Chapter 68

The two men watched the surveillance tape, fast-forwarding grainy footage, jerky movements zipping by in black-and-white detail. Hunched together in the small electronics closet, the hum of machinery on all sides, the air grew hot quickly. The two men didn’t move, didn’t wipe the sweat as it ran down their faces. They stared, intent on their task, their eyes glued to the small screen before them.

“Stop. Play from there.”

The footage showed a hallway, a man closing a door and walking away from the camera, his steps relaxed and unhurried.

“That’s me. That’s when I left to ditch the phone. I’m pulling out my cell right there.”

“Okay. Keep watching.”

They sat in complete silence, the clock in the bottom of the video counting slowly through the minutes, neither man moving an inch. Thirteen minutes passed, then they stiffened, watching the doorknob twitch, then still. Then the door swung open, and a girl burst into view. They watched in silence as she ran down the hall, out of view of the cam.

“Switch screens.”

Fingers clicked, screens flickered, and they watched in silence as the upper showroom revealed the close encounter, the girl hiding while the man strolled by. Then, her escape through the front doors.

“Fuck. Better call the boss. He ain’t gonna be pleased about this.”

“No shit, man. No shit.”

♦♦♦

Dom Magiano sat alone in his bedroom, in a chair by the window. He stared, unmoving, at the trees, their palms swaying in the breeze. When the call came, his hand was already on the receiver, and he lifted it to his ear without speaking.

The voice’s subdued tone came through the line with specks of frustration dotting the words. “We don’t know where she is.”

His face tightened. He cleared his throat. “How is that possible? You lost her?”

“We’re working on it.”

“You’re proving why you have never gained status in this town. Track her down before she is found. My son has half the town out looking.” He hung up the phone without waiting for a response, leaning back in the chair and closing his eyes, waiting for the peace of sleep, peace that would not come for quite some time. The open window brought a blast of warmth, gentle fingers of heat that washed over his tired skin, doing nothing to loosen the stress lodged in the deep lines of his face.

♦♦♦

Night fell and the search for Julia Campbell continued, police reluctantly joining the hunt. Brad paced, an emotional storm on the edge of destruction. Martha cooked dishes no one would eat, and Stevie and Ben watched silently. News channels picked up the story on the police scanner, and the phone rang incessantly, until the point that Brad ripped it out of the wall. Then they appeared, white decaled vans, cheery faces plastered over their sides, inching down the street until they lined both sides of it. Curtains moved, neighbors watched, and everyone held their breath.

At ten o’clock, the girls left, Olivia driving her and Becca in circles through town, scanning the streets for Julia, silence and tension filling her Jeep. The Campbells returned to the hotel, watching the evening news and sat together, hands gripped, heads bowed, and hoped for a miracle.

Fourteen miles away, another group, men of a hardened nature, set up a three-mile perimeter around the showroom, bringing in dogs and starting an organized block by block search, intent on my recapture, the blood of their cohort setting fire to their hunt. Just inside that perimeter, I woke to mosquitoes, the sting of their bites prickling the skin on my arms and neck. I sat up, slapping my forearm and glanced around, my eyes adjusting to the darkness. I peeked around the edge of the dumpster. An empty parking lot, street lights illuminating spots of the bare asphalt. I stood, and my legs and back instantly screamed in protest.

In the distance, I heard a dog bark, and the tire crunch of a nearby car. The sound kicked my adrenaline back into gear. How long I had been asleep? I eased around the edge of the dumpster, glancing around quickly, my feet starting a silent bitch-fest, their raw bottoms readjusting to the rough gravel/pavement combination. I sent a silent prayer upward, thankful for the dark shadows that the dusk granted, then took off running, heading farther in the direction of quiet.

Chapter 69

Running had always helped me to clear my mind. Thoughts seemed to fall into place best when my body was occupied. I settled into a rhythm, trying to conserve energy, breathing shallowly and attempting to ignore the pain signals my body was shooting to my brain. My head, thankfully, had lost its piercing pain, settling into a dull throb that was somewhat bearable. I ran—redirecting any intelligent thought to try and figure out what the hell was going on.

I could see no reason to kidnap me. Was I being held for ransom? The wedding held off until Brad paid some exorbitant amount? I had so little information to go on. When I had first waked up, tied to a chair and blindfolded, I had heard men talking. Multiple men. They had been waiting for something. For me to wake up? I had probably knocked myself out in my attempt to escape from the chair, the wound on the back of my skull evidence to support that. Then I had reawakened, with that man on top of me ... was that why I was taken? To be raped by a stranger? That seemed even less likely.

I took a deep breath, lengthening my strides in an attempt to change the muscles worked. Twice I had to hide, headlights reflecting off nearby items, warning me in advance of approaching cars. I used that time to breathe, crouched into a tiny ball, comfortable in the darkness, my confidence increasing the farther I ran. The streets were changing, becoming more commercial in nature. I passed a few homeless men, their eyes watching me closely, one reaching out for me as I passed, his fingers grasping empty air, my steps moving me away from him. I cut over one street, avoiding the main road and taking a side street, the hum of traffic giving me a burst of confidence. My eyes examined the back of closed business, doctor’s offices, accounting firms, an auto parts store. I was moving closer to suburbia, the sidewalk less cracked, gravel transitioning to landscaped area. Everything closed. Then, ahead, I saw the glow of lights. A pharmacy, its bright red sign visible from the back road. I came to a stop, trying to make a decision.

It was the first place worth stopping at, the first commercial business I had come to, where the public moved freely in and out, where I could walk in and ask to use a phone. But wouldn’t that also make it the first place they would look for me? Maybe I should continue, put another mile between them and me. I exhaled deeply, my throat dry, starving again for liquid. The pharmacy would have something for my feet. Maybe even shoes, not that I had any money to pay for it. But they might cover me until Brad arrived.

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