The following is my story that recently won third place in the Golden Nib Award competition.
Maureen felt him force himself inside her and squeezed her eyes shut despite the blinding darkness. She went away in her mind to escape the devastating violence, imagining her grandmother’s flower garden instead. Azaleas, rhododendrons, and several varieties of hydrangeas grew everywhere, coloring the landscape, making the ordinary sublime. She did her best to imagine this scene of beauty and ignore the pain and invasion. As she went away, she remembered a conversation she’d had with her grandmother while walking in the garden when Maureen was no more than seven or eight.
“What’s your favorite flower, Grandma?”
“The ones in bloom.”
“But there are lots of them in bloom.”
“And they’re all my favorite.”
“How can you have a lot of favorite flowers?”
“The same way I can have a lot of favorite people.” Her grandmother looked down at her and smiled, “Like you.”
The violence continued, squirming its way into her consciousness despite her best efforts.
Lori Dobson’s analyst had advised her to start a new project to help take her mind off her daughter’s disappearance, but that wasn’t possible. Not yet. Maybe never. The reality met her each morning like a devastating phone call in the middle of the night and stayed with her throughout the day until sleep finally anesthetized her to the loss. Then, the previous day would repeat itself. It made Lori think of the movie Groundhog Day, but without the happy ending. There could be only one happy ending here: Maureen’s safe return home.
Lori’s only daughter had been kidnapped seven months ago. There had been no phone calls, no ransom demands, no body—no closure. The fourteen-year-old had simply vanished as if alien monsters had zapped her into oblivion.
As she went through each day, she looked at the faces of every stranger, wondering. She pictured Maureen somewhere, locked in a room, screaming fruitlessly. Her daughter was alive. Something, somewhere, would feel different if she died, as if the pain of severing that permanent umbilical cord between mother and daughter would register with her.
Lori’s husband, Stephen, had broached the unthinkable two months ago. “Start facing it, Lori! She’s gone! She’ll never be back! It’s best to accept that and get on with our lives!”
Two weeks later, Stephen packed his bags and moved out, disappearing as surely as Maureen had, except that he at least left a note saying he was leaving, or as she thought of it, running away. Not that she would have searched for him. Their marriage had died the moment he’d told her he believed Maureen was dead. She’d known the marriage had been dying for some time, and she didn’t have the energy to fight the inevitable.
Unlike Stephen, Maureen had not run away. The police were sure of that. A girl who knew Maureen from school had seen her walking toward the rec center. In the thirty seconds it took the girl to put on her coat to join her, Maureen had disappeared. It had been an empty street with open sightlines well down the road. Only a few of the houses were occupied since most of the neighborhood was under construction. The girl remembered a white work van parked at the corner when she first saw Maureen, but it was no longer there when she came outside seconds later. The girl’s description of the van led police to believe the older cargo van was possibly a Ford or Chevrolet, but they didn’t narrow their search by make, only color. The girl had been adamant that there had been no writing on the side panel. The police had looked into workers in the area, but their vans all had advertising on the sides.
That was the extent of the clues.
Each day had been the same for Lori. Wake to the nightmare and slog through the habit of what her life had become until sheer exhaustion from the worry led her to bed and dreams of Maureen. Sometimes they were good dreams of her little girl alive and home, but when she woke, the brief joy would crash into a heap of memories and pain.
However, today had finally dawned differently.
The buzzing of her phone had awakened her. She groggily stared at the vibrating phone on the bedside table, buzzing insistently as if it knew the importance of the call.
When she saw the screen announcing Maureen was calling, she bolted awake. Lunging for the phone, she knocked it to the floor and scrambled to get to it before it went to voice mail.
Kneeling on the floor by the bed, she grasped the phone and pressed the button to answer, nearly screaming into the mouthpiece, “Maureen?!”
Only silence greeted her at first, and Lori thought her daughter had hung up, thinking her mother wasn’t answering because of all the pain, or worse because she didn’t care.
Then a breath. A man clearing his throat.
“Maureen?” Lori said again, confused, as if the name Maureen in the caller ID had identified the actual person calling, not the phone being used to make the call.
She waited an eternity that lasted seconds. Then a man whispered, “I know you’re worrying. Don’t. She’s alive. She’s with me now. Move on. Forget her.”
“Who is this?!” Lori demanded.
“I’ve got her now,” the man continued, ignoring the question. “She belongs to me. I just wanted you to stop worrying. She’s alive.”
“Please!” Lori begged. “Let me speak to her! Please!”
There was a pause, as if the man might be considering her request. Then, the call went dead.
She stared at the phone as her first tears of joy in months spilled down her cheeks.
Lori immediately called the detective that had been assigned the case. He’d given her his personal number, and his groggy voice answered. She suddenly realized it was still early but didn’t apologize, instead launching into the details of the call.
“Are you sure it wasn’t a prank?” Detective Pantera asked.
“It had her caller ID!” Lori said while doing her best to contain her excitement.
Pantera thought for a moment, yawned, and said, “Okay. We can assume it was the guy who took her. Tell me again exactly what he said.”
Tony Pantera had gotten to know Mrs. Dobson well enough that he had little doubt that the conversation would be etched in her memory for years, so he trusted the words she repeated. He doubted she got even one syllable wrong. In his twenty-two years with the Richmond police force, he’d learned how intent some parents could be when it came to finding a missing child. He’d never met a woman more focused on getting her daughter back than Lori Dobson.
He wrote on his bedside pad what Mrs. Dobson told him and said, “This is good. It sounds as if he might be a bit remorseful, worried that you’re worrying, that sort of thing. He might even completely regret what he’s done. I’ll be out there as soon as I can. I have some things to take care of first. Then I’ll come right out.”
Lori thanked him and disconnected. Then she fixed a breakfast that for the first time in months would taste good.
When Detective Pantera arrived, he sat across the kitchen table from Lori. He was lean and muscular for forty-five. He had an angular face that was clean-shaven and thick, dark hair that was graying at the temples.
“He called from her phone,” he said, “so we can see what cell tower the signal bounced from on his end by getting the information on that call from your carrier. That will give us a perimeter to work from. It was early and if he was home, that will help a lot.”
“What if he calls back?” Lori asked.
“Keep him on the line as long as you can. If he’s driving, the signal will bounce off successive towers, giving us an indication of his route. That could give us some clues about the area of town where he works.”
Pantera was shocked the guy had made the call, but then again, he wasn’t. The perps always made a mistake, a miscalculation; otherwise, they wouldn’t catch any of them. The guy had probably felt safe using the girl’s phone instead of a burner after all this time. So many people knew nothing of cell technology. For the first time since he’d caught this case, Pantera could see a possible light at the end of the tunnel. It wasn’t much of a light right now, but it was the first beam he’d glimpsed, and he felt good about it. Once they did one stupid thing, they often did more of them. He hoped this guy would. This case had haunted him for months. If the guy was telling the truth, and Pantera thought he was, one of these could end well for a change.
Calling his precinct, Pantera got someone working to get the LUD’s, or Local Usage Details, on Maureen’s phone. Once he had them, he could determine which cell tower or towers were used to relay the call. Leaving the Dobson’s, Pantera took care of a few unrelated matters before driving to the precinct, giving them time to get the LUD’s.
Using them and a large map of the city with cell tower locations, he found the tower the call had gone through. Using a drafting compass, he marked a circle with a two-mile radius around the tower and stared at the map. Because the surrounding terrain was residential and fairly flat, Pantera was certain the call had to come from somewhere inside that circle. He continued gazing as if staring at the map long enough would yield the location. Using a pencil, he began to shade out small areas inside the circle that might have gone through a different tower due to the proximity to other cell towers.
When he finished, he had what amounted to a number of subdivisions where the call most likely originated.
Then he took out a box of pushpins and the months-old list of local owners of older white cargo vans in the area and began painstakingly placing pins on the map to indicate the vans’ locations while ignoring the ones too far from the circle to be considered. When he was finished, his scalp tingled. Three pins were lodged inside the circle. Two of those were inside the areas likely not covered by a different tower.
Prior to this moment, all they had was a list of 112 white cargo vans owned by people in the four-county area. They had already eliminated the ones owned by a business that had lettered the side panel with advertising, leaving twenty-seven. They’d spoken to each of the twenty-seven already. None of those panned out, at least not with anything they could prove. Now, though, they had more. They had a possible location that matched only three of the vans.
Of course, they’d considered that the perp might not even be from the Richmond area, but they had to go on what they could until the trail led elsewhere. This call basically proved he was local. Although not a spiritual man, Pantera prayed this would be the break they needed.
A K9 unit met him at the home of Landon Morris, a small-time landscaper. When they arrived late that afternoon, the van was parked in the driveway. They let the dog sniff a shirt Maureen had worn that had been ziplocked into a bag the day after the disappearance and approached the door.
Pantera pressed the doorbell, and Morris came to the door.
“Yeah?” he asked.
“Mr. Morris? You remember me?”
“Yes, we spoke several months ago about your van.”
Morris eyed the detective for a moment before recognition dawned. ‘Oh, yeah. Still lookin’ for that girl?” he asked.
“Afraid so. You mind if we come inside?”
Morris shrugged. “I got nothing to hide.” He stepped back and let the K9 officer and dog in with Pantera, who already had the feeling they wouldn’t find anything here. Morris had seemed genuinely lost as to why they might be there, and the real perpetrator would not forget the previous visit and questions. Pantera doubted he was faking.
“Do you mind if we have a look around?” Pantera asked.
“Be my guest.” Morris went back to his sofa and the program on TV. He appeared completely unconcerned.
After a thorough but fruitless search by the dog, Pantera stepped into the room to thank Morris for his cooperation before leaving. There hadn’t been a single hint from Morris’ behavior that he was lying.
Climbing into their cars, they drove to the next location, the home of Wilbur Armstead. After they knocked, a woman came to the door and told them she had been married to Wilbur Armstead, but he had died three months ago of a sudden heart attack, an event that didn’t seem to bother his widow at all. A quick phone call verified the woman’s story.
Finally, they stopped at the home of Jason Kormann, the man who lived outside the more likely area of the circle Pantera had drawn on the map. When they arrived, Pantera knew it would be a long-shot. The house appeared vacant; it sagged in the overgrown yard. He knocked on the door, but nobody was home. There were no vans or other vehicles in the weed-choked driveway, so Pantera decided to check with a neighbor. Kormann had indeed moved to Denver four months before.
The K9 officer left, and Pantera decided to drive around the area, not knowing what he might spot, but doing his best to familiarize himself with the surroundings. It was something he did when stuck on a case that felt ready to burst open despite today’s disappointment. He liked to return to the crime scene or some other place associated with the case and just drive around, thinking and trying to put the pieces together so they all fit. That was something that drove him. While working a case, he didn’t understand how the pieces fit together, but he knew they did. He just had to solve the jigsaw puzzle of facts.
Someone who likely lived in this area had made that call. The call had come early in the morning, around six. Most people didn’t think about how easy it was to track cell phones. He couldn’t imagine this creep doing something like coming to this neighborhood to throw them off the scent, especially that early in the morning. It was possible, but highly improbable.
In his wanderings, Pantera reached a slightly more affluent area. This was more of a middle-class neighborhood, one with mostly manicured lawns and a few shade trees. The houses were small, but well-maintained. Pantera lived in a neighborhood like this one, nice but not too pricey. He thought of these places as “decent job neighborhoods” because the owners weren’t rich, but they had a job that was good enough to afford a nice little home.
A late-model Buick pulled onto the street from a side street ahead of Pantera. He paid no attention to it until the driver turned into a driveway. Pantera glanced down the driveway by habit, and what he saw nearly made him jam the brakes to a tire-squealing halt.
In front of where the Buick was parking sat an older, slightly dented white cargo van. It seemed out-of-place in the neighborhood, where most of the cars were fairly new and in good shape. Pantera parked his car on the street a few doors down and took out his phone, pulling up a picture of the pin-marked map. Of course, there was no pin in this location, but it was in the area of the circle he thought of as the likely origin of the call.
Turning in his seat, he stared at the van, and puzzle pieces began gathering to form the beginning of a shape. This guy could have purchased the van since the kidnapping, but one detail made Pantera believe that wasn’t the case. The van had been backed into the driveway, so the front faced the street. Pantera had asked for information on white cargo vans in the four-county area. The hood of this van was a dull red. The rest was white with no lettering, and the white paint looked much newer. When this van had been purchased, it was red. It wouldn’t have made his requested list, especially if the paint job had been done since the last tag renewal, which in Virginia could be as long as three years. Pantera pulled out his phone.
Twenty minutes later, the K9 unit had returned and joined Pantera, who had used the time to ring a few doorbells and ask about the van and its owner.
“Yes, he’s owned it for about a year. . . .”
“Well, it was red, but he painted it right after he got it. Lord knows why he didn’t paint the hood. . . .”
“Mr. Carson? Yes, I know him. Nice gentleman. A teacher at Clayborn High School. . . .”
When he heard that, Pantera’s heartbeat quickened. Maureen had gone to Clayborn. He took out his earliest notes on the case and saw the name Don Carson from when he’d interviewed Maureen’s teachers. He was her math teacher.
He’d thanked the neighbors, and after bringing the K9 officer up to speed, he rang Mr. Carson’s doorbell. They waited several minutes, but no one came to the door. Even more suspicious now, Pantera pounded on the door.
“Mr. Carson?” he called. “Please open the door, sir. This is the police. We have a few questions.”
The fact he knew Carson was in there and not answering the door led Pantera to believe they had found their kidnapper. The three deadbolts on the door, security overkill, told him he wouldn’t be able to kick the door in, heightening his suspicions even more.
Turning to the K9 officer, he said, “Stay here! I’m going around back!”
Pantera moved carefully around the side of the house. When he got near the back yard, Carson leapt from some bushes and ran toward the front around the opposite side of the house.
Pantera called out, “He’s running!”
Suddenly, vicious barking came from the front, along with a scream of terror. When Pantera arrived, the dog was standing over the prostrate body of Don Carson while the K9 officer cuffed him. The dog continued to bark, assuming the stance used to indicate he had found the scent he was tracking. The smell of Maureen Dobson was all over Don Carson.
“What’s wrong?! Why were you chasing me?!” Carson demanded.
Pantera knelt beside Carson’s head. “Where is she?”
“Maureen Dobson. She’s here, and we know it.”
“You’re crazy! I live alone here!”
“The dog says different.” Pantera knew he could claim imminent danger of an occupant of the home since it was possible Carson had injured her before fleeing, and he fished Carson’s keys from the man’s pocket.
“What are you doing? You can’t go in my house without a warrant!”
“I can if the dog says I can,” Pantera said.
Finding Maureen had been simple after that. A heavily padlocked steel door had been opened, revealing a second padlocked door to a room within the soundproofed outer room. Inside that room, they found a naked and afraid Maureen. The totally dark interior room where she’d been kept had toilet, sink, and shower in one corner. A switch in the outer room operated a ten-watt bulb in the ceiling of the inner room. Night-vision goggles in the outer room told the rest of the story.
They found her clothing in a bedroom and allowed her to dress in the dim light of her prison before blindfolding her to protect her eyes from the bright light she’d not seen in seven months. Pantera escorted her to a separate bedroom to get her away from what she had to view as a torture chamber. Pantera called Lori with the good news. She arrived shortly after the ambulance.
Lori held Maureen, who buried her face in her mother’s shoulder and wept, beginning the lifelong process of healing.
Though not able to leave yet, Pantera went outside and climbed into his car, finally relaxing as he smiled. Sometimes luck was a cop’s best friend.