"Stevie! Stevie?" A quick check of the rooms downstairs, then Hank ran up the stairs. "Stevie? Are you home? Stevie!"
But when he finally stood still on the landing, all he heard was the beating of his own heart. And Rinty coming up the stairs.
The German Shepherd leaned onto his knee and whined softly.
And Hank sighed. "He´s not here, is he." It wasn´t even a question.
"Well, let´s whip up some supper then, and see if he gets home by then."
But suppertime came and passed, without any sign from Stevie. And as the hands of the clock wandered on towards nine, Hank finally lost his patience: he grabbed the phone and the notebook with the numbers of Stevie´s friends, and started calling around. Before it was too late.
"Mrs. Pearson? This is Hank Katts, Stevie´s Dad. I'm sorry to bother you, but Stevie hasn´t come home yet, and I'm getting a little worried. Is he perhaps over at your house?"
"No, I'm sorry, Mr. Katts, but I haven´t seen Stevie today. Would you like to speak to Buddy for a moment?"
A short silence, then Buddy´s high voice sounded. "Mr. Katts?"
"Hi Buddy. Do you happen to know where Stevie is?"
"No, I don´t. I'm sorry. I haven´t seen him after school."
"But did he say anything? Did you see where he went?"
He almost heard Buddy shrug. "Nothing special, no. He went on the bus with Natalie – perhaps he´s over at her place?"
"Thanks, Buddy. I´ll try Natalie then." He ended the call, looked up Natalie´s number – with a little heart next to it – and a moment later he had Natalie on the line:
"Natalie? It´s Hank Katts, Stevie´s father. This is just a long shot, but is Stevie perhaps over at your place?"
"No, he isn´t." She sounded a little confused. Worried. "Why, isn´t he home yet?"
Hank let out a sigh. "No, but there´s nothing to be alarmed about yet; it´s not yet past his curfew. It´s just that I don´t know where he is; that´s all." It wouldn´t do to get the girl all upset as well.
"I see. But no, he´s not here. I'm sorry."
"Buddy told me that he went on the bus with you this afternoon."
"Yes, that´s right. He always does when he goes to you at K-9 headquarters after school."
Hank winced. "Do you know where he got off the bus today?"
"At the railway-station. As usual."
He gulped. "Thanks, Natalie. You´ve been a great help."
He put down the phone and leaned against the wall. "He got off the bus at the railway-station and he was on his way to K-9. So where the heck did he go?
He decided to give it a few more minutes. It wasn´t nine o´clock yet. And nine o´clock was Stevie´s curfew – provided Hank knew where he was. And Stevie was both punctual and disciplined; he was never home late if he could help it.
Hank sat down at the kitchen-table, to watch the hands of the clock slowly ticking away the seconds. The minutes. Until the hands made a perfect ninety degree angle. At that moment he jumped up, scribbled a little note, put on his holster and his jacket, grabbed the car-keys and his walkie-talkie and ran outside, with Rinty on his heels.
A moment later, the red car sped off. Towards the railway-station.
"Find him, Rinty. Find Stevie."
Rinty barked, and sniffed around at the schoolbus-stop. Then he got the scent and with his nose on the ground he started off at the route Stevie took so often: past the railway-station, across the deserted railway yard and down one of the back streets of the industrial area where K-9 headquarters was situated as well.
It had gone dark by now, and the area was but scarcely lit. Nobody ever came here at night, except an occasional security guard, and of course the people from K-9. But it was kind of spooky here in the dark.
Rinty was still following the trail, and Hank´s frown became deeper and deeper. They were nearly at K-9; what on earth could have happened between here and...?
Suddenly Rinty stopped and barked, two, three times.
"What is it, partner?"
"Wroof wroof!" With his nose on the ground, Rinty walked out on the road for a meter or two. Then he stopped and sniffed around. And looked up.
"What is it, boy? Does the trail end here?"
"Wroof!" Rinty sat down and looked at him with an unspoken question in his eyes.
Hank ran his fingers through his hair – a gesture of habit when he was getting really worried. "It ends. He left the sidewalk and walked out into the street, and then his trail ends. He must have gotten into a car then."
"Wroof!" Rinty clearly agreed with him.
Hank looked about. He knew the area like the back of his hand: K-9 was less than two blocks down the street. Could Stevie have been picked up by one of his colleagues for the last few hundred yards?
That was always possible, but it would hardly explain why he never showed up. After all, there had been no major commotion at K-9 this afternoon with a colleague going missing. Or even getting in trouble.
No, he must have been picked up by someone else. The question was: by whom?
Rinty was still sniffing around, and now he barked. Hank knelt down and put his arm around Rinty´s neck. "Do you think you can follow the car Stevie got into?" After all, at least in this part it was a very quiet back street: it came to a dead end at the railway yard, and the only cars passing here were the ones of the people working for the few companies situated along this very street. Following an old trail of a car wasn´t easy, but perhaps...?
Rinty wagged his tail, and started to follow the trail with Hank on his heels. And... they went right past K-9.
"Hold on, Rinty." Hank quickly crossed the parking lot and startled his colleague on duty by barging into the building.
"Hank!? What´s up?"
"Stevie hasn´t come home yet; in fact no one has seen him since he got off the schoolbus this afternoon. I´ve got Rinty on his trail, but he seems to have gotten into a car. So I'm taking one of ours, okay?"
"Sure. Good luck."
"Thanks." Hank took a set of keys. "Oh, and Bryan?"
"I left a note for Stevie in case he gets home while I'm out looking for him. So if he does call in, let me know right away, allright?"
"Sure. Good luck, Hank."
It was not a minute later that Hank was following Rinty in a K-9 car. So far, Rinty seemed to have no trouble following the scent of the car Stevie had gotten into, but how well preserved the trail would be once they´d get to busier streets remained to be seen.
For now however they just continued deeper and deeper into the deserted industrial area. As a matter of fact, they were heading straight for...
Hank chewed on his lip. His imagination worked on full power exploring all the possible ´what if´s´. And the one ´what if´ that suggested itself stronger and stronger was: what if he´d been kidnapped and taken on board of a ship, without anyone noticing? They were getting awfully close to... In fact, they were going to the harbour. Rinty just walked straight along the dock, all the way to the end, with Hank in his wake.
And there, at the very last berth of the dock, Rinty stopped.
Hank got out of the car. "What´s up, partner? Did he get out of the car here?"
Rinty just kept sniffing around, first to the side of the dock where a ship could have been moored, and then towards the far end of the quay. Some more sniffing, and then he looked at Hank. And barked.
With fearful misgivings, Hank came closer. "What is it, Rinty?"
Rinty barked at the black water beneath him, and then he whined.
Hank gulped. He felt his stomach contract, his blood chill. They hadn´t...
Rinty sat down and looked up at him. And whined again. Sad. Forlorn.
Hank knelt down and put his arm around Rinty´s neck for comfort. "Did he go on board of a ship here?" It was not the most logical place for a ship to moore, but he didn´t want to think about the alternative. At least not yet.
But Rinty did. He lay down on the edge of the quay, with his head on his paws. And wailed miserably.
"No." Hank´s breathing went fast. "No, Rinty. The fact that his trail ends here doesn´t necessarily mean that..." He couldn´t bring himself to voice the possibility. "This is a port. I'm sure there must have been a ship. They must have taken him on board; that´s why the trail ends here. They took him on board of a ship and they left. We'll go to the port administration office to find out what ship was lying here this afternoon. We'll trace them; don´t worry."
Rinty just kept wailing at the black water beneath him.
Brusquely, Hank got up. "Come on, Rinty." He started to speedwalk back to the office halfway down the quay, but after some ten meters he stopped. Rinty wasn´t following: he still lay there, wailing at the water.
Hank struggled with a lump in his throat. "Rinty!" He refused to believe what his partner was trying to tell him. Not until all other possibilities would be exhausted.
And unwillingly, Rinty got up and trotted after him, his head hanging.
Arriving at the port administration office, Hank rang the bell.
"Who´s there?" a metallic voice answered.
"Officer Hank Katts, from K-9."
"Come in, please."
The door buzzed and Hank and Rinty entered. They were met by an elderly man; one of the harbour masters. "Good evening, officer Katts. What can I do for you?"
"Good evening." Hank showed his badge to prove that he really was a police officer. "I was hoping you could tell me something about a ship that´s been lying here at the very end of the dock. It has probably left today: this afternoon or this evening."
The harbour master led the way towards his office, and he sat down at the computer. "The very last dock, you say?"
Hank nodded. "At the short end of the quay."
The harbour master gave him a puzzled frown. "Cargo-ships never dock at the short end of the quay. It´s too short, and it´s not deep enough."
"Well, right next to the short end of the quay then."
The harbour master typed an inquiry, and the info on a ship appeared on the screen.
"The Immaculata. Arrived two days ago, on Sunday evening. Left this afternoon around three. Hometown Caracas. Owned by ElMar, one of the biggest shipping companies of South America."
Hank flinched. "Caracas... that´s Venezuela, right?"
"Yes, it is."
"And where were they headed? To Caracas?"
The harbour master shook his head. "Cuba first. And then Caracas."
Hank ran his fingers through his hair. "And you´re absolutely certain that no other ship has been lying at the far end of the dock today? A smaller ship perhaps?"
The harbour master shook his head. "We would´ve noticed."
"But a real small ship? A rowing-boat, or a little speedboat?"
The harbour master regarded him pensively. "Perhaps... If they´d been really quick, I think it possible that we might have missed that. Do you mean they might have smuggled something on board of the Immaculata that way?"
Hank shook his head. "Something like that."
The harbour master turned around in his chair. "Now why are you so adamant about this smaller ship?"
Hank heaved a sigh. "I have reason to believe that my son might have been kidnapped this afternoon. Rinty here traced him to the far end of the dock. But the trail ends there – at the short end of the quay." He took a deep breath. "You haven´t happened to see him this afternoon, have you? A near fifteen-year-old, slender, 5´8´´ tall, light brown hair, brown eyes, rather peaked face?"
The man shook his head. "Sorry, no."
"Did you see anything else out of the ordinary today?"
Again a shake of the head. "But why don´t we go and take a look together?" he suggested. "If indeed there has been a ship there, it might have left a trace."
Hank readily agreed – anything was better than giving up now with hardly a clue to go on. So a few minutes later they both stood looking out over the black water at the far short end of the quay. Rinty lay down at Hank´s feet, looking down at the water, and started his agonized wailing again.
The harbour master looked at him. "What´s the matter, boy?"
Rinty only wailed louder, and looked pointedly at the black water beneath him.
The harbour master knelt down beside him and followed the dog´s gaze. The water... He placed his hand on Rinty´s head and gulped. "I think the dog is trying to tell us something."
Hank winced. He didn´t want to know... "How would you know?" It sounded pretty rude, but...
"I have a German Shepherd at home, too," the harbour master answered. "It´s amazing how smart they are."
"Yeah, I know. That´s how I figured out that Stevie must have been taken on board of some small ship here."
The harbour master slowly shook his head. "I don´t think that´s what he´s trying to tell us," he said gravely.
Rinty lifted his head and barked. One soft bark. Then he lay down to look at the black water again. Wailing desperately.
And Hank felt his blood chill. It couldn´t be... Not Stevie...!