The Wrong Girl
His breathing filled the otherwise silent room, the sound flooding her ears as she huddled against the wall, knees pulled tight against her chest. She knew he was standing in front of her, watching. Just like she’d done with the monsters she once thought lived under her bed, she kept her eyes pressed closed, hoping he’d go away. She knew it was absurd, of course. He would still be there when she opened her eyes. But it was human nature to hope for the absurd, when all real options were gone.
And Samantha Thompson knew her options were gone.
Just five days before, she’d been a normal, happy kid. More than halfway through the fifth grade, fresh from winter break, Samantha had been in a great mood. Even her mom being late for pick up after soccer practice and not answering her cell phone hadn’t ruined Samantha’s day. So, when a teacher asked if she needed a ride, she only hesitated for a moment before agreeing.
Sure, she’d been given lectures about never accepting rides from strangers, but this wasn’t a stranger. It wasn’t even just any teacher. Mr. Brown was her favorite teacher. He’d always been nice to her, always cheered her on when she’d tried her best on an assignment, and her mom always had good things to say about him to other parents.
So, Samantha decided it was safe to get a ride home from him.
For five days, she had thought of little else but that decision. Samantha knew, in her heart, it had been the decision that was going to cost her life. She’d spent most of the last week in the dark, silent room terrified, with nothing to occupy her except dwelling on the choices she’d made. Samantha couldn’t remember everything that had happened over the past week. A lot of it was a blur, as her mind protected her from the worst moments, blocking out the traumatic memories or shutting down when things got too bad. The parts she could remember, however, she wished she couldn’t.
She trembled as the breathing came closer, squeezing her eyes closed tighter, holding her breath.
“Open your eyes, Sam,” Mr. Brown said.
Samantha hated how he knew she liked to be called Sam. The intimate way he used her nickname made her skin crawl.
She shook her head, refusing to look at him. She knew if she looked, he’d look like the teacher she remembered. His voice, however, had changed completely. Gone was the familiar baritone that greeted her in the morning for class. This voice had no trace of friendliness, no hint of caring. This voice was cold and heartless. Samantha was certain this was what the Devil sounded like. Each time he spoke, it sent shivers down her spine.
“Open them,” he said, his raised voice becoming an angry growl.
She felt something sharp and metallic pressing against her throat. Her eyes snapped open. His hair was different, blond instead of the brown it’d been, and he wore glasses now. Samantha thought that was strange, yesterday he had looked the same as before.
A tear made its way down her cheek, bouncing off the blade of the knife.
“Don’t worry,” he said, using an almost mocking imitation of the voice she’d once looked forward to hearing. “It’s going to be over very soon. Shhh ... don’t cry.”
Samantha looked into his eyes and could see it. She knew this was the end.
A sudden, thunderous crash made both of them jump, the knife pulling away from her throat as Mr. Brown twisted to look at the door to the small bedroom; or rather, what had once been a door. The frame was splintered and cracked along its length, showing the light brown of wood that hid under the sterile white paint, as the door itself swung in the other direction and banged against the wall before the top hinge shattered, leaving it hanging at an angle.
In the now open doorway stood a man, his foot following through the opening after smashing through the obstruction. He wore a leather jacket, blue jeans, a plain T-shirt, and his face was covered in dark brown stubble. Samantha took all that in as she watched him enter the room. The things she couldn’t keep her eyes off, though, were his hands.
He was holding a large, black gun steady in front of him, pointed in their direction. If she’d thought the sound of the door caving in was loud, the next sound was deafening. She watched as fire leaped from the end of the gun, and the entire room filled with its report.
Mr. Brown let out a howl of pain and fell away from her, clutching his shoulder as the knife went skittering across the room. Samantha tried to scrunch closer against the wall, if that was even possible, as the man strode the handful of steps between them and stood over Mr. Brown, who now lay on the floor next to her. Pointing the large gun at her former teacher, the stranger looked at him with a cold hatred.
His face was as scary as anything she’d seen from her abductor. Even a child could read the rage in his expression, as he aimed the weapon.
Mr. Brown was crying now. Not just crying, blubbering. He begged for his life. Samantha could smell an ammonia stink as the front of the tan slacks Mr. Brown wore darkened. She couldn’t tear her eyes off the stranger as he glared at Mr. Brown.
She wasn’t sure what noise she made, maybe a squeak, and she didn’t even remember making it. But the man turned, still pointing the gun at Mr. Brown, and looked at her. The rage on his face remained but changed slightly as they made eye contact. The anger softened, and his brow furrowed. He turned his head to look at Mr. Brown then back to look at Samantha again.
He did this twice more before letting out a deep sigh and sliding the weapon into a holster at his belt, behind his back. Reaching into a pocket, the stranger pulled out several black zip ties. Kneeling, he rolled Mr. Brown over on his stomach while keeping a tight hold on the injured arm.
Mr. Brown screamed in pain then grunted as the man put his knee in her former teacher’s back and pressed. Grabbing one hand then the other, the stranger wrenched Mr. Brown’s arms behind his back, which brought another round of screaming. Although Mr. Brown alternated between howling in pain and a ragged form of crying, he didn’t fight the stranger. In moments the zip ties were locked tight, pressing Mr. Brown’s hands together.
Standing, the stranger put his foot on the now bound hands of the sobbing Mr. Brown and pulled out a phone, dialing a number.
“Hey, I found her,” he said into the phone.
His voice was gruff, but not mean.
He listened to something from the other end and swiveled his head to look down at Samantha.
“She looks fine. Physically I mean. You can guess at ... yeah, probably.”
He paused again as the person on the other end spoke some more then said, “Six-one-five Cherry Blossom ... Yeah, still alive. He probably needs an ambulance. Make sure they know to check on the girl first, this asshole can wait.”
The stranger pressed his foot harder, smashing Mr. Brown’s fingers into his back, eliciting renewed cries of pain.
“Tell them we’re in the back. And make sure they know not to go all ‘Rambo’ through the door, and shoot me ... alright, thanks.”
Putting the phone back in his pocket, the stranger crouched next to Samantha, his arms resting on his knees with his weight on the balls of his feet. Looking into her eyes, the stranger directly acknowledged her for the first time. His eyes were nothing like those of Mr. Brown’s. Gone was the rage she’d seen before, when he was standing over the teacher. That had been replaced by dark brown pools radiating warmth and sympathy.
“Sam, my name’s John. Your parents sent me to find you.”
John Taylor stood outside the window of the private hospital room, staring at the family huddled on one side of the bed. The three people in the room had been hugging and crying for almost twenty minutes, ever since the couple rushed into the hospital room and surrounded their child.
Once she’d accepted she was actually free, the girl had been glued to Taylor’s side, breaking into tears, and gripping his arm for dear life when the paramedics tried to guide her over to the ambulance. Taylor had been forced to clamber into the vehicle with her and ride to the hospital holding her hand. The detective assigned to Samantha’s case showed up a few minutes after the ambulance rolled up had been forced to postpone questioning until Taylor could find a way to extricate himself from Samantha’s death grip.
Taylor had almost wished the detective insisted he stay behind and give his statement. It wasn’t that he was heartless. He just wasn’t comfortable around people, and even less so around kids. He’d actually been relieved when her parents showed up at the hospital and took over comforting their daughter.
Watching the family together, Taylor hoped it was enough. Samantha seemed like a sweet girl, but she had also gone through a massively traumatic event. He could only guess at the specifics and even if Taylor were only ten percent right, Samantha would be in for years of therapy before she could adequately deal with what happened to her.
Of course, she was alive. That counted for something.
“A couple of inches down and to the left, and you could have saved the taxpayers a lot of time and effort you know.”
Taylor looked over at the detective as the older man walked to the window, carrying the statement Taylor had written up once the parents freed him from being a human safety blanket.
“The thought crossed my mind. But I confirmed he’d been at three other schools in the last five years, under different identities. Just like this time, he’d resigned suddenly after one of his students was abducted, then vanished. There are three families out there who need to know where to find the bodies of their little girls. You need to break that son of a bitch and get them some closure.”
“I saw that in your statement. Don’t worry we’ll get him to talk. I’m still surprised you tracked him down so fast.”
“He had some bad habits for a kidnapper, especially one hiding from the police. Once I worked out his real name, I had a ... friend, help me with his phone records. He would call his mother at her nursing home every week, without fail. He made the call from a payphone, and I assumed it was near where he was staying, so I just showed his picture around until I got a hit.”
“He had a girl tied up in his house, and he still called his mother? That’s pretty warped.”
“Guy did some evil shit, but he still loved his mother. People aren’t black and white detective. If the bad guys were like they are in the movies, they’d be damn near impossible to find.”
The detective nodded and went back to looking at the paper in his hand.
“Am I clear on the shooting?” Taylor said eventually, breaking the silence.
“Yeah, the chief got it approved by the DA, just to make sure, and signed off personally. You’re clear.”
“Good,” Taylor said, stepping from the glass as the mother backed away from her daughter and wiped her eyes.
“I wouldn’t say you were a pleasure to work with,” the detective said, holding out his hand, “but you do damn fine work.”
“Thanks,” Taylor said, ignoring the hand and circling around the detective to intercept the mother as she exited the room.
The woman didn’t even stop walking, but smashed into Taylor, wrapping her arms around him.
“You brought her back to me,” she said, her voice cracking as she fought choking up. “I was so afraid we’d ... I just ... I hoped for the best, but...”
“It’s OK. She’s home safe,” he said, extracting himself from her embrace and taking a small step back.
“I just don’t know how she’s going to get over this. Do you think he...”
“I don’t think anyone gets over something like this,” Taylor said, ignoring the question.
She’d find out the truth at some point. Taylor thought it better to save her from having to live with the knowledge of what happened to her daughter for a while longer.
“I’m just happy to have my little girl back,” she said, wiping her eyes.
“You need to be prepared. She won’t be the girl she was before. You have to help her find a way to be a new version of herself that can deal with this. Counseling for you and her would probably help, or at least that’s what I hear.”
Taylor had to fight a smile at the thought of his girlfriend telling him he needed to see a head doctor on an almost weekly basis, and the irony of his now suggesting the same thing to someone else.
She was quiet for several minutes, staring at the floor. Taylor waited patiently, wanting nothing more than to walk out the front door of the hospital and head home, but knowing that would be the wrong thing to do. Even he wasn’t that big of an asshole.
“That helps, I think,” she said finally. “Still, I wanted to thank you for everything you did for us.”
“I was just doing what you hired me to do, Mrs. Thompson.”
“Yes,” she said, smoothing her shirt. “Yes, and you did everything you said you would and more. Please know you will always have the gratitude of my family. If you should ever need anything—”
“Thank you, ma’am. You should go back to your daughter, now,” he said, cutting her off and holding out his hand, indicating the room behind her. “If there is anything else you need, feel free to call.”
“Yes, of course. Thank you, again.”
She stepped toward Taylor once more and lifted herself slightly, kissing him on the cheek, before pivoting and going back into her daughter’s room.
With a nod to the detective, Taylor turned and headed out of the hospital.
Taylor was barely standing as he reached down to the baggage carousel and grabbed his worn duffle bag, just avoiding the clueless guy swinging a wheeled travel bag off the conveyor in an arc reaching almost head height.
“Hey,” Taylor said, stepping back.
The guy ignored him, pulled the collapsible handle out of one side, and wheeled his bag into the throng of people.
Taylor just shook his head and schlepped to the exit. He’d managed to catch the last flight out of Boise with dreams of leaning back and closing his eyes, only to be stuck between a mammoth woman in sweatpants and a businessman trying to wedge a laptop in between his gut and the seat in front of him.
Taylor wasn’t a big man, but he was large enough that spending four hours folded like a pretzel killed any chance of sleep. Add to that the snoring on one side of him and the typing interspersed with random mutterings and curses on the other and Taylor was one nudge away from going homicidal.
Becoming a private investigator seemed like a ‘no-brainer’ when Whitaker had suggested it nine months ago, while sitting in an Oklahoma City hospital as she recovered from gunshot wounds. It was a way to make a living; something that, up to then, Taylor hadn’t completely settled on. It also had the benefit of letting him be close to Whitaker when she transferred to the central Bureau offices. He didn’t even have to work hard to get cases.
Thanks to the contacts through Whitaker, and his friend Robles in the Dallas office, cases mostly came to him. Taylor had shown a knack for tracking people down, and found he actually enjoyed the work. Plus, he didn’t have to take divorce cases or other sleazy jobs most people associate with private investigators. He was a specialist, which also meant he could charge more.
What he hadn’t counted on was the traveling. It turns out while DC was perfect for getting cast off jobs the FBI wasn’t able, or allowed, to handle for one reason or another. It was not, however, where most of the jobs were actually located. Since it was his business and he had to watch the bottom line, travel meant spending a lot of time in economy class seating.
Taylor wasn’t a fan of people. To hear others talk, even people whom he considered his friends, it was his defining character trait. He hadn’t been a people person for a long time, thanks to some traumatic experiences years before during his days in the service. Except for a few individuals he made exceptions for, Taylor tried to avoid close contact with other human beings as much as possible. The one thing flying economy class guaranteed, though, was close person to person contact.
He was amazed every time a flight didn’t devolve in some rage-induced episode, ending with him in cuffs on the ground.
Stepping through the doors of baggage claim and out into the brisk February air, Taylor saw the one thing that always helped him keep from taking a last, crazed leap.
Loretta Whitaker leaned against one of the many black SUVs that dominated the streets of the nation’s capital. She was propped against the front of the vehicle, arms pushed back with elbows resting on the hood. Keeping her weight on her left leg, she had extended the right out, the overall pose giving her an air of confident patience. It had the added benefit of showing off a finely polished gold shield and Bureau service weapon hanging off her belt at one hip. These acted as a repellent for the DC police or airport security who regularly made sweeps of the area, preventing people from sitting in front of the terminal while they waited for their passengers to show up. Which, of course, was exactly what she was doing.
Shoulder-length dark-brown hair was pulled back into a tight, no-nonsense bun, and her plain pantsuit obscured any hint of the toned, athletic body Taylor knew she kept hidden while in her work persona. Sadly, it was one of the many concessions a woman in law enforcement had to make, to be taken seriously in her job.
His walk shifted from an annoyed and tired shuffle, to a purposeful stride as he headed toward her, dropping his bag on the cement curb as he reached her. Leaning in, Taylor pressed her harder against the hood of the SUV, his arms lifting her slightly off the ground as their mouths met, each expressing a mutual feeling of how much the other had been missed.
“That bad?” Whitaker said as Taylor set her back on the ground and stepped back to retrieve his bag.
“Princess, you have no idea!”
Letting out a chuckle, Whitaker circled around the vehicle while Taylor slid into the passenger seat and tossed his bag in the back.
“So, she was at the house I take it?” Whitaker asked as she started the vehicle and pulled away from the curb.
“Yeah. He had soundproofed a back room and permanently boarded the window,” Taylor said, images of the room Samantha had been kept in flashing back to him, turning his stomach. “Apparently he also kept the lights off unless he was making a ‘visit.’”
“You should have called us in to take the house. The agent assigned to her case was pissed when he heard you went in by yourself. Especially after he heard you shot the guy.”
“I told the detective I wasn’t waiting. Everything I’d found said he didn’t keep the other girls more than a week, and the time limit was up. Hell, he had a knife at her throat when I went through the door. Five minutes later, and we would have brought back a body, not a missing girl.”
“The detective didn’t have the authority to give you clearance. Once you found he had operated across state lines, it became a Bureau case.”
“Come on, Lola! You guys didn’t even want the case when it first popped up. That’s why my name got passed to her mother in the first place. It goes from a missing person case to a possible serial killer then it becomes important? That’s bullshit, and you know it.”
“Yeah, I know, but that’s the way it is. There are rules, John, and we have to go by them. We can’t step into a case unless the locals call us in, or something turns it federal.”
“You know your rules are going to get people killed, right?”
She rolled her eyes, “Whatever.”
This was a fight they’d had many times before.
“Hey,” he said, putting a hand on her leg. “I wasn’t trying to attack you. I know you’re not like that. It’s just the flight back, and everything, has me keyed up.”
Whitaker patted his hand and said, “I know. And yet, we always end up back here.”
“You could quit and come work with me,” he said. “Then we’d have nothing else to fight about.”
Letting out a snort, she said, “Now we both know that’s bullshit. Plus, I make more than you do.”
He just gave a shrug.
“I am proud you got her back. The Bureau may have a problem with your methods, but you know a lot of us root for you.”
“I know,” he said, looking out the window as they pulled out of the winding streets leading between Reagan International’s terminals, and onto the freeway that would take them to their Alexandria apartment.
They drove in silence for several long minutes, the sounds of a top forties radio station playing softly in the background, when Taylor asked, “Have you ever thought of having kids?”
“What!” she said, her head whipping around toward him.
The car swerved partially into the other lane, and blaring horns sounded as she corrected from her sudden jerk of the steering wheel.
“What?” she asked again, more calmly, with the vehicle once again back under control.
“Kids. Short people who would call you Mom. Have you thought about having any?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. I haven’t really thought about it,” she said, her eyes darting to Taylor and back to the road.
“OK,” he said, his voice sounding neither disappointed nor relieved.
“Where did that question come from?” she said, sounding more surprised than annoyed.
“I don’t know. Just something that popped into my head.”
“I guess I’m not against the idea of having kids. It’s just, I’ve worked really hard to get where I am in the Bureau, and children would bring my career to a screeching halt. Plus, we’ve only been together for a year. Aren’t we skipping some steps?”
“I wasn’t saying let’s go make a baby right now, or anything. Not that I’m against going home and practicing,” Taylor said with a smirk. “I just meant, as an idea. You know, down the road or whatever.”
“As an idea, down the road or whatever, maybe.”
“OK. That’s all I was wondering.”
They both lapsed into silence again, Whitaker fighting Washington rush hour traffic, and Taylor staring out the passenger window lost in thought.
“As much as I’m for going back and getting some practice in,” Whitaker said eventually, trying to make her tone sound light, with only partial success. “We have to put a pin in it. Someone’s coming by the house to see you.”
“With a job?”
“Why don’t you have them meet me at the office tomorrow.”
“Because this is,” she said, pausing to work out what to say, “more sensitive than you normally deal with?”
“So it’s a politician?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You might as well have. A mysterious client who has to sneak out at night to meet an investigator in a place where watching eyes might not put two and two together. Hell, I bet he shows up in a trench coat, wearing a hat and sunglasses.”
“It’s just someone I met through work. She has a situation with her daughter, and she needs some help. It’s not a Bureau kind of thing, and she’d heard of you, so I told her I’d set up a meeting.”
“I just got off a plane, Lola,” he said, half-whining. “I’m totally beat.”
“I know, but this is apparently time sensitive.”
“You don’t know what it’s about?”
“No. She didn’t want to talk about it in public. Just hear her out, and for the love of God try to be friendly. Just see if the case is worth taking.”
“Fine to parts one and two, but I’m not promising anything on the middle thing.”
“Be nice, John. This one time. For me,” she said, looking over at him pleadingly.
“Fine, I’ll meet with her. If you weren’t smoking hot, I’d tell you to go pound sand,” Taylor said with a scowl on his face that didn’t match the mirth in his eyes.
“I use what I got,” she said with a smile.
A few minutes later they were pulling into a parking garage attached to a corner apartment building in the heart of Alexandria, Virginia. Alexandria was a medium-sized city serving as home to many of those who worked in Washington DC, but couldn’t afford the multi-million-dollar price tag living in the nation’s capital demanded. Pulling their things from the car, the couple rode in comfortable silence to the apartment they had shared for almost six months.
It wasn’t overly spacious, but it was still very nice. It was tastefully decorated, thanks to Whitaker’s superior eye for decoration. Had it been up to him, Taylor would have been fine with a trailer at the far end of a country road.
He’d barely put his bag on the floor next to their bed when the doorbell rang. Letting Whitaker answer the door, Taylor pulled the pistol he had disassembled for travel through airport security from the duffle bag and placed it on the dresser. He would need to clean it before reassembling the weapon, and he didn’t want to forget.
Leaning against the dresser, Taylor rubbed his eyes and tried to fight off the sleep that threatened to overtake him.
He hadn’t mentioned it to Whitaker, but the previous night had been spent combing the neighborhoods of the Boise suburbs, looking for Samantha Thompson. With no nap on the plane, Taylor was more than exhausted.
After a brief detour at the restroom to splash some water on his face, Taylor made his way out into the living room and stopped dead in his tracks. It took every ounce of willpower in Taylor’s body to keep from bursting out laughing.
In the middle of the living room was an older woman wearing a tan trench coat, a big floppy hat, and a pair of large, round sunglasses, exactly as he’d predicted. Reading his mind, Whitaker gave him a look that threatened all sorts of bodily harm if he followed through on his first reaction.
She didn’t have to worry though. Once the woman took off her hat and sunglasses, all thoughts of laughing vanished from his mind.
Her disguise removed, Taylor instantly recognized the woman. There was no way he couldn’t have. She was a constant presence in televised campaign ads, reporters talked about her on nearly every evening broadcast, and her face showed up on half the magazines in the checkout line.
Suzette Caldwell was the senior Republican Senator from South Carolina, a one-time Governor, heiress to a multi-million-dollar fortune, and the front-runner for the Republican nomination for next year’s Presidential Election.
This was, literally, the most powerful woman in the United States. And she was standing in his living room.