her pocket.
"Okay, so, that’s out of the way." Joan slapped her palms on the desk top. "Next on the agenda is to continue your training. I like you, Remmy, and I’d like to expand your duties here at the store."
"Really?" Remmy asked, stunned. Typically a meeting in the boss’ office by this point was to give her her walking papers. She was overjoyed that Joan had been happy with her work. But then again, she hadn’t gotten one of them yet, either.
"Are you interested?" Joan asked, never for a moment had it occurred to her that maybe Remmy didn’t want anymore responsibility. The surprised look on the young woman’s face now made her doubt her plan.
She hadn’t need to worry. "Yeah, I’m interested!" Remmy enthused. "That’d be great."
"Oh, good." Joan smiled, then invited the brunette to bring her chair around to her side of the desk so she could begin to explain and teach.
Remmy played with the Rubik’s Cube she’d bought at the store, on her way home. She was thinking seriously about Joan’s offer. In truth, she didn’t like staying at random motels, and thought of having a place of her own, a real honest to god place, was more tempting and wonderful a thought than anything she’d felt in a long, long time. The life of a drifter was a hard and very lonely one. As she walked down the main street of the town, looking at the passersby, the small, quaint businesses, she thought that maybe she’d found a home.
Remmy tossed the puzzle game into the air, catching it in both hands as her gaze fell on a set of newspaper boxes sitting out front of the barber shop. She nearly missed her most recent toss as something caught her eye. Tucking the toy against her chest, she walked over to the box, the Woodland Daily Record displayed.
LOCAL WOMAN MISSING: EX-BOYFRIEND SOUGHT FOR QUESTIONING
Beneath the headline was a small, somewhat grainy picture of a beautiful blonde with sparkling green eyes and an infectious smile. Remmy recognized her immediately as the woman who had given her a ride not long ago.
Digging in her pocket, the brunette dug out some change, slipping it into the machine and snatching herself a newspaper. She absently sat on a bench that ran along side the paper boxes, Rubik’s Cube forgotten. She learned the woman’s name was Julie Wilson as she read. As she came to the part of the article where Julie’s ex-boyfriend was mentioned, and anyone knowing his whereabouts was to call the Woodland Police Department, Remmy felt cold.
Looking once more at Julie’s picture, Remmy’s world became that image, everything cut off and fading to white noise.
Fear. Horrible fear. Who is this? Where am I? My head hurts, something hard and quick, can’t see. Cold. So cold. So cold….
Remmy gasped, the feelings so strong within her, she actually looked around her, eyeing every person who passed by with suspicion. She couldn’t breathe as she got up on shaky legs. She looked down at the picture of Julie again, making contact with the lifeless eyes of a photograph. For a moment, just a breathless heartbeat, they looked back at her, pleading, a distant scream echoing in Remmy’s head.
Shaken, she threw the newspaper to the bench, jumping back from it like it was a dangerous snake. She looked around, noting that she had caught the attention of an older couple who had been walking by. She gave them a weak smile. "Spider," she said in explanation. The older man chuckled, leading his wife past the strange young girl. He patted her on the shoulder, leaning in as if to conspire.
"I use household cleaner to kill the little buggers." With a wink, the old man was gone.
Taking several deep breaths, Remmy took hold of the newspaper again and headed into a coffee shop across the street. Ordering a nice, gooey cinnamon roll and a large mocha breve, she sat at a table near the window, spreading the paper out before her. She re-read the article three times, soaking in every single detail. As she continued to read, the story began to unravel in her brain. She had no idea where the teacher was; she had no idea why she’d been taken; she had no idea who took her, but she knew it wasn’t the ex-boyfriend. As much as she knew her own name, she knew it wasn’t him.
"She was a cool chick."
Remmy was startled by the unexpected male voice, and slightly irritated at the intrusion of her thoughts. She looked up to see a young man, no older than 20, grinning down at her. By the looks of his green apron, replete with logo, he worked at the coffee shop.
Pointing at the picture of Julie Wilson, he said again, "She was a cool chick. My little sister had her for sixth grade last year. That was all we heard for the entire school year- Miss Wilson this, Miss Wilson that," he rolled his blue eyes, brushing too-long red bangs out of them.
"Oh, uh, I don’t know her," Remmy said finally, pulled from her stupor.
"This guy, though," he continued, as though the brunette hadn’t spoken. He tapped the word ‘ex-boyfriend’ in the headline, "is a real dick. Ray is his name. They used to come in here sometimes, and more than once my boss, Tony, had to kick him out. Julie would just sit there, looking for all the world like she wanted to melt into the table." He grinned, but then quickly sobered. "Not surprised at all something like this happened, really." He looked around the busy coffee house. "I don’t think anyone is."
"So, you think he did this, then?" she asked, irritated that he’d bothered her, but interested in what he had to say, all the same.
Nodding, he answered. "Oh yeah. Definitely." Suddenly he stopped, holding out a rather large hand. "I’m Roman, by the way. You work at the Texaco, right?"
"Yeah. Hi. I’m Remmy." Remmy shook his hand and gave him a polite smile.
"Nice to meet you, Remmy. Well, hey, I think you’re new into town, so if you ever want a tour, or wanna know the cool places to go and hang out- like all three of them- don’t hesitate to let me know." His grin widened. "I got a car, so…"
"Cool. Okay." Remmy smiled, hoping he’d go away. "Thanks."
"Sure thing." He glanced over his shoulder, seeing is co-workers glaring at him as business picked up. Turning back to Remmy, he slowly began to back away, nearly knocking over a customer as he did. "Well, hey, it was nice meeting you, Remmy. Take it easy."
"Later." Turning back to the paper, Remmy sipped from her drink, finger tapping on Julie’s picture.
Detective Grace Cowan sat at her desk, gently rocking in the chair, no longer hearing the petulant squeaks after all these years. A No. 2 pencil was twirled in her fingers, diamond wedding ring glinting in the harsh, overhead light as her fingers worked. Light brown eyes didn’t seem to be looking at anything as she stared off into the unknown. She nearly jumped out of her skin and light gray pant suit when Brian Wong slammed a small stack of manila folders onto her desk.
"Okay, we got some results back, though nothing even remotely helpful." The detective perched on the edge of the dark woman’s desk, clueless that he’d just nearly scared four years off her life. "The car in the Wilson case has been processed. Found three sets of fingerprints inside, but only one set on the steering wheel, assumed to be Wilson’s. No blood, nothing suspicious or out of the ordinary." He glanced at the open file in his hand. "Oh, except two strands of long, dark hair, found in the headrest of the passenger side. The brother- who has short, light brown hair- says his kid also has light hair, and short, and he can’t think of anyone else Julie would have in the car with long, dark hair. He can’t recall any of her friends with it, nor colleagues, but come on," he slapped the folder closed, "long, dark hair isn’t exactly uncommon or unique."
Grace listened to her partner, nodding every once in awhile as the rubber-tip of the pencil found its way against her front teeth, tap, tap, tap. "Okay. Well, preliminary tests then show the perp was never in her car, I guess."
"Well, I think that’s quite apparent," Brian grumbled, flipping through some of the other files on his lap. "Nothing back from the lab yet on the blood found in the parking lot."
"You know," Grace began, still staring off into space. "The principal said he thought he recalled seeing some sort of a work van or SUV in the parking lot when he went in." She glanced at her partner. "Anything more on that?"
Brian shook his head. "Nope."
"Alright." Grace sighed, her feet plopping to the floor from where they’d been perched on her desk. "I’m going to head to Ray Lambert’s place again. Gotta catch him home sometime."
"Don’t you think that’s what the twenty-four hour surveillance is for?" Brian asked, pushing up from his partner’s desk.
"I’m sure it is, Brian." Grace also stood, grabbing her keys from the desk drawer, and giving the Asian man a sweet smile. "But I’m a woman of action." She pushed past him and headed down the hall toward the back door of the station.
It was a hot one out as Grace climbed into the unmarked sedan she and Brian used for the job. She pulled out of the parking lot to the station, nearly bowled over by a large, blue van that was pulling in. "Asshole," she muttered, pressing her horn to alert the driver to pay better attention. The man behind the wheel gave her an acknowledging wave, and slowed down. Glancing in her rearview mirror, she happened to notice a red and yellow logo on the side of the beast, though couldn’t quite read what it said from this angle. For a split second she remembered the principal saying something about a work van being in the parking lot, then shook off and chuckled at her own thoughts.
As she cruised the streets of the town she’d been born and raised in, Grace’s thoughts roamed freely. Since she’d been a small child, she had wanted to be a cop. Growing up in the small, sometimes prejudiced town of Woodland, hadn’t made that dream easy. Not only was Grace black, but she was also a woman. It had been an uphill battle from day one.
In school, Grace had joined the ROTC, learning discipline and how to use weapons. From there, she’d earned a bachelors degree in criminal justice at the local university. She had hoped that perhaps her advanced education would help her get not only into the department, but further ahead. Not to be. She started as a beat cop, running the streets for far too many years than were necessary. But, alas, the day came when Grace began to promote within the department, and her career was finally heading where she wanted it to.
Now, a detective and well-respected within the department, but she had to deal with assholes like Brian Wong everyday. Most of her fellow law-enforcement were good, hard-working people, whom she also respected. But others…
Grace cleared her head as she neared the street where Ray Lambert lived. It was a fairly nice neighborhood, well-kept houses, huge, old trees lining the way. She knew Lambert had owned his own business for years, and it wasn’t unusual for him to slip away for days or a week at a time, according to those who work at his lumber supply outlet store. Even still, it was highly unusual, his employees said, for him not to tell anyone he was leaving town, or for him to not answer his phone.
Det. Cowan had been by Lambert’s house twice already, and had tried to call the illusive man several times. As she drew nearer his house, she had the feeling she’d be disappointed yet again.
Pulling into the empty driveway, Grace cut the engine and looked over the seemingly empty home. She went back over what she knew about Ray Lambert in her head: he was 35, had been married twice- the first time for three years, producing a daughter when Ray was 17, and the second marriage lasting only five years, producing no children. He had a record: domestic abuse, and assault on the boyfriend of his ex-wife, though Ray had never done time.
Feeling confident, Grace made sure her revolver was tucked safely in its holster, and stepped out of the car. She kept a careful eye out for the unexpected, something she’d learned the hard way, when during her first year on the job, a man had jumped out at her from an unobserved alley, and had nearly killed her. Three stab-wounds later, Grace had found herself in a hospital room, begging her Captain to give her another chance. She had recovered far quicker than her doctors and peers expected, and had won her way back into the fold quickly with dedication and hard work.
With a little bounce in her step, Grace mounts the three stairs that led to the front door. Making sure her badge was visible, she pulled the screen door open and knocked on the wooden door behind it. After three consecutive knocks, Grace feared it would have the same result, and was about to leave when she heard the locks disengaged inside.
The front door opened and a teenage girl looked out through the screen door with questioning eyes. "Hello. I’m Detective Grace Cowan with the Woodland Police Department," the dark woman said, holding her badge up for the girl, who peered out at it. "Is Ray Lambert at home?"
"That’s my dad." The girl shook her head. "He’s in Florida."
"When did he leave for Florida?" Grace asked, keeping her voice casual.
The girl shrugged. "A week ago, maybe."
"Do you know why he left?" Grace brought out a small notepad from an inside pocket of her blazer, clicking her pen into the ready. The girl watched her movement before returning her gaze to the detective’s eyes. Grace wrote down the girl’s explanation, that her father had gone on a short vacation suddenly, taking his new girlfriend with him, and that she was house sitting for him, in the week before she headed back to school to start her junior year.
Grace left the residence ten minutes later with an explanation of why Ray’s cell phone was not being picked up. Apparently his carrier did not have nation-wide service, or so the girl said. Either way, when Ray Lambert came back from his "sudden vacation", they’d be waiting for him.
A dripping sound was the first thing she became aware of. Something dripping, and not too far away. There was also a great deal of pain in her head, mostly toward the back, a little to the left by her ear. She tried to get a feel for her body, where she was. She realized she was very cold, something chilling the entire back of her body where it was pressed to it. Was she naked? The sting against her backside and upper shoulders made her think so.
Suddenly, Julie’s chin was grasped in a vise-like hold, her head turned to the right, making her throbbing skull scream in protest. She started when puffs of hot breath, smelling of garlic, met her face, making the eyelashes of her left eye flutter.
"Beautiful," a voice whispered, sending more hot air to wash over Julie’s face. She tried to open her eyes, but stopped with another groan. The act made her head pound even more. "Shh, shh," the voice cooed, soft fingertips brushing over Julie’s closed lids. "Get some rest."
With those words, Julie fell back into blackness, the cold disappearing, and the pain fading to blissful peace.
Continued…Back to the Academy