Sunday, November 8, 2009

Crossroads Showdown by Keta Diablo

Baltimore’s humid, subtropical June climate suffocated Frank, more so after the air conditioning in his office went on the fritz that morning.

He pushed the intercom button on his phone. “Grace, are you there?”

“Every fan we own is working overtime, Frank.” A chuckle followed his assistant’s words. “Do me a favor so I can get some work done. Take the rest of the day off.”

“Don’t think I haven’t thought about it, but Hayworth is expected within the hour.” He wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. “When the hell is that repair man supposed to arrive?”

“An hour ago, so let’s hope he shows before tomorrow.”

“Gotta love your sense of humor, Grace, while we struggle to breathe.”

“I’ll buzz you when either Hayworth or A-One Air arrives.”

Frank disconnected and stared across the desk at a picture. Taken in happier days, the people he loved most in the world smiled back at him—Quinn, Emily, and their kids, Rand and Marlow. The children looked to be about nine and six respectively, the parents in their early thirties. The snapshot was taken long before his ex-partner, Quinn, had been gunned down in a run-amuck drug bust. Like he said, in happier days.

An exasperated sigh left Frank’s lips. Trouble brewed. What kind of trouble he didn’t know, but like the fans in the office, the precognitive cells in his brain had been working overtime for a week. Then a call came from Rueben Hayworth, the FBI agent from Washington, solidifying Frank’s suspicions. Rueben couldn’t discuss the conundrum over the phone, but requested a face-to-face meeting with him. Uh-huh, evil rode the wind again, and just when his relationship with Rand had finally reached a measure of accord, if not mutual contentment.

Rand had brought his pre-med grades up to A’s, Frank’s PI business flourished, and their sex life… well, Frank couldn’t even think about Quinn and Emily’s son without tamping down his perpetual hard-on. Mutual contentment, hell. Their relationship had advanced far beyond raw, primal lust. So why couldn’t he just accept it, admit it?

Frank rose from the chair behind his desk with a disgusted shake of his head. A moron, that’s what he was. A white-livered coward who couldn’t face his own demon. In his case, the demon stood on common ground with the word commitment. And, contrarily, one tiny word from him―love—would rock Rand’s world. “Say it out loud, you chicken, ‘Rand, I love you.’” A growl came from his throat. Why was it so hard to speak the words when they would mean so much to Rand?

Annoyed with the heat and with himself, Frank yanked on the heavy curtains in his office until they met in the middle. If he intended to connect with his inner spirit, he had to set the stage first. He walked to the light switch, dimmed the overhead track, and slumped into his chair again.

The subliminal messages arriving this time were so unlike all the others. Nothing haunted his dreams at night, but rather scenes flashed through his head during his waking hours. They nibbled away at his thoughts until he could think of little else. But that’s all they were at this point—a montage of snapshots, blurred and innocuous at best. The time had come to clear the mental barriers from his mind, engage in concerted meditation.

Frank closed his eyes. Moments later, patterns of light appeared. Drawing on a reservoir of meditation knowledge and experience, he focused on the light with reserved attention. His consciousness slipped into a deep state, the catalyst for a gradual shift into the highest level of consciousness. That’s right, come to me baby, give me all you got.

As if on command, vignettes rushed forth in muted snapshots, although they meant nothing to him at this point.

Picture one—a child, a young girl to be exact, no more than nine or ten. Picture two—long blonde hair that reminded him of corn silk, and round blue eyes. Three—frail, and aside from the baby blues, her other features appeared almost elfin in nature. Four—an aura enveloped her.

Oh, Christ, she was dead. Even in his meditative state, a chill ran down his spine. He hated working on cases involving dead children.

And lastly, picture five—her face masked in sorrow, she rose and walked toward him. Toward him! And she kept on coming, like walking toward the lens of a camera. Her image grew larger and larger, but she didn’t retreat or list off to the side.

Frank’s heartbeat launched into an erratic rhythm. The game had changed. He wasn’t just communing with the dead in this case; he had called forth the dead. The waiflike child had walked directly into his life.

The phone buzzed, jolting Frank from his meditative state. Sweat streamed down his back, ran in rivulets down his forehead and soaked the collar of his shirt.

He picked up the phone in a haze, a result of connecting on a subconscious level. Adding to his bewildered state, the last image of the girl walking toward him refused to fade from his mind. “A-One has arrived,” Grace said. “Toolbox in hand, and he’s working on the air as we speak.”

“So there is a God?”

“Speaking of thou Most Holiest, Hayworth just walked in and wants to know if we moved your office to the Sahara.”

“That’s my Grace, always the comedienne. Show him in, please.”

* * * *

“Jesus, Frank, had I known you couldn’t afford to pay your electrical bill, I would have come sooner to offer you a gig.”

With a flourish of his damp arm, Frank pointed to the chair. “Have a seat, Rueben. With any luck, we should feel a cool blast soon.”

Rueben slumped into the chair opposite Frank’s desk. “I saw the repair crew on my way in,” he said with a chuckle.

“And for the record, before you begin your sales pitch, I don’t need a gig. I’m up to my balls in missing person cases.”

“You haven’t heard my offer yet, or the gut-wrenching details.” The agent dropped a folder onto the desk and slid it across to him.

“Gut-wrenching? Ah, shit, it does involve children?”

Rueben gave him a knowing look. “Have you been having strange dreams?”

He lied and shook his head.

“You said, ‘Ah, shit―’”

“I know what I said.”

“How do you know it involves children then?”

Frank leaned back in his chair, locked his fingers together, and placed his hands at the back of his head. “I liked you right off, friend, even more by the time we closed the case on the maniacal Dr. McBride. But I told you before, dabbling in perfections is a hobby for me, not a lifestyle.”

“Which means?”

“It’s imprecise, vague, thus, the reason I don’t offer myself up to every Fed who calls my office.”

“I liked you right off, too, and I believed in you then, like I do now.” Rueben’s face took on a somber expression. “I’m not just any Fed, but your friend. If I didn’t think you were the right person for this job, I wouldn’t waste your time… or mine.”

A cool blast of air floated down from the ceiling. Frank arched his neck back and closed his eyes. “Man, what did they do before the invention of air conditioning?”

“Frank, stop changing the subject, and answer my question.”

He blew air through his lips and picked up the folder. “I know you won’t leave until I look at the file.”

Rueben shook his head.

“What was the question again?”

“How do you know this involves children?”

“What would you say if I told you just before you walked in and ruined my already shitty day, I saw images?”

“I knew it!”

A chill came over Frank and not from the air conditioning. “Blurred images, Rueben, nothing more. They could mean anything.”

“But you saw a child?” He leaned forward. “A boy? A girl? What did she look like?”

“Whoa! Who said I saw a girl? In fact, who said I saw a child?”

“Don’t fuck with me, Frank. I’ll fill you in while you’re looking over the file.”

A song came to Frank on a tiny voice and filled his head, or at least he hoped it was in his head. He hadn’t heard the tune before, but most definitely a small, heavenly voice recited the lyrics—something about dreams and the color blue. Frank looked at Rueben out of the corner of his eye and half-expected to see him scan the room for the sound.

“What? Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Do you hear something?”

Rueben grew still for a moment. “Other than muffled voices through the door and the blessed whisper of the vent overhead, no. What should I be listening for?”

“Nothing,” Frank said and opened the file. “Three missing girls?” He looked at their pictures after spreading them out on his desk. “West Virginia?”

Rueben nodded. “Ever been kayaking, Frank?”

“No,” he said distractedly. “Can’t say that I have. Do you expect me to search for them in the river?”

A deep-throated chuckle escaped Rueben. “We don’t think they’re in the water. Just a guess, but…”

“Then why the question about kayaking?”

“They disappeared from some little towns in Barbour County. Home to Audra State Park, the area is known for hiking, fishing and white-water rafting. I thought maybe while you were―”

Frank’s head came up. “I never said I’d take the case. I agreed to meet with you and look at the file, see if I can give you some pointers.”

“I appreciate your hospitality, believe me, but what kind of a Fed would I be if I didn’t pressure you while here?”

“Why me? You have a shit load of special agents that work on missing children cases? And besides,” Frank smiled. “It’s smooth-sailing at home right now, and I don’t want to rock the boat.”

“How is Rand?”

“Doing well in college now, and I’m busier here than a one-legged man in a shit-kicking contest.”

Rueben clucked his cheek. “Damn.”

“What aren’t you telling me about this case? Why is it so important to you or should I say important to the FBI?”

“One of the missing girls is the daughter of Judge Kenton, that’s the Honorable Parker Kenton, brother to one of the upper echelon at the Bureau.” He put his hands in the air and shrugged. “We’re looking rather foolish at this point. Three girls missing without a trace and the heat is on.”

“Think they’re dead?”

“God, I hope not. If they were, wouldn’t you think the cadaver dogs or the search parties had found something? A shoe, a piece of their clothing…” He paused. “A grave?”

“Well, with all that water you’re talking about, it would be pretty easy to dump their bodies in a river, a stream. They float downstream, never to be seen again.”

“Something would have washed up by now.”

Frank studied the pictures again. “They’re all about the same age.” He looked closer. “Hmm, they resemble one another.”

“Not a coincidence, I’m sure.”

“It’s not uncommon. A child molester tends to pick similar-looking victims.”

“There are no child molesters within sixty miles of Barbour County, that we know of. It’s not a very populated area.”

“Great. Can’t you ever ask me to go to a city with at least one five-star hotel?”

“Sorry, Frank, I don’t pick the locations.” What do you say? The Bureau is prepared to double your hourly rate on this case.” Hope laced his words. He dug into the pocket of his suit coat and tossed an envelope onto the desk. “Two thousand up front, the balance when you find them, however long it takes.”

“Dead or alive?”

Rueben nodded. “They want it over. After ten days, the story is beginning to hit the news circuit. Doesn’t look good for the Bureau, and Judge Kenton is on us like ticks on a dog.”

Frank looked at the envelope. Talk about an offer you can’t refuse falling into your lap. Rand’s face floated before him. He wouldn’t be happy about this, not when things had been running so smoothly between them.

Still, maybe he could soften the blow with a promise he wouldn’t be gone long, and when he returned, they’d take the money and head off to Mexico for a week. Reluctantly, Frank said, “All right. I’ll take the file home with me and call you in the morning.”

“Is that a yes?”

“Barring a scene at home that would make the Apocalypse look like a picnic, yes.”

Rueben came to his feet and shook Frank’s hand. “Call me in the morning and I’ll have my assistant make the necessary reservations. Sorry to say it won’t be the Ritz, but probably a Super 8. Can you leave tomorrow?”

“Might as well get it over with.”