“Is this a joke?” Chief Murphy Radisson wasn’t laughing.
“Hardly.” Lt. Perry Flynn couldn’t sit facing the Chief any longer.
“Tell me where you found these again.” Rad hated anyone pacing in front of his desk. Perry didn’t care. He walked over to the window and returned to loom over the Chief’s desk.
“I sure as hell wasn’t looking for a date.” Perry focused on the printed Internet pictures that Rad held in his hand.
“I’d like to think not,” Rad bellowed, his expression hardening fiercely. His immediate outrage was proof enough that he was taking this seriously. “Do you want to tell me what your sudden fascination with kiddy porn is doing on my desk?”
Flynn blew out a breath. It had been a long day, and it was far from over. He nodded to the pictures scattered across the Chief’s desk.
“I did some searching earlier. And only printed the ones that I would swear are legitimate.”
Rad glanced once again at the pictures before dropping them on his desk and then leaning back in his chair, lacing his fingers together and clasping them behind his head. He relaxed although still managed to look ready to pounce, and stared at Perry for a long moment. “There’s no such thing as a goddamn legitimate pornography Web site. Why the hell did you print these? Start making some fucking sense or get the hell out of my office.”
Flynn ignored the crass tone. “You know damn good and well what I mean. These come from Web sites—in fact, four of them from the same site—where you can buy these children off an auction block if you want.”
“And you’ve got proof?”
“No, I don’t have proof other than what is printed on the site. You need to subscribe to these sites, and register with a fair amount of personal information.”
“And you did that?”
“I’ve saved the links if you’d like to take a look. I used the same credit card I got over a year ago when I worked that casino case. Someone would have to do a fair amount of digging to link the card to me as a cop.” He couldn’t look at any of those pictures without seeing his nieces, all of whom were about the same ages as the girls in those pictures. It made him sick, pissed him off. He would kill any bastard with his bare hands who tried doing anything demented or perverted to any of his sister’s girls. “In the past year two high school girls have disappeared.” He stalked over to the window again and tugged at the collar of his uniform, more than ready to get out of it and chill in front of the TV for the night. Like that would happen at this rate. “Yesterday we bring in a sixteen-year-old, Sally Wright, who was convinced she was talking to a boy her age over in Topeka. If she didn’t have overly protective parents, as she called them, who watched out for her and followed her to the rendezvous point, we might have had three missing girls.” Perry rested his fist on the edge of Rad’s desk and stabbed at the pictures with his index finger. “And the worst part is the ISP for those goddamn sites is right here in Mission Hills.”
That grabbed Rad’s attention. “You’ve verified that?”
“I looked into it myself. But just to make you happy,” he added, offering a wry grin, although he was anything but amused by this conversation. “I’ve contacted a Web site expert and am verifying it.”
“There is nothing to pin Sally Wright’s interrupted rendezvous to anything as serious as child pornography.”
Perry dragged his fingers through his short dark hair and took his time choosing his words. Rad was a damn good Chief of Police, but he was a hard-ass, too. Present his argument right and he’d get a chance at this. Fuck it up and he’d get his wish at watching TV all evening. He wasn’t going to win either way on this one.
“The MO is wrong for runaways. You’ve agreed with me on that on more than one occasion. When Sally Wright was in here yesterday with her parents, we saw a mother and father frantic over the fact that they almost lost their daughter. If Charlie Wright hadn’t followed his daughter to the mall and spied on her, some prick would have snagged her up. Mr. Wright brought your proof to you.”
Rad didn’t move but continued resting his head against his hands while eyeballing Perry carefully. “So what’s this all about? You think snooping around on porn sites will help you nail some online predator?”
“You never know. But I think possibly creating a trap might draw our perp out from behind his Internet shield.” Perry moved the pictures around with his finger, making it easier to see all of them. “We create a fictitious teenager, start chatting online, and get ourselves lured in. Our perp is here in town, Rad. And quite possibly he’s the same man who killed Maura Reynolds last October. We documented proof on that case that she was talking to someone online who claimed to be a teenage boy. She’d arranged to meet him the night she disappeared.”
“And if you catch a sixteen-year-old boy what are you going to do?”
“It won’t happen like that. There are things you say, ways that you talk to a predator, and of course ways to behave online that attract a sexual predator.”
“So suddenly you’re an expert on online sexual predators.” Rad lunged forward in his chair aggressively enough that it almost snapped him into a stand. “You don’t have any experience tracking an online stalker. Don’t insult me and pretend that you do. Unless of course there’s something you need to tell me.” He raised one thick, shaggy brow, silently challenging Perry.
“I know how to cruise the Internet at least as well as anyone else in this department, maybe better than some of your married cops.”
“You want to bet on that?”
“I have four nieces, all teenagers.”
“Not the same as having your own,” Rad rebuked.
Perry ignored him, sick of hearing how he didn’t know kids just because he didn’t have any. “And I know the sites where the teenagers hang out online. It’s like learning which is the in mall to go to. Any teenager will tell you there are Web sites that they check out daily and others they wouldn’t be caught dead going to.”
Rad stacked the pictures and shoved them across his desk toward Perry. “In your downtime if you want to follow children around online, feel free. I’m not taking you and your partner off your beat so you can glue yourself to a computer.” Rad stood slowly, pushing his chair back and straightening his large frame. He stood well over six feet and was in pretty good shape for going on fifty. A bad knee forced him to work behind a desk, and Perry respected the man for sticking it out and working his way to chief of police instead of throwing in the towel like so many did when injured badly enough on the job that it got them yanked off the streets. He pressed his fist against the top of his desk when he came around to face Perry. “Take some advice from an old man,” Rad began. “Chill out on this for a while. You’re one hell of a good cop. But you don’t have any proof at all that the teenager who died last fall and our teenager last night almost meeting a stranger off-line are in any way connected.”
Perry reminded himself he wouldn’t snap when the Chief rejected his proposal. “When Charlie Wright brought his daughter into the station last night, I saw myself with one of my nieces. For all I know, Sally Wright might know Dani or Diane. They’re about the same age. I felt his rage, the desire burning in his blood to take out the asshole who almost snagged his daughter.”
“There’s often rage in victims,” Rad said, stacking the photos and handing them to Perry. “You aren’t going to find a connection between these Web sites and a father and daughter who had a close call. You don’t have any proof.”
Perry didn’t want the photos. It was all he could do not to let his frustration boil over to anger from Rad’s indifference that the possibility existed they had a serious problem. “The only way you gather proof is to investigate,” Perry growled, his teeth clenching together in his effort to keep his emotions under wrap. “If we’ve got a sexual predator feeding off young girls, we need to investigate and find out. I will not allow some creep to feed his fetish on innocent children. My nieces are online all the time chatting with their friends. I’m not going to have some asshole pretending to be a boy their age and luring them into a trap like this.” He stabbed his finger into the pages Rad still held in his hand.
“And the last thing I’m going to have is anyone breathing down my throat if they think your good intentions are directed more toward you and not the force.”
Perry wasn’t ready for that one. “What the fuck?” he hissed. “Who in the hell would suggest that I went to porn sites for any reason not related to work?” he growled, feeling his temper rise in spite of his efforts to keep it under wraps.
“I didn’t say that anyone would do that. Bring me proof these sites are here in Mission Hills, and who is running them, and we’ll talk.” Rad walked over to his office door and opened it. “Call it a night, Flynn. Your partner appears to have headed home. You should, too. We’ll discuss this further when you have more solid proof for me.”
Perry threw out his last offer. “Give this case to me,” he said quietly, ignoring the open door. “I’ll make sure we don’t lose any more girls.”
“Go home.” Rad was done discussing it. He pressed his lips into a thin line as he let go of the door handle, leaving the door open. “You did a good job with the Wrights. Hopefully their daughter’s incident will get around to the other kids her age. You claim to know how teenagers are. But let me tell you something. By tomorrow everyone at her school will know that she fell for the wrong guy online. It will make the other girls think twice before agreeing to meet someone when they can’t verify that kid is for real.”
Perry grunted, which was all the response he cared to give. Rad was wrong, but Perry wouldn’t imply the Chief didn’t remember how his kids had behaved when they were that age. More than likely his wife did most of the raising anyway. And the Chief’s kids didn’t grow up using the Internet as their main source for communicating with their peers.
Perry got damn sick and tired of the assumption that since he’d never fathered a child he therefore was clueless about them. “You should call it a day, too,” he said as he headed out the door. He didn’t wait for the Chief’s response.
Carlos Ramos, Perry’s partner, had already headed home for the night, not because he hurried home to a wife and children. Like Perry, Carlos took wearing his uniform very seriously. It left little time to find that perfect soul mate. That didn’t make him any less of a man. Unless they were hot and heavy in a serious investigation, Carlos always cut out at quitting time. His mother was elderly and suffered from dementia. He didn’t have the heart to put her in a home, and for that Perry respected him even more. Carlos owned a duplex and his mother still lived in her own home, maintaining her pride, and managing for herself for the most part. But Carlos was right there for her always.
“You headed home?” Lieutenant Barker looked up from a stack of files and pulled her glasses off that had already slipped to the edge of her nose. “What’s wrong?”
Perry forced the scowl from his face and shook his head. “Long day.”
“I heard you had a hell of a mess with that kid yesterday. Thank God for overprotective parents, huh?”
“No shit.” He paused at his desk, which was at an angle from hers and focused on the files she’d stacked in the corner facing him. “What are you doing?”
“Just catching up on paperwork.” She didn’t elaborate. Jane Barker was a good cop, had been on the force for four years, and was married to a good man who could barbecue up a mean steak. The rumors that she was one hell of a good fuck didn’t make Perry receptive to her flirtatious smiles. He didn’t do married women. “You’re stressing pretty hard over this teenage thing, aren’t you?” she asked, brushing a sandy brown wisp of hair behind her ear.
“What are you stressing over?” Lt. Pete Goddard, who’d been on a beat almost as long as Perry, seven years, strolled over to the desk and crossed his arms, glancing from Perry to Jane.
“Nothing,” Perry grumbled. Neither one of them understood how delicate a matter it was raising teenagers. Ever since his brother-in-law had died in the line of duty, Perry had stepped up to bat, helping his sister raise her four daughters. No one understood teenage girls as well as he did. “I’m heading out.”
“You stressing over that Wright girl?” Pete continued, obviously having overheard more of the conversation than he originally let on. “Did you know her?”
“Nope.” Perry met Pete’s curious stare but kept his own masked. “She was one of the lucky ones. Proof there are parents out there who really care about their kids.”
“There’re some sick bastards in this world,” Pete grunted.
Perry glanced at the clock. Diane would be done with her classes at junior college and would be heading home to fix supper for her sisters. Ever since his sister took on a second job, the girls had been forced to step up to bat and take on more responsibilities to keep the house running smoothly. It was good for them, and for the most part everything got done. Perry would still touch base, make sure supper was on the table and homework was being done.
All four of his nieces were as near perfect as young girls could be. Maybe his life didn’t allow for a wife and children. He knew his job was dangerous, and the last thing he would ever do to a woman was make her a widow and force her to raise a family alone. Not that David Vetter, his sister’s husband, hadn’t been a damn good cop and head over heels for Megan. David couldn’t have seen his own death coming so soon. But it was a lesson, and a tragedy, Perry took to heart. Megan and the girls wouldn’t make it without him. He wouldn’t put a lady in the same predicament. A personal long-term relationship wasn’t in the books for him.
“Sometimes kids create drama for attention,” Pete continued as Perry reached for the door. “Don’t stress out over a ghost.”
“Fucking ghost, my ass,” Perry growled under his breath, and let the door close behind him as he headed toward his car. An attitude like that would slow the action in nailing the prick who was stalking teenage girls. They weren’t dealing with a ghost. Ghosts weren’t traceable through ISP addresses.
Heading out of the parking lot in his own car, a two-year-old Thunderbird he’d picked up for a pretty good deal off one of the lots in town, Perry pulled out his cell phone and scrolled through his names. Then punching the number, he adjusted his Bluetooth and listened as it rang on the other line.
Maybe he didn’t have a connection between the Web sites he’d found and a teenage girl disappearing after talking to a boy online and then being found dead several days later. Right now, there wasn’t anything to piece that crime with the Wrights’ coming in last night after too close of a call with their daughter trying to meet some jerk off the Internet. But there was a connection. He could feel it. And he wasn’t some rookie cop. Half the time hunches were what he worked off of, and turned into cold, hard proof.
Perry listened to the phone ring in his ear a third time as he slipped behind the wheel to his car. He would get proof in bits and pieces, starting with the Web sites. But damn, if a predator was stalking teenage girls in Perry’s town, he was on that case, whether Rad liked it or not. Even if Perry didn’t bring them into this world, his nieces were everything to him. And it was his responsibility to ensure they had a safe environment to grow up in.
“Kayne here,” a deep male voice finally answered.
“Noah, it’s Perry Flynn.” Perry gripped the wheel and headed out of the parking lot and toward the ramp for the interstate.
“Hey, Flynn. What the hell is up with you?” Noah sounded unusually cheerful.
“I hear you’re settling down and accepting a leash and collar these days,” Perry teased, hardly in the mood for it, but he couldn’t remember the last time Noah didn’t snap over the phone if Perry pushed the right buttons. It was a tradition they’d upheld since college, berating and insulting each other but always there for the other when needed.
“Fuck you, man. There’s not a goddamn collar around my neck.” There was a lady’s laughter in the background and Noah grumbled something inaudible before sounding a bit more like himself when he snapped, “You call for a reason?”
“Actually, I did, but giving you crap sounds a hell of a lot more fun than talking shop. Who’s the unlucky lady?”
“She’s the luckiest woman on the planet, and she will tell you that herself.” Noah sounded happy again.
A small twinge of jealousy tightened Perry’s gut, but he ignored it. He was glad his old college buddy was happy. Noah deserved a good woman. It wasn’t the life for Perry, though, and that was something he had accepted years ago. It wasn’t jealousy he felt for the leash and collar, but more so the fact that his old friend sounded less stressed because he was getting some every night. They didn’t make women Perry could stand living with, though, only having sex when schedules matched up and then amiably parting ways.
Perry grunted. “Trained her well, did you?”
“You know it,” Noah said.
“You sound so happy that I hate bringing up why I called,” Perry added, and accelerated on the interstate toward his exit. A drive-through would be his usual stop, but for some reason tonight he didn’t have an appetite. After interviewing the Wrights last night and then spending hours on the computer afterward searching and finding Web sites that possibly were the reason some jerk was stalking Sally Wright, Perry couldn’t eat or sleep. He needed his head on straight, if he was going to find whoever it was who was stalking teenage girls. Maybe after taking a shower and changing he’d get a burger and a twelve-pack.
“What’s up?” Noah asked.
“Just thought I’d see if you’ve heard anything through the grapevine.”
Perry knew Noah wouldn’t tell him anything confidential. But there were times in the past when a case had turned haunting and knowing an old buddy who was FBI helped out. Occasionally, Noah had tips that cracked a case wide open.
“We’ve got a sexual predator in town,” Perry began.
There was silence on the other end of the line, which meant he had Noah’s attention.
“There’ve been two cases so far,” Perry continued. “Two teenage girls, lured in by someone they thought was a boy from their school. They chatted online, agreed to meet, and then the girls disappeared. We’ve found one of the girls, but not the other.” He took a breath and heard Noah curse under his breath. If anything, unloading on his old friend helped Perry focus. The attitude at the station that he might be chasing ghosts, or that this wasn’t something that merited anyone being assigned the case full-time, pissed him off. “Last night a third girl snuck out of her home to meet a boy she’d been chatting with online. Her father followed her and watched his daughter park the family car at a pizza place. As she started toward the restaurant a man got out of his car and went after the teenager. If the father wasn’t there to run after his daughter, he would have lost her.”
Noah cursed again. “I haven’t heard anything. You been assigned the case?”
“Nope.” Perry ground his back teeth together, forcing himself not to unload his frustrations over his conversation with his Chief. “Keep your ear to the ground for me, though. Will you?”
“Will do,” Noah said seriously. “Keep me posted as well. If there’s anything I can do, let me know.”