“Stop!” she laughed.

“Make me.”

Anna felt a rush of passion, something she’d been denying for many months now. But with him on top of her, looking at her with those big puppy eyes, well, she finally gave in to him. She was certain he was going to kiss her. She welcomed it. Wanted it. Her first kiss...

* * *

That moment, sweet and pure as it was, was suddenly broken by sounds from below. Not just sounds but...grunts and growls. Wild animals? Anna instantly knew that the noises were coming from the cellar.

The romantic moment fled as quickly as it came.

“What’s that?” Jared was suddenly alert.

“I don’t know,” said Anna, getting up. “But it came from the cellar.”

Chapter Fourteen

If I’d known Anna had gone home, and alone with Jared—a father’s greatest fear; that is, a daughter alone with a love-struck teenaged boy—I never would have gone with Carla. Anna’s actions set off a complex series of events that could have been avoided. But then again, maybe it was all inevitable.

Carla took me to her base station, the Sheriff’s Department on Hollywood Boulevard. It was a fairly busy station on the cusp of true Hollywood, but Carla had a small cubicle of her own, where she kept track of the goings on in her jurisdiction, mainly, the observatory and its surrounding neighborhoods. Carla had a pretty sweet beat, compared to some of the other deputy sheriffs. Sure, she was required to keep tabs on the local gang and vandalism activities, break up the ritzy Los Feliz noisy parties, and she occasionally worked with crime detectives in the never-ending violence that ensconced the area. But she maintained a fairly local region. She couldn’t have had it much better.

Carla inconspicuously led me to her cubicle and slipped out of her jacket. I sat in the small office chair meant for the occasional witness or colleague.

“Okay,” she said quietly as she booted up her computer. “What do you need, specifically?”

“How about searching for an APB, for starters?”

“Your brother?” she asked, not missing a beat.

“Gee,” I said. “You must be a cop.”

“Shut up. What’s his full name?”

“Joseph Bradford Carter.” I rattled off his birthdate and residence address as she entered the search. “Can you check his friend, Mike?”

“What’s his last name?” She started typing again.

“Mendoza.”

Carla looked at me. “Carter, do you know how many guys named Mike Mendoza there are? It’s like searching for John Smith.”

I sighed. I next asked her to check any alerts or bulletins that might be coming across her desk. It took only a few clicks before she started nodding. “Bingo. There’s a warning about scattered illnesses in the military. Quote: ‘Yellow alert: soldiers displaying flu-like symptoms. If found, keep distance and contact local military base. Medics will be dispatched to remove and retain any affected persons.’ Huh.”

“Flu-like sounds about right,” I said.

“And keeping a distance.”

I nodded and felt sick to my stomach all over again. God, what had my poor brother gotten himself involved with?

Carla announced a discovery. “Here’s your APB.” She clicked a few buttons and picked up the freshly printed pages from a printer next to her desk. “The APB is not only for your brother but his friend Mike, too.”

She handed the pages to me. “AWOL,” it read, followed by another acronym: “A&D.” Which meant, of course, “Armed and Dangerous.”

I stood, hardly believing what I was seeing. Armed and dangerous meant, of course, that officers could shoot at will. “I need to see him—”

Carla wisely grabbed my hand and pulled me down. “Quiet, Jack.” She was right, of course. This was the last place to make a scene.

My head pounded. Worse, a wave of dizziness threatened to overtake me. I took in some air, and focused my breathing. What should have been a nice visit with my brother had spiraled completely and totally out of control. Into something unimaginable. An APB for his arrest? Armed and dangerous? AWOL?

“I don’t know what to do,” I heard myself say, and it might have been the first time I’d admitted something like that in a long time. I was good at my job. Busting up gang activity, drug activity and handling wild animals in my parks seemed to be right up my alley. Dealing with this...not so much.

“I don’t either,” said Carla. “But let’s get out of here and figure something out.”

I couldn’t have agreed more.

Chapter Fifteen

Anna and Jared tiptoed toward the cellar, ears attuned to the noises on the other side of the door, neither hardly daring to breathe. In fact, for both of them, making noise of any type suddenly seemed like a very bad idea.

Had a wild animal found its way into their basement? Anna wondered. Not unheard of, especially since their house backed up to the looming hill. She listened hard, but whatever had made the sound had fallen silent.

As she listened, her ear pressed against the door, she considered calling her dad. But then that would mean admitting she had come home, directly disobeying him, and she hated disappointing him.

So, for now, she waited and listened, with Jared pressing close to her. Maybe a little too close. And he was smelling kind of sweaty. She wrinkled her nose and pressed her ear harder against the wooden door, listening. The house itself seemed to be waiting, very still, as if preparing for a storm. Then again, her dad always told her she had an overactive imagination. Anyway, whatever had made the sound seemed be—

Wait, there it came again.

It was a grunt. A human grunt. Worse yet, it sounded like it could have been from...

“It’s my uncle,” she declared.

“Wait, what?” whispered Jared.

She reached for the cellar doorknob. “Uncle Joe. I know it’s him.”

“What are you doing?”

“I have to see. He won’t hurt me. He would never hurt me.”

Jared moved between Anna and the door, still whispering. “That didn’t sound like anything close to normal. You should wait for your dad.”

“What, so he can forbid me to see what’s going on? Whatever it is, I can handle it.”

Jared understood her well enough to know her stubborn streak, and tried to be noble. After all, Jared would have done anything for Anna...even go down first into a creepy basement filled with strange and guttural but human noises.

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