Worth Any Price

Worth Any Price

Introduction

As firefighters carried the child’s body up the steep slope of the river embankment, Detective Kel Vain couldn’t help thinking one horrible thought: That this child’s mother hadn’t loved him enough. She hadn’t loved him enough to do what was necessary to get him back from a deviant sexual predator, a monster that was terrorizing the city with a whole new kind of crime.

As water steadily dripped from the boy’s blond head draped over the arm of the rescue diver, Kel’s stomach churned. This one was only four-years-old, his body so tiny it might never have been found in the creek, except for the light yellow hair that had drawn a boater’s attention.

As he stood and watched the small body being loaded into the medical examiner’s van, Kel’s mind reverted to his earlier thought and he amended it. He’d already met the mother, so he knew she loved the boy—loved him to distraction. She just hadn’t been strong enough.

His hands thrust deep into his pockets, his lips a hard firm line, he turned to walk back up the hill to his squad car. He wouldn’t have to make the official notification on this one. The press was already here and he’d never get all the way across town before this went live. He could stop them of course, but it wouldn’t make any difference. His mother had to already know. She was, after all, the one who had sealed the little boy’s fate.

He shook his head in disgust and trudged up the hill. He was more than just a little frustrated, he was beside himself with guilt. God, he had picked the absolute worst time to be off from work. When he had left three weeks ago, the port city of Wilmington was preparing for the Azalea Festival. Nothing was going on crime-wise other than the incessant drug dealing, the never-ending domestic disturbances, and biweekly car thefts. This Southern coastal town was not at all prepared for the deviant crimes one man was now perpetrating.

Four so far. Two women had done his bidding and had their children back. Two had not, and so lost them forever. Was it because of self-consciousness? Denial? Shame or ignorance? Fear, for sure, but that was a given for all of the women.

The monster called himself The Voyeur, and so far the meager clues he’d left hadn’t amounted to enough to establish anything other than an M.O., which was to snatch the child, leaving a note for the mother to find. In the note there would be a list of three things she had to do to get her child back. And it always included a stern admonition; “If you fail to perform, you’ll never see your child again.” And of course, the obligatory, “Do not inform the authorities,” accompanied each missive, and it was always tagged with something cavalier like, “not that it’ll do any good.”

The first woman, shocked with her “to-do list,” had ignored the careful instructions and instead, had offered the man money when he called to remind her that time was running out. That little boy had been found three days later in the Intracoastal Waterway.

The second woman, made aware of the man’s seriousness by the media coverage on the death of the first kidnapped child, had complied. She did as specified and performed all three of the disgusting and humiliating scenarios that had been outlined for her. She stripped naked and allowed herself to be photographed in lewd positions, then sent the digital pictures to an online photo web site account so the man holding her child could view her. For her second task, she walked into a crowded strip club, made her way to the stage and removed all of her clothing—and ironically got arrested by a vice officer for not wearing a G-string. Then as the final dictate, she went to a tattoo parlor and had a heart with a banner across it that said “Mom,” tattooed on her right buttock. The tattoo had to be photographed and the picture relayed to the photo web site. Six hours later, her five-year-old daughter was found stumbling, blindfolded, all alone in the parking lot of Westfield Mall. Only then had she gone to the police with her bizarre tale.

With their help, the photo web site was temporarily shut down, but not before pornographic pictures of her were viewed all over the world; saved on hard drives and printed by the thousands. In less than a week someone recognized her and circulated the pictures. Unable to stand the scrutiny and the humiliation of her friends, family, and coworkers seeing her exposed in such a blatant way, she made preparations to move with her child and to change their identities.

The third woman panicked as soon as she discovered her child was missing and notified the police before she found the directives from the kidnapper. The window had been open and the ransom note had blown under the child’s bed. The police found the note, but The Voyeur wasn’t happy about their involvement. The little girl’s body was found under a private pier in Futch’s Creek just hours after the note was discovered.

The fourth woman did exactly as the note specified, and now had her son back. She did as The Voyeur had commanded—she robbed a liquor store, being sure to show her breasts to the security camera before running out of the store; she videotaped herself masturbating and left the video on a shelf in the New Hanover Public Library; and she went to a bar, propositioned two men and then let them take her, one after the other, on the back seat of her car while each videotaped the other. Her seven-year-old son fell against her door just four hours after that video tape had been left in a pew at St. Mark’s Church, his eyes swollen half-shut by the adhesive left from the duct tape that was used to blindfold him.

In each case, the children had been blindfolded with duct tape the entire time they were held captive. From the moment they were abducted, they were securely bound, blindfolded, and gagged. They had not seen the man, yet they were fairly certain that it was a man, even though he never spoke to them. They had been given no food, no water, and were not permitted to go to the bathroom, so they had relieved themselves in their clothing. It seemed he had no feelings for them whatsoever. They were only pawns. Pawns in a game. A game of power he held over women; women who had no choice because he had their children.

Kel could find no connection between the women, except that they were all single mothers, working in the city, relying on childcare, nannies, or baby sitters while they worked. All of the children had been taken from their home, either while they were napping in the afternoon or after they were put to bed for the night. None of the homes had been particularly secure, but none had been all that inviting either. Yet the man had come unseen, picked the lock or had a key, and stolen off with the sleeping child.

It was more than scary. It was the worst kind of terrorism. And it was his job to put an end to it.

Chapter One

Kel Vain dropped the morning paper onto the kitchen table, turned to the counter, and poured a big mug of coffee. He had just come from an exhausting morning run; the exhausting part was courtesy of the repeated Jack Daniel’s shots he’d tossed down last night.

He took a bracing sip of the coffee as he walked back to the table and blinked as he swallowed the strong, acidic brew.Sliding onto the padded seat of the nook, he took note of the cardinals feeding at the window tray just inches from where he sat. It was a beautiful spring morning, he just wasn’t eager for the full bright sunshine to pierce his fuzzy eyes. It was his own fault, he told himself. He knew better than this—liquor didn’t help. No amount of it could erase the memory of seeing a child’s lifeless body carried out of the woods or pulled from a river.

He wet his fingertips on the condensation from his orange juice glass and then used his dampened fingers to separate the sections of the morning paper. It was his habit to organize the paper before reading it: Sports page first, Money next, Local, then National. Classifieds and sales flyers were immediately tossed into the trash.

In the course of shifting the papers to the proper order, his eye was drawn to a picture on the front page of the Local Section. He blinked twice. Then his eyes opened wide with shock. He knew that woman. Without the benefit of having to read the tag line under the photo, he knew her to be Laura Wyndham, a classy Wilmington socialite whose family donated millions to local foundations and charities. He had adored this woman from afar for more years than he cared to count. And here she was, posing, regal as could be in a floor length gown, standing in the middle of a stage.

Nothing unusual about that, except that she was topless. The halter part of her gown had been undone and hung down in front of the full skirt of her ball gown. The newspaper, keeping with rigorous community standards, had placed black bars over the center of each of her breasts covering her nipples. His eyes remained wide as his sculpted, arrogant, dark brows lifted to meet the dark curl that fell across his forehead as he examined the picture. Then he forced his eyes lower to read the terse caption: “Socialite Laura Wyndham had an apparent ‘costume failure’ at last night’s Gala Fashion Show.” In the body of the accompanying article he read, “According to Sheila Barnstable who was sitting at a front table, ‘It was apparent to anyone sitting down front that she was purposely flaunting herself. She stood right in front of us, then she reached behind her neck and unclasped the top of her gown, letting it fall forward. We could all see her lips, those who cared to look away from her chest that is, as she slowly counted to ten. Then she cupped her breasts with her hands, turned and strode quickly off the stage. It was the strangest thing. I would never have expected that of her! Not in a million, zillion years.’”

Kel dropped the paper onto the table and jumped off the bench. He strode to the end of the counter and jerked open a drawer. He grabbed his holstered gun and badge case and ran to the garage. As usual, in his haste, he rapped his head on the doorjamb getting into his new cruiser and it hurt like a son-of-a-bitch. These unmarked cruisers were getting downsized with every model year and he practically had to fold himself in half just to get in the damn things! He had to remember to ask the motor pool to give him one of the older ones.

He was snaking his way through traffic and speeding across town before he realized he was still in his sweaty jogging shorts and tank top. But it didn’t matter. He had to find her, and he had to find her right away. Because he knew, without a doubt, what would cause a woman as well bred as Laura Wyndham to do something as drastic and as foreign to her nature as exposing herself like that.

And his heart went out to her. How hard it must have been for her to get up the nerve to stand before her friends and neighbors, as well as the general public filling that huge ballroom, and stand completely topless. She was such a lovely woman, and to have to bare her breasts like that . . .. The thought sickened him. But with the next thought, an unwelcome prurient one, he had to briefly close his eyes and grimace. He was disgusted with himself when his mind recalled the picture, his imagination trying desperately to fill in the details the newspaper had tastefully covered.

He had thrown his blue light onto the roof of his unmarked car as soon as he’d pulled out of his driveway, and now, as he swerved around a pickup truck and ran a red light on South College, he cringed. God I hope it’s not too late. He stopped at the next intersection, thought for a moment, got his bearings, and jerked the wheel to the right. After a few more turns, he was headed down Masonboro Loop, his blue light flashing and siren whelping. It was quite a coincidence that he knew exactly where she lived now. But he did, since he was the officer who’d had the dubious honor of fingerprinting her and writing her up just two days ago when she’d been brought in for shoplifting. He’d been covering the desk while some street officers were qualifying at the firing range.

He should have known it then! Damn! He hit his fist on the steering wheel hard enough to crack the Lincoln insignia imbedded in the plastic. He’d known she wasn’t capable of shoplifting! He’d known something was off kilter, it just hadn’t dawned on him what. She wasn’t just some spoiled socialite—she was Laura, and she was above that kind of thing. He knew it. Deep down, he knew it. He’d been two years ahead of Laura when they’d attended Laney High School, and even though they hadn’t run in the same circles, he’d had plenty of opportunity to idolize her from afar. He watched her when she was with her friends chatting in the halls, cheerleading in front of the bleachers at basketball games, and speaking at assemblies as her class president. Once, he’d even gotten close enough to pick up a book she’d dropped. Her soft blue eyes and ready smile had mesmerized him then, and he’d envied the boys who were confident enough in their status to ask her out.

He remembered one Christmas concert when she’d sang a solo. It was Shubert’s version of “Ave Maria.” He had watched her from six rows back, constantly craning his neck to keep her in view as two girls in front of him jostled each other. Her eyes had sparkled and her lips had shone with a deep cherry gloss as she stood, hands clasped with fingers interlaced, looking up as if the words were written on the auditorium ceiling. She had looked like a dark-haired angel. The song still haunted him; he couldn’t hear the melody without remembering how lovely she’d looked that day. His Laura was special, always had been.

As he read the numbers on the mailboxes and realized he was getting close, he shut off the siren and removed the light. Then, at a  customized, bricked-in mailbox, he pulled off the road and followed the long, winding, gravel driveway. The narrow drive twisted several times and even reversed itself before he finally emerged in a large clearing.

Her house on the Intracoastal Waterway sat back from the lane, thirty feet beyond where the circular drive ended. He could just make out the green water of the Intracoastal behind the house through the trees along the sides. It was definitely a spectacular house, set high off the ground with massive double front doors at the top of a curving brick staircase. The same brick had been used to encase the mailbox at the road and provide a low wall around the landscaped lawn and flowerbeds. He stomped on the brakes, shoved the gearshift into park, and pulled out the keys. He slid his gun from the holster, shoved it into the waistband of his shorts, and grabbed his badge before forcing the car door open with his elbow. With the efficient moves of a man who’d done these maneuvers countless times, he scanned the area as he ran while clipping his badge to the waistband of his shorts. He banged on the solid wooden door. The sound reverberated off the triple-sized wooden porch, echoing in the high rafters as it wrapped around the sides of the house. He waited a few seconds and banged again, this time much harder.

He could smell the sweet perfume from the wisteria that was clinging to a decorative light pole leading to a walkway bordering the house. He noted that the carriage light had erroneously been left on. He stepped back a few feet and saw that all the outside lights were also on. On each corner, flood lights aimed out to the lawn and burned bright in the early morning sun. As Kel walked back to the door he spied a light for a doorbell peeking out behind an ivy planter. He punched it four times. Then he saw movement through the glass side panel, a shadow moved in the back part of the house. He continued to ring the bell repeatedly; over and over again, eight times, nine times, ten times . . . . He saw the darkened image move once more. Now the figure was leaning on a wall at the end of a long hallway, its head tipped all the way back, standing, waiting. Waiting for him to go away.

“I’m not leaving until I talk to you, Mrs. Wyndham! You remember me, I’m Detective Vain. I saw you at the station this week. I’m the one who read you your rights and fingerprinted you for shoplifting. Now open this door!”

He watched through the glass as the slim woman, wearing what appeared to be a terry cloth bathrobe, slowly made her way to the foyer.

“I don’t want to talk to anybody. Please leave me alone.” Her voice was cultured and cool, but he could hear her falter on the word “alone.” He recognized the fear trembling in her voice and he was sickened with concern.

“You need to let me in. And you need to do it now before he sees me.”

Instantly, the figure in the darkness covered the remaining distance to the door. He heard the bolts click as they unlocked and the door abruptly opened. He pushed his way in, forcing her away from the opening. Then he quickly closed the door behind him and leaned back against it.

“Mrs. Wyndham, where is your daughter?”

Her eyes flew to his, saw understanding there, and she lost every ounce of the composure she had been trying to maintain for two days.

As tears came to her eyes, her hands flew to her cheeks. “He has her,” she whispered. Completely out of control now, she broke down. Hysterically sobbing, she screamed over and over. “He has her! Oh God, he has her! That monster has my baby!”

Kel reached for her and pulled her into his arms. He held her close and tried to comfort her by rubbing his hands up and down her back. He couldn’t help but notice the soft, powder-fresh fragrance that enveloped her and he was reminded of his own not-so-fresh redolence. He set her from him and gently wrapped his big hands around her upper arms as he ducked his head to look into her face. The tears streaming down her cheeks just about broke his heart. She was too beautiful a woman to cry; she looked like an angel who should have nothing more to worry about than playing a harp. He used his thumbs to wipe away the tears. But it didn’t do any good, they kept coming.

“We’ll get her back. Shhh, shhh. We’ll get her back, we will.” Then stupidly, he added, “I swear we will.”

He led her into a darkened part of the house, away from the sunny kitchen to a huge room on the right, toward what he assumed was the living room. The sun was on the back of the house, but here in the front it was all shadows and quiet coolness.

“You can’t be here,” she sobbed. “He said if I called the police, he’d kill her. You have to leave! Now!”

He continued to hold her by his side as he led her over to a comfortable-looking leather sofa. She felt warm and soft, and small, snuggled against his large body. He drew her powder-soft fresh scent deep into his lungs.

“There’s no way he’d know I’m a cop, my car’s an unmarked Lincoln and I’m wearing a sweaty jogging outfit for crying out loud!” He didn’t mention that he’d come brandishing a gun and a badge. He forced her to sit on the sofa, then sat beside her on the sectional where it turned so he could face her.

“Tell me what happened. Start at the beginning. I need to know everything if I’m going to be able to find her.”

“H . . . h-how did you know?” she stammered.

“I saw your picture in the paper this morning.” He watched as fresh tears filled her eyes and overflowed her lashes. She flushed scarlet with the memory of what she had done. Her hands covered her face as she dropped it into her lap.

“I could just die.”

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