Schade Lee’s simple case to find the runaway debutant, Kylie Berson, was quickly becoming a search for serial killers and kidnappers. She stood at the Motel 6’s window, peering into the empty darkness when the truth of her situation closed around her. She sipped lightly at a Tanqueray and Tonic. Fuck it, she thought, threw back her head and tossed the gin down. “Want to live forever?” she asked out loud, as if to drive away the slow buildup of fear that had been stalking her for weeks now. Whether it was Kylie herself or the madman that had taken Kylie—or was following her—doing the killing, Schade couldn’t tell yet. Memories of a failed case long ago swam through her mind like a shark, threatening to devour her will to continue. She shivered and poured herself another drink. She considered the clear liquid for a moment and then slammed it back again. She let the buzz in her head dull old memories.
After a long moment, she turned from the window and stepped back to the motel’s crummy little desk, where she was just wrapping up some research for the night. She set down the empty glass and poured a bit more gin into it, swished it around the ice and turned her attention to the material on the desk. The collage of photographs, newspaper clippings, credit card statements and other assorted documents told a grim tale—one that had been growing steadily more clear to her over the year or so since she had taken the case—a tale for which she was ill-prepared. The idea that the young debutant had traded in silk sheets and silver spoons for a life of butchery seemed far-fetched.
She rubbed her eyes with the thumb and forefinger of her left hand and then squeezed the bridge of her nose. It was a vain attempt to relieve the piercing headache that had originated there and migrated throughout her entire body. Maybe it was lack of sleep that caused the discomfort. She was exhausted and her muscles ached. She would love to oblige the need for rest. But, she hadn’t been able to sleep well for months. Something—the case, or who knew what—had a grip on her, one that wouldn’t let go, wouldn’t allow her a moment’s rest without filling it with darkness—darkness and recurring nightmares of murder that seemed very real.
Schade shook her head to break free the cobwebs that weariness and three glasses of booze had formed in her mind. She immediately regretted it when her headache lanced through her temples like a knife. She took another swig and squinted down at the table, doing her best to ignore the pain. On the table, the meager light of the hotel’s desk lamp cast the hodge-podge of documents in shadowed stillness. Atop the randomly piled papers, her SIG-Sauer P239 glinted blue in the sparse light. Pushing the 9mm automatic aside, she reached down and picked up a column from the Reno Dispatch, printed from their website only three days prior. The headline of the article read:
YOUNG MAN MAULED AND DEVOURED BY WILD ANIMAL.
Below the headline a grainy, black and white picture of the crime scene surrounded by bystanders—one man, face blurred, whose eyes flashed dangerously toward the unseen cameraman—and police cars led the reporting. Something about the picture was familiar to her. But, she couldn’t quite place it. It was probably just delusions of a too-tired imagination. She placed the article atop a computer printout of an online credit card statement with the name Kylie Berson prominent atop it and paper clipped them together. Someone with that credit card had charged a week’s stay at the Marriot Hotel Casino in Reno during the same time as the mauling. In isolation, it would have just been a coincidence, but Schade had pieced together six such coincidences in Seattle, Portland, Sacramento, Barstow and a couple of no-name towns in between. The pattern was irrefutable. What did it prove? Nothing. But it certainly didn’t give Schade a lot of warm-and-fuzzies about the Bersons’ precious little girl and her new benefactor—the man who had swept her away from her cozy little paid-for-life in Berkeley. But, the pattern was odd. For a girl that had allegedly “disappeared,” Kylie gave little thought to the act of using her mother’s credit cards.
In some respects it made sense. There was no indication that Kylie believed that she was doing something wrong. Her credit cards hadn’t been cancelled by her family, nor had her car—a top-of-the-line BMW M5—been reported stolen. Nothing had been done by the Bersons to give anyone the indication that something was wrong. Schade knew the story well. It was an old one and one that Schade herself capitalized on for a very good living. A family as well-known as the Bersons would do anything to keep their name from being besmirched. Hell, according to Kathleen Berson—Kylie’s well-intentioned, if somewhat naïve mother—the girl’s disappearance from Berkley hadn’t even been reported to the police, much less the FBI. People like Kathleen Berson—more accurately, people like her husband, the A-list actor, and activist, Byron Berson—would pay any price to keep his precious daughter from destroying his marketability to the Hollywood elite or his credibility to his political benefactors intact.
That was where Schade came in. A discreet private eye, with a natural propensity to find and deliver lost sheep to the rich and famous, Schade was the logical choice. And so her search had begun—a year ago.
Only thing was: no one expected to find a trail of bodies following the young woman, especially not Schade. Now, Schade had to figure out what she was going to do. She was out of her depth, and she knew it.
Schade took another quick glance at her automatic—she called it “SIG”. The weapon seemed to talk to her—call out to her, hearkening back to a time when its purpose was the clearest representation of her life. It was like the thing had a life of its own, rather a life connected to—and somehow dependent on—her own. She ran a finger along the cold steel. It comforted her, strangely. She had carried SIG for the last ten years of her professional life: five years with the FBI’s kidnapping division and five years on her own. The black automatic was an old friend—one that had never failed her. SIG had been there when she decided to leave the Bureau.
She tried not to think of those times. Focus on Kylie, she told herself. If the killings and Kylie’s whereabouts weren’t a coincidence—and ten years of experience in the runaway and kidnap business told Schade it wasn’t—then whoever was out there, whatever kind of lunatic was following Kylie Berson, scared the living shit out of Schade. The events had given her pause about continuing on alone. But things were different than they were before she left the Bureau. A fear she felt deeply—a fear for the girl’s own life—that stirred the anger that hid deep inside her and began to surface in flashes of rage. She swallowed the desire to throw something. “Not again,” she whispered into the night.
Despite the fact that good judgment—and perhaps the law—dictated that she report her findings to the Feds, Schade was coming to the determination that she was going to face the situation down. She wondered if she had the strength. But, waiting for the wheels of justice just wasn’t an option. Whether or not she would end up reporting this was a question for another day. First, she would get Kylie Berson out of whatever terrible mess she had found herself in. She would take the eighteen year old home to her parents. Because, no matter how self-absorbed and narcissistic her parents were, they were still Kylie’s parents and Schade intended that they get their loved one back.