Authors: Ashley Stryker
Steering one-handed as the SUV sped back to town, Thom dialed Brad on his cell phone. “Come on. Come on,” He mumbled to the persistent ringing. They had the guy cornered; Thom could feel it in his bones. When Brad picked up, Thom launched right in. “Have the guys narrow the search to the northern Elmwood Heights area between Brighten Avenue and North Ridge. Then get in your cruiser and meet me at Mary Seeton’s house.”
“Will do, Inspector,” Brad said and rung off.
Mary wrung her hands nervously in her lap, torturing them with each twist and tug. “What will happen now?”
The gesture, so like the one he’d seen before reminded him painfully of Tammy Jo. Her thin fingers twisted that way on the late spring afternoon when Thom brought her home after school.
“Why won’t you tell me what’s going on Tammy Jo?” he asked. “Why won’t you trust me?”
Tammy Jo forced an unconvincing smile. “I can’t tell you, Thom. It would only make things worse.”
“What about the councilor at school, or the minister? They might be able to help.”
“I don’t know what to do. I’m afraid. I’m afraid I’ll leave like my father and step-father.”
“You said your mother drove them away. Do you think she’ll drive you away too?”
“That’s not what happened. I know that now. I don’t know what to do.” She glanced out the windshield at her house. Bringing her clenched hands to her mouth, Tammy Jo’s color paled.
“What is it?” Thom followed her line of sight. Tammy Jo’s mother glared at them from the side yard. Mud stained the knees of her old bib overalls. A flat of dark purple annuals fluttered in the shifting spring breeze. With a rag, she wiped the mud off her gardening trowel but her icy glare never wavered from her daughter and Thom.
“I have to go.” Tammy Jo reached for the door handle.
“Don’t,” Thom said. “Come home with me. Eat dinner with my family.”
“I’ve seen the bruises, Tammy. You’re not safe here.”
“Thom, you have to go.”
“I won’t leave you here alone.” He reached for the gear shift to put the Dodge into park.
Tammy Jo stopped him. “Just go. It’ll be better for me if you just go.”
“Tammy Jo…” He reached for her but she blocked him.
“I don’t want you to get hurt. I can take care of this myself.” She opened the car door. “I’ll call you tonight after she’s asleep, okay? Just go now.”
Thom watched her walk with reluctant steps up the small incline toward her mother. Tammy Jo cast him one last backward glance and waved a small urgent gesture to him to leave. Regretfully, Thom lifted his foot off the brake. The car coasted forward. He crept to the end of the block, watching the rearview mirror, hoping to see Tammy Jo running after him but seeing no one, he eased on the gas and drove home.
He’d waited up all night for the phone call that never came.
“Thom.” Mary’s worried voice brought him back to the present. “What will happen now?”
Thom stabbed his fingers through his hair, bringing his focus back to the present. “If the computer guys find a lead in that area, we’ll check him out. Otherwise, we’ll go door to door. Thanks to you, we’ve narrowed the field down to just a few blocks and we can canvas it quickly.” He reached over and closed his large hand over her smaller ones. Her chilled fingers stopped trembling under his touch. “You did well, Mary.”
When they parked outside Mary’s house Brad’s cruiser was waiting across the street. Thom told Mary, “I’m leaving you here with Officer Brad Macosa. He might seem laid back but believe me he is alert and a master marksman. You’ll be safe with him until I get back.”
Mary’s eyes glistened. He slipped his hands up under her hair so he could cradle her head. Gently, he pulled her to him so their foreheads touched. “It’s going to be okay.”
Thom kissed her. It was a slow, lingering caress of lips and tongues. Liquid passion melted between them, with an inevitable and consuming presence like slow moving lava that covered everything. Strangely, Thom felt something inside him slip away, some sense of aloneness, of singularity. With each touch of Mary’s flesh his feelings for her deepened far surpassing simple lust. As he withdrew, a weight of sadness spread over his heart. He’d loved Tammy Jo that way and lost her. The heartbreak nearly destroyed him. If he failed again… If he miscalculated… If harm came to Mary. Thom couldn’t complete the thought.
“You be careful,” Mary cautioned him. “I’m scared for you.”
“I’ll be fine,” he forced a smile. “Let’s get you inside. I’m sure Fizgig misses you.”
They climbed out and joined Brad on the porch. He had his hands resting on his utility belt. Loaded down with gun, pepper spray, nightstick, cuffs and ammo clips, the belt seemed over-sized on Brad’s slim hips. One look at the toughness of his stance and the hard seen-it-all expression in his eyes and no one mistook him for soft. Even if the guys at the precinct razzed him now and then with copies of pictures from his pin-up photo shoot.
“I walked around the perimeter when I arrived,” Brad assured them. “She’s locked up tight as a drum.”
“Excellent,” Thom said. “I want you to sit with Mary while I check out this lead.”
“I figured as much. It’ll be tough but we’ll get through it.” Brad winked at Mary, who smiled back.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Thom promised.
“Possibly sooner than you expect,” Brad said, handing him a piece of paper. “We got a hit on your suspect.”
“You’re kidding!” Mary gasped, “Who is he?”
“Adam Fielding. He matches your description and his address is right in the area you described. No vehicle registered in his name but his mother owns that house and she has a white van registered. Thom, the SWAT team is waiting for you with the warrant. Didn’t you hear the activity over the radio?”
“I forgot to turn it on,” Thom admitted, surprised to realize he’d forgotten it all day.
“Well, bowl me over with a feather. I guess this little lady is doing you some good.” Brad put an arm around Mary’s shoulders. “Don’t worry about Mary. I’ll look after her for you.”
Thom raised an eyebrow, and then narrowed his eyes at Brad. “Just don’t get too cozy there, Macosa.”
Brad smirked. “I’ll leave that for you to handle.”
Mary and Brad watched Thom speed off. Chewing her lip anxiously, Mary wished Thom could have stayed and let someone else handle this Adam Fielding fellow. He had to be the guy. Everything fit; the location, the van, the description. Dread seeped into her bones. She’d seen what Adam had done to Nancy, knew for herself his brutality. If any harm came to Thom as well, Mary knew she couldn’t handle that guilt on top of everything else.
“There he goes,” Brad mused. “Off into the sunset to slay the dragon.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Are you kidding?” Brad opened the screen and waited for Mary to unlock the front door.
Once Mary unlocked the door, Brad edged her aside and went in first. His hand rested on the butt of his gun as he did a quick walk-through of the house. After satisfying himself, he waved Mary inside.
Fizgig bounded out of the bedroom, meowing piteously. His long gray coat swished eagerly around him as he hurried to Mary. She scooped him up and buried her face in his fur. “Did you miss me, sweetie?”
He meowed and twisted away. Mary let him drop and he led the way to his food dish. He’d emptied it in just one day. The dry cat food usually lasted twice as long. “Have you been eating from loneliness?”
The mews became more insistent until she filled his bowl with nuggets and gave him a can of turkey and giblets Friskies.
“Can I get you anything, Officer?”
“Call me Brad,” he said. “Might as well become friends since I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot of each other.”
“What do you mean?”
“Honey,” Brad crossed to the breakfast bar and leaned on his forearms, mischief twinkling in his eyes. “Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed.”
To Mary’s quizzical expression, Brad laughed. “I guess it’s true. People in love are always the last to know.”
“Thom’s gaga over you. Like big-time, over-the-moon kind of gaga.” Brad rounded the counter and opened Mary’s refrigerator. He found a soda hidden behind a stack of Tupperware bowls and closed the door. “I mean the kind of love that hits you square between the eyes and knocks you on your rear.”
“You really think so?”
Brad gave her a sarcastic, are-you-kidding look.
A smile crept across Mary’s face and try as she might, she couldn’t stop it. Embarrassed, she busied herself in the kitchen. “I thought he might be hung up on somebody else.”
Brad rifled through the cupboard, found a half of a bag of chips and tossed a couple in his mouth. “No. Not as long as I’ve known him.”
“What about Tammy Jo?”
“Oh yeah. Well, there is that.”
Mary wiped the counter with a wet sponge even though it didn’t need it.
“Listen,” Brad covered Mary’s hand to stop her compulsive scrubbing. “In all the years I’ve known Thom, he’s never missed a morning staff meeting or turned off that scanner of his. He’s been practically married to his job, until he met you. That means something. He cares about you, in more than a professional way.”
“Then why does he keep pushing me away?”
“Give him some time.” Brad angled the chips toward Mary. “Now, let’s munch some comfort food and find something on TV.”
Mary grinned despite herself.
The light on her answering machine blinked, catching her eye, so she pressed the button.
“You broke your promise,” accused the voice on the answering machine. It was his voice. Adam Fielding. The man who had abducted her. The harsh edge to his words stabbed icy fear into her soul. “So I’m going to keep mine.”
“No!” Mary screamed, “Oh, no! Thom!”
Thom crept to the back of the bungalow style home while the other officers worked themselves into position. The formerly white aluminum siding desperately needed a wash. No fence marked the property line, so the expanse of grass in the backyard, which grew tall enough to catch the bottom of his pants legs, drifted off into the grassy meadow where he and Mary were just an hour or so ago. He could see the power lines in the distance, maybe about a fifteen-minute walk away.
Toward the back of the property a rusted out swing set listed ominously to one side and probably would collapse under the exuberance of a two-year-old. Beside it, a small storage shed squatted in the shade of a maple tree. A bolt secured the shed, so they’d search it later.
Three other officers in body armor positioned themselves near the back door. Thom tugged at the neck of the heavy bulletproof vest strapped on over his clothes. With a quick check, Thom verified his badge hung from his belt. He thumbed off the safety on his gun and settled his grip more securely.
He was ready.
Standing to one side of the back door, Thom tested the handle. Locked. He nodded to one of the men who descended on the handle lock and then the deadbolt with an electronic gizmo that drilled out the inside of the locking mechanism and turned the catch. With that task completed, the man stood back and let Thom take the lead.
Quietly, Thom pushed open the door and peeked inside. The door opened onto a stairwell landing between the main floor and the basement. Inside the house was as still as death. And smelled of it too. Thom resisted the urge to retreat from the odor and pressed forward.
One officer quietly climbed to the top of the stairs. There was no door, so the officer positioned himself so he could cover that entrance while remaining hidden from view.
Thom led the other officers down to the basement. Adam had imprisoned Mary in the basement and most criminals stuck with their pattern. Because they didn’t know if Adam was home, their first goal was to find and remove Nancy Miller, if at all possible, before confronting him.
The soles of Thom’s tennis shoes padded soundlessly down the wooden stairs. Boxes in various states of collapse, some spilling their contents of old clothes out of ripped sides, filled the basement room. Directly across from the steps, accessible by a narrow clear patch of concrete floor, a closed door led to another room. Thom directed the other officers to sweep the first room, just to make sure the boxes were not concealing any hiding spaces from where an armed perpetrator might spring out at them.
They signaled all clear, and then flanked Thom by the other door. Thom turned the handle in perfect silence and shoved the door open. He and the other officers rushed in quietly and then froze at the sight that greeted them.
The room had been laid out as a bedroom, with a bed, table, dresser and chairs. A woman lay spread-eagle on the bed, bound at the wrists and ankles to the frame. Even blindfolded with a handkerchief and with her mouth taped shut with duct tape, Thom recognized Nancy Miller from her clothing. If he hadn’t known that, he could have mistaken her for Mary.
Thom’s heart compressed at the sight. If Mary hadn’t escaped, she would be the one on this bed at this moment, only without any hope of rescue. Without Mary’s lead, Adam Fielding’s reign of terror might have lasted years.
Nancy hadn’t moved since they’d entered. The officer to Thom’s left drew a line across his throat, indicating he believed they’d arrived too late. The other officer eased closer and felt Nancy’s wrist for a pulse. At the touch, Nancy jumped and squealed against her gag. The officer stumbled back in surprise at the movement. From the scene, he hadn’t expected to find her still alive.
“Shhh,” Thom whispered, pulling the blindfold off Nancy. He’d leave the gag until he was sure she wouldn’t give away their position to anyone else in the house. “Nancy, I’m Inspector Brady. We are going to get you out of here but you have to stay very quiet, okay?”
Nancy stopped struggling, glanced from Thom to the two SWAT officers in full body armor and nodded. Tears of relief flowed down her face.
Thom and the other officers cut her rope bonds. Once freed, Nancy sat up and threw her arms around Thom’s neck. He patted her back comfortingly for two seconds before loosening her grip on him and helping her to her feet. The four of them started back up the stairs, keeping Nancy in the protected center position. Nancy dug her nails into the tape on her mouth but Thom stopped her. It would hurt coming off and he couldn’t risk her crying out. She’d have to wait until she cleared the scene before removing it.
At the bottom of the stairs, Thom pulled out his walkie-talkie and whispered, “We’ve secured the victim. She’s coming out the back. Full breach on my command.”
One of the officers wrapped his arm around Nancy’s waist and the two of them went out the back door quietly. Thom watched them rush through the neighbors’ backyards until they were clear.
“Go.” Thom ordered into his radio, “Now!”
With the yell, “Police! Open up!” the front door smashed in. Thom and the others rushed up the basement stairs.
The house flooded with noise and movement. The SWAT team spilled through the front door and began checking rooms, shouting, “Clear!” as they secured areas.
“We’ve got a locked room,” one shouted. Thom hurried down the hall. While the others covered the entryway with their rifles, Thom reared back and kicked the door in. They all rushed into the large bedroom.
Someone was obviously under the covers, even though the comforter completely obscured the bulk of the person’s shape. Thom grabbed the fabric and while everyone aimed at the person, he yanked back the covers.
The smell, which had permeated the entire atmosphere of the house, exploded without the blanket to encase it. Despite their toughness two SWAT guys choked and recoiled.
Thom cursed, stepping back as if that might spare him the brunt of the odor. “He’s not here,” Thom said. “Check the rest of the house and the locked shed. See if there are any more. Have forensics begin their sweep, including the fields out back, there is potentially other evidence back there.”
The SWAT officers seemed relieved by the order and retreated quickly.
Thom stared down at the body, obviously dead for a while, laid out on the bed. She’d been older, probably in her seventies. The simple long dress she wore was reminiscent of the type Mary and Nancy wore at the time of their abductions, even down to the small parallel floral patterns. She even wore a sweater, just like both victims.
Despite the deteriorating features, Thom recognized the woman from the driver’s license photo he’d seen moments before. She was Adam’s mother, Maude Fielding.
Her son was nowhere to be found.