The Silverkey Crossing Police Station received a phone call from a distraught mother at about 7:30 PM. Her daughter Erin had not yet come home. They got a similar phone call much later, closer to 11 PM.
The next morning there were even more phone calls. From parents. Mostly mothers. My daughter hasn’t been home from school since yesterday. We’ve called everyone we know around town and nobody has seen her. We’re worried sick/pissed off/scared to death/etc, etc.
Officer Kurt Nielsen got fingered for the job. He racked up frequent flyer miles at the school scene for handling matters with that troublemaking Dougherty kid, and oh look at that, the very last parent to call in a sixth report of a missing fifth grader from the same school… none other than the Dougherty household. Kurt wasn’t happy to see that name pop up again.
So six gradeschool-age kids didn’t come home yesterday. Maybe they were all buddies and they ran off on some juvenile adventure.
Small town life is tough for kids. Every generation has only two things to do: Do drugs or do each other.
Or three, get in trouble. Once a small town has a full stock of older folks, the young’uns don’t have a prayer. The elderly tend to try to stop time and freeze things. Old buildings get used until they’re utterly dangerous and decrepit. New buildings don’t get built. New anything is resisted unless it’s truly necessary, and even then it’s accepted with closed palms. The forward-thinking youth are penned in by the throwbacks trying to make the clock stay in a day when things were comfortable, familiar, and safe.
Life can’t be penned in and cordoned off like that. It’s dynamic. It needs — it demands — room for growth. And those petty boundaries will stay in place for only so long until WHAMMO.
Kurt wondered if the whammo in this case was just the simple possibility that these kids decided to go camping together in a patch of trees. It did seem odd that they would go straight from school to their little escapade, but hey if you’re desperate enough for some excitement you don’t care where you start at.
Kurt couldn’t really remember the last time he had been called out to the grade school.
Stepping inside, Kurt noticed how much of the distant past was marbled with the present day. There were yellowed class photos and news articles from the 1960’s hanging besides crisp and clear recent photos.
The principal herself was nervously shuffling about the hallway. She saw Kurt and took took small rapid steps toward him on legs built like beets. Super wide at the hips but tapering down to tiny pinpoint feet. Her short hair bobbed at the sides like great dog ears.
Kurt tipped his hat to her. “Ma’am, I’m Officer Nielsen with SCPD.”
“Oh, thank goodness you’re here. Principal Kristin Randall. Our phones have been blowing up like we’re keeping the missing girls hostage!”
A forty-something teacher in a bright sweater poked her head out of her classroom tentatively.
“The police are here?” she said, looking directly at Officer Nielsen.
“Yes, Bee. Officer, this is Beatrice. She teaches two of the missing girls.”
Kurt tipped his hat again.
He took her statement and it didn’t tell him much more than he already heard fifty times this morning. He studied the Bee Teacher’s eyes, which were more whites than irises and unblinking, a touch of senility in the stare.
The principal stood nearby with crossed arms and stiff legs. Kurt turned to her and asked if he could see each of the girls’ lockers.
“Yes, it’ll require a master key. I’ll fetch it from the office…” and off she went gouging the carpet with her nub feet.
Kurt made eye contact with the Bee woman and she tried to smile. She didn’t seem used to it.
“They all didn’t seem to act like nothing was wrong afore they left my class.”
“Do they warm up to you?”
She sharply shook her head. “No, no. They don’t care for me much. They in a hurry to grow up an’ don’t like anyone that reminds em they not so big.”
The principal marched back, master key at the ready like a short knife.
The only thing that really stood out to Kurt was how empty the Dougherty girl’s locker was compared to the others, and how cheap her belongings were.
The very last stop was the locker of the supposed ringleader, Carrie Parson. It was on the second story. This was definitely the stash of the alpha. Everything was pink and black without any scuff marks. It took Kurt a few to notice Principal Randall standing at attention, straight as an arrow.
“I’m going to look around a little and head out. Thank you for your help, Ma’am.”
“Call me if you need me,” she said curtly and pronged off.
Kurt reflected on the comment that the girls were often seen leaving school together in a pack. Okay, so they probably met up here.
He traced a path from the locker to the stairwell with his eyes. He looked for detours. Bathrooms. Utility closets. Anything that could serve as a distraction or a point of ambush. No. They weren’t ambushed. Nobody could just drag away six panicking girls.
Kurt walked forward in large strides remembering when his steps were short and quick. That was a long time ago at another school. He didn’t grow up in this community and he didn’t attend this school. He quietly thanked God for that. Life as a grownup was always interesting ever since he was transferred to this precinct. But it would be a bit overwhelming if he were a kid around these parts.
He began pacing his way from the exit to Parson’s locker and back to the exit. Nothing. He came to a point where the hall was terribly quiet, and it was already quiet to begin with. It was the quiet of neglect as well as stillness. His torch became a blade of light that scraped the walls and the floor of the hallway, and it revealed several doors that were boarded up. He licked his lips and started down what appeared to be an abandoned passage. He jumped when something grabbed his arm. His torch impaled a 2nd grader with thick glasses.
“Hey kid, get to class.”
“Don’t go down that hallway.”
“Cuz that’s where The Scabber lives.”
Kurt cocked his head.
“It’s a real monster, sir. I’ve seen it.”
Kurt had heard of the Scabber before. Here at Hampton Elementary, it was something of a local legend. When kids disappeared, The Scabber was blamed. Kurt’s brain began making new connections. Six girls vanish from a school that’s is supposedly the haunt of a monster that kidnaps children. And here was a child that says this is where the Scabber makes its den.
Had some derelict made his home in an abandoned section of a school?
“What’s your name, kid?”
Kurt gave the kid a long look.
Kurt nodded. “Mr. Brenner, I’m going to have a talk with Mr. Scabber. So you go on to wherever you’re supposed to be.”
“It kidnaps grownups too!”
“I’m Officer Nielsen and I’m a grownup that knows how to fight back. I’m not gonna talk to you all day. Thank you for your help. Now find your way back to class. I don’t want to have to report you.”
Tyson Brenner seemed rooted to the spot for a long time. But he finally took off. Kurt’s torch stabbed down the abandoned hallway anew, exposing ghosts of all makes of pillars of dust that were frozen, waiting for him to make his next move. Each step forward seemed to bring him another year back in time. The paint got uglier. More cracked. More flaked. The door frames got more splintered. Were these classrooms or offices? There was one doorway that was wide open. In fact, the door had completely fallen off. The inside was poorly lit by filtered sunlight from windows that may have been boarded up with fragments of plywood. His light scanned rows of desks that were frozen in a dusty stillness, iced in a film of time. The classroom could have been like this since either the early eighties or nineties. So they just left this room to rot? It would theoretically be a decent spot for a squatter — with enough nerves. Something about the atmosphere was heavy, a sacred space that didn’t appreciate being disturbed.
Like a tomb.
He shrugged off the weight that tried to accumulate on his shoulders like pounds of lead or layers of cobwebs.
Kurt continued down the hall to the point that it seemed that every other door was boarded up. A few didn’t seem to be classrooms or offices. How much was it costing the school to run the air in all this unused space? He opened one other door and felt a whip of adrenaline for but a moment. Standing in rank and file formation were classroom skeletons, all shrouded in cloudy but clear garbage bags. They were all facing him like they would say Good morning, Teach! Their hollow eyes peered out from the dusty fog of the plastic. He absently adjusted his collar and nodded to the crowd.
Telegram for Mr. Scabber, he thought to himself. Last call for Mr. Scabber.
And there was an answer.
A cell phone rang. It wasn’t distant. It was close.
But it wasn’t in the skeleton dorm.
Kurt hurried out into the hallway, trying to home in on the sound as it echoed and bounced all around the silent hall. The silent corridor. He settled on a door… yes that had to be it… but it was boarded up. He touched the boards and they wobbled. He pulled one off without a fight. And another. And another. The ringing stopped as he worked his way down to two final boards. He hesitated. But decided that a kidnapper wouldn’t be able to board himself up. If anyone was in there it might be a victim. The boards fell to the floor and the door groaned in pain.
No windows here. Kurt’s torch was the only light there was. The beam immediately fell on a cell phone just underneath the chalkboard. It was pink with glitter underneath the plastic. A quick swipe of the torch revealed another phone. And another. Five in total. They were arranged in a circle on the floor. Something glinted with the sweep of the light — broken glass on the floor. Several beer bottles lay about. Nearby was a canvas bag unzipped. There was clearly a recent party here. The scattered bottles and the broken one suggested that something happened. Maybe intoxication. Maybe something else. Kurt didn’t get it. Were the kids boarded up in here so they could party?
One of the phones rang, buzzing along the floor. Kurt thought better of answering since this was possibly a crime scene. But if it was a concerned parent, he might be able to tell them something.
The caller ID came up as YOU’RE GOING TO DIE. Kurt hesitated, steeled himself. He took the call but didn’t say anything. There was breathing on the other end. Both sides waited. It was the caller that finally spoke.
“Officer Kurt Nielsen,” said a strained, croaking voice.
His lips parted, unsure whether to actually answer or not. So the voice answered for him.
“Six you seek. One you will find. All are lost.”
And the call immediately dropped. Kurt fumbled his way through the phone’s call menu and tried calling the number back. A cell phone rang at the back of the classroom loud and clear. He whipped the light to the back of the classroom where a stocky little girl with frizzy red hair slumped. The ringing phone was in front of her.
“Hey!” Kurt barked. She didn’t answer. She was motionless. Kurt approached her. The shadow behind her seemed to massage her tender young body with foggy phantom arms but then became crisp and shrank to hide behind her. She was propped up by the wall behind her chair. She gazed at Kurt without blinking.
“Hey you, what’s the deal?”
No answer. No movement. The phone rang and buzzed next to a pale gray hand. Kurt set the pink phone next to it and touched her hand. Ice cold. It was only when he touched her hand that he realized something was underneath it. It was a folded up piece of notebook paper. Kurt took it and unfolded it to see the words “YOU’RE GOING TO DIE” written in plain blue ink.
He dropped the note like it was hot and his hands flew to his service pistol. He had his torch and his pistol raised in a tactical crosslike shape in seconds. His mind raced for viable explanations and it didn’t like any of the numbers in the equation.
The spot of the torch flicked around the classroom. On desks. Under desks. He yanked on the doors of the closets which nearly fell off. Nobody was inside. But the killer had to be here. They had to be. Kurt pictured the boards outside being put snugly back into place and reinforced. But he found that the door was still ajar and the boards were still where he left them propped up. His light flew from one end of the hallway to the other. He was trying to hold his breath to listen. The only sound was his racing heart. He shook his head and stalked further down the corridor. He hugged the left wall, scanning the gallery of doors to the right. All but one were boarded up. The one was without a door and there was absolutely nothing inside. He switched to the right side of the hallway and repeated the process. Boarded. Boarded. Open but empty. Boarded. Not boarded, door closed. Nothing inside.
He found himself gritting his teeth. They had to still be in the building. HAD to be.
You could hear a pin drop in this hallway. There was no way they got away so slick and silent. Kurt came to the dead end of the hall and was greeted with a fire exit that had rainwater pooled around it. Daylight tried to bleed in where the edges of the door had been eaten away over the years.
“Gotta be kiddin me,” he growled.
The hairs on his neck stood up as something grazed his senses. He spun around and shone the light far, far away in the yawning darkness. Back where the party room was. There was a sound there again. Something that sounded human and frantic. He raised his torch and pistol again and trotted back to the room where the sounds were. The sounds became more poignant. Multiple voices that cried, pleaded, and screamed. Voices of girls. He crouched and slid on his knees in front of the doorway. The cell phones on the floor were now open and they were playing recorded video and audio. He stood and approached the circle of phones. All of them displayed the note held by the dead girl. All of them belched sounds of human distress and suffering.
Kurt was kicking himself. I went to wrong direction. The maniac went the opposite direction I did.
Kurt reached the point where he had spoken with the little red headed boy. Looking in both directions he was of course by himself. His mind was racing with the fastest possible option to lock down the school. He saw a fire alarm. He smashed the thin glass around it with the b**t of his torch and pulled it. Then he got on his police radio.
Squad cars were dispatched to Hampton Elementary in minutes. They blocked anyone and anything from getting in or out.
Captain Ira Benson eyed Kurt as he stepped out of a black sedan. Kurt lowered his head in a nod.
“This story is getting more interesting by the minute, Nielsen. Why are me and all my men here right now?”
“Sir, I think we have a serious troublemaker still on premises.”
“I found the body of a student in the school, sir.”
Benson nodded with his mouth hanging open. The outdoor property was full of the contents of the school. Kids and teachers squinting and pointing at the police cars and the officers moving inside like they were expecting to see someone.
“You alright?” Benson asked.
Kurt shot him a who, me glare. But there was no hiding it. The captain had read him right.
“The body was being used like a fishing lure on me and I couldn’t even get a glimpse of who it was. They were toying with me and they gave me the slip.”
The chief raised his demonic, Jack Nicholson eyebrows. “We don’t exactly deal with this sort of thing every day. You can probably forgive yourself.”
Kurt’s eyes eventually fell upon Principal Randall as she pronged her pinpoint feet across the turf, clearly uncomfortable in the outdoor weather. It was getting warm and she was dressed for her office, not the lawn. He was pretty sure that she saw him but was making it a point to look away. He strode right up to her and didn’t even bother with a hello.
“We need to find a student here named Tyson Brenner. He’s a person of interest right now.”
The principal feigned being caught off guard and it wasn’t exactly top notch acting.
“Tyson… Brenner?… I can’t say I’ve heard that name this year or any year.”
“What, you personally catalogue and memorize the names of every student in your school? Of course you might not recognize the name.”
She held up her hands with closed, pained eyes.
“Ma’am, this is serious. I found a body in your facility and there’s a damn good chance the a killer on the loose in this school right now and this kid is the only person I saw in proximity.”
“Thank you Mr. Nielsen for your dedication and attentiveness to our school. But this is hardly the time to sift out one child from the entire student body. When we’re back inside we can go about doing as you ask in a more organized, orderly fashion, alright?”
Kurt glowered at her.
“Kurt,” came Benson’s voice. The chief was nodding over to the school where blue uniform officers were at every exit. The two men walked together to the main entrance.
“Remind me where we’re going.”
Kurt pointed to the second story.
“When we go in, we’ll take the main hallway to the back of the building where there’s an entire hallway of abandoned classrooms and offices.”
A detachment of officers and investigators fell in behind Kurt, Blue uniforms, trench coats, and the coroner.
The abandoned hallway and its burial chambers saw more hubbub than they had for decades as yellow tape went up and the derelict cell phones were collected into plastic baggies by gloved hands.
Mollie Dougherty waited patiently for the officers. She was identified readily by the contents of her purse and her cell phone. The coroner was certain she had been dead for well over 24 hours. He’d know more when he could get her on his table.
The family was notified, and her mother was the only parent sober enough to drive out to the scene of the crime. She came out of the car looking irritated but began a four star performance of a grieving and shocked mother when others began approaching her.
She stumbled, arms outstretched towards the shrouded gurney that bore her daughter.
“Oh, my angel! Baby! God, no, noooo-hoohooooo…” and so forth.
“Baby, Precious, who did this to yoooouuu?”
The camera zoomed out from Mrs. Dougherty to include the journalist from the local news. The chunky blonde took her cue from the camera jockey and began talking.
“The Bulletin is live on location as a dire situation unfolds before the community’s very eyes. Just this morning, six students of Hampton Elementary were reported missing. One of them has been found dead in a boarded up classroom with some of the personal effects of the other five. Eleven-year-old Mollie Dougherty was found seated at a desk with her cell phone in front of her and an ominous note in the other. The cell phones of five others have been found in the same classroom. Investigators are still working out who they belong to and if they’re connected to the missing girls.”
And so the report ran on the local news at 5. Kurt was slumped in his easy chair draped in an invisible mantle woven from exhaustion and failure. A cup of black tea was getting cold on a nearby table. He glared at the TV without really seeing it. He was thinking about the sonofabitch that gave him the slip twice in five minutes. Twice. He was no stranger to gunning down goons. It’s how he made a name for himself in Chicago. He was no Magnum PI, but his senses were sharp. Anything that got by his eyes never, never got past his gut, his sonar for scum.
And here in itty bitty sleepyville, a turd slipped by him twice in an empty hallway. And nobody saw him. Everyone was out on the lawn for the emergency fire procedure and nobody saw anything out of the ordinary. He had asked around. Nobody could recall any unusual or hostile looking strangers.
None of the implications were good. It meant that the killer was so fast that they made out of the building before the fire drill cattle could see them… or it meant the killer was someone familiar to the school. A teacher. A janitor.
His thoughts drifted to Tyson Brenner. He was a small fry. His clothes looked a little outdated but he didn’t carry any sinister vibe. He did use that Scabber mumbo jumbo but so did every one else at the school.
Scabber Scabber, child-grabber…
Kurt let loose a flatulent, gravelly sigh of frustration. He gripped the span of his eyebrows with one hand and massaged his temples. Maybe there would be answers tomorrow or soon. Let the Coroner and the gumshoes add a few more cards to the hand.
His hand dropped, his eyes refocused, and he felt an electric current shoot through his body. He leaned forward unable to believe his own eyes.
The news report ended and he cursed.
He clawed the chair for his phone. Where was it? It wasn’t beside him. He checked his jacket in a heap beside the chair. He found his phone there and punched in the website of the local news channel. He prayed that the report he just watched had been uploaded.
He watched the smaller version of the blonde reporter on his smartphone repeat herself. His eyes were practically yelling at her to get out of the way. As she blathered and gestured, she never quite moved enough to reveal the owner of the leg poking out from under her elbow. The concealed person stayed there. Perhaps watching the reporter from behind.
Kurt shook his head in frustration and scrubbed the timeline of the video to the end. That moment when the reporter swayed to the side as her job was done.
Standing stock still was Tyson Brenner. The kid’s eyes didn’t follow the reporter. He was definitely gazing into the camera. Kurt’s stomach felt warm as he felt the little redhead’s eyes looking at him. Through the camera, through his TV. And he stood right next to the beet-legged Principal Randall.