The Stop and Go gas station had recently installed flat-screen televisions at the gas pumps because people could not possibly take their eyes off a screen long enough to pump gas. Even though it annoyed her, Detective Josie Quinn found herself glued to the screen when the breaking news flashed across it. They’d finally found Isabelle Coleman’s cell phone in the woods near her home.
A few miles away, outside the Colemans’ two-story white colonial, reporter Trinity Payne, dressed in a puffy blue jacket and yellow scarf, the wind blowing her black hair every which way, struggled through her report while escaped strands snaked all over her face.
“Five days ago, Marla Coleman returned home from work to an empty house. Believing that her seventeen-year-old daughter, Isabelle, had gone out with friends, she thought nothing of it until later that night when Isabelle failed to return home. Police sources tell us that, at that time, they had no reason to believe Isabelle’s disappearance was suspicious. Friends and family of Ms. Coleman describe her as a busy young woman with varied interests, likely to have left town on a spontaneous trip. But days later, with calls to her cell phone still going straight to voicemail and her car still parked in the Colemans’ driveway, police are now on high alert as the residents here in Denton rally together to form search teams.”
The camera panned out to show the Colemans’ long, circular driveway with three vehicles parked in it. Trinity continued, “For the last few days, volunteers have combed the area around the Colemans’ home, where Isabelle was last seen.”
The camera moved
further out, swinging from side to side and focusing in on the heavily wooded
areas surrounding the Coleman home. Josie knew the house. It was one of the larger
homes on the
outskirts of Denton, sitting alone along a rural road, its nearest neighbor almost two miles away. She’d once hit a deer with her police cruiser not far from there.
The camera returned to Trinity. “Yesterday, during one of the searches, a cell phone was discovered in one of these wooded areas, which is believed to have belonged to the missing girl. The screen was shattered and police tell us that the battery had been removed. Coleman’s parents say that she would never willingly part with her phone. It is now widely believed that Ms. Coleman is the victim of an abduction.”
She went on to answer some canned questions from the WYEP anchors and give out the number of the Denton police department helpline with a request for information. The knots in Josie’s shoulders that had started forming three weeks earlier tightened. She swiveled her neck and shrugged her shoulders, trying to loosen them. Listening to the latest developments and knowing she could do nothing to help made her want to smash the TV’s plasma screen into a million pieces with the gas pump in her hand.
Isabelle had been missing for five days. Why had it taken so long to find evidence that she had been abducted? Why had they waited two days to form search parties around the house? Why had they turned Josie away when she’d offered to join the search? Surely being on paid leave for an alleged use of excessive force didn’t render her searching skills useless. It didn’t matter that she was showing up as a private citizen; her colleagues, most of whom she outranked, had sent her home. Chief’s orders.
She fumed. Every available resource would be devoted to locating the girl. Every resource. Josie knew her colleagues were probably sleeping on cots in the break room at the station, working around the clock just like they’d done during the floods of 2011 when the entire city was under seven feet of water and the only way to get around was by boat. She knew they would have already called in volunteer firefighters, emergency medical services, and every able-bodied person in the city willing to search and run down leads. So why hadn’t the chief called her back to work yet?
Denton was roughly
twenty-five square miles, many of those miles spanning the untamed mountains of
central Pennsylvania with their one- lane winding roads, dense woods and rural
residences spread out like carelessly thrown confetti. The population was
edging over thirty thousand, just enough to give them about a half dozen
murders a year—
most of those domestic disputes—and enough rapes, robberies and drunken bar brawls to keep the police department staff of fifty-three moderately busy. Competent as they were, they simply weren’t equipped to handle an abduction case. Especially not the kind where the kidnapped girl was blond, vivacious, popular and college-bound. Every photo of Isabelle Coleman that Josie had seen—and the girl’s Facebook page boasted thousands of them, all of them set to public—looked like a glamour shot. Even in the photos where she and her friends made funny faces, poking out newly pierced tongues, Isabelle’s small pink barbell read “Princess” where it might as well have read “Perfect”.
The double doors to the Stop and Go whooshed open and two twenty-somethings made their way toward the gas pumps. Across from Josie sat their tiny yellow Subaru. The woman got in as the man pumped gas. Josie felt their eyes on her but refused to give them the satisfaction of looking back. Not that they’d have the balls to ask her any questions. Most people didn’t. They just liked to stare. At least her indiscretion wasn’t on the news anymore. In a small city where the standard newsworthy items were car accidents, local charity activities, and who got the biggest buck during hunting season, nobody cared anymore about the crazy lady cop with a temper.
She had hoped that the Coleman case would give her a chance to get off the chief’s shit list, that he would make an exception in this case and just let her come back for a week or two, until they had the investigation well in hand. Until they found the girl. But he didn’t call. She kept checking her phone to make sure it was working; that the battery hadn’t mysteriously drained; that she hadn’t accidentally muted it. She hadn’t. The phone was fine. It was her chief who was being a hard-ass.
Deciding she wasn’t ready to go home just yet, Josie walked back inside the Stop and Go to get a coffee. She killed a good ten minutes fixing it slowly—lots of half-and-half and two sugars—and paying for it. The owner, Dan, a former biker in his late fifties who had never given up leather vests, was an old acquaintance. He made enough small talk with her to let her know he was on her side without actually asking about the case pending against her. He knew her well enough by now not to ask probing questions.
But then there was nothing left to do but go home.
She noticed a small
group of customers gathered around another television that hung above the
lottery kiosk near the front of the store. She wandered over to them, sipping
her coffee and watching as the broadcast she’d seen at the gas pump continued.
The words “Students
and Faculty React to Coleman Abduction” flashed across the bottom of the screen while a montage they’d been looping since last night played. The first time Josie saw it, WYEP had used the word disappearance instead of abduction.
“She was, like, a really nice person. I hope they find her. I mean, this is scary to think this could happen in Denton.”
“It’s just hard to believe, you know? She just vanished. It’s a shame.
She was really nice.”
“We were supposed to go to the mall this weekend. I just can’t believe it. I just saw her yesterday. She was my best friend.”
“Isabelle is one of the brightest students in my class. All of us are extremely concerned.”
A spasm rippled across Josie’s shoulder blades. Only Isabelle’s history teacher spoke as though she were still alive; everyone else had used the past tense. They had already given up on her being found safe. But why wouldn’t they? People didn’t vanish into thin air, and beautiful teenage girls who were abducted were rarely returned alive and unharmed. Josie knew that with every second that passed, the odds of Isabelle being found alive grew slimmer and slimmer.
A bead of sweat formed at the nape of her neck and rolled down her spine as she stepped outside, the paper coffee cup burning the skin of her palm as she stared at her Escape for a moment. She really should go home. The owner would need that pump for new customers. But the thought of spending the whole day alone in her house was simply too much to bear. Of course she could always drive around, maybe try to find the crime scene—it would likely be marked and cordoned off now that it had been located—and see if she saw anything that the others had missed.
Josie pulled out her cell phone and punched in a number she had dialed four to six times a day for the last six months. He let most of her calls go right to voicemail, but occasionally he would answer, and today he picked up on the third ring.
“Jo,” Sergeant Ray Quinn said, sounding out of breath.
“When did you guys find the scene?” she asked without preamble. He wasn’t too breathless to give her one of his trademark heavy sighs.
The kind he always gave her when he thought she was being a pain in the ass. “Jesus Christ,” he said. “You’re out on leave. Stop calling me. We’ve got this under control.”
“You think we don’t?”
“Why hasn’t the chief called in help? He’s saying Coleman was abducted. Has he asked for support from the state police or the FBI? We don’t have the resources for this.”
“You don’t know anything about this case, Jo.”
“I know enough. If this really is an abduction, you need to call in backup, like, yesterday. You know that missing kids who aren’t found in the first forty-eight hours—”
“I’m serious, Ray. This is serious shit. This girl could be anywhere by now. Have you shaken down the registered sex offenders yet? Please tell me you’ve got someone out there doing that right now. I mean, this isn’t rocket science. Pretty blond teenager is abducted? Hiller would be good. You should get him to do it, and I’d have LaMay go with him. Call over to Bowersville and see if they can get a couple of people in their department to hit the register there. That’s not that far from here. Tell me you’ve done this already?”
She could feel his annoyance over the line, but she was used to it. She tried to remember a time when they’d been loving toward one another. Sweet, caring, patient. She had to go all the way back to high school for that memory. They had liked one another once, hadn’t they?
Ray sighed, “Here we go again. You think you know everything. You think you’re the only one on the force who can do the job. You know what, Jo? You’re not. You know nothing. Nothing. So shut up and stop fucking calling me. Take up knitting or whatever the fuck women do when they don’t work. I’m hanging up now.”
She was stung by the force of his words. He used the word nothing like a knife. Stabbing her fast and quick, a prison shanking. He was always abrasive—she could be too—but never cruel. Recovering quickly, she blurted, “Sign the divorce papers, Ray, and I’ll stop calling.”
Now it was her turn to stab back. “I’m marrying Luke. He proposed.
Yesterday. In bed.”
He didn’t respond, but she could hear him breathing. They’d been separated for months, but their relationship had been broken for a long time. She knew he hated Luke, hated the thought of another man with his wife. Even if she was his soon-to-be ex-wife.
She was listening so
intently to the sound of his breathing, waiting to see what he would say, what
tack he was going to take on hearing this news, that it took a moment for her
to register the sharp report of gunshots in the distance. It wasn’t that
unusual in Denton; during
hunting season, in the wooded outskirts of the city, shots went off all day long like fireworks. But it wasn’t hunting season, or the Fourth of July. It was March, and there was no good reason for anyone to be firing off that many rounds.
Phone still in hand, Josie tossed her coffee cup into a nearby trash can and took a few steps out into the parking lot. The shots were getting closer, shattering the cool stillness of the morning. People at the gas pumps froze in place. All heads craned, searching for the source. Josie met the wide-eyed stares of a few of the patrons, but all they could do was exchange the same puzzled look.
Something was coming, but they didn’t know what, or from where.
Instinctively, her free hand reached to her waist for her service weapon, but it wasn’t there. Fear was a fist in her chest, squeezing her heart into her throat.
Ray spoke into her silence, “Jo?”
From around the corner, a black, bullet-riddled Escalade barreled toward the Stop and Go, jumped the curb and sailed directly toward Josie. Her feet were like cement blocks. Move, she told herself. Move. As the Escalade hurtled past her, the driver’s side mirror caught the corner of her jacket, spinning her around and sending her flying through the air. She hit the asphalt hard, landing on her left side, her body rolling away from the vehicle until her stomach hit one of the metal pillars that blocked the gas pumps.
The Escalade smashed into the front of the Stop and Go, metal screeching and windows blowing out in a cacophonous boom. Even after the SUV lodged in the wall, the engine continued to rev and squeal. Plumes of dust from the crumbled cinderblock rose around the vehicle. People fled from the building. Josie’s lungs screamed for air that wouldn’t come.