Authors: Mary Jane Clark
Tags: #Mystery, #Suspense, #Adult, #Thriller
he carnival workers had turned night into day. Giant spotlights bathed the school parking lot. Strategically spread around the property, a Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, a fun house, a small roller coaster, and other rides were designed to give the kids gentle pleasure, thrill them, scare them, or make them dizzy. Neon signs, the pinging of bells, and hawking attendants summoned the fairgoers to the booths that offered game winners stuffed bears and goldfish to take home in water-filled plastic bags. The air was thick with the aroma of sausage and peppers, popcorn, and cotton candy.
Hugh Pollock stood at the fence that cordoned off the giant slide and ate his zeppola. Oblivious to the powdered sugar that ringed his mouth, looking upward, he chewed the warm, fried dough. He was transfixed by the blond girl, in the loose T-shirt and denim shorts, climbing the steps to the platform at the top. He watched as she spread the hemp mat on the slide, sat down on it, and then let go of the safety railing. Hugh held his breath.
The girl’s yellow hair fanned out behind her as the breeze blew against her. She made her long descent down the slide, her shirt pressing against her chest, indicating the beginnings of adolescent development beneath the cotton. Disappointed, Hugh turned and walked away.
Though the evening was warm, Hugh wore a baggy black nylon jogging suit. He could feel the perspiration on the back of his neck but couldn’t tell if it was the heat or the anticipation that made beads of sweat drip down his sides.
He cruised around the fairgrounds, aware that it was getting late. Many of the younger ones had already gone home. Hugh did spot one—a perfect little girl—and followed her for a while. He admired her ponytail swaying from side to side as she walked on thin, hairless legs. But the treasure was being guarded by the man and woman who flanked her, firmly holding her hands. Hugh let them walk away.
“Three tries for a dollar. Come on now, try your skill. Three shots for a dollar.”
Hugh looked in the direction of the shouting voice. A group of children were gathered around a game stand, looking longingly at the prizes that hung from the ceiling of the booth. As Hugh got closer, he saw the miniature rifles, attached to a long, low table, pointing in the general direction of the orange rabbit targets that sped across the horizon only ten feet away.
“Want to give it a try, pal?” asked the attendant. “Lots of great prizes here.”
Hugh looked with skepticism at the dangling collection of cheap dolls, plastic trucks, and blow-up toys. Then the girl with the bangs and freckles caught his attention. Her eyes glistened with excitement as she stared up at the prizes. She was standing next to a boy who resembled her and Hugh surmised he was her older brother. But he couldn’t have been more than eight or nine years old and the little girl looked to be about six or seven. There were no adults around but the booth attendant.
“Which one do you want?” Hugh asked the girl.
She looked at him uncertainly.
“It’s all right,” said Hugh. “I want to try the game, but there are no prizes that I like. Why don’t I try to win one for you instead?”
The girl looked at her brother. He only shrugged.
“Okay,” said Hugh as he pulled a dollar bill out of his pocket. “What will it be?”
The girl pointed up at a plastic baby doll with curly white hair.
Hugh bent down, took aim, and fired, each time hitting the target. He stood upright and pointed at the doll.
“For three hits, you only get to pick from the bottom row of prizes,” said the attendant. “You need nine to get the prizes on top.”
Hugh dug into his pocket and threw two more bills on the counter. He took his shots but, this time, he missed a few.
“Damn it,” he hissed as he took out more money. “I could go to the store and buy the darned thing for less than I’m spending here.”
He could feel the little girl watching him. That made his breathing come faster as he took aim again. Finally, he accumulated the necessary points to get the doll.
The child beamed as he handed her the prize.
“What are you going to name her?” he asked.
“I don’t know yet,” said the child.
“Maybe you could name her after yourself,” Hugh suggested. “What’s your name?”
“That’s a pretty name,” said Hugh. He engaged the girl and her brother in conversation as they slowly walked away from the game booth toward the food stands.
“Anyone want a slice of pizza or an ice cream?” asked Hugh.
The children looked at each other again.
“Don’t worry,” said Hugh. “It’s all right.” He handed some money to the boy. “Go ahead over there and get yourself and your sister ice cream cones. Madison and I will go over to the picnic tables and find seats.”
“It should be all right, Madison. I’ll be right back.” The boy grabbed the ten-dollar bill and ran.
Hugh took the girl’s hand and began to walk toward the picnic area,
but instead of finding a place to sit, Hugh continued past the wooden tables.
“Where are we going?” asked the child.
“Back here,” said Hugh. “It’s nicer back here.”
He could feel the child try to pull her hand from his.
“I don’t want to go back here,” said the little girl. “I want my brother.”
Hugh leaned down and swept the child into his arms. He felt her young skin. He buried his nose in her soft hair. Just as he lifted his hand to caress her bare leg, he felt a vibration in his pants.
He knew who was calling him.
Hugh didn’t want to answer, but he had to. He had promised to keep his cell phone on at all times. There would be hell to pay later if he didn’t respond now.
He put the child back on the ground, but kept his arm locked around her as he got the phone out of his pocket with his free hand.
“Where are you, Hughie?”
“Don’t lie to me, Hughie. Where are you?”
There was no use in trying to hide it. She would be able to hear the roar of the rides and the kids screaming in the background.
“At the carnival.”
“What’s the matter with you, Hughie?” she shrieked. “You know it’s dangerous for you there.”
“Quit worrying, will you, Isabelle?”
“Quit worrying? Are you crazy? Of course I’m going to worry. How can you jeopardize everything like this? You know we can’t take any chances. You better get back here right now.”
At that moment the little girl kicked Hugh’s shin, causing him to yelp. Instinctively, he pulled back and the child wriggled free. Hugh didn’t try to chase her as she ran to find her brother.
an you help us with something?” asked Agent Laggie.
Eliza roused herself from staring at the framed photographs resting on top of the piano. Janie as a baby, wrapped in the pale yellow blanket knit by her maternal grandmother. Janie as a toddler, taking her first steps. Janie on her first day of kindergarten. Janie missing her two front teeth. Janie hugging Daisy.
“Yes, of course. What is it?” she asked as she turned away from the pictures. She noticed that Laggie was holding a box in his hands.
“Would you come upstairs with me and help collect any articles…that would have Janie’s scent on them?”
Eliza looked at him, uncomprehending for a moment.
“It might help us later if we have to use search dogs,” said Laggie.
“Oh my God, this can’t be happening,” Eliza whispered as she got up off the piano bench and led the way to Janie’s bedroom. The room was tidy, the twin beds made, the toys picked up and stored in the play box and on the shelves that lined two walls of the room.
Agent Laggie took plastic bags from the box he was holding and handed them to Eliza.
“Dirty socks, underwear, pajamas, and anything else you think would help,” he said. “Just stow them in the bags.”
Eliza opened the walk-in closet. A large canvas hamper stood at the rear. It was empty. “Mrs. Garcia is so efficient,” she said. “She must have done Janie’s dirty laundry early this morning.”
Agent Laggie looked at her in a way that Eliza thought communicated his skepticism.
“How about the bathroom?” he suggested. “Janie’s toothbrush, her hairbrush or comb?”
Those items were all on the shelf over the bathroom sink. Eliza carefully placed each one in a plastic bag, stopping to catch her breath at the sight of strands of Janie’s fine brown hair caught between the bristles on the hairbrush.
“We need Janie’s fingerprints, too,” said Laggie.
Eliza didn’t have to ask him why.
ommy,” Janie called between sobs. “I want my mommy.”
Mrs. Garcia ached to take the child in her arms, but the tightly tied ropes that bound her wrists made that impossible. “Shh,
You will be with Mommy soon,” she whispered. “Just try to rest. If you fall asleep, you can forget that you are missing your mommy.”
“I can’t sleep,” Janie whined. “I want Daisy and I need my Zippy. I can’t sleep without Zippy.”
A loud banging from the other side of the wall made Mrs. Garcia jump.
“Shut up in there,” the man’s voice ordered. “I don’t want to hear another word about your mother, your dog, or that freakin’ Zippy.”
“Please, Janie,” Mrs. Garcia whispered. “Try to be quiet and go to sleep,
. We don’t want the man to come in here again.”
“I hate him,” said Janie with certainty in her voice.
At any other time, Mrs. Garcia would have corrected the little girl, explaining that it wasn’t right to hate anyone. But how could she judge Janie when Carmen herself felt exactly the same way?
s dawn broke, the reporters, producers, and camera crews camped out in front of the large brick colonial pounced on anything that moved. They called out questions and shot video of police cars and government sedans coming and going, as well as video of a black Lexus with New York tags pulling into the driveway. Its occupants were a somber-faced elderly couple.
“Are those her parents?” asked the CBS reporter.
“I don’t think so,” answered his producer. “Her parents live in Rhode Island, but I think her in-laws live around here.”
“The parents of her dead husband, right?” asked the reporter.
“Yep,” said the producer. “You got to feel sorry for them. They’ve already lost their son. They have to be frantic at the thought of losing their grandchild.”
Katharine and Paul Blake came in the house and headed directly to their daughter-in-law’s side. They found Eliza huddled on the sofa, a hand-made afghan draped around her shoulders. She looked pale and her face
was devoid of expression. She rose when she saw them and took their hands in hers.
“You’re cold as ice, honey,” said Katharine, wrapping her arms around Eliza.
“Oh, Katharine, I’m just so scared,” Eliza whispered.
“I know you are, dear. We all are.”
“If something happened to Janie, I couldn’t bear it.”
“None of us could, sweetheart,” Katharine agreed. “But I’ve got to make myself believe that Janie is going to be fine. All of us have to believe that or we aren’t going to be able to get through this.”
“We’re here now, Eliza,” said Paul. “Why don’t you go upstairs and try to get a little sleep?”
Eliza shook her head. “There’s no way I’d be able to sleep.”
“Well, rest then. Just go up and lie down for a while.”
“Thanks, Paul, but I want to stay down here so I know what’s going on.”
“I’m going to make some tea,” said Katharine. “A cup of tea will make us all feel better.”
As she watched the thin figure walk toward the kitchen, Eliza felt a lump in her throat, remembering the way Katharine had acted when John was dying. Positive, capable, and determined while in no way denying the gravity of the situation. Eliza had always admired Katharine for the way she had conducted herself over those excruciatingly painful months. Katharine knew that her son was going to die, yet every single time she had come into that hospital room at Sloan-Kettering, there had been a warm smile on her face. Eliza had always marveled at how Katharine had been able to do that, but never more than right now when she herself felt abject terror at the prospect of losing her own child.
Eliza knew she had to hold herself together, but she could feel herself slipping away. She wanted to retreat, to withdraw and protect herself, insulate herself from the horror around her. But she knew she had to fight the urge to shut down. She had to keep her mind clear, stay in
volved, because there might be something only she could contribute that would find Janie. Eliza was fighting for some sense of control in the face of this nightmarish situation that was completely beyond her ability to manage.
“I think we should send some coffee to the guys out there on the street,” said Eliza, shaking herself into action. She followed her mother-in-law to the kitchen.
A police officer guarded the front door. Annabelle Murphy and B.J. approached and flashed their KEY News ID badges.
“We’re friends and colleagues of Ms. Blake’s,” said Annabelle. “Would you please let her know we’re here?”
They waited on the front stoop as the policeman opened the door and spoke to another officer inside. Two minutes later, Annabelle and B.J. were allowed entry. Eliza came hurrying toward them and hugged them tightly.
“Oh God, Eliza. I’m just so sorry,” said B.J.
“I know you are. I know you are, Beej.”
Annabelle pulled back and looked at her friend. “How are you holding up?”
Eliza stared straight into Annabelle’s eyes but said nothing.
“Yeah, I get it,” said Annabelle. “This is the worst.”
Eliza shook her head. “No, I can think of one thing worse,” she said.
“Don’t, Eliza. You’ll go out of your mind if you think about
Eliza managed a weak smile. “I already have been,” she said.
Annabelle, uncharacteristically, was at a loss for words. She was a mother herself. Sometimes when she lay in bed at night and sleep wouldn’t come, she’d imagine what she would do if anything bad happened to one of her children. When she really wanted to torture herself, she let herself think about actually losing one of the twins. But that scenario always led to the realization that, even if one of her children died, she would still
have to go on for the other one. She wouldn’t be able to let herself die as well, as much as she might want to.
Janie was Eliza’s only child. There was no other to force Eliza to keep going if she lost Janie. But right now, the memory of the nervous breakdown Eliza had suffered after Janie’s birth made Annabelle fear that just the pressure and worry of the immediate situation might be overwhelming.
“Have you taken anything?” Annabelle asked quietly. “Just something to take the edge off?”
“No,” answered Eliza. “I want to be clearheaded.”
“Listen, Eliza. I’m talking to you as a friend. Margo will give you something that won’t dull your mind, but it will lift the mental pain a little bit. You really have to, if not for yourself, then for Janie. What good will you be to her if you collapse?”
Eliza’s mouth was set in a tight line as she listened.
“I’m going to call Margo and see what she thinks,” said Annabelle as she pulled out her cell phone.
“Don’t do that,” said Eliza. “You’ll wake her.”
“Are you kidding me?” said Annabelle as she tapped the keypad. “Margo would be furious if we didn’t call her.”
“Yeah, good idea,” said B.J. “Let’s get her out here, too. We’ll do some brainstorming and figure all of this out.”
Annabelle nodded. “B.J.’s right,” she said, taking Eliza’s hand. “We’ll all help as much as we can, Eliza. You aren’t alone.”