Human anatomy is simple. It only requires time to study and a mind to grasp the complex organs God had stuffed into the body. Lots and lots of study time. That's what Kathy Mizell had done for weeks. Nothing else but study, eat, and a little sleep. Cranial nerves, respiratory system, lymphatic system. She'd learned it all and doubted she could ever look at people the same way again. But the test had been last Friday and she'd scored a solid B. Human anatomy was the big hurdle for most nursing students and she had cleared it. Now she had to face tests on prescription drugs, diseases of the pulmonary system, and taking effective case notes.
Kathy considered her anatomy score as she sat on the scarred wooden bench with the name DANNY carved into it. The only cover from the constant Jacksonville drizzle was the pockmarked plastic bus stop with an ad for the
plastered across the inside: a smattering of famous headlines beneath an image of a young, professional-looking couple reading the paper and drinking coffee. The other nursing students called the bus stop wedged between the two buildings “creep central” because it felt so isolated. Kathy had checked with security and there had never been any problems reported.
The eight o'clock shuttle was running late and her brand-new Nissan SUV was at the dealer having its transmission fixed. Her spacey little brother had forgotten to pick her up. So the simple nursing seminar on electronic patient notes at the off-campus College of Health Care had turned into an ordeal. Thank God she'd gotten the anatomy test out of the way Friday. Kathy decided the shuttle back to the main University of North Florida campus was at least in the direction of home, where her mom would have a hot meal ready for her. Maybe spaghetti, or her favorite, pot roast.
Kathy wore the white and pink uniform of a student nurse and carried three thick textbooks in her Nike backpack. She was too exhausted to study for the prescription-drug test she had tomorrow. At least the cozy bus stop kept her relatively dry.
A man in a white commercial van drove past her slowly, stopped down the street, and got out at the bus stop that protected riders headed back to Jacksonville. The van blocked most of her view, but she could tell the man was doing a repair to the plastic cover. After a few minutes he hopped back into the van, drove to the end of the short street, and turned back in her direction. The plain white van pulled to a stop directly in front of Kathy. The passenger window rolled down and a man called out from the driver's seat. “Sorry, miss, but I'm supposed to install a sheet of glass in the back of the booth.”
Kathy looked around for a dry place to wait and saw nothing or no one near by. “Can I stay under the roof?”
“Let me get out the glass and you can slide to one side. I'll only be a second.”
Kathy evaluated his speech and manner. Her psychology class had a whole section on initial impressions. Her assessment was this guy didn't want her to get soaked. She smiled and scooted to one side, watching as the man stepped through his van and opened the side, sliding door. She could see sheets of glass as well as intricate glass shapes. He held a small glass cylinder in his left, gloved hand as he popped out of the van.
Kathy pointed at the jar. “What's that?”
He held it up. “An airtight jar.” The man, in his mid-thirties, had a warm smile and bright blue eyes set deep in a handsome face. He grabbed a leather strap out of the van and turned back to Kathy. His heavy canvas work gloves were well worn to the shape of his fingers.
She huddled to one side, waiting for the man to measure or use the strap on the back of the bus stop booth, or whatever repairmen did.
Instead, he leaned in close to her and looped the strap over her head. At that moment she realized it was a belt. Before she could say anything he jerked it tight around her neck.
The surprise and force of the belt stunned her. It took a second for her to realize what was happening. She was being choked. It wasn't only the lack of oxygen to her brain, but the speed of her panicked heart and reaction of her body to the assault. Her nursing classes had taught her how the human body needed oxygen as fuel. Now that knowledge gave her an odd, analytical view of her body shutting down. She flailed her arms, trying to work her fingers under the belt around her throat. The man shifted and she was able to gasp once and release the breath. When she exhaled, he held the funky glass jar to her mouth with his left hand. He used his right hand to yank the strap tight across her throat again. There was no oxygen available. Nothing.
The man secured the belt and moved away from her, sealing the jar with a lid. He lifted her jerking body in strong arms and transferred her to the open floor of the van.
She heard a slight gurgle but didn't know if it was out loud or only in her head. The last image she saw was the man looking back at her from the front seat of the van. She wanted to see her mom and dad. She even wanted to see her brother to tell him it wasn't his fault.
Then everything went dark.
Detective John Stallings swerved as the tires of his county-issued Impala splashed into a puddle at the end of the long, curving brick driveway in front of a house that looked like an English manor on top of the hill. He wondered how much it cost to put a hill on the flat wetlands near the beach. Three cars blocked the driveway. A blue Jaguar XJ12 sat closest to the front door. A black Cadillac was right behind that, and at the end of the driveway next to where he parked was a beat-up Ford Explorer. He figured that must belong to one of the help.
He paused a second while his partner, Patty Levine, navigated across the damp surface, her metal notepad cover in her hands. She never went anywhere without the scuffed and dented metal notebook that housed not only her notes from work, but most of the rest of her life as well. She always seemed to have it together, never looking distracted or nervous. With straight blond hair hanging down her back she could've been a young lawyer or doctor walking into her private practice. Instead, she was an overworked missing persons detective with the Jacksonville Sheriff 's Office. Stallings thanked God for it every day he walked into the office.
They'd composed a few questions Patty pulled out of her metal notebook as they approached the wide, ornate wooden doors. How many times had he done this in the past three years? He'd lost track. And none of them seem to get any easier. There were only a few variations of how this could go. Distraught parents missing their child. Detached parents doing what was expected to report a missing child. Distracted parents who had other issues. Or parents who had something to do with the child's disappearance. None of them were pleasant situations, but all required Stallings's complete attention. He'd been there as a cop
a parent. He lived the real, visceral fear of not knowing exactly where his child is or what kind of danger she might be in. In the three years since his own Jeanie had disappeared, that fear still ate at him every minute of every day. As he knocked on the door he once again thought of his missing daughter. He also muttered his affirmation to keep him sharp and alert: “Is today the day that changes my life?”
A chubby black woman with a narrow face and dark, intelligent eyes answered the door. He was about to identify himself when she stepped back and ushered him and Patty into the wide, tiled foyer. The woman hurried off, leaving the two of them standing in silence. Stallings noticed the bookshelves crammed with antique books and knickknacks. In one corner of the foyer he saw his first clue as to what kind of parents he was dealing with: an entire row of sports trophies and children's drawings. He made a snap judgment that these were terrified, caring parents he needed to help right now.
Stallings and Patty looked up as a flabby, bald man in a white button-down shirt and dark pants waddled toward them, his hand extended. “I'm Bob Tischler. Thank you for coming out to talk to us. The sheriff told me you were the two best missing persons detectives he had.”
Stallings took the man's smothering hand and nodded, not bothering to tell him that he and Patty were the
two missing persons detectives. But Tischler's subtle comment on his political connections were clear. The well-known and wealthy attorney had juice, but that didn't matter one bit to Stallings. The only thing that mattered was Tischler's missing daughter, Leah. Over the years Stallings had found social status meant nothing when a child was missing. All scared parents were the same, so he sat down to listen to this story.
Bob Tischler was joined by his younger wife, Lois, and Stallings realized this was a second family for the man. They had two young boys and Leah, who was fifteen. As their story unfolded, Stallings saw the similarities to his own situation and felt a chill.
Leah was a student at an upscale private school; she had a few problems with her parents and had been caught smoking pot. Her parents thought she was throwing a tantrum when she didn't come home after school Friday. By the time she was reported missing on Saturday, the responding officer thought she was just a spoiled runaway. Now, on Monday, there'd been no sign of her. The whole situation felt far too familiar to Stallings. He had to wonder if the answer to Leah Tischler's disappearance might lead to answers about his own daughter's disappearance. The odds were astronomical, but he was a father of a missing daughter. At this point he'd do anything to learn what had happened to his Jeanie.
Patty handled all the sensitive questions about relations within the family and the reasons Leah might have to run away. And that was the most obvious answer, she had run away. It was the circumstances of her running away and what might happen to her on the street that caused Stallings to shudder. The chances of a child being kidnapped in the United States were extraordinarily low, but the chances of a runaway falling in with someone who might cause harm were much, much greater. These were not the issues he wanted to discuss with frightened parents right now. All he and Patty wanted to discover was a lead to where the girl might have gone.
Stallings studied the parents as they each told different parts of the sad, familiar story. The motherâred eyed and tired looking, blond hair unkempt but natural good looks shining throughâhad the composure to write out some notes. Stallings guessed she'd been Tischler's legal secretary and was probably twenty years younger than the sixty-year-old attorney.
Patty asked the key question, “Is there anyone that Leah would have run to?”
Bob Tischler shook his head and looked off in space, but Lois Tischler knew how important all these questions were. She said, “Leah has an older half sister named Susan who lives in Fernandina Beach. We've already talked to her and she hasn't seen her and promised to call us.” The woman sniffed, using a Kleenex to wipe her eyes. “There's a music teacher at her school she's close to. I guess there's a chance she could've gone to her house.”
Patty wrote down the name of the teacher from the prestigious Thomas School as well as the sister's phone number.
Stallings had already asked about any calls to Leah's cell phone. That was his first clue that she'd run away. The Tischlers had taken away her cell phone as punishment. The modern grounding. Even Stallings knew you didn't mess with a kid's cell phone unless there was a serious issue. It had also cut off one way to track the teenager.
Patty looked up from her notes and told the Tischlers she needed to see Leah's room and access her computer.
Stallings liked how direct and forceful she was, not asking permission but telling them what she was going to do. As Lois Tischler led Patty and Stallings up the hardwood staircase he caught a glimpse of a boy about six or seven peering at them through the banister before scampering away. That made Stallings think of his own son, Charlie, who had been only four the day JSO detectives asked him and Maria basically the same questions he and Patty had asked tonight.
Once in the room, Patty went right to a Toshiba laptop computer on the small white desk near the bed. Stallings glanced at photos on the wall of Leah and her friends. She had long dark hair and an intense gaze. Something about her eyes said that she had street smarts and experience far beyond the wealthy trappings of her family. He hoped that was true because it might keep her safe on the streets of Jacksonville. He let Mrs. Tischler show him through her daughter's closet and draw her own conclusions about any missing clothes.
Finally Mrs. Tischler was able to say that there was nothing missing and that meant Leah was wearing the Thomas School uniform the last time she was seen. Mrs. Tischler pulled out a gray and white plaid skirt, white shirt and a black belt with an ornate and distinctive silver-plated buckle.
She said, “This is exactly what Leah wore everyday to school. She has three skirts and one is missing. She has five shirts and one is missing. She has two belts and one is missing. Every student is issued the same number of uniforms.”
Stallings photographed the clothes laid out on the bed and took several close-ups of the distinctive belt buckle. They'd print an information sheet with several photos of Leah and the clothes to hand out to other detectives and the road patrolmen who covered the downtown areas of Jacksonville.
Patty turned from the computer and said, “We're gonna need to take the computer into the lab at JSO.”