A young girl is abducted, but then... - 2nd Place Distorted Minds Contest April 2017
|Steam rose from the charred corpse—the firemen had doused it liberally to extinguish the flames. The blackened hotel room stank of burned polyester. Steve waved away the flies and crouched to examine a part-melted crucifix. The age and sex of the deceased weren't obvious, but size implied an adult. He scratched his bald patch. At least the cause of death appeared clear. Painful, too, poor bastard.
Steve shook his head and stood, his joints creaking. Who would have thought he'd been his college team's quarterback? He should cut back on those big family meals. Two years off fifty, he'd better start paying better attention to his health if he didn't want Maria left raising their kids alone.
He rubbed his bristly chin. “Wang, what do you have?”
His junior partner bustled over, her neat ponytail bouncing, and pulled her notepad from her jacket pocket. “We have an ID on the deceased—Father Peter Jones, a priest from Santa Monica.”
“Any idea why he's a hundred and fifty miles from home?”
“That's where it gets interesting. SMPD have an APB out on him as a child abduction suspect. Two days ago, a minor disappeared from the Bethlehem Institute.”
Steve smiled. Who would have thought it? A pedophile priest snatching a kid from an orphanage and dragging her across state lines. Definitely FBI business. If things went his way, he'd be able to finish early. Convenient, since there was a game on tonight. “What else you got?”
“The alleged abductee was found nearby. I've assigned an officer to watch her, but someone from Child Protective Services is en route to pick her up.”
He pondered whether to bring in the FBI immediately, then sighed. Previous experience suggested they'd want a few bases covered before they took charge, and the insurance company would want a report about the fire. “Has the Fire Marshal determined whether we're dealing with arson?”
“He's still investigating.” Wang grinned, then glanced away. Fire Marshal Schumacher was a particular favorite of hers, and Steve wouldn't be surprised to hear rumors flying around soon.
“Once CPS arrive, ascertain whether the minor is in a suitable mental and physical condition for an interview.” He glanced around the scorched room. “Other than the fire, any sign of possible foul play?”
“Not yet. But CSI hasn't finished picking through everything, yet.”
“Keep me updated on their progress.” He glanced at the body. “Don't you think it's strange he's the only guest didn't make it out of his room when the alarm went off?”
“Looks like he almost made it to the door when the fumes overcame him,” opined Wang.
Steve nodded and examined the fragments of the door, which had been first roasted and then the remnant hacked to pieces by some fireman's ax. “Make sure the CSI team check out the lock on this.”
“You think it might have jammed?”
“That would explain why he didn't make it out.” Something about this didn't make sense. “Where was the child found?”
Wang gestured to the window. “There's a playground near the hotel. She was on the swings when the firetrucks arrived.”
He shook his head. “Why would the priest let her out of his sight?”
She shrugged. “Maybe we can ask the girl, if CPS allow it.”
Steve gazed through the one-way mirror into the compact, white-walled room. “What is she? Five?”
“Seven,” said Wang, standing beside him.
“Small for seven.”
The girl sat behind the desk in a chair usually reserved for hardened criminals, her bare legs swinging. A bored-looking lady from CPS occupied the lawyer's seat. Soot marred the child's pink dress, but her flame red hair appeared untouched. Her smiling face evidenced no trauma, which troubled Steve. His own eight year old became a trembling wreck whenever her brother so much as pretended his GI Joe had shot her Barbie.
“She refused to change her dress,” said Wang. “Said the jeans provided by CPS are 'boy's clothes', and she'd rather go naked than wear them.”
“Stubborn as any woman,” he mumbled.
Wang crossed her arms and scowled. “Pardon?”
“Er… strong, independent, little lady.”
“Thought that's what you said.”
He loosened his tie, then grabbed his notes. “Shall we begin?”
They entered the interrogation room. “Good afternoon,” he said. “I'm Detective Steve MacDonald, and this is Detective Linda Wang. Sorry to have kept you.”
The CPS lady shuffled in her seat. “Two hours we've waited. I have other clients, you know.”
“Sorry. We'll try to keep this brief.” He sat and turned his attention to the child.
She beamed back at him—an Adoption Services poster girl. “Hello, mister.”
“Hello yourself, little lady. What's your name?”
“I'm Malaco… Malaco Malone.”
“Why, what a pretty name.”
“I like your hair clips. Butterflies, are they?”
“Yeah. I love butterflies.”
Her clear voice and ready replies inspired confidence she might provide answers needed to wrap up this case. “Can you tell me what you're doing in Palm Springs?”
“Daddy brought me.”
Did he hear right? “Your daddy?”
The CPS lady cleared her throat. “Talking with Malaco earlier, I established she calls that priest 'Daddy'.”
“Has she confirmed she arrived with Peter Jones?”
“That's right,” said Malaco, answering herself.
He nodded. That pretty much confirmed the priest's guilt—not that it mattered now. “Do you know why he brought you here?”
“Of course.” She straightened. “Cause I told him to.”
“You asked Father Peter to bring you?”
She giggled. “No, silly. I told Daddy to drive me to Palm Springs.”
He exchanged a look with Wang then returned his attention to Malaco. “Why did you want to come here?”
She shrugged. “It looked nice on TV, so I wanted to live here with Daddy.”
This interview was getting strange. He considered cutting it short and glanced at Wang. She gave an almost imperceptible shake of her head. She wanted the information no matter how weird it sounded. He supposed she was right. They had yet to determine how the fire at the hotel started, and there was some small chance the priest was involved.
He turned back to Malaco. “What exactly do you mean when you say you wanted to 'live' with Father Peter?”
“He was my daddy. Course we should live together.” She frowned. “But he's dead now.”
Steve hesitated to ask more, wondering if the next question wasn't better handled by a child psychologist. Although aware the priest had died and calling him Daddy, she didn't appear as grief-stricken as the children he'd seen at the graveside of fallen comrades. This disturbed Steve. However, since Malaco wasn't upset, he opted to take a risk.
“Did Father Peter want to play Mommies and Daddies with you?”
She cocked her head and smirked. “You don't understand. I wanted him to be my daddy.” Her eyes narrowed. “But he wasn't a good daddy. He wanted me to take my dress off. I didn't like that.”
Steve took a deep breath and glanced at Wang. She nodded. This interrogation was headed into uncharted territory; they needed a child psychologist on board. Since both the victim and perpetrator were from out of state, the FBI would have to handle that anyway. He smiled at Malaco. “Thank you for answering our questions.”
Her face lit up, and she squeezed her shoulders together. “You're a nice man. Will you be my daddy?”
“I don't understand.”
“My old daddy is dead.” She spoke slowly, enunciating each syllable as if speaking to an imbecile. “I want you to be my new daddy.”
A chill rippled down his spine, and something clicked in his mind. He flipped through his notes and found the relevant issue, the first fact in this case he'd thought strange. “Malaco, when the fire service arrived, you—”
Someone knocked on the door. It opened, and an administrator stepped through. “Detective MacDonald, there's a guy from the Bethlehem Institute on the phone.”
“Well”—he gestured to Malaco and her current guardian—“we're busy. Take his number and I'll call back.”
“He says it's urgent.”
Steve snorted and turned to Wang. “Don't they always say that. Linda, can you keep an eye on Malaco for a moment?”
Wang rolled her eyes.
He sighed. It wasn't as if she was a major flight risk. “Look, I'll be as quick as I can, but there's one more answer I want.”
As he stepped through the door, the administrator gestured toward the open plan office. “I've re-directed the call to your phone.”
He jogged to his desk and threw himself into his swivel chair. After snatching the phone, he barked, “Detective MacDonald speaking. You're from the orphanage and have information?”
“This is Doctor James Schwartz from the Bethlehem Institute. You have my missing patient?”
“Patient? You are an orphanage, right?”
“No. Bethlehem is a pediatric psychiatric facility.”
“You mean an asylum for kids?”
“That's not a term we use, but that's irrelevant. Our most volatile patients is missing—Malaco Malone.”
“Er… we have Malaco here.” He took a notepad from his drawer. “What do you mean, volatile?”
“Don't underestimate her. She's a savant.”
He paused with his pen hovering over the paper. “A what?”
“You mean like those autistic kids who draw masterpieces?”
“Yes, but Malaco's proficiency is murder.”
Steve covered the mouthpiece to hide his snicker. “Forgive me, doc. Is this some kind of joke?”
“Please take this seriously. Malaco has already hospitalized several people.”
This prankster must think Steve was a fool. “Look, buddy, or doctor if that's what you really are. I'm sitting in a police station surrounded by a hundred armed law enforcement professionals. One seven year old girl is not a threat.”
He slammed the handset down, then stood to go. He paused when he saw Fire Marshal Schumacher enter. The marshal caught his eye and hurried over, slamming a case file down on Steve's desk.
“We've got a huge problem.” Schumacher opened the file and pointed to the photograph of a one-gallon gasoline jug. “This was abandoned in a children's playground near the hotel.”
“It's linked to the fire?”
“We found traces of gasoline in the deceased's room.”
“Someone set the priest's room alight?”
“Looks that way. And the jug is covered in fingerprints.”
Steve leaved through the file. “Have you run the prints?”
“They're not in the system. But, Steve, this is really weird. They're a child's. Some kid, possibly five or six years old.”
He gripped the edge of his desk. “You're sure?”
“Definitely a small child.”
Steve darted back to the interrogation room, where he found the door wide open. Wang sat alone, writing in her notebook. “Where's the kid?”
“She needed to go pee-pee.” Wang smiled, an unexpected maternal expression flickering across her face. “The CPS lady took her.”
She jumped up. “What's wrong?”
“We gotta find her pronto.”
“I sent 'em to the handicapped restroom on the first floor.”
Steve hadn't run so fast since he left uniformed service. He took the stairs three steps at a time and flew around the corners. Breathing hard, he arrived at the restroom to the welcome sign of a red “occupied” indicator in the tiny square window beneath the handle. Hopefully Malaco was relieving herself inside.
Wang appeared beside him, not even breaking a sweat. “What's the huge rush?”
Somebody banged urgently on the restroom door from the other side, followed by a muffled, “Help!”
He gripped the handle. These handicapped restroom doors were designed to be operable from outside in an emergency, so he pressed the release catch. Nothing happened. “The handle's jammed.”
Wang drew her service weapon and took a step back. “The door's too solid to kick in. We could get the SWAT guys to bring a ram, but how urgent is this?”
A single gunshot shattered the silence. Police officers ran out of every visible doorway with weapons raised.
“Hey, what's happening?” one shouted.
Steve ignored the question and gingerly swung open the restroom door while Wang kept her gun raised and ready.
Inside, the CPS lady stood alone, looking both sheepish and a little scared. “D-Do you have Malaco?”
“She's not with you?”
The lady shook her head. “I don't know how she did it. She had the door open and shot out before I could stop her. Then the door jammed."
Wang examined the remnants of the lock. “There's a clip squeezed into the mechanism.”
“How'd you… oh. Clever little… cherub.”
Steve visualized an emerging pattern. “Wang, take care of the lady. I have to make an urgent call.”
Back at his desk, he caught his breath and then called the Bethlehem Institute.
Doctor Schwartz picked up. “Detective MacDonald? I was expecting your call.”
“I'll apologize later. For now, please just tell me what you know.”
Steve ran a hand across his bald spot. “Yes.”
Doctor Schwartz sighed. “Basically, Malaco has a daddy complex. Her biological father proved a disappointment, so she's seeking a replacement. But when the surrogate proves inadequate, as he always will…”
“She ditches him and finds another.”
“Precisely. And as I said, she's a savant with an adult level attainment in murder. Think Hannibal Lecter, but capable of squeezing through a cat-flap or walking past any security checks without raising suspicion.”
He shuddered and slumped into his chair. “My God!”
“She demonstrates exceptional aptitude with mechanical devices and can dismantle and reassemble anything from a bicycle to a computer.”
Steve took notes. “So she's a miniature NASA engineer with better survival skills than the average US Marine.”
“We had her confined in our most secure unit, but you know how civil rights activists are.”
“The PSPD has suffered one or two run-ins with them.”
“Well,” said Doctor Schwartz, “certain parties insisted Malaco had a right to spiritual guidance, and the priest recommended she attend Church.”
He didn't need a dot-to-dot guide. “Father Peter aided her escape.”
“It doesn't help that Malaco is the most persuasive person I've ever met. Doubtless she somehow convinced him helping her was the right thing to do. I only hope you can locate her before someone else gets hurt.”
“Don't worry, Doc. Palm Springs is a small town. When you've ex-Presidents on your turf, you can't be lackadaisical, and PSPD is the best equipped force in the state. I'll put out an APB. I doubt she can outrun a patrol car.”
An alarm blared.
“Hey,” shouted an intern, “is that the fire alarm?”
“Gotta go!” He ended the call.
Instinct urged him toward the alarm, but thorough training forced him out to the parking lot and his assigned muster point. A sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach told him Malaco had something to do with this. Looking back at the station, this was clearly no hoax. Black smoke billowed through windows. He wasn't trained to tackle fires, and unaccounted for he would potentially put firemen's lives at risk.
Wang appeared and jogged over.
“Do you know what's happening?” he asked.
“It started in the basement.”
“Yeah. Wouldn't be so bad, except—”
“Let me guess,” he interrupted. “The access door is jammed.”
“Hey, how'd you… No! She couldn't possibly…”
He covered his face with his hands. With such a huge loss of equipment and resources, the whole department would be in turmoil. Their ability to organize an efficient manhunt was seriously compromised. Malaco had created a window of opportunity for her escape.
Charlie stumbled out the bar into the cold night air, redolent with the stench of garbage. How was he supposed to know the slut propping up the bar really was waiting for her boyfriend? Used to be he could hook up with any girl he wanted in Phoenix, especially in a dump like this, but he was past his best-by-date. Gray had crept into his beard, and his six-pack long ago transformed into a keg.
He straightened his collar and set off homeward. He'd hung around that bar too long hoping to get laid. It was especially disappointing since he'd bought a new pair of handcuffs. No matter how those sluts begged him to stop, he knew they loved it rough. He sighed. After spending his last few dollars on overpriced drinks, there wasn't even enough left over from his welfare check for a hooker.
A little girl stepped from the shadows beside a dumpster, and he blinked. It was long after midnight, but she couldn't be more than six years old.
She skipped over. “Hello, mister!”
He took a step back and looked her up and down, taking in her disheveled pink dress covered in black smears. “Where your parents at?”
She shrugged then grinned.
Charlie scratched his beard. She must have run away from an orphanage or maybe a foster home. Well, who cared? With that long, red hair and those dimples, she was cute. Was she flat chested under that dress, or had the buds of womanhood appeared?
He glanced around. Nasty things happened to pedophiles in prison. Every window was dark in this business district, and no security cameras in sight. He licked his lips. Maybe he could get away with it if she didn't struggle or make much noise.
She smiled and fluttered her eyelashes. It was the most adorable thing he'd ever seen. “Say, do you want to be my daddy?”
Charlie grinned. This couldn't be more perfect. “Sure, honey. You come along home with Daddy. I'll tuck you up in bed all warm and tight.”
She placed her tiny hand in his and squeezed. “I love you, Daddy.”
Plugged in: "Mystery Newsletter (August 2, 2017)" "Mystery Newsletter (August 30, 2017)" "Mystery Newsletter (November 22, 2017)" "Mystery Newsletter (January 2, 2019)" "Mystery Newsletter (February 6, 2019)" "Mystery Newsletter (February 13, 2019)"
WORD COUNT: 3000
PROMPT # 3