A wrinkled blue suit draped the Detective’s slouchy frame. He wore his thinning brown hair combed forward to mask a prematurely receding hairline. His notepad and cheap pen never left his pocket. Vaughn thought him quite young for a Detective.
Vaughn encouraged the deputies and Detective to look at everything and spend as much time as they needed. He showed them the muddy footprints in the hallway that they had somehow missed. He showed them the tire tracks in the driveway. He even offered them Jessica’s personal journal but they weren’t very interested in any of it.
“Am I a suspect?” Vaughn asked, bluntly.
“Not technically,” came one the gumshoe. “Let’s just say you are a ‘person of interest’ for now. A lot of these cases end up where the wife just up and left. A lot of other times, someone she knew was responsible.”
Vaughn felt a blood rage percolate up into the vessels of his face. “Why are you telling me that? I didn’t do anything to my wife.”
“I’m not saying you did,” came the Detective, spitting out nugget crumbs as he spoke.
“Then tell me what I can do to help. I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll take a polygraph…anything. Just find her!”
“Vaughn, can I be honest with you?” asked the Detective as he wiped his greasy fingers on the inside of his suit pants pocket. “Your wife ain’t the only one that’s been kidnapped around here. Hell, we had fourteen kidnappings in Hamilton County this month, alone. And half of them are relatives of cops, for cryin’ out loud.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“I’m trying to say that you need to chill out a little. It’s gonna take a little time. Try not to worry so much…”
“What? Try not to worry? My wife is missing for Christ’s sake. How can you tell me to not worry?”
“Just calm down,” assuaged the Detective as he put his greasy paw on Vaughn’s shoulder. “Relax. The Feds are all over this stuff. There’s been a rash of disappearances nationwide while a lot of resources have been devoted to higher priority security issues. All that’s about to change. The President just signed ‘The Anti-Kidnapping and Public Safety Restoration Act’. I’m sure you’ve heard of TAPSRA, no? Well…the funding is just getting down to the county level. That’s why I’m here to help you. I work for the county but I’m paid by the Feds. They sent me down from Virginia.”
“So you’re a Fed?”
“It’s kind of a gray area. But that’s good for you. I went to school for this kind of stuff. We’ll get your wife back.”
The Detective balled up his foil nuggets wrapper and tucked it into his pants pocket. He handed Vaughn one of his cards, walked out the door, and disappeared into the cold. Vaughn and tiny Brooke, who was watching a DVD of mermaids nearby, were alone again in the house.
“Where’s mama?” She asked, looking up from her ‘baby tv’.
Vaughn mustered a smile. Looking down into her wide little eyes he was suddenly, deeply afraid that he would never see Jessica again. How would he manage? He pondered.
He checked his voicemail for the 30th time…still nothing. He contemplated making the dreaded call to Jessica’s mother but he couldn’t do it just yet, either. He had to process things a little more.
Could that gumshoe be right? He asked himself. Could Jess have left him?
No way. All of her things were still at home. The house had been torn apart. The door was left wide open. If she left, she definitely wouldn’t have left the door wide open and her young daughter alone to freeze. She wouldn’t have left her daughter at all under any circumstances.
While Vaughn pondered, Brooke went back to her DVD player. She was relatively self-sufficient for a two year old. Vaughn let her entertain herself for the better part of the day while he sat and waited for Jessica or anyone else to call. Seven times he checked to make sure the ringer was on or that the battery was still alive or that an incoming message alert had somehow been missed.
At Eight O’clock he put Brooke to bed and poured himself a glass of bourbon. He was not normally one to drink it straight but somehow the thought of its potency appealed to him at that moment. He paced with his cell phone in one hand and his drink in the other, contemplating the endeavor of cleaning up his decimated house. He downed the drink and checked the phone an eighth time.
He poured another bourbon and walked from room to room taking inventory. He checked the phone a ninth and tenth time. Exhausted, he migrated back into the family room and fell into his sofa letting his mind go blank.
He decided that reclamation of the household disaster was too big a task for Nine P.M. He himself got up and poured another bourbon, this time resisting the urge to check his silent phone. The god damn phone, he thought. Why won’t you ring? He was inclined to smash it to bits. No.
For an instant, he worried that he would be too hung over for work the next day. Then he remembered he was unemployed. Perhaps the timing was perfect, he thought. I can dedicate all my time to finding Jess. He suckled on the sour ice cubes from his empty glass. But who’s going to take care of Brooke while I look for her? He asked himself. My mom? She’ll do it. I’ll call her. He lifted the phone to his ear and was about to press the quick dial key but stopped.
By Eleven PM, the pellet stove in the living room was burning down, casting off its dying orange sparks. He poured yet another bourbon on freshened ice. The house was cooling.
You should call Jess’ mother at least, he thought. No, call her tomorrow. You’re drunk.
He drug himself up off the sofa again and clumsily reloaded the stove. Pellets were one oddly abundant commodity. Perhaps it was the subsidized wood pellet factories tasked with converting the State’s bark beetle blight into that had wiped millions of acres lodgepole pines. There was enough ghost forest fuel in Colorado to heat everyone’s house for decades.
Vaughn grabbed the bottle and with the cell phone in the other hand he lumbered into the master bedroom. He lost his balance trying to navigate in the darkness, stumbling over the overturned mattress and landing face down on the box spring. He laid there with his near empty bottle and his silent cell phone for an hour, watching the red minutes click over on the digital clock. At 12:00 he rolled over on the box spring.
He dreamed he was digging into black dirt, sweeping it away with his hands trying to uncover Jessica’s buried face. She was down in there, buried, suffocating. He uncovered her hand. He dug faster, handful after handful, as fast as he could but it collapsed back in covering her up as he got close. A bright light flashed behind him. He saw the face of his childhood friend.
“Don’t look back or you might just see what’s gainin’ on ya,” he warned.
Vaughn turned and dug faster. He had brushed the dirt away from her face. Her eyes opened but she was in pain. She couldn’t breathe. He dug still faster but the walls around him started to cave in. The light approached from behind. He looked over his shoulder and saw the German Sheppard. The walls of the hole started to collapse. He looked back down for Jessica but she was gone. Now he was trapped, buried by the black sandy dirt. He heard little Brooke scream. More and more dirt avalanched in, paralyzing him.
Vaughn awoke to his phone ringing. He fumbled around for the receiver, dropping it.
“God damn it!” he shouted.
He felt around in the darkness.
“Where the hell is it?” he shouted.
He dropped the bottle and the remaining bourbon spilled out onto the box spring, spreading through the fibers like brown blood into gauze. He couldn’t find the phone.
“You’ll miss the call!” He screamed.
“Where is it?!” He shouted.
Alas! But he couldn’t get the flip top to open.
Open. Success. He put the receiver to his ear. Nothing.
“No! No!” he shouted, thinking that he had missed the call after all. He looked into the receiver. The timer was still counting. He put it back to his ear.
“Vaughn?” Came a gravelly voice.
“Who is this?” He answered. There was no response. “Who is this?” He shouted again. He glanced over at the clock. It was 3:17. His head was drowning in a whistling, screeching, metal on metal headache. His mouth was filled with cotton and covered in film. “Who is this?!?”
“We have your wife, Vaughn.”
Vaughn froze momentarily, his eyes staring at a fixed point in the darkness.
“Who are you?” He asked.
“Do you want your wife back?” Came the gravelly voice.
“Yes. Yes, of course. Who are you?”
“You have something we want, Vaughn.”
“What do you want? Tell me.”
Kidnappers! Was the only concept in his brain which pounded through his consciousness like a red hot molten spike of iron.
“We think you know what we want.”
“I have no idea,” Vaughn answered. “Money? I can’t get it out bec…”
“We don’t want your worthless money, Vaughn.”
“What then?” His mind raced through his possessions. Television, computer, furniture, car, clothing…it was all essentially worthless serf material. They wouldn’t want any of that stuff. What do they want?
“We want your gold, Vaughn.”
“You know what we’re talking about. We want your gold.”
“I don’t have any gold. Tell me what you are you talking about?”
“We know you do, Vaughn. We want those Krugerrands of yours.”
“What the hell is a Krugerrand?” Vaughn asked.
“Don’t play dumb with us, Vaughn. This is your wife we’re talking about. If you want to see her again, you need to deliver your Krugerrands to us.”
“I don’t have any fucking Kruggerands. I don’t even know what the hell Krugerrands are. Please. I can get you cash but it will take a couple days.”
“Like I said, we don’t want your worthless money, Vaughn. We want your gold. We know you have a nice little collection hidden there somewhere and we want it. We want them all, too. Now you’ve got two hours. Do you know where the old Mercantile Building is in Buffalo Creek?”
“The JW Green? Yes, I know it.”
“You’ve got two hours to get there. Bring your little coin collection and don’t bother calling the Sheriff. We’ll know if you do.”
“That’s at least twenty miles from here and it’s practically a blizzard outside. I don’t have enough gas.”
“Not our problem, Vaughn. Be there. Two hours. Goodbye.”
Vaughn lay motionless clutching the phone to his ear, staring into the dark. He thought that maybe he had pissed the bed but then realized the spilled bourbon had soaked into his khakis a little. He drunkenly fumbled around for the lamp on the nightstand. He switched on the light and the burst of photons nearly vaporized his eyeballs. He laid back down and shielded his eyes with the inside of his elbow.
“Get up!” He slurred to himself as he ripped his arm away allowing the light to sear tracers into his vision.
He scrambled downstairs to the garage looking for gas. There was no way he could make it to Buffalo Creek on fumes. If he ran out, he would have to walk several miles down lonely country roads in the midst of a snowstorm and bitter cold. Dying of exposure would be a very real possibility.
“Brooke!” He thought. Should he bring her along? Absolutely not, but he couldn’t leave her. What then?
He found the lawnmower gas can. It had about a gallon and a half left in it. He went outside to the truck and carefully poured the contents in. It would be enough to get there. It was the best he could do.
He went back inside to check on Brooke. She was still asleep, tiny hands clutching her monkey. He snuck out of her room. He definitely couldn’t bring her…too risky. He picked up the phone and called his mother. It was 3:35 AM and he got her voicemail.
“Mom! Uh…yeah…well…it’s me. I’m sorry to call you like this but something has happened. I need to go somewhere to help Jessica. I can’t take Brooke with me but I can’t wait for someone to come watch her, either. I need you to come up to my house when you get this. I know I am asking a lot. She’s asleep for now and she almost never wakes up so things should be all right until you get here. I know this sounds crazy. I’ll explain everything as soon as I get back. The snow isn’t coming down like it was before so you should be okay. All right, call me as soon as you get this. If I don’t answer it’s because I’m in the canyons. I’ll call you back as soon as I can. Okay…goodbye. Oh mom, thank you for doing this. Thank you so much.”
Vaughn went up to the master bedroom and looked upon the disaster. He went to the bed and felt underneath for the rifle. It was still there.
“Idiots!” He declared.
He pulled the key out from the nightstand and unfastened the trigger lock.
After putting on his winter gear he checked on Brooke one last time. She was still asleep, snoring her tiny snores through intermittent pulls on her pacifier. Hopefully he would make it back before she awoke.
He went to the bathroom and grabbed Jessica’s medicine, putting it in a ziplock baggie. He took one last look at the upheaval that was his house before quietly closing the door and getting in his truck. His mom was going to shriek when she saw it, he thought.
It was still dark and the snow was coming down in large, slow-falling flakes— like detritus sinking to the ocean floor. The crystal reflections of it in the headlamps hypnotized him as he drove. The road was packing over and slick. The county snowplows didn’t run anymore as the County was essentially bankrupt and volunteers would not be out for another hour or two. Vaughn prayed his mom would make it. Even if she did, she wouldn’t be up for another couple hours at the earliest. Maybe he could get back home before then.
US 285 is a treacherous span of mountainous, rollercoaster highway even in the best of conditions. It climbs and dives and bends and turns through the foothills, bluntly engineered into steep hillsides. Since the suspension of the bulk of the State’s Department of Transportation services, the road was littered with boulders that had broken loose and tumbled down the steep mountain faces along the northwest shoulder. A driver interested in safety had to be wary of these as they came up fast. Civilian Samaritans were good about pushing them to the side but that was in good weather and during the daylight and during times when the police weren’t citing them for public safety violations. There were no Samaritans out on the highway this time of night as it was well past curfew.
Vaughn turned south and drove another seven miles through the town of Pine which is not more than a cluster of eclectic houses and a boarded up biker bar that rimmed the pastures along the South Platte.
What am I going to do when I get there? He asked himself as he passed through the abandoned town. He gazed down at his rifle riding shotgun. He moved it down onto the floorboard with its barrel pointed away. If the kidnappers saw it, what would happen?
He thought again about little Brooke alone in the house. A terrifying sensation that she was awake and screaming in her crib came over him. No one would come for her, at least not for another couple hours.
His mind drifted to the Krugerrands. What made them think he had any such things? What were they talking about? He remembered Mr. Croucup at the grocery store the night of the market crash. “Krugerrands!” he announced in realization. Maybe the kidnappers got their addresses mixed up.
How would he play it when he finally got there? Just be honest, he thought. No, that’ll get you nowhere. You have to lie and buy some time and get Jessica her medicine.
Down the road another couple miles, a lonely acetylene lamp appeared hanging over a relic payphone. The light’s glow illuminated ‘1892’ on the granite stone wall of the J.W. Green Mercantile building. He had made it. He parked alongside the building by an antique gas pump. He turned the engine off to conserve his precious fuel. The snow continued to fall through the golden arc of the lamplight.
It came roaring up the highway from the south, cutting across the adjacent church parking lot, plowing furrows into the foot deep snow. It slid to a stop with its high beams pointed directly into Vaughn’s eyes. Vaughn didn’t move although his eyes glanced down for a moment at the rifle on the floor. His cell phone beeped.
“Yes,” Vaughn answered.
“Step out of the truck.”
Vaughn grabbed the ziplock baggie and stepped out into the night. He kept the hand with the baggie over his head and the other clutching the cell phone in his ear.
“Is that the gold?” The gravelly voice asked.
“No,” he replied. “But the gold is close. This is Jessica’s medicine. If she doesn’t get it she’ll get very sick.”
“Show me the Krugerrands,” answered the voice.
“Let me see her first. How do I know she’s okay?”
“Don’t fuck with us, Vaughn. We’re professionals.”
“I’m not fucking with you. Please. Just show me she’s okay.”
“Where’s the gold?”
“Please. Please!” Vaughn pleaded. “I’ll get you what you want. Just don’t hurt her. She needs her medicine. Please take this and I’ll get you whatever you want.”
“You didn’t bring the gold, did you?”
“Please! I’ll give you everything I have. I won’t tell anyone. No police. Just don’t hurt her. Please. Let me give you her medicine for now. Just…”
The kidnapper’s truck shifted into gear and started to back up.
“Please! Please! Please just take her medicine. She’ll get sick. Please!”
The truck’s engine roared as it turned around in a spinout and tore back out onto the highway headed south.
“Please come back!” Vaughn shouted. “No! Don’t leave! No!”
The call disconnected.
Vaughn ran back to the truck and turned the key but the engine would not start. It was out of gas.