The lasagna turned out rich and exquisite. Even following the recipe, Josie doubted she could reproduce the flavor that Luke had. After dinner, they finally made it to the bedroom where Luke carefully inventoried and kissed all of her injuries from the Stop and Go, before he fell asleep, exhausted and snoring, in Josie’s bed. Her alarm clock read twelve fifty-eight as she slid out of bed, slipped into some sweats and a faded Denton PD T-shirt, and took her laptop into the kitchen.
She logged into her Facebook first, finding June Spencer’s page and running through her posts and profile pictures. There weren’t many. Going by what Solange had told her, Josie could imagine that the girl simply had very little to post about.
Next, she brought up Google and entered June Spencer’s name into the search bar to see if Trinity Payne had come up with anything new on the case, or if the story had been picked up by the national news outlets. There was a smattering of headlines proclaiming: “Denton Girl Missing for One Year Found Alive” and “Teen Runaway Kept as Sex Slave for a Year.” Josie checked the sources. They were all local, mostly WYEP and the few local newspapers in the area. A few listings below the stories about June, an older headline caught Josie’s eye: “Missing PA Housewife Found Alive in Denton.” Josie clicked on the story from USA Today and quickly scanned it. Then she opened a new browser window and entered the housewife’s name into the search bar. It turned up hundreds of news reports, the headlines all screaming the same thing:
MISSING PENNSYLVANIA WOMAN
FOUND ALIVE AFTER EXHAUSTIVE SEARCH
MISSING PA MOTHER FOUND ALIVE
MISSING ALCOTT COUNTY WOMAN FOUND ALIVE AFTER 3 WEEKS
One by one, Josie clicked through and read each piece. Six years ago, Ginger Blackwell, a thirty-two-year-old mother of three from Bowersville, the next town over, west of Denton, disappeared on her way home from the grocery store. Her vehicle and all of her personal belongings—purse, phone, keys—were found on the side of a rural road between the grocery store and her home. Her groceries were still in the back of her car and her driver’s side front tire was flat. She had vanished without a trace.
The Bowersville police, the state police and the FBI searched day and night. A command center was established near the grocery store where she was last seen. Even a tip line was set up. All the major networks picked up the story. Blackwell’s husband was an early suspect even though he had an alibi. Once he passed a polygraph the police focused their investigation elsewhere, but with absolutely no leads the investigation ground to a halt. Josie vaguely remembered the case. Back then she hadn’t yet joined the police force; she was fresh out of college, living with her grandmother and still partying more than anything else. She was sure she was aware of it since it had happened so close by, but it hadn’t stayed vividly in her mind.
After three weeks, Ginger was found on the shoulder of Interstate 80 between the two Denton exits, bound and naked. She claimed that a woman had stopped to help her with her flat tire, and the next thing she knew she was being held prisoner, but she could not describe where she had been held or the person, or persons, who had held her. “It was just complete darkness,” she was quoted as saying. “Like being kept in a cupboard. The darkness was absolute. Like a black box.”
Josie sucked in a
sharp breath as invisible fingers crawled up her spine. Like a cupboard. Like a
closet. She didn’t have to imagine; she knew
Blackwell’s terror. Was it too much of a coincidence? Blackwell had
vanished without a trace along a lonely rural stretch of road, just like
Spencer and Coleman. All three women had disappeared within a six- year period.
That was a lot in a short amount of time for an area as small as Denton. Had
the same person who had taken Isabelle Coleman, and possibly June Spencer, also
taken Ginger Blackwell? Josie pulled up the Megan’s Law site in a new window and checked Donald
page again. He had been in prison when Ginger Blackwell was abducted. She flipped back to the tab with the Blackwell story on it and read on. Blackwell remembered next to nothing. She had no idea whether the woman who stopped to help her had been involved in her abduction or not. A Bowersville woman, the owner of a local hair salon, came forward later to say that she had stopped when she saw Blackwell’s vehicle broken down on the side of the road but that Blackwell was nowhere to be found. Ginger couldn’t remember if the salon owner was the same woman she spoke with. She didn’t remember being dumped on the interstate. Her injuries were minor. The news reports didn’t address
whether or not she had been sexually assaulted.
Because she was found on the interstate, the state police had jurisdiction, but because she was found in Denton, Chief Harris fought to keep her case. Ultimately, the Alcott County district attorney appointed a special investigator to conduct an independent investigation. It was an unusual move, but Josie understood the amount of pressure all of law enforcement and the DA’s office would have been under to solve the case given the amount of national press coverage.
Ginger’s case was quickly labeled a hoax. Josie scrolled through at least twenty articles outlining why police believed that her abduction had been faked. In each one Ginger’s husband was quoted, perhaps to cast doubt on the hoax theory. He said, “My wife did not stage her own kidnapping. This was no hoax. She went through hell. Tell me, if she did all this herself, then how did she tie herself up and dump herself on the side of the highway?”
Studying the photos of Ginger, it was hard to believe the woman had been thirty-two. She looked like a teenager. She was thin with long, lustrous auburn hair and eyes the blue of tropical waters. Her pale skin glowed in every picture. In some, she held squirming toddlers in her lap; in others, she stood in front of a monument or landmark. All taken before her abduction. All showing her radiant and impossibly happy. Josie wondered if she had gotten that smile back in the years after her recovery.
A hand brushing through the back of her hair made her jump. “Jesus,” Luke said. “What are you doing? Did you sleep at all last night?” Her heart thudded against her sternum as she looked around the kitchen and noticed the muted gray daylight flooding in through the windows. She had been awake the entire night. “I—I couldn’t sleep,” she
He yawned. “You must be exhausted.”
But she wasn’t. She felt more keenly awake than ever before. Luke sat beside her at the table, still bare-chested, wearing only the low-slung sweatpants that he kept in the top left-hand drawer of her dresser. “What are you doing?” he asked, squinting at her computer screen, which displayed her search for Ginger Blackwell. “You really need to give Google a break,” he added, jokingly.
Josie clicked on one of the news stories, and a photo of Ginger Blackwell with her wide, infectious smile filled the screen. Below that, a video of the ninety-second news piece began to play. “Do you remember this case?” she asked. “She was kidnapped and then dumped on I-80 three weeks later. Ginger Blackwell?”
Luke pushed a hand through his hair and studied Blackwell’s photo. In the video, Trinity Payne appeared next to a large-screen television showing a slideshow of photos of Blackwell and began reciting the scant facts of the woman’s disappearance. The sight of Trinity sent a jolt through Josie. Trinity had been a correspondent for one of the major networks at the time of Blackwell’s abduction. Perhaps she had gotten the story because of her ties to the area.
“I remember the case,” Luke said. “But only because it was on the news. I was stationed near Greensburg back then. I thought the whole thing was a hoax.”
Sighing, Josie snapped her laptop shut. “That seems to be the consensus,” she replied, but she wasn’t so sure. She wished she could see the Blackwell file and decide for herself. It wasn’t that far out of the realm of possibility; hoaxes had been known to happen before, but usually the culprit was then charged, or at least fined, for the unnecessary use of police resources. It cost money to put on a search as large as the one mounted for Ginger Blackwell. Money a county like Alcott just didn’t have. Josie knew for a fact that Denton had probably blown its annual budget within three days of Isabelle Coleman’s disappearance. If Blackwell had staged her abduction, why hadn’t she been punished for it? Something was missing; something was in the Blackwell file that hadn’t made it onto the news. She knew it.
Josie watched Luke as
he stood and made his way to her counter, scooped coffee grounds into the
coffeemaker, poured water into it and turned it on. She wondered if she could
trust him. Really trust him. She had learned at the tender age of eleven that
not all men were trustworthy, possibly before that when, at six, her father had
chosen a bullet over her.
The only man she had ever really trusted was Ray, but he was a boy when she met him. And look how that turned out. He had grown into a man and destroyed the most sacred period of their life together—their marriage—proving to her, once and for all, definitively, that men could not be trusted.
Yet she wore Luke’s engagement ring on her finger. She had said yes. Without hesitation. Which implied some trust on her part, didn’t it? Could she talk to him about the Princess barbell? About her theory that Blackwell, Coleman and June Spencer were all connected? Would he dismiss her as easily as the chief had? Would he think she was crazy?
She thought of the incident that had landed her in the unholy mess she was in now, suspended and at loose ends. After it happened, Ray had called her exactly that. Crazy. Then he had said, “You can’t do shit like that. You can’t just hit people.” Of course she couldn’t. She knew that. But nearly every officer on the Denton PD shared Ray’s opinion: she had gone crazy. She may have lost control but she knew she wasn’t crazy.
Quite honestly, she had expected more support from her colleagues. Like none of them had ever lost his temper in the heat of the moment, been driven to do something regrettable, something stupid or maybe, yes, a little crazy. Sometimes it happened. What they dealt with day after day was the worst humanity had to offer. If it didn’t get to you now and then, you weren’t human. Only Noah had given any indication that he understood. He had quietly said to her, as she left the station house in disgrace, gunless and badgeless, “She had it coming.”
Josie took the steaming cup of coffee Luke offered her, fixed just the way she liked it—two sugars and lots of half-and-half. “Luke,” she said, as he sat down next to her. “Remember the incident with that woman, you know, the one I got suspended for?”
He laughed. “Hard to forget it.”
“Do you think I did the right thing? Hitting her like that? Or do you think I was… I don’t know… crazy?”
His face turned serious. “No,” he said, not a hint of laughter in his tone. “I don’t think you were crazy at all. I would have shot her.”