Roger Stelljes. Smashwords Edition

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How are they going to breathe?”

Channel 12 broke into its early afternoon soap opera for a special report. The tanned, toothy, and well-coiffed anchor Paul Phillips walked the lead in.

We’re cutting into our regular programming to bring you breaking news about the kidnappings of Carrie Flanagan, daughter of St. Paul Police Chief Charlie Flanagan, and Shannon Hisle, daughter of prominent St. Paul attorney Lyman Hisle. Right now we’re going to Channel 12’s Heather Foxx in St. Paul, who’s been tracking this story for us. Heather.”

Paul, we’re at the St. Paul Police Department headquarters, where the FBI and police have just arrived with a laptop computer found under the stands in Griffin Stadium at St. Paul Central High School,” Heather said perfectly to the camera. She loved doing this on the fly, the rush of excitement, pulling it off without a hitch. Reports like this got you a network or cable gig, she thought, when you were quick on your feet, looking good, totally under control, regardless of the adrenaline pumping through your veins. “And, in another Channel 12 exclusive, we’ve learned that the police have received a ransom demand for the two girls.”

Do we know what the ransom demand is, Heather?” Phillips piped in.

At this point, no, Paul,” Heather answered. “We’ve been unable to learn the amount.”

Did the FBI and police learn of the ransom demand from the laptop, Heather?”

No, Paul. The ransom demand was received by phone. At that time the authorities were apparently directed to the laptop at Central High.” “Do we know what is on the laptop?”

No, we don’t. It is my understanding that the police were bringing it back here to analyze it.”

Heather,” Phillips asked, tacking in a different direction. “What about the police and FBI takedown in Northfield that you reported earlier? Any further developments?”

The police have released Drew Wiskowski, although his son Steve is now in custody. However, it appears that neither of them are involved in the kidnappings of Shannon Hisle and Carrie Flanagan,” Foxx answered.

Well,” the anchor smiled, showing unnaturally white teeth, “it has indeed been a busy day for the FBI and police.”

Indeed it has, Paul,” Heather replied seriously. “They continue to ask for the public’s help, particularly with regard to the vans and the descriptions we have of the kidnappers.” The pretty reporter provided the now-familiar general description of large men, likely dark hair, operating in delivery or panel vans common throughout town. Foxx finished by providing the phone numbers to contact the police and FBI and then signed off.

Reporting from the St. Paul Police Department, this is Heather Foxx, Channel 12 News.” She held the pose for a moment and then her cameraman waved her off.

Nice report,” he said.

Thanks, but cripes it’s hot,” she replied, wiping a film of perspiration off her forehead.

A Channel Six van pulled up, and reporter Scott Crossman climbed out of the van in a navy blue, button-down collar shirt and blue tie. His dress shirt was sticking to his body, and sweat rings showed around his pits and collar. He wasn’t going on camera any time soon.

Christ, Heather, who’s your fucking source for this stuff?” Crossman was pissed, but there was admiration in his voice.

* * * * *

The detectives and agents filed into the conference room and set the laptop on the conference table. The chief and Lyman wanted in, but Burton, with the help of Peters and Riley convinced them to wait outside while the group took the first look. The mayor, for reasons Mac couldn’t quite figure out, joined them. An FBI tech with rubber gloves and a lab coat flipped the top open to the laptop. He spent the next few minutes checking the laptop keys for prints. Not surprisingly, there were none. While the techs worked, the rest watched Heather Foxx’s report.

She has a good source,” Burton said.

She usually does. She bats her eyes or loosens a button or two on that blouse of hers, and some puppy-eyed cop spills the beans,” was Mac’s wry reply.

Speakin’ from experience, Detective?” the mayor asked, his tone just a little accusatory.

If that ain’t the pot calling the kettle black,” Mac replied, not looking up from the laptop. He heard the mayor snort behind him.

You will live dangerously,” Lich warned in a quiet, albeit amused voice as he leaned over Mac’s shoulder.

So what do we really have here?” the FBI tech said as he powered up the computer. The laptop was a Compaq and looked new.

Can we track where the laptop came from?” Riley asked, looking at Mac.

I should think so,” Mac replied, and then looked at the FBI tech, a little edge in his voice. “Can you?”

Sure, we just need to take this serial number,” the agent answered, pointing underneath the computer, “and get with Compaq.” He jotted down the serial number and gave it to another agent. “It’ll take a little time to track it down,” he said to the group at large.

Pray they bought it with a credit card,” Riley replied.

I doubt we’ll be that lucky.” Mac replied.

Might get something,” Riley said pointedly. “We gotta have hope,” he added through clenched teeth, staring a hole through Mac.

Mac read the sign: watch the negativity and stay cool. The chief was in the hallway, and he didn’t need to see his boys with their heads down. Sooner or later, the kidnappers would make a mistake and then the boys would capitalize, but only if they kept their minds open to the possibility. Mac exhaled, nodded lightly, and spoke more calmly.

We might, we might. If we can figure out when the laptop was bought and where,” he added. “Maybe we can get something. They wouldn’t pay with a credit card, or at least one in their real names or names we could trace. But….”

But what?” Riles asked.

If they bought it at a Best Buy, Target, Costco, Wal-Mart, someplace like that,” Mac added, “we could figure out which register it was bought at and what time. Maybe we could get surveillance camera footage from the checkout.”

Think we can catch one of the men on the surveillance video?” Duffy asked.

Or the woman,” Lich added. “Let’s not forget about her.”

Depends. They might have had someone purchase it for them. But let’s check and see. Do you guys have access to that facial-recognition software?” Mac asked.

If need be,” a member of Burton’s crew answered.

Get on that,” Burton said, “Let’s track that computer down.”

So what’s on the computer?” Lich asked, pushing to get back on task.

Let’s take a look,” the FBI tech replied. He powered up the laptop, waiting for the screen to come to life. When it did, there was a video icon on the screen. The tech double clicked on the icon, and a video program opened up.

The video began soundlessly with a view out the windshield of a vehicle, either a truck or a van, driving down a rough dirt road with knee-high grass and weeds between the tire tracks. There was taller grass, bushes, and scraggly trees in the background. The picture vibrated as the vehicle jostled into potholes or rocks.

The time in upper right corner showed 9:09 PM, the date July 2, the night before. It was dusk.

After a minute of elapsed time, the dirt road wound its way toward a straight line of tall trees. The road then turned left to run parallel with the thick tree line. The area was vacant with no activity.

At 9:15 by the video clock, the vehicle abruptly turned right onto an overgrown path, its long grass matted down by what must have been only a couple of previous trips. The vehicle pulled up to a tree with orange tape tied around its massive trunk.

The video went dark, and someone groaned in dismay.

The picture came back to life ten seconds later, the time now reading 9:23.

Lying motionless on the floor of the van was Carrie Flanagan on the left and Shannon Hisle on the right. Shovels and PVC piping surrounded them. Black ties bound the girls’ wrists and ankles. Both were blindfolded and gagged. They did not appear harmed or beaten, simply sweaty and disheveled. Hisle, still dressed in her café golf shirt and khaki shorts, looked pale. Flanagan still wore her jean shorts and a smudged white tank top.

A too-familiar voice finally broke the deathly quiet of the conference room.

The girls are alive,” it said. The camera zoomed in on Flanagan and then Hisle for long enough to show that the girls’ chests were moving. “They have been drugged. They will probably awaken around the time you are watching this video.”

Mac looked at his watch: 1:22 PM.

Now let’s go see where they will wake up,” the voice continued, and the camera panned to the right to a black-clad man wearing gloves and a ski mask. He pulled a piece of PVC piping out from the right side of the van. The camera followed him as he turned his back on the camera and walked away, off to the right of the screen.

The video went dark.

It came alive again, the time now 9:47 PM.

This is where the girls will be when they wake up.” The girls were lying motionless in a sturdy reinforced plywood box, side-by-side, their arms and feet no longer bound.

What’s that box, maybe two feet high, four across, and six feet long?” Mac asked quietly.

Looks about right,” Burton answered softly.

The camera zoomed, showing what looked like a Dictaphone and a flashlight lying between the girls.

You’ll note the absence of food and water,” the voice said, as if reading everyone’s mind.

Ah shit,” Rock uttered quietly.

Mother fuckers,” Mac muttered, knowing where this was going.

The camera pulled back to show the box lying in a large hole, four to five feet deep. Portable lights provided just enough illumination to film, but not enough to identify the location. The video showed the arms of two men laying a piece of reinforced plywood over the box, then using electric screwdrivers to set it in place. There was no hole in the top for ventilation.

How are they going to breathe?” Rock asked.

The PVC piping,” Mac answered as he pointed to the lower right side of the screen. “If you look, there are holes on the right side of the box.”

The video went dark.

It came back to life, five minutes later, now 10:01 PM.

As Mac had suggested, one of the men was securing the PVC piping to the right side of the wood box. The camera pulled straight back to show that the pipes were four to five feet long, and would probably stick just above ground once the dirt was shoveled back into the hole. The voice came back, briefly.

The girls have two pipes for air to breathe.”

The video once again went dark.

Ten seconds later, it came back to life, 10:27 PM.

The last of the dirt was being shoveled into the hole. The pipe stood inches above the ground. The camera pulled back to show that the area was a small clearing in the midst of thick woods. Logic dictated it couldn’t be far from the edge of the tree line, but there was no way to tell. The voice came back one last time.

Mr. Hisle, I bet you’re wondering about your daughter’s diabetes. That type 1 is nasty stuff. Your daughter will just have to hang on. So if you and the chief want the girls back alive, you follow our next set of instructions to the letter.”

The video went dead.

The room was silent for a minute.

Mother fuckers,” Rock railed, pounding the table, rattling the laptop, coffee cups, and water bottles. He wasn’t alone – several officers found something to hit, or at least some space to pace, to try to regain their composure. But Mac, Riles, and Burton stood still, deep in thought. Burton had his arms crossed, stroking his chin with his right hand. Mac grabbed a notepad and scribbled his thoughts down, working the gum in his mouth hard. Riles took a look over Mac’s shoulder and nodded.

We gotta… gotta… find these guys,” Lich ground out, running his hand over his bald head. “We don’t have much time.”

We need to go over this video with a fine tooth comb, find anything and everything,” Mac said. “I know a guy. We need to get this to….”

We’ve got that covered,” Burton interrupted. “This is the FBI’s bailiwick. Technology is our deal.”

Yeah, but wait a minute…” Mac persisted. “I know a guy….”

Burton steam rolled him and took control of the room.

Duffy,” he said, pointing to the laptop, “let’s get our video people on this, every second of that video. I want them going over it, picking it apart, find something that we can use.”

I’ll make it happen,” Duffy answered.

Wait,” Mac pleaded, but Riley grabbed his elbow.

Keep your powder dry for now and let Burton do this thing,” Riles whispered into his ear, “this is the FBI’s show. Let them play it out.” Riley gave him a look that recommended patience.

We don’t have the luxury of time,” Mac retorted under his breath.

See what Burton does,” Riley replied, equally quiet. “Let’s see if he’s as good as they say he is.”

And thinks he is,” Mac replied, with just a touch of skepticism, Riley returned a knowing smirk. “I like the guy,” Mac added in a whisper, “but I only see him reacting to events. We need to push this thing.”

We need to stay at the table. The mayor’s here for a reason. He’s just waiting for us to fall out of line.”

What about that pipe for air from the…” Lich asked the room, struggling for what to call it.

Grave. It’s a fucking grave,” Mac said, finishing the thought out loud, drawing looks from the room. “And that’s how they want us, the chief, Lyman, all of us to think of it. If we don’t find these guys, that’s where those girls will die.”

They’re not going to die,” Burton replied with fervor. “We’re going to find them.”

How?” Rock asked.

First,” Burton answered, “We’re going over that videotape. If there is something there, we’ll find it. Something in the van, an identifying characteristic or mark on one of the kidnappers, I’ll bet that there’s something there. The road and land they’re on, we need to see if there’s any identifying landmarks or features on it. We just have to break it down and look.”

Mac joined in.

We need to, at a minimum, get this out to local sheriffs and chiefs within an hour of the cities. The girls are buried somewhere rural, but they can’t be that far from town. They need to be somewhat close, so maybe, just maybe, some county mountie will recognize something.”

Why don’t you think they’re farther away?” Riles asked.

They want isolation for sure, they need to have it to bury the girls and not draw any attention with those lights. That takes time and privacy. But they can’t be working two or three hours away. That’s not convenient enough. They’d want to stay close,” Mac shook his head. “They’re not up in Brainerd and then driving two, three hours down here to plant laptop computers under football bleachers. They’re centered somewhere around here and then driving from the Twin Cities, or somewhere nearby, up to Clearwater or down to Ellsworth. They’re not that far away.”

McRyan, the last phone call was from Duluth,” Duffy noted. “They made it from a city park. They could be prowling around up there. That creates an awfully wide net.”

Fine then. Let’s send the thing out to the whole state as well as western Wisconsin,” Mac said. “But I doubt they have the girls up in Duluth or any place that far from the Twin Cities. They’re in closer somewhere.”

Then why go to Duluth?” Duffy pressed.

Because now they’re not on as tight of a timeline. They’re not calling us until 6:00 PM tomorrow night. So they have time to go a little farther away, gain that extra layer of safety. And at the same time, they get the chance to make us think they’re that far away. They want us expending resources casting that wide of a net, spreading ourselves that thin. But I just don’t think they’re that far away. They’re closer than that. They have to be.”

Still an awfully big area… essentially the fifteen-county area,” Lich said, looking at the map pinned to the bulletin board. “And we don’t know this for sure.”

No, we don’t,” Mac replied. “But it feels right, makes sense, and gives us something to work with, a lot of eyes to give us a look. Who knows? Maybe some sheriff’s deputy, forest ranger, or cop gets a look at that video and says, ‘hey six years ago I responded to an emergency call down that road.’”

I don’t know,” Duffy said, with apprehension in his voice. “What if this thing leaks? I mean, this is pretty unsettling video. It’ll create a media firestorm if it gets out. I’d rather control this.” Mac got the feeling that FBI control of the investigation was of more concern to him than the girls or the kidnappers.

Agreed,” the mayor added.

Are you two fucking kidding me?” Mac growled. “Media firestorm’s worth it if someone finds that spot.”

I don’t want to create a panic, Detective,” the mayor asserted. “We put this video out there, there’s a chance we’ll create hysteria. Hell we’ve got calls coming in by the dozens from people worried that every van that drives by carries a kidnapper.”

So what? You don’t want help from citizens?”

No, I do,” the mayor answered. “But I got calls today where we’ve got three different panel vans stopped along Grand Avenue by you guys because somebody called in a tip with two or three big men in a van.”

Mac looked incredulous. “Heaven forbid we disrupt traffic on Grand Avenue trying to find these guys. “My gosh,” he mocked, “a voter might call City Hall to complain and you might have to do some work.”

An agitated Duffy interceded. “All the mayor is saying, Detective, is that people are on edge and panicky. If this gets out, that only adds to it. We don’t want a panic. Hell, I’ve heard people on the radio talking about the need to carry a gun to defend themselves.”

Great, just great. That’s all we need,” the mayor complained, “someone to up and shoot some family guy driving along in a van because it matches the descriptions all over the news.”

Mac wouldn’t have it.

Jesus Christ, whose side are you two on?”

Hey,” Duffy yelled.

I resent the implication…” the mayor started.

Mac thundered on.

I could give a flying fuck about your, frankly, ridiculous concerns,” Mac said pointing at Duffy and then to the mayor, “or how inconvenient its release could be politically.” The biggest crime story in the country was taking place in St. Paul, and Mac suspected the mayor didn’t like the glare.

Now just a minute…” the mayor started.

All I care about – all anyone in this room should care about – is finding those girls,” Mac shouted, slamming his fist on the conference table. “Everything else, everything, politics, who’s running this investigation, whose backside might be exposed, all of that shit is secondary. For Christ sake, I’m only talking about releasing the video to law enforcement, not to the general public. Although, the more I think about it, the more I think we ought to do that as well. By getting this out, we increase our odds of finding the girls. The risk is worth the reward.”

You’d like to release it to the whole public?” the mayor asked, stunned.

Mac, seeming equally stunned, replied, “Hell yes. At least the first part, where they’re driving on the road, path, through the field, sure you bet. Have the media run it every half hour. Who knows what we’ll find. There’s nothing problematic in that. The rest of it, we hold back and only have law enforcement review it.”

Christ, we’ll have calls coming in by the truck load and a huge panic. Especially if the whole video gets out,” the mayor pressed. “And I bet it will.”

Since when does the mayor’s office tell us how to investigate?” Mac asked, up and out of his chair, pointing while Rock reached for his arm to pull him back. “It’s fucking fundamental to do this. We need to get as many eyes on this as possible, not as few. This is not something to cover up. It’s the difference between police work and politics.”

That’s enough,” the mayor bellowed. “If you can’t keep your cool, Detective, you can go grab a barstool at that pub of yours.”

Got all the answers don’t ya,” Duffy added derisively.

Mac kicked a chair out of the way and moved toward Duffy, his fists balled, but Lich and Rock jumped in front of him and pushed him back to his chair.

You’re no good to the chief if you’re not in this room,” Lich said quietly through clenched teeth. “So dial it the hell back.”

Riles jumped in, casual.

I wouldn’t worry about it, Mayor,” the veteran detective said, shaking his head. “We’re talking about the chief’s daughter. There isn’t a cop out there who would compromise this and release the whole video. McRyan’s right, we should get the whole thing to other law enforcement agencies and the front end out to the public.”

The mayor looked at Duffy, who then looked over to Burton, who’d remained passive through the whole blow up, taking it all in.

What do you think?” Duffy asked Burton.

Like I said,” Riles added one last time, staring straight at Burton, “I don’t think it’ll be a problem.”

Burton stood quietly for a moment, scratching his chin with his right index finger. After a moment, he nodded and spoke.

I think McRyan is right. We should get the video out. It can only help. And we get it out to both the public and law enforcement. Mac, one part that maybe I disagree with is, does law enforcement need to see the part where the girls are going into the ground? What can other cops tell us about that?”

Mac shrugged, “Probably not much.”

I think that’s right,” Burton answered. “We get the first part out to the public and police and see if anyone recognizes the road, area, or any landmarks.”

Thanks,” Riley said. Mac nodded his approval from his chair, and tension drained from the rest of the boys.

I’ll get it started,” Peters said, and then he turned to another. “Paddy, get a copy and then let’s get this e-mailed to all the police and sheriff’s departments. I’ll start making some calls.”

Done,” Paddy said.

What else?” Riles asked.

I gotta work on Plan B,” Burton answered.

Which is what?”

Talk to Flanagan and Hisle. We have to let them know what’s going on and prepare the ransom,” Burton answered. “If we don’t find these guys, we’re going to have to make a money drop.”

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