A complete night’s sleep was one of the things Detective Nick Marshall treasured. It wasn’t happening tonight. “What’s so important that you had to drag me out of bed at two in the morning,” he said to his partner, Detective David Freedman.
“Hey, don’t blame me,” Freedman answered. He pointed to an elderly man and woman, both buck naked. “Here you see Lynda, with a ‘y’, ‘Moonbeam’ Boswell and William, or Billy, ‘Wind Spirit’ Ferguson.”
Marshall groaned. “You brought me out here for a couple of elderly streakers? This is a gated community. Don’t they have their own security?”
“We’re not here because of their lack of clothing,” Freedman replied.
“We have a right to be free,” exclaimed Lynda with a “y” as she stretched out her arms, proudly displaying her 73-year-old body. “This is how nature made us.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Marshall said showing a lack of patience. “Now, other than wanting everyone to run around naked, why are we here?”
“It’s because of him,” answered the nude gentleman, as proud of his wrinkled body as Lynda.
“Who?” Marshall asked. “Someone complained about you running around without any clothes?”
“Oh no,” Lynda answered with a giggle. “We do that all the time. No one here cares. It’s because of the other guy.”
Freedman couldn’t help smiling. “What other guy,” Marshall asked with frustration.
William pointed to a form on the beach. “That guy. The dead one.”
* * * * *
“What the hell,” Paula said to herself as she sat up in her bed. “It’s two o’clock in the morning. Who is pounding on my door?”
Paula got out of bed, started toward the living room, but stopped. Her Marine Corps training kicked in. She walked over to her closet, opened a box, and took out a nine-millimeter automatic. A quick look confirmed it was loaded. She chambered a round and released the safety. She quietly entered the living room and approached the front door of her apartment. A look down at the floor showed the shadow of someone standing on the other side, still pounding on the door. She moved to one side of the doorway, took a deep breath, tightened her grip on the weapon, released the door lock, and grabbed the door knob with her left hand. She threw the door open and thrusted the weapon into the face of the person standing in the hallway.
“Holy crap,” yelled the young teenage girl who had been banging on Paula’s door. “Don’t shoot me,” she said throwing her hands up and stepping back, looking down the barrel of the nine millimeter in the hand of a tall angry blond.
“Then tell me why you’re banging on my door at two in the morning,” Paula demanded, still holding the weapon on the young girl.
“You’re Paula Stanford, aren’t you?”
Paula stared at the young teenager. She had a wholesome beauty that needed no makeup. She was just over five feet tall, slender, with shoulder-length blond hair. She wore a yellow Tweety Bird tee shirt, denim jacket, and tattered jeans, which seemed to be in fashion for teenagers these days, but she limited her piercing to a single set of earrings. Over her shoulder, she carried a very large, brown, leather bag with fringe hanging off it.
“Excuse me,” the teenager said with her hands still in the air, “I asked if you’re Paula Stanford.”
“A better question is who are you?”
“Yeah, it figures you wouldn’t recognize me. It’s been five years. I guess I’ve change quite a bit.”
“Still haven’t told me who you are.”
The teenager gently pointed at the automatic in Paula’s hand. “Do you think you could put the gun away? Please?”
Paula lowered the weapon. “You’re not answering my question. Who are you?”
The teenager lowered her hands. “I’m Elizabeth Stewart, but everyone calls me Liz.” She stuck out her right hand toward Paula.
Paula raised her right hand to show she was still holding a weapon. “Okay Liz, why are you banging on my door in the middle of the night?”
“You don’t remember me, do you?”
“Would I be standing here with a nine-millimeter in my hand if I did?” Paula answered sarcastically.
“You knew my father. You were at his funeral. Corporal Robert Stewart. He was killed in Iraq. You served with him.”
Paula took another look at the teenager. Yes, she could see it. She saw the nine-year-old girl who stood there at the gravesite, trying to hold back tears as the honor guard gave her father a 21-gun salute. She saw the child accept the folded American flag with the shell casings in it. “Oh my God, Elizabeth. You’ve grown. I can’t believe it. Why are you here?”
“I need your help. I mean I really need your help.”
* * * * *
Marshall turned to one of the patrol officers. “See about getting a blanket or something for our two nature lovers.” Marshall used a flashlight to examine the terrain around the body. “He probably washed up from the river. I can see the tracks our two nudists left, along with those of those examining the body. Still, I don’t think anyone would dump a dead body in a gated community.”
“Notice anything unusual?” Freedman asked.
Marshall looked up from the body to Freedman. “I have a dead body, it’s the middle of the night, we have two naked refugees from the 60’s; no, nothing seems out of place.”
A patrol officer returned with two blankets, giving one each to the naked individuals. “Well, he ain’t got no hands,” yelled William, aka Wind Spirit.
Marshall shone his flashlight on the body’s arms. “He’s right. Where are his hands?”
“Looks like they were hacked off,” the coroner said as he brought out a gurney and a body bag. “I can’t tell for sure, but it looks like they used a saw to cut them off. I guess they didn’t want us to identify him from his prints.”
“Great,” Marshall said with disgust. “I’m sure they’re in the river, but being smaller, they were probably thrown further out and are floating down river. I doubt we will ever find them.”
“We can still identify him through dental records and DNA,” the coroner replied.
“Yeah, I know, but we need to know who he is first before we can get dental records for comparison. Still, run his DNA through CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) to see if we get a hit. Maybe we’ll get lucky.”
“You know what will be the hard part, don’t you?” Freedman commented.
Marshall stared at Freedman “What? Catching a killer considering we have the body, but no crime scene, which is probably up river in another jurisdiction.”
“Nah,” Freedman said while grinning. “It’s finding a place that has a decent cup of coffee at this time of night.”
* * * * *
Paula stepped back. “Of course, of course. Come in. Come in.” she motioned for Liz to come into the apartment. Paula took a quick look outside the apartment to see if anyone else was there. “Can I get you something to drink, something to eat? I don’t have any tea. How about some coffee?” While waiting for Liz’s answer, Paula walked over to a window and looked outside, checking to see if anyone was in the parking lot.
Liz entered the apartment. “Boy, you don’t have much, do you?” Liz commented as she looked around the sparsely furnished apartment. There was a sofa, a military foot locker serving as a coffee table, a shelfing unit with a television and a radio clock, and a bookcase with several books and photographs of people wearing military gear.
“Don’t need much,” Paula replied as she walked to the kitchen. She laid the weapon on the counter and started making coffee.
Liz followed her into the small kitchen, also sparsely furnished with the standard appliances; stove, refrigerator, dishwasher; a microwave, and a coffee maker. “Are you poor?” Liz asked.
Paula picked up the pistol. “I’ve got to put this away. And no, I’m not poor. I don’t make a lot of money, but I am currently gainfully employed.”
“Cool,” was Liz’s reply.
Paula went into the bedroom to secure the weapon. “So what’s up?”
“What do you mean?”
Paula came back into the kitchen where Liz was leaning against the counter. “It’s the middle of the night. You’re here. I haven’t seen or talked to you since your father’s funeral. You’re interested in how much money I have. And by the way, how did you find me?”
“Duh,” Liz answered, “you send me a birthday and Christmas card every year. It has your return address.”
Paula smiled. “Okay, you got me on that one. But you still haven’t told me why you’re here.”
“I need your help in locating my birth mother.”
“Excuse me?” Paula asked with surprise.
“I said I need your help locating my mother.”
“How I can help? I never knew your mother.”
“Let me explain.”
“After my father’s funeral, I was sent to live with my aunt, his sister. She’s got two kids of her own and a jerk of a husband, but then she’s a bit of a jerk herself. I was kind of hoping it would be temporary, until they found my mother. But the Child Welfare Agency said my mother gave up her parental rights when I was a baby. I have no memory of her or anything. And the Child Welfare isn’t looking for her.”
“What about your aunt? Doesn’t she know where your mother’s family is?”
“No, she doesn’t. Believe me, if she could get rid of me, she would. She and her husband are the pits. They don’t work; they just live off of the state. I share the house, and the bedroom with their two kids. The kids are cool though.”
“Can’t you contact Child Welfare or something?”
“Ginger, that’s my aunt’s name, is a blood relative. So unless they get convicted of a crime or something bad happens, I’m stuck there. But if I can find my mother, maybe she’ll take me in. They have to let me stay with my mother, don’t they?”
Paula poured two cups of coffee and gave one to Liz. “Good idea kid, but what makes you think your mother is going to take you in now. She had an opportunity five years ago, and she didn’t take it. By the way, how many years has it been since you last saw her.”
Liz shrugged her shoulders. “She left when I was born. My father never talked about it.”
“How old are you now?”
“So why now?”
Liz gave Paula a confused look. “What do you mean?”
“Why now,” Paula repeated as she sipped her coffee. “You’ve been living with your aunt for five years. So, why do you want to move out now? What’s going on?”
“Nothing much,” Liz replied. “It’s just that things haven’t been that great lately, and maybe it’s time for me to move on. It’s not like there’s a lot of love between us. There never has been, and I doubt there ever will be.”
“So you’re hoping a woman who hasn’t seen you since you were born is going to take you into her home. She could be remarried, living anywhere. She could even be dead. What makes you think I can help you?”
Liz opened the backpack she had with her, and brought out a plastic document protector. “I found this article at the library a while ago,” she said handing it to Paula.
It was a newspaper article with a photograph of winners of a local dog show. “Okay,” Paula said drawing out the word.
“The paper is from here.” Liz handed Paula a birth certificate dated fourteen years ago with the names of Robert Stewart and Patricia Meyer on it. Paula took a second look at the article and noted that one of the winners was a woman in her 30’s, identified as Patricia Meyer.
“All right, I get it,” Paula said. “I understand what you are looking for. What I don’t understand is why you are here, pounding on my door, in the middle of the night. What makes you think I can find your mother when the state can’t?”
“It’s not that the state can’t; it’s a case of they won’t look for her.”
“Again, why me?”
“You used to be a military police officer. You know how to find people, don’t you?”
Paula saw the look of hope and desperation in Liz’s eyes. “Yes, I used to be a MP, but that was a while ago, and with the Marine Corps. Was your mother in the Marines?”
“No,” Liz answered sheepishly. “Still, you used to be a cop. You know how to find people. You can do it. Come on. I really need your help in finding her.”
Paula walked over to a shelf and picked up a photograph of several people in military uniforms standing around an armored vehicle in a desert. She stared at it for several seconds. She saw herself, years ago, standing tall, proud, and confident. In the photo were several other Marines, including Liz’s father. “Well, I do know a few people I could ask,” Paula stated. “No promises. But, couldn’t you have waited until after sunrise, after breakfast, daylight before knocking on my door and asking for help?”
“Sorry about that,” Liz answered. “I got into town late and it took me a while to find your place. I guess I wasn’t thinking.”
“Well that’s certainly obvious. All you have is a photo of a woman who happens to have the same name as your mother. She may be someone else.”
“So what do you think we should do,” Liz asked excitedly.
Paula looked at the photo and took a deep breath before replacing it on the shelf. “For now, you crash out on the couch. I’m going back to bed and hope to get some more sleep. We’ll start looking in the morning, after breakfast. Like I said, I have a few ideas of where to start.”
“You don’t want to start now?”
“No,” was Paula’s answer as she returned to her bedroom and returned a few minutes later with some bedding. “Here, you get to make your own bed,” she said handing the bedding to Liz and pointing to the couch. Paula watched as Liz arranged the bedding on the couch. She returned to her bedroom. She could hear Liz in the next room as the teenager adjusted to the couch. After several minutes, Paula got up and checked on Liz, discovering she had fallen asleep. Paula returned to her room and lay on her bed. A bottle of sedatives was on the night table next to her bed. Paula reached for them, then set them back down. It would be a restless night, but she figured it would better to be sleepy the next morning instead of fighting the effects of medication. Surprisingly, Paula fell asleep after twenty minutes.
* * * * *
Tom Vandermeer was your typical 16-year-old. He had an athletic build from playing football and running track. His dark hair was cut short, which helped him keep a clear complexion. Like most kids his age, he wore jeans with tee shirts. The only unusual thing about Tom was his being in a strange car this early in the morning.
On either side of him were two individuals, both in their twenties, with pistols in their waistband. They had grabbed him less than an hour ago, as he left his part-time job working as a night cook at a small diner. The two men sat silently as another man, a bit older, sat in the front of the car. Next to him was a woman, about the same age as the man. She was looking through Tom’s wallet and cell phone.
“What do you want!?” Tom yelled in an attempt to hide the fear in his voice.
The woman showed the man next to her something from Tom’s cell phone.
The man gave her a slight nod, acknowledging the information before turning around to face Tom. “We know you’ve been seeing Liz Stewart,” the man said as he toyed with a pistol in his hand. “Now, what we need is for you to tell us where she is. That’s all.”
“Not going to happen,” Tom answered defiantly. “Besides, she didn’t tell me where she was going.”
The man sighed. “I know Liz met with you. Now, what did she tell you?”
“Why should I say anything,” Tom stated, glaring at the man.
“Do you know who we are?” the man asked.
“Yeah,” Tom answered, “you’re Liz’s aunt and uncle. Big deal.”
The man waved the pistol in front of Tom’s face. “You’re afraid I’m going to kill you when all I need from you is some information. Now why would I go through the hassle of killing you and getting rid of your body when all I need is for you to tell me where Liz is? But that doesn’t mean I won’t get angry if you don’t tell me. And you really don’t want to make me angry.”
“You really don’t,” the woman confirmed. “Has anyone hurt you? No. Does anyone want to hurt you? No. Will anyone hurt you? Well, that’s up to you. All you need to do is tell us where Liz is. We’re going to find her eventually. Hey, we’re her legal guardians. We have no reason to hurt her.”
Tom scoffed. “Look, I know you’re not interested in finding her to bring her home.”
“Hey, we just need to talk to her, that’s all,” the woman said. “We’re concerned about her.”
Tom defiantly looked at the woman. “What a bunch of bull.”
The man opened the driver’s door and stepped out. He motioned for everyone else to get out too. He grabbed Tom and forced him against the car, with his back against it. “Don’t piss me off kid,” the man said. “Tell me where she is.”
Tom took a breath and realized the position he was in. “Give me my phone,” he demanded. “I’ll call her and you can talk to her.”
“No need,” answered the woman. She pulled up the speed dial numbers and touched the one for Liz. The group listened as the phone rang.
“Tom?” came a voice over the phone.
“No, Sweety. It’s your Aunt Ginger. We have your boyfriend here. Do you want to talk to him?”
“Don’t say anything!” Tom yelled.
The man slapped Tom across the face with the pistol in his hand. Before Tom could recover enough to say anything, the man slapped him again. “I told you; you shouldn’t piss me off.”
Tom spat out blood from his mouth. “Kiss off.”
The woman pulled the man back from Tom. “That’s not necessary.” She put the phone to her ear. “Listen Dear. We don’t want to hurt anyone. All we need is for you to come home, and bring the package.”
“You hurt Tom and the package goes straight to the police,” the voice said before hanging up.
“Great,” the man said with disgust. “What do we do now?”
“Well, you can’t kill me,” Tom interject. The others could hear the fear in his voice. The man simply starred at him.
The man glared at Tom
Tom swallowed. He tried to hide his fear. He was unsuccessful. “Hey, I have to take a leak,” Tom said almost pleading.
“Go ahead,” the man answered.
One of the younger men led Tom to a nearby alley. He watched as Tom urinated behind a trash can. Tom finished, zipped up his trousers, and stretched. A cat meowed, distracting the man watching Tom. It was all Tom needed. He grabbed the lid from the trash can and smashed it against the man watching him. Tom then kicked the man in the groin. The person groaned and fell to the ground. From around the corner of the building, Tom heard the footsteps of others coming to assist the man he had kicked. Tom turned and ran down the alley. The others turned the corner. The man with the gun started firing. Tom heard the bullets hitting the building next to him, but he kept running. He ran out of the alley and on to another street. He kept running.
The woman helped the individual Tom had kicked to his feet. The other two ran down the alley after Tom. When they got to the end of the alley, they found their quarry had disappeared.
* * * * *
Liz turned off her phone. She glanced up from her bed on the couch to see if Paula had heard it or the conversation. The bedroom door remained closed. Liz pulled a large leather bag to her and opened the flap. Inside with a few of her belongings was a large sealed, yellow envelope. She closed the flap on the bag. “I should have never taken that package,” she said to herself. “I only hope Mike and Ginger don’t shoot Tom like they did that other guy.”