Prologue Continued from Homepage

...Startled, she spun around to the stench of cheap liquor spewing between tobacco-stained teeth and a scraggly beard. His watery, dilated pupils sent a chill across her chest. Clutching her blouse from the disgusting stare, he seemed a beer away from passing out and an impulse away from raping her.

Grunting, he pushed her aside and yanked open the door. A cloud of smoke and blaring music sucked him into the dingy tavern before the door slammed shut again, rattling the glass. A few seconds passed before she breathed again.

This is no place for you, her conscience raged. Get out. Now!

She expected to flee across the parking lot as fast as her black pumps could navigate the ice and snow, towards the safety of the Jeep Grand Cherokee. It would automatically lock the doors until she reached her renovated Victorian home. After dismissing the baby sitter, she would shove the blouse to the bottom of a drawer, scrub off the make-up and don her worn bathrobe before Brian got home from his client dinner.

Instead, she stood there, defiant for once, and loved the exhilaration.

You can do this, Jen. Honest to God, you owe it to yourself to sneak a toe across the line for once. Youíll always regret it if you came this far and chickened out.

Sucking down the crisp night air, she flung open the door and stepped inside. The blasting rock music was the first to assault her, followed by the smoke that stung her eyes. The odor was a mix of cheap perfume with beer. A swarm of people surrounded her after taking a few shuffled steps across the sticky floor. Laughing, shouting and drinking people on the make. Most men were unkempt and overweight with some phrase or picture plastered across their T-shirts and caps. The women flaunted their intentions behind colorful blouses and sprayed-on jeans. Almost all looked old enough to be trolling for their second, maybe third spouse or, more likely, just a one-time outlet for their hormones.

"Excuse me. Excuse me, please," she repeated while precariously weaving through the crowd, feeling the body heat of those who pressed by. Hoping to avoid eye contact, she surveyed the animated faces for someone watching for her pat response to a/s/l: 42/f/Minn, 5í9", 132 lbs., brn hair & eyes. But no one waved in recognition nor raised an eyebrow as if to say, "Is that you, LongLegs?" That was probably to be expected. She was twenty minutes early for the rendezvous, plenty of time to get acclimated and stake out a position to see him first, and then decide to stay or slip away. What she needed most at the moment was to get one drink ahead to bolster her courage.

Spotting an empty stool on the other side of the massive oak, island bar, she endured shoving and rudeness before reaching the sanctuary. The first try at mounting the stool failed. Her black skirt was too tight. After lifting it, she succeeded the second time, and then realized the perch revealed too much thigh, particularly to the beer guzzling guys sitting behind her. Despite being slightly flattered and doubtful they could see the small spider veins in the poor light, modesty made her try lowering the skirt by hoisting herself up and tugging. This was to no avail. In fact, the movement seemed to be a primal mating call to these cretins. They began undressing her with their eyes. It felt as real as if their callused hands were crudely exploring every private crevice. She had never felt so violated and alive.

"Whataya have, hon?" the gum snapping barmaid bellowed through a huge mouth as her meaty hands removed the empty glasses and swished them once in scummy water. Her flame red hair seemed orange in spots. It framed her oval face and blotchy skin into a tough, no-nonsense broad who must have seen and heard it all. No doubt she could beat most of the locals in a drinking or arm wrestling contest.

"Ah, a Glenn Levins on the rocks with a splash of water, please."

The woman let out a belly laugh that made her chins jiggle. "Yeah, right. Come on, hon, give me a break. I ainít got all night."

Jennifer was insulted. The audacity of this woman. But she was also intimidated. She asked meekly, "Then what kind of scotch do you have?"

"What?" the woman screamed as she leaned her rolls across the bar until Jennifer smelled garlic.

"Scotch! What kind of scotch?"

"Canadian Club," came the curt reply.

Although Canadian whiskey hardly qualified as scotch, Jennifer nodded. The barmaid winked in response, flung a pile of cigarette butts into an unlined trashcan, then spun the ashtray back towards Jennifer without bothering to wipe it.

Jennifer opened the black handbag on her lap and reached for her wallet when her wedding ring caught some light and sparkled. A bolt of guilt seized her. Like a shoplifter preparing to strike, she looked up and around to see if anyone was watching, then slipped the ring off and let it fall to the bottom of the purse. Remorse took over. She had worn that ring faithfully for nineteen years, except for when Brian had the jeweler add another two carats to the setting for their tenth anniversary.

No, the issue wasnít whether it had left the finger or not. The real issue was what it stood for: the vow of faithfulness. By stripping it off she was finally admitting her willingness Ö no, her desire Ö to break those vows. Why else would she be in this dive wearing this ridiculous bra that was cutting off her circulation and the matching thong that was crawling up her butt? My God, woman. What the hell are you doing?

Before she could spin off the stool and race for the door, the barmaid slapped down the Canadian Club with Coke, shouted some price, and waited for payment by sliding a dingy rag atop the bar.

She sheepishly fished a twenty from her wallet. It was snatched away and inspected under a blue light before being shoved into the cash register. Crumbled, moist dollars and some change were dropped back in front of her. The barmaid made a point of helping herself to a tip.

With a slightly trembling hand, Jennifer raised the glass, took a long drink and winced at the fire going down. By the third sip, which almost emptied the glass, she felt confident again. She had come this far and was going to see it through.

Besides, it wasnít like she had gone out looking for this or anything. It just happened. She remembered that night very well. It was almost two months before when Brian was away for the week. She had frequently wondered what occupied so much of his time on the den computer. Of course he worked hard. All self-made men did or they failed. But instincts told her there was more to it than that. So, after the kids were asleep on November 12, she entered the world wide web for the first time.

It was confusing. Frustrating, actually. She was thankful a friend had shown her the basics the previous month or she would have been hopelessly lost. After hours of exploring numerous sites, including the home page of Brianís accounting firm, she clicked an icon called, "Microsoft Chat". A box appeared with various slots requesting personal information. The only one filled in was Brianís nickname, "FigureCrazy". She remembered being angry that he had joined one of those sordid chat rooms she had read about. The feeling intensified when she noticed the favorite room listed was "#CupidsCorner4". She had to know more.

On an impulse, she changed the nickname to "LongLegs" and clicked, "Enter Room". The computer whirled in response. The screen switched to a blank page, with a list of twenty-one names along the right margin. Then, after a few warm welcomes to the room, a wild series of typed conversations unfolded.

A personís name would come up, followed by a comment. Some of the comments were short, others more elaborate. Most were in multi-colored type or unusual fonts. They used a confusing flurry of codes and abbreviations as if talking a foreign language. A few people seemed subdued and normal, but the others were engaged in a flirtatious romp. It would have been lewd if it were not so funny.

There was this "brneyes" woman chasing "Squirrel" with a silk hair net before being tripped up by a "Mia" who claimed to pounce down and tickle him unmercifully. A loud series of giggles boomed through the computer speakers. After the initial surprise at the unexpected sound, Jennifer spontaneously laughed. Several people typed "lol". That is when she learned her first chat acronym: "lol" meant "laugh out loud".

The shock of someone pawing her shoulder snapped her back to the dingy bar. Spinning around, she was confronted by a late-twenty-something kid with stringy blonde hair whose rugged skin and dirty hands attested to an outdoor job of manual labor. No doubt his annual take-home pay did not match what Brian made in a month.

"Can I buy you a drink?" he slurred, hoping to sound alluring.

"No, thank you," she said coldly while trying to dislodge his hand with a shoulder shrug. It did not work. His grasp actually tightened.

"Come on, now. Iím sure you want it. How Ďbout a really big one before happy hour is over? Itíll make you happy, I promise."

His crude manner and the snickers from the table behind made it clear he was referring more to his manhood than a drink. It was repulsive. He was repulsive, just as repulsive as half the solicitations she endured during the two months in the chat room. How could men actually think this approach was attractive and sexy? Heck, maybe some women got off on it, but she could not imagine how.

With steely determination, she locked onto his eyes and demanded, "Take your filthy hand off my shoulder and go back to your sandbox or, I swear to God, Iíll scream assault." She doubted he heard everything, but there was no mistaking the clenched jaw and furious stare.

His grip slowly loosened. He tried smiling, even laughing to hide the rejection, and turned towards his buddies with a cocky saunter. The attempted cover-up made them laugh harder. Two guys exchanged dollars as if settling a bet on whether he would score.

Jennifer was proud. She credited learning these techniques in the chat room. She had never needed them before because she had dated Brian since the tenth grade and got married the summer after college. Nor had she ever wanted anyone other than him. That is what made this night so confusing. Her conscience had rationalized she just wanted a passionate first kiss again. Was it really an affair she wanted? Or maybe it was the reassurance that someone could still desire her? Or was the excitement its own reward? She honestly did not know, but was steadfast to remain on that stool until the answer was clear.

Every time the front door swung opened, a blast of cold air whisked in a new face who she studied before rejecting. She fidgeted with her Rado. He would be here any minute. Would he look like she imagined? Or had a fantasy crafted an image found only in the romance novels she bought at the grocery store then discarded with the trash?

He had described himself as 6í 2", 38, 185 pound stockbroker from Saint Paul with blonde hair, intense blue eyes and a baby face Ö a sharp contrast to Brianís 5í 10" frame with the growing paunch, bifocals, and pepper-gray hair. He was married too, which was appealing because he would be discreet and not clingy.

During the third or fourth conversation, he revealed plans to stay married until the kids were through college, then file for divorce during graduation week. He called it his "freedom diploma." The phrase was funny at first, and then turned tragic. This incredibly decent man had endured so much.

He had gotten a girl pregnant before knowing how to spell her last name. Feeling responsible, he had gotten married, raised a family, built a career, and "placed the world gift-wrapped at her feet." In return, she complained, controlled and begrudgingly lay on her back once a month. Twice as often she disappeared on gambling junkets with, he suspected, another man. The previous month she was arrested for shoplifting costume jewelry. "Itís not a marriage," he had blurted out in frustration. "Itís a jail sentence for once being young, drunk and horny."

That initial candor started seven weeks of typed conversations in a private chat room they called, "Just Us." Almost every night until early morning, they talked and shared everything. No inner thought was too private. He was never distracted by golf or client work. ESPN was never more important. His undivided attention was in such contrast to Brianís growing aloofness.

Jennifer gulped at the third Canadian Club and Coke, trying to ward off a reoccurring thought that was both exciting and scary. She was falling in love. Or was she already in love with DowJones? Logic argued against loving a man she had never met. But emotions and intuition disagreed. She knew more about DowJones than most people knew about themselves. Everything about him was good. When they were chatting, she felt cuddled by his affection. He filled a gap in her life and in her heart. He made her feel wonderful. How much better would it be in person?

Jennifer wished he would arrive. Now. Right now. He was twenty-five minutes late. Worry rose and spread. Was she at the right bar? The right day? Had he been in an accident? She did not dare ask the real question. He would definitely come.

The tavern door swung open again and a trio of teenage girls giggled and shoved their way in. No bouncer or barmaid seemed to notice, but the guys did. Within a few steps, their heavy flirtations earned them an invitation into a crowed booth.

Their obvious ringleader Ė a cute, shapely brunette who could not be eighteen Ė was the first to unzip her bomber jacket, revealing her seductive youth behind a white muscle shirt. The three guys instantly fixated on those braless curves glowing in the black light. After snapping a fresh Marlboro pack against her palm, she unraveled the top cellophane like a striptease, and then pulled one out with her teeth.

One guy fumbled to extend his Zippo. She smiled coyly, cupped her long hair behind her ear, held his wrist and leaned over. A puff of smoke blew past her glossy lips. Then another. The man was mesmerized.

If the girlís energy from across the room was this incredible, Jennifer imaged how electric it was in the booth. It felt like her chemistry with DowJones. She remembered how he described their first kiss. It was so sensuous and intense. Brian had not kindled such heat since college.

DowJones made her tingle just by logging on. And, before logging off each early morning, he would explore her face gently with his fingers, smell her hair, burrow into her neck, and stare deep into her eyes before feathering her with soft, warm kisses. My God, how those words would explode into passion. Afterwards, she would collapse into bed from exhaustion yet lay awake for hours, relishing the afterglow.

An off-key Karaoke version of "I Canít Get No Satisfaction" snapped away the tender memories. She glanced at her watch. That could not be right. Twisting her wrist to catch some light, she pleaded that it was wrong. He was over an hour late.

An acute sense of loss suddenly swallowed her. In denial, she studied the crowded bar, hoping he was there, maybe staring from some corner, waiting patiently for her. But she did not feel him. If he were there, she would sense it. She continued the frenzied search. All the laughter, shouting and music were a mockery. Rejection and shame swirled through her chest. She could not breathe.

Leaping off the stool, she frantically pushed through the crowd. She had to escape the claustrophobia. Oblivious to the surrounding anger, spilled beers and cursing she caused, she bolted through the door, stumbled into the parking lot and skidded across the ice. Her body slammed onto the asphalt, ripping off chunks of nylon and skin. Pebbles sliced deep into each knee. Tears poured out. Scrambling to her feet, she raced to her car.

When she reached the door of the pristine, white Jeep Cherokee, the key wasnít in her hand. It was always there long before needing it, but not this time. She fumbled through the purse, pushing aside the wallet, the store coupons, and the soiled Kleenex.

From behind her came two footsteps. They scrapped lightly across the gravel and snow. There, she heard it again. Jenniferís head snapped towards the noise. Her eyes pierced the night, past each parked car that lay covered with frost. The light from a flickering neon gave the snow a bloody, red hue. No one was there. Yet she felt a lurid, evil presence. Someone was staring.

"Dow?" she shouted, half in hope and half wanting protection. "Is that you?"

Only a deadly silence lingered, causing an eerie shiver to coil around her neck.

Whimpering, she frantically shook the purse, hoping to hear the keys. Nothing. She shook again. Then again. Sweet God, where are they?

Almost as an echo from her purse, the sound of another footstep ended. It was unmistakable. The evil was toying with her, getting closer, waiting to pounce.

A cold, dark wind swirled up and bit her cheeks. It shot down her spine and weakened her legs. Fear pounded her eyes. That looming presence intensified.

In desperation, she dumped the purse upside down. The contents spilled across the car hood, clattering and scraping away the silence. Too many tears blurred her vision. She could not see.

Those footsteps resumed. Slowly at first. Then faster. Getting very close. There was no doubting it now. She was going to be raped. Or die. Or worse.

Her stiff fingers sorted madly through the mess. "Oh, God!" Wild plumes of panic burst from her gaping mouth. "Come on. Please!"

The running attack thundered louder and more ominous.

"Dear God, no. No. No," she pleaded. As if in answer to her prayers, she found the keys and then fumbled them. They slid across the ice crystals on the hood. She grabbed madly but missed. They tingled as they bounced off the wheel well, cascaded down and disappeared. Slapping away the disheveled hair, she tried kneeling. The tight skirt prevented it. Throwing herself to the ground, she desperately scraped at the ice and snow until her brightly polished fingernails snapped off.

Gravel crunched beneath the heavy hunting boots as they skidded to a stop. Yellow, brown mud covered the ratty leather. An exposed, steel toe whistled towards her face.

She cowered into a fetal position, clutching her clothes in a futile plea for help. Ranting prayers mixed with sobs. Urine trickled down her legs.

The first kick crushed her cheekbone. Hurtling against the car, her chin slammed into the corner panel with a sickening thud. Shards of glass and a bloody tooth drooled across her face. The next blow exploded her thigh, followed by a shattered rib that pierced her lung. The excruciating pain consumed all fear. Blow after blow became a surreal series of jolts and convulsions. Just before passing out, a feeling of bliss enveloped her. She was ready to die.

 

Chapter One

Amber Young had searched a drugstore for a sympathy card, clicked through three internet greeting card sites, and discarded several attempts at writing her feelings on personalized stationary. Nothing seemed appropriate. What was she suppose to write? "Sorry to hear about the disappearance of your wife." Or, "My prayers are with you and your family and I know God is watching over Jennifer." The last thing Brian Mayo needed was more passive, hollow words, she concluded. He needed help Ö all the help he could get.

Eighty, perhaps ninety cars had already wedged into the small parking lot of Holy Cross Church when she arrived. About a dozen more, each encrusted with the gray pall of Minnesota ice, snow and road salt, were circling for a parking place. She lucked out. In the front row, an elderly gentleman in a tweed overcoat ushered his unsteady, hunched-over wife into their Cadillac. Amber turned on the blinker of her red Volkswagen Beetle and waited. Looking up, the manís tired eyes seemed to apologize for being so slow. She waved back, hoping to communicate it was okay, she understood and he should take his time.

That patience was in sharp contrast to her normal energy level. At 32, this fireball of Asian/Italian descent had poured her heart and soul into building DesigNet, an advertising agency for the worldwide web. Nothing else mattered since getting her masters from M.I.T. Her cramped apartment was functional for the few hours she slept there. Clothes were chosen for comfort and did little to showcase her five-and-a-half foot, athletic figure. She jogged and exercised daily, not so much for good health or muscle tone, but to maintain her endurance for work.

Although invited out frequently Ė men were attracted to those sparkling dark eyes, high cheekbones and fresh, oval face Ė she had not seriously dated in a year. That worried her mother, whose biological clock for being a grandmother ticked louder than Amberís maternal clock. The subject was raised almost daily during their phone calls. Yes, sometimes late at night, Amber missed the hugs, kisses and affection of her ex-fiancťe. But finding someone new took too much time. Felix, her plump and persnickety alley cat, was a sufficient companion for the moment.

After turning off the engine, Amber slipped into a pair of brown suede mittens, pulled a wool beret over her ears and pony tail, then wrapped a baby blue, mohair scarf around her neck and wedged it into the down-filled ski jacket. Someone was watching.

It was a news crew huddled in their van. In the passenger seat was a weekend anchor who peered at her above a large, Styrofoam cup. The way he clutched the coffee suggested the warmth was more valuable than the caffeine. He flashed her that "Welcome to Channel Six News" smile. His charms backfired. She was not impressed by his toupee, heavy make-up or inflated ego.

Stepping out of her car caused them to bolt out of their van as if responding to a fire alarm. While the cameraman fumbled with his equipment, the news anchor took several long strides while yelling, "Oh, Miss! Miss? Can we talk?" She ignored him. He ran out in front then trotted backwards, holding a microphone at his side. "Are you a friend of Jenniferís?"

"No, Iím not," she said without slowing down. They had only met once during a client-appreciation party sponsored by Brianís accounting firm. It occurred during either her second or third month in business. She was thrilled to be invited for two reasons: one, to thank Brian for having confidence in her and for setting up the books despite how incredibly naive and broke she was. And two, because she had only eaten macaroni and chicken soup in days and hoped to chow down on the hors díoeuvres.

What she remembered about the party was how opulent it was, and meeting Jennifer. The first impression was of a tall, slender, pretty and poised woman in a stunning black evening dress highlighted by a string of black pearls. The high fashion made her borrowed dress seem frumpy. But her inadequacy quickly disappeared because Jennifer was the perfect hostess. She knew all about Amber, her business, and her drive for success. That smile was so gracious and warm. Within minutes, she had felt as welcomed and comfortable as an old, dear friend.

Amber also remembered feeling a twinge of jealousy that night over how this woman had everything, including a husband as good as Brian. Those feelings had now been replaced with sorrow and guilt.

The anchorman continued badgering. It was obvious this jerk was stalling her until the video camera was ready. Damn media. They had already chronicled every minute detail of Jenniferís disappearance. As the search dragged on without change, they fed their sensation-hungry audience endless speculation and inane interviews as if they were newsworthy. She refused to become another ten-second sound bite who mumbled some obvious comment about the horror of a beaten and kidnapped suburban mother. Chasing tragedy like this for ratings should be a crime. "Leave me alone," she demanded, pushing past him.

The bitter wind spun eddies of snow around her boots as she hustled across the street, past several empty police cars, and two army trucks loaded with National Guardsmen dressed in fatigues. At the top of the church stairs she opened one of the ornate wooden doors. The bright morning sun disappeared as she stepped inside.

Removing the sunglasses did not help appreciably. A slight musty smell mixed together with the sounds of whispers, coughs and shuffling. As her eyes focused, she was astonished to see the turnout. At least two hundred people had gathered. True Minnesotans: eager to help a neighbor in need.

After slipping into a pew and pulling off her mittens, a young minister in a parka climbed into the tall, wooden pulpit, loudly clasped his hands, and then welcomed the volunteers with incredible enthusiasm. She had expected a somber message. Instead, he launched into a light-hearted introduction of Jennifer Mayo as he pointed to a five- foot portrait on the altar.

"Here is a woman who makes Lucille Ball seem like a rank rookie at humor," he began his speech with a bright smile. "Not that Jennifer is a good joke teller, mind you. In fact, sheís the worldís worst!" Several people let out a nervous snicker, perhaps wondering if it was okay to laugh in church and on such a horrific occasion. "But let me tell you something. She is the best audience a joke teller ever had, even a mediocre comic like myself. For example, once during a sleigh ride she and Brian sponsored for disadvantaged children, she laughed so loud and hard at one of my corny jokesÖ" the minister threw back his head and let out an exaggerated cackleÖ "she scared the heck out of the horses. They galloped for nearly a mile, tossing kids, parents and hay into a jumbled mess of giggles and smiles." His animated arm waving accented the mental image. More people allowed themselves to enjoy the humor.

"Then there was the time she volunteered in a soup kitchen and, while lifting a ten-gallon bag of milk, punctured the plastic. It exploded everywhere. And I mean everywhere. On her hair, in her ears, and soaked her clothes. In fact, she darn near drowned." Most of the congregation were laughing, snapping the earlier tension. "And as she stood there sopping wet, she asked for some Christmas cookies to go with the milk."

His expression changed to a soft, reminiscent glow. "See, even now she can make you laugh. Sheíd like that. I know she would. ĎCause if you know Jen at all, you know what a big heart she has, together with that big smile Ö a smile so infectious youíre happy just being around her."

As Amberís laugh subsided, she realized the speech was all in the present tense. Yet it was doubtful Jennifer was still alive because the abduction had happened nearly three days before. Logic said victims rarely returned after that long, but hope vehemently argued otherwise. A sudden morose washed over her.

"And perhaps thatís why this hurts so much," the minister said, uniting the crowd in sorrow. "Jennifer is not sitting among us today. This talented oil painter who donates the proceeds to a local hospice in memory of her father is missing. Gone is the baker of the best strawberry/rhubarb pie you every tasted. Gone is the neighbor who is as likely to be seen gabbing over a fence on a warm spring day as she is to be driving her Jeep over a fire hydrant. Gone is the mother of two wonderful children, Heather and Tommy, who are ten and twelve." Looking down into the front pew, he asked, "Would you kids like to say a few words about your mother?"

Jenniferís daughter shook her head. But Tommy, a mop-top blonde with bushy eyebrows and braces, rushed up to the microphone as if speed would accelerate her return. In a clear, loud tone he called out, "Mom?" then waited a few seconds as if expecting her to respond from the back of the church. "We both miss yah, Mom. Really bad." His voice cracked as that cherub face scrunched up. "Please help us find her," he pleaded. "We want her home," was all he could muster before the emotions overwhelmed him. The minister knelt on one knee and hugged the boy as his body convulsed. The sound of sobbing filled the church. Anguish tore away at Amberís chest.

Brian Mayo sprung from the front row and hurried to the pulpit to comfort his son. Tommy looked up. His eyes begged for relief. With tears streaming down his cheeks, he threw his arms around Brianís waist, burrowed himself deep into his fatherís wool sweater, and sobbed. The muffled convulsions echoed through the church.

Brianís face was tormented. Just a few weeks before he had been so efficient and professional in a gray suit, Oxford white shirt and burgundy silk tie during their monthly financial review. Haggard and wrinkled, that confidence was gone. Those kind blue eyes were red and hollow. Fear and concern dug deep grooves into his forehead. While still caressing his sonís head, he cleared his throat to gather some strength.

"I, ah Ö" he started, and then swallowed hard. He removed his glasses, pinched away the moisture and stood suspended for a few seconds. It was agonizing to watch. The minister put a compassionate arm around his shoulder. Brian nodded in weak appreciation, then struggled to go on.

"I want to thank you all for coming today. It means a lot to me and to my family. We are so incredibly grateful. You have no idea how hard this is." His pale lips quivered. Every word stuck deep in his throat. "And, all we want is Ö well, what we pray for Ö is that God will have the compassion Ö and the mercy Ö to return my Jennif Ö."

The thought of her name crushed him. He bit down on his lip, fighting to contain himself. But he lost the battle. His shoulders slumped, his head shook in resignation, and he covered his face.

Leaning over, the minister whispered something into Brianís ear. Then he guided them down the creaking, wooden stairs. Each step was a struggle. When they reached the altar, the minister signaled for Heather to join them. The little girl Ė a carbon copy of her motherís slender frame, long brown hair and eyes, and that precious face Ė ran furiously until she burrowed safely under Brianís arm. Then the three of them were shepherd towards the rectory door until they finally disappeared from sight.

The church was dead silent. Amber felt helpless. She would have done anything at that moment. Anything. But there was only one thing that would stop this torment. Bowing her head, she prayed to God for the first time in years. She begged Him to bring Jennifer home. But her logic and intuition screamed the truth Ö this prayer would never be answered.

 

Chapter Two

After leading the congregation in prayer for Jenniferís safe return, and for Christís loving arms to comfort her family, the minister introduced a police sergeant. Amber disliked him immediately. This crude man absently adjusted his gun belt as he sauntered towards the altar. He had the rugged skin of a farmer with the bulging gut of a desk jockey. There was no compassion in his greasy face. He looked callused and self-absorbed, as if this was just another official and unpleasant duty in a long, intolerable career. He grabbed the microphone as if strangling a varmint then snorted to clear his throat.

"Good morning," he said in a raspy voice that reflected forty or more years of cigarette or cigar smoking. "My name is Sergeant Thomas, and I have been, ah, directed to take care of this volunteer effort." He made it sound like a personal punishment. He pulled a wad of loose-leaf paper from deep inside his weathered blue jacket. Without looking up, he read off the various jobs needing volunteers in a grating monotone that was punctuated by endless "ahs" belched through the loud speakers.

Despite her growing irritation with this man, Amber could not shake the sight of Brianís tormented face nor his devastated children. Their pain burrowed deeper into her memory every time she closed her eyes. She had originally expected to get a dozen or so "Missing" posters to hang in local stores, and that option was available, but it now seemed insignificant. She was fully committed to do whatever was needed. So, when it came time to fan out into the various corners of the church depending upon the chosen task, Amber filed into the basement with the other members of the search party.

The lower level was cold, dank, and poorly lit. The walls were gray and the avocado green carpet was faded and buckling. The room was also poorly organized. Two policeman and two National Guardsmen were huddled over yellowed topography maps on top of a long wooden folding table that had probably supported countless pancake breakfasts, wedding receptions and bingo nights. The youngest of the four looked up at the growing crowd in surprise, as if concerned over their premature arrival. The three other men were arguing over logistics.

A sweet, rosy-cheeked woman with a red "Hostess" tag pinned to her fuzzy pink sweater served coffee from a large, silver urn. "Here yah go, dear," she smiled. Amber accepted the eight-ounce cup of muddy, hot liquid, along with a napkin and sugar cookie, so as not to offend the white-haired woman. She reminded Amber of her ex-fiancťeís grandmother because they both seemed fulfilled by feeding people.

In the back of the room, several folks began cutting twelve-inch strips from large spools of yellow ribbon imprinted with the phrase "We Want Jennifer Home". On another series of tables, box lunches were being assembled. The majority of the people stood around in confusion. They collected near the basement entry and blocked many more volunteers up the staircase.

A large, intense woman with disheveled red hair and an air of self-importance rushed towards the crowd. "Listen up, people," she bellowed through her jowls. "If you would all take your seats, we can get started." Frustrated by their inaction, she herded them by touching each personís elbow or shoulder, and then pointed to the three dozen folding chairs in the center of the room. "Take your seats, please," she kept repeating. Several middle-aged faces winced with annoyance, but did as they were told. Others leaned along the walls with their hands listlessly at their side.

The room was swallowed by the sickening mood. Instead of talking, the fifty or so people wore expressions of dread and obligation, as if attending a wake or entering the hospital room of a dying relative.

Amber felt flush. She pulled off her jacket and unwrapped the scarf, crumpled them into her lap, then felt the rickety wooden chair jab into her back. Strangely, she welcomed the physical discomfort because it distracted the emotional one. But, all too quickly, they blended together. The longer the muffled silence grew, the more morbid it became.

A panicky feeling swelled up. She had to start doing something, anything that was remotely useful. When the first assignment was announced, she eagerly raised her hand, was given the nod, and followed a young National Guardsman up the stairs and out of the church.

The sun was bright and sparkled along the snow like jewels. The cold air poured into her lungs. She could breathe again. After rushing across the parking lot, getting into her car and starting the engine, that dreaded churning in her stomach seemed to dissipate.

As instructed in the church basement, she turned on her headlights and weaved around the cars until finding a position at the end of the motorcade. One of the army trucks slowly led the way. A motorcycle cop, who was hidden inside a huge jacket and a helmet with smoked Plexiglas, sped ahead with his red light flashing to stop traffic in the intersections. It felt like a funeral procession.

About five or six blocks later, they passed the crummy little bar where Jenniferís blood-splattered car had been discovered. According to the media, her purse had been ransacked, yet nothing appeared missing. That seemed to rule out robbery. But what was the motive? And what was someone like Jennifer doing in a low-life dive like that in the first place? There were more questions than answers. In lieu of facts, the speculation was depressing.

The most disconcerting find was her wedding ring. No woman ever took that off. Ever. Neither the TV broadcasts, newspapers nor the Jennifer website came right out and said it, but if a woman was separated from her purse and wedding ring, it meant only one thing. Amber tried suppressing the thought. But the yellow police tape that still cordoned off the crime scene wedged the fear back into her mind. Worse yet was the recollection of how the police found Jenniferís shoe at the end of an eighteen-foot trail of dragging marks. Amber looked away.

Within a mile, the string of cars turned left into a shopping mall and circled into the back lot of a Target where a handful of the department store employees greeted the volunteers with hot chocolate, coffee, cider and somber faces. There were also several shopping carts piled high with winter hats and gloves, along with a banner that read, "Free Warmwear for Jenniferís Friends."

Nine National Guardsmen, dressed identically in their fatigues and combat boots, stood patiently beside their truck. They appeared to be awaiting orders from their female commander, who was blowing warm air into her cupped hands. Two young cops leaned against the hood of their squad car, talking quietly, with a pair of attentive German Shepherds by their sides. No one seemed poised for action.

Amber hesitated behind the wheel, waiting to see what would happen. When nothing did, she became impatient. After bundling up, she joined the dozen men who huddled between their pick-ups and SUVs. Several nodded in recognition as she walked up. One professional-looking man about her age with deep blue, compassionate eyes gave her a quick "hello", mumbled something about the cold weather, then lowered his head with nothing more to say.

The backdrop to this growing crowd was a large wooded area of perhaps thirty or forty acres. The overgrown land was surrounded by a wall of tangled brush and grasses. It seemed impenetrable. Huge, naked oak branches clattered in the winter wind. Overhead, a helicopter fluttered. Looking up, she sensed the intrusion of a video camera and the crewís disappointment that nothing newsworthy was happening.

In front of this scene, almost in mockery, was a freshly painted, bright colored sign. It announced the site as the "Future Home of Twenty New and Exciting Stores Ö Coming to You This Fall." Amber feared the site was Jenniferís grave. She shivered.

All eyes turned left. Bouncing across the speed bumps without slowing down, a squad car made its grand entrance. After skidding to a stop, the car door flung open and a billow of smoke escaped. The cocky Sergeant Thomas emerged. After flicking a raunchy cigar butt into a snow bank and hacking a wad of phlegm onto the frozen ground, he sauntered over to the other cops.

One of the burly police dogs wiggled with excitement as he approached. Amber was in total disbelief at what happened next. Here stood all these cold and anxious people who were waiting for leadership and a sense of purpose. And what was this clownís first priority? To pet the damn dog. And not just a quick scratch on the head either. He dropped to one knee, playfully wrestled with the animal, and then laughed when his face was licked. Amber wanted to kick him hard, right in that fat ass.

When Sergeant Thomas finally decided to take charge, the extent of his instructions were to, "Report anything suspicious and under no circumstances touch anything." Then he barked orders that made the policemen snap into action while increasing the volunteersí anxiety. "Get over here! Stand there! No, right there. Jeez, is this too difficult for you?" Every arrogant demand was followed by a mumble of disgust.

Within minutes, she was part of an obedient line of thirty people who, nearly shoulder-to-shoulder, began grunting their way through the dense thicket. Each step was a challenge. The heavy vegetation and crusted snow pulled at her boots. Branches twisted with vines and thistles, making passage almost impossible. Repeatedly, her face was slapped as she struggled to push them aside. Hidden logs tested her balance. Soon, her jeans were covered with prickles that scratched like straight pins.

"Find something, damn it," he repeatedly yelled at the dog when it did not move fast enough. Jenniferís name was never mentioned. It was as if she did not exist as a person, but as a body the cop wanted found quickly. His ugly cadence screamed his belief that this wonderful woman was only a frozen, gruesome corpse waiting to be discovered.

Visions of death lay behind every tree. During each belabored step, she expected to see a gnarly hand or a contorted face peering through the ice. And God, what if she found the battered, partially clothed body? It would be a lifetime of future nightmares. The irony was hideous. Amber prayed she would not find what she was looking for. This added guilt and shame to the emotional eddy already consuming her.

Yet all she saw was evidence of people too lazy and slovenly to properly dispose of their trash. Empty bottles and cans jutted through the snow, along with old tires and moldy mattresses, plus an occasional refrigerator and rusted lawn mower.

"Good Christ," the sergeant continued his tirade. "Can you believe the crap in here? Iíd just love to catch one of the little fags who threw this shit around." Every word the man uttered was more infuriating.

Despite the cold that brightened her cheeks and made her nose drip, she was getting hot. Her knit shirt clung to the sweat. She stopped to unzip her jacket when, suddenly, a pile of brush exploded.

First dazed, then panicked, Amber clutched herself and screamed while tumbling backwards. Her curdle echoed through the woods as the frightened white tail deer bound away.

After a second of silence, men started to laugh. She could barely hear them over the pounding in her chest and ears. But what she heard next made all the fear, worry, guilt and irritation combust.

"Gotta watch out for that big, bad Bambi, sweetheart," Sergeant Thomas sneered. "No telling what a crazed killer like that will do."

The anger detonated. Jumping to her feet, Amber charged through the brush towards that arrogant man who was twice her size. She wanted to smash his insipid face and to pound his disgusting flab. He represented all that was evil.

As her flailing arms snapped away the branches, he just stood there, laughing and mocking her. A hatred burned deep as her body hurdled closer.

Then a vine caught her foot. She faltered, twisted in vane, and finally slammed to the ground. Patches of her palm ripped away. An avalanche of snow plowed down her neck. Then excruciating pain seized her ankle, shot up her leg and tore through her gaping mouth as a bitter cry. Curled into a lump, she clutched her ankle and writhed back and forth as the sergeant enjoyed his hideous cackle.

The man with the passionate blue eyes rushed over and touched her shoulder, asking if she was all right. She tried nodding, but even that hurt.

A heated argument flared up. The National Guardsman commander was screaming obscenities at the sergeant. She was calling him every filthy, dirty name Amber had ever heard. He seemed determined not to be bullied by this woman, despite her rank, and yelled his own string of vulgarities. Muffled in the background were the sounds of people trying to intervene. The last thing Amber heard was the sergeant screaming, "And you can take your fucking weekend warriors with you too! We donít need you here!"

After some shuffling around, the woods grew silent until a pair of black, high laced army boots crunched through the snow and stopped in front of Amberís face. A very pretty blonde with a tight jaw and steely eyes bent down. "Are you okay?" she asked with surprising softness.

"Iíll be fine," Amber responded, determined to pull herself together. It was hard to grasp what had just happened. She was usually very even tempered. Lashing out like this was incredibly uncharacteristic. Yet the rage had been so intense. She was as ashamed as she was surprised. "I canít believe I just did that."

"Please donít apologize," the woman said while scowling into the woods at the retreating police, then raising Amberís shoulders off the ground. "What I canít believe is that you beat me to it. What an incredible jerk!"

Amber laughed. "Well, he sure makes my blind dates look charming," she said with a grin. They both enjoyed the chuckle. "Thanks for your help." When she tried standing, however, her ankle buckled beneath the weight.

The commander grabbed Amberís waist, flung her arm around her shoulder, and lifted without effort. "Do you think itís broken?"

"No, I donít think so," she said, but was not really sure. She tried hobbling on the one leg, but each move caused a sharper pain.

"Hang on a minute." The commander turned to one of her men and snapped her finger. "Private!"

"Yes, sir," a burly man in his twenties answered.

"Carry this woman back to the parking lot and get her an ambulance."

Amber protested in embarrassment, "That wonít be necessary."

"Yes it will," the commander ordered sternly. Then a snicker spread across her face. "You know, in a way, itís a damn good thing you tripped back there, Ďcause Iím afraid you wouldíve killed that son-of-a-bitch." She laughed. "And no one here wouldíve stopped you." As Amber was hoisted into the soldierís arms, the commander added, "Youíre welcome to join my squad anytime, hear me? Now take care of that ankle."

For such a big man, the private was incredibly gentle. He cradled her head while throwing his back through the trees. He had bushy brows that accented his chocolate brown eyes. The musky smell of Obsession whiffed off his weight-lifterís neck as the muscles strained from the effort. He caught her staring, so she teased, "You sure know how to sweep a girl off her feet."

His pearly white teeth flashed in a Tom Cruise smile. "And wonít Mom be proud of what I brought home?"

Amber started to laugh and could not stop. It felt wonderful, so therapeutic. She suddenly realized it was her first belly laugh since Jenniferís disappearance.

 

Chapter Three

Behind her purplish-black eyelids that resembled rancid meat, Jennifer Mayoís imprisoned eyes fluttered wildly. They darted left and right, left and right, left and right in a frantic attempt to break through the crusted blood that cemented them. But there was no escaping the fever-induced hallucinations.

Among starbursts of yellow light, a blonde boy kicked and screamed in an ocean of salt water until a giant whale swallowed his head and dragged him below. Panicking, Jennifer screamed out for a hawk that swooped from the heavens. It screeched and pounded its wings against her shoulders before digging its sharp talons into her neck and slicing through a lung. Breathing stopped. The agony was excruciating.

After being torn away from the ground, they flew above the moon then across the icy water while her feet dangled limply beside her arms. The trip took forever. When she tried flapping her wings for additional speed, they refused to move.

Finally, they arrived above a caldron of air bubbles. That was the drowning site. Below the waterís surface was a thrashing whale battling long, green tentacles of seaweed. Extending from his giant mouth were two precious tennis shoes, still kicking.

The hawk smiled at her, wished her luck, then let go. Down she fell. The descent lasted an eternity as it accelerated Ö falling faster and faster and fasterÖ yet she got no closer to the water. The wind whistled past like an Internet connection blasting from a jet engine. Ice crystals covered her as the temperature plummeted. Her body convulsed.

Head first, she slammed into a swamp of banana porridge. The thick goop plugged her battered nostrils and shot down her throat. She gagged. She could not stop choking. Screams for help were only muffled moans. Her brain shouted, pleaded and begged while her tongue silently battled death.

The sun appeared, then an earthquake. Yelling was accented by pain. Her neck was jerked backwards as feathers were ripped from her head. A baby was lost. Someone lost a baby. That was why no one was saving her. Save the baby first. Dear God, save the baby in the tennis shoes.

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