“So, we can’t get help from your people or anything off of Julie’s car. Where does that leave us?” Taylor asked as they drove away from the morgue.
“I want to go back to the pizza place,” Whitaker replied. “I saw some security cameras around the building. I want to see which way she headed when she left work that last Friday before she disappeared. While it’s not exactly in the middle, she’d have to go one way to go to Samar’s place, and the other direction to head back to her apartment.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Taylor said.
She was finally on board, and Taylor couldn’t be more thankful. So far he’d basically gone from clue to clue, more or less in a straight line. He was more than a little out of his depth by this point. The dinner rush was just starting and phones were ringing continuously when Taylor and Whitaker returned to the pizzeria. Since they knew what he looked like, they were able to go straight to the owner this time without having to deal with the girl behind the register.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name last time,” Taylor said as they walked up to the far counter in front of the pizza ovens.
“Robert Martin. What can I do for you two,” he said, not particularly happily.
He pulled a pizza out of the oven behind him and slapped it on the counter top, where he proceeded to quickly cut it into slices.
“I noticed the security camera you have pointed at the parking lot,” Whitaker said. “I wanted to get a look at the tapes from that Friday night, around the time Julie left.”
“I don’t have time for this,” the owner said, as he slid the pizza into a box.
“I understand, but we are on a time crunch. All you have to do is load up the security tape, let us have a look and we’ll be out of your hair.”
“Fine. Whatever,” he said, waving them to follow him back to the office.
After about two minutes he had the tape queued up to the night Julie disappeared.
The camera had a good angle on about two-thirds of the parking lot, only missing out on the row of spots at the far edge of the parking lot. You could see the back of Julie’s car at one side of that row, the back end of the car appearing in frame.
Taylor couldn’t help but compare it to the dirty white car they pulled out of the pond earlier in the day. Two spaces down was some kind of white van. There was the bottom corner of a logo he couldn’t make out on the side of the van, and a number written along the bottom of one of the rear doors of the van. The only other car in the parking lot was one parked up close to the building, with the rest of the lot vacant. From the times he had seen on the front door, the restaurant had been closed for almost an hour by that point, which would explain the empty lot.
Whitaker fast-forwarded the tape until Julie appeared at the bottom of the screen, walking away from the restaurant towards her car. As she got up to near the rear of the car, the back doors of the van swung open, and two men jumped out. Julie froze in place until they were almost on her. By the time she turned to run, it was too late.
Taylor could see one of the men putting his hand over her mouth and dragging her back towards the van, while the other guy grabbed her legs. In moments she and the man holding her upper body were in the van, the door slammed shut. The guy who’d held her legs headed towards Julie’s car, walking towards the driver’s side and out of frame of the camera.
In less than two minutes since the back door of the van slammed open, both the van and Julie’s car were pulling out of the parking lot, with the man who’d held her legs behind the wheel of the car.
The video was not very good quality. It was also in black-and-white, and everything happened on the far edge, making the action even harder to make out. Taylor could tell that both were white men, but that was about it. It was next to impossible to actually make out the physical features. If the man was standing in front of him right at that moment, Taylor thought he might be able to tell who it was, but that was about it.
“There’s something on his arm,” Whitaker said.
She had backed the video up and paused it on the view of the two men exiting the van. Taylor squinted and stared hard at the grainy picture, treating it like one of those magic seeing eye things where if you stare long enough you can make out a sail boat.
“Maybe. It is darker right there, but that could be a shadow.”
“It isn’t. If you look when he moves, the dark area moves with him.”
“So, a tattoo?”
“Or a burn, or a bandage, or just dirt. Hard to say. But it’s something.”
Whitaker started the tape up again, from the moment Julie came on screen.
“Oh my God,” came a voice behind them.
They turned to see the manager.
“She’s ... I thought she had just no showed like other kids had. Someone really grabbed her?”
“Mr. Martin, do you recognize either of these guys?”
The man said nothing and just stood there. He was staring at the recording, which Whitaker had backed up to the shot when both men could be seen on screen.
“Mr. Martin!” Whitaker prompted again, louder.
“Wha ... ohh ... ummm...” he said confusedly, leaning in to squint at the recording. “No, I don’t think so. Is she ok? Are you going to find her?”
“I’m sorry, sir, but she...” Taylor started, and then realized he didn’t want to say what had actually happened. “I’m sorry.”
“Sir, we are going to take this tape with us for evidence,” Whitaker continued in her professional demeanor.
“Ok,” he said numbly.
Whitaker popped the tape out of the VCR and waved Taylor to head out of the office.
“Not easy telling someone that a person they know was brutally murdered, is it?” she asked once they were outside.
“No. I can’t see how you guys do it.”
Whitaker started to head to the car, but Taylor turned and headed for the back of the lot.
“I just want to see where it happened.”
The parking lot was really a driveway that ran between the pizza shop and the store next door, leading to a small asphalt covered area behind the pizza shop. Signs indicated that both stores shared the lot along with two businesses on the other side that faced the road on the next block, with the ‘driveway’ going from one block to the other. The other two businesses were stores with more standard retail hours. It was unlikely any of the three businesses had employees, let alone customers, around the lot that late at night. Taylor also noticed none of the other businesses had up security cameras, making the pizza shops tape the only view of the abduction they’d have.
Backed onto other business as it was, there was no chance passers-by would have seen what happened. It was an ambush, plain and simple.
A sputtering car had pulled into the lot with a placard on the roof announcing it as a delivery vehicle. A kid with long curly hair, a trucker hat, and a grease stained shirt hopped out and headed towards the back door of the shop.
“Hey, kid?” Taylor hollered out, having a thought.
“Yeah,” he said, pulling to a stop.
“Did you work Friday, week before last?”
“Yeah. I work every weekend.”
“Did you remember seeing a white van parked back here, late that night?”
“You know what, I do. Normally, I see so many cars I couldn’t tell ya who was parked here ten minutes ago; but that van was sitting there for, like, an hour. Even after we were closed. I remember when I took out the trash, I saw it and was like ‘Dude, did someone just leave their van here overnight?’”
“Yeah. Robert’s strict about having people towed, otherwise people from the dorm would use it as overnight parking. He’s kinda a hard ass for the rules.”
“Was there anyone inside of it?”
“Not that I could see. But there was no way I was gonna walk over to the rando van, ya know.”
“Is there anything you remember about it?”
“Umm ... it had a logo on it.”
“Really?” Whitaker said. “Do you know what it was for?”
“Huh. Not the name, but I do remember it was for an AC repair place. ‘Cause, like, under the name it said ‘Keep your plACe cool’ with the AC in ‘Place’ real big like. I remember thinking that was totally stupid; but, like, I still remember it, so I guess it’s not so stupid, ya know?”
“Ok, thanks, kid.”
He nodded in a weird bopping motion and headed into the pizza place.
“So we just have to track down the ‘rando’ van from the AC company, and we’ve got em,” Taylor said.
“Maybe. Could have been stolen.”
“Maybe, but it’s a lead to the two guys in the van.”
“Three guys,” Whitaker corrected.
“One got out and drove Julie’s car. We saw the other guy get in the back, holding down Julie, who was struggling pretty hard. Do you think he was going to be able to just let her go, climb up front, and drive off without her bolting out the back? Even if he’d tied her hands together as soon as they were in the van, she would have been screaming her head off. No, there was a third guy to drive the van. At least.”
“Ok, so a lead on three guys.”
“Yeah. Let’s head back to the motel and make some calls, see if we can’t find what company that van belonged to.”
Heading back to the motel, Taylor lapsed into silence. He was feeling comfortable with Whitaker now that they were working together, probably more comfortable than he’d felt with anyone since before his captivity in the desert. And it wasn’t like this was the first time Taylor had dealt with a dead body. There was plenty of that in the sandbox. But still, poor Julie occupied his thoughts as they made their way back.
Once at the hotel they headed to Whitaker’s room and pulled out the phone book, planning on starting calling around until they found whose van was in the parking lot that night. It turned out that wouldn’t be necessary. The very first listing under AC & Heating was a company called A-Plus HVAC, with the apparently memorable tag line just under its name in the small, square listing.
“That was easier than I’d thought it’d be,” Taylor said, looking at the ad.
“It’s just a step. There’s no guarantee the van wasn’t stolen. Don’t get your hopes up. This kind of investigation is more of a marathon than a sprint.”
“Either way, they’re closed now. We’ll have to go by the business first thing in the morning.”
“Ok. I guess there’s one more thing I want to do before we knock off for the night.”
“I’d like to send the armory’s inventory and the diagrams of the blast site your techs drew up to a buddy of mine.”
“Taylor, that’s sensitive FBI information.”
“I know, but we don’t have access to your people, and there’s something I can’t put my finger on that’s bugging me.”
She thought for a minute, again chewing on her bottom lip, eventually saying, “Fine.”
They went to her laptop and she emailed the files to an address Taylor gave her, along with a short note he dictated asking for the person on the other end to look over the documents and give his opinion on them.
“Well, that’s it,” Taylor stood, stretching.
They had gotten up very early that morning and a lot had happened since they hit the road. Taylor hadn’t realized yet how tired his body was. He headed out of her room, but stopped on the threshold.
“Agent Whitaker,” he said, turning back.
“It’s been good working with you, today.”
“You too, Taylor.”
Taylor turned and left, heading back to his own room. He was surprised that he meant what he’d said. When they first met late the day before, and especially in the morning when she’d been toeing the company line, he’d been convinced she was like all the intelligence POGs he’d known in the service. Worried more about their own ass than the job on the ground.
Back in his room, Taylor unclipped the holster from his belt, and set the weapon on the night stand. Kicking off his shoes, Taylor lay on the bed and focused on relaxing his muscles.
His body was tired from the long day, but he knew that if he tried to sleep, Julie would join his squad mates riddling his nightmares with the people he let down. Of course, Taylor knew that wasn’t right. Julie had been dead before Taylor ever set foot in town, and there was nothing he could have done to save the friends he’d lost in Afghanistan. But the subconscious isn’t a place of reason and understanding. It’s where your fears wait for you to relax.
Slowly, his breathing slowed. He let his mind float, concentrating on not concentrating. Trying to keep his mind from locking on any single thing. It wasn’t a skill Taylor had mastered, but the effort kept him from dwelling on the things that chased him and allowed him to rest his body.
As had happened the day before, his mind eventually quieted and he drifted off to sleep.
A feeling of something moving nearby jerked Taylor awake, his body moved by experience and training ahead of his brain, which was still clawing its way out of a foggy sleep. Taylor’s hand shot out, gripping the butt of the pistol on his nightstand, only to stop as a hand closed around his.
He might have fought the resistance had a voice not whispered in his ear at the same moment, “Easy, Taylor.”
His brain finally started to catch up to what was happening around him, noticing the feeling of a weight next to him, pushing down on the mattress.
“Whitaker?” he asked.
“Yeah. Let go of the gun.”
His hand released his grip on the weapon.
“Sorry,” he said, still trying to get his bearings, not sure what was happening.
“What are you doing here?”
Her answer made it clear why she was there, as she pressed her lips against his. At first Taylor sat motionless, the unexpected move taking him by surprise. That hesitation was only for a moment, and soon he found himself kissing her back.