As always, this story is dedicated to the memory of Hugh O'Connor (April 7, 1962-March 28, 1995).
"Read me that license plate number again," Lonnie said. He listened while Parker read him the information, following with his eyes each number and letter on the plate of the car that sat at the foot of the bank.
"Yep, this is the car, all right," he said. "No sign of the owner. Send out the necessary people, will you? I'm going into the woods to take a look around. Thanks."
Lonnie climbed down the embankment and peered through a broken window. At first glance, there didn't appear to be any blood in the car, a car which belonged to Deputy Christine Surillo. She had been missing for several days, and the discovery of her car on this crisp autumn afternoon was the first physical clue as to what had happened to her. Lonnie was praying to find her alive. She was the favorite of Sheriff Gillespie, and Lonnie could see what a strain this was putting on his former Chief.
"She wouldn't have gone without a fight," Bill had said of the possibility that she had been kidnapped.
He kept mentioning that it had been Christine's day off, that otherwise she would have been with him. Lonnie couldn't tell if Bill was blaming himself or just stating the obvious out of frustration. Probably it was a little of both.
Lonnie walked ahead slowly, searching diligently for any sign that someone had been here, but after a while he turned and headed back to his car. When he emerged from the woods, he found officers from both the Sparta PD and the Newman County Sheriff's Department going over the scene. Sheriff Gillespie was there as well, looking over the car with a determined gaze.
"We'll find her," Lonnie said.
"It's how we'll find her that worries me," Bill replied.
A search party was arranged to cover the woods, but the rest of the week passed with no news. Lonnie found himself lying awake on Sunday night with the nagging feeling that someone was manipulating them all. No blood was found in the car, nor evidence of any kind of injury or struggle, which probably meant that Christine wasn't in the car when it crashed, and if that was the case, then maybe someone had put the car there intentionally to misdirect the police. He kept going over it all in his head, searching his memory for anything he might have overlooked until, exhausted, he drifted off to sleep.
He awoke from a dream a short while later. He couldn't quite remember what he had dreamed, but he had something in mind about a story he had heard on the news several months ago. A female officer had gone missing from the Jackson Police Department. Working with the FBI, they had managed to find the officer, but by that time she was dead of starvation in the basement of a house previously thought to be abandoned. Lonnie had never heard whether they captured the culprit or not.
On Monday Lonnie decided to skip his morning jog and go into work early. The first thing he did was to call the Jackson PD and inquire about their case.
"We never did catch the guy," he was told. "We don't even have any leads."
"I may have one," Lonnie said, "but I don't have anything to go on, other than the hope that this leads me to our missing Deputy. She's been gone for a week now, and the only clue we have is her car, which crashed by the side of the road with no blood or evidence of any kind in it."
"You could be on to something," the officer said. "The FBI is going to want to know about this."
"I hesitate to contact them," Lonnie said. "Our department hasn't worked well with them in the past. But in the end we may need their resources."
"If you're dealing with the same guy, I think you'll need all the resources you can get. This person went to a lot of trouble to keep from being discovered. When we found our officer, she was tied up and beaten, and we were a day too late to save her. If this same guy took your officer, then you're racing against the clock right now."
"Thanks for all your help," Lonnie said.
Lonnie hung up the phone and sighed deeply. He was the closest thing Sparta had to a detective right now, and he felt a great pressure to solve this case, even though it was far from being his case alone. The thought of Deputy Surillo being beaten and starved in a basement somewhere made him all the more determined to find her. He felt as if there were an hourglass before him, taunting him, daring him to try and solve the riddle before the sands ran out.