Seven hundred miles away a blonde-haired girl was sprinting down a soccer field in Texas.
“Run, Gracie, run!”
Gracie Ann Brice could run like a boy, faster than most boys her age, ten going on thirty, which made playing soccer against girls her own age seem almost unfair. But she was fun to watch, if your daughter was on her team.
She was driving the ball up the sideline, past the parents cheering in the stands and Coach Wally wearing a Tornadoes jersey and her dad filming her with the camcorder ––– she made a face for the camera ––– while shouting into his cell phone: “Cripes, Lou! Tell those New York suits it’s my killer app, it’s my company, it’s my IPO ––– and the price is gonna be thirty a share and not a freaking penny less!”
Multitasking, he called it.
Without breaking stride, Gracie drove the laces of her white Lotto soccer shoe into the ball, kicking it over the oncoming defenders’ heads and right to Brenda on the far side of the field. Then she pulled up and looked back at her skinny thirty-seven-year-old SO (Significant Other) on the sideline. He was now gesturing with the camcorder, swinging it up and down and videotaping the ground, the sky, the ground, the sky, all of his attention on the cell phone. She couldn’t help but shake her head and smile, the kind of smile grownups use on small children, but only those related to them by blood.
“God bless him,” she said.
Her father was a total geek. He was wearing black penny loafers with white socks, wrinkled khakis, a long-sleeve blue denim shirt with the tail hanging out, a yellow Mickey Mouse tie (the one she had given him last Father’s Day), and narrow black-framed glasses; his curly black hair looked like he had styled it by sticking his finger in an electrical socket. (Mom always said he looked like Buddy Holly with a blow dryer, but Gracie didn’t know who that was.) All that was missing from this picture was a white pocket protector stuffed with mechanical pencils. John R. Brice was a doofus to the max, but Gracie loved him dearly, as a mother might love a child with special needs. He was now filming the parking lot.
“God bless him,” she said again.
“Gracie, gosh darnit, we need a goal to tie! Quit foolin’ around and score!”
Jeez, Coach, don’t have a cow. Gracie turned away from her dad and focused on the game. Across the field, Brenda was losing the ball to number twenty-four, the Raiders’ star player (she was eleven) and a real snot. Brenda was chubby and not much of an athlete. She hadn’t scored a goal in the three seasons they had played together. Gracie grimaced as the snot charged Brenda and knocked her to the ground then stole the ball. Bad enough, but then the snot stood over Brenda like the football guys do after a big hit and snarled down at her: “Give it up, Fatty!”
Gracie felt the heat wash over her, the same as right before she had beaten up Ronnie down the street for tripping Sam, a five-year-old alien who had taken up residence in their home. (They swear he’s her brother.) Afterward ––– after running down the street to a safe distance, of course ––– Ronnie had yelled “lesbo” at her, which had seemed a particularly mean remark given that she was in love with Orlando Bloom like every other girl in fourth grade. She figured Ronnie had called her that because she was a tomboy and kept her blonde hair cut boy short, or because she had bigger leg muscles than him, or because she could bloody his big fat nose ––– or maybe because she wanted a tattoo for her eleventh birthday. Mom, however, said that her superior athletic ability threatened Ronnie’s masculinity, always a fragile component of the male psyche. Um, whatever. The next time Gracie saw the little dweeb, she threatened his life and gave him a black eye.
“Gracie, she’s on a breakaway! Stop her!”
The snot was now driving the stolen ball down the field toward the Tornadoes’ goal, obviously suffering from some kind of ––– what had Mom called it? ––– oh, yeah, diminished capacity, thinking she could actually outrun Gracie Ann Brice to the goal. As if. Gracie turned on the speed.
“Watch out for number nine!” someone yelled from the Raiders’ bench. Gracie wore number nine because Mia Hamm wore number nine. The select team coaches currently competing for her talents said that with proper coaching (by them), she could be as good as Mia one day. Mom said they were just blowing smoke up her skirt, saying anything to get her to play for their teams. Still, the thought of being another Mia Hamm and leading the USA team to World Cup victory, that was, like, way too cool to imagine.
“Gracie, block the shot!”
But maybe she’d better lead her team to victory in the girls’ ten-to-eleven-year-old age bracket first.
Up ahead, the snot was slowing down and maneuvering for the best angle on goal; Gracie was sprinting up from behind and thinking, You know, for an eleven-year-old, she’s got a really big butt. But she also had a really good shot opportunity at low post. The snot planted her left foot, kept her head down, and drove her right foot into the –––
Nothing but air, girlfriend! Gracie thought as she slid feet first under the snot, executing the most totally awesome sliding tackle in the history of girls’ youth soccer, clearing the ball from goal, and leaving the snot’s foot kicking at nothing but air.
The crowd cheered!
But not the snot. “She fouled me!” she screamed, pitching a red-faced hissy fit right in the middle of soccer field no. 2. “She fouled me!”
But the referee shook his head and said, “All ball.”
Gracie jumped to her feet and chased down the loose ball. She had the entire field and eight defenders between her and the Raiders’ goal and not much time to get there. She decided on a sideline route ––– duh ––– but she first had to eliminate some of the defenders. So she dribbled the ball straight up the middle of the field, suckering the defenders in from their sideline positions ––– come to mama, girls ––– until five of the Raiders had congregated at the center line close enough to hold hands like the kindergartners on a class outing. Then Gracie exploded ––– drive hard right at them, stop on a dime, spin left, and go, girl! ––– and left them in her dust as she hit the sideline and turned on the speed, an all-out race down the chalk line, past the Tornadoes’ stands, parents on their feet and shouting –––
––– Coach’s arms windmilling her on as he ran down the sideline with her, his exposed belly jiggling like pink Jell-O below his jersey ––– now that is like, majorly gross ––– past her SO filming the other parents in the stands, God bless him, and to the Raiders’ goal and ––– POW! ––– blasting the ball past the diving goalie’s outstretched arms and into the net.
Gracie threw her arms into the air. She considered ripping off her jersey and throwing it into the air, too, revealing her stylish black Nike sports bra, but she decided against it because she wasn’t wearing a bra. Mom said her breasts might come in next year.
The other girls mobbed her and congratulated her and jumped up and down with her . . . but they all froze when those two words boomed out from the Raiders’ sideline, instantly silencing players and spectators alike and making Gracie feel as if someone had punched her in the stomach.
“Not again,” Brenda groaned.
They all turned to the Raiders’ sideline as the words rang out again ––– “Pa-a-a-a-nty che-e-e-ck!” ––– and hung over the field like a foul odor. The man had a megaphone for a mouth, the big creep! He was dressed in a slick suit, grinning like a fool and drinking from an oversized plastic mug ––– and from his red face he was drinking something stronger than Gatorade.
“Does he really think there’s a penis in your panties?” Brenda said.
“He knows you’re not a boy,” Sally said. “He’s just jealous ’cause you’re way better than his daughter, that little snot.”
He was the snot’s father and a big butthead, a football dad at a girls’ soccer game, taunting the players from the sideline. Gracie bit her lower lip and fought back the tears. Coming from Ronnie the dweeb down the street was bad enough, but from a grownup? She wished she were bigger and older; she would run over and beat this guy up, too. She looked over at her dad, wishing he would ––– Daddy, do something! Please!
But he did nothing. He hadn’t even heard the jerk. He was in his Helen Keller mode (deaf, dumb, and blind to the real world), facing away from the field, holding the phone to his ear with one hand and waving the camcorder around with the other like he was swatting gnats by the pool. Of course, what could he do anyway? The big butthead was twice his size; he would pound Dad’s meatware (as he called his brain) into the turf. Gracie instinctively touched the silver star dangling on her necklace.
Sally said, “If your mother was here, she’d kick his big butt into next week.”
Mom was definitely not one to turn the other cheek. She was one to rip your face off. Don’t get mad, get even. Mom’s words of wisdom. Not exactly “sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you,” but then, her mother was a lawyer. She wished Elizabeth Brice, Attorney-at-Large (as Dad called her behind her back), was here.
But most of all, she wished to die.
Over on the Raiders’ sideline, the other parents were shaking their heads in disgust at the creep, but he was too big to risk saying anything and getting punched out, always a possibility with a football dad. A mother, obviously the creep’s wife, was pulling on his arm, desperately trying to move his big butt away from the field. He was protesting all the way: “What’d I do? I was just kidding, for chrissakes!” From Mrs. Creep’s embarrassed expression, she had been there and done that with Mr. Creep before. Brenda shook her head and sighed.
“Another deranged dad at a children’s sporting event.”
Brenda’s words brought the smile back to Gracie’s face and another original country song by Gracie Ann Brice to mind. Facing the Creep family, she started singing, loudly, in her best Tammy Wynette twang:
Hey, lady, don’t you see?
Your man ain’t no Or-lan-do B.,
You best dump his fat ass A-S-A-P.”
The girls laughed. The referee, a way cute guy about fifteen, smiled at her. The parents in both stands applauded. Shoot, maybe she had the next hit single for the Dixie Chicks! Gracie’s spirits soared; the creep was now a distant memory, just another painful life experience for her to sing about. Like all the country girls say, you’ve got to experience pain in order to sing about pain, especially in front of fifty thousand screaming fans chanting
Gra-cie, Gra-cie, Gra-cie . . .
That was no screaming fan. That was a screaming coach. Gracie snapped; the whistle had blown to restart the game, and Coach Wally was spazzing out on the sideline, frantically pointing at his watch like he had just discovered time.
“Time’s running out! We need another goal to win! Gracie, it’s up to you!”
Gracie’s official position was striker, but Coach had told her to play the entire field. That required extra running, but she could run the whole game. She could run all day. She was running now, to the sideline, to the ball –––
––– to the ground, face first, breaking her fall with her hands and elbows, hitting hard, sliding across the field, and eating dirt and grass.
A snarling voice from above. Gracie rolled over to see the snot glaring down at her. The snot had tripped her from behind, a flagrant foul and a real cheap shot, especially for a girl.
What a total hussy!
The snot ran off. Gracie spat out the gritty dirt and grass and vaulted to her feet; her teeth and fists were clenched and her entire four-foot-six-inch eighty-pound being was filled with an overwhelming urge to chase after the snot and thrash her right there in the middle of soccer field no. 2.
“Gracie, get a goal!”
But the victory was more important than introducing the snot’s face to Ms. Fist. So Gracie chased after the ball instead, barely noticing the blood and burning on her elbows.
Sally blocked a shot at goal and cleared the ball. Gracie anticipated Sally’s kick and thigh-trapped the ball. One quick fake and she was sprinting up the sideline toward the Raiders’ goal; the referee was keeping pace down the middle of the field, and the snot, her face screwed up with anger, was closing down on Gracie. The snot had the angle, which meant Gracie couldn’t simply outrun her. So Gracie slowed slightly, allowing the snot to catch up, then she took a big step forward, hoping the snot would think she was going hard up the sideline like she had on the previous goal. The snot went for the fake big time, taking one step that way to protect the sideline route, one step too many ––– and Gracie punched the ball between the snot’s open legs, spun around the snot, and recaptured the ball. The snot tried to stay with her, but she lost her balance and hit the ground hard, right on her big butt, and rolled out of bounds. Gracie glanced down at her and said, “I’m so sorry . . . Not!”
Then she raced to the goal ––– a breakaway! ––– only the goalie standing between her and a last-second victory for the Tornadoes and glory for Gracie Ann Brice, the next Mia Hamm. The referee put his whistle in his mouth and checked the time; only seconds remained in the game. Gracie moved into position for her patented power kick ––– the goalie ran out to meet her this time, leaving the goal unprotected ––– aimed just inside the near post, planted her left foot, timed her kick perfectly, and –––
––– slotted a through ball to Brenda in the goal box behind the goalie instead. Brenda kicked the ball into the open goal just before the cute referee blew his whistle to end the game.
The Tornadoes’ stands erupted in cheers!
The Raiders’ goalie was now looking at Gracie with a stunned expression on her face, as if to say, You passed off the game-winning goal? Gracie shrugged. She figured Brenda needed the glory more than she did. Heck, Mia Hamm was a team player.
The other girls mobbed Brenda. Gracie was about to join in when she heard a manly voice: “Number nine ––– you’re a player!”
The studly referee was walking past and pointing to her ––– and winking at her. Oh, my God, I’m so sorry, Orlando, but I’m like, totally in love! She stopped dead in her tracks and stared open-mouthed at the referee as he walked off the field; he was dreamy and she was dreaming of him coming to the house after the game on a Friday night like tonight and picking her up to go to a movie ––– of course, it would have to be rated PG because she was only ten, which might prove a bit of a problem but
. . . she was rudely bumped back to reality by Coach Wally barreling past. His big belly was bouncing, his arms were spread wide, and he was blubbering like a baby. He scooped up Brenda and bear-hugged her like he hadn’t seen her in years. Coach Wally was Brenda’s dad.
The other dads were running onto the field and bear-hugging their daughters. But not her dad. Sometimes, like this time, Gracie wanted him to be more like a dad and less like a big brother who played Nintendo with her and took her and Sam to Krispy Kreme every Saturday morning and giggled until it hurt when Mom caught them throwing water balloons from the balcony off her bedroom at Ronnie and the other boys rollerblading down the sidewalk, and whose worst threat of punishment was to eBay her. Just once, she wanted him to be a real father, to scoop her up and bear-hug her like he hadn’t seen her in years ––– to be her grownup manly DAD, for Pete’s sake! She looked for him.
“Stupid, stupid rat creatures! Lou, you tell those brain-damaged bagbiters I’ll take my IPO and go home!”
A shrill whistle interrupted John R. Brice’s rant. He glanced over to see the girls formatting themselves in a linear sequence in the middle of the field while the parents were forming parallel lines and joining hands overhead to configure an arch. Cripes, the victory arch, a post-game protocol that required social engineering, interpersonal contact with the other parents. John was thinking, Maybe I’ll give it a miss this week, when he spotted Gracie giving him the eye and gesturing for him to get out there! Beam me up, Scotty. He much preferred interfacing with AI systems over liveware, not that he was antisocial in the extreme; he was just uncomfortable (Elizabeth would say inept) when exchanging content in an offline mode, like most hackers who had spent the vast majority of their lives interacting with a cathode ray tube rather than with human beings. Part of the firmware.
He sighed and said to the phone, “Time out, Lou . . . the arch thing.”
John jogged over and joined camcorders and cell phones overhead with a GQ dude who was everything John was not: tall, handsome, Hollywood hair, athletic build, wearing a starched white shirt, a stylish tie knotted like he knew how, and a beeper clipped to his belt ––– a college jock upgraded to real-estate, no doubt. Another football dad.
“Great game, huh?” the dude said through outstretched arms.
“Who’s your girl?”
John sighed again. He never missed Gracie’s games, and he couldn’t help but enjoy himself, his daughter the star player, particularly since he had never been much of an athlete himself. Fact is, he was so lame at sports that back in grade school the girls were picked for the recess teams before he was. Little Johnny Brice. He was ten years old before he realized Little wasn’t his first name. Fast forward twenty-seven years and now Little Johnny Brice was standing in the middle of a soccer field across a victory arch from one of those guys who was picked first for every recess team and the dude’s asking him who his daughter is and his daughter is the best athlete on the field but he doesn’t want to tell this room-temperature-IQ lamer that because he knew all too well what was coming next. John braced himself.
“Number nine,” he said.
The dude’s thick eyebrows shot up, and he looked John up and down with that familiar bemused smile.
“Gracie’s your daughter?”
It wasn’t the first time John had suffered that bemused smile at one of Gracie’s games. Point of fact, it had become an every- game thing ever since the football dads started attending the girls’ soccer games. Five years ago, when Gracie had first started playing soccer, John had been the only dad at the games, the football dads no doubt thinking, What’s the point if the girls can’t even hit each other? But now, Elizabeth had informed him, federal law required gender equality in college sports, so girls were getting scholarships to play soccer, softball, volleyball, and just about every sport but football. And that had brought the football dads to their girls’ soccer games like sleazeware to
cyberspace: Suzie might not be able to play middle linebacker at the University of Texas, but if her soccer skills could save dear old daddy tuition and room and board for four years, he’d dang sure make her games.
Problem was, these high-testosterone dads brought their football instincts with them to the soccer field, yelling and screaming and getting into fistfights with other dads whose daughters were trying to steal Suzie’s scholarship. The quest for college scholarships had turned youth soccer into a ruthless competition among the parents. So John always stayed by himself down the sideline and never commingled with the other dads, except for the post-game victory arch and the inevitable bemused smile. After next week’s game, John R. Brice would throw his narrow shoulders back, look the dude straight in the eye, and say, Dang right, she’s my daughter! And I’m a freaking billionaire! ––– a response guaranteed to wipe that bemused smile off his smug face. But this week Little Johnny Brice just shrugged.
The dude shook his head as if pondering one of the great mysteries of the universe. “I played college ball at Penn State, but my girl’s not in the same league as Gracie. Guess you never know where it comes from.”
“I bought her on eBay.”
The girls filed past the other team, exchanging low fives like they were afraid of getting cooties, as Gracie would say, then raced through the arch as their parents cheered insanely:
“Great game, girls!”
“Way to go!”
The final girl ran through, the arch broke up, the mothers embraced each other, the dads swapped hard high fives like they had just won the freaking Super Bowl, and John R. Brice stood there in the middle of a dang soccer field holding a camcorder and cell phone and feeling like a lurker in a chat room, as he always felt when male bonding broke out. So he said, “I’m outta here,” hit the Esc key, and exited this app.
Gracie got her concession ticket from the team mom then waited for Brenda and Sally. When they arrived, Brenda leaned in close and whispered, “Thanks for giving me the goal.”
Gracie gave her a little hug. “I gotta tell my dad we’re going to the concession stand.”
They walked over to dadrnerd@we_be_geeks.com; he was yelling at the phone and filming his shoes now, God bless him.
“Harvey doesn’t have the brainwidth to understand the value of the technology! Lou, this is the next big thing, dude!”
He ran the phone and his hand through his curly black hair ––– it was now standing on end ––– and he stood out like a, well, like a geek among grownups. The other fathers wore suits and ties and starched white shirts and looked like the lawyers and doctors they were. Her dad looked like the college kid who lived next door. The other girls choked back giggles. Dad noticed her and smiled and aimed the camcorder directly at her face. Gracie reached up and switched the camcorder off then pointed to the concession stand and whispered, “Snow cones.”
“Hi, honey,” Dad said. Then, into the phone: “No, not you, Lou, my daughter. Hold on a minute.”
John R. Brice squatted, wrapped his arms around his daughter, and embraced her; he inhaled her sweaty scent. A thin glaze of moisture glistened on her flushed face, her short blonde hair was damp and stuck to the sides of her head, and her blue eyes sparkled like a multimedia LCD monitor. He placed the camcorder on the grass, flicked a drop of sweat from her cheek with his finger, and admired her. She was swell.
Dad was looking at her like she was a brand new eight-hundred-gigabyte hard drive just out of the box.
“Gracie version ten-point-oh,” he said. “Best of breed.”
Gracie said to the other girls, “I’m the applet of his eye.” With her index finger she pushed the glasses up on her father’s face. “And he’s my favorite propellerhead in the whole W-W-W.”
Dad grinned like he was embarrassed. “Your shoe’s untied,” he said. She held her foot out like Cinderella trying on the glass slipper. He reached down for the white laces but grabbed his blue shirtsleeve instead. It was stained. He looked from his sleeve to her arms.
“Hey, you’re bleeding!”
Gracie examined her hands and arms. She was bleeding, from both elbows, where she had hit the ground when the snot had tripped her ––– which reminded her. She looked across the field to the Raiders’ sideline and spotted the snot standing next to her father, the big butthead. Their eyes met; the snot raised her hand. Gracie thought she was going to wave, ready to put their hard-fought athletic competition behind them; instead, the snot stuck her tongue out and gave Gracie the finger. Gracie’s face flashed hot, as if she had just stuck her head in the convection oven ––– she wanted the snot alone, like way bad. But it wasn’t going to happen here and now. She turned back to her dad.
“No big deal,” she said. She glanced over at the parking lot. “Guess Mom’s trial didn’t end. Oh, well, maybe she’ll make the playoffs. You want to get a snow cone with us?”
Dad held the phone up. “I gotta talk to Lou.”
“Hi, Lou!” Gracie shouted at the phone.
John R. Brice watched the girls skip off and merge into the stream of colorful bodies flowing toward the distant concession stand set back against the thick woods. He filled his shallow chest with the smell of popcorn riding out on the breeze and smiled. Ph.D.s in the Algorithms Group at MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Sciences aren’t given to emotion, as a general rule. Emotion had no place in the virtual world, where logical, ruthless intellect prevailed. In fact, the closest hackers came to emotion was emoticons, using ASCII characters to configure facial expressions in online communications. Virtual emotion. Real emotion belonged in that other world, that nonvirtual arena of pain and shame and smart-ass-ex-college-jocks-upgraded-to-real-estate that John Brice visited (like today) but did not inhabit.
But standing alone on a soccer field in an upscale suburb on a brilliant spring afternoon, he had to admit it: he was feeling pretty dang robust! And why shouldn’t he? For the first time in his life he was on top of a world that was not accessible via a keyboard. In five days the IPO would hit the street and Little Johnny Brice would have his revenge ––– he would have it all! ––– everything he had dreamed of having all those lonely days and nights at Fort Bragg: two cool kids, a Range Rover, a big home, a drop-dead gorgeous wife who consented to sex twice a month (an unheard-of frequency during his premarital existence ––– computer geeks at MIT don’t get much sex, as another general rule), fame, fortune, respect, manhood, and maybe even love. After all those years, moving from Army base to Army base, never fitting in with the other Army brats, being bullied by brutish boys who dreamed only of following in their daddies’ bootsteps, a nerd in a soldier’s world ––– now, finally, the world belonged to the nerds.
Little Johnny Brice had found his place in this world.
But he had lost Gracie. Cripes. He pushed his glasses up and squinted. He spotted her golden head bobbing between the other girls when she suddenly stopped and turned back to him. The last rays of the setting sun spotlighted her perfect face, and father and daughter shared one of those rare moments in life you wouldn’t trade for the Windows source code. She smiled and waved to him. He loved her and he envied her. She was everything he had always wanted to be: confident and athletic, blonde and beautiful, social and popular, physically strong and mentally tough. She was entirely unlike him, and she was better. Often, like now, he would behold her and wonder exactly what part of her DNA he had contributed. But no matter: she was his daughter. John felt a catch in his throat and an inexplicable urge to run to her, snatch her up, and hug her again. Instead, he waved back with the phone and the moment evaporated ––– he had forgotten Lou.
“Shit.” He put the phone to his ear. “Sorry, dude, I had a brain fart. Look, Lou, while other kids were outside playing baseball, I was in my room hiding from bullies, hacking code, and dreaming of being a billionaire like big Bill. Thirty bucks a share makes me a billionaire ––– and that’s the ticket to happiness! A billion dollars buys me everything I ever wanted! . . . Maybe even love . . . Yeah, Lou, geeks need love, too.”
One hundred yards away, ensconced in a silver Lexus sedan circling the packed parking lot in search of an empty space, Elizabeth Brice was jabbing a finger into the climate-controlled air: “Truth and justice demand you acquit the defendant, a good and decent man who is not guilty of looting his bank or hiding a million dollars in an offshore account but only of falling in love with a cheap tramp ––– Look at her! Those aren’t even real! She’s nothing but a gold digger willing to destroy his reputation, his family, and his bank ––– for his money! Blame her!”
She paused and smiled at the memory.
“Guilty as sin, and they bought it ––– lock, stock, and pantyhose. Twelve good citizens with the mental range of a windshield wiper.”
She spotted a family of four heading to their car on the third row from the front. She followed them, hit the turn signal to warn off all competitors for this particular piece of pavement, and waited for them to stow the kids and soccer gear.
“Jesus Christ, get in the goddamn car!”
Another family walked up and stopped to talk with the first family. That did it. She had neither the patience to wait for the Cleavers’ conversation to end nor the inclination to hike from the farthest reaches of the concrete parking lot in high heels. Nor the need to. She whipped the Lexus around to the front row and into a handicapped parking space, cut the engine, retrieved a blue handicapped permit from the console, and hooked it onto the rearview mirror.
She was not physically handicapped.
In fact, as every married man passing by couldn’t help but notice when she exited the sedan, Elizabeth Brice was physically fit and quite beautiful; her makeup and jet black hair remained perfect even after a long day in court; and her slim figure and shapely legs were showcased by her tailored suit with the short skirt. She always wore short skirts to trial.
Elizabeth Brice had graduated first in her class at Harvard Law, but she had learned the hard way that female lawyers do not win trials on brains and hard work alone. Women needed an edge, something extra to take into court with them, something to level the playing field, especially a female lawyer from New York trying to win in a Texas courtroom: the old joke that Texas had the best football players, politicians, and judges money could buy was no joke. Consequently, bench trials were more financial negotiation than courtroom drama ––– negotiations the good ol’ homeboys inevitably won.
But jury trials were crap shoots. There was simply no way to predict what a jury of twelve bored and biased citizens being paid minimum wage would do. Thus, most lawyers hated jury trials; but Elizabeth A. Brice loved them. Because she had an edge that no bald pudgy down-home Southern-fried good ol’ boy lawyer could possibly compete with in front of a jury: short skirts. Really short skirts that for the past two weeks had revealed her long, lean, Stairmastered legs to the all-male all-moron jury that had spent more time examining her than the prosecution’s damning evidence.
Defendant Shay was forty-six, married with two children, and a respected banker from an old Dallas banking family; he was also indicted by a federal grand jury on fifty counts of bank and tax fraud, charges founded on the unfortunate fact that he had used federally insured bank funds to maintain his twenty-four-year-old receptionist/mistress in a comfortable lifestyle and had funneled the money through a Cayman Islands bank account to avoid paying taxes. “Keeping that little gal happy is damn expensive enough with pre-tax dollars,” Shay had advised Elizabeth during one of their attorney–client privileged conferences. The government had tape recordings, surveillance photographs, offshore bank account records, and the mistress as the star witness under a grant of immunity. Conviction was a foregone conclusion, or so the prosecutors from Washington had thought.
But they didn’t know Dallas. Keep your prick out of the payroll was a maxim seldom heeded in Big D. To the contrary, humping the help was not considered a crime but instead a perk, something to be praised and pursued, not prosecuted. If the government prosecuted every businessman in Dallas who had used bank money or company money or investor money or city or county or state money to pay for pussy, there wouldn’t be enough members left in the chamber of commerce to play gin.
So she had carefully selected a jury of white middle-aged men, men who might once have had a mistress or who hoped to one day have a mistress or who would spend most of the trial imagining her as their mistress. Then she made the bank examiner and IRS agent appear to be pathetically incompetent old men on the stand; she called experts who (for sizable fees) ripped to shreds every piece of evidence offered by the government; she brutalized the prosecution’s star witness on cross-examination (the poor thing cried so diligently her thick mascara ran down her face and into her surgically-created cleavage); and she shortened her skirts six inches.
Elizabeth A. Brice, Attorney-at-Law, had won another not-guilty verdict for another guilty client.
Just as she decided that first thing Monday morning she would raise her hourly billing rate to $500, the merry voices of the kids and parents at the concession stand brought her thoughts back to the moment. She looked that way as the cool evening breeze hit her. She wrapped her arms around herself, but the cold she felt was inside her. A vague sense of unease invaded her mind, as if the wind had whispered in her ear.
She beeped the Lexus locked and hurried toward the vacant soccer fields and the solitary spectator sitting in the stands.
Where John was saying into the phone, “Oh, and what do you know about love, dude? Lou, are you aware that the boot sequence required to produce an orgasm in a full-grown American female is more complex than the ignition sequence of a neutron bomb?”
She saw him before he saw her. But he felt her presence, like one felt impending doom.
“Spousal unit alert,” John whispered into the phone.
He lowered the phone from his ear ––– he could still hear Lou yell, “Don’t mention my name!” ––– pushed his glasses up, and saw her eyes locked on him like proton blasters as she approached at a rapid pace from midfield in her Elizabeth Brice, Attorney-at-Large mode. Fear shot through his brain like a bullet ––– Cripes, what did I do wrong this time? His wife appeared very much as she had when they had first met in Washington ten years earlier; she was forty now but still insanely attractive (even when she was in a bad mood, like now) and just as intimidating, looking totally perfect in her best closing argument outfit (black on black on black) and acting in complete control of herself and everything and everyone she touched. Elizabeth Brice was a perfectionist control freak, hardwired at the factory. Which made them a complete mismatch, like a Wintel program on a Mac. Which made John wonder, as he had often wondered: Why did she ask me to marry her?
Her fists punched holes in her hips when she arrived.
“Dangit, Elizabeth, you promised her you’d make at least one game this season.”
“I promised my client I’d win his case, and I did. Now where’s Grace?”
John opened his mouth to remind his spouse that she had made and broken the same promise to Gracie before every game this season, that Gracie was more important than some bogus criminal even if he did pay her $400 an hour, that . . . but she seemed more agitated than usual tonight, tapping her foot at a furious pace, a sure sign she was seriously fried about something. Elizabeth’s personality was a binary system ––– off and pissed off. He wanted to ask her now, as he had always wanted to ask her, What are you so mad about? But, as always, he quickly decided that discretion was the better part of not being blasted with a streaming audio of profanities that would make a complete system crash seem pleasurable. So he kept his mouth shut rather than chance a random explosion of his wife’s volatile temper; he thought of it as risk management. And besides, Elizabeth did not allow him sex during her trials; this weekend would present his first opportunity in more than two weeks. He couldn’t afford to blow it with ill-advised flamage. He pointed the cell phone at the concession stand.
“Snow cone,” he said.
Coach Wally bit the top off his cherry-flavored snow cone; some of the cool red juice trickled down his double chin. He wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his Tornadoes jersey.
Wally Fagan was walking away from the concession stand and toward the field to retrieve the game ball he had left behind in all the excitement of Brenda’s winning goal. He bit into the snow cone again, wiped the juice off his chin, and noticed a woman approaching fast like a distant thunderstorm ––– dark hair, dark clothes, and a dark expression.
Wally’s pulse ratcheted up a notch and not because of her short skirt. He had talked to Gracie’s mom only a couple of times in three seasons, but for some reason she had always made him nervous. Fact is, Wally Fagan stood just under six feet and weighed just over two hundred forty pounds, but he was wholly intimidated by the slim woman walking his way. She was maybe ten years older than him, but he always felt like he was talking to his mother ––– Oh, shit, her mother! Which made seeing her tonight seem odd, now that Wally thought about it.
She approached and they made brief eye contact. Wally smiled politely, waiting for a hint of recognition to cross her face. None did. He was a complete stranger to her. Wally debated whether to speak to her, since she was about to walk right past him. Without consciously deciding, he did.
“Gee, Mrs. Brice, I didn’t expect to see you here tonight.”
She turned on him in a heartbeat: “I had a trial, okay!”
Jesus! Her response so startled Wally he almost squeezed the snow right out of his cone. He immediately regretted not letting her walk on by.
Now that he had interrupted her journey, she took the time to look him over: the high-topped Reeboks, the blue coach’s shorts stretched tight around his considerable belly and the gold jersey that didn’t completely cover it, the Texas Rangers baseball cap on backward, the heart tattoo on his left arm, and the cherry snow cone juice dripping down his chin.
“Who are you?” she demanded.
That hurt. Wally wiped his sticky hand on his jersey before extending it to her. She had a very firm grip.
“Coach Wally . . . I coach Gracie’s team.”
No apology. She was staring at her hand; the sticky had rubbed off. She was apparently trying to decide whether to wipe her hand on her skirt; she said, “Well, Wally, I had an important case go to the jury today, so I was late for Grace’s game.”
“No, ma’am, I meant because of, uh . . . you know . . . your mother.”
She looked up from her hand and frowned. “My mother? What about my mother?”
“Oh, my gosh, don’t you know?”
Not even his executive experience as a night manager at the Taco House out on the interstate had prepared Wally Fagan to deliver this kind of news. But he had opened his big mouth too far to shut up now.
“Mrs. Brice, your mother had a stroke.”
She recoiled. “When?”
“Uh, today, I guess. She’s in the hospital.”
She appeared confused. She pointed back toward the field. Wally looked that way; a man was sitting alone in the bleachers.
“My husband didn’t say my mother had a stroke.”
“Gracie’s dad was at the game?”
She was now looking at Wally like he was a complete idiot.
“He’s sitting right over there in the goddamn stands!”
Now Wally was confused; he removed his cap and scratched his burr-cut head. He kept his hair cut short because that way he didn’t sweat as much under the hair net at work.
“You’re not looking for Gracie, are you?”
She exhaled loud enough for him to hear. “I didn’t come for the snow cones, Wally.”
“But . . . but she’s . . . she’s gone.”
“To the hospital, to see your mother.”
“My mother lives in New York!”
“But your brother said your mother had a stroke and he came to take Gracie to the hos ––– ”
The woman lunged at Wally and grabbed his jersey, her eyes and face suddenly wild like an animal; she clawed so close he could feel her hot breath on his face when she screamed.
“I don’t have a brother!”
Wally was so scared he felt a drop of pee drip out. He dropped his snow cone. The wild woman released him and ran toward the concession stand screaming her daughter’s name.
Police Chief Paul Ryan’s voice mixed with the other voices coming from all around him in the dark, the voices of cops and civilians searching the woods bordering the park for the missing girl, and he thought, Kids don’t get abducted in Post Oak, Texas!
When he had gotten the call, Ryan figured a rich Briarwyck Farms soccer mom was throwing another conniption fit, as they often did over their very special children. His wife, a teacher over at the elementary school, called it the Baby Jesus Syndrome, every rich mom thinking her spoiled little brat’s the second coming. He had no doubt the mom would get a call on her cell phone and learn the girl had gone home with a friend, and the mom wouldn’t say “I’m sorry” or anything, she’d just wave and climb into her SUV and drive off for the post-game pizza party over at Angelo’s, figuring the police department was her private security force to call out anytime she wanted. But when he had arrived on scene and talked to the girl’s coach, Paul Ryan knew immediately that this was a real abduction: a blond man in a black cap had asked for the girl by name.
All Ryan could see were the five feet of trees and ground cover in front of him illuminated by his Mag flashlight as he advanced deeper into the dark woods.
He hears the others around him, but all he sees now is a vague vision of trees and vines and undergrowth, dense and impenetrable ––– a jungle. He’s fighting his way through a jungle on a dark night. He hears a child’s distant cry. He picks up his pace, but it’s like trying to run through molasses. He’s got to hurry, something terrible is about to happen, is happening. He hears more cries. He’s drenched in sweat now as he struggles onward through the steamy jungle. Vines strangle him, branches slash his face and arms, undergrowth grabs his boots, the cries grow louder, his breath comes faster, his heart pounds harder against his chest wall –––
––– and he suddenly stumbles out of the darkness and into the light. Fires light a hamlet, straw huts burn, and flames spit out of rifle muzzles. He hears the BOOM BOOM BOOM of high-powered weapons, people screaming, pigs squealing, and water buffaloes grunting. He smells the stench of burning animal flesh. He sees women and children being dragged out of their hiding places and thrown into the dirt, the blaze of their burning homes illuminating their terrified faces, their Asian features so delicate and desperate. He watches them being herded up and driven forward down a dirt path, carrying babies wailing in the night and begging for mercy –––
“NO! NO! NO! NO VC! NO VC!”
A young girl, a fragile china doll stripped of her clothes and innocence, stumbles along, desperate to escape the savagery suffocating her, pushed forward by big hands connected to big arms. Terror seizes her face because she’s heard stories about what these men do to pretty young girls like her. She searches for sympathy in the hard faces and she finds it in his. She turns to him, silently pleading for help. He knows he must save her to save himself: her life and his soul hang in the balance as she falls face down in the dirt. A big hand grabs at her, but he shoves it away and gently lifts her delicate arm. He hears her sobbing voice in her native tongue: “Save me. Please save me.” The china doll turns her face up to him, in slow-motion she turns into the light, and he sees her face, the face of –––
Ben Brice screamed himself awake and sprang to a sitting position in bed, gasping for air. His heart was beating rapidly, his chest and face and hair were matted with sweat, and his ears were ringing. The phone was ringing. He reached for the phone and knocked over the empty whiskey bottle. He put the phone to his ear and spoke.
“What happened to Gracie?”
Dawn was breaking when Ben parked the old Jeep, grabbed the duffel bag from the passenger’s seat, and double-timed into the Albuquerque airport terminal. His head throbbed with each jarring step. Skiers heading home after the season’s last runs already crowded the gates early on that Saturday morning. He located an arrival/departure monitor. The first flight to Dallas departed at 0600 from gate eight.
“I understand it’s an emergency, sir,” the female gate attendant said, “but the flight is overbooked, and we have twenty standbys. In fact, all our flights to Dallas today are overbooked.” She glanced at her computer.“Earliest available flight out is Monday.”
She gave him a sympathetic expression and a shrug and held her hand out to the next person in line. Ben picked up his duffel bag,stepped away from the counter,and studied the waiting passengers, bleary-eyed college kids returning to school from spring break; none seemed likely to surrender a seat to a stranger.
But he had to get to Dallas.
He spotted three men in uniforms marching down the main corridor toward the gate: the flight crew.The man in the middle appeared about his age and wore captain’s wings.
He stepped over and intercepted them.
Karen, the nineteen-year-old gate attendant, shook her head when the man stopped Captain Porter. Six months on the gate and the story was always the same: It’s an emergency! A crisis! She always wanted to say, Well, so is my social life! But it was against company policy to be rude to customers, so she just smiled and shrugged.The man seemed sincere, though, not the type to lie his way onto an overbooked flight. He had nice eyes. Still, she picked up the phone just in case she needed to call security.
Karen handed a boarding pass to the next customer in line and then glanced back at the man pleading with Captain Porter. She liked Captain Porter; all the girls did.The airline hired only military pilots; the younger ones thought they were such studs, always bragging on themselves and expecting every female employee to drop her skirt on command. The older ones, like Captain Porter, were different.They were respectful of the girls, probably because they had daughters the same age, and they never bragged on themselves or what they had done in the military.The younger pilots thought Captain Porter was some kind of god; they said he had been a real top gun in some war she barely remembered from history class in high school and had been held prisoner for, like, three years. Karen shuddered at the thought: no MTV for three whole years!
The man was now pointing up at the CNN monitor. Karen leaned around the counter to see the monitor. On the screen was the face of a little blonde girl under CHILD ABDUCTED and above RANSOM SUSPECTED. She was cute. Karen looked back at Captain Porter, fully expecting him to send the man packing with a sympathetic expression and a routine shrug ––– What can I do, I just work here? ––– the universal response to any passenger complaint quickly mastered by all airline employees. But Karen stood slack-jawed and oblivious to the passengers waiting in line when Captain Porter dropped his flight bags and hugged the man like he was his long lost brother then released him, picked up his duffel bag, and carried it over to Karen.
“Karen, stow the colonel’s gear,” Captain Porter said. “And bump someone in first class.”
Karen could swear Captain Porter had tears in his eyes.
Over her mother’s objections, Gracie had come to visit him every few months and for a month each summer, for five years now. But for her visits, the morning Ben would not answer Buddy might have already arrived. He needed her and he knew why; she needed him but he did not know why. All he knew was that God had bonded them together in a way he neither understood nor questioned: his life was inextricably tied to hers, and, somehow, hers to his.
Ben was now in the back seat of a yellow cab doing seventy on the Dallas North Tollway, a turbaned Arab behind the wheel, the city noises beyond the windows,a ferocious pounding behind his eyes. Outside, a concrete world was racing past; inside, his stomach was stewing over the thought of never seeing Gracie again. He felt as if he might puke the peanuts-and-coffee breakfast he had had on the plane; and if he continued to focus on the four little Dallas Cowboy dolls standing on the cab’s dashboard, their oversized helmet heads bobbling around, he surely would. So he leaned his head back and closed his eyes; his thoughts returned to Gracie’s last visit. They had sat in their rocking chairs on the porch and watched the sunset; after a period of silence, she had said, “Mom says you’re a drunk.”
He had said, “She’s right.”
“But you don’t drink from those whiskey bottles when I’m here.”
“I don’t need to drink when you’re here.”
“I don’t know. I guess I only think good thoughts when you’re here.”
“Then that settles it: I need to be here all the time.”
He had smiled. “That’s real nice of you to offer ––– ”
“No, Ben. I mean it. I want to live here with you.”
“Honey, this is no place for a girl.”
“Then you come live with us. It’s a really big house.”
“That’s no place for me. Once you’ve lived in a jungle, you can’t live in a subdivision.”
Gracie was quiet, then she said, “She still loves you.”
When Ben opened his wet eyes, the cab was pulling up to the entrance guardhouse at BRIARWYCK FARMS, AN EXCLUSIVE GATED COMMUNITY,or so the sign embedded in the tall brick wall read. Black iron gates with TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED across the bars blocked their way. Ben recalled the front doormat at his childhood home in West Texas that read Welcome,Y’all.
After Ben’s ID checked out, the guard gave the cabby directions and activated the automatic gates.They passed through the gates and entered an oasis in the concrete desert: tall oak trees shading the wide road,expansive stretches of green grass,sparkling blue man-made ponds encircled by walking paths, and magnificent mansions set deep into large lots, homes that would cause most visitors’ jaws to drop; but Ben barely noticed. His thoughts were of Gracie.
The cab driver turned up the radio:“At six-fifteen last night, Post Oak police issued an Amber Alert and provided descriptions of both the victim and the suspect. Gracie Ann Brice is white, ten years old, four feet six inches tall, weighs eighty pounds, and has short blonde hair and blue eyes.The suspect is white, twenty to thirty years old, six feet tall, two hundred pounds, has blond hair, and was last seen wearing a black cap and a plaid shirt. Police are asking anyone who videotaped any of the games at Briarwyck Farms Park yesterday to bring the tapes in.”
The Arab cabby made eye contact with Ben in the rearview. “Little girl, she was taken. In my country, we find the man” ––– he slapped the edge of his open right hand down on the dash ––– “we cut off his dick. Then we cut off his head.”
The cabby’s eyes returned to the road ––– “Aah!” ––– and he slammed on the brakes; Ben was thrown forward. The cab had almost plowed into a police barricade across Magnolia Lane; two uniformed cops stood in front of the cab, their hands on their holsters and shaking their heads. The cabby turned in his seat, shrugged, and said, “Can go no more.”
Ben paid the $45 fare with a fifty and un-assed the vehicle. The morning sun punished his eyes; he patted around his clothes for his sunglasses, then remembered he had left them in the Jeep. He rubbed his temples, but it did not relieve the pounding in his head. He needed his morning run to exorcise last night’s demons, but that would not happen this morning. So he slung the duffel bag over his shoulder and walked past the barricade, down the sidewalk, and into a media circus.
Satellite uplinks mounted above TV vans lined both sides of the street and had lured the residents out of their homes before breakfast. Kids, parents, cameramen, reporters, and cops crowded the street and sidewalks; their voices competed with the incessant THUMP THUMP THUMP of a news chopper hovering low overhead.
His head ached.
Ben continued down the sidewalk, deep into the circus, and past a reporter talking to a camera: “Gracie was last seen at Briarwyck Farms Park wearing blue soccer shorts and a gold jersey, the team name,Tornadoes, across the front and a number nine on the back.”
Kids were riding bikes and rollerblading in the street, media technicians were setting up their equipment, and photographers were snapping pictures of the mansions. Another reporter addressed another camera: “She was abducted at a soccer game last night in this upscale suburb forty miles north of Dallas.”
Parents were huddled in small groups and holding their children close, evident on their faces that fear peculiar to parents, the fear that their children might be taken in the night. Ben had seen that fear before.
Making themselves at home on the sidewalks and lawns were grungy (a word Gracie had taught him) cameramen wearing sunglasses and baseball caps on backward. They were lounging in lawn chairs, drinking coffee, complaining about the early morning assignment, and offering expert opinions: “It’ll be someone in the family. Always is.”
This was their kidnapping now. Gracie Ann Brice was news.
And the world was waiting for news outside her home where a dozen TV cameras sat fixed on tripods and aimed at Six Magnolia Lane, a three-story French chateau-style mansion that looked more like a hotel than a home. Gracie hadn’t exaggerated: it was a really big house.
Ben started up the long walkway leading to the front door but paused to listen to a lone reporter speaking into a camera: “Gracie played in a soccer game here in Post Oak late yesterday, went to the concession stand, and hasn’t been seen since. Her parents are praying that Gracie was taken for ransom,that money can save their daughter. Only fourteen hours since her abduction and a massive effort is already underway to find Gracie and the man who took her.The FBI is setting up a command post, local police are organizing search parties, and at the park where Gracie was taken, bloodhounds will soon be combing the woods…”
Ben continued to the porch.Written in colored chalk on the gray slate steps, in a child’s hand, were the words WE LOVE YOU, GRACIE.The words had the same physical effect on Ben as his morning run: he stepped to the side of the porch and puked behind a low bush. He wiped his mouth with a red handkerchief, and then he rang the doorbell.
Inside the residence the doorbell could not be heard over the ringing phones and blaring TVs and cops hustling about and FBI agents shouting into cell phones and a little boy running around in a Boston Red Sox baseball uniform, pointing a finger-gun at everyone, and yelling “Stick ’em up!”
Walking calmly amid the chaos down the wide gallery that stretched the width of the mansion was a tall black man. FBI Special Agent Eugene Devereaux was wearing black cowboy boots, blue jeans, a gold badge clipped to a wide black belt, a semiautomatic pistol in a belt holster, a blue nylon jacket with FBI stenciled in gold letters across the back, and an FBI cap. Devereaux was the lead FBI agent on the Gracie Ann Brice abduction. Searching for abducted children had been his life for the past ten years.
The heels of his 14EE boots resounded under his considerable weight with each step on the immaculate hardwood floor as he passed fine art on the wainscoted walls and furniture that looked like it would break if you even leaned on the damn stuff. Walking beside him was Special Agent Floyd, an index
finger pointing up like he was gauging the wind.
“Is that the damnedest thing you’ve ever seen?”
Painted on the high-arched ceiling over the gallery was a mural depicting an old-time French street scene with shops, pedestrians, horses, and carriages; the street continued to the foyer where it merged into a village square.A similar street scene entered from the gallery ceiling over the east wing of the residence. It was in fact the damnedest thing Eugene Devereaux had ever seen.
“You ever work an abduction where the victim lived in a place like this?” Floyd asked.
Devereaux’s line of work did not bring him into homes like this. The typical abduction victim’s home was on wheels or in a run-down apartment complex or a cheap-rent house; it was not a mansion with fine art on the walls and French murals on the ceiling.
“Nope. Rich girls don’t get abducted by strangers.”
Devereaux was an abduction specialist with the Bureau based out of the Houston field office; he investigated only abductions of children by strangers. Gracie Ann Brice was his eleventh this year and it was only early April.
He stopped. On the wall hung a formal family portrait illuminated from above by a spotlight; the parents and the boy were dressed in black, the victim in white. Her blonde hair was a stark contrast to the others’ black hair. She looked like a sweet kid. On a small table below sat a copy of Fortune magazine with the father’s face on the cover under The Next Bill Gates?. Devereaux picked up the magazine and flipped it open to the feature article about the father. The same family portrait filled an entire page of the magazine ––– for all the world to see. All the world knew that John Brice was about to be very rich and had a wife named Elizabeth, a son named Sam, and a young daughter named Gracie.
Devereaux replaced the magazine and said,“Maybe this really is a ransom grab.”
He hoped it was. A ransom grab was the only real chance the girl was still alive: you don’t ransom a dead girl.
“The father,” Floyd said,“he’s a basket case. I don’t think he’s up to taking the call, if there is a call.We may need to go with the mother… defense lawyer, white-collar perps.”
From down the hall, Devereaux heard a voice, female and firm: “Hilda, your only job is Sam.”
The victim’s mother ––– forty, slim build, intense expression ––– appeared at the far end of the gallery, marching toward them with an entourage trying to keep pace: the family nanny, a young Hispanic female; an older white female of Eastern European descent in a maid’s uniform; and a local cop, young, flattop, muscular, wearing an expression that said he would rather be in a shootout with a Mexican drug cartel than taking orders from the mother. She was dressed for the office, looking impeccable in a tailored suit and heels. Her hair was done, and her makeup was in place. She was a woman you would notice on the street. Her finger was punching holes in the air.
“Find him, feed him, follow him. Don’t let him out of this house or your sight. Comprende?”
“S’, se–ora.” The Hispanic woman exited the entourage.
The mother,to the maid:“Sylvia,call the caterer.They can’t find my daughter on empty stomachs.”
“Yes, ma’am.” She was off before the words had died.
To the officer: “Get those people off my front lawn.”
“I’ll try, Mrs. Brice, but ––– ”
“No buts. Do it. Shoot them if you have to.”
“Uh, yes, ma’am.” The young officer was no match for the mother; he surrendered, shaking his head.
As the mother came closer, Devereaux noticed her eyes, alert and focused, not the vacant, lost eyes he was accustomed to seeing on mothers of abducted children. Devereaux gave her a sincere nod ––– “ma’am” ––– as she passed him in the foyer. The morning after her daughter’s abduction and she was dressed for court and in control, barking out orders. Devereaux knew that this was her way of coping, acting as if she were still in control of her life. Of course, she wasn’t; her daughter’s life ––– and so her life ––– was now controlled by the abductor.
“She’s one tough broad,” Floyd said.
“She’ll need to be,” Devereaux said, “if the girl wasn’t taken for ransom.”
GOD, PLEASE LET it be ransom. Alone for the moment, Elizabeth Brice paused, leaned her head against the gallery wall, and closed her eyes. Her adrenaline was pumping at a verdict’s-about-to-be-read velocity, but she had no place to go this day, no guilty defendant’s case to plead, no prosecution witness to brutally cross-examine, no closing argument about truth and justice to make to a jury of good and gullible citizens. Nothing to do but pace the house and hope and pray. That morning, in the shower, she had said her first prayer in thirty years.
God, please let it be ransom.
She inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly. Her heart was beating like she had just put in an hour on the Stairmaster. Her disciplined body had surrendered to fear, just as her equally disciplined mind had to anarchy, a mob of thoughts running wild through her head: Where was Grace? Was she dead? Was she alive? Who had her? What had he done to her? Did he want money? Why hadn’t a ransom call come yet? Did the FBI know what they were doing? Would she ever come home? Why me? Why my child? How could John have let someone take her?
How? Damn him!
She felt the rage rise within her, the rage that resided just below her surface, always ready to emerge and take control of any situation, the rage she fought to suppress every day of her life like a patient taking chemotherapy to force the cancer into remission. The battle was proving particularly difficult today because it was completely incomprehensible to Elizabeth Brice how her daughter could have been abducted right from under her husband’s goddamn nose at a goddamn public park!
She had cursed her husband last night at the park, after panic had given way to rage. But first she had panicked and lost complete control,screaming,yelling,grabbing kids and parents ––– “Have you seen Grace? Have you seen Grace?” ––– running around in circles and shouting Grace’s name until her voice was hoarse. Then rage had taken its turn in the driver’s seat, and she had lashed out,first at John and then at Grace’s coach:“You pointed Grace out to the abductor? What kind of fucking idiot are you?”
Parents and police had searched the park until late in the night.When the FBI had arrived and assessed the chaotic search efforts,they declared the park a crime scene and ordered everyone out.The search had to be organized, they said. Evidence could be trampled. The park and woods were too vast and dense to search thoroughly at night, and if Grace hadn’t been found after eight hours of searching she was no longer at the park. So Elizabeth had returned home, prayed in the shower, and dressed; she had been awake now for twenty-seven straight hours, wired on caffeine and adrenaline. She had trained her mind and body to function without sleep; it would catch up with her around the thirty-sixth hour when her mind would give way to her body’s physical exhaustion, and she would sleep. But not now. Not yet. Her body was tiring but her mind remained alert and angry: Damnit, how could John have let someone take her! She clenched her fist and hit the wall.
“Uh, you okay, Mrs. Brice?”
The doorbell rang again, and Elizabeth opened her eyes to a young cop holding a cup of coffee and a donut; he had white powder around his mouth and an indolent expression on his face, as if this were the start of another routine day of donuts and traffic stops. He was a fine example of small-town law enforcement and the reason she had demanded the FBI be called in immediately.
“Yes. But my daughter’s not. Go find her!”
The cop choked on his donut then turned and hurried away. She took several deep breaths to compose herself and then marched down the gallery, resolved thereafter not to act in public like other mothers of abducted children, slobbering pitifully on television and begging for the safe return of her child. Elizabeth Brice, Attorney-at-Law, would go on TV, but not to beg.
She arrived at the formal dining room for the third time that morning. Leaning over the dining table and studying a large map illuminated by the chandelier above were the Post Oak police chief and four uniformed officers.They didn’t notice her.
“A line search,” Chief Ryan was saying. “Start at the south end, proceed due north. Instruct your searchers to walk at arm’s length, slow, this ain’t no goddamn race. They see something, tell ’em to hold up their hands, don’t touch a fuckin’ thing. FBI boys’ll tag it and bag it.” Chief Ryan was stocky but paunchy, like an aging athlete.When he finally noticed Elizabeth standing in the door, he grimaced. “Pardon my French, Mrs. Brice.”
She held up an open palm. “Just find her.”
“Yes, ma’am. Oh, Mrs. Brice, we need clothing Gracie wore recently, something that’s not been washed. For the bloodhounds.” Elizabeth nodded. The chief again addressed his men: “Be in position at nine-thirty sharp. Bobby Joe’ll run the dogs in the woods first, while we walk the playing fields.Then we’ll search the woods again ––– maybe we’ll have better luck in daylight.”
Elizabeth turned to resume her pacing and came face to face with an earnest young woman wearing a blue nylon FBI jacket and holding a pen to a notepad. They had been introduced earlier, but Elizabeth could not recall the agent’s name.
“Mrs. Brice, what color, size, and brand of underwear was Gracie wearing?”
The agent asked the question as if asking whether she wanted cream in her coffee. Elizabeth clenched back her emotions.
“I don’t know. I left yesterday before she got up. I had a trial. My husband might know, ask him. He let someone take her.”
FBI Special Agent (on probation) Jan Jorgenson watched the victim’s mother march off down the fancy hallway; they called it a gallery.They don’t have galleries in Minnesota farmhouses.
Jan ducked into the kitchen, made sure she was alone, and pulled a protein bar from her waist pack; she hadn’t eaten since last night when the call had come and she didn’t do donuts. She had survived this long without food only because she had carbo loaded the past week for the marathon she was supposed to be running at that very moment. She took a big bite then jumped ––– someone had jabbed her hard in the back.
“Reach for the sky!”
A kid’s voice trying to sound older. Jan turned and looked down on the Brice boy, the spitting image of the father. He was holding his right hand like it was a gun and grinning.
“I got that from Woody, in Toy Story.”
He laughed and ran off. She shook her head. His big sister was abducted, and he’s playing cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers or whatever his game was. The kid didn’t have a clue.
Jan ate the protein bar in four quick bites while watching the small TV on the counter; a reporter standing on the front lawn was saying, “Ransom. John Brice is soon to be a very wealthy man…”
Old news. Jan exited the kitchen, but she could still hear the reporter on the kitchen TV or on the TV in the next room or on other unseen TVs in rooms she passed, as if someone were deathly afraid of missing breaking news: “His company, BriceWare-dot-com,is going public next week,which is expected to make John Brice worth well over ––– ”
Jan entered the study.
“A billion dollars? ”
Special Agent Eugene Devereaux, the agent in charge, was interviewing the victim’s father. The father nodded blankly. Sitting slumped on the couch, he looked as if he would fall over from exhaustion if not for Agents Floyd and Randall sitting on either side of him like book ends. His curly black hair was a mess, his khakis and blue denim shirt were wrinkled and dirty, the knot of his yellow Mickey Mouse tie was pulled halfway down, and his face was drooped like a balloon after most of the air had leaked out. He appeared even thinner than the last time she had seen him. But what struck her was the incredible sadness in his eyes, brown eyes visible over black glasses sitting low on his nose, the eyes of a man suddenly lost and adrift in a harsh world. His slender fingers were kneading the tie like a rosary.
“She gave this tie to me,” he said to no one in particular.
A telephone attached to Bureau hardware sat on the coffee table in front of the father. An agent wearing headphones was testing the equipment that would record, trap, and trace the ransom call. If the call came. If the motive was money.
“A billion dollars,” Agent Devereaux repeated.
The father looked up at Devereaux and said in a barely audible voice: “He can have it all if he’ll let Gracie go.”
Agent Devereaux dropped his eyes and gave a sideways glance at the other agents. “Mr. Brice, is there any reason someone would want to hurt your family?”
Almost a whisper: “No.”
“Have any threats been made against you?”
“Did you fire any employees recently?”
“Do you suspect anyone?”
“Did you notice any strangers in the neighborhood?”
“No. Those gates are supposed to keep bad people out.”
Agent Devereaux studied the father for a moment, obviously concluding that he was neither the abductor nor a source of information. Devereaux then turned to her.
“Yes, Agent Jorgenson?”
“Sir, I’m completing the detailed description of the victim’s clothing. The mother said Mr. Brice might have the information I need.”
Agent Devereaux nodded. “Proceed.”
This was Jan Jorgenson’s first child abduction. Engaged to the Bureau for eleven months now, she had always assumed that one day she would marry and have children; but now, seeing the father’s pain at the loss of his child, a pain that a billion dollars could not console, she wasn’t so sure. Her question now seemed an awful burden.
“Mr. Brice…” John was staring at the female FBI agent and trying to understand her words. His brain felt fragmented. He couldn’t process what he thought he had heard her say. Why was she asking
about Gracie’s –––
John turned to the other FBI agents, the ones setting up the recording equipment for when the kidnapper called and demanded ransom ––– a million,five million,ten million ––– he didn’t freaking care how much. He would pay it and Gracie would come home. That’s the deal! His eyes darted from agent to agent to agent. They were staring down at their equipment.
“But you said… I thought… I thought it was about money.”
Until that very moment, it had never occurred to John R. Brice that his money might not be the motive for his daughter’s abduction. He suddenly felt sick. A searing heat spread over his face. He thought he might faint. His upper body fell forward until his hands caught his head. He pulled his glasses off his face; the world around him was a blur, but the image inside his head was 20/20 sharp: Gracie…and a man…and…
He started crying. He couldn’t stop himself. He didn’t even try. He gave up the fight.
The doorbell rang again just as Elizabeth entered the study. Five grim-faced FBI agents simultaneously looked at her then quickly averted their eyes. Her husband was sitting between two agents on the sofa. His face was in his hands; he was crying inconsolably. Her body clenched with her greatest fear.
“Is it Grace?” she asked.
The lead FBI agent shook his head. Fear released its grip on Elizabeth’s body. She breathed out a “Thank God.” She then turned to her husband. “John, what’s wrong?”
His sobbing did not abate. Elizabeth went to him and stood over his pitiful figure, debating whether to console him or to slap him senseless for allowing her daughter to be abducted.The agents sitting on the sofa relocated across the room. Over her husband’s slumped head, she asked Agent Devereaux, “What happened?”
Agent Devereaux sighed.“We had to ask,Mrs.Brice.We need a complete description of Gracie’s clothing, including her…”
Agent Devereaux nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
Elizabeth’s mind was so chaotic with wild thoughts that she had forgotten she had sent the female FBI agent to John with that question. She put her left hand on her husband’s shoulder.
“John,” she said softly. He looked up at her with red eyes and tears rolling down his face and snot running out of his nose and a trembling chin. He wiped the snot on his shirtsleeve. Her little boy.
John Brice had married her when she needed a husband.And he had been a good husband: he had never embarrassed her in public or crossed her in private; he had always sent flowers to her office on her birthday and their anniversary, not that she had any inclination for romance; and he was a loving father to both children and a genius at math, the perfect skill in a wired world. John R. Brice was a gentle brilliant boy… and utterly useless in a fight. He had nothing but a Ph.D. to fall back on in times like this, no reserve of intestinal fortitude to draw upon when you had to be hard and mean and ruthless; he was not like her ––– she could easily stick a gun to the abductor’s head and blow his fucking brains out if necessary to save Grace. John Brice was not hard or mean or ruthless. He was just a thirty-seven-year-old little boy, looking up at her like he had just been beaten up by the neighborhood bully and needed mommy to hug him and make it all better. Instead, she slapped him across the face.
“John,” she said through clenched teeth, the rage making a move to escape the darkness, “it damn well better be ransom. Because if it’s not ––– ”
“Eliza ––– ”
She slapped him again.
“Goddamn you! You let him take her!”
“Mrs. Brice,” Agent Devereaux said, “this won’t help.”
It was helping her. Elizabeth raised her hand again, but a black hand grabbed her wrist. The rage turned on Agent Devereaux.
“Let ––– me ––– go.”
The phone rang. Agent Devereaux released her and sat next to John. The agent wearing headphones activated the recorder then nodded at Agent Devereaux. The phone rang again.
“Mr. Brice,” Agent Devereaux said.
John remained in the same position she had left him: his hands still cupping his face to block her blows and crying and saying softly, “I’m sorry.”
The phone rang again.
“Mr. Brice, can you take the call?”
Her husband didn’t move. Elizabeth thought, Utterly useless in a fight, then she thrust her hand out to Agent Devereaux.
“Give it to me.”
Agent Devereaux lifted the phone off the receiver and handed it to her.The tape was running. She put the phone to her ear.
A child’s voice came across. “Can Sam play?”
“What? No, Sam can’t play today!”
The agents exhaled and rolled their eyes in unison. Elizabeth handed the phone to Agent Devereaux and sighed; the child’s voice had given her pause. Her anger spent, the rage retreated like a tornado into the dark sky and she now gazed down upon the destruction left behind ––– her husband still sobbing and his face red and welted ––– and the slightest twinge of remorse tried to ignite her conscience. But she stomped it out like a discarded cigarette.
It’s his damn fault! He let someone take her!
Her respiration spiked. One last glare at her utterly useless husband, then she marched out of the study and down the gallery and was crossing the foyer when the doorbell rang again. She stopped, yanked the front door open, and stared at the man standing on her porch. Anyone who knew his life would have expected a bigger man, a harder looking man. But there he stood, perhaps an artist who painted the West and dressed the part, wearing rugged Santa Fe-style attire that looked so phony on the models in the Neiman Marcus catalog but seemed born to his lean frame with his chiseled facial features and ruddy skin, the ragged blond hair framing his tanned face and setting off the most brilliant blue eyes imaginable. Remarkably handsome for a sixty-year-old man, he could be a middle-aged movie star. Instead, he was a drunk.
Elizabeth Brice turned and walked away from her father-in-law.
Ben Brice stepped inside his son’s home and into the middle of a busy intersection. He quickly retreated as uniformed police and FBI agents and a maid talking into a portable phone and his grandson in a baseball uniform pursued by a young Hispanic woman ––– “Se–or Sam, the oatmeal, it is ready!” ––– raced past him.
Beneath his feet was a polished hardwood floor; above his head was a lighted dome painted with a mural. A wide gallery extended off the entry into both wings of the residence. A sweeping staircase rose in front of him to a second-floor landing. Beyond the stairs was a living area with a two-story-tall bank of windows looking out onto a brilliant blue pool with a waterfall. Gracie had said her new home had cost $3 million. At the time he thought she had to be mistaken; but now, looking around, Ben could believe this place cost every bit of $3 million, maybe more.Which was good: his son could afford the ransom.
Ben had not spoken to John in five years, when he had last come to Dallas for Sam’s birth. He almost didn’t recognize the slight young man who had wandered aimlessly into the foyer and who now found himself caught in the middle of a fast-moving stream of bodies like a bug in a whirlpool; he looked defeated and lost, like the senile World War Two vets at the VA hospital, a blank face in a world no longer recognizable. Ben dropped the duffel bag, stepped over to his son, and grabbed him by the shoulders.
“John.” A stiff shake. “John.”
His son regarded Ben as he would a complete stranger and said, “You think it’s ransom?”
“John, it’s me… Ben.”
John pushed his glasses up and blinked hard. “Ben? What are you doing… How did you… Who called you?”
“You should have, son.”
A voice from above: “I did.”
She had left him right after Gracie was born, determined that her only granddaughter would not be raised by a nanny. Ben had figured it was just an excuse, not that he blamed her; if he could have, he would have left himself a long time ago. She had made regular visits back at first, but the time between visits grew longer and longer. Five years ago her visits had stopped altogether, when she had two grandchildren to raise.
Now, seeing her at the top of the stairs, her red hair and fair complexion glowing in the light of the dome ––– still the most beautiful woman he had ever seen ––– the love that Ben Brice had tried to drown in whiskey along with the pain returned with such force he thought his knees might buckle; instead, tears came to his eyes ––– she was still wearing her wedding ring. A devout Irish Catholic, she would never divorce her husband but could no longer live with a drunk; a devout drunk, he would never love another woman but could not live without a drink.
She descended the stairs, and Ben could tell that she had cried through the night. He knew because he had caused this woman to cry through many nights. Not that he had ever touched her in anger. Ben Brice was not a mean drunk. He was a silent one. The more he drank, the deeper inside himself he burrowed, battling the demons within and leaving his wife to cry herself to sleep. His soul was stained with her tears. Five years since he had seen her, touched her, held her, he ached to hold her now; but he stood paralyzed, like a buck private facing a four-star general.
She came to him and buried her face in his chest. Ben pulled her tight and breathed in her scent as if for the first time. And for a brief moment it was thirty-eight years earlier, when the world still made sense. She sighed deeply, almost a cry, and he felt her slim body sag slightly.
“Oh, Ben. What if he hurts her?”
“We’ll get her back, Kate. We’ll pay the ransom and get her back.”
They stood holding each other as strangers and thirty-eight years of their lives rushed past ––– the good times, the bad times, and more bad times. Ben had always held onto the good times to get through the bad times; she had lost her grip ten years ago. Standing there, they didn’t have to say what they both knew: no time would be as bad as this time.
Ben looked down at his grandson clutching his legs. The Hispanic woman arrived in a rush and out of breath.
“Se–or Sam, the oatmeal, you must eat.”
From below: “I don’t want no stinkin’ oatmeal!”
Ben Brice embraced his family. Except John. He was gone.
“What the hell’s he doing here?”
Elizabeth ambushed her husband as soon as he set foot in the kitchen; he flinched and his hands flew up to his face then fell once he realized she wasn’t going to slap him again.
“I don’t want that drunk in my house!”
John did not respond. Instead, he wandered into the butler’s pantry, as if hunting for a place to hide. She stared after her husband and shook her head: utterly useless in a fight.
Agent Devereaux was at the kitchen door.
Ben was standing at the staircase with his family and the young Hispanic woman when a middle-aged FBI agent appeared with Elizabeth. Ben looked at her and she looked away.
“Kate,” Elizabeth said, “would you get the photo of Grace from our room, for Agent Devereaux? And something she wore yesterday, something that’s not been washed. Maybe her school uniform. Chief Ryan needs it. He’s in the dining room.” She then said down to Sam, “Have you eaten breakfast yet?”
Sam, from below: “I claim the Fourth Amendment.”
“It’s the Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate yourself.”
Elizabeth exhaled and turned to the Hispanic woman.“Hilda?”
Hilda threw her arms up. “Se–ora, he runs like the wind.”
Sam, trying to hide between Ben’s legs: “Help.”
Ben diverted the conversation to save his grandson. He extended his hand to the FBI agent and said, “Ben Brice. I’m Gracie’s grandfather.”
“Eugene Devereaux, FBI.”
He was a big man with big hands and a firm grip. The two men regarded each other.
“Ben Brice,” Agent Devereaux said. “That name sounds familiar. Have we met?”
Ben shook his head and diverted the conversation again.“Have you gotten a ransom call?”
“No, sir.”Agent Devereaux turned to Elizabeth.“What about Gracie’s underwear?”
“Kate,”Elizabeth said,“what underwear was Grace wearing?”
“She wears Under Armour to her games.”
Agent Devereaux interrupted: “Under Armour. Sports underwear. All the kids wear them now ’cause the pros do. My daughter wears them under her basketball uniform.” To Kate: “Did Gracie wear compression shorts?”
“Yes. Blue ones. And a sleeveless tee shirt, blue.”
Agent Devereaux glanced down the gallery and called out: “Agent Jorgenson!”He motioned,and a female FBI agent walked up. He addressed her: “We have white Lotto soccer shoes, blue knee socks, shin guards, blue Under Armour shorts and sleeveless tee shirt, blue soccer shorts, a gold soccer jersey with ‘Tornadoes’ on the front and a number nine on the back.” Back to the others: “Anything else?”
“Her necklace,” Ben said, triggering a sharp look from Elizabeth.
“What necklace?” Agent Devereaux asked.
“Silver chain with a silver star.”
“Are you sure she was wearing it?”
Kate confirmed with a knowing nod.
To the female agent, who was writing on a notepad, Agent Devereaux said,“And the necklace.Get the updated description to the media.”
“Yes, sir,” she said, and then she departed.
Agent Devereaux gave Ben and Kate a polite nod and said, “Mr. Brice, Mrs. Brice,” then he and Elizabeth walked away down the gallery. Ben turned to Kate.
“Why are they asking about her” ––– a glance down at Sam ––– “clothes? I thought it was about ransom.”
She turned her hands up. “Until they get a call…”
Sam tugged at Ben’s legs.“Grandpa, what happened to Gracie? No one’ll tell me the truth.”He gestured up at Kate.“Not even Nanna.”
Ben squatted and came face-to-face with a miniature version of John ––– the same mop of curly black hair, the same dark eyes, the same black glasses, although his grandson’s glasses had no lenses; Gracie said Sam had taken to wearing the frames so he’d be like his father. Ben had sent his grandson birthday and Christmas gifts each year (hand-carved wooden coyotes and horses and a little rocking chair with SAM carved into the seat back) and had talked to him whenever Gracie had called; and Gracie had sent the photos of Sam that were stuck to the refrigerator in the cabin, so Ben felt like he knew Sam, but he hadn’t seen the boy since his birth. Ben had never been welcome in his son’s home.
“She’s gone,” Ben said.
“Can I have her stuff?”
“You know, like when she goes to college, I’m gonna get her room and all her stuff.”
“No, it’s not like that, Sam. She didn’t want to go.”
“So why did she?”
“A man took her.”
An innocent face. “The mailman?”
“No, not a nice man.”
“A bad man.”
“Yes, Sam, a bad man.”
“Where did she sleep last night?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did the cretin feed her dinner?”
“I don’t know.”
“The cretin wants money to let Gracie go?”
Sam’s face brightened. “Well, that’s okay.”
“Because after the IPO, we’ll be a billionaire.”
FBI Special Agent Eugene Devereaux had no doubt the furnishings in this one room cost more than his entire homestead. He had followed the victim’s mother into the elegant formal living room in the east wing of the residence; Devereaux didn’t know furnishings from fiddlesticks, but he knew this stuff didn’t come cheap. He instinctively pushed his hands into his pockets, like he did when visiting those antique shops the wife loved, so as not to inadvertently break something he couldn’t afford.
“Set up in here,” the mother said. She dismissed the entire room with a wave of her hand. “Use the furniture, move it to the garage, burn it for firewood. I don’t give a damn.”
“Mrs. Brice, we normally don’t establish the command post in the victim’s home, but ––– ”
She pointed a finger his way.“I want it here! I want to know what’s being done to find my daughter at all times! I’ll call Larry McCoy himself if I have to! He owes me!”
Not that it would affect his decision, but Devereaux couldn’t help but wonder if the mother really knew the president personally or was merely a “Friend of Larry,” a status earned through a $100,000 contribution to his last campaign.
“ ––– but, your home is already wired for twenty phone and fax lines and broadband for computers and it would take us the entire morning to wire another location. So we will set up the command post here. We’ll be operational in one hour.”
Devereaux hoped he would not regret his decision. Because there was a good reason not to establish a command post in the victim’s home: if the victim was not recovered quickly, personnel couldn’t be maintained at a remote location indefinitely; the command post would have to be moved to the local FBI field office in downtown Dallas forty miles away. And when it was, the parents would worry that the FBI was quitting on their child. But Eugene Devereaux had never quit on an abducted child.
“Good. Now, what’s being done to find my daughter?”
A fair enough question. Devereaux removed his hands from his pockets and ticked the items off on his fingers.
“I’ve got twenty agents full time on the case, plus ten local police. Chief Ryan issued an Amber Alert immediately upon Gracie’s disappearance and broadcast an alert on NLETS, the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System. Every law enforcement agency in the country knows about Gracie now.
“We’ve inputted Gracie into the National Crime Information Center Missing Person File. As soon as we get her photo, we’ll input her into the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.They’ll put her on their website, and she’ll go on the FBI website.
“We’ll print up fliers with Gracie’s photo and a composite sketch of the suspect for distribution throughout the area and to the media. Chief Ryan is coordinating the search at the park. An FBI Evidence Response Team is also at the crime scene. They’ll collect and preserve any evidence and conduct a forensic analysis of the abduction site.
“We’ve installed communications equipment to record and trap and trace all incoming calls. Our Rapid Start Team will set up the command post, the phone bank, computers, and faxes, and coordinate and track all leads on a computerized system ––– there’ll be thousands.We’re interviewing witnesses who were at the park last night, and we’re canvassing the neighborhood.”
Devereaux decided not to mention that they were compiling a list of known sex offenders residing in the locality.
“Mrs. Brice, we can get a psychologist in here.”
“For what purpose?”
“For you, your husband, your son.To help you through this.”
“I don’t want help. I want my daughter found.”
The mother turned away, paced off four steps, and whirled to face him; her arms were crossed, and her eyes were sizing him up.
“And what are your qualifications, Agent Devereaux, to find my daughter?”
Bluntness did not offend Eugene Devereaux.
“Well, ma’am, this ain’t my first rodeo.” He was met with a blank expression. “One hundred twenty-seven abductions, Mrs. Brice. Those are my qualifications.”
Her face deflated as she absorbed his words; her eyes fell.
“One hundred twenty-seven, “she whispered.“My God.” She lifted her eyes. “Children?”
“How many were ransom?”
He hesitated. “None.”
“Ben, what if this isn’t about money?” Kate asked.
She had taken Ben out to the pool house. She thought it would be better that way, Ben staying out here alone. Just in case he drank. And the nightmares returned. And he screamed, that tortured cry that had punctured her sleep so many nights.
“Take me to the park.”
Kate shook her head.“It’s a crime scene. No one can go out there until they search it.”
Bobby Joe Fannin spat a stream of brown tobacco juice.
“Settle down, boys.”
The dogs were straining at their leashes, ready to get it on, the girl’s scent fresh in their nostrils. Bobby Joe headed up the county’s canine search unit, a team of six bloodhounds he had raised from pups. Good job, good benefits, outside most of the time. Not as good as farming this land thirty years ago when his granddaddy still owned this land, but not bad. Except for finding dead people. Bobby Joe never liked that part of the job. Why did killers from the city always dump the bodies in the country?
On the radio: “Bobby Joe, come in.”
Bobby Joe pulled the radio off his belt and pushed the transmit button. “Yeah, Chief?”
He could barely make out Police Chief Ryan at the other end of the park; the search party was stretched out single file across the playing fields. Bobby Joe worked alone, just him and the dogs, which was another thing he liked about the job, not having to work with other people much. In his line of work, other people around just messed things up: the dogs could detect human scent, but they couldn’t distinguish between humans. Another human being around would throw them off the girl’s scent.
“Bobby Joe, we’re fixin’ to get going down here,” the chief said. “Go ahead and start your dogs. You find something, you call me. Don’t touch nothing, you hear me?”
To his radio: “I done this before, Paulie.”
Bobby Joe had grown up with Paul Ryan.They had hunted this land together as boys ––– deer, wild hogs, quail ––– and these very woods for rabbit, back when these woods covered five hundred acres. His granddaddy said this was one of the last native post oak forests left on the high plains of Texas. But that was then and this was now and only a hundred acres were left. And Bobby Joe was hunting these woods for a little girl.
He spat again.
“Let’s go, boys,” he said, giving the dogs a little whistle.They set off into the woods, the dogs’ leashes in Bobby Joe’s right hand and the girl’s red-and-blue plaid school uniform in his left.
“Get off the goddamn grass!”
The chief said to make the mother happy, so Police Officer Eddie Yates was chasing the crowd of reporters and cameramen off the Brices’ landscaped front lawn. They took one look at him ––– the angular twenty-three-year-old face, the sharp flattop, the dark sunglasses, the bulging biceps that had the sleeves of his uniform ready to bust at the seams ––– and moved to the sidewalk, bitching as they did.
One riot, one Ranger.
Except Eddie wasn’t a Texas Ranger. He was a patrol cop in a small suburban police department that didn’t even have a SWAT team ––– not that it needed one, seeing as how the biggest crime the town of Post Oak had to offer was kids passing around a beer under the bleachers at the little league field on Saturday nights. Eddie usually spent his shift working the town’s speed trap out on the freeway, nabbing speeders while dreaming of being on a big city SWAT team, wearing a black paramilitary uniform, packing military-style assault weapons, busting down doors to drug houses, beating up gangsters, and fighting the war on drugs. He would take the Dallas Police Academy’s entrance exam for the fourth time this summer.
Fight back, Johnny-boy!
Be a man!
Go on,run home to mommy,Little Johnny Brice,you fuckin’crybaby!
All the taunts from all the bullies at all the Army bases came rushing back now. Little Johnny Brice hadn’t been man enough to protect his own daughter at a public park. Just like he hadn’t been man enough back then to fight back against the bullies. When the colonel returned from deployment, Mom would beg him to stop the beatings and the colonel would order the bullies’ fathers to instill discipline in their ranks. But that had only made the beatings worse. He remembered the beatings and his face stung; but from Elizabeth’s hand today and the hurt would not go away.
Back then, he had gone inside himself, deep into his inner child while his outer child was getting the crap beat out of it. Afterward, he had run home to his room. Mom would always come in and hold him while he cried, and she would cry too; she would doctor his wounds and tell him it would never happen again. But it always happened again. Other kids had spent their childhood outside, learning to hit a curve ball; John had spent his in his room, hiding from bullies and teaching himself computer code.
Now, he had sought refuge in his home office, secluded on the backside of the house; he was hiding from his spouse and trying to escape the fear and loathing of the real world, as he often did. But there would be no escape this time. Fear and loathing had followed Little Johnny Brice home.
The phone rang. He let the machine take the call. It was Lou in New York, leaving another message: “John, did you get my earlier messages? Jesus Christ, it’s on the news up here. I’m stunned! I don’t know what to say, buddy. How could something like that happen in a public park? Man, I’m like… shit. Call me.” The machine beeped and went silent.
Because I wasn’t man enough to protect her, that’s how it happened!
A Cray supercomputer occupied the space inside John’s skull; his mind was capable of complex calculations and came with a near photographic memory ––– but he couldn’t remember yesterday.
Was the game just yesterday?
Elbows resting on the desk, hands gripping his head, eyes closed, John tried to reboot his memory: he’s sitting in the stands at the soccer field, talking to Lou about the IPO; Elizabeth has gone to the concession stand to find Gracie; then a piercing scream startles him so ––– Grace! He drops the phone and runs to the concession stand where parents are shouting for their children and panic is racing through the crowd like an e-mail virus until the panic and he reach Elizabeth simultaneously.
Grace is gone!
No, goddamnit! Someone kidnapped her!
He has never before seen Elizabeth panicked and out of control, and it scares him.Then the sound of sirens, the police, the search in the woods. And Gracie was gone. And he might never see her again. And Little Johnny Brice hurt in a place the bullies could never touch.
“You’ve worked a hundred twenty-seven abductions?” the mother asked.
FBI Special Agent Eugene Devereaux nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
“But no ransoms?”
“I’ve worked one ransom in thirty years with the Bureau. Not a child.”
He knew where this conversation would end.These conversations always ended there.
“Your job is to find abducted children?”
“And do you?”
“Do I what?”
“Find abducted children?”
He gave her the same answer he always gave the parents, hoping they would not ask the logical follow-up question; most parents didn’t because they couldn’t bear to know the answer.
From the mother’s expression, he could tell her mind was working through his answer. Her mouth opened slightly and her eyes bore into him. She was a tough broad, tough enough to ask the follow-up question.
“Were any of the children found… alive?”
Looking at the mother, Devereaux found himself hoping mightily that her child had been abducted for money, as unlikely as that was. But he had hoped just as mightily one hundred twenty-seven times before for a happy ending to an abduction, each time in vain. One hundred twenty-seven abductions of children by strangers ––– ninety-three had ended with a dead child; the other thirty-four had never been found and were presumed dead ––– had taught him that holding out false hope only victimized the family a second time.
The mother’s entire body slumped. The tough-broad lawyer fa�ade faded from her face; for a brief moment, Elizabeth Brice was just another desperate, tortured mother, no different from those dirt-poor mothers of victims living in trailer parks, because they now shared something in common ––– the peculiar pain of knowing your child was in the arms of a stranger. After a silence, she spoke, slowly and softly.
“This isn’t going to end well, is it?”
“Mrs. Brice, Gracie was extremely low-risk for a stranger abduction ––– upper income, non-urban, intact family… kids like her just don’t get abducted by strangers. And ransom is a long shot. It just doesn’t happen in this country. But this wasn’t a random grab. He targeted Gracie. He asked for her by name. Why? Of all the little girls at the park, why did he want her?”
Bobby Joe Fannin was breathing hard, fast as he was having to run to keep the dogs in sight. They got something, way they were yelping. Deep into the woods, the dogs abruptly stopped. Bobby Joe caught up and looked down. He spat.
Last fall’s leaves and twigs crunched and snapped beneath their feet as they ran through the thick woods toward the sound of barking dogs, but Ben’s thoughts were of another time and place when he had run through woods to a bad ending.
She’s twelve or maybe thirteen. They dragged her into the nearby undergrowth. He heard her muffled cries and came running. “Get off her!” he yells as he drives his boot into the soldier’s ribcage, knocking him off her. The other soldier grins and points down at the girl. “Go on, Lieutenant, get yourself some.” He glances down at the terrified girl then back at the grinning soldier. He raises his rifle and puts the muzzle against the soldier’s forehead; the grin drops off the soldier’s face.The urge to pull the trigger is overwhelming. Instead, he pivots and slams the butt of the rifle into the soldier’s brow, knocking him unconscious.The two soldiers would have been court-martialed had they not been killed that same afternoon, their legs blown off by VC land mines, their death cries rising above the Plain of Reeds as they bled to death on a hot day in the Mekong Delta.
Ahead, Elizabeth stumbled and fell again; a skirt and heels were not suited to the terrain. Ben stopped to help her up. The heel on one shoe had broken off; she tossed the other one aside, pushed his hands away, and ran on, her face distorted by fear.
The local police chief was now in the lead, followed by Agent Devereaux then John,Elizabeth,and Ben.Chief Ryan had started off walking, carefully pushing limbs aside for Elizabeth’s safe passage, but when she had taken off running into the woods, hands flailing at the sharp branches striking at her face and arms and legs, he had realized that walking was not an option.They had overtaken Elizabeth on her first fall.
They were now deep into the woods. From the intermittent sound of cars a road was nearby.Thirty meters ahead, uniformed cops and FBI agents stood silently in a circle, their heads down, as if joined in prayer. Chief Ryan and Agent Devereaux arrived first then turned and stopped John. Ben saw his son slump and fall to his knees; Ben ran faster and his heart beat harder. Agent Devereaux tried to block Elizabeth’s view –––
“Mrs. Brice, you shouldn’t…”
––– but she shoved him aside and pushed her way inside the circle; she cried out, and her hands snapped up to her mouth like a reflex. Her legs gave way, and she dropped to the ground. Her clothes were ripped and covered in dirt and dried leaves, one shoe was on and one shoe was gone, and her arms and legs and face were striped with fresh scratch marks. Ben stood over her, staring down and breathing hard. He took the pain and buried it deep inside him with all the other pain, clamping his jaws so tight his teeth hurt. The woods were eerily quiet, as if even the creatures understood the violation only they had witnessed.
Elizabeth crawled forward and reached out to the blue soccer shorts and white soccer shoe lying on the ground.
The ten-thousand-square-foot residence at Six Magnolia Lane stood silent as night fell. Upstairs, Kate sat in her room saying the rosary through quiet tears. Elizabeth was sleeping in her bed, having succumbed to exhaustion after thirty-seven hours awake; she had managed to remove one leg of her torn pantyhose before falling asleep. Sam was watching Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl in his room with Hilda; Pirates was rated PG-13, so he wasn’t supposed to be watching it, but Hilda didn’t know that ––– heck, she couldn’t even read English.
In Gracie’s bedroom, Agent Chip Stevens, an FBI computer specialist with the Bureau’s Computer Analysis Response Team, aka the “geek squad,” was quietly examining the victim’s computer; he was reviewing her e-mail history, checking the browser cache to see the websites she had visited and webpages she had downloaded, and trying to determine if she had been contacted over the Internet by a computer-literate sexual predator. Perhaps she had wandered into the wrong chat room and had been lured into disclosing personal information that had led the perpetrator to her soccer game.The Internet had opened a whole new world to sex offenders.
God, he hated child abductions!
ACK. Hm frm NYC. Nsnly dspr8 2 CU. Gd wk @ skl? RdE 4 mg gm? Gm tm? Wldnt ms 4 E9$. Rly. Pstgm, srs fdg n qlty fctm, grilf. CUL8R, alEG8R. X0XO, Kahuna.
He translated the message from Mr. Brice to the victim: Hi, I’m here. Home from New York City. Insanely desperate to see you. Good week at school? Ready for the big game? What is game time? Wouldn’t miss for a billion dollars. Really. Postgame, serious foodage and quality facetime, girlfriend. See you later, alligator. Love and kisses, Kahuna.
Stevens smiled. The victim and her father obviously had a running joke because no one abbreviated every word of their e-mail like that any more. He found the victim’s reply e-mail:
E9$? ROTFL. PANS 2 tl U abt skl. Am I
rdE 4 sccr gm? IMHO, I grok sccr! Gm @
5. BthrRB. MB vprmom wl sho… Nt! UR my fv prpllrhd n ntr bg rm. Ctch U ofln, d00d. OnO. Gracie. :-)
Tears welled up in Stevens’ eyes as he read her reply: A billion dollars? I’m rolling on the floor laughing. Pretty amazing new stuff to tell you about school. Am I ready for the soccer game? In my humble opinion, I am soccer! Game at five. Be there or be square. Maybe vapormom will show… Not! You are my favorite propellerhead in the entire big room. Catch you offline, dude. Over and out. Gracie. Signed off with the online emoticon of a happy face.
The victim and her father must have had a great relationship. Stevens wiped his eyes with his sleeve. Problem was, he got way too emotional working child abductions. Sitting in the victim’s room among her personal effects, he couldn’t help but wonder about her life and the importance of each object in her life ––– like this, a framed portrait of a young soldier in full military dress, wearing a green beret, a chestful of medals, and what Stevens knew was the Congressional Medal of Honor around his neck.Who was this soldier and why did he rate a front-row spot on a ten-year-old girl’s desk, where she would look at him first thing each morning and last thing each night? Questions like that haunted him for weeks after the child’s body was found.
Other than being about five times as big with an adjoining bathroom that was like something out of a fancy hotel, the victim’s room looked remarkably similar to his nine-year-old daughter’s room: posters on the wall, the same Orlando Bloom one and a life-sized Mia Hamm, trophies, books,TV/DVD, telephone, boom box, electronic keyboard, soccer ball, and a closet stuffed with clothes. Gracie Ann Brice is a real live kid. Or was. She had sat where he sat, done her homework on this computer, watched TV in this room, talked to her friends on that phone, and slept in that bed, where her father now slept, curled up in the same dirty clothes and clutching the girl’s teddy bear. He did not appear at all like the genius Stevens had read about in that Fortune magazine article. Stevens had felt envious that day: he was a GS-11 geek making $51,115 a year and Brice was a geek about to become a billionaire.But now that Brice’s daughter had been abducted and murdered ––– he had never worked a stranger abduction where the child hadn’t been murdered ––– Stevens was not so envious. He wouldn’t trade his daughter for Bill Gates’s money.
FBI procedure was to secure the victim’s bedroom and seal it off from everyone, even the family. But he didn’t have the heart to wake the father, not after what he had been through the last twenty-four hours.So Agent Stevens was working quietly.
The entire house was quiet.
Downstairs, eleven somber FBI agents manned the hot-line phones in the command post, logging every lead, no matter how unimportant, and every reported sighting, no matter how inconceivable,into the computer.And waiting.Mostly waiting,as few calls were coming in.
Agent Jan Jorgenson sat at one computer, running database searches on the family per orders; she was still shaken from having witnessed the victim’s mother slapping the father,defenseless in his despair. If this was a typical child abduction case, Jan had no desire to become a specialist like Agent Devereaux. She glanced across the room at him.
FBI Special Agent Eugene Devereaux felt tired, so godawful tired. He was holding his personal cell phone to his ear as the call rang through and thinking, What the hell’s wrong with people, a man could do that to a child? And leaving her soccer shorts behind like a perverted calling card: See what I did? Yeah, we see ––– die and go to hell, you sick bastard! When Devereaux’s seventeen-year-old daughter answered, he said, “Hey, baby, I just wanted to tell you I love you.” She laughed and said, “What, are you dying or something?” Somewhere deep inside him, he was.
Coach Wally Fagan sat at another computer; he was scrolling down mug shots of the forty-two thousand registered sex offenders on the state’s official sex offender website ––– pictures, names, addresses, and criminal histories ––– starting with those registered in the county, hoping to ID the blond man in the black cap and plaid shirt who had asked about Gracie after the game and wishing he had never pointed her out to him. The mother was right: he was a fucking idiot.
In the kitchen, Sylvia Milanevic, the Brice family maid, was preparing a fresh pot of coffee for the FBI agents. Sixty-three, an immigrant from Kosovo, she had lost two children in the war. She had concluded long ago that life was about enduring pain: you’re born, you suffer, and you die.The small TV on the counter was on: “A child abducted by a stranger has a life expectancy of three hours. Gracie Ann Brice has been missing for twenty-four hours now…” Sylvia looked out the window over the sink at the lonely figure by the pool.
Ben was sitting in a patio chair. His face was wet with tears and the pain was eating at his insides like a cancer. He closed his eyes and thought back to 1964 when he was eighteen and boarding the train to West Point. His father had shaken his hand and said,“Do your country proud,son.”His mother had hugged him tightly and whispered in his ear, “God has a plan for Ben Brice.”Ben opened his eyes now and turned them to the heavens above.
“Do you still have a plan, God?”
Excerpted from THE ABDUCTION © Copyright 2011 by Mark Gimenez. Reprinted with permission by Vanguard Press. All rights reserved.