To Be Released June 2014
Deputy Ben Walker put the cruiser in park and looked around. He was on one of the River County gravel roads that wound through the woods near the Calloway River. He’d seen a few nice homes a few miles earlier on the blacktop, but he hadn’t seen anything since the road had turned to gravel. According the directions Amber had given him, the house should be right where he was parked, but he saw nothing there.
He was on a call from a woman who’d phoned the police department to report a missing person. Apparently, the woman didn’t drive, so he was going out to see her.“Amber, there’s no house here,” he said.
His girlfriend pretty much ran the Twin Rivers Police Department. She was the receptionist, dispatcher, accountant, and computer whiz. The department wasn’t exactly high tech, but Amber had sure been working on that deficiency. Unfortunately, neither Ben nor Ray was particularly computer savvy, but slowly, they were learning to use the new tools and to see a few of the advantages.
“Hang on,” her voice said over the speaker. “Let me see where you are.”
He could hear her fingers tapping on the keyboard.
“Are you on a road?” she said.
“No, I’m hovering over a field in the Twin Rivers Police Department helicopter,” he said, his voice dripping in sarcasm.
“Well, would you please set her down because I can’t track you in the air,” she shot back brightly.
“I’m down,” Ben said as he listened to her fingers tapping away.
“Can we go back to the first question then?” Amber asked. “Are you on a road? It looks like you’re in the middle of a wooded area with no roads.”
“Well, it’s not much of a road, just one lane gravel. Let me guess. This road doesn’t exist on your map.”“No, wait. I’ve got you now. I switched views to satellite, and I can see the road. You should be able to see the house. It’s about a hundred yards from where you’re parked.”
“Amber, there’s not a house here. I’ve been doing this long enough to actually know what houses look like.”
She ignored his tone. “Are you facing east or west?”
“I’ve been winding down this road for a couple of miles, so I’m not sure.”
“Ben, I loaded a compass on your phone. Use it.”
“You’re asking me to use a compass in this day and age?”
“Yes, I can see your location, but since you aren’t moving, I can’t tell which way you’re facing. And by the way, you’re using a compass on a state-of-the-art smart phone while I monitor your position on a computer 5.3 miles away in real time. Weren’t you an Eagle Scout? You should be able to figure out how to use a compass. If you’d rather, you can always get out of the car and check to see which side of the trees the moss is growing on.”
Muttering, Ben pulled the phone out of his pocket and opened the compass.
“I’m facing west.”
“Was that so hard? Now drive until I tell you to stop,” Amber said.
Ben put the car into gear and slowly moved forward.
“In about another fifty yards or so, you should see a house on your right. That’s where you’re going.”
Ben sighed and accelerated. “I’m telling you, there’s not a damned thing—” He cut off suddenly. “Well, I’ll be damned.”
“You see it, don’t you?” Amber said. He could hear the I-told-you-so tone in her voice.
“I see a lane on the right. That must be it,” he said as he turned into it.
The narrow lane was surrounded by thick woods. About fifty yards in, the woods opened up. An old run-down house sat close to the lane, which continued on through the woods. Ben pulled into a muddy driveway beside the porch.
“I got it,” he said as he came to a stop.
“You’re welcome,” Amber said cheerfully.
Ben pushed the phone icon button on his steering wheel like Amber had shown him. When he heard the electronic beep, he said in a slow, clear voice, “Hang up on Amber.”
A bright female computer voice sounded from his car speakers. “I’m sorry. I don’t understand the command. Did you want to send a text message to Amber?”
“No, I don’t want to send her a text message. I want to hang up the damned phone!” Ben growled as he realized that he was arguing with his car.
He could hear Amber laughing over the same speakers. “The command is ‘end call.’”
Ben pushed the button again. “End call,” he said.
Amber’s laughter ended abruptly.
Feeling satisfied, Ben climbed out of the car and looked around.
The house appeared to be abandoned. The porch was sagging, and the siding hadn’t seen paint in decades. Weeds surrounding the house were three feet tall. There was a small garage at the end of the driveway beside the house. The roof had collapsed.
When Ben walked towards the front door, he was somewhat surprised to see the flicker of a television screen through one of the windows. Stepping back off the porch, he noticed a satellite dish bolted to the roof. Returning to the door, he knocked. Rubbing his hands together—it was a brisk morning—he waited for a few moments, but he didn’t hear anyone moving inside. All he could hear were faint sounds coming from the television. He walked over to the window and looked in. There was nobody in that room, but a cigarette was burning in an ashtray and a cup of coffee steamed on a side table beside a dilapidated couch. He went to the door and knocked again, louder.
“It’s Deputy Ben Walker from the Twin Rivers Police Department,” he shouted. “You called us. I’m here about your missing person.”
He waited for what seemed like a long time. He was about ready to leave when he heard somebody moving on the other side of the door.
“Ma’am, I think you called,” Ben said through the door, “about a missing person?”
A weak female voice said, “Let me see your I.D.”
Standing in front of the peep hole, he pointed to the badge on his shirt. “I’m wearing it.”
After a moment, the lock clunked, and the door opened a couple of inches. There was a chain across the opening. A red-rimmed eye peered at him from the darkness inside.
“You called us—about a missing person,” Ben repeated.
“I did?” the voice said as she stepped closer to the crack in the door.
She appeared to be an elderly woman. Her face was a roadmap of deep lines.
“Is somebody missing, ma’am?” Ben asked, wondering now if perhaps he was at the wrong house.
“My husband is missing,” the woman said finally.
“How long has he been missing?”
“He was supposed to be here this morning with . . .” She paused as the one eye Ben could see scanned him up and down. Then she added, “Groceries. He was to bring me groceries.”
“So he went shopping and never came home?”
“He doesn’t live here,” she said. “We’re separated.”
“Why don’t you open the door, ma’am. I’ll take a report,” he said. “Do I smell some coffee?”
Her eye narrowed. “I don’t know if I should.”
“I’m here to help you. I’m not going to talk to you through a crack in the door.”
She looked at him suspiciously for a long moment. Then after the door closed, he heard her working the chain. When the door swung open, he stepped into the entrance. It wasn’t much warmer in the house than it’d been on the porch.
“I have some coffee in the kitchen,” she said.
She headed down a hallway towards the back of the house. Ben followed her.
The house was as run down on the inside as it was on the outside. There was no carpet. The floors were bare wood worn smooth. Both paint and wallpaper were peeling, and the ceilings were stained with water that had leaked through the failing shingles.
Nobody should be living in this house, Ben thought as he stepped into the kitchen.
The window over the sink had been boarded over on the outside with plywood. A single bare bulb hung from the center of the ceiling. The woman poured coffee into a filthy, chipped mug and handed it to him with a shaking hand. Then she sat down at a small kitchen table.
It was the first chance Ben had to get a good look at her. She wasn’t as old as he’d first thought. In fact, he put her in her early sixties. He was reminded of an expression his father used to use to describe someone who’d aged badly—rode hard and put away wet. She was wearing a tattered pink robe. He couldn’t tell if her hair, which hadn’t been washed in a long time, was gray or blonde. The distinctive odor in the house indicated what was going on here—she was a crack addict, and judging from her appearance, a very heavy user at that.
“So your husband is missing,” Ben said.
She glanced up at him, seemingly lost for a moment. He wasn’t sure she remembered who he was.
“He didn’t bring the groceries,” she said finally.
“He doesn’t live here,” Ben said, repeating what she’d said earlier.
“Oh, no,” she said. “Not for years. But he takes care of me.”
Ben glanced around the kitchen. A calendar on the wall was ten years old.
“How long have you lived here?”
She was quiet for a long moment. Just when he thought she wasn’t going to answer or had drifted off from the conversation, she said, “Four or five years, I think.”
Ben looked down at the murky cup of coffee in his hand. “You got any cream? Maybe some sweetener?”
“What?” she said, looking at him confused.
“That’s okay. I’ll get it.”
He opened the refrigerator, which was full of food, and pulled out a gallon of milk. It was fresh, but it wouldn’t have mattered if it were sour since he had no intention of drinking the coffee. He poured a little milk into his cup. Then under the pretense of looking for sweetener, he opened a few cabinets. They were also full of food—soup, canned goods, pasta, mac and cheese, canned tuna. Ben knew exactly what the woman was running low on—and it wasn’t food.
“So your husband hasn’t been missing very long?”
She startled as if she’d forgotten he was there.
“He was supposed to bring groceries this morning. I’m out of groceries.”
He walked over to the phone hanging on the kitchen wall.
“Have you tried to call him?”
“I don’t have a phone.”
Picking up the receiver, he held it to his ear. It was dead. He should have known since it was covered in dust.
“What’s your name?”
She looked at him blankly.
“You have a name,” he said, smiling gently.
She nodded but said nothing. Then she frowned
Her silence sickened him. This woman hadn’t used her name in a long, long time. Names are important only when people interact, Ben thought.
Finally, her face relaxed. “My name is Selena,” she said. Then the frown returned briefly before she added, “Long. I’m Selena Long.”
A chill ran through him. That name rang a bell. Suddenly, he knew something was very wrong here.
“What’s your husband’s name?”
She hesitated, as if trying to decide if she should tell him. Then she said, “It’s Peter, but most people call him Pete.”
Ben had heard that name for the first time just the evening before. Peter Long was the man whom Jay Snider had threatened at Harv’s. Ben, like most lawmen, didn’t believe in coincidences.
“How long have you been married?”
She smiled just a bit, revealing yellowed teeth. “He’s fifteen years older than me. I married him when I was only sixteen back in 1985.”
Ben’s face fell. He looked at her closely as he quickly did the math. My God, he thought, could she be only forty-five years old? He’d figured her to be at least fifteen years older. Maybe her drug addled brain had it wrong, but it was likely she was right.
“We’re going to find Pete for you, Selena,” Ben said.
“Thank you! I don’t have any groceries.”
“Yes, I know. I’m going to my car to call this into the police station so they can start looking for him. Then I’ll come back. I’ll have some questions you’ll need to answer for the report.”
* * *
“Amber, you need to call Ray right now,” Ben said. “He needs to get out here. And send the paramedics—she’s in need of medical attention.”
“Okay, hold on,” Amber said as she left him on hold while she made the calls.
Ben could see Selena’s pale face in the window. There was something about her that seemed familiar. He’d think of it later.
“They’re on their way,” Amber said suddenly. “What’s going on, Ben?”
“I think she’s been a prisoner out here for a long time—at least ten years. This house should be condemned. She’s drug addicted, and her husband was supposed to bring the drugs she needs, but he didn’t show up. She’s going to be in crisis very soon. We need to find that husband and find out what’s been going on. His name is Peter Long.”
“Does she have a phone number for him?”
“I didn’t ask her. She doesn’t have a phone,” Ben said.
There was a long pause on the other end.
“Amber? You still there?”
“Ben, if she doesn’t have a phone, then how did she call us?”
Suddenly, Ben felt like the dumbest man on earth. “Well, maybe I ought to go find out.”
“Call if you need me,” Amber said.
Ben climbed out of his car. He’d taken a few steps towards the house when he heard a loud bang coming from the woods further up the lane—the distinctive bang of somebody slamming a truck tailgate closed. He walked to the end of the driveway and looked up the lane, but he couldn’t see very far because it travelled up a steep hill. Momentarily, he thought about waiting for Ray but decided instead to check the noise out himself. Perhaps he’d already located the missing husband, Peter Long.
Ben walked about fifty yards up the narrow lane to the top of the hill. From there, he could see an old 1970s large red metal machine shed—the kind commonly used to store farm equipment, such as tractors, combines, and cultivators. It looked as if the shed hadn’t been used in years. The large white sliding doors were streaked with rust. But the narrow lane was rutted with fresh wheel tracks. Somebody had been up and down that old lane with great regularity.
Ben didn’t see any vehicles, but he knew what he’d heard. The lane swung to the right around the machine shed. There was most likely another set of double sliding doors on the other side. The vehicle he’d heard was probably parked on the back side of the shed. Ben ducked into the woods as he approached, just in case somebody was watching. As he neared the shed, he crouched to get a better look. There was a steel entry door on the end, which appeared to be open a crack.
Deciding to risk a quick look, Ben walked from the edge of the woods across the open area to the door. He paused to look around. Though the door was open a little bit, he neither saw nor heard anybody. Perhaps the truck had left. Perhaps the lane continued on through the woods to another way out.
When Ben started to push the door open, he noticed two things that should’ve stopped him. One, there were lights on inside—lights shining brightly through the crack in the door. Two, there was no knob on the heavy steel security door. The only way to open that door, Ben figured, was to punch in a code on a keypad that was probably inside the metal box on the right.
Now Ben was sure somebody was inside. A padlock lay on top of the metal box that covered the panel beneath. Carefully, he opened the cover to check out the security panel. What he saw inside wasn’t at all what he expected. It was a security panel, without a doubt, but not some 1970s burglar alarm that might be found on an old shed to protect combines and planters and ATV’s from thieves. This state-of-the-art security panel was something out of a James Bond movie—a high-tech biometric thumb scanner. If a thumbprint matched an authorized person, the door opened. If it didn’t, an alarm would probably sound.
But Ben didn’t need to worry about that because the door was already open. He hesitated, knowing he should wait for Ray, but then curiosity overrode his common sense. Pushing the door a bit wider, he stepped into the machine shed—and gasped. Sitting on tables made of 2x4s and chicken wire were rows and rows and rows of marijuana plants, growing under bright fluorescent lights.
“Holy crap,” Ben said out loud.
Instantly, he realized just how far a voice can echo inside the interior of a huge machine shed. A surprised face suddenly popped up over the top of a table about seventy feet down one of the rows. The look on the man’s face was one of utter surprise—a look that mirrored the one on Ben’s face. Just as quickly as the face appeared, it vanished. Seconds later, the man appeared in an aisle, a gun in his hand.
Ben barely had a chance to dive down before three rounds hit the steel door where his head had been seconds before. As quickly as the man had popped up, he was gone again. Ben was sitting on the ground, leaning against the door, trying to come up with a plan. Slowly, he rose from the floor and peeked over the top of a nearby plant. Another head at the far end of the building popped up.
Crap, he thought. There are two of them.
Ben slid down the door to the ground again. Then he finally pulled his Glock, chiding himself for not having it drawn when he’d entered the building. As he sat there, considering his options, he suddenly realized just how vulnerable he was. The danger wasn’t just from over the tops of the tables. It was from below as well.
Quickly, he rose to his feet, took a couple steps, and lunged towards the top of the first row of tables closest to him. Another burst of gunfire smashed into the steel door where his legs had been seconds before. The perp had shot at him from under the tables, just as Ben had realized the danger.
Ben knew he was in real trouble. He wasn’t safe exposed on top of the tables, and he certainly was no safer below them on the ground. Both perps knew exactly where he was, so there was no sense in hiding anymore. He reached for his radio, realizing with sickening clarity that Amber might be the last person to hear his voice.
“Shots fired. Officer in distress. Requesting immediate back-up.”
“Ben?” Amber said in his earpiece.
Ben was on his feet. There was only one way out of the situation he was in, and it wasn’t on the floor or back through the door. Instead, he bolted down the tops of the flimsy tables towards the spot where he’d last seen the closest perp. As he leaped across the aisle between one row of tables and the next, he saw the second perp turn tail and run through a crack between the sliding doors.
One down and one to go, Ben thought. If there are only two.
It was all adrenaline as he leaped across another aisle and almost fell as the planters on top of the table nearly tripped him. With his every step, the poorly made tables wobbled and groaned under his weight, threatening to collapse. As he ran closer to the last known position of the man who’d shot at him, he thought there were only three more aisles to jump over before he was on top of the guy.
But he was wrong. When he leaped across another aisle and landed heavily on the next table, he heard a sharp crack as the legs began to fail. At the same time, the gunman rose just six feet away—his gun leveled at Ben. Ben pushed off from the edge and leaped towards the man. It was an act of pure desperation.
Then every detail of the action played out in slow motion—the muzzle flash from the gun, the searing pain under his arm, the crashing of their bodies into a table as shards of orange pottery, leafy plants, and flimsy 2x4 tables covered in chicken wire exploded around them. When they hit the ground, Ben wrestled his way on top. Then with his elbow, he gave the perp a savage blow to the chin—a blow so hard Ben was sure he’d killed him.
Shakily, Ben rose and stood over the lifeless body of the man who’d first tried to take his head off and then seconds later his legs. As he stared down, Ben noticed blood dripping onto the man’s dirty flannel shirt—blood flowing freely down his arm and off his fingertips.
That should hurt, he thought.
But it didn’t.
It will, he thought.
Then he heard a motor start. He bolted towards the gap between the large sliding doors. Outside, a red Dodge Ram was peeling out, throwing mud in all directions. From ten feet away, Ben leveled his Glock with shaking hands and fired multiple rounds at the two back tires. He hit one and missed the other. He fired again, taking out the other tire just as the Glock clicked empty. The back of the truck sank down on the two flat tires. As the driver revved the motor, the metal rims shredded the rubber tires in the soft muddy lane.
Ben struggled to load another clip, but with only one good arm, he didn’t have time. The driver’s door opened. The second perp stepped out, reached inside his jacket, and pulled a gun out of his shoulder holster. Ben’s heart pounded as his world was going fuzzy at the edges.
Suddenly, a large form stepped around the side the machine shed close to the stalled truck. Ben heard the sound a fist makes when it solidly connects with a jaw. The man spun around, bounced off the side of the truck, and fell to the ground.
Ray reached down, picked up the gun, and tossed it away. Then grinning and shaking his head, he put a knee in the man’s back. Ben fell to his knees. Ray glanced at him as he snapped one of the cuffs securely around the perp’s wrist. The edges of Ben’s vision were very gray now, and Ray’s voice was distorted—like a record played at the wrong speed—but Ben heard the words, “You dumbass.” Then, before he toppled over, Ben saw the color drain out of Ray’s face.
“Oh, my God! You’re hit.”
Seconds later, Ray yelled into his radio, “Officer down, officer down, officer down!”
As Ben slipped into unconsciousness, he heard Ray’s voice again. “Ben? Ben? I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were wounded. I was only kidding. Ben? Ben?”