FICTION / Horror
FICTION / Thrillers / Supernatural
FICTION / Thrillers / Suspense
FICTION / Thrillers / Crime
Pacie Rose stood up and groaned as she brushed garden soil from the knees of her jeans. She put her hands on her hips and stretched side to side as she looked up at the cloudless late afternoon azure sky and then back down at the June bearing strawberry patch. “Next year I’m putting everything in raised beds. This bending over and crawling around on my hands and knees is getting old.”
“First you have to build them,” her daughter Amanda Booth said, putting strawberries into her half-full plastic bucket. “You should get Johnny to do it for you.”
“He’s pretty busy running the antique shop.” Pacie paused, then said. “I can probably do it myself.”
Ever since Pacie’s husband, Patrick Rose, drowned in Lake Michigan a couple of years ago, she has lived alone in her Black Water home—five acres on the outskirts of town. Johnathon Armstrong, the owner of Good Old Days Antique Shop, became her significant other. She knows he wants to marry her, he has said so, but she just cannot cross that bridge. Not yet, anyway. Although presumed dead, the body of her husband has never been found. What if he came back? What if mobsters had taken him and he is still alive somewhere? He did work as a detective and most certainly gained enemies along the way. Even the diocesan bishop had issued a declaration of presumed death, making remarriage an option. The authorities said that a rip current had pulled him under the water and away from the shore; but because Patrick was an expert swimmer and familiar with the Great Lakes, she had difficulty believing that explanation. Without a body, there was a tiny bit of doubt in Pacie’s mind.
“But Grandma, we wouldn’t have yummy jam if we didn’t do this every year,” Charlotte said. She looked at her mom, Amanda. “I know what we can do. Next year you and I can pick the strawberries and grandma and Irma can make the jam.”
“I don’t have a problem with that,” Amanda said. “We just have to get our cousin Irma away from that police scanner and stop finding investigations for her and mom to do.”
Charlotte laughed. “Yeah, she’s a gray-haired old lady who acts like a little kid. A little kid obsessed with Black Water’s weirdness. And with being Grandma’s sidekick.”
“It’s not nice to talk about people behind their back,” Amanda said. “Even with all her quirks, she has helped the people of Black Water. Without Mom and Irma, we would never have found out what was causing Inky River to actually become inky.”
Charlotte laughed. “I remember when they came out of the river covered in that slime, and it took forever to wash off.”
“Ah yes, I remember that, too,” Pacie said, rubbing her aching neck. “As far as Irma, her heart is in the right place.”
“Are you going to put stuff like that in your new book?” Charlotte asked.
“Like the slime and stuff.”
“I’m not sure if I can work slime into the missing dog plotline. But maybe I can. I’ll have to work on it.” Pacie smiled. “I don’t think I’ve incorporated slime into any of my books. Maybe I’ll do it next time. I’ll dedicate the book and the slime to you, Char.”
“That’s gross, Grandma.”
Pacie enjoyed these times when her family came over and they worked on a project. Today it was both canning and freezing strawberry jam. This fall everyone will come over and pick out their own pumpkins and carve them. And soon after that, it will be making Christmas wreaths to hang on front doors.
Black Water, Michigan, was the perfect town to live in, not too big, not too small. As a resort town on the shore of Lake Michigan, it had much to offer—its own lighthouse, sandy beaches and dunes, quaint downtown shops, and homes with yards large enough to grow those darned strawberries.
Pacie’s phone rang. She pulled it from her pocket and looked at the number. “Hi, Irma, what’s up?”
“I have another case for us. I’m a little late on this, but I heard on the police scanner that a child was abducted from Sugar Sand Park earlier today. The description two other kids gave the cops was that some tall creepy guy in a suit snatched her.”
“A tall, creepy guy? When is Black Water going to stop having so many strange problems?”
“I don’t know, but they certainly keep us busy.” Irma coughed. “But I still say it’s the nuclear power plant causing it. As soon as they began building that thing outside of town in the late nineteen-sixties, weird things began happening. You know that.”
“I know. But weird things have been happening in this area for a long time before that. I think the Bulwark Nuclear Power Plant just made it worse.”
“So, can we do it?”
Pacie looked at her family quietly picking strawberries. She could tell they were listening to her conversation. She watched her red-headed granddaughter pop a ruby red strawberry into her mouth. Now old enough to drive, she hoped Charlotte was wise enough to not fall victim to a child abductor. But wise did not always have much to do with it, these psychos were cunning. God forbid it could ever happen to Char.
“You know I have a soft spot for kids—and the creepy.” Pacie paused. “Let’s do it.” She heard her daughter say: not again,
Irma squealed like a child who had just been handed a gift to open. “I know the kidnapping happened earlier this morning, but we should head over there soon. Haley might still be there. You know she helps us, at least sometimes.”
“I’m on my way.”
They disconnected the call.
“What is it this time?” Amanda asked.
“A child has been abducted.”
“I don’t know the details. I’m heading over to Sugar Sand Park.” Pacie watched Amanda and Charlotte put down their buckets. “Can you guys finish up here?”
“Not a problem,” Amanda said. “By the time you get back, we should have the jam made.”
“Can’t wait,” Pacie said as she walked to the house. The bright blue sky now looked dull, and the air was no longer crisp. It felt as though the air was a sponge, pulling in any surrounding moisture.
When Pacie got inside, she washed the red stain of strawberries from her hands and slung her satchel over a shoulder. Inside she kept a handheld voice recorder, small notebook, pens, flashlight, Swiss army knife, and more. She took the car keys from the hook by the door and walked into the garage.
A feeling of dread was making a subtle entrance into her chest as she climbed into the silver SUV. An image of a tall, creepy guy entered her mind as she drove down the driveway and onto the street. He would be fairly easy to spot, but she could think of no one who matched that description. Strike that, she could think of a couple of tall creepy guys, but they were not child abductors. One was the high school principal, who has lived in Black Water all his life, and the other was the undertaker in town. The only one of those two that wore a suit was Ben Cully, and she had a hard time believing this family man who has been the director at Black Water’s funeral home for years could do such a thing. It made no sense.
Several minutes later, Pacie pulled into the parking lot behind Good Old Days Antique Shop. She smiled when she saw Johnny’s pickup parked near the backdoor. She was not there to visit him, but instead to pick up Irma, who lived in the apartment above it. Irma was coming out of the first-floor door with her backpack. Pacie drove up to her.
“I’m sorry I pulled you from the garden, but I thought this was more important,” Irma said as she climbed into the vehicle. The portable scanner was squawking from inside her pack.
“You’re right, this is more important than some strawberries,” Pacie said. Then she saw Johnny walk out of the shop’s backdoor and toss a trash bag into the dumpster. She rolled down her window and waved.
Johnny walked over to the car and leaned on the door. “What are you ladies up to today?”
“We have a new case,” Irma said right away. “We need to stop the tall creepy guy who’s abducting kids.”
“I heard that on the radio.” He smiled at Pacie. “I think I know the answer, but do you have time for lunch?”
“No, we’re already running late. We have to get over to the park and see what’s going on before everyone leaves.”
Johnny kissed Pacie, then whispered in her ear, “I miss you.”
His breath felt warm on her skin. She did not want to leave. “I’ll call you later when I find out more.”
“You ladies be careful,” he said, backing away from the car. “Don’t forget to let the police do the dirty work.”
Pacie waved goodbye and drove out of the lot. One reason they had good luck solving cases was because, as citizen reporters, they did things they were not supposed to do, like sneaking into places important to the case. Johnny did not know all their shenanigans. Pacie told him some of the more innocent mischiefs that they got themselves into, but the more questionable details were better left unsaid.
When they arrived at Sugar Sand Park, what appeared to be search team members were walking out of the woods, past the empty playground, toward the parking lot where police officers and reporters were gathered.
“There’s Haley,” Irma said, vigorously waving her arms as she got out of the car.
“I think she saw you,” Pacie said, putting her satchel crossbody as she sized up the situation.
“She’s coming,” Irma said. She switched off the police scanner before taking her handheld video camera from the backpack.
“Hi, ladies,” Detective Haley Wanat said, approaching them. “I’m not surprised to see you here, but you are a little late to this crime scene. They’re just finishing up the grid search for this area.”
“Good to see you, Detective,” Pacie said, extending a hand. “I hear a child was kidnapped. Are you able to tell us anything?”
Pacie’s husband was Detective Wanat’s partner. The presumed death of Patrick was almost as hard on Haley as it was on Pacie. Ever since Det. Wanat delivered the eulogy at Patrick’s funeral, Pacie and Det. Wanat had become good friends. Even though they were on a first-name basis, Pacie addressed her formally in public. Mostly because Haley would tell them more information about cases than she should, and Pacie did not want to get her friend into trouble. It was an unspoken agreement that both Irma and she would never reveal their source. For that reason, Irma turned on her camera and began recording with it facing the ground, capturing their feet. Onlookers did not need to know what they were talking about. Sometimes Pacie would slip a hand into her satchel and turn on her recorder without witnesses knowing. For all anyone knew, the three of them were talking about the weather.
“A nine-year-old girl, Morgan Rafferty, was abducted. The woman talking to the officer over there is her mother, Mary, and the little boy is her brother, Tyler. Tyler, and the other boy, Jerome Cushing, standing by that car with his mom, Cassandra, are both witnesses. The boys actually saw the perp, albeit from a distance.”
“What did they see?” Pacie asked, watching Irma step closer to the detective.
“Their stories are the same. They were here for Jerome’s birthday party and went to play on the swings. Then Morgan saw a rabbit hopping around on the trail that goes into the woods. All three kids knew they were not supposed to follow the trail into the forest without a parent, but Morgan insisted on following the rabbit. The boys went to the trail and stood at its mouth, watching Morgan. That’s when, and this gets kind of weird, they saw a tall man, around eight to ten feet tall, appear on the trail leading deeper into the forest.”
“Appear? Was he walking from a certain direction?”
“Apparently, the perp was suddenly there.” Detective Wanat looked around, then said, “Not only was he really tall, like Bigfoot, as one of the boys said—”
“That’s right,” Irma interrupted. “Bigfoots are that tall. Did it look like Bigfoot?”
“No, it looked like an extremely thin man. He wore an old-fashioned black suit with a tie, like the guy who buried Jerome’s grandfather, they said.”
“Did they recognize him as someone from town?” Pacie asked.
“No, they said his face was colored like white milk and they could not see eyes, a nose, or a mouth. Doesn’t sound like anyone I know.”
“Me either,” Pacie said. “Sounds kinda spooky.”
“Do you have a description for the little girl?” Pacie asked.
“Morgan Rafferty was last seen wearing a white blouse and shorts. She has long dark hair with loose waves and of average weight and height for a nine-year-old.”
“Did you find any physical clues?” Irma asked.
“Not yet. People from the park began searching almost immediately, but it was like the girl and the man just disappeared. I take that back. There was a dead rabbit, probably the one the girl was chasing, lying in the middle of the trail with its head twisted completely around. Likely done by the perp as a show of power and control.”
Pacie saw the moms and kids getting into their cars, sobbing. “I don’t think they’re up to an interview.”
“I doubt it. Besides, I just told you everything they told me. We’ve been searching the area by land, air, and the water. And we have a bulletin out. Keep your eyes open because abductors often return to assist in the search.” Det. Wanat said. “They’ll be searching extensively for a few days.”
“Why do kidnappers do that?” Irma said.
“They often want to monitor the progress of the case and to mislead the search effort,” Det. Wanat said. She turned when she heard Officer Branden Kline call her name. “Gotta go. You two be careful, I don’t think we’re dealing with an ordinary man.”
“Do you need help with the search?” Pacie asked.
“We have it covered,” the detective said, walking away.
Pacie’s shoulder muscles tightened. “I’ve seen no one that matches that description around town.”
Irma turned off her camera. “Me either. It has to be someone new to Black Water.”
Pacie and Irma walked toward the pavilion as officers finished barricading the trail with yellow tape, telling the curious—like Pacie and Irma—POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS.
“Everyone’s leaving,” Irma said as they walked into the pavilion where birds were pecking away at the spilled cake on the dirty cement floor. Paper plates, cups and other trash were scattered around, seeming to indicate people were in a rush to leave a chaotic scene.
“When we’re alone, we’ll check out the trail before it gets dark,” Pacie said. She stood there listening. She heard the waves along the beach, a crow’s harsh caw, and the clanking of swings banging into each other from the wind. No screams or cries for help.
Irma was video recording the park as Pacie walked toward the swings. She felt so bad for the little girl. Where was she and more importantly, was she all right?
“It sure is humid,” Irma said, momentarily pulling the fabric of her flowered blouse away from her skin.
Pacie looked back at the parking lot and saw the last patrol car pull out. “They’re gone. Let’s check out the trail.”
They walked up to the police tape and stopped. When they were sure no one was watching, they ducked under it and walked into the cool dimness of the forest’s edge. Pacie slowly walked down the path, looking around for anything out of the ordinary.
“I see lots of footprints,” Irma said, still recording. Vague indents in the sand of varying sizes showed a well-traveled path. “None look like Bigfoot, though.”
“I’ve never heard of Bigfoot wearing a suit.”
“I’m just saying.” Irma stopped recording and walked next to Pacie. “What are you thinking?”
Pacie took her cellphone from her back pocket. “My battery is at ninety-eight percent.”
“Are you going to call someone?”
“No, well maybe, if I have to call nine-one-one.” She put the phone back in her pocket.
When they reached the fork in the trail, they stopped.
“Where was the dead rabbit?” Irma asked.
“I think that way,” Pacie said, pointing to the left. “Haley said it was on the path that went deeper into the forest. The other way goes to the beach.”
“I wonder if we should split up?” Irma said, looking down the path that led to the lake.
“The guy is probably already gone, especially since the area has already been searched.” Pacie began walking down the left fork.
“I changed my mind; I’m going with you.” Irma followed behind Pacie as they ventured deeper into the thick trees. She stopped when a loud snap of wood came from the forest floor, about thirty yards away. She whispered, “What was that? It sounded heavy.”
Pacie had stopped, too. She looked in the sound’s direction but saw nothing. “A deer, maybe.”
“Or the guy,” Irma said, raising her camera in the sound’s direction. She zoomed in and then sighed with relief. “You’re right, it’s a deer.”
The white-tailed deer bounded away.
Pacie looked back at the trail entrance. “I don’t think the boys can see much farther than this, so the little girl must have been abducted in this area.”
“Where’s the rabbit?” Irma asked.
“There it is”, Pacie said, pointing just off the trail where it had been pushed aside.
They walked up to it and bent over to take a closer look.
“Poor little thing,” Irma said, snapping a shot.
Pacie took her phone and looked up a map of the area. “This trail doesn’t go out to a road for what looks like several miles. It seems to go to a river that runs behind the power plant and then stops. It picks up again further away.”
Irma looked up at the sky through tree boughs. “It’s getting cloudy, I wonder if it’s going to rain.”
“Rain isn’t in the forecast,” Pacie said. “Let’s keep going before we run out of daylight.”
And so they did. It grew darker the deeper into the forest they went. Up and down hills for over an hour. Then they reached an eight-foot-high chain link security fence that kept them from going any farther.
“I guess this is the end of the line,” Pacie said, looking through the steel wire mesh of the fence. “You can tell the trail used to cross that river, probably before Bulwark was built.”
“Yeah, and there’s no way that guy could’ve crossed here because it would be impossible to get over the fence,” Irma said, looking up at the three strands of barbed wire that ran along its top. “But, he was ten feet tall.”
Pacie looked at her phone again. “I don’t know how accurate this map is, but there aren’t any nearby roads that a car can travel, other than what leads to the power plant. So where did they go?”
“I don’t know.”
Pacie looked left and right along the boundary. “There’s no footpath along the fence so if they followed it, it would’ve been tough going with all those prickly raspberry bushes.”
“There’s no sign of anything being disturbed,” Irma said. She looked at the hills around them and the backside of a dune. Past the treetops, foggy clouds of steam billowed from the nuclear power plant’s cooling towers. “It’s as though the ground swallowed them up.”
January 5, 2021: Updated timeline and search effort.