Wandering through Fisherman’s Wharf, Gavin Connors watched the tourists and sightseers flocking from one attraction to another with their kids in tow. They demonstrated everything he found wrong with parenting. Kids ran wild while parents did their own thing. Smartphones and tablets replaced conversation. All these attractions, and no one took the time to engage their kids. Tourist traps like this were just an excuse to have someone else play babysitter. Essentially, the parents had their hands off the wheel and let someone else drive for them. If they were willing to do that, then he was more than happy to take over the driving.
If these people endured the kind of loss he’d endured over the last decade, then maybe they wouldn’t be so careless. It would only take one example to change things. Today was that day. One family was about to learn a lesson for a whole generation.
He wandered up and down the Embarcadero and Jefferson Street in search of his example. He felt like a lion in search of his prey. As a predator, he looked for the weakest of the herd. He searched for a straggler, the lost, the ignored, and the foolhardy. Any of these archetypes would do. Because, like a predator, he was going to take his prey in broad daylight and in plain sight.
Although he was a predator, he didn’t look like one. The California print T-shirt over cargo shorts with a 49ers baseball cap and sunglasses provided the perfect tourist disguise. He threw in a couple of deceptions to hide his true appearance. The T-shirt was two sizes too big in order to hide his athletic physique, and he bolstered his out-of-shape appearance by wearing a swimming flotation belt to give the appearance of a paunch. He’d grown a neatly kept beard and added a little gray, which made him look closer to late forties than his mid-thirties . His disguise didn’t have to be perfect, just good enough to throw off eyewitness accounts.
He latched on to a family of out-of-towners with two boys. He put the oldest at eight and the youngest at six. None of them focused on one another. Their gaze was on the stores and attractions. The parents led the charge. They debated whether to eat or visit Ripley’s Believe It or Not. They never once turned around to check on their boys. The boys lagged behind, their attention grabbed by every tacky tourist shop offering trinkets with San Francisco or Alcatraz printed on them. The younger of the boys was at eye level with every cheap, mass-produced toy. Connors watched the kid’s hunger grow for some toy-related gratification. He fell behind his slightly worldlier brother. Connors liked this little straggler. He’d spent a long time thinking about the age of a kid to abduct and decided younger kids were better than older. The younger ones wouldn’t question an adult, and their fears would keep them compliant. But he couldn’t go too young, as toddlers were too labor intensive. Older kids were just too unpredictable. A kid between four and seven seemed the right age.
He maintained his distance, twenty to fifty feet back. He slipped his hands into his jacket pockets, and his right hand found the chloroformed handkerchief he’d prepped. He’d be swift and decisive. The kid and the people around him wouldn’t know what hit them.
The kid stopped at a store with an open storefront. He picked up a toy cable car.
This was Connors’s moment. He moved in. He maneuvered the handkerchief into his palm so that he could bring it out of his pocket in a single, seamless move. He closed in on the boy.
Just as he got within striking distance, the kid’s brother turned around. His gaze went straight to Connors. A flicker of confusion crossed his face. He recognized something was off, but it was clear by his expression that he didn’t know what. Fear kicked in, and he doubled back to his little brother. Connors aborted the abduction and let the boys go. Snatching two in public like this wasn’t an option. Big brother grabbed his little brother’s hand and hauled him in the direction of their hapless parents.
Losing his fish like this didn’t upset him. He admired the brother for his simple and prompt action. It was a good sign that the survival instinct was alive and well.
He peeled off and bought an ice cream from a store. By the time he’d rejoined the flow of people, his little family of out-of-towners were gone.
He spent the next forty minutes stalking prey without finding anything suitable. Things looked promising as he approached the aquarium at Pier 39. There was a nice concentration of people. The higher the density, the easier it was to pull off a snatch and grab.
He estimated that at least two hundred people milled around in bulky lines, waiting to buy tickets for the aquarium and other attractions. Here, he saw his opportunity. Families were separated. One person waited in line while everyone else wandered off to do something else. Some looked out at the water. Others took in the street performers. Others window-shopped. With everyone separated, it would be easy to pick off an ignored child.
A large family—he judged from their accents they were British—drew his eye. He guessed there were eight to ten of them spread out across the sidewalk. It was a multigenerational affair with parents, kids, and possibly uncles and aunts. A couple of guys stood in line at the brightly painted, can’t-miss-it information center and box office. They called across to a pair of women with a waifish preteen girl. Four or five kids between six and twelve, lost in a game of their own devising, ran around between people’s feet.
“Matthew! Matthew!” one of the women yelled. She was heavyset with overly bleached blonde hair. Despite the chill in the air and the cloudy day, she sported a sunburn across her face and shoulders.
A boy of around twelve stopped running.
“Where’s Grace? I told you to keep an eye on your sister.”
“I am. She’s over there,” he said .
Connors looked over in the vague direction of where the boy pointed. It took him a moment to spot the lone figure of a young girl, maybe five or six years old, looking at a sign for the aquarium, a stuffed rabbit dangling from one hand. She was the perfect candidate in every way.
“Make sure you look after her. That’s your job for today.”
“Yes, Mum. I know.”
“Just see that you do.”
Matthew shook his head and rejoined the game with the other kids, at the expense of any and all concern for Grace.
Connors wandered over to the girl, who was now watching a street performer juggle bowling pins. She was part of a semicircle of a dozen or so people. No one asked the kid whom she was with. Everyone seemingly assumed that she was with someone. That someone would be Connors.
He dropped to his knees in front of her. “Hey, Grace, there you are. What have we said about wandering off, kiddo?”
The girl looked at him blankly.
His attention drew only a couple of glances from the onlookers. He made sure his 49ers baseball cap shielded his features from view.
“Look at your face. You’ve got schmutz all over it.”
He deftly brought out the handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it to the girl’s face. The chloroform worked in seconds. Just as her eyes rolled back, he scooped her up into his arms. The girl’s head fell against his shoulder, the rabbit falling from her grasp.
He picked up the toy rabbit. “Okay, Gracie, let’s find Mommy before we both end up in hot water.”
He walked off with the kid slack in his arms. Barely anyone registered his departure. It was such a self-absorbed world.
Now that he had his child, he moved swiftly and with purpose. He put a moving wall of people between Grace and her family. He brought out a beanie hat and placed it on the kid’s head, then swapped his 49ers cap for a Yankees cap. These were subtle changes but enough to confuse identification in most cases. He crossed the street and headed back to his minivan parked in the Trader Joe’s lot.
An elderly woman grinned at him as he strode toward her.
“Someone looks tuckered out,” she quipped.
“Yeah, it’s an early day. She’s paying the price for keeping us up all night, so it’s back to the hotel.”
“Overexcitement will do that a kid. Have a good vacation.”
He agreed and kept on walking.
When he got back to the minivan, he loaded Grace into the kid’s booster seat that he’d installed. He removed the beanie, placed some brightly colored sunglasses on her, and covered her with a blanket. Grace was no longer Grace but some other kid, if someone cared to look.
He used the cover of the blanket to inject Grace with a sedative. He couldn’t risk her having a meltdown when she awoke.
With the girl secured and sedated, he climbed into the driver’s seat and gunned the engine. He brought out his cell and dialed the one and only number programmed into the burner.
“Yes,” Connors’s employer answered.
“I’ve got you a kid. Now what?”
At the sight of Nelson Marsters ambling toward her with his wad of papers pressed to his chest, Lehny Corbin reminded herself that as receptionist, she was the San Francisco Independent’s first line of defense. She was the first person the public encountered either by phone or in person. Their attitude and need determined how she handled their requests. She screened people as she deemed appropriate. She liked to think her valiant services were appreciated even if they weren’t reflected in her paycheck. If management ever needed evidence of her efforts, they only had to come to reception right this minute to witness her doing battle with Nelson Marsters.
She wondered if Nelson owned any other clothes than the ones he seemed to always wear when he came—a food-stained white shirt tucked into a pair of brown pants too big in the waist and short in the leg. If it weren’t for the fanny pack cinched around his waist, she was sure those pants would be around his ankles. At least that scuzzy raincoat would prevent him from mooning anyone if his pants did fall .
He represented the half a dozen or so eccentrics, if she was being kind, who came to the newspaper to share their conspiracies and manifestos. As much as these guys were difficult, at least they were polite, unlike the ultraconservatives who spilled bile down the phone at her because the Independent was a weapon of the liberal left, or the rabid liberals who accused the Independent of selling out their liberal principles in the name of staying in business. She figured since the paper was pissing off both extremes of the political spectrum, then it had to be doing something right. While the oddballs were a drain on her time and her patience, they were altruistic. Their dogma was for the betterment of everyone and not just themselves.
Mike, Lehny’s security backup, rose from his seat, but she waved him away.
“No, it’s okay. I’ve got this,” she said before calling, “Mr. Marsters, nice to see you again. What can I do for you?”
“Hi. Hello. How are you? I need to speak to Mr. George Moran. I need to discuss the issue of drones. San Francisco is the first city in the United States to authorize the use of drones.”
“Yes, I believe it’s to help with law enforcement.”
He cocked his head to one side and looked at her like she was a naïve child. Oddly, it was the same look most people gave him after five minutes of listening to him, although she doubted he would recognize that.
“Really, Ms. Corbin? You really believe that?”
“Call me Lehny.”
“I prefer not to, Ms. Corbin. Etiquette dictates that we should keep our association on a formal and professional level, seeing as the information I am bringing to the Independent could end up as part of a congressional investigation . . . not that it will make any difference. Congressional investigations are nothing more than a smokescreen for government control.”
Lehny caught an eye roll from Mike.
“Right. So, drones, you say.”
This ignited a ten-minute diatribe on the misuse of drones for monitoring people’s movements, recording their phone calls, listening in while they talked on the sidewalk, and their use of dispersants. He’d at least cleared the San Francisco Police Department of these civil-liberty crimes. He claimed the whole scheme was driven by several branches of the federal government, namely, the FCC, CDC, NSA, and the FBI, just to name a few. San Francisco had been singled out because it was one of those cities that closely mirrored the cross-section of American society as a whole. The brief was simple—succeed in San Francisco, succeed across the United States. He backed up his claims with reams of handwritten notes, maps, pictures, and manufacturers’ specifications.
Lehny found letting people like Marsters rant took the steam out of them before passing them over to someone else. She found it was hard to maintain the heat of a tirade in a second telling, although the weirdos never seemed to lose their appetite for telling their claims again and again. It just toned down the crazy.
Other visitors in the lobby watched Marsters with amusement. Some did little to hide their smirks. Someone actually recorded the diatribe on his cell phone. She nodded at Mike to stop the recording.
While some derived enjoyment from Marsters’s craziness, she only pitied him. Over the three years or so he’d been coming in with conspiracy claims, she’d gotten to know him. He’d been a high school teacher once. Something had happened. There’d been a nervous breakdown. He’d lost his family, contact with the world, and reality. No one was ever going to listen to him, but someone should, so she would for the betterment of mankind. She didn’t know if this was the wrong thing to do in therapy terms, but it seemed the right thing to do for her.
She picked up her phone. “I’ll call Mr. Moran and see if he’s at his desk.”
She punched in the editor in chief’s number.
“His line is ringing, Mr. Marsters.”
“Crap. Is he here again?”
“Still ringing, Mr. Marsters.”
“I don’t have time for him today, Lehny.”
Lehny smiled painfully. “It’s just clicked through to voice mail.”
“Thanks, Lehny. You’re a star,” Moran said. “My gratitude will be shown in the form of Peet’s.”
She could do with a nice caramel macchiato. She set the phone down. “Sorry about that, Mr. Marsters.”
Marsters frowned. “Where is he?”
“A meeting, or he could be out. He might be the editor in chief, but he still likes to be a reporter and pound the streets for a story.” It was a lie, but it was one that Lehny found worked on Marsters.
Marsters nodded. “I know. It’s why I trust him with a story like this.”
“Would you like to make an appointment?”
He shook his head violently. “No appointments. No records. It’s the only way to be safe.”
Lehny nodded skyward. “Because of them.”
Marsters nodded. “Yes. Just tell him I’ll be by later.”
Poor guy, she thought as he scurried out the door.
Her switchboard lit up with a new call. She was still watching Nelson Marsters when she picked up the receiver.
“San Francisco Independent, how may I help you?”
“Scott Fleetwood, please.”
The caller’s voice stunned her into silence. Or was it callers? Each word in the request was spoken by a different voice—a man’s, then a woman’s, then a young girl. Each voice came out stilted and robotic. It had to be scrambled or a recording.
“Scott Fleetwood, please,” the caller repeated. This time the words sounded as if a boy and two different women took turns speaking.
Two weirdos in a row, Lehny thought. This was a record for her. Maybe she should buy a lottery ticket.
“I’m sorry. Scott Fleetwood doesn’t work here anymore.”
“Get him,” the caller demanded, the words broken into a male voice and a female voice.
“I can’t. I’m sorry. He’s not an employee. Can someone else help you?”
Lehny found herself stumbling over her words. The weirdos usually didn’t scare her, but this one did. She didn’t know if it was the random voices speaking one word at a time, but she detected menace in the deception. She wasn’t holding up this call anymore. They didn’t pay her enough for this. She was handing this one off to the first person to pick up.
“Just Fleetwood,” a boy’s, then a girl’s, voice said.
“I’ll direct your call to Mr. Fleetwood’s editor. He can help you better than I can.”
“No,” a girl said.
Lehny listened to static.
“I want to discuss the ransom,” a string of voices took turns in saying.
A shiver worked its way through Lehny. “What ransom?”
“The ransom for Grace.”
Lehny went cold. “Who’s Grace?”
“Grace is a girl that I abducted two hours ago. I want Scott Fleetwood to deliver the ransom. I will speak only to Scott Fleetwood. Get me Scott Fleetwood, or I will kill her.”
The litany of different voices, men and women, old and young, scraped away at her soul. She wanted to hang up on the son of a bitch, but that little girl needed her. Keeping this asshole satisfied would keep this girl alive.
“I have to find Mr. Fleetwood. You’ll have to call back.”
“You find him. I will call back tomorrow. The same time. Understand?”
Lehny closed her eyes to block out the fear, but the image of a man in the dark standing over Grace’s trussed-up body filled her mind. He was wearing a ski mask. He opened his mouth, stretching the fabric tight, and the different voices leaked from the mask’s opening.
“Good,” a girl’s voice seemingly mocked her. “Don’t you want to know my name?”
She didn’t, but it would be important to the police. “Yes.”