Authors: Ashley Stryker
Mary watched him quietly. From the change in his expression, she knew he listened to something important.
“I’ll be right there,” Thom said and flipped the phone closed.
The commotion in the precinct rivaled any previous investigation. A serial kidnapper, with two abductions in a week, shook up every cop in a town the size of Stony Bend and the news vans outside belonged to more than just the local network affiliates. The press statement released to the media tried to inform and warn the public without creating a panic but more than a quarter of the children failed to show up to school that morning. Their frightened parents kept them at home. That strategy complicated the investigation, because the department had to verify the location of each absent child.
Phone calls, mainly from concerned citizens, kept the lines ringing. Most of the leads proved useless as people became paranoid of every unfamiliar car on their block or suspicious of a neighbor they didn’t know well.
They hadn’t released Mary’s name or photo to the press, so the reporters hadn’t hassled them. Thom held on to Mary’s hand as he plowed through the pack of people milling around on the way to his office. Brad waited for him inside.
“Good call, Inspector,” Brad began. “You were right about the security tape.”
A television set with built-in VCR balanced on a rolling cart to one side of his desk. Brad handed Thom a cassette tape. “I cued it up to the section of interest.”
“Thanks Brad.” Thom jammed the tape into the slot. “We’ve got a partial description of this guy now. I want you to get the information distributed to the troops.” He jotted the description he’d coaxed out of Mary onto a piece of paper and passed it to him.
“Sure thing.” Brad closed the door behind her.
Thom watched Mary appraising the office with a critical eye. “Mini fridge, punching bag, futon, several changes of clothes hanging on your coat rack. It looks like you live in your office.”
“Sometimes it seems that way.”
Mary examined the pictures, purposefully avoiding the TV Thom noticed. “Is this your family?”
Thom glanced up at the photo to which she pointed. “Yeah. That’s my folks and brothers.”
“And here’s your niece, the undercover fifth grader.”
“She still needs some work on the undercover part.” Thom grinned, fondly remembering how Jena had blown her cover by calling him ‘Uncle Thom.’ “Listen, you don’t really need to watch this.”
“No.” Mary settled into the chair opposite his desk. “I need to do everything I can to help Nancy. I won’t let her down.” Mary locked eyes with Thom, sparking a rush in his lower regions. “I won’t let you down.”
Her very proximity alerted all his senses. The peach scent of her perfume penetrated his good sense and called him to her. Determination only enhanced the beauty of her features, adding a tinge of color to her cheeks. The taste of her kiss still lingered, making him thirsty for more. He couldn’t prevent his hands from seeking her out and he fought to merely stroke her silken tumble of hair, when he really wanted to explore every inch of her naked body.
“We’ll get through this,” Thom assured her. He needed her to believe that. He would always protect her but ultimately she needed to reclaim her own power. If she adopted the victim mentality and lived every day in fear, in effect she’d let her abductor ruin her life. He’d seen the soul killing effect firsthand, back before he understood the danger. He’d seen the slow demise of an abused spirit who didn’t or couldn’t find the will to fight back. He didn’t want that to happen to Mary.
Thom settled on the edge of his desk. After double checking Mary’s determination to witness the tape, he reached over and hit the play button. The view of the parking lot came to life on the screen. Nancy’s car was partially visible on the left side of the screen. Only the tail end appeared clearly in view where it stuck out behind the car between her vehicle and the camera. A white van was on the far side of her car.
“That’s Nancy.” Mary pointed to the woman coming into view from the lower right.
Thom leaned closer to the grainy image. Nancy looked exactly like Mary from this perspective. She wore a long summer dress similar to the one Mary wore yesterday. The white sweater flapped open with her purposeful strides. Nancy’s hair flowed out behind her, a whiter blond than Mary’s but similarly cut. She struggled with an armload of grocery bags but when she reached her car, Thom could see she held her keys ready.
Nancy reached the passenger side door, opened it and deposited her purse and bags. Meanwhile, unnoticed by her, a man sprung out of the back of the white van. Thom struggled to control his reaction as he watched a replay of the assault Mary described. If he hadn’t known differently, he could easily believe this footage showed her attack.
The first thing he noticed about the perpetrator was that Mary’s height and weight estimates were dead on. The second thing he thought was that he would bash the man’s head in if he ever got the chance. In two steps the man caught Nancy. He grabbed her from behind by the throat. He forced her down, out of view of the camera but the brute remained visible.
Thom couldn’t sit still during the long moments while the attacker choked Nancy. He balled his fists when the man slammed the girl head-first into the side of his van. When Nancy continued to struggle, he slammed her again. He bent forward, almost slipping out of sight himself, except his elbow rose twice from behind the car, presumably indicating he punched her. When he finally stood, Nancy hung like an armful of laundry in his arms. He hoisted her to the back of his van, tossed her in like an inanimate object and followed. The doors closed and the van drove off seconds later, never flashing the camera its license plate.
The whole attack lasted under a minute and no witnesses appeared on tape.
Thom rose and turned to Mary. Her eyes widened and glazed with tears. He could tell she blamed herself and that stupid promise. In her stillness, he saw the calm before the collapse. He should never have allowed her to watch the tape.
He hated that man on the tape. He hated what that monster had done to Mary and now to Nancy. He hated feeling helpless to stop the violence.
Thom spun to the punching bag hanging in the corner. With a roar of rage, he pummeled the bag. “Damn it!” Visualizing the man on the tape, Thom swore he would see him dead or behind bars. He punched the bag again and again, making it jump on its chain with the force of his blows.
“Thom, stop it!” Mary cried. “Please, I need you.”
He stopped and turned toward her. Mary stood, looking like she didn’t know if she should run to him or run from him. He held out his arms. “Come here.”
Mary rushed to him. She buried her face in his chest. He hugged her tight, soothing her tremors as best he could. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“Don’t fall apart on me,” Mary pleaded. “I can’t make it without you.”
He stroked her hair. He loved hugging her. Loved feeling her slender form pressed against him. Loved the way she made him feel human again. For years, he’d lived for the job, thought of nothing else. Each day, he’d retreated further into the logic and the facts that made up his life. With Mary, he found himself longing to keep her by his side and not just for her protection. Maybe that is why he found himself reaching for her so often. “Don’t worry. Just letting off steam, is all. I won’t let you down.” He chuckled, “They are used to it around here. My captain gave me the punching bag because I knocked too many holes in the walls.”
Mary turned her face up to him. “Really?”
“Yes,” he laughed. He tucked her hair behind her ears, becoming serious. “I know the day’s been rough but we can’t stop now. We’ve got to track this guy down.”
Before Thom could answer, the uniformed officer Thom had called Brad opened his office door. Thom practically leapt back away from Mary. The comfort that wrapped around her in his arms, snapped in that hasty retreat. With each progressive touch, her heart opened further to him and each time he retreated, deeper pain impaled in her heart like a dagger of ice. He cared about her, wanted her, she knew it without doubt every time he gazed into her soul with those amazing eyes, or caressed her skin with those powerful hands, or shattered her world with those explosive kisses.
When she’d asked Thom about Tammy Jo, he’d dodged the question. Had he sworn never to love another? How could she compete with a memory? If he could never love her, truly and free of guilt, Mary knew she needed to break off the budding relationship developing between them. Recent events left her too vulnerable to open herself for such disappointment.
“What have you got?” Thom accepted the stack of papers from Brad, who looked more like a male model in his uniform than an actual police officer. But when he spoke his tone and lingo was all cop.
“I ran your description. You have a list of several hundred with driver’s licenses with those parameters just in this county alone.” Brad cast a curiously appraising look over Mary, but didn’t derail from his line of thought. His pretty-boy looks didn’t disguise the intelligence in his pale blue eyes. “I saw the tape so I cross-reference the list with registered owners of a white cargo van. There were about a hundred and sixty.”
“That’s assuming he doesn’t borrow someone else’s vehicle.”
“And assuming that both he and the vehicle are registered in this county.”
“What about cross referencing for men with police records?”
“We are working on that. So far no one who has a similar M.O.”
“Keep looking,” Thom said. “Use the national database. I’ll keep working with Mary and see if we can’t find something else to help narrow the search.”
“Check.” Brad gave Mary a nod of acknowledgment, and a hang-in-there wink that she found endearing, before leaving.
When the door closed, Mary asked, “Me?”
“This whole investigation hinges on you.” Thom reminded her. “He abducted you first. He sent you a message with that button. He targeted someone who works in the same school and who dressed much like you were the day he grabbed you, even down to the white sweater of yours, which he kept as a souvenir.”
Mary sank into the chair behind her, thankful it caught her or she would have collapsed to the floor. “Oh God, you are thinking of using me for bait?”
“I hope it doesn’t come to that.” Thom knelt down to eye level beside her. He rested a hand softly on her thigh and her skin tingled with response from her scalp to her toes. “But I am going to ask something difficult of you.”
“What more can I do?”
“You made your 9-1-1 call for help from a remote gas station. We are going to have to go back there. If we work backward, we might be able to track your path back to him.”
Anxiety shot through her bones like electricity. A trembling in her limbs cascaded along her muscles. “I want to help. I really do but I am about to crumble here.”
“I know that and I would never put you through this without good reason.” Thom brushed Mary’s hair out of her eyes and cupped her face in his capable hands. The strength he exuded dribbled inside her, settling the tremors of panic. He snagged her in his serious jade gaze. “We have to do this, not only for Nancy but for your own protection. Otherwise he’ll come for you again. He targeted you from the start.”
Mary searched his face, finding only sincerity and concern. All the while, in the back of her mind, she screamed. She remembered stumbling through the fields, the long fingers of grass snagging on her socks and skirt, chasing the power lines as instructed. Her lungs ached and her legs burned as she fled. Every shadow and ripple of the wind through the weeds frightened her as she mistook each for her abductor.
“I’ll be with you every step of the way,” he promised.
Mary cut her eyes away from Thom, ready to bolt. Her gaze settled on the now black television screen. The image of Nancy on that screen haunted her. And just like that image which faded to empty black, the real Nancy just vanished without a trace. And if Thom was correct, only Mary could help bring her home. She whispered, “I’ll do it.”
“This is where the rescue crew found you.” Thom explained as the SUV coasted into the deserted lot, crunching the gravel beneath the tires. Mary noticed Thom glancing at her, as if watching for any sign of panic. She’d hyperventilated at the school but she’d made it through that and felt somewhat stronger for it. A day ago she wouldn’t have guessed she could survive it but with Thom by her side, she felt she could weather anything. Mary glanced out the window at the overgrown grassy expanse on the far side of the road. Well, maybe not this, she thought, fisting her trembling hands before Thom noticed.
He continued, “You were pretty shocky and drugged when I saw you in the hospital. Do you remember?”
“I remember seeing your badge.” Mary furrowed her brow, trying to remember. “And didn’t you hold my hand?”
“Yes, I did.” He smiled, taking her hand and squeezing it.
“You’ve been there for me since the beginning, haven’t you?” Her eyes captured him in their candor and knew he understood she meant more than the mere words implied.
“I have been with you since the beginning,” he began, “but I’ve only walked beside you. Each step forward you’ve taken on your own.”
“What do you mean?”
“Only you could face the memories and pull out the evidence we needed to narrow the search.” He caressed her hair and then tangled his fingers in it. “Only you could decide to break this monster’s hold over your life.”
“But he is still there,” she began.
“We are going to catch him and you are going to be the reason why.” Thom said.
She closed her eyes. “I’m such a bad person.”
“Why would you say that?” Thom shook her until she met his gaze. “Because of the promise? I thought you already understood you can’t hold yourself responsible for what this guy does.”
“Try explaining that to Nancy.” She covered Thom’s hands with her own. “But that’s not what I meant. I’m a bad person because even with all this horror, I can’t stop thinking about you. Thom, I think I might be falling in love with you.”
Thom sat back, as if stunned by her admission. He considered her words for a long time. Too long, Mary thought. Finally, he said, “Is it possible what you feel is gratitude?”
Mary’s heart plummeted into a deep cave of disappointment.
“After all, I’ve protected you. I’ve helped you face this problem. I’ve comforted you.”
The sting of his rejection stabbed her like a thousand needles in her heart. Mary opened the SUV door, wanting only to escape the pain. She tossed over her shoulder. “Are you questioning my feelings for you? Or are you only avoiding your feelings for me?”
He caught her elbow before she slipped away. “What do you mean by that?”
“Are you just a rogue who ravages damsels in distress with those wicked kisses?” she snapped, tugging free.
“No. I’ve never kissed anyone the way I’ve kissed you.”
“I don’t know why,” he admitted. “But I do know that unless we catch your attacker, we won’t have a chance to figure it out.”
“Just forget it,” Mary mumbled, her wounded pride not salved by his reply.
She hopped down from the black SUV and stormed away, her arms crossed as if that might prevent her heart from breaking. She’d have marched all the way back to town and left Mr. Super Cop, who sleeps in his office and lives by his scanner, high and dry on his precious case if only Nancy’s life didn’t depend on her. He might be married to his job, or devoted to his deceased high school sweetheart, or both, but whatever the case, with those issues hanging over him, he didn’t have the right to dismiss her feelings as some misplaced hero worship.
Mary drifted around the gravel lot, refocusing on the mission at hand. “This is where you found me?”
“Not me personally but the rescue team, yes,” Thom replied, coming around the front of the SUV to join her. “Luckily the pay phone still works. You used it to dial 9-1-1.”
“It looks different in the daylight,” Mary commented. That night, the building appeared abandoned but she hadn’t noticed the boarded up windows. No other buildings interrupted the vista composed of woods and the ribbon of asphalt curving past. It could have been far removed from civilization, just a ruin in the wilderness proving that humans had once settled here before moving on or disappearing, like a lost Mayan city in the jungles of Central America.
That night, this abandoned gas station served as a lifeboat in an empty ocean for Mary. The phone standing unassumingly to the side of the empty lot acted like a radio beacon to connect her with the real world and led her out of the nightmare she’d been dragged into. Mary touched the phone, saying a silent prayer of thanks that it had been there for her in her need.
“We need to backtrack from here.” Thom touched Mary’s shoulder, bringing her out of her private thoughts.
“Right,” she said, wiping the moisture from her cheeks. Mary glanced at her wet hand. She hadn’t even realized she wept.
Thom squeezed her shoulder, “You can do this.”
“I know.” She shook her head, clearing away her emotions and focusing on remembering the details. “I’m ready.”
“We found some bits of grass on your socks. We think you must have walked through the weeds on the side of the road.” Thom prompted. “Do you recall that at all?”
“I remember everything,” she said, straightening up. “Just follow me.”
Mary forced her feet to obey and guide her back toward the terror from which they’d fled. Suddenly cold, Mary crossed her arms over her chest as she walked up the road. Thom let her lead the way, staying a few steps behind her. Although she heard his footfalls, she felt hollow inside as if she faced this path alone. She never thought she’d willingly take this journey but there was more than her safety and comfort at stake. She’d brought danger into the lives of everyone she knew and loved and now only she could make things right.
In the back of her mind, she remembered a fairytale about a princess who willingly went to a dragon as a sacrifice so he would spare her village and her family. In the story the dragon turned out to be kind but misunderstood and everyone lived happily ever after. But this wasn’t a fairytale and she might indeed have to sacrifice herself to whatever awful fate she found at the end of this path.
Thom was right. She possessed strength enough to face her demon. Thom thought he could defeat it once he’d found it but Mary wasn’t counting on it. She’d escaped her fate for a couple of days and even found a few moments of happiness with Thom but she couldn’t shake the feeling that all of that was coming to an end.
“There it is.” Mary pointed to the power lines up ahead where they arched across the road. “That’s where we turn off the road.”
Thom strode up beside her. She’d stopped when the power lines rose into view over the wall of trees marking the border of the grassy field. Holding up a map book he’d brought with him, Thom made a note on it in pencil. “You walked nearly two miles down the road and no one drove past?”
“I didn’t walk on the road. I stayed in the grassy ditch along the side.” Mary pointed to the drainage ditch full of overgrown weeds. “I was afraid he’d change his mind and come looking for me. I hid from the cars that passed.”