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“That’s worth a look then.”
The video hit the men hard, with Hisle’s bottom lip trembling when he saw Shannon lying in the box just before the cover was put on. The chief’s eyes closed and his head dropped when the video showed the box buried, with only their air pipes showing.
After watching the video, both men had hard questions for Burton. He had few answers.
“We have to get the ransom ready.”
“Does that mean the investigation is over?” the chief asked. “That we’re going to sit around and wait for the next call?”
“No. We’re not stopping.” Burton explained releasing parts of the video to law enforcement and the public. “We may get a break with the video’s release, and we’re still working through files and might catch a break there as well. We’re not stopping. But….”
“It is what it is,” the chief said.
“Chief, we need to be ready.”
Before the chief left with Burton, he pulled his boys aside. He was gaunt and ghost-white, as if his summer tan had faded in less than one day’s time. Dark circles had formed under his eyes, and salt and pepper stubble aged his face. His body seemed frail, looking like a listing coat rack for his clothes. But the intensity was there in his eyes, and his deep gravelly voice was commanding as always.
“I’ve heard the story from the FBI, but not from my people. Tell me, no bullshit.”
Mac didn’t bullshit him. “The FBI isn’t lying. We’re nowhere.”
Riley added details, but the result was the same. The chief shook his head and pinched the bridge of his nose as he looked down to the floor. “I can’t lose my baby girl,” their leader said quietly. He looked each of his boys in the eye. “You need to find her. I don’t care what it takes or what you have to do. You find her.” He pushed his hand through his disheveled white hair and slowly walked out of the room.
“Ideas?” Riles said into the silence.
Lich said what they were all thinking: “We need a break.”
“And,” Rock growled, “The bastards haven’t given us one yet.”
“Look,” Mac said emphatically, “We, meaning us, need to make something happen instead of waiting around. Burton’s working the ransom angle now. That gives us some room to work our own gig outside of what the FBI’s running.”
“The mayor won’t like that,” Lich said in a warning tone.
“Burton’s been pretty decent. I don’t like sticking a knife in his back,” Rock added.
“Fuck the mayor,” Mac railed. “I’m done waiting for that spineless gasbag. As for Burton, I have no desire to cut him out. If something turns up, we can go to Burton and bring him in.”
“Agreed,” Riles said. “But Mac, you can’t be talking to the mayor that way, no matter how big a political half-wit he is. You’ll be working third shift in the jail before you know it.”
Mac didn’t particularly care at the moment, but knew Riles was right. “I hear ya,” he said, sighing, and then added, “but like I said, with the G-men working the ransom and the mayor licking Burton’s boots, maybe we start making some moves of our own.”
“What moves? How? Where? With what?” Lich said, tearing the top off a pack of Big Red gum. “You have to have a place to start.”
“Then let’s start with the video,” Mac answered. “I’ll go through that with Dick.” He nodded at Riley. “You and Rock check on the laptop, where was it bought. Someone was supposed to be looking into it, but with all the commotion, who knows? Those are the things we can look at now. After that, the four of us should get out of here for a bit. If we’re going to start operating, I don’t want to discuss it around here.” Everyone nodded in agreement, and Riley and Rockford left to run the numbers on the laptop left by the kidnappers.
Mac went back into the conference room and sat down with a department-issued laptop and watched the video again. Lich stood to one side and Paddy was on the other. Mac played the video back and forth, freezing and rewinding in the hopes of picking something, anything, out. He paid particular attention to the view out the front of the vehicle, searching for any buildings, a chimney, snowmobile signs, anything that might give them a lead on the girl’s location.
St. Paul cops and FBI agents joined them, quietly watching, praying, willing a clue out of the video. All they wanted was a little shred to give them a lead, something to track, a way to find the girls. After a half hour of running it to the end several times, Mac sat back in his chair, sighed, and asked, “Anyone recognize anything? See anything? Have any ideas?” Silence or barely audible no’s were all he heard. All he’d accomplished was to burn the video into the hard drive of his brain.
As everyone started to drift away, Mac pulled out his cell phone, walked to a corner of the room and, with his back to everyone, dialed Jupiter. Jupiter Jones was a friend from his university days. Named after the main character from the children’s Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators series, Jupiter was a computer and video genius. He had already made one fortune and was working on another with a computer video business. He occasionally worked freelance with the department, as he had with Mac’s big case last winter, and also with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. He answered on the first ring.
“It’s Mac. I need your help, and I need it now.”
“Anything for you and the chief, you know that.”
“We have a video I need you to look at. I’m going to have my nephew, a uniform cop named Shawn McRyan, drop it off. I need you to break this thing down and see if you can wring anything out of it that we can use to identify these guys. Even the tiniest thing would help.” Mac explained what he was looking for and how fast he needed it. “We got shit and we’re on a tight clock.”
“Less than thirty hours tight.”
Jupe whistled on the other end. “I’ll be at my house in twenty minutes.”
“Thanks Jupe.” Mac flipped his cell phone closed. He grabbed a spare DVD and copied the video to it. He took it out and waved Shawn over, writing down an address. “This goes to Jupiter Jones and nobody else – and I mean nobody else. Understand?”
“It’s done,” Shawn answered. He grabbed his partner and left the conference room.
Mac stood up and stretched, realizing that he’d been paying such close attention to the video that he hadn’t noticed just how many men were milling around the room, doing nothing. With the call from the kidnappers about the ransom and video, it was as if the investigation had come to a standstill. Detectives and bureau agents continued to work through Hisle and the chief’s files down the hall, but nothing was coming of it. A few people were being kept under surveillance, but based on what he’d heard about them, they were nothing more than dead ends and easy overtime. Burton was working on the ransom, but nobody was in charge of the room. Everyone was just sitting around, waiting for the next call from the kidnappers. Riley and Rock walked back in.
“We’ve tracked the computer down to a Best Buy in Milwaukee,” Riles said. “It was purchased a month ago, with cash.”
“What a surprise,” Lich answered with disgust.
“But maybe we get something off the surveillance camera,” Mac rejoined hopefully. “We just need a piece, a good picture, something to work off. All we need is a solid I.D. and we’d be off and running.”
“We’ll see,” Riles said. “The FBI field office sent someone over there to see if there is any surveillance video, anything we might be able to use. If there’s anything they’ll send it right up.”
“Let’s get out of here,” Mac said quietly. “There are way too many people hanging around, plus the mayor and Duffy, and I don’t trust either of them right about now. How about a booth at Lucy’s?”
* * * * *
Smith smiled and thought of his brief few hours on the river. It felt great. In another week he would be on a boat somewhere, enjoying the sun, cracking open a beer, perhaps a Red Stripe, with Monica lounging on a chair next to him. The fifteen years of prison would seem so far away at that point. Money, a boat, some water, revenge against Flanagan, it couldn’t get any better. After a minute, he put those pleasant thoughts away. There was much work left to be done, and he needed to keep his head in the game.
Dean, riding in the passenger seat, switched the radio station over to the talk station. It was wall-to-wall kidnapping coverage. The mantra continued – the authorities didn’t have any leads.
“The FBI and police have to feel like the clock is ticking down on this thing now,” Dean said, taking a sip from a Coke. He pulled his baseball cap down low over his sunglasses-covered eyes and pulled his gloves on tight.
“Which is what we want,” Smith replied, doing the same. The lead kidnapper turned left onto the safe house’s street. He pulled past the driveway, stopped, and then began to back the van into the driveway while Dean hit the opener.
* * * * *
Pat Hall shifted in his bed, the large cast on his broken left femur making it difficult for him to get comfortable. An electrician, he had broken the leg five days ago on a job site, falling off a ladder while running wire. Now he was out on workers’ comp and forced to spend the day watching really bad TV. No wonder people worked during the day, rather than being subjected to sappy soap operas, Dr. this and Dr. that, nine versions of People’s Court with Judge Judy, Rudy, or Hootie. Even the sports on during the day were brutal things like paintball and Jet Ski racing. While both would be fun to do, they were about as much fun to watch as undergoing a root canal without Novocain.
On top of all that, the air conditioning in his house was out. He was totally immobilized, watching awful TV, in insufferable July heat. He had sweated through his white muscle T-shirt, and beads of sweat were interspersed with the thin strands of seaweed that were all that remained on his once-full head of brown hair. A hard-working fan in the corner merely circulated the heat and humidity. Thankfully, he was on the main level of his house, and his bedroom was on the north side, under a canopy of elm trees, which kept his room just a smidge cooler. A little breeze to ruffle the curtains of the window would be nice, but there hadn’t been one all day.
The one saving grace was the lovely Heather Foxx. Hall made sure the TV was never far from Channel 12. A remote was a beautiful thing. His TV was telling him now that a Channel 12 Newsbreak was on the way.
* * * * *
“This is Paul Phillips with a Channel 12 Newsbreak. With the latest on the St. Paul kidnappings, we go to Heather Foxx at the St. Paul Department of Public Safety. Heather, what’s the latest?”
“Paul, as we learned earlier, the FBI and police have received a ransom demand, although we don’t yet have the amount.”
“What about the laptop recovered earlier?”
“It contained a video. The police have released a portion of that video, Paul, which we’ll play now.” Foxx waited for the video to start. “What you’re seeing is a portion of the footage the kidnappers left on the laptop. As you can see, it shows a vehicle driving through an isolated rural area. The police are asking all citizens to review the footage and contact the authorities at the number on the screen if they recognize anything about the area the kidnappers are driving through.”
When the video finished, Phillips jumped back in.
“We will be playing this video every half-hour. Additionally, we will also have it available shortly on the Channel 12 web site.”
“The police are continuing to man the tip line, Paul,” Heather reported. “In addition to reviewing this video footage, the authorities are urging people to be on the lookout for at least three men, using vans, and again, not minivans but larger vans; panel or cargo-style vans.”
* * * * *
Hall adjusted again and as he did he looked out his window to the left as the van backed into the rental house across the street. The house had been vacant for the past six months with a For Rent sign in the front yard. The sign disappeared a few weeks ago, maybe longer, Hall thought. He just noticed it missing one day when he came home from work. He’d seen very little activity at the house, other than vans of different colors coming and going for the last couple of days. It was, the more he thought about it, kind of odd behavior.
Never one to cause trouble, Hall was not the type to call in on his neighbors. But the behavior was just off enough that it was worth a phone call. If nothing else, it would provide a potentially entertaining diversion from the heat and boredom.
* * * * *
Lucy’s was a sandwich joint located in the Payne and Arcade area on St. Paul’s working-class east side. A true hole-in-the-wall, the restaurant was a welcome change from the sterile chain sandwich places going in all over town. At Lucy’s, if you were smart, you ordered the Juicy Lucy, which was a hot hoagie sandwich piled high with a mountain of pastrami, completely smothered in melted American cheese, and served on a fresh-baked bun. The sandwich came with homemade pickles and kettle chips so greasy the sheikhs from OPEC were seeking drilling rights. The whole concoction was served on an oversized red-and-white checkered tray.
Lucy was short for Lucius, a robust black man who’d eaten a few too many of his own sandwiches. Big Lucius worked the register and made the occasional sandwich if his son working the back got too busy. Lucius bullshitted Mac, who twirled a toothpick from side to side in his mouth, awaiting his sandwich order.
Mac looked at his watch while Lucius chewed the fat. It was 4:15 PM. The day was ticking away far too fast.
“You and the boys in a hurry there, Mac?” Lucius asked. Lich, Riley, and Rock were in a booth in the back of the sandwich shop, out of public view.
“Not so much that, Lucius. It’s just this case, the time is tickin’ away.”
“Well, let me check on that food for you boys,” Lucius said and then turned to yell at his son in the back. “Where the hell are those Juicy Lucys, boy?”
As Mac waited for his order, he felt a light tap on his back. He turned to find Heather Foxx smiling at him.
“Heather Foxx, we meet again.”
“Thanks for the tip this morning,” she whispered. “I appreciate it.”
“Don’t get used to it.”
“Why did you give it to me?” Heather asked, curious. “Typically, you’re loath to help us out.”
“I helped you because you didn’t swarm us last night like the rest of your media friends,” Mac said.
“That’s good to know,” the reporter replied. “In any event, maybe I can return the favor at some point.” She pushed a strand of her brown hair back behind her left ear.
Mac snorted, his inherent distrust of reporters showing through. “It’s not too often you guys do us any favors.”
* * * * *
Paddy McRyan took his bottle of water out of the vending machine. Generally, he was morally opposed to paying money for water, but with the heat, a soda just didn’t sound or even feel like it would taste remotely refreshing. Besides, once he polished off the contents, he’d just refill it out of the water fountain. As he took a sip, he saw Bonnie Schmidt, a uniform cop working the tip line, sprinting toward him. “What’s up?” he asked.
“We’re getting tons of stuff on the tip line, most of which is garbage, but this sounded interesting,” Schmidt said, handing him a note. Paddy took a look at it and walked into the conference room to Burton.
“This might be worth a look.”
“What do we have?” Burton asked, as Duffy, Peters and the mayor approached. The rest of Burton’s team and cops in the room pulled in behind them.
“A guy in a neighborhood off of West Seventh, down by the old brewery, claims that for the last couple of days there have been vans, our kind of vans, coming and going from a house across the street.”
“So?” Burton asked, mixing a cup of coffee.
“Well, the house is a rental and nobody was at the house for months until a couple of days ago. Now vans are coming and going. Again, our kind of vans.”
“Let’s go take a look then,” Burton replied, looking at his watch: 4:25 PM. “Where’s McRyan and the rest of those guys?”
“They went to get a bite to eat at Juicy Lucy’s,” Paddy answered.
“That’s over on the east side, right? Payne and Arcade?”
Paddy nodded. Burton pulled out his cell phone and dialed.
“Mac? Burton. I need you to check something out.”
* * * * *
“Get out! House blown!” the text message read.
Smith flipped the cell phone closed, looked at his watch – 4:28 PM – and then to Dean. “We’ve gotta bail,” he said.
“What’s going on?” Dean said, seeing Smith’s ashen face.
“I don’t know for sure, but we’re blown,” Smith said, running for the back door. “The police have the safe house. They’re on their way.”
“H… h… how?” Dean Stammered. “How?”
“I don’t know,” Smith answered, in the garage now, at the far van. “I don’t even know what the police have. All I know is, I got the text message and the house is blown.” He jumped into a van. “Stay on your cell. I’m going left and you go right. I’m going to go south on 35E, you go north and take it from there.”
The garage door opened and Smith pulled out and turned hard left, tires squealing. Dean followed and turned right.
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