Escape (A Billy Harney Thriller, 3)
HE’S HERE somewhere. I know it. And the girl might still be alive.
The girl: fifteen-year-old Bridget Leone, abducted off the streets of Hyde Park forty-four hours ago.
Bing. Bing. Bing. Bing.
The ALPR sounds on the dashboard of our unmarked car, registering every license plate we pass, searching for any plate beginning with the letters F and D. But our witness told us the letters might have appeared the other way around, D and F, and maybe not even next to each other.
If we have this right, the same man who kidnapped Bridget Leone has abducted four other girls between the ages of thirteen and sixteen, all African American, around the Chicagoland area over the last eighteen months. None of those four girls has been found. All four of them were runaways, homeless—meaning they were easily overlooked and forgotten by overworked and understaffed suburban police departments dealing with cold trails of girls gone missing.
Bridget Leone was different. African American and age fifteen, yes, but far from homeless or a runaway. Still, her parents said she dressed “way too provocatively” for her age and often ran with some “wild kids,” typical teenage rebellion stuff that her abductor could have misconstrued. And just before she was abducted, we eventually learned from her reluctant friends, she and some classmates had been smoking weed in an alley only a few blocks from the elite magnet high school she’d attended.
When Bridget disappeared, her father—a real estate developer worth millions—called his good pal Tristan Driscoll, the Chicago police superintendent, who in turn immediately deployed the Special Operations Section to find her. That meant my partner, Carla Griffin, and me, at least as the lead detectives.
The computer mounted on the dash buzzes. A hit. Carla leans forward in the passenger seat and checks it. “False alarm,” she says.
These automated license plate readers aren’t perfect, natch. Sometimes a D is mistaken for a zero or an O, or an E is mistaken for an F.
Bing. Bing. Bing. Bing.
“I feel like I’m in a freakin’ arcade,” I say as I pull our unmarked car into a heavily wooded subdivision called Equestrian Lakes. Giant houses; wide, grassy lots.
Carla smirks. “Well, this is definitely a game of luck, not skill.”
She’s right. We have so little to go on. Nobody saw the direction in which the offender drove his car after he scooped Bridget off the street. The route he took didn’t hit any PODs—our police observation cameras mounted in various places along the streets. The only witness was a homeless guy who had no phone, so he couldn’t snap a photo or call it in. And he could only recall two possible digits of the license plate on a “dark” SUV and give us a vague profile of a white male who is “slightly hunched,” probably five nine or five ten, with a long scar on the left side of his face and wearing a baseball cap.
We have AMBER alerts, community alerts, investigative alerts, and flash messages on every cop’s screen in northern Illinois. The Illinois State Police are patrolling the highways. The night Bridget was abducted, we ran a check of ALPRs for those letters—D and F, next to each other—and picked up a Ford Explorer on South Archer Avenue. The registration traced to someone in Missouri who died six months ago.
We’ve cleared every registered sex offender in the area. So far, nothing. Nothing but hope for a little luck. Unless by some chance my gut call was right and he’s here, on the southwest end of unincorporated Cook County.
My thinking: this largely vacant area would be close to the place where the ALPR picked up the Ford Explorer. There are some nice subdivisions, sure, but it has a rural feel, lots of woods and houses set back deep into the lots, no sidewalks or curbs or streetlights. Lots of privacy. Perfect for a predator.
So instead of running everything from the Special Operations headquarters, at North and Pulaski, Carla and I are here, taking phone calls and issuing orders while patrolling in an unmarked vehicle—unmarked unless you notice the tiny camera, the ALPR, on the roof.
Nothing unusual in Equestrian Lakes, a fancy subdivision, so I get back onto the main road, Rawlings, and follow the bend, the ALPR bing-bing-binging as cars pass.
The terrain gets more remote, more wooded. It feels like lake country out here, reminding me of the trips we’d take to Michigan when I was a kid. It’s not yet dusk when I take a left turn down an unmarked narrow dirt road, hooded by tall trees, PRIVATE PROPERTY signs nailed to the trunks, glimpses of houses down paths. Beams of sun so infrequently break through the trees that my headlights switch on automatically. I’ll do a quick tour before I—
A quarter mile ahead, a white van turns toward us onto the road. Carla’s on her phone, talking with the state police, but she drops it from her ear and goes quiet.
I slow the car. The van continues to approach, going the speed limit, its headlights on us.
Bing. The ALPR picks up the plate.
“Commercial van,” Carla reads off the mounted computer. “Registered to LTV, LLC. Registration’s up to date.”
The van moves slowly, giving us a wide berth, nearly driving onto the uneven shoulder.
I stop my car entirely, putting it in Park, and put on my hazards. Just to see what the driver will do.
The van seems to slow but doesn’t stop. Carla and I lean down to look out the window at the driver, who’s up higher than we are in his van.
White guy, roughly shaved, dark-framed glasses, baseball cap, bandage on his left cheek. Both hands gripping the wheel. His eyes stay straight forward, not even sneaking a peek in our direction, despite the fact that we have stopped in the middle of the road and put on our hazards.
Carla’s voice is low. “That look like a white guy, five nine, hunched, scar on his face?”
Yeah, it sure as hell does. Not a Ford Explorer, no F or D on the plates, but a guy fitting the description in a creepy van. “Let’s check it out.”
I put the car in Drive and do a U-turn, following the van.
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||Epub||June 23, 2022|