“Brookbourne Police Department, how can I help you?”
“My, uh, my daughter-s-been missing since morning-she’s-she’s never done anything like this. My-my husband and I searched all morning,” a frantic voice rushed to explain.
“Okay ma’am, slow down. What’s her name? What was she wearing when you last saw her?”
“Anna Brandice, she’s 9 years old. Uh, she was wearing a jean jacket and a dress with like pink and dark brown flowers, and her white knit hat- I always yell at her for going out in the cold without her hat.”
“Okay ma’am I’m getting the district on it right away, we’ll send out alerts and search teams. I’ll send some patrolmen over to your house, but for now I just need you to stay put, okay?”
“Okay, yes, yes, please find her, please.”
“Come on Mason, you’re so slow!” Lucas yelled, his cheeks pink and his blonde hair flopping over his forehead.
“Hey, my bike is too tall, it’s hard to reach the pedals!” Mason yelled in defense, huffing a big breath, the chill of the air turning his breath into a puff of soft frost.
“Would you guys please stop fighting, I’d like to make it to my birthday party on time,” Janie said rolling her eyes and pushing a stray lock of long brown hair back behind her ear.
“Yeah, I can’t believe you’re going to be older than us,” Mason grumbled, “I wish I was 10 already.”
“Well you’ll never make it to 10 if you don’t hurry it up!” Lucas yelled with a devilish grin and lifted his feet off the pedals to glide down the hill.
All three sped down the hill, smiles spreading like water across their faces, their noses and cheeks turning a bright shade of red.
“Guys can we slow down, I can’t…I can’t control my bike…” Mason squeaked as he lost control of the handlebars and landed at the edge of the woods with a hard thump. Janie and Lucas laughed as they pulled off the trail to go and help Mason up.
“That was…epic, Mason! I wish you could’ve seen that,” Lucas managed to say between giggles as he hopped off his bike to help his friend.
“Yeah well I felt it alright,” Mason grumbled as Lucas helped him up. He brushed some twigs and leaves off of his dark pants and his gaze immediately drifted to his new bike.
“You okay, Mason?” Janie asked eyeing his hands, there were a few cuts and scrapes stinging along his palms, but nothing he hadn’t done before.
“Yeah, I’m more worried about my new bike, though. If I scratched it, my mom will kill me!” Mason exclaimed as Janie rushed over to help him check the bike for scratches.
Lucas glanced around over Janie and Mason’s chatter, and noticed something bright in the otherwise dull woods. When he looked back and saw Janie and Mason immersed in the very important state of his new bike, he decided to quietly wander over by himself to the object in the woods. It almost looked like a pile of clothes: a jacket, maybe a blue jean material, and a pink dress. Lucas didn’t think much as he wandered over, but his heart suddenly leaped out of his chest as he got a better look, “A..a..a girl, A DEAD GIRL!”
Mason and Janie stumbled through the branches and landed on either side of him. The three pressed together as the other two realized it was a body.
“Oh my gosh,” Janie said her mouth agape.
“Maybe she’s just asleep,” Mason reasoned, his voice high with fear.
“But she’s hurt” Lucas pointed out, his finger hovering in the air, pointing at small dark splashes of blood on her blue jean jacket.
Janie gulped and slowly pushed past Lucas to get a closer look. The girl looked about the same age as them, like they could go to school together. She had dull blonde locks resting against her ashy skin. Her jean jacket had little colorful pins with different shapes and words, one was shimmering gold with a small star. Finally, Janie forced her eyes up to the girl’s face. She had a small, dainty nose and eyelashes dusted with frost. Her skin was gray and any hint of life had left her face.
“I think,” Janie started softly, and cleared her throat, “I think she’s dead.”
“McKenzie, I want you to get me a list of any registered sex offenders or former criminals in a 10 mile radius,” Jack said and Aaron nodded spinning off the top of his desk and heading for the computers in the other room.
“Pierce and Waters, I want you two to go out and investigate her house and the surrounding area. Check out the neighborhood, woods, and parks. If McKenzie finds anything I’ll let you know,” Jack continued while handing out files about locations, addresses, and the family.
“Stevens, you and I will go talk to the family and see if we can get any more information. Maybe there’s some sort of connection through the parents,” Jack finished as Colin Stevens grabbed his jacket, preparing for the visit.
“You know,” Jack started quietly, “it’s my daughter Janie’s birthday today. 10 years old.”
Jack looked around at his team and took a breath, stopping them before the madness ensued.
“If there’s a time to do your best at your job,” Jack said earnestly, “it’s now. We are going to find whoever took her…and make them regret it.”
“Oh god,” Mason said, swallowing hard, the blood draining from his face the longer he looked at her too-still body.
“What do we do?” Lucas asked, slowly walking over to where Janie was kneeled near her head.
Janie and Lucas inspected her face, wondering if they maybe knew her, while Mason drifted around to the other side of her small body. He couldn’t look at her gray face and glassy blue eyes any longer. As Mason walked around to the other side, he noticed an even bigger blood stain near her stomach.
“Uh…guys?” Mason called as he leaned in and gently pushed the edge of the jean jacket up.
There was a jagged rip in the dress beneath, open to a large, deep cut that was dark red and oozing. The blood glinted in the afternoon sun and Mason could see the cut was deep enough to show whatever was beneath the skin.
Janie and Lucas cringed, and Mason jumped away from the girl. He felt bile rise in his throat and vomited behind a tree. Normally, Lucas would make fun of Mason for something like this, but the shock gripping his body stopped him from letting any words slip out.
“Guys, what do we do now?” Janie asked, tears forming in her eyes. She couldn’t take the sight of this girl, bloody and cold in front of her.
“Well aren’t you supposed to call the police or something?” Lucas asked hesitantly as Mason came back from around the tree, wiping his mouth and looking significantly more pale.
“I…” Janie started wiping away a tear, “I don’t know.”
Jack sighed and rubbed his forehead, walking away from Anna’s parents sitting nervously on the couch. The house was littered with patrolmen getting information and asking questions. Jack stopped at the doorway to the living room at the vibrating of his phone from his pocket. He lifted it to see that Aaron was calling.
“McKenzie, any matches?”
Aaron pulled up a file from the other side of the phone and said, “we’ve got a Wesley Parker, a registered sex offender, 5 miles from Anna’s house. Closest hit I could get.”
Jack’s phone buzzed and saw that Aaron had sent him the picture of Wesley. Jack studied the picture of the man; he had dark brown hair, almost black, pale skin, and dark, prominent bags under his eyes.
“I also got 2 other hits within a 20 mile radius: a Dominick Beck, and an Arthur Alvarez. But it looks like Beck was put on the list when he was 19 because of a relationship with a 16 year old. And Alvarez has lived here for 25 years with no problems. Wesley Parker moved here 2 months ago…”
Jack studied the picture of Wesley Parker a moment longer before nodding, his eyes hardening. All the signs pointed to Wesley.
“Yeah, thanks Aaron. Could you, uh, send me a picture line up of the three-” Jack started before Aaron interrupted quietly.
“Already sent.” And the line went dead.
Jack pulled up the pictures of all three men that Aaron had sent him and walked determinedly into the living room where Colin was asking both parents questions.
“Sorry to interrupt,” Jack said turning the phone to face the parents sitting stiffly on the couch, “but do you recognize any of these men?”
“Um, the one in the middle looks familiar,” Mrs. Brandice said pointing at Wesley, “I think I’ve seen him at the grocery store a few times.”
Mr. Brandice then glanced back up at the phone, recognition lighting his eyes.
Jack noticed and asked him, “Mr. Brandice have you seen this man elsewhere?”
“I, uh, I thought he might have lived one street over. I’ve noticed him walking up and down our street, maybe, once, twice a day. He always passed our house, but I never thought anything of it until now,” he explained fearfully.
Jack and Colin exchanged a look, both thinking the same thing, before Jack stepped away to call the station. He heard Colin rushing to soothe the parents while Jack waited for someone to answer the phone.
“Pierce,” Ellis answered pressing the phone between his ear and shoulder.
“Ellis, it’s Jack. When did you get back to the station?”
“I just got here, Waters called me. She was working the desk and they got a call about suspicious activity at some house maybe a few streets over from Anna’s. The woman calling said there was a man named Wesley…something, who had moved in there recently. Waters thought it might be something,” Ellis explained shuffling through papers and finally pulling out the transcript from the earlier call.
“Did you get an address?” Jack asked hurriedly.
“Yeah, 17 Hartford Lane, only one street over from Anna’s.”
“I need you to put a rush order on a warrant, Wesley is a registered sex offender and has been hanging around the girl’s house recently,” Jack rushed to explain while Ellis jumped at the command.
“I can have it ready for you in 15 minutes,” Ellis said before hanging up to go bribe anyone he could to get the warrant as fast as possible.
“Where the hell is he?” Jack yelled storming through the front door of the station. Jack and Colin had just come from Wesley’s after waiting for the warrant, only to find no one home and no trace of a child ever being there.
“I was just collecting more information on him,” Waters said to Jack and Colin shoving a small pile of papers across the front desk.
“Thank you Kim,” Jack said grabbing the top piece of paper. As he went to grab it, he glanced down at the silver watch gleaming on his right wrist with the small pink birthday sticker stuck purposefully on the face. His daughter must have put it next to the four to remind him what time he needed to be back at the station to take her home for her birthday party today. He spent more of his time at the station than he did at home; Janie must have put it there not believing he would make it back on time. A pang of guilt struck him as he realized he forgot: again. But as Jack glanced at his watch again, he realized it was well past four. Janie was supposed to bike with Lucas and Mason to the station, wait for him to get back, and then he’d take her home to the party.
“It’s 5:45?” Jack asked glancing from his watch to the clock on the wall. Colin and Kim both nodded and gave him a strange look at his worried glances.
“My daughter was supposed to be here at four, has she shown up?” Jack asked glancing up at Kim.
“I haven’t seen her-” Kim started only to be interrupted by the desk phone ringing.
“Brookbourne Police Department, how can I help you?” She answered her gaze still focused on Wesley’s papers.
“What other leads can we take, boss?” Colin asked glancing over Kim’s shoulder at the papers. Jack attempted to answer, but was too distracted with his own missing daughter.
“Yes, I will speak with the head of the department, I’m so sorry sir,” Kim said rolling her eyes before covering the mouth of the reciever, “can you believe this jerk is calling about ‘rowdy kids’ when there’s a little girl missing?”
“Sure, I can send a patrolman right away,” Kim said slamming the phone down.
“Oh my god,” Colin started looking up from a paper, “last few places Wesley lived, there were four disappearances each place, the bodies were later found stabbed or suffocated or… worse. But, they could never find out who did it. Or maybe they could just never tie it to him. I think we’re dealing with something much bigger than we thought.”
“Wait four?” Jack asked as something in Colin’s words clicked in his head.
“Yeah, four kids,” Colin said shuffling through the papers to confirm.
“What was that call about Kim?” Jack asked hurriedly.
“Um, it was some old guy complaining about a few kids making too much noise in the woods. Why?” Kim said hesitantly, confused by Jack’s reaction.
“Did he say how many kids?” Jack demanded.
“Three…” Kim trailed off quietly.
Suddenly, everything clicked. There were three kids in the woods, one girl missing: four total. Janie, Lucas, and Mason were supposed to bike to the station almost two hours ago.
“Can you trace that call?” Jack ordered, pulling his phone out to immediately try and call his wife.
“Yeah, uh it came from…” Kim muttered typing away to trace the call, “Rosewood Drive.”
“I thought Wesley lived on Hartford?” Colin asked pointing to Wesley’s file.
“That’s what the registry said,”Jack realized as he pulled the file from Colin’s hand to confirm.
“That’s why the house on Hartford came up with nothing,” Kim said suddenly, “it’s not his house.”
The heavy air between them was abruptly broken by McKenzie and a group of patrolmen.
“We found this,” McKenzie said holding up a white knit hat, “on the edge of some woods.”
Colin didn’t need to study the hat longer than a second, before realizing this was Anna’s. Her mother had said in the report that she was wearing a white knit hat.
“Where did you find this?” Jack asked gripping the transcript of the call Kim just took.
“Uh, I think over on Rosewood,” a patrol officer said looking to his partner who nodded.
“Rosewood,” Jack said looking to Colin and Kim pointedly.
Everyone looked at him as he rushed to explain, “the desk just got a call from a man over on Rosewood who was complaining about kids in the woods.”
The three exchanged fearful glances as it sunk in: he was after them now too.
The three kids stood near the girl, still weighing their options.
“Well one of us could go ride our bike back home and get our parents to call the police,” Lucas suggested.
“No way!” Mason exclaimed loudly, to a pointed look from Janie before he lowered his voice, “what if the police thinks that we killed her? I mean we’ve been here for a long time, hanging around her dead body!”
“But we didn’t do anything wrong! For all we know she’s been sitting here for days like this. Maybe it was a bear!” Lucas whispered back.
“We don’t have any bears here!” Mason whispered loudly, his cheeks turning red with anger.
Janie listened to them bicker, and took another look from afar at the girl. No one had moved her jacket from when Mason had found the gash in her stomach, and she eyed it again. It looked very…red. It still glistened in the afternoon sun. Janie remembered when she had scraped her knee last week, the blood hadn’t even stayed that bright by the time she biked home for dinner a few hours later. This cut was new.
“Guys,” Janie interrupted, “this…this is a new cut. She was just killed.”
The three were stunned into silence as they realized what that meant.
Just then, they heard a rustling from the woods coming from the direction of the road. A large figured appeared, too dark to recognize against the bright colors of the setting sun.
“Hey, kids, is there a problem?” the man asked ducking under a branch.
“Oh thank god you’re here,” Lucas said with a sigh, “we found a girl, and she was killed! It…uh, must have been an animal or something, she was really hurt.”
At this Mason elbowed Lucas hard in the ribs, still afraid the man might think they did it at Lucas’ crazy bear theory. But the man only looked over with a surprised look on his face to where Lucas was pointing.
There was something strange about the look on his face; Janie didn’t buy it. He almost seemed…excited.
“Uh Lucas…” Janie went to interrupt, exchanging a look with Mason. Before she could stop him, Lucas gestured for the man to follow him, just as Janie saw a flash of silver under the hem of the man’s dark leather jacket. A knife.
“Did you get the address?” Jack asked turning on the lights of the patrol truck he drove, swerving through traffic.
“Yeah, it’s 447 Rosewood Drive. Backs right into the woods, only one street down from Anna’s house,” Aaron answered solemnly.
They sped through traffic the seconds passing like hours as the knowledge of his daughter and the unprotected kids weighing down on their minds.
Jack and Aaron finally pulled down Rosewood Drive, halting to a sudden stop at the edge of the woods by Wesley’s real house.
“You take the left, I’ll go right,” Jack yelled running down the trail on the right side of the house. Aaron turned and ran the other way, gun out and ready. Jack mimicked him, running down the trail.
The sound of police sirens could be heard turning down the street and officers breaking down the door and rushing into the house and trampling over branches on the edges of the woods. Jack willed his legs to run faster as his breathing got heavier. With every beat of his heart, all he could think of was his daughter, unprotected and vulnerable. He could barely feel the cold on his face and hands as adrenaline pumped through him. He trampled branches and ducked under low tree limbs as he finally saw something in the distance.
“Janie?” He said, expecting it be a yell, but coming out in a whisper.
He stopped, his breathing heavy and head numb as he was joined by the other officers, all standing to look at the same thing: three bikes and a blood-stained jean jacket.