Shadows of Justice
FBI agent Alexia Reis returns to work, and this time must find a murderer who preys on children. Her lover of four months, Teren Mylos, gets a call from the CIA. Suddenly, the relationship is in danger. How would Alex react if Teren agrees to return to the CIA as an assassin? And what would it take for Teren to do so? Together or apart, they must each find their own meaning of the word justice.
Disclaimers for Shadows of Justice
General: All characters in this story are of my own creation. This is an uber story, which means that two of the main characters will sound remarkably similar to the characters of Xena and Gabrielle, who are owned by Renaissance Pictures and Universal Studios. No copyright infringements are intended. Characters in this story come from my own imagination, and any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental. There may however be some accurate historical facts introduced.
Language & Violence: The story does contain action scenes and some adult language. Since it deals with criminals and law enforcement, you can expect bloodshed, guns, and other sundry symbols of today's society. If this bothers you, please skip this work.
Sexual Content:This is an alternative uber fan fiction story and therefore does depict a love relationship between two consenting adult women. So if you are under 18 or are offended by adult themes and the physical expressions of love between women please pass this story by and move on to something else.
I am not an FBI agent, nor am I involved in any aspect of law enforcement,
I may have taken a few liberties with the activities in this story.
If you have knowledge of these matters, and find a glaring mistake, please
let me know -- but in a gentle manner.
SPECIAL CONTENT WARNING!!: This story deals with extreme violence against children. If you are sensitive to this type of subject matter, please do not read this story!
You can reach me at: Shadowriter@kc.rr.com
Copyright 2000, All Rights Reserved.
Alex Reis squinted in the sunlight as she stepped out of her partner's car. Glancing at the bright sky overhead, she checked her watch, and groaned.
How can it be so damn hot at eight in the morning?
She brushed a hand through her blonde hair, glad she'd gotten it cut earlier in the week. It was short enough that she could feel any slight breeze across the back of her neck. It was one small way of staying cool in Washington DC in June.
"David, tell me again why we took this call?" she asked.
"Cause Cliff told us to," he replied. David Wu grinned at his shorter partner.
"Oh, right." Alex pulled at the lapels of her jacket. The humidity was already high enough to make a person sweat in the shade, and the required FBI jacket wasn't helping make her any more comfortable. She thought about it, then sighed and slipped the garment off her shoulders and down her arms.
David frowned. "Alex --"
"Screw it, David. It's too damn hot."
He raised an eyebrow, considering. Then, with a shrug, he followed her example, taking off his suit coat. His crisp white shirt stood out in the bright sunlight, contrasting with his darker features. Taking Alex's jacket, he opened the car door and tossed them both in. David ran a hand through his very short black hair, and grinned.
"Cliff can lecture us later," he said referring to their FBI supervisor.
They walked the half block to the mouth of an alleyway that was blocked off with familiar yellow police tape. After showing their FBI badges and signing the log book, they were allowed into the crime scene.
"Did you notice that Ben and Mark are here? Their names were on the logbook."
"Yeah, David, I saw that. Wonder what's up with two teams being assigned."
David shrugged. "Don't know. Let's go find them and ask."
Ben Cleves was just over six months away from his pension. He was officially the oldest field agent in the Bureau, having turned down desk jobs several times in the last couple of years. His hair had always been dark, and like his accent, it had never faded.
Alex, David, Ben, and his partner Mark, had been part of a task force investigating the deaths of several left wing activists and politicians. The four agents had worked well together, and Alex had gained a great respect for Ben. After the investigation was finished, each pair of agents had been reassigned within the Washington office. Alex had missed seeing the two other agents on a daily basis.
Ben was talking to a uniformed DC police officer. He too had removed his suit jacket. Alex nudged her partner, and smiled
The older man turned slightly and caught sight of them. Excusing himself from his conversation he made his way over.
"David, welcome back." He offered his hand to the younger man.
"Thanks, Ben." David grinned. "It's nice to be back."
Ben put his hand on Alex's shoulder. "Good to see you, Alex. When they transferred me and Mark, I missed having you around."
"I missed you, too, Ben." Alex looked away, embarrassed at the subtle reminder of her partner's recent injury. David had been shot four months earlier during an ambush attempt in Philadelphia. The same gun battle had taken the lives of two other agents, as well as four suspects, an informant, and two local police officers. Alex had been the agent in charge at the time, and still felt a sense of responsibility for the whole incident, even though she had been cleared in an official investigation. The blame for the shooting had been placed on three other agents, all of whom were now dead.
"So, Ben, wanna tell us why we're here?" David asked.
"Sure." Ben scratched his neck, pulling the collar of his shirt. "Well, you know that Mark and I have been working with the kidnapping squad, right? That's where our reassignment was."
"We heard. Cliff has been bragging about the two of you. Supposedly you've got a spotless record over there."
"Well, yeah, Dave. We'd been doin' well. Four cases, no dead victims, five arrests." He sighed. "But last night, Mark and I got a call from the police in Westmorland, Virginia. They said a little girl had been kidnapped, and they wanted our help. So, we drove out there and talked to the local boys. They hadn't received a ransom note or nothin', and Mark and I had our doubts we'd find her alive." He jerked his thumb back down the alley. "We were right. Trashmen found her body this morning."
David frowned. "So, what are we doing here, Ben?"
"Well, I called and asked Cliff if he could spare you two. You've got more experience with this kind of shit than Mark and I do."
Alex nodded, but her stomach clenched. She and David had chased child murderers before, and her memories of those cases were the stuff of nightmares.
"Where's Mark?" she asked.
Ben turned and pointed towards a group of men near the dumpster. Alex could see Mark's lanky body standing out amongst them.
"What are they looking at?"
"Tire tracks. They're not real clear, but they're there."
"The girl's body?"
"Well, she's been photographed, but I didn't want to move her till you had a chance to look at her. Her body's in that little fenced in area. It was actually under the trash dumpster, and when the trash guys moved it away from the wall, they saw her."
"You canvassed the neighborhood?"
"Locals did it, before the girl was identified. Mark and I are gonna recheck, but so far, no one saw nothin'." He folded his arms and rocked back. "Problem is, Alex -- I don't think this is the guy's first kill."
"Why do you say that, Ben?"
"I was talkin' to Sergeant Blake a few minutes ago. He said they'd been working on a real similar case for the last two weeks. Little girl, kidnapped on a Tuesday afternoon, body found the next mornin', similar type locations. Almost the same injuries."
"Where was this?"
"Georgetown -- at least that's where the girl was found. Her family lives up near Crestwood, which was where she was taken from."
"FBI wasn't notified on that one?" David asked.
"Well, local police thought maybe the girl had run away. Then, when they found her body, they just labeled it a homicide, and filed it."
"Great." Alex rubbed a spot on her forehead. "So, if it's the same guy, then he's killed twice already. Did you say that was also on a Tuesday night?"
"Yep. Kidnapped Tuesday, killed probably late that night and dumped."
"Got an estimate for time of death on this one?"
"Coroner said between eleven and three. He can't be more specific."
"We're taking charge of the body, right? I'd rather not have the DC Police handling it," David said.
"I figured. That was another reason I didn't want her moved yet. She's to go to our morgue?"
"Yeah. Contact Stephen Pellinger. He did a lot of work with David and I on the Maryland case, and he's good."
"Pellinger, got it. Anything else, Alex?"
"Can you request the file on the girl found in Georgetown?"
"Done. Blake said he'd have the whole thing for me by noon." He paused. "Blake also said the girl's parents already buried her."
The blonde agent nodded. "I figured that. You might wanna talk to the coroner, go over his report with him. Either that or make sure you have Pellinger talk with him." She took a deep breath. "All right. Ben, you wanna make the arrangements for moving the body? While you do that, David and I will go look at her."
"Right." Ben stopped for a moment and looked at Alex. "Glad you're here, Alex. We'll get the son-of-a-bitch."
She gave him a thin smile and nodded.
The trash dumpster normally sat on a patch of cement enclosed by a wire fence and gate. As Alex and David approached, they could see that the gate stood wide open, and the dumpster itself sat outside the enclosure.
Alex noticed that there were distinct lines in the cement, marking where the large metal bin normally sat. The outer part of the cement patch was dirty and gray from long exposure. On the inner part, however, there was a rectangular area much cleaner and whiter than the rest. Within this rectangle lay the little girl's tarp covered body.
She stepped forward past the metal gate, but stopped when a hand touched her shoulder. Alex looked up to see a plainclothes cop frowning at her.
"Ma'am, I don't really think you wanna go back there. It's not a pretty sight."
Alex turned her attention fully to the man. She heard David sigh.
"What's your name?"
"Detective Jameson, Ma'am."
"And how long have you been a detective, Jameson?"
His face colored slightly. "Just over a month, Ma'am."
Alex nodded. "Well, Detective Jameson. I would take it then, that this is the first time you've had to deal with a child killing? At least of this nature?"
"Well, it's not mine. The last child killing I investigated was the mutilation death of a thirteen year old in Maine. It was the last in a string of about five dead kids. All of them had been strangled while being tortured. Then the blood had been drained from their dead bodies, and they'd been left, naked, posed on snow covered hills. It was during the winter, and the cold froze the bodies into ice sculptures."
The detective's face had gone white. Alex cocked her head.
"I really doubt there's anything under that tarp, Detective Jameson, that I haven't seen in the last four years. So, why don't you step aside, and let me do my job?"
It was, she decided, amazing how one minute the man could be so very pale, and the next, so very red.
He moved back, his hand falling to his side.
David watched the exchange, his eyes narrowed in thought. While he knew that his partner was right, and there wasn't much the two of them hadn't seen, her less than gentle reaction to the man's concern was atypical of the Alex Reis he knew and loved.
But he didn't say anything as he and his partner stood over the small body, slipping gloves onto their hands. He looked at Alex, and when she nodded, he leaned over and picked up the tarp.
Alex took a deep breath and knelt next to the girl. The child she saw couldn't have been more than ten or eleven. She was naked, her body a pasty white. There was just the hint of the beginnings of puberty. Her eyes were closed, and her hair was short, framing her face in dark curls.
Her face, the agents noted, was in a peaceful repose, with an angelic expression. It was a direct contrast to the obvious violence that showed on the rest of her body.
There was heavy bruising around her stomach, and blood on her thighs. Small cuts were spread liberally across her chest, and there was a circular mark on one shoulder that looked very much like a burn. She'd been strangled; a thin cord was still wrapped around her throat.
David looked up at the sound of footsteps, glad to have something else to focus his attention on.
Mark Garnett, Ben's partner, was approaching.
"David, Alex. Glad you're here." He shook his head. "Fucking bastard."
"Hey, Mark. Don't worry, we'll get him, " David said.
Alex glanced up, but didn't shift her focus. "Mark, who found the girl?"
"The trash men -- they were making their rounds this morning, and when they rolled the dumpster away, they found her underneath it."
"You've dusted for prints?"
"Yeah, no luck."
Alex reached out with one gloved hand and took hold of the girls arm. She examined the tiny wrist, noting the restraint marks. Turning the hand over, she noticed there seemed to be something clenched between the small fingers. Gently, she pried them apart, letting an object fall into her palm.
She carefully placed the arm back on the ground, and stood. Alex lifted the small item from her palm and examined it.
"What is that?" David asked.
"It's a feather, or part of one. It was clutched in her fingers. Got a bag?"
Mark pulled a small bag from his pocket and offered it to her. Being careful not to crush the small fragment, Alex dropped it, and sealed the bag. She handed it back to Mark.
"Before they move her, make sure you bag her hands. Could be anything there. Bag her feet as well -- she was bare foot, and could have picked up something useful."
Alex looked back down at the tiny victim, and then nodded to David, who lowered the tarp back over the body.
"Ben said there's been a positive ID?" she asked Mark.
"Yeah. Elizabeth Fitzgerald, age eleven years and ten months. Father's a teacher, mother's a nurse."
"How close do they live to the border of DC?"
"They're from a suburb called Westmorland. I don't know where that's at."
"I do," David said. He looked at his partner. "It's only a half hour's drive from the edge of DC. Maybe less."
"Has anyone informed the Fitzgeralds that their daughter has been found?"
"Not that I know of," Mark said.
"Fine. David and I will take care of that. Will you have someone ask them to drive up? Or, David, do you think we should drive down?"
David frowned. "We might want to drive down, Alex. We can get the file from the Virginia police, and maybe look over the place she was abducted from. By the time we get back, Forensics will have started to work."
"Good idea. " She sighed and stretched her neck. "It's gonna be a long day, partner."
"It already is," he said, glancing behind them. "Already is."
It was quiet in the car as the two agents drove into Virginia. David concentrated on the road, while Alex stared at the passing landscape. Neither of them had really gotten over the sight of the body beneath the tarp.
Finally, Alex cleared her throat.
"So. You never told me how you're test went last night. I take it you passed, since neither of us are on desk duty this morning."
"Didn't you get a report from Teren?"
"No, she stayed at her condo last night."
"Well, I passed. Barely. She wasn't easy on me, either."
"She never is," Alex said with a smile.
David grinned at her, remembering his fight with Teren the night before.
He went through his warm up exercises under the watchful blue eyes of the combat instructor. Teren, already warm from teaching her last class, waited patiently while David stretched his muscles.
"You know I'm not going to take it easy on you, David," she called to him.
"I know. I already got Alex's warning about it. I wasn't even thinking of asking." Actually, he did think about it, for all of two minutes. Until he remembered the swollen and purple shiner that Mark Garnett had received from Teren for a similar offense.
"Good. Besides, I'm sure you'll do fine."
He finished his warm-up, and joined her near the mats. "Do I have to knock you down, or just hit you?"
"Neither. Just defend yourself. This isn't a contest to see who's better, it's just to make sure you could stay alive and on your feet until back up arrives. So, don't worry about it. You'll do fine." She pulled off her sweatshirt to reveal a tight black tank top that matched her short hair. "Ready?"
"No. But that won't get me out of it, so let's get it over with."
She grinned, and motioned towards the mat. He stepped onto the cushioned area, and Teren followed him.
Several minutes later, David found himself grateful that no one else was in the room. He could see why Teren, unlike other instructors, didn't allow observers of her recertification tests.
She didn't want to scare anyone who might have to face her in the future.
Already staggering from a series of punches, David never saw the foot that connected with his chest, knocking him backwards, and to his knees. For a moment he panicked, feeling his lungs strain to pull in a breath. But when he saw Teren launch a second kick, his reflexes took over. He dodged the incoming blow, and leaned forward onto his hands, kicking out in an attempt to take Teren's leg out. The tall woman was forced to hop backwards awkwardly, and before she could recover, David was back on his feet in a ready position.
She grinned. "Good job, David."
"Thanks." His voice was hoarse, and he was breathing hard. His chest ached from the kick she'd landed. He shook his head as sweat dripped into his eyes.
"Having fun yet?" she asked with a chuckle.
He smiled back at her, not wasting any more air on words. David couldn't believe that she wasn't even breathing hard yet.
They continued trading blows for several minutes. Teren landed a hard shot to the man's ribs, but had the next one blocked. David managed to rock the instructor back with a jab that connected with her chin. He grinned in celebration, only to find himself on his back after a vicious uppercut. He rolled out of the way and staggered back to his feet.
He shook his head to clear it, and focused back on his opponent. She was sweating, finally, he noticed.
"You okay, Dave?"
He nodded, saving his breath.
Teren's eyes narrowed as she watched him gasping for breath, and shaking his head. She glanced at the clock, noticing the time. "You wanna call it quits?"
His response was a punch, which she easily knocked aside. He threw another blow towards her head, and she moved to block his arm, only to find hers trapped and held. David stepped inside her guard raised a knee, slamming it into her stomach.
Teren almost smiled. David had always found ways to surprise her, and he'd done so again.
He raised his knee again, but this time she was ready. While he tried to balance on one leg, she swept one foot forward, catching him behind the knee of his plant leg. She winced at the loud thump as he landed on the mat.
David rolled again, and struggled to his feet. He was blinking rapidly, trying to clear the salt from his sweat soaked eyes.
"That's it, David. Match over." Teren lowered her guard slowly, keeping an eye on her opponent.
He blinked again, then cocked his head.
He slowly lowered his fists, watching as Teren walked off the mats and picked up a clipboard. He sighed.
"I failed, didn't I?"
Teren raised her head and looked at him. "Nope. You stayed on your feet long enough, you managed to land a few very good punches, and you showed the ability to think on your feet." She shrugged. "Besides, if you can take that kind of blow to your chest, after being shot there, then I have no doubt that you can handle yourself on the street." She handed him the clipboard and the pen. "Sign here, and you'll be off desk duty by morning."
He grinned, and signed. As he handed the pen back, he looked up at her.
"So, I really passed?"
"Good. Can I go pass out now?"
David chuckled as he remembered. For a moment, Teren had thought he was serious -- and so had he. But, after a few minutes of sitting down, he'd been able to get his breath back, and his heart rate, which Teren had monitored, had returned to normal. Teren had asked Margo to check him out, and she'd pronounced him bruised, but fit. He had watched as Teren entered her analysis into the computer, reinstating his field agent status.
"Yeah, I passed."
Alex looked at him. "She didn't give you a hard time, did she?"
Her partner chuckled. "Have you ever known Teren to NOT give me a hard time?"
"Well, there's your answer."He glanced at her. "And here I thought you'd softened her up for me."
"Softened her up? David, for the last three months all that woman has been doing is training. She was so angry about Bishop taking her down, that she's pushed herself to get back every skill she ever had."
"That's good, isn't it? Less chance of her being injured again, if she decides to go back to the CIA?"
"Well, yeah, I guess."
"What do you mean, you guess?"
Alex sighed. "David, I'm supposed to test for recertification in less than a week. Who do you think my opponent is going to be?"
David grinned. "Um, let's see. Your girlfriend?"
She snorted. "She may be my girlfriend, but not when we step on those mats." Alex leaned her head against the window. "I'm in so much trouble."
David just smiled.
Patrick and Michelle Fitzgerald lived in a small ranch style home in a suburb of Washington DC. Their house was less than four blocks from the school that Patrick taught at. It appeared a quiet neighborhood, with well kept houses, and smooth cement sidewalks.
The peace of the scene was broken by several news crews lined up near the Fitzgerald home. Between the news trucks sat two police cars. Their officers stood on the Fitzgerald lawn, forcing the reporters to keep their distance from the front door.
Alex shook her head as she and her partner approached the front door. They showed their badges to the policeman stationed there, and rang the bell. Glancing around idly, Alex noticed the yellow ribbon hanging from the mail box, and she sighed again.
The man who opened the door was tall and thin. He wore wire rimmed glasses that did little to hide the fact that he'd been crying recently.
"Yes? Did you find my daughter?"
Alex stepped inside. "Mr. Fitzgerald? I'm Agent Alex Reis, FBI. This is my partner, David Wu. Could we speak to you and your wife, please?"
Patrick nodded, and stepped back to let them in. He led them into the kitchen, where his wife was sitting at the table, her arms wrapped around herself.
She looked up as the two agents entered with her husband.
"Did you find Elizabeth? Is she all right?"
The agents glanced at each other. David stayed in the doorway as Alex took a seat at the table. Patrick stood beside his wife. His eyes blinked rapidly behind his glasses.
"Mrs. Fitzgerald," Alex began, "I have some news -- but none of it's good."
The woman gasped, and grabbed for her husband's hand.
"Your daughter was found this morning in Washington. She's dead."
At first there was silence, and then Michelle screamed.
"NOoooo!!!" She turned to her husband, burying her face in his shirt. He put a hand against her back, the tears streaking down his own face.
Michelle moaned, crying out her daughter's name over and over. Patrick knelt down, taking her fully into his arms.
Alex and David looked at each other, feeling like intruders.
They waited for several minutes as Patrick comforted his wife. Then he turned to them.
"How did she die?"
Alex swallowed. "She was strangled."
Patrick closed his eyes. "Was she -- was --"
He couldn't bring himself to say it.
David stepped forward, putting a hand on the man's shoulder. His voice was soft, and Alex knew her partner was thinking of his own small daughter.
"We'll give you all the details later, Mr. Fitzgerald. For now, I think you should stay with your wife. Is there anyone we can call for you? Family, friends...."
Fitzgerald shook his head. "No. Michelle's parents are on their way here."
Alex watched as the two grieving parents clung to each other. Glancing at her partner, she noticed his eyes were wet.
She wondered why hers weren't.
A knock at the door interrupted the scene. David moved as if to leave the room, but Alex stopped him.
"I'll get it, David. You stay here."
She opened the door to find Michelle Fitgerald's parents on the stoop, alongside another uniformed police officer. After letting the two family members in, Alex stepped out.
"I was told you were coming down. I'm really sorry I wasn't here. How're the parents taking the news?"
Alex winced. "Not good. Who can blame them?"
The officer nodded. "That's true."
Alex motioned to the file he held. "Is that for me?"
"Huh? Oh," he handed it to her. "I'm sorry. I'm Sergeant Baker. I got a call from Jim Blake up in DC, he said you'd be looking for the case file. Everything's in there."
"Good." Alex flipped through it absently. "Can you tell me where the girl was abducted, Sergeant?"
"Near the school. Best we can figure is that she was grabbed on her way home."
The agent frowned. "School in mid-June?"
"Not regular school. Elizabeth Fitzgerald was in a special program, for advanced students. They have classes Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Yesterday, they showed movies in the gym after classes, and she stayed to see them with a friend. They were supposed to walk home together, but the friend left early, so Elizabeth was by herself."
"None that we found. Her book bag was recovered from a ditch. There were no signs of a struggle, and no one heard a scream or a scuffle."
Alex sighed. "Right. I'll look over the file later. Thank you. Can you show my partner and I the location of the abduction?"
"Good." She turned to go back into the house, but stopped. She didn't think she could face that grief again. "Tell you what -- why don't you let my partner know? I'll read through this a little and meet you at the car."
"No problem." He opened the door and looked back at her. "How can someone do something like this to a little kid, Agent Reis?"
Alex shook her head. "Not a clue, Sergeant." She watched him go into the house, and closed her eyes for a moment. The image of the pale face she'd seen under the tarp rose up unbidden, and she shuddered.
The place where Elizabeth Fitzgerald had been abducted was actually less than fifty yards from school grounds. Her back pack had been found near a culvert, under a short cement bridge. The bridge was part of a walkway that crossed over the drainage ditch, and led between a small parking lot, and the school playground.
Alex stared into the playground, mentally figuring the route that the little girl would have taken when leaving the school. She followed it up to the bridge, then looked at the Sergeant again.
"Anyone report unusual cars in the parking lot?"
"No. This lot doesn't get a lot of traffic. It's mainly an overflow area for when there's an event at the school."
"Were there any cars here at all?"
"Not that I know of."
"Did you ask the girl Elizabeth was supposed to walk home with? Did she see any cars here?"
"Well, I didn't talk to her myself. But the report is in the file. From what I remember, she didn't see anything out of the ordinary. Nobody did. And people around here always seem to notice strangers. Which is why we're having such a hard time with this -- there's nobody here that we can believe would harm a sweet little kid like her."
Alex nodded. She knew that a child murderer could be just about anyone, and you wouldn't know it until it was too late. She figured Sergeant Baker knew this as well, but didn't want to think about it.
David scrambled up the side of the drainage ditch. "Nothing here that I can see, Alex. Looks like your people did a thorough job, Sergeant."
Agent Wu looked over at his partner, who was looking into the ditch. He waited, wondering just what Alex was seeing.
She let her eyes follow the ditch down to the next culvert and past it. The drainage ditch continued on out of sight. Every so often, there would be a cement bridge covering it. The culverts all had bars covering them probably in an attempt to keep animals and kids out.
"Sergeant? Those bridges further down," she pointed towards them. "Where do they lead? Parking lots like this?"
"Some of them, yeah. Most empty out onto dead end streets. "
Alex nodded. "And all the bars are welded on to the culverts? No one can open them?"
"Well, no -- they used to be welded on. But there was this blockage in one that caused a really bad flood. Ever since then they've taken them off the culverts themselves and made them into gates. They're kept locked with chains, though, and only the sanitation crews have the keys. They clean 'em out regularly."
"Right." She looked back up towards the school, imagining the girl walking across the playground, and meeting someone. Would she have followed, or would she have tried to run? Did the abductor sweet talk her, or scare her? How did he get her out of here without anyone seeing?
The blonde agent turned back to look at the houses. She realized they were being watched. There was a swing set in the unfenced back yard of the corner house, and three kids were quietly gathered around the set, looking at them. Alex smiled and waved at them.
One of them gave a wave back.
"Hey, David? I'm going over to talk to the kids, okay? I just want to ask them if they saw anything. Be back in a minute."
She crossed the street at a jog, and slowed to a walk as she reached the lawn near the back of the house. She held up a hand to the kids.
"Hi, gang. Could I talk to you for a minute?"
One of the kids, a boy who was seated on a swing, shrugged. "Sure."
She knelt down, smiling. "It's hot out today. You guys always play back here in this kind of heat?"
The girl sitting on the slide smiled. "No. Sometimes we get to go swimming, down at the park."
"I see. Did you go swimming yesterday?"
"No. We played here."
"Yeah," the boy said. "We played catch for a long time, then turned on the sprinkler and ran through it."
Alex grinned. "Yeah, I loved doing that when I was a kid." She wiped a hand across her forehead. "Makes me wish I was still your age."
They laughed at that. Alex chuckled, then let the smile slip from her face.
"You guys know why what happened yesterday, right?"
They all nodded solemnly.
"Well, then, I guess I should introduce myself. I'm Alex, and I'm with the FBI." She pulled out her badge and showed it to them. "I'm trying to find the people who took Elizabeth Fitzgerald."
The first boy nodded. "We figured that."
"Did the three of you see anything?"
They all shook their heads.
"You didn't see a car parked in the lot over there?" she pointed a thumb behind her.
"No," the girl said, "there wasn't a car there all day. That's where we played catch."
They nodded, and the second boy spoke up from his seat on a lawn chair "We're not allowed to play catch this close to the house. But Mom lets us play down there -- or at least she did."
Alex bit her lip. "So, none of you saw Elizabeth at all yesterday?"
"Sure we did," the girl answered.
"You did? Where?"
"On the playground. We were running through the sprinklers, and I saw her as she came out the door of the school. I asked the guys if she could play with us, and they said sure. We kept playing, and then when I looked again, she wasn't there." She looked down at the ground. "I thought I'd missed her, and she'd gone on home."
Feeling a sting in her eye, Alex reached out and gently touched the girl's face to comfort her.
"That was strange, too," the first boy said. "I mean, she wasn't walking fast or anything, but then when we looked for her, she was just gone." He shrugged.
"So, one minute she was there, and then she wasn't. You're sure it was her you saw?"
"Yeah, we're sure."
"And she was still on the playground? Close to the school?"
"Yeah, but I looked up again and she was past the swings and headed for the bridge. Then it was my turn to go down the water slide we'd made, and when I got up, she was gone."
Something about what the boy said worried Alex, but she couldn't figure out what it was. She stared at the ground for a moment, letting the words drift past her. Finally she looked back up at the kids.
"Okay, I'm going to ask you a question, and I need a truthful answer, all right? I promise you won't get in trouble, but I need you to be honest with me, okay?"
They all nodded, nervous looks on their faces.
"I'm willing to bet that you sometimes play in the ditch -- don't you?"
She watched guilty looks pass between all of them, as they all slowly nodded.
"Now, this is the important question. Those locks on the gates to the culverts. Are they all locked? Or have you found a way to get into them?"
They looked at each other. Finally the boy in the lawn chair spoke up. "Most of them are still closed. But there are a few that you can pull away from the culvert and squeeze through. We sometimes play spy games down there -- or dungeons and dragons."
Alex nodded. "I thought so. Can you tell me which ones?"
"Sure." The boy stood, pointing to the next cement bridge up. "We can squeeze through both gates down there, and the one just past this. Those are the only ones I know of." He looked up at Alex who risen from her kneeling position. "Are we gonna be in trouble?"
Alex smiled, and was about to answer when she heard a female voice calling out. All of them turned to see a woman coming down the back steps from the house.
"Excuse me, who are you?"
The blonde agent took a step forward, offering the woman her ID badge. "I'm Agent Alex Reis, FBI. I was just asking the kids if they'd seen Elizabeth Fitzgerald yesterday. I hope you don't mind."
The woman looked at the identification, then up at Alex. "Tommy said last night he hadn't seen anyone."
"Right. I was just checking if they'd actually seen the girl, not necessarily anyone with her. They told me they saw her leave the building, but they didn't see anything else."
"Is that right, Tommy?"
The three kids nodded. Tommy looked back and forth between the agent and his mom. Alex knew he was wondering if she was going to tell about their games in the culverts.
"Well," she turned back to the kids. "You three have been great. I appreciate your time." She slid her ID back into her jacket pocket, and leaned down to whisper to Tommy.
"No more playing in culverts, okay? It can be dangerous, and I don't think you want to worry your mom." He shook his head, and she smiled as she stood upright.
"Thanks, guys." She turned to head back across the street.
Alex stopped and looked at Tommy's mother.
"Do you know yet what happened to Elizabeth?"
The agent swallowed, not sure how to answer. When she finally found her voice, all she could say was, "No. But we will."
The woman nodded, stepping closer to her son and putting an arm around him. Alex nodded and waved at the kids. Then she jogged back across the lot towards her partner and Sergeant Baker.
As Alex crossed the parking lot, she thought over what the kids had told her. She had a hunch she knew how the kidnapper had gotten the girl away without being seen.
"Hey, Alex. They see anything?"
"No, David. Which is what's weird. They should have."
"What do you mean?" Baker asked.
"Well, they were playing in the backyard the whole time. They didn't see anyone strange, or see any cars around."
"Which is what everyone else said. What's weird about that?"
"They also told me they saw the girl leave the school -- but the next time they looked up, she was gone."
David frowned. "They didn't watch her cross the playground?"
"No, but they did look up and see her every few minutes. Then, she just disappeared. They looked up and down the block, but she wasn't there."
The police Sergeant shook his head. "I don't get it. What's so special about that? I told you we didn't have any witnesses."
"Right. But we know that the girl was taken here because this is where her backpack was found."
David nodded. He was beginning to see what his partner was driving at.
"You think the person was hiding in the ditch?" he asked.
She nodded. "I think they were hiding there, and that's how they escaped. Through the ditch and the culverts, to one of those dead end streets."
"But that's not possible," the Sergeant said. "I told you, those gates are locked."
Alex went to the edge of the ditch and carefully maneuvered herself down the side. She jumped the last couple of feet, and waved to the men still standing above her.
"Come on. We'll just walk down and see."
As they walked, Alex looked closely at the sides and bottom of the ditch. The lack of rain had left the earth too dry to produce footprints, but there were obvious signs of someone having traveled this way recently. She glanced up at her partner and pointed.
He nodded, having seen it as well. The weeds that should have been standing straight were bent and broken. Alex knew they couldn't be sure if they had been damaged by the kids playing here, but she had a feeling it had been someone with much larger feet.
The closer they got to the gate, the more obvious it became that this was indeed the kidnapper's escape route. The chain that held the bars against the culvert had been cut; the ends had been left dangling, swinging in what little breeze there was. Alex looked up at Sergeant Baker to see the policeman had gone very pale.
She pulled a rubber glove from her pocket and put it on. Lifting one end of the chain, she nodded. "My bet," she said quietly, "is that this chain and the one on the opposite end of the culvert were both opened by a pair of bolt cutters." She pulled back the gate, and stepped into the darkened culvert.
Continues in Chapter Two