“You’re making a mistake.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way, Mr. Monahan. Our decision has been made.”
“There’s nothing more to be said. Your final check will be in the mail tomorrow. Molly and I thank you for your services.”
Jack Monahan sat behind the desk in the dingy room that served as his office, staring at the now silent receiver held in his hand as if willing the voice at the other end to come back. After a few moments, the phone started beeping, letting him know it was still off the hook. Jack resisted a strong urge to bash the thing to pieces against his desk and instead, ever so carefully placed the receiver back on the cradle with a resounding click of its own. The sound echoed hollowly throughout the room, perfectly mirroring the empty feeling that had suddenly appeared in his gut. Dammit, he’d been so close!
His right hand, almost of its own accord, reached down to the drawer where he kept a bottle of cheap bourbon, half empty and soon to be more so, and a glass that was only slightly dirty. He set the two next to each other on the desk and, after a moment’s consideration, returned the glass to the drawer. He removed the top from the bottle and took a long swallow; a slow burning sensation traveling from his belly up to the base of his throat drove the empty feeling back ever so slightly. Jack sighed. Drunk or no, either way this was going to be a bad night.
The case had been about kids, but for Jack it had started with just one. June Benson, eight year old daughter of Chase and Molly Benson, had gone missing after school one day about three weeks ago. Her parents were decently well-off but no ransom or other demands had ever come. The cops asked some questions at the school, filed some paperwork, and ultimately ruled her as a runaway. The Bensons weren’t satisfied with that assessment and had hired Jack to follow-up where the uniforms wouldn’t. Jack agreed with them that something smelled off.
A little digging showed the rabbit hole went down a helluva lot deeper than June Benson. Carefully applying some financial lubrication, Jack got one of his old contacts in the department to spill the beans; there were a lot of kids that had gone missing in the last two months, almost three dozen all told. Part of the reason for the general lack of panic was that most of the kids were low income, if not outright homeless. On top of that, Jack’s contact heavily hinted that there was pressure from a very long way up the food chain to keep a lid on the cases and sweep each and every one of them under the rug. That thing that smelled off started to stink like a fish market.
Jack hit the streets. He went to June’s school and the surrounding apartments. Then, finding nothing, he rolled up his sleeves and waded into the scum on the other side of the city. He canvassed the halfway houses, the tent city under Eastbrook Bridge, the Wakeside slum where cops would only go in force. Everywhere he went he asked the same questions: Has anyone seen anything? Does anyone know about these missing kids? For a week he was disappointed, until finally, he got a bite.
The informant was obviously a junkie, and was even more obviously looking for a fix. But he said he’d seen something, namely two goons in suits shoving a black bag over a young boy’s head and throwing him into an unmarked van outside a crack house the junkie had been flopping at. What’s more, and what earned him the twenty bucks in Jack’s outstretched hand, was he’d heard one of the goons say a name: Marx. Suddenly the pieces had begun falling into place.
Graydon Marx was the owner of a pharmaceutical subsidiary that kept a production plant outside of town. It made a sick kind of sense that Marx might have decided to take kids as unwilling, unpaid subjects for new drugs they were testing, and he was one of the only individuals with both enough political and monetary pull to keep the mayor’s office and police department on lockdown. Granted, it was a long shot, and June didn’t fit the profile of the rest of the missing kids, but Jack had been desperate to find even the thinnest thread to follow.
The plant lay on a sprawling property outside of the city limits where Marx kept a house that served as his primary residence when he was in town. Jack had been surreptitiously staking the place out for the last three days, and had seen several unmarked vans driven by pairs of suit- wearing tough guys coming and going from the main entrance of the compound. He’d planned on taking a closer look tonight. But then, when he’d been at the office getting ready to head over to the plant, Chase had called him out of the blue and said, thanks, but they wouldn’t be needing him to keep looking into June’s disappearance after all. End of discussion.
Jack leaned back in his chair and looked into the bottle, pensively swirling the bourbon around the bottom. F**k it. He came to the decision abruptly, standing up and slamming the bottle down onto the desktop. He hadn’t known the Bensons for long, but this was completely out of character. Something was up and, dammit, there were kids at risk. He might not be getting paid to follow up the lead, but Jack’s conscience wasn’t going to let him just sit and get wasted.
He took his overcoat from the back of the chair and threw it on before reaching into the other drawer where he kept Cheryl. The Colt .357 was a thing of beauty, and he did a quick check to make sure each of her six cartridges were loaded before sliding her into his shoulder holster and slipping a box of spare shells into his jacket pocket. With that, he stepped out into the hallway and resolutely locked the door behind him.
Dark clouds covered the pale winter moon as Jack moved the car to the side of the road and pulled into a small clearing he had discovered earlier in the week. He got out and hastily removed a tarp from the back seat and threw it over the car. In the dark, the vehicle would be effectively invisible to anyone on the road. It had been steadily snowing for the last few hours, so he briefly went back to the road and did his best to cover the tracks leading into the clearing. He had stopped about a mile short of the entrance to the compound; with only one road leading in or out and no other turnoffs, getting too close wouldn’t serve for any kind of sneaking. The approach to the plant was thick with trees so Jack would be able to stay in the woods but keep in sight of the road to guide his path. Wrapping his coat more tightly about himself against the cold, he started trudging towards the compound.
A strange moaning caused him to start, his hand flying under his coat to rest on Cheryl. Jack scanned around him, heart beating wildly. The trees in their stark nakedness reached into the bleak sky like the fingers of the damned, a light wind causing them to creak and groan in their torment. Otherwise, all was silent. Despite the cold, a slow bead of sweat rolled down Jack’s nose, the tiny hairs on the back of his neck standing at attention. After a few moments, he turned and continued his trek; his hand remained on the b**t of the revolver.
He reached the perimeter fence without incident. He had scouted the area and found an expanse of fence where the trees masked the view of the security cameras, and was out of sight of the main gate. Earlier today he had used a pair of wire cutters to make an entrance. Slightly winded as he squeezed through the fence, days like this served to remind him that his youth was a distant memory. Jack cursed under his breath as he felt sharp edges of wire catch on his coat. Then he was in.
Jack’s reconnaissance hadn’t let him work out the patrol patterns of any security guards, but now he saw he needn’t have worried too much. In fact, other than the guards in the shack at the main gate, there didn’t seem to be any physical security on the grounds. He decided to start looking at the house.
Making his way across the snowy terrain, Jack saw the residence atop a low hill a couple hundred yards ahead, light glaring from every window. He crept closer, doing his best to use the trees that dotted the yard to mask his approach. He stopped behind the closest tree, and was considering how to proceed, when the front door opened and three figures stepped outside.
The first Jack knew only by reputation, but the oily sheen that emitted from his too wide smile identified him as Graydon Marx. Jack’s jaw dropped when he saw the people behind Marx were Chase and Molly Benson. Jack was just close enough to hear the end of their conversation.
“…en can we see her, Mr. Marx?”
“Oh presently, presently my dear, Chase. In fact that’s where we’re going now. Come along.”
The millionaire switched on a large industrial flashlight and led the Bensons around, behind the house. Jack followed, silent as a shadow.
At first, Jack assumed they would be going to the pharmaceutical plant to the west of the house, but soon found he was mistaken. Instead, Marx walked directly south, straight into woods that were even thicker than those through which Jack had approached the compound. They walked for maybe twenty minutes, Jack struggling to stay quiet and keep the bouncing beam of Marx’s flashlight in sight. After a time, he could see a strange flickering ahead which, once they got close enough, he could identify as a roaring bonfire set in a small clearing. He stopped about fifty feet short of the fire and hid himself behind a tree. He could see the Bensons were agitated; Molly clinging to her husband, Chase obviously enraged, shouting at Marx.
“What’s the meaning of this, Marx? You said you were taking us to see our daughter!”
“And so I have, Chase, so I have. She’ll be here shortly. The fire, you see. We’ve found it draws them.” The millionaire smiled and moved to a tree at the edge of the clearing. In a smooth motion he hoisted himself up into a hunting platform set on the lower branches. “Ah, here she is now.”
The pale shape of a little girl moved into the clearing. Jack recognized June from the pictures her parents had given him, but only just. Her once sparkling eyes were dull and empty, lacking even the most rudimentary intelligence, her face slack. A dried reddish smear crusted around her mouth. The girl was dressed in rags, her hands and feet bare. She shuffled forward, almost stumbling into the fire, paying no mind to her parents or the heat. Something was very wrong.
“Oh, my God! Baby!” Molly Benson threw herself at her child sweeping her up in a hug. Jack saw a look of ecstasy pass across the girl’s face and a terrible hunger enter her eyes, as she suddenly opened her mouth and sank her teeth into her mother’s neck. Molly screamed and Chase lunged for his wife. The girl rode her mother to the ground, worrying at the wound like a wild animal. Jack felt the world lurch.
Chase was struggling to pry June off Molly when Jack saw other small shapes had entered the clearing. Chase didn’t notice until the things that had once been children were practically on top of him, and by then it was far too late. Jack turned and ran.
He sprinted through the forest, mindless now of the noise he was making, his only thought on escape. Branches reached out and tried to tangle his arms, stones sought to trip him up. Abruptly, a root caught his foot and sent him tumbling head over heels. His head met a tree with a sickening thud. Then, blackness.
When he awoke the first thing he noticed was the pain, next the cold. Shaking his head to try to clear it, Jack looked around. He had been stripped down to his t-shirt and boxers, his hands secured with rope to the trunk of a tree above his head. To his front, Marx stood in the clearing, the bonfire burning merrily behind him, two piles of rapidly cooling red and flesh-colored pulp pouring steam into the frosty air at his feet. He held Cheryl in his hands, the revolver glinting cruelly in the firelight.
“Ah, Mr. Monahan, good you’re awake,” he smiled. “You have my admiration. Commendable detective work these past few weeks, if not the most discrete.” He clicked his tongue, “I hope you didn’t think you were being especially sneaky.” He sighed, “Still, it would have gone easier for you if you would have just taken the hint when I had the Bensons let you go. They were so frantic at the thought of being reunited with their daughter, they were fully prepared to do any little thing I asked. But here we are. I must say, this is truly an excellent firearm.” He admired the magnum for another moment before pointing it at Jack and pulling the trigger.
The sound was enormous. A blossom of agony roared up Jack’s leg and then dulled. When he opened his eyes he saw his right foot.
Marx stooped down in front of him, “Must be going, old chap. I’d tell you to simply walk away from this but you’ve squandered that opportunity already and, well, it’d be quite impossible now for a multitude of reasons.” He inclined his head towards Jack’s foot. “However, as I’ve confessed my admiration, I’ve decided to give you a sporting chance. There’s a very realistic possibility you’ll bleed out before the children get hungry again. Good luck!” With that, he walked out of the clearing into the darkened woods.
Jack lay there in the snow, the white around him slowly turning red. His eyesight fading, the dull pain that had been emitting from his foot gradually built to a crescendo. At the edge of his vision, he could just make out a small shape enter the clearing and slowly shuffle towards him, soon followed by another. He began slipping into unconsciousness as he felt the first tiny, questing hands start to explore his exposed, freezing flesh. His last thought, before his entire world was consumed by blackness and pain was that, he guessed he’d been right at the office after all: either way this was going to be a bad night.