I held the coffee cup at arm's length as scalding liquid sloshed over the sides and splashed against my skin and uniform. Mentally cursing myself for not getting a lid, I brought the cup to my lips and took a tentative sip. My tongue jerked away automatically from the hot coffee, but I forced myself to swallow a mouthful. When the liquid no longer threatened to spill over the rim, I set the cup down in the cup holder and reached for a napkin. Red splotches peppered my hand. Muttering under my breath, I made an attempt at wiping away the small spill on my pants. Thankfully my uniform was dark; the stain wouldn't be as noticeable.
Leaving the coffee at a safe distance, I released the cruiser's brake and pressed back down on the accelerator. The drive thru's curb disappeared from my rear-view mirror, though I could hear its mocking laughter follow me from a distance. Vehicles in front of me as well as behind slowed noticeably below the speed limit, eliciting a groan from me. For once, I wished they were speeding so I wouldn't be late for work. Finally, I pulled into the station's parking lot. I grabbed my coffee and a small box from the passenger seat before heading inside.
Luke Garroway was sitting at his desk, his eyes pasted to his computer screen as his fingers flew wildly over his keyboard. I dropped the box on his desk and tried to walk past without him noticing.
"Your coffee jump up and bite ya'?"
Damn his vigilance. I turned around and walked back to his desk. He leaned back in his chair, amusement twinkling in his blue eyes. A couple days worth of stubble had grown on his face, giving him a rugged look, though his smile was kind as always.
"The coffee and the drive thru curb were plotting against me," I said.
"I hope you read them their rights when you arrested them."
I tapped the box with my finger. "I brought you breakfast."
Luke lifted the lid and peered inside. He removed a powdered donut and took a bite. "You brought me breakfast for the rest of the week."
I reached inside and snatched a donut before Luke could yank the box away. He glared at me through narrowed eyes, chewing aggressively.
"You have to share," I chided, waggling my eyebrows and taking a bite.
"Don't make me get my taser."
Grinning, I walked down the aisle to my own desk. Crumbs on the shiny surface were the only evidence of my breakfast. I swept them away with my hand and took another swig of my coffee. As my computer booted to life, I reached down and opened one of my desk drawers. A folder sat on the top of a stack of papers. I lifted the file and plunked it on the desk. A small smiling face now stared up at me from the drawer. The poster itself was fifteen years old, though the boy depicted was only four. I'd been on the force for three years, and his face had been posted in the station since day one. I'd made myself a copy of the poster and looked into his case personally, but it had gone cold. Still, he remained in my desk as well as my thoughts, like a candle burning faintly in the farthest corner of my mind.
Closing the drawer, I set to work on finishing up my reports from the previous day. Phones rang and other officers walked up and down the aisle, talking loudly. I'd long since learned to shut them out. The reports were finished in under two hours. Luke stopped by not long after, offering for me to join him on patrol. I accepted without a second thought; going out on patrol with my partner was often the highlight of my day. We got in the car and pulled out of the parking lot, Luke at the wheel.
We drove through the city for half an hour, swapping jokes and watching carefully for careless drivers. Luke pulled over an SUV that had been driving erratically while I watched from the passenger seat. He got back into the cruiser, shaking his head.
"Damn kids and their cell phones," he mumbled.
Luke drove for a while longer. The radio squawked between us. At a stoplight, an impressive car pulled up on our right. I looked over and found two younger girls watching me. The passenger leaned forward in her seat so I could see her. They flashed wide smiles and batted their eyelashes. I inclined my head and let my lips tug into a small smile before turning away. The light turned green and the car pulled away, the girls giggling behind closed windows. I looked over at Luke to make a comment, but he was busy rubbing his face with his hand. He looked at himself in his mirror on occasion. I figured he had been completely oblivious to my little encounter.
"So is the beard a temporary thing?" I asked, keeping my eyes on my partner.
Luke instantly pulled his hand from his face and cleared his throat. "I'm giving it a try."
I cocked an eyebrow. "This wouldn't have anything to do with your new girlfriend, would it?"
"Jocelyn has in no way imposed on the decisions between me and my facial hair."
"Is it for Clary, then? Trying to be the hot step father?"
"Shut up," Luke grumbled, whacking me on the shoulder.
I punched him back. Luke was years older than me, but he always took my humor with good stride. Not only was he a great friend and partner, he was a learned teacher. He'd taken me under his wing when I'd joined the enforcement. Luke had taught me how to be diligent and vigilant, how to be strict but empathetic, and how to separate the impact of work life from my personal life. In truth, I'd lucked out; I couldn't have asked for a better partner.
Luke was in the middle of a sentence when a red convertible roared past us, blazing through a red light up ahead. He switched on the cruiser's lights and pressed down on the gas pedal. We followed the car for several blocks, but it took Luke turning on the sirens before the vehicle finally pulled over.
"I've got this one," I said as Luke parked behind the stopped car.
I got out and approached the vehicle cautiously. There was only one occupant in the car, but his body language betrayed his agitation. One arm was draped across the door, fingers strumming loudly. The man wore a dark pair of aviators, but I could feel his glare hiding behind the lenses.
"Good afternoon," I greeted him. When he said nothing, I continued, "Do you know why I pulled you over, sir?"
"Maybe because you're an asshole?" the man suggested.
I smiled. "License and registration please."
With an exaggerated sigh, the man reached over and dug through the compartment in front of the passenger seat. He then dug in his jeans for his wallet and chucked the requested items at me. I thanked him and headed back to the cruiser, but not before hearing him call me a douchebag under his breath.
Luke looked up as I climbed in beside him. "What's so funny?"
"This guy just screwed himself into paying the maximum fine."
I scribbled down the driver's information as Luke typed the license plate into the cruiser's laptop. Since there were no outstanding warrants on the guy, I made do with writing out the ticket. I got out and approached the car again. When I handed the driver his papers back, he took one look at the ticket amount and shot a glare at me, a tick in his jaw.
I grinned at him. "Have a nice day."
The driver pulled away from the curb after I stepped back from his car. He pulled into traffic and continued along at a decent speed like a model, law-abiding citizen. Shaking my head, I moved to head back to the cruiser but I stopped. Something stapled to the power pole on the sidewalk caught my attention. Closer inspection gave me déjà vu from that morning. A laminated copy of the same poster I had in my desk was staring back at me. The poster's edges were worn and the information had faded, but I still recognized the face. I'd never forgotten the mop of ebony hair, the bright smile, the eyes that were like sunlight shining through blue glass. With a sigh, I tore my eyes away and climbed back into the car.
Luke continued down the road without questioning my actions. Another fifteen minutes passed. We were headed back to the station when he finally snuck a glance at me. "What's going on inside that head, B?"
I looked over at him. "Huh?"
"We've worked together for three years; I can tell when something's bothering you. What's on your mind?"
I sighed and relented, "I've been thinking about a case."
"The Alexander Lightwood case?"
Sometimes Luke Garroway's intuitiveness astounded me. "Yeah."
"What about it?"
I looked out the window and watched the passing businesses. "Do you think there's still hope of finding him alive?"
Luke was quiet for a moment. "They say the best chances of finding a child alive are within twenty-four hours after the abduction. Forty-eight at the most. I hate to be a negative person, but it's been fifteen years since that kid went missing. I think the rescue has long since turned into a recovery."
"I think people have forgotten about him," I responded, keeping my voice even.
"Last I heard, his adopted brother is still out looking for him. He's travelled everywhere that there's been a possible sighting of Alexander." Luke flicked his eyes from the road over to me again. "And you haven't forgotten him."
No, I thought. But I have stopped looking.
The evening was dragging on. With most of the other officers now off duty, the station was quiet. Luke and I had caught up on our work and were now busying entertaining ourselves by chucking wads of paper from one end of the aisle into a trash can positioned at the other end. To keep it interesting, we tried making the shots from awkward positions and angles. We were behaving like teenagers. It was completely unprofessional, but that hadn't stopped us from doing it again and again.
Our dispatcher, a woman with a stern face but a kind heart, poked her head out of her office. She quirked an eyebrow at our little game but chose to ignore it. "Got a call for you boys."
"Fire away, love," Luke said, hurrying to his desk for the car keys.
She listed off the address. "Possible domestic disturbance. Neighbor said her cat accidentally got out and she heard screaming from the house next door while she was in her backyard looking."
I hastily moved the garbage can to the side as we made for the exit. The day had been warm and sunny, but the night had brought an unpleasant chill. I shivered as I slipped into the passenger seat, though I couldn't tell if it was from the cold or from the adrenaline. Excitement rushed through my veins. Luke drove at high speed, weaving in and out of traffic with the skills of a stunt driver. He'd turned on the lights but kept the sirens off.
We pulled in front of an older, medium-sized home. It was completely dark, not a single light shining in any of the windows. The driveway was clear of any vehicles. As I stepped out of the car, I noticed a form illuminated in the front window of the house next door. A woman peered out at us curiously. I ignored her and followed Luke up the front steps of the house. We listened for any signs of a disturbance but heard nothing. Luke pounded his fist against the door. When no one answered, he knocked again and called, "Police Department."
We heard it then: a voice so faint it barely reached our ears. A voice calling for help.
My hand fell to my gun. Luke reached for his radio and called for backup. With hand signals I'd come to understand over the years, Luke motioned that he was going to go around back. I nodded and surveyed the area as he disappeared around the side of the house. I reached down and tried the doorknob. It stopped short of turning. Backing away from the door, I readied myself and kicked out hard. The door swung open and slammed against the wall inside. My weapon drawn, I moved through the doorway.
I flicked on light switches as I moved through the ground floor. The living room was free of any people or pets. Everything looked normal: there was a television and nice furniture, the carpet was clean, and there were no dirty dishes or pieces of garbage in sight. When I looked around, however, I noticed there were no pictures or knick knacks of any kind. The walls were completely devoid of any faces, which struck me as odd.
The kitchen was at the rear of the house. After making sure the coast was clear, I moved across the floor and unlocked a sliding door. Luke stepped into the house without a sound. He flicked his head, indicating for me to follow him. We walked silently down a hallway with three closed doors. One held a bedroom, which was empty. Another housed a small, clean bathroom. Luke opened the third door and we found ourselves staring through the darkness at the landing of a staircase. The stairs went both up to the second level and down to the basement. There was a quick moment of hesitation and then Luke began descending the staircase. I stayed where I was, checking over my shoulder constantly for any hiding intruders.
A light flicked on in the basement and I heard Luke's sharp intake of breath. "Jesus Christ."
"Get down here, B."
I started down the stairs, hands still firmly grasping my gun. The stairs were old and creaky; every step I took elicited a groan from the wooden structures. I was actually thankful for the noise because it meant that anyone hiding upstairs wouldn't be able to sneak down without making a racket.
The sight that waited for me in the basement was nothing short of alarming. I stood with my jaw hanging open as Luke approached two scrawny figures sitting at the bases of two poles that extended from floor to ceiling. Both the victims were male and each of them had a ring of duct tape coiled around their eyes. One of them had tape around his mouth, the other had a loose ring of tape hanging around his neck. I realized he'd somehow managed to slip the tape off and call for help.
Luke crouched down next to the victim, the one who was able to speak, and began gently peeling the tape from his eyes, all the while murmuring soft words of comfort. I looked around, taking in the rest of the horrific surroundings. There was a tattered, stained mattress tucked away in the far corner. I cringed to see several bottles of lubricant scattered around it. A few cans of beer and what looked like prescription bottles were piled nearby. Several new rolls of duct tape were stacked in a silver tower. A blanket had been tossed out of reach from either of the young boys. Any windows in the basement had been boarded up, but that hadn't stopped the chill from creeping inside. It was nearly warmer outside than it was in this dungeon.
Luke finally got the tape free from the first victim's eyes. He muttered an apology when the adhesive pulled at the victim's hair. The boy blinked and squinted against the light. His unfocused gaze caught mine and I saw the brownish-gold tint in his irises. He winced as he tried to sit up straighter and tucked his knees tighter against his chest. I realized his, as well as the other victim's, ankles had been taped together. Luke set to work on freeing the victim's hands, which were bound behind the pole.
"What's your name?" Luke asked gently as he uncoiled the tape.
"S-Simon. Simon Lewis." The boy's voice was weak and hoarse. I wondered how long he'd been screaming before someone had finally heard him.
Luke stopped suddenly and gave me a knowing look over his shoulder. He must have seen the cluelessness in my eyes because he set back to work without a word. Tucking my gun away, I hurried to the other victim's side and reached to pull the tape from his mouth. The instant my fingers touched my skin, he jerked away from me, breathing hard through his nose.
"It's all right," I soothed. "I'm not going to hurt you."
He did not pull away from me when I touched him again, but neither did he relax. He sucked in a long breath and let out a shaky whimper when the tape slipped free of his face and dropped around his neck. I ignored the fact that it looked like a silver noose and started peeling the tape from his eyes. He hissed when it pulled at his hair but otherwise did not complain. Like Simon, he blinked rapidly when he was able to open his eyes. The hazel depths found mine.
"Thank you," he whispered.
"Can you tell me your name?" I asked, positioning myself behind him to free his hands.
Luke was unbinding Simon's feet, but his eyes flicked up knowingly again. I wondered what was running wildly through his mind, besides the obvious. I finally got Jordan's wrists and ankles free and offered my hands to help him up. He took both of them and attempted to stand. I pulled most of his weight, and he wobbled slightly on his feet.
Both boys were now standing. Luke and I chanced a look at each other, careful to keep our expressions stoic. Simon and Jordan were both malnourished; their bones were prominent and lacked traces of muscle. Ragged clothes hung loosely from their bodies. Jordan's dark hair was unkempt, but it looked as though it had been recently trimmed. Still, it hung partially in his eyes and the ends curled slightly at his shoulders and neck. Simon's hair was equally messy, but it was longer and straighter. A faded bruise was visible by Simon's left eye. Jordan's face was dirty but undamaged; however, finger-shaped bruises encircled his wrists.
"Can you tell us who did this to you?" Luke questioned.
Simon's eyes went wide. He looked too terrified to mention anything about his attacker.
Jordan spoke up, though he avoided both mine and Luke's gazes. "I've never seen their faces. Not once. They were always careful not to call each other by name. They never slipped up. Not once. Not once."
Jordan's voice broke and I saw tears slide down his cheeks, but I heard a hint of defiance in his voice. Though he was looking away, he held his chin up. An unseen strength lay beneath the young man's skin. I suspected he was a fighter. That would explain the bruises around his wrists. He'd had to have been held down. . .
Luke stepped away and murmured into his radio, requesting an ambulance. I watched Jordan and Simon carefully. It was important to keep them calm. Panic could send both of them bolting out of the house, which would compromise the needed confidentiality of the situation. Simon stared at the mattress in the corner with haunted eyes, but it was Jordan who broke first.
"I-I need to get out of the house," he stammered, wrapping his arms around himself.
"An ambulance is on the way," I assured him softly. "If you can just wait for—"
"I need out!" Jordan insisted, his eyes pleading.
"I'll go," Luke offered. He steered Jordan toward the staircase, a hand touching the boy's arm just in case he stumbled. "Simon?"
Simon hesitantly followed my partner to the staircase. But before he began his ascent, he turned around and rushed back to me. "Alec's still here."
"Where is he?"
"I don't know. They keep him somewhere." Simon's eyes brimmed with tears. "You can't leave him here. You have to find him."
There was only one place left in the house that we hadn't checked. I hoped Alec was in the room upstairs. I couldn't handle the thought of Alec being alone somewhere with the two attackers.
Promising Simon I'd find Alec, I helped him climb the staircase after Luke and Jordan. My partner then took the two victims down the hall and out of my sight. I drew my gun out of its holster and turned to finish climbing the staircase. A closed door waited for me at the top step. Slowly, I pushed it open and reached inside for the light switch. The overhead bulb blazed to life. I looked around, but, like all the other rooms in the house, the bedroom was empty.
The king-size bed had been perfectly made, free of any winkles or loose sheets. It had barred head and footboards, and stood higher off the wood-panelled floor. Similarly to the living room, there were no pictures or decorative items to be seen. There was a dresser opposite the bed, but every drawer was empty. A closet with no door held nothing, not even a forgotten hanger or dust bunny. The only piece of personalization to the room was a square navy blue rug at the foot of the bed. I found it odd that it was not at the side of the bed, where one would put his or her feet on the cold ground every morning, but clearly ordinary people did not live in this house. I shivered to think of why someone would need a rug to stand on at the foot of a bed, what that person would be doing, what that person would be watching.
Unlike the basement, the bedroom window had not been boarded up. Dark curtains had been pulled, but when I crossed the room and opened them, I found myself looking into the backyard, bare except for dark grass.
Simon had insisted that another victim was still in the house. There was nowhere for anyone to hide in this room. I checked under the bed for good measure but my search came up empty. I wondered if the attackers had hidden Alec somewhere inside the house. Once our backup arrived, we'd be able to do a sweep and check every nook and cranny.
After holstering my gun, I started for the staircase. As I walked, the toe of my boot caught on the raised edge of the rug. I stumbled forward and grabbed onto the footboard to catch myself. Cursing inwardly, I turned and looked down to fix the rug.
The corner of it had lifted when I'd tripped, and the first thing I noticed was a tiny adhesive patch stuck on the undersurface. Patches like that were not uncommon in houses with hardwood floors, but I wondered why it was so imperative that a rug stay put in an odd place in a room that had nothing else in it. Then I noticed the lines in the floor, lines that were out of place. I bent down and tore the rug from the flooring. The base of a rectangle was now visible, and the lines extended beneath the bed. Pulse hammering in my throat, I scampered to the side of the bed and began dragging it out of the way. The bed frame was on wheels, which made it easier to move, but the mattress and box spring were still heavy.
With the bed finally out of the way, I hurried back to the spot where the rug had been. I now stared down at a large rectangle cut into the floor. From the angle I'd been at while looking under the bed, the lines were indistinguishable from the floor. But now that I knew what I was searching for, I could see them clearly. Next I searched for some sort of door handle. The best I found was a small groove in the middle of the right side of the rectangle. After several attempts, I managed to get my finger underneath and lift the hidden door.
A long metal box that resembled a locker stared up at me. I reached down for the silver handle and cursed to find it was locked. I stood up and looked around. There had to be a key somewhere. Had the attackers taken it with them? But if they'd been sure that no one would ever find their hidden treasure, would they really have taken the extra precaution to keep the key on hand?
My stomach was doing flips as I strode back over to the bed. I lifted the first pillow and found nothing, but under the second pillow was a small, gleaming silver key. Snatching it up, I threw myself onto the floor beside the locker. It slipped into the handle with ease, but I hesitated before turning it. I did not know what was waiting inside for me. I braced myself, expecting the worst, and threw open the second door.
A small body was inside, curled on its side in the closest it could get to the fetal position in the tight confines. My eyes were wide with horror. It was another boy; young, judging by the size of him. His wrists had been taped together and his hands were up by his face. He was clad in a threadbare t-shirt and sweatpants. His feet were bare. A strand of black leather encircled the boy's neck, and rivulets of red stained his pale throat. I could only stare, too frightened that if I touched him I'd discover he was dead.
Suddenly the body moved. I gasped, startled. Upon hearing the sound, the boy slowly angled his face toward me. Shaggy black hair hung in his eyes, but I could still see the color through the dark strands. Recognition slammed into me like a truck driving at full speed.
"Alexander Lightwood?" I choked out.
His face remained impassive, but he slowly nodded. I let out the breath I'd been holding and ducked my face, trembling from head to toe. The boy that had been missing for fifteen years was now laying, alive, in front of me. He was no longer the four-year-old that had smiled at me from a missing persons poster for three years, but his face was unmistakeable. He was now nineteen, but his body was that of a young teenager. He was skinny, though not as bone-thin as Jordan and Simon. He did not have the muscle mass of healthy boys— men —his age. Even his frame was small. I guessed that standing at full height, Alexander would barely reach my shoulder.
"Alexander, I'm with the Police Department. I'm going to get you out of here. Are you able to stand?"
Alec shook his head. Positioning myself carefully, I reached down into the locker and scooped him up into my arms. His shockingly light weight distressed me more than it relived me. I lifted him from the locker and readjusted him. Weak, Alec let his head fall against my shoulder. I angled his body carefully so I would not bump him against the walls as I descended the stairs. We moved slowly, and as we reached the halfway point to the landing, Alec reached up and slipped his bound arms around my neck. He turned his face into my shoulder and held on tightly. It brought tears to my eyes as I thought that this was the first time in fifteen years that Alexander Lightwood felt safe.
No one was in the house as I sluggishly maneuvered my way down the hall, but I could hear voices outside. The front door had been left open and I could see red and blue flashing lights on the floor as I rounded the corner.
Before we could get outside, Alec turned his face and craned his neck toward my ear. His breath was warm against my neck. The first words out of the nineteen-year-old's mouth were: "I want my mom."
My heart fractured into millions of tiny fragments. All I could to was hold Alec tighter against me. I couldn't bear to tell him. . . Not now. He said nothing more as I carried him outside to the waiting ambulance. Eyes of surrounding officers and curious bystanders were on me as I brought Alexander over to a paramedic. She wheeled over a gurney and instructed me to set him down. I gently placed Alec's lower half on the stretcher, but his arms remained around my neck. When I tenderly pulled them up and over my hand, Alec's hand shot out and snatched the front of my uniform. He did not say a word as he clutched onto me. It took two paramedics to pry his fingers away.
I stood in a stunned trance as they loaded Alec into an ambulance and sped off, sirens wailing. He'd been rescued only moments before and he had already been taken away again.