Authors: Elicia Hyder
He must have accurately assumed it would be pointless to try and argue with me, so he got in and started the SUV. I buckled my seatbelt as he peeled out of the parking lot with his blue lights flashing. "When we get there you have to stay in the damn car."
I held my hands up in resignation. "Oh, I don't want to be a hero. I'll stay."
It was a short drive through an older residential part of town. The houses along Clarksdale were sixties style homes that looked as though they hadn't been cared for since the sixties. The house at the end was a foreclosure covered in graffiti and no trespassing signs. Given the state of the area, it was doubtful that any of the neighboring residents would have noticed—or, much less, reported—any unusual activity at the end of the street.
Two other patrol cars had beaten us there by seconds. There were police officers in the street with their weapons drawn, slowly approaching the house. Nathan practically leapt from the car before he even slid the transmission into park.
I watched in silence as Nathan directed the officers around the sides and back of the house. After a few minutes, he kicked in the front door. My knuckles went white as I clenched the dashboard looking for any sign of activity from within the dilapidated home. After a few minutes, a news van from Channel 2 and two other police officers pulled in behind us. I rolled my window down just enough to hear what was being said. I could hear over the radio someone's voice requesting a body bag.
An over-groomed female reporter from News Channel 2 was swatting her brown bangs out of her eyes as the cameraman was getting his equipment ready. After a moment of straightening her suit, she began her spiel. "We are here at the scene of the possible location of missing five-year-old, Kayleigh Neeland. Kayleigh was abducted by her mother's boyfriend during a meth lab raid last night in Leicester. Information from an unidentified source has led officers to this address on Clarksdale Avenue in West Asheville…" She paused, and I turned to see Nathan standing in the doorway with his hands up.
"She's not here!" he called to me.
The reporter strained to see who he was talking to. I wanted to cower down and throw a blanket or something over my head, but I knew it was too late for that. I pushed my door open. "Is it safe for me to get out?" I yelled.
He nodded and I crossed the lawn. He met me in the tall grass and lowered his voice. "Ray is dead inside. It looks like someone got to him before we did. Kayleigh isn't here," he said. "We searched the entire house."
I shook my head. "She's not dead."
He shielded me with his arm, moving me away from the crowd that was growing in front of the house. "I'm running out of ideas here, Sloan."
"Take me inside. I want to check," I said.
He shook his head. "That's not a good idea."
"Do you have a better one?" I asked.
He jerked his head toward the house and put his hand on the small of my back. "Come on."
I followed him in the front door, and the stench almost knocked me to my knees. The room was sour with mildew, and the walls had gaping holes where the wiring had been stripped out. Melted puddles of wax from half-burnt candles were cemented into the dingy, torn carpet and trash was everywhere. A mattress was beneath the window and stained with… I didn't even want to know what. In the doorway of the kitchen was a body that I assumed belonged to the recently departed Ray Whitmore. His eyes were open and covered in a milky film.
Oddly, dead bodies didn't bother me. Dead bodies were just discarded shells. I would forever be more fearful of the living than the dead.
A familiar sensation came over me, and I carefully scanned the room again. "We're not alone, Nathan."
His gun was drawn. "She's here?"
"Someone is." I stumbled over a pile of trash. "I can feel it."
My eyes searched the room for any sign that a child had ever been there. I shuddered at such a thought. "Come on, Kayleigh, where are you?" I mumbled.
Nathan's head jerked up. "Did you hear that?"
I was completely clueless. "Hear what?"
Then I heard it. A very faint sliding sound was over our heads. "Nathan, she's in the attic!"
We both began scanning the crumbling popcorn ceiling for an opening. I stepped over a pile of beer cans and rags and peeked around the doorway to the hall. "It's in here!" I lunged forward to grasp the string to the attic pull-down door.
Nathan clotheslined me with his forearm. "No. Let me."
He pulled on the string, lowering the stairs to the floor. Once it was open, we could hear a muffled whimper. With his flashlight in one hand and his gun in the other, he carefully maneuvered his way up the ladder.
I chewed on my nails. "Be careful."
"Oh, God," he said once his head was through to the attic. "Sloan, I'm going to need you up here to hold the flashlight."
I hoisted myself up the rickety steps, and when my eyes adjusted to the dim light above, I saw her. Kayleigh Neeland was curled up on her side in her Dora the Explorer pajamas. Her ankles and wrists were tied together with what looked to be fishing line. A wide piece of duct tape covered her mouth. She had soiled herself, and her face was covered in dried blood from a cut across her tiny forehead. Her exhausted eyes were terrified. It was all I could do to not scream at the horror.
Nathan passed me his flashlight and tucked his gun into his holster. He held out his hands for her to see. "Kayleigh, I'm not going to hurt you. I'm a policeman, and I'm here to help you." She blinked her eyes at him. "I need to get my knife so I can cut those ties off of your hands, OK? But I promise I won't hurt you."
Slowly, he pulled out a tactical knife and carefully cut the line holding her hands together. As gently as he could, he peeled away the strands that had sliced into her delicate skin. She cried out in pain as he freed her bloody hands.
"I'm so sorry," he said over and over, his voice quavering as he tried to maintain his composure.
Even from a few feet away with hardly any light, I could see Kayleigh was trembling. He severed the lines around her feet and, though she was weak, she scrambled toward him. Nathan sat all the way down and scooped her up in his lap. Gently, he rocked her and smoothed her matted blonde hair. "Shh… it's all over." He kissed the top of her head. "Shhh."
When she saw me standing halfway up the ladder, she stretched out her arms. I thrust the flashlight back at Nathan and reached for her. Carefully, I lifted her up, and she clung to me like I was a lone buoy afloat in the wide ocean.
"Nathan, get the tape off." I turned around so he could work the tape on her mouth over my shoulder. After a moment and a few whimpers, he wadded up the duct tape and tossed it on the floor with the rest of the trash. She buried her face in my shoulder.
Two officers had appeared at the bottom of the steps. "Hand her down, ma'am," one of them said.
I shook my head. "No. Just help me get down without falling."
"Get the paramedics in here!" Nathan shouted.
When I finally descended the ladder, I sat down against the steps with her still in my arms. "We've got you. You're safe now. You don't have to be afraid anymore." Tears streamed down my cheeks.
"Don't let me go," she whispered.
AS PROMISED, I didn't let Kayleigh go. I rode with her to the hospital and tried to help the police shield her from the crowd of media when we got out of the ambulance. I knew some of the reporters from my work at the county office, so everyone knew my name by the time we arrived.
"Sloan Jordan, what is your involvement here?"
"Are you related to the victim?"
"How did you help the police find Kayleigh?"
Their shouts and questions rattled around in my skull as we fought our way through the ambulance bay doors.
A team of emergency room staff ushered us straight back to triage when we entered, and I held her hand as they surveyed her injuries. A nurse, who reminded me a lot of my mother, carefully cleaned her face exposing a lot of bruising and swelling around the site of the large gash in her forehead. "Sweetie, do you remember how this happened?" she asked.
Kayleigh shook her head. Her eyes were leaking uncontrollable tears, but she wasn't audibly crying.
The nurse looked up at me. "My guess is she was knocked unconscious."
I wasn't sure how much time had passed when Nathan eventually came through the door carrying a bundle in his arms, but I was half asleep in the chair next to Kayleigh's bed. After being poked, prodded, x-rayed, and questioned, she was finally sleeping somewhat peacefully.
"Hey," he said. He knelt down beside me and placed his hand on my forearm. "How's she doing?"
I leaned back a little so he could see the bruising for himself as Kayleigh slept. His jaw tightened, and he let out a slow puff of air. "Her grandparents were notified and they just got here from Greensboro. They are on their way back here now," he said.
I sighed. "That's good. She's been asking me to call her Nana, and I didn't know what to tell her."
He turned his attention to me. "How are you holding up? I brought you a sweatshirt from my car. It's not exactly clean, but I figured you might want to change." He shook the sweatshirt out straight in front of him.
I offered him a weak smile. "You have no idea how grateful I am." I looked down at my dingy blouse; it had been white when I left my house that morning.
Just then, a couple in their late sixties came in with a doctor. "Oh, my sweet baby!" the woman exclaimed as she rushed to the bedside.
Kayleigh's eyes fluttered open and then darted around the room in confusion. I reached for her hand. When her eyes settled on the couple rushing toward her, Kayleigh scrambled up in the bed and reached out for the woman. "Nana!"
The grandfather was in tears, but he stopped to shake Nathan's hand. "Thank you, Detective. Thank you."
Nathan just nodded.
When the grandmother finally released the child, she grabbed me around the neck and squeezed me so tight I thought she might cut off the circulation to my head. "Thank you so much," she cried. "God bless you."
When she finally released me, I stepped closer to Kayleigh's bedside and surveyed her tiny, battered face. "Hey Kayleigh, is it OK if I step out for a little bit now that your Nana is here?"
I leaned down and pressed a kiss to the top her head. I gently raked my fingers through her blonde curls. "I promise I'll come back and check on you in just a little bit, OK?"
"OK," she whispered.
I felt Nathan's hand at the small of my back as he turned me toward the door. Once we were around the corner, out of sight, I crumbled. Uncontrollable sobs, that I had been holding in for hours, erupted without warning so violently that I doubled over and had to grasp my knees. Nathan's arms wrapped around me, and his fingers tangled in my hair as he pulled my head to his chest. I could feel his warm breath on the back of my neck as he breathed. "Shhhh…"
When I regained my composure, I pulled back and looked at him. I was still gripping his forearms for support. "I'm sorry."
He cupped my face in his hands and swiped away what I was sure was a mess of mascara with his thumbs. "Are you kidding? There is absolutely no reason for you to be apologizing. I couldn't have done this without you. You saved that little girl's life."
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "What do we do now?"
He handed me the sweatshirt and pointed to the bathroom behind us. "First, you change."
In the bathroom, I scrubbed my hands clean and splashed my face with cold water a few times. I unbuttoned my blouse and, though it was probably washable, shoved it in the wastebasket. I washed my hands again before pulling the black hooded sweatshirt, with the letters S.W.A.T. across the back, over my head. The strong smell of Nathan's cologne and sweat about made my eyes roll backward. It was the only pleasant feeling I had experienced all day. I combed my fingers through my hair and retied my mangled ponytail before leaving the bathroom.
Nathan was leaned against the wall making notes in a small black notebook. He looked me up and down. "Did you forget your shirt?"
I shook my head. "I trashed it. I'm never wearing that thing again."
He nodded. "Come on, let's try and sneak out of here and find some food. I don't know about you, but I'm starving."
I pointed back toward the entrance to the emergency room. "I assume the waiting room is full of reporters?"
"Yep. You definitely don't want to go out there." He held the door at the end of the hall open for me.
I hugged my arms to my chest as we passed down the fluorescent lit hallway that reeked of antiseptic and sickness. "What are they saying?" I asked.
He looked over at me with an expression that made it clear he was worried I might either cry or punch him in the face. "They're talking about you quite a bit. Apparently, News Channel 2 is replaying some video of you carrying Kayleigh out of the house. Everyone wants to know why you were there."
I sighed. "Honestly, right now I don't even care. I'm just glad it's over."
As we followed the signs to the hospital cafeteria, his cell phone rang. I realized my purse, along with my wallet and phone, was still under the seat of his car. If my mother had seen the news she was probably frantic with worry. My voicemail inbox was probably full.
As Nathan talked, I couldn't help but listen in on his conversation. "Hey. Yeah, it's over. The guy was dead when we got there, and we found the little girl in the attic." He paused for a few seconds and then looked over at me. "Yeah, she works in public relations for the county. I just, uh, happened to be in her office when I got the call, and she wanted to tag along."
I rolled my eyes. "You're a terrible liar."
He ignored me. "Yeah, I'm going to have a late night. A ton of paperwork, ya know," he continued. "I'll grab dinner on my own. Probably at the office. I'll try and call you later if it's not too late." He paused and listened again. "Yeah, me too. Bye."