PI Dan Sharp sat with his back to the window. Behind him, the Don River murmured quietly after the previous night’s storm. His office on the top floor of a warehouse import-export business had long been a sanctuary for him. Currently, however, it was feeling a bit crowded.
The three people facing him looked to be in their late twenties. The blond had multiple piercings and tattoos on her arms. The young man, slender and bearded, was agitated. The third, a quietly attractive woman, watched him with gentle eyes. They were waiting for his answer.
“You have no choice,” Dan said. “You have to report it.”
“But we want to keep it private. At least for now,” the man insisted.
His face was ravaged with red eruptions, like a perpetual adolescent. While his concern was evident, it wasn’t anything Dan could agree to.
“It can’t be private, Eli. This is a police matter. Kidnapping is a criminal offence.”
“It might be a hoax,” the pixie-haired blond, Janice, argued. “We don’t know for sure if a crime has been committed.”
“Do you want to take that chance?” Dan asked. No one answered. “Why do you think it might be a hoax?”
Janice frowned. “Because when they called, they never mentioned Jeremy. They just said they were raising money for missing children. When I asked how much, they said a million dollars.”
“They were probably playing it safe in case someone was listening in,” Dan said. “Your son has now been missing for three days. The police found no trace of him on the trails up on the mountain or anywhere near the shore where you were camping. You’ve already had one phone call and soon you’ll get another. The only choice you have to make is whether you’re going to pay the ransom or not.”
Eli shook his head. “But what if it’s someone who heard Jeremy was missing on the news and is trying to extort money from us? We need to buy ourselves time.”
“Time is a luxury you may not have, but whether the kidnapping is real or fake, you need to let the police know.” Dan hoped he sounded sympathetic.
“But so far they haven’t found anything useful,” Eli persisted. “We don’t have faith they can help us, to be honest.” “Look — even if you think the police aren’t doing their job, the best I can do is run a parallel investigation. I can’t interfere with what they’re doing. If you know something, you have to tell them.”
“But we don’t know anything!” Eli exclaimed.
Janice put a hand on his arm. “No, Dan’s right. We do know something — we know that we were asked for money.”
Eli threw his hands up in the air. “And where do we get this blood money from? Is there some government fund for kidnap victims that we can apply for? Or maybe I should just ask my boss for a raise of, oh, I don’t know — a million dollars?”
He wrapped his arms around his chest and slumped into his chair. Dan had had enough of his petulance.
“Eli, I appreciate that this is difficult for you, but what you do now could make all the difference in getting Jeremy back safely.” He turned to Janice. “Did they say anything else?”
“Yes. They said not to mention the call to anyone.”
“That’s to be expected. How’s your back, by the way? I understand you had quite a fall coming down the escarpment.”
“She nearly got gored by a bull, but a crazy man came out waving a tea towel and chased it away,” Eli interjected.
“That was after I fell.” Janice gave Dan a rueful smile. “The doctor said I’ll live. Though I’m not sure I want to right at this moment.”
“Janice!” The rejoinder came from the other woman.
“Please! Let’s have none of that.”
Her speech was clipped, almost a bark.
“Oh, go to hell, Ashley!” Janice snapped, then she turned suddenly contrite. “I’m sorry. I have no right to act like this.”
Ashley nodded. “It’s all right. You’ve been through a lot.”
The name suited her, Dan thought. Lithe and willowy, with hair the colour of ash wood.
She turned her eyes to him. “We don’t know what to do. We need you to advise us.”
“Thank you. The first thing you need to do is report the call to the police. That’s what I advise.”
“Then what?” Eli asked, still sulking.
“Then we start looking. For now, tell me everything that’s happened.” Dan picked up a pencil. “Start with anything irregular or noteworthy you recall in the days before Jeremy disappeared.”
Janice nodded. “There was something odd. I saw an older woman outside the house twice right before the camping trip. She seemed to be waiting for something. I went out to see what she wanted, but then Jeremy came out with Ashley and she walked away.”
“Did she say anything at all?”
“She called me Kathy.”
Dan glanced up from his notepad. “Kathy?”
“Katharine is my first name, but no one ever calls me that. I go by my middle name, so I don’t know how she’d know that.”
“Can you describe her?” Dan asked.
“She was plain. Mousy looking. The sort of woman you barely notice even if she’s right beside you.”
Dan looked at the pert blond with triple ear piercings. There was no chance of not noticing her.
“Was she short? Tall? Slender? Overweight?”
“Average height. Dumpy, but not huge. A little bulky. She had brown hair going grey.”
“Was there anything memorable about her face?”
“Her eyes were sad. That was my first thought.”
“Good. Anything else?”
Janice shook her head. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Okay. That’s a start,” Dan said. He turned to the others. “Did either of you see her?”
Eli shook his head. “No.”
“I did. Briefly,” Ashley replied. “She looked exactly as Janice described.”
“Any idea who she was?”
“None. But what sort of monster kidnaps a child?”
Janice caught her breath and turned aside. Her shoulders shook.
“Give us a moment,” Ashley said, putting an arm around her.
“I’m fine,” Janice said, regaining her composure. “You were asking what sort of person would kidnap a child,” Dan continued. “That’s the most important question we need to answer right now. Why would someone target you?”
“Definitely not for the money.” Janice rubbed away a tear. “I mean, do we look rich? I work in an art gallery on commission. Eli’s a designer. Ashley isn’t working at the moment. We barely scrape by.”
“Apart from the money. Is there anyone who would be likely to do such a thing? Someone who might bear a grudge against any one of you?”
“What about Sarah?” Ashley prompted.
“Jeremy’s a surrogate child,” Janice said. “Sarah was his birth mother.”
“And you suspect the birth mother? Why?”
Eli snorted. “She was bad news from the beginning.”
“We couldn’t know that,” Janice said, her voice icy.
“It was obvious,” Eli said. “I warned you right at the start.”