“Mr. Clayton, I’m going to have to ask you to stay in town,” advised the portly detective from the sheriff’s department. He talked with his mouth still full of processed the chicken he had just picked out of a blue eagle package. He had arrived shortly after the deputies, who themselves never bothered to remove their shades during their perfunctory examination of Vaughn’s house. A wrinkled blue suit draped the detective’s slouching frame. He wore his thinning hair combed forward to mask a prematurely receding hairline. His notepad and cheap Bic pen never left his pocket.
“You don’t look like a detective,” Vaughn remarked. Vaughn had encouraged and even pleaded with the deputies and detective to search everything and spend as much time as they needed at the crime scene. He showed them the muddy footprints in the hallway that they had missed. He showed them the tire tracks in the driveway. He even offered them Jessica’s journal, but they weren’t very interested in any of it.
“Am I the suspect?” Vaughn asked.
“Not technically,” answered the detective. “Let’s just say you’re a person of interest for now. A lot of these cases end up where the wife just up and left. A lot of other times, someone she knew was responsible.”
“What do you mean? I hear about kidnappings for ransom all the time. None of those were people they knew.” Vaughn felt a rage percolate up into the blood vessels of his face.
“We need to rule out the obvious possibilities first.”
“Well I didn’t do anything to my wife. And she didn’t leave. She wouldn’t leave her daughter half frozen to death. She was kidnapped. Find the kidnappers. You’re wasting time.”
“Calm down, sir. We’re not saying you did it,” answered the detective, spitting out crumbs as he spoke.
“Then tell me what I can do to help find her. I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll take a polygraph, anything. Just find her!”
“Vaughn, let me be honest with you,” said the detective as he wiped his greasy fingers on the insides of his suit pants pockets. “You know that your wife isn’t the only one that’s been kidnapped around here. Hell, we had fourteen kidnappings in the county this month alone. And half of them are relatives of cops, for crying out loud.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“I’m trying to say that you need to be patient. It’s going to take some time. We have to deal with these things on a first-in, first-out basis. So just relax and try not to worry so much.”
“What? Try not to worry? My wife is missing! How can you tell me to not worry?!”
“Just calm down…easy.” The detective put his greasy paw on Vaughn’s shoulder. “Relax. The feds will be getting involved, soon. These kidnappings are a national epidemic. There’s been too many of these disappearances while law-enforcement resources have been devoted to higher priorities. But all that’s about to change. I’m sure you’ve heard of TAPSRA?”
“The president signed it back in September—The Anti-Kidnapping and Public Safety Restoration Act.”
“I just want you to take some prints or something. Do your job.”
“You’ve been watching too much TV. We don’t do it that way. Just sit tight, wait for the ransom call.” The detective balled up his foil wrapper, tucked it into his pants pocket, and handed Vaughn one of his smudged cards. He walked out the door and disappeared into the cold with the deputies. Vaughn and tiny Brooke, who was watching a DVD about mermaids, were alone in the house again.
“Where’s mommy?” she asked, looking up from the TV.
Vaughn mustered a smile. Looking down into her wide little eyes, he was deeply afraid that they would never see her mother again. How will I manage? he wondered.
He checked his voicemail for the 30th time…still nothing. He contemplated making the dreaded call to Jessica’s mother but he couldn’t do it just yet. He had to process things a little more.
He began to pace. What is wrong with these people? he asked himself. Can’t they see that she didn’t just leave? All of her things are here, even her coat. Why would she tear the house apart? If she left, she wouldn’t have left the door open and Brooke to freeze. She couldn’t leave Brooke. No way. Do they seriously think I did something to her?
Brooke went back to her mermaids. Vaughn let her entertain herself for the better part of the day while he sat and waited for a ransom call. He checked his phone seven times to make sure the ringer was on or that the battery was still alive or that an incoming message alert hadn’t been missed.
At eight o’clock, he put Brooke to bed and poured himself a whiskey. He was not normally one to drink it straight, but somehow the thought of its potency appealed to him at that moment. He paced with his cell phone in one hand and his drink in the other, waiting, contemplating the enormous endeavor of cleaning up his decimated house. He downed the drink and checked the phone an eighth time.
He poured himself another whiskey and walked from room to room taking inventory and looking for clues. He checked the phone a ninth and tenth time. Exhausted, he migrated back into the family room and fell into his sofa.
He decided that reclamation of the household was far too big a task for nine p.m. He got up and poured another drink. He resisted the urge to look at his phone, that time. The god damn phone, he thought. Why won’t it ring? He was inclined to smash it to bits. No, that won’t help. He was helpless. There was nothing he could do. He put his face into his hands. He composed himself and took another drink. For an instant, he worried that he would be too hung over for work the next day. Then he remembered he was unemployed. Perhaps the timing’s perfect, he thought. I can dedicate all my time to finding Jess. He sucked on the sour ice cubes from his empty glass. But who’s going to take care of Brooke while I look for her? Mom? She’ll do it. Call her. He lifted the phone to his ear and was about to press the quick dial key but stopped himself.
By eleven p.m., the stove that heated the living room was burning down, casting off its dying orange sparks. He freshened his drink again and sipped it in the darkness while the house cooled.
Call Jess’s mother at least, he thought. No, call her tomorrow when you’re sober
He dragged himself up off the sofa again and clumsily reloaded the stove, fumbling with the kindling and lighter. He stumbled back towards the sofa, grabbed the whiskey bottle and cell phone and lumbered into the master bedroom. He lost his balance trying to navigate the clutter in the darkness. He fell over the overturned mattress and landed on the box spring. He lay there with his half-empty bottle and his silent cell phone for an hour, watching the red minutes click over on the digital clock on his nightstand. At 12:00, he rolled over and fell asleep.
He dreamed he was digging. He was sweeping away black dirt with his hands, trying to uncover Jessica’s buried face. She was somewhere down in that dirt, suffocating. He found her hand. He dug faster, handful after handful, as fast as he could. The walls of soil collapsed back in covering her up just as he got close. A bright light flashed behind him. He heard his own voice.
“Don’t look back or you might just see what’s gaining on you.”
He dug faster. He brushed the dirt away from Jess’s face. Her eyes opened but she couldn’t breathe. He dug still faster but the walls caved in again. The light brightened from behind. He looked over his shoulder again and saw the German shepherd that had terrorized him in his youth. The walls of the hole collapsed in. He clawed at the dirt in desperation but she was gone. Now he was trapped, buried by the black, sandy dirt. He heard little Brooke scream. More and more earth fell down on him in an avalanche, paralyzing him …
The phone was ringing. He tried to wake up. He fumbled around for the receiver in the dark but dropped it. “Damn it!” “Beep. Beep.”
He blindly felt around for it. “Where the hell is it?”
He dropped the bottle and the remaining whiskey spilled out onto the box spring. He couldn’t find the phone.
“Where is it?!” he shouted.
“At last! But he couldn’t get the flip top to open.”
“Come on!” Open. Success. He put the receiver to his ear. Nothing.
“No! No!” he shouted, thinking that he had missed the call after all that. He looked into the receiver. The timer was still counting. He put it back to his ear.
“Who is this?” Vaughn answered. No response. “Who is this?” he shouted again. He glanced over at the clock. It was 3:01. His head was spinning in a metal-on-metal screeching headache. His mouth was covered in film. “Who is this?”
“We have your wife, Vaughn.”
Vaughn froze. His eyes stared at a fixed point in the darkness.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Do you want your wife back?”
“Yes. Yes, of course. Who are you?”
“You have something we want, Vaughn.”
“What is it?”
“We think you know.”
“I have no idea what you want!” Vaughn answered. “Money? I can’t get it out bec…”
“We don’t want your worthless dollars, Vaughn.”
“What then?” His mind raced through his possessions. Television, computer, furniture, car, clothing…it’s all worthless junk. They wouldn’t want any of that, he thought. “What do you want?” he asked.
“We want your gold, Vaughn.”
“You know what we’re talking about. We want your gold. All of it.”
“I don’t have any gold.”
“We know you do, Vaughn. We want the Krugerrands.”
“What the hell is a Krugerrand?” Vaughn asked.
“Don’t play dumb with us, Vaughn. This is your wife we’re talking about. If you want to see her again, you need to deliver the Krugerrands to us.”
“I don’t have any Krugerrands. Please. I can get you cash but it will take a couple days.”
“Like I said, we don’t want your worthless dollars, Vaughn. We want your gold. We know you have a collection stashed away there. Fifty ounces. We want them all. You’ve got two hours. Do you know where the old Mercantile Building is near Buffalo Creek?”
“The old general store? Yes, I know it.”
“You’ve got two hours to get there. Bring your little coin collection and don’t bother calling the sheriff. We’ll know if you do.”
“That’s twenty miles from here and there’s a foot of snow outside. I don’t have enough gas.”
“Not our problem, Vaughn. Be there. Two hours. Goodbye.”
Vaughn lay motionless clutching the phone to his ear, staring into the dark. He thought that maybe he had wet the bed but then realized the spilled whiskey had run down and soaked into his khakis. He fumbled around for the lamp on the nightstand. A burst of photons nearly vaporized his eyeballs as he switched on the light. He lay back down and shielded his eyes with the inside of his elbow.
“Get up!” he slurred to himself as he swung his arm off his face, allowing the light to sear tracers into his vision.
He scrambled downstairs to the garage looking for gas. There was no way he could make it to Buffalo Creek on fumes. If he ran out, he would have to walk several miles down lonely country roads at night in the midst of a blizzard. Dying of exposure was a very real possibility.
Brooke! he thought. Should I bring her? Absolutely not. But I can’t leave her. What then?
He found the lawnmower gas can. It had about a gallon and a half left. He went outside to the truck and carefully poured the contents in. It would be enough to get there. It was the best he could do.
He went back inside to check on Brooke. She was still asleep, tiny hands clutching her monkey. He watched her for a minute, then snuck out. He couldn’t bring her, too dangerous. He picked up the phone and called his mother. It was 3:15 a.m.. He got her voicemail.
“Mom! It’s me. I’m sorry to call you like this but something has happened. I need to go somewhere to help Jess. It’s an emergency. I can’t take Brooke with me but I can’t wait for someone to come watch her, either. I need a big, big favor. I need for you to come to my house when you get this message. I know I’m asking a lot. Brooke’s asleep now and she rarely wakes up so things should be all right until you get here. I know this all sounds crazy. I’ll explain everything as soon as I get back. The snow isn’t coming down like it was before so you should be okay. All right? Call me as soon as you get this. If I don’t answer it’s because I’m in the canyons. I’ll call you back as soon as I can. Okay. Goodbye.”
Vaughn went back up to the master bedroom and looked over the disaster. He went to the bed and felt underneath for the shotgun. It was still there.
“Idiots!” he declared, wondering how the kidnappers missed it.
He pulled the key out from the nightstand and unfastened the cable lock.
After putting on his winter gear, he checked in on Brooke one last time. She was still asleep, snoring her tiny, whistling snores through alternating drags on her pacifier. He hoped he would make it back before she woke. He took one last look at the upheaval that was his house before quietly closing the door and getting in his truck. The snowflakes were large and falling slowly. The storm was dying. The crystalline reflections in the truck’s headlamps hypnotized him as he drove. The road was packed over and slick. The county snowplows didn’t run anymore because the county was bankrupt. The volunteers would not be out for another hour or two. Vaughn prayed his mom would make it up to his house. Even if she did, she wouldn’t be up for another couple of hours at the earliest. Maybe he could get back home before then.
US 285 is a treacherous span of rollercoaster highway. It climbs and dives and bends through the foothills, bluntly engineered into the steep hillsides. Since the suspension of the bulk of the State’s Department of Transportation services, the road became littered with boulders that had broken loose and tumbled down the steep mountain faces along the southbound shoulder. A driver had to be wary of them as they came up fast. Now they were hidden under snow making the drive even more dangerous. Civilian Samaritans were good about pushing them to the side but that was in good weather during the daylight, and only during times when the police weren’t citing them for public safety violations. There were no Samaritans out on the highway at this hour.
Vaughn turned south at Pine Junction and drove another seven miles through the town of Pine Grove which was not more than a cluster of eclectic houses and a boarded up biker bar on the banks of the winding South Platte River.
What am I going to do when I get there? he asked himself as he passed through the nearly abandoned town. He gazed down at his shotgun. He moved it down onto the floorboards with its barrel pointed away. What will happen if the kidnappers see it?
He thought about little Brooke, alone in the house. A terrifying sensation that she was awake and screaming in her crib came over him. No one would come for her, at least not for another couple hours.
His mind drifted to the gold coins. What made the kidnappers think I have these things? He recalled Mr. Croukamp at the grocery store, the night of the market crash. “Krugerrands!” he shouted in realization. He must have them. Maybe they think I’m Croukamp! I can explain that to them. No, they won’t buy it. It wouldn’t be right, anyway. I can’t sell him out like that. Maybe I could give Croukamp a warning before they come for him. No. It won’t work. How will I handle things when I finally get there? Be honest? No. That’ll get you nowhere with them. You have to lie and buy some time.
He drove another two miles. A lonely acetylene lamp appeared in the dark, hanging over a relic payphone. The glow illuminated “1892” on the granite stone wall of the old Mercantile Building. He parked alongside the building by a vintage gas pump. He turned the engine off to conserve what was left of his precious fuel. The snow floated down through the golden arc of the lamplight.
It was another truck, roaring up the highway from the south, cutting across the adjacent church parking lot. It slid to a stop with its high beams pointed directly into Vaughn’s eyes, momentarily blinding him. Vaughn didn’t move. He thought about the shotgun on the floor. His cell phone beeped.
“Yes,” Vaughn answered.
“Step out of the truck.”
Vaughn left the shotgun on the floorboard and stepped out. He put one hand up with the other clutching the cell phone at his ear.
“Where is it?”
“We need to talk,” Vaughn replied.
“Where are the Krugerrands?”
“Show me the coins.”
“Let me see Jessica first. How do I know she’s okay?”
“Don’t fuck with us, Vaughn. We’re professionals.”
“I’m not fucking with you. Please. Just show me she’s okay.”
“Where’s the gold, Vaughn?”
“Please. Please!” Vaughn pleaded. “I’ll get you what you want. Just don’t hurt her. I’ll get you whatever you want.”
“You didn’t bring it, did you?”
“Please! I’ll give you everything I have. I won’t tell anyone. No police. Just don’t hurt her. Please. Just—”
The truck shifted into reverse and started to back up.
“No! Don’t go!”
The truck’s engine roared as it turned around in a spinout and tore back out onto the highway headed south.
“Please come back!” Vaughn shouted into his phone. “Don’t leave!”
The call disconnected.
Vaughn ran back to the truck and turned the key but the engine would not start. It was out of gas.