Though the weather was an ever growing force of wind, ice, and snow outside the Detective’s office, the fervor that the new lead brought had warmed things up indoors. What seemed like dead-end after dead-end had suddenly come together into a possible link that neither Shane nor Laura had anticipated; which lit a fire under them both. The days had grown long and cold with doubt, but this clue seemed to give them something to go after. There was a sense of hope in a task that had felt so hopeless originally. There was a very real possibility that they could solve some of, if not all, of their missing person cases.
And solving those cases would have many consequences, all of them good, regardless of if they were linked together by something sinister. The families involved would finally be able to have some kind of closure and could grieve without holding back that little bit of hope that their loved one would be found. It’s a harsh reality, but one that police know is for the better. When there is a chance that you’ll see them again, you’ll never truly heal from the loss. Shane hadn’t been a Detective for long, but he was in Law Enforcement long enough to know this truth. And as sad as that thought was, he knew that it would ultimately help those suffering with the “what ifs” move on. They could never truly do that if the only thing they know is that for all intent and purposes their family member vanished into thin air.
“This has to be it, right? Look at the names. No way is that some kind of coincidence.” said Laura, hovering over his shoulder as he sat at his desk looking over recently received logs. “They all have that same word in them, just in different places.”
It was the connection that they had first put together coming into place as the paperwork began to make sense. No matter which type of message service or dating app, they all had gotten in touch with someone who had the same similar username.
“You’re right. It seems like this ‘Wretched’ person gets around. There are variations of that same name on all of these sites and every single one of these guys was contacted by a similar name.” Shane said as he arranged a few pages from each file out in front of him. “QueenoftheWretched here, LadyWretched met this guy on a message board, and of course TheWretchedQueen that Chase Northcraft was talking with right before he vanished.”
“And we can try and trace the different accounts to see if they’re from the same person. This is amazing! We might actually find out what happened to these guys.” said Laura, in what might have been the most excited tone Shane had ever heard her speak in.
“I wouldn’t get your hopes up just yet, Detective.” Shane said with a faint sigh. “From what I can tell, the people responsible for these accounts were smart enough to use a VPN to hide their exact location.”
Now it was Laura who let out a sigh.
“So we can’t really find out where they were at when talking to these guys?” she asked.
“Not exactly, no, but there is a chance they slipped up somewhere along the way; it’s a lot harder to fool a cellphone tower, and some of these accounts were via phone apps.”
“Can we figure that out with what we have here or is it going to take another request for documents?”
Shane cycled through some more of the recently received printouts for a sign of anything that might answer her question. He hadn’t been a detective for long, but was already feeling the overwhelming grind that was paperwork. On the beat, the most you’d have to fill out or look at were case reports and court ordered evaluations. These cold case files were already amounting to more than he’d ever seen during his time on the force. It wasn’t exactly what he had signed up for, but the progress had been surprisingly positive. And that’s what made it seem not quite as awful as it should have felt.
“Huh, what do you know, Chase’s pal used a pre-paid cellphone that they purchased from a gas station just outside of the city.” he said, unsure as to whether or not Laura had caught on. “All we have to do is go there and see if they’ve got security camera footage from that timeframe…”
“And we have our man on tape. That was a lot easier than it had any right to be.” she replied, mirroring his own thoughts. “So, let’s go.”
It was no sure thing that the person who purchased the cellphone had any connection to the man’s disappearance, but Shane knew that it was well worth the effort to look into it. It’s not very likely that the same person happened to contact a bunch of missing men throughout the years and somehow wasn’t involved with why they went missing. They wouldn’t know for sure until they looked and that is what they set out to do.
The overworked heating unit inside the outdated service station did little to fight back the brisk air of the blizzard rushing through the front doors. The ethnic clerk looked as miserable as possible while bundled up in multiple layers of clothing; so much so that Shane had a hard time hearing him through the scarf and heavy coat covering his mouth.
“No, I said no others.” muffled the man. “None.”
“So you don’t have any other cameras, just the one here inside right?“ asked Shane, attempting once again to confirm his question.
“I just said none, didn’t I?”
“Can we just get the video for that one camera please, if you have them.” he said, doing his best to not sound frustrated.
“You can’t have. You have to watch on television here. There are no tapes, just saves on computer, okay?”
“Are they at least labeled by time or day?” asked Laura, sounding just as cold as the others.
“I don’t know, you check and see.” the man said in a much more annoyed voice. “I have to watch pumps, here just have look in back and see. I’ll stay here. Go please.”
“Well it looks like we’re going to be awhile, so we’ll take two coffees before we start.” said Shane.
“Sure, sure, that will be five bucks.”
“We’ll pay after we take a look at the videos. Let’s get to it.” Shane said to Laura, who was already in the process of getting the coffee from the dank, old machine in the back.
The computer that was hooked up to the surveillance system, or in this case the lone camera, was nearly as archaic as the gas station itself. It took a good ten minutes to even completely boot up after it needed to be reset just going from the recording mode to the archive section. And it took another ten minutes to load the previous month worth of video recordings that should have been purged before getting that back loaded. They had a general idea of when the cellphone was purchased, but not an exact time, so they had to just cycle through days’ worth of video on fast-forward while keeping an eye on the cellphone stand. Not many people ever had a need to buy them, other than some of the migrant workers who come and go from the area depending on the season. The patience and the caffeine were wearing out at about the same rate when they finally caught a break. A small, hooded figure dressed in all black entered the store sometime in the evening and immediately went to the stand and grabbed a phone off the hook. The quality of the video and the attire worn by the person made it hard to make out any features, but it appeared to be a young girl, perhaps in her early teens.
“Well, look what we have here. Does this lineup with the time frame at all?” asked Laura, having seemingly adjusted to the cold.
“It does, but does she look like the kind of person who can overpower fully grown men?”
“Not exactly, but maybe she’s just helping someone? The screen names all had some variation that would lead us to believe it was a girl using those accounts, but that doesn’t mean that she’s working alone.” she was back to sounding cold again, with a slight tremble in her words because of it. “She’s using cash to pay, damn it.”
That ruled out the possibility of tracing a credit card to find out exactly who she was, but they still had options.
“We could ask the clerk and see if he knows who she is.” said Shane.
“Good thinking. She’s got to live somewhere around here, since the cell tower hit in this area and a girl that young wouldn’t be driving at all.”
Shane went back to the front of the store to grab the clerk, while Laura continued to study the paused, grainy video. The girl had purchased the phone before the bad weather had hit, yet she was dressed in layers of clothing. It appeared to Laura that she was indeed trying to hide herself from the camera and from being recognized. After a moment, the two men returned and she rewound the video for him to get a look at the girl from start to finish.
“Oh yes, her. She’s that creepy girl who used to come in here with her mother a lot. Not so much now, thankfully, and she doesn’t stay long when she does.”
“What’s so creepy about her?”
“Look at her. What kind of girl her age dresses like that? And she’s got a mouth on her, very dirty. She makes very unusual comments to me and my son when she comes in. I just ignore her and she leaves with whatever random things she buys; lots of candy and those phones every now and again.”
“You have any idea where she lives? Or what her mom’s name is? We need to talk to her.”
“I don’t know exactly, but I’m pretty sure it’s at that trailer park down the road from here. Pear Village or whatever it’s called. That dump of a place. I haven’t seen the mom in here in a while, but that place isn’t really that big, so you’d probably find them if you just went over there and drove around asking.”
And that was what they planned on doing the rest of the day. They both knew that they couldn’t mess up this lead, but with nothing else to go on, they had to go take a look. Questioning the girl was not an option without first finding her and her mother, so they had to continue to take things a step at a time. They set off down the road to the trailer park that the clerk mentioned; a place that Shane knew well from his time on the street. He had served a lot of warrants and responded to a number of different domestic situations that arose here. The park was also known as a good place to score some meth if you were so inclined to do so. It did not come as a surprise to either of the two Detectives that their missing person cases might be originating from somewhere like this.
They did a few slow passes around the park, not noticing anything or anyone matching the description of the girl. Asking anyone for help likely wouldn’t yield any positive results, as people knew not to talk to the police. But it was worth a shot and they got out back into the snow to begin the slow process of knocking on doors in search of their lead.
She was running fast and running far. Through a blackened forest that tore at her body like the voices tore through her mind. They called out to her as she ran; seeming to never be but a step or two behind her.
You can’t run forever, girl! They will catch you like they always do!
She knew that the voices were right; she would be caught as she always ended up being. But that did not stop her from running or from trying to get away again.
You’re only making him mad, foolish girl. And you know what happens when you make him mad!
The voice was not wrong, once more. She knew exactly what would happen if he got mad; that just made her want to run even quicker. Her feet were bloodied and sore and she felt every sharp stone and thorny vine pierce her soles as they pounded the ground underneath her. The fire in her lungs begged her to stop, but through pure will alone she kept on running. She couldn’t let it happen again.
Just stop and make it easy on yourself. He likes it when you’re all tired and sweaty, you’ll be doing him a favor!
This voice was a different one and more familiar than the others. That’s when she realized that it was her own voice, someplace else inside her mind, trying to urge her to stop and accept what was an inevitable conclusion. Tears now blurred her vision and caused her to hit even more of the damaging branches along the way.
He likes it when you fight. It makes it more fun that way. Just stop now and let him do it. It’ll be over quicker if you do.
The voice, her own, was right this time.
And so her body slowed until it came to a stop.
But she let her mind keep running further into the darkness.
Just run away, she called to it.