Eight Years Ago
THE REASON HIS plan was so good was because it was so simple. He was counting on one fact. Joey was stupid. Not really stupid, like, stupid stupid—just dumb.
When Jeremy told Joey he’d found a hidden cache of money and jewels in the woods, probably hidden there by a robber, Joey had been dumb enough to believe him.
Jeremy laughed out loud at the thought.
He looked down, aimed his father’s old H&R .22-caliber revolver, and took another shot, this time hitting Joey in the head. The boy on the ground stopped his pathetic whining, crying, and pleading and remained silent and still.
The deed was done; someone had to take care of this. He knew no one would understand. Certainly not his mother, or the police, but Jeremy knew all too well it had been necessary. The bully would torture him no longer.
Shoving the weapon behind his belt, Jeremy Spencer looked around. Except for a couple of birds breaking the stillness, the forest was dim and quiet.
He crouched down and examined the body. The first bullet had entered the victim’s stomach. Blood flowed from the wound and darkened the hue of the already red and brown autumn leaves beneath the fresh corpse.
The second bullet had entered just below Joey’s left eye. Blood trickled down, followed the path of his cheekbone, down his neck, finally dripping like dew onto the forest floor.
Drip, drip, drip.
He reached out and touched the wound beneath Joey’s eye. It felt warm. He looked at the crimson on his finger and gently touched it to his tongue. It tasted sweet and thick. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back, the taste of blood on his tongue somehow making him feel pure, whole, and righteous.
He was filled with a feeling of euphoria, breathing rapidly, his heart racing, excited. He knew at that moment that what he’d done was fully justified.
He remained still for several minutes, pondering the deed, and thought about his father. Father would approve.
Finally, he stood, straightened his back, and took a deep breath. He bent over, grabbed the bloody corpse by the leg, and dragged it to the hole he had previously prepared. A fierce shove with his foot sent the body tumbling over and then down, finally landing with a thud at the bottom of the waiting grave. He picked up the shovel and set about filling in the hole.
Jeremy labored for some time, humming to himself as he worked. Finally, he tossed the last shovelful of dirt, covered the area with twigs, branches, and dead leaves, and stood back.
“That should do it,” he said aloud.
He contemplated a moment longer, and then resting the shovel on his shoulder, he turned and hurried for home.
He was expected there by five o’clock, and he didn’t want to keep his mother waiting.
Sunday, August 7th, 6:00 p.m.
JAKE DRAGGED ANOTHER piece of piping-hot apple pie onto his plate and looked across the table. His wife was eyeing him closely, something on her mind, no doubt.
“Next time, honey, I’d appreciate if you’d let me do the talking,” she said. “Especially with something so sensitive.”
Jake gave her a crooked grin and nodded. “You can handle things like that next time,” he said before digging in to the pie.
Annie was right, of course. He’d almost bungled their last task, as simple as it was. They’d been hired to find a man’s runaway son. No problem there—a few minutes online and Annie had tracked him down. But going off half-cocked, Jake had made a call to the boy, demanding he return home. He’d almost gotten hung up on, but when the more sympathetic Annie had gotten involved, she’d convinced the boy to contact his father. There was ultimately a satisfactory outcome for all.
“No harm done,” she said with a smile that made Jake wilt. She knew how to tell him off gently.
After he finished eating, Jake helped Annie clean up the table and put the dishes in the sink. He turned to her and sighed. “It’s been awhile since we had a real case,” he said. “I’m tired of barely making ends meet.”
Annie turned to face her husband. She touched his arm and looked up into his eyes. “We’re doing okay. Just let me handle the finances.”
She was better at that too. She was better at a whole lot of things, and he wondered what he would ever do without her. He took a sideways look at his wife. At just over five feet four inches, she was still about the prettiest thing he’d ever seen. Her midlength golden hair, and the trim figure she’d kept all the years since he’d known her, always made his heart melt. She was his motivating force and he thought the world of her.
The phone jangled on the counter and interrupted Jake’s thoughts. He scooped it up. “Lincoln Investigations. This is Jake.” It was Annie’s best friend from next door. “Hold on, Chrissy. She’s right here,” he said, holding out the phone. Annie and Chrissy had been friends for a long time, and it seemed to Jake they were always yakking about something.
Annie took the receiver and settled into a chair. “Hi Chrissy. How’s everything?”
Jake wandered into the living room, grabbed the remote, and switched on the TV. Just some stupid sitcom. He flicked through the channels but eventually gave up and turned it off again. Tossing the remote back where he’d found it, he stretched out on the couch.
A rocket the size of an eight-year-old boy suddenly landed on his chest. The rocket was named Matty, and he was a bundle of energy, and ready to wrestle his father into submission. The battle soon took to the floor, but before long, Jake surrendered, pinned down and seemingly helpless.
From the other room came a warning. “Don’t you guys break anything in there.”
BACK IN THE KITCHEN, Annie finished cleaning up and went to the makeshift office, dropping into her swivel chair behind the desk. The office, formerly an unused bedroom, was sparse. A couple of bookcases lined one wall, filled with read and unread novels, several books on law, and a row of rarely used and obsolete encyclopedias. A few prints hanging on the wall and a well-worn carpet completed the look.
She opened the top drawer of the desk and pulled out the accounting ledger. Jake was right: money was tight. The new camera equipment had set them back, purchased when they had been hired to evaluate the honesty of a department store employee by posing as a customer. The camera had caught the thief red-handed in the act of loading some expensive computer equipment into a waiting van.
Lincoln Investigations was only a few months old, and Annie realized it would take some time to land steady business. The ad in the Richmond Hill Daily Times was pulling in the occasional client, and she was confident in the future of their agency.
Prior to starting their current undertaking, Annie had been doing part-time work as a research assistant for a Fortune 500 firm. The crunch had come when, due to downsizing, Jake had been let go from his job as a construction engineer at one of Canada’s largest land developers. But now, things were looking up. Annie had started their new detective agency by taking on freelance research, and they hoped it would eventually allow them both to work full-time.
Most of their clients engaged them to obtain evidence for divorce, child custody, and missing persons cases, or to turn up information about individuals’ character or financial status, and Annie’s experience had served as a natural progression into their enterprise.
Jake did most of the outside work, chasing leads, or doing stakeouts, but this evening she knew he felt a little restless. There hadn’t been much for him to do lately, and he was aching to be useful.
Five Days Ago
JEREMY PUFFED AND panted as he maneuvered the bundle from the trunk of his 2005 Hyundai. It dropped to the ground with a dull thump, and he stopped for a much-needed rest.
He’d never grown much. Now at twenty-four years old, he was only five foot three, or maybe four, inches tall, and as thin as a teenager. In fact, he was still often mistaken for one, and he’d had to use his brains rather than his brawn to get anywhere in life.
He took a deep breath and turned his attention back to the task. Dragging almost two hundred pounds of dead weight wasn’t easy for someone so small, but he finally managed, with great effort, to heave and roll it to the hole he’d dug earlier. The blanket came loose from its contents, exposing a bloody corpse.
The trees around him snapped and ruffled in the warm afternoon breeze as he stopped again to wipe the sweat from his face with a dirty shirtsleeve. The pungent smell of the nearby swamp permeated the air.
Jeremy preferred to bury the bodies here, in the forest. It was a secluded place, away from prying eyes, making it easier to cover them up and hide them. Here they would never be found.
He knelt down and stared intently at the body. The blood around the wound looked dry and dark, but as he touched it, it felt slightly moist and still warm. He stood and gazed quietly at the body for a few moments.
Then, bending over, he gave another heave, and the corpse slid to the bottom of the shallow hole. He kicked the bloodstained blanket in after it, filled the grave, then patted the ground flat and covered the area with leaves. The job was done.
But he still had one more thing to do and he was perplexed. The guy had gotten what he deserved, but what about the girl? He couldn’t let her go, but hurting her would be wrong, and he had to come up with an idea. But for now, she was safe.
Monday, August 8th, 3:30 p.m.
DETECTIVE HANK CORNING reached across the aging desk and gently touched the woman’s hand. “I’m sorry, Mrs. James. We’ve done all we can do. Your daughter has been missing for almost a week and there’s no information to go on. With no evidence of foul play, Captain Diego won’t allow us to dedicate any more time and resources.”
The woman sitting across the desk from Hank was in her late thirties. She still had signs of true beauty, but right now the grief and anxiety clouding her face were masking her allure.
The woman bowed her head and gave another sob, dabbing at her tears with a soft white handkerchief. “I just know she wouldn’t go anywhere without telling me. She’s only sixteen, and she’s never been away from home for more than a couple of days at a time. And I always knew where she was.”
Hank nodded sympathetically and sighed deeply. At forty years old, he’d been doing this job for almost twenty years and had seen more than his share of grief—missing kids, murdered kids, and victims of all kinds. He was tired. Tired of all the pain, and tired of feeling helpless.
He ran his fingers through his short-cropped, slightly graying hair and sat back. “I’m very sorry.”
Mrs. James looked intently at the detective, the hope once in her eyes now faded. “Will you keep trying?”
“I’ll do what I can, Mrs. James,” he promised gently.
The woman clutched her purse, pulling her jacket around her as she stood. “Thank you, Detective,” she said, giving him a fragile smile.
Hank’s heart broke as he stood and watched her turn and head slowly toward the door. “Mrs. James,” he called.
She turned back.
“Perhaps a private detective …”
Monday, August 8th, 9:59 p.m.
SHEETS OF RAIN pounded against the office window. A wind had come up suddenly and threatened to remove the shutters as they rattled and clapped. The big oak in the backyard sighed under the strain.
Jake was in the office, on the phone with a woman who sounded desperate. “We can come to visit you, Mrs. James, or you’re welcome to come to our office.”
“I prefer you to come here,” she said.
Jake arranged an appointment for the next morning and hung up the phone.
Annie poked her head into the room. “Who was that?”
“That was Amelia James. Apparently, Hank recommended she talk to us. Her daughter’s missing and the police have nothing more to go on. I told her we would help.”
“Another missing kid,” Annie said. “Thank God for the Internet. Hopefully, we can track this one down as fast as the last one.”
“I’m not so sure this time,” Jake said. “The girl’s been gone a week. She just disappeared and didn’t take any of her things with her. Her mother says it’s not like her to do anything like that.”
He stood and came from behind the desk toward Annie. She put her arms around his neck and he drew her close, burying his face in her hair. She always smelled good.
“We’ll find out more tomorrow morning,” he said. “We have an appointment to see her at ten.”
Annie looked up at him, nodded, and then said, “By the way, I’ve invited Mom and Dad over for a barbecue Thursday evening. Is that okay?”
Jake frowned at her and sighed. “You know I don’t get along with your mother.”
“I know. Just try to be patient.”
He pulled away from her, annoyed. “It’s hard to be patient when she always gives us instructions on how to raise our own son.”
“I don’t want the two of you fighting. Besides, she has some good suggestions.”
“Like sending Matty to a private school? Who’s going to pay for that? I don’t know how your father puts up with her either.”
Annie shot him a sharp look. “My father’s an amazing guy,” she said. “He’s been through a lot, and he’s happy, so leave him out of this.”
“I’ve got nothing against your father. It’s your mother. She treats me like a kid and thinks I’m not good enough for you. Maybe I’m not, but it’s none of her business.”
“I don’t want to argue about this,” Annie said softly. “It’s been a long time since they’ve been here, and Mom has been hinting at coming over for some time, so I had to invite them.” She paused. “And Matty needs to see them once in a while as well. They adore him. Especially Dad. Matty’s his only grandson.”
Jake plunked into a chair and looked up at her. “All right,” he said. “I’ll try to keep it under control.” He paused. “For your sake.”
Annie bent over and kissed him quickly. “Thank you.”
Jake stood and drew her close again.
“It looks like we’re going to have a busy day tomorrow,” she said. “But right now, it’s time for bed.”
Jake smiled. He was all for that suggestion.
Tuesday, August 9th, 9:58 a.m.
JAKE BROUGHT HIS 1986 Pontiac Firebird to an abrupt stop under the shade of an ancient maple tree. Annie crawled from the passenger door, stepped onto the sidewalk, and surveyed the house in front of her.
They were in a fairly exclusive part of town in a quiet and safe upper-class family neighborhood. Sitting on about two acres of land, the house was by no means new, but it had been restored to an elegant finish with vintage character.
They made their way up a winding path that led through a well-maintained rock garden and climbed the steps onto a large verandah guarding the front doors.
The solid forged brass doorknocker clanked as Jake knocked three times. In a few moments, there was a rattle of chains and the door swung open. A tall and remarkably beautiful woman appeared in the doorway.
Jake introduced them and handed her a business card. She looked at it briefly and gave a forced smile. “I’m Amelia James. Please, come in.”
She ushered them into a fashionable sitting room. Feminine flourishes and modern lines with the absence of a rug created a sparse look and showcased the beautiful, dark hardwood floors. Matching bookcases, with what appeared to be antique books, framed either side of a huge fieldstone fireplace.
“Would you like tea or coffee?” Mrs. James asked.
Jake spoke for both of them. “Coffee, please.”
Mrs. James motioned toward a comfortable-looking divan, and Jake and Annie sat. She left the room and returned a moment later, sitting across from them in an overstuffed armchair. She leaned forward and looked intently at them as if sizing them up.
Annie placed a small digital voice recorder on the coffee table in front of her. “Do you mind if I record this interview, Mrs. James?”
“That’s fine. And please, call me Amelia.”
Jake spoke. “Tell us about your daughter, Amelia.”
The woman thought for a few moments. “She’s a good daughter. Rarely gets into trouble or anything like that. The occasional party or hanging out with her friends, but nothing worse than we did as kids.”
“Does she have a boyfriend?” Annie asked.
“She’s very pretty and most of the boys like her, but there’s no one steady boy as far as I know. There are a few of them in the group, but there’s nobody serious or she would’ve told me. Jenny and I are close, and we talk about everything.”
Annie knew that no matter how close you are to your mother, there are always some things you don’t tell her, but she said nothing. “Has Jenny ever gone anywhere without telling you? Even overnight?”
“Never. Like all girls her age, she might occasionally stay overnight at a friend’s house for a day or two, but I always know where she is.”
“Is there any one friend in particular?” Annie asked.
“Her best friend is Paige Canter, and they’re together a lot. She’s sixteen, the same age as Jenny.”
“Do you have a copy of the police report, Amelia?” Jake asked. “That may save asking a lot of questions. I’m sure the police have contacted Paige and her other friends?”
“Oh, yes. That was one of the first things they did.” She frowned. “And maybe about the only thing.” She paused. “However, Detective Corning has been kind, but there’s a limit to what he can do.”
Amelia got up and opened a small drawer beside the bookcase. She pulled out two or three sheets of paper stapled together. “Here’s the police report. It has all the names and addresses of her friends.”
Jake reached for the papers. “Thank you. That should help.”
Annie glanced over and scanned the pages as Jake leafed through them. She looked back at Mrs. James. “Would you have a picture of Jenny we could borrow?”
Amelia sat back down, reached toward a nearby end table, and picked up a photo. “Here’s a recent picture of her,” she said, handing it to Annie.
Annie looked at the picture. Jenny’s mother certainly was not biased. The girl in the picture had long blond hair like her mother, a great figure, and a beautiful smile. She was a very pretty girl, indeed.
The entrance of a tiny Filipino woman, who appeared to be the maid, briefly interrupted them. She carried a tray that held three cups of steaming coffee, with cream and sugar, and set it on the table in front of them. Jake helped himself, and the others followed.
“Do you have another picture? Perhaps a close-up of her face?” Annie asked.
Amelia looked around the room, her eyes stopping at the fireplace. She stood and retrieved a framed picture from the mantel. “You may borrow this.” She removed the photo from its frame and handed it to Annie. She smiled. “I’d like it back, though.”
Jake asked, “When was the last time you saw Jenny?”
“It was last Tuesday morning, August second. She left for school as usual. Richmond Hill Public School. And that was the last I saw or heard from her.” Amelia bowed her head. When she looked up, a tear or two was on her cheek. “Oh, please, I hope you can find her. I’m so afraid she may be in some danger.”
“We’ll do what we can, Amelia,” Annie said gently. “I can’t promise we’ll find her, but we won’t give up.”
Annie sipped her coffee and glanced at the police report again. All of the vital information seemed to be there. Full name, date of birth, nicknames, height, weight, hair color, etcetera. The report contained a lot of other questions regarding the missing girl’s habits and personality, but Annie wanted a little more information. “Does Jenny have a cell phone?”
“Yes, she had it with her as far as I know, but the police were unable to track it. She must have turned it off, or maybe it was lost.”
“And what about social media? Facebook and so on?”
“Like just about everyone she knows, she has a Facebook page. She doesn’t spend a lot of time on the computer, it’s mainly for homework, but I know she chats with friends on occasion.”
“We can’t rule out online predators,” Annie said.
Amelia looked fearful. “She’s careful about things like that.”
“I’m sure she is,” Annie said. “We just don’t want to miss any possibilities.”
“And your husband?” Jake asked. “Jenny’s father? Is he …”
Amelia forced a smile. “My husband, Mr. James, is … was … Jenny’s father. He passed away a little over three years ago.”
“Sorry to hear that,” Jake said.
“He was a good man. A good father.” Amelia looked around the room. “He provided for us very well.” She sighed. “He just worked too hard I think. Winston had a weak heart and it couldn’t take the stress of his job.”
“What was his work?” Annie asked.
“He worked for a private investment firm. Private banking, asset management, hedge funds, things like that. He had some very wealthy clients and had to work long hours to keep up. But he always had time for us.”
“And Jenny … how did she cope with his death?”
“She loved her father very much. She was his pride and joy. She took it very hard, but we’ve worked through it together. At first, I was unable to provide emotional support for both of us, so we saw a counselor, but we’re okay now. We made it through the rough part together. She’s a very strong girl and very sensible. I know she didn’t just leave. She’s out there somewhere.”
Jake nodded. “Don’t worry. We’ll find her.”
After a moment of silence, Annie spoke. “I believe that’s all for now, Amelia. We’ll keep you updated as we proceed. If there’s anything else we need to know, we’ll contact you.”
Jake gulped the last of his coffee and stood. Amelia followed them to the door, handing them a piece of paper. “Here’s my cell phone number where you can reach me if I’m not at home.”
Jake stuffed it into his shirt pocket as they left.
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