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Prologue 1997Copyright© 2003 by Stephen White
If Kelda James hadn’t been wearing inch-and-a-half heels and the toilet paper roll hadn’t been empty, Rosa Alija would probably be dead.
At about ten-twenty that morning Kelda had excused herself from her fellow FBI agents and followed directions to the restroom–down the long hall, go left, last door on the right. The bathroom was a step up from what she had expected to find, given the tacky condition of the rest of the building. She was relieved to see that the sink was reasonably clean and the toilet seat wasn’t stained with yellow coins of urine. The only problem was that there was no toilet paper on the cardboard roll.
Kelda stepped back out into the hall to retrace her route and retrieve her shoulder bag and its stash of tissues, but noticed a closet marked “Utility” adjacent to the bathroom. The knob on the door wasn’t locked and she found herself staring into a space about six feet square. A window was mounted high on the wall, dividing the small room in half. A jumble of brooms and mops leaned against a cracked porcelain sink on one side; the opposite side was stacked with particleboard shelves piled high with what appeared to be a lifetime supply of paper towels, soap, disinfectants, and toilet paper. Kelda reached onto an upper shelf for a fresh roll of toilet tissue and reflexively glanced over the sill and out the window as she rotated back toward the door.
The window overlooked the alley behind the building. Across the alley was the back of a single-story light-industrial building not noticeably different from the one that Kelda and her FBI colleagues had justraided.
Except for the hand.
Kelda was sure that for a split second she had glimpsed a hand in a window of the building across the alley. In her mind she was already considering it to have been a tiny hand, a child’s hand.
She approached the utility closet window, stood on her toes, and peered again at the building across the alley. No hand. She raised her fingers to the sill to hold herself up and examined the distant window in detail. The bottom edge of the cloudy pane was streaked with parallel vertical lines that could have been made by fingers.
Tiny fingers. Child’s fingers.
“Oh my God,” she said.
Fresh out of the FBI Academy, Special Agent Kelda James had been in the Denver, Colorado, field office for all of five weeks. Her initial assignment was to a squad that investigated white-collar crime, and that morning she had been ordered to accompany three other agents–all male, all senior to her, all somewhere between significantly and maximally apprehensive of her skills–to serve a federal warrant and raid a company called Account Assistants, Inc., on Delaware Street in Denver’s Golden Triangle neighborhood. The company did contract billing for medical practices, and the raid was intended to collect evidence of suspected Medicare fraud.
For an FBI white-collar crime squad, this was routine stuff.
Prior to entering the FBI Academy, Kelda had earned her credentials as a certified public accountant and had spent a few years investigating fraud for an international insurance company. Her role in the raid of Account Assistants, Inc., was to cover the back door as the raid started and, later, to use her forensic accounting background to help make certain that the agents didn’t fail to retrieve any records that they might ultimately need to press their case against the firm.
Most important, though, she knew that her primary responsibility was to remember at all times that she was the new guy, or in FBI parlance, “the fucking new guy.” Her primary responsibility was not to screw up.
Later in the day, after she and the other agents had finished collecting the evidence and had transported the boxes back to the Denver Field Office, Kelda figured that she–the fucking new guy–would be the one who would be assigned to spend the next few weeks sitting at her Bureau desk examining the mind-numbing details of the service and billing records, trying to use Account Assistants, Inc.’s own numbers to prove the fraud case that had spawned the warrant and the raid.
It’s what she did. And she knew she did it well.
That was what she was contemplating when she saw the hand flash across the window a second time. But as swiftly as it appeared in the window, the little hand disappeared again.
A more experienced agent might have gone back to her squad, reported what she’d seen, and asked one of her colleagues to accompany her across the alley to investigate the fleeting hand. A more experienced agent–one who wasn’t a bookish young woman with an accounting degree whose colleagues called her Clarice behind her back–would have been less concerned about the scorn she would suffer if she pulled a fellow agent–or two, or three–away from important work to search the back of an adjacent building because she thought that maybe she had seen a child’s hand in the bottom of a window.
Kelda could only imagine the relentless ridicule she would endure from her fellow agents after word spread in the field office that she had begged for assistance in checking out what would probably turn out to be nothing more nefarious than an unlicensed day-care facility.
Kelda moved out of the utility closet, closed the door, and took three steps farther down the hall to a door that was marked “Exit.” An hour and a half earlier she’d stood in the alley on the other side of this very door in case any of the principals of Account Assistants, Inc., tried to flee out the back as the FBI team announced the raid and the warrant was served by the agents who entered the building through the door at the front.
She checked the inside of the exit door for an alarm: She couldn’t spot any electronic devices attached to the heavy door that would announce that she had opened it. She stepped outside, propped the door open with a softball-sized piece of concrete, and then jogged across the alley to the window with the streaky glass and the disappearing tiny hand.
Two days before, six-year-old Rosa Alija had vanished from the playground of her elementary school’s summer day camp near Thirty-second and Federal on Denver’s near west side. The other children on the playground told police conflicting tales of a van or truck that was gray or brown and one man who was white or two men who were black or two men and a woman who were all kinds of different combinations of races and colors who had waited for a child to chase a ball into the field adjacent to the school and then, when Rosa Alija had been that child, had scooped her up, covered her mouth, and carried her away in the van or truck.
Some of the child witnesses reported that Rosa had kicked her legs and cried. Others maintained she was already dead by the time she got to the van.
No adult reported seeing a thing.
And no one had seen Rosa since. The girl’s frantic parents, an independent landscaper named José Alija and his receptionist wife, Maria, waited in vain for a ransom demand. But neither the police nor the local FBI office expected to hear from Rosa’s abductors. The Alijas weren’t the type of family who were chosen for a kidnapping for ransom.
Rosa Alija had been taken for some other purpose.
Denver mobilized in an unprecedented fashion to find the girl. Hun- dreds of citizens–Hispanic, white, black, Native American, Asian–searched the city for little Rosa. Posses of private citizens scoured the banks of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek. The huge expanse of rail yard between her school and Lower Downtown was searched, and the interior of every last boxcar in the yard was examined. Her picture was featured on the front page of both daily papers, and the quest to find her dominated the local TV and radio news.
Bloodhounds tracked her route away from the school. The dogs seemed confident that her abductor had taken her down Speer Boulevard after the kidnapping, but the hounds lost the scent near the spot where Speer intersected with Interstate 25. The cops knew that once Rosa’s abductors had her on Denver’s main freeway, they could have taken her anywhere.
Anywhere. The Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains, the Great Basin. North to Wyoming, south to New Mexico. Anywhere.
Even into the back room of a light-industrial building in one of Denver’s transitional urban neighborhoods.
The bottom of the window in the building across the alley was level with the top of Kelda’s head. She listened for the sounds of children playing, but all she heard was the sough of distant traffic on Speer Boulevard; she heard nothing to convince herself that she’d stumbled onto a day-care facility. A moment’s contemplation failed to suggest any other good reason that a small child would be scratching at the glass in a back room in a building in this neighborhood.
Kelda grabbed a discarded plastic milk crate from the alley and carried it back toward the window to check and see what was inside the building.
Before she had a chance to step onto the crate, she saw the hand again. It was reaching, groping, the fingers extended against the bottom edge of the pane, but they could only stay there for a second or two. Kelda imagined that every time the girl lifted her hand someone else was yanking it right back down.
Most of the doubt about what she had discovered evaporated from Kelda’s mind. Rosa Alija, she was hoping. It’s Rosa Alija. But even in her head, the thought was only a whisper. If hope was the balloon, reality was the ballast.
What if it’s not?
For the first time since Kelda had graduated from the Academy, she withdrew her handgun from its holster with the clear understanding that she might be about to fire it. The Sig Sauer felt almost weightless in her hand as she stepped up onto the crate. Her confidence grew; Kelda’s best days in training at Quantico were the days that her Sig weighed about as much as a glove. She knew instantly that this was going to be one of those days.
The filth on the glass and the dark interior of the room kept Kelda from peering inside. For a split second she considered returning to Account Assistants to collect her colleagues, but she was already fearing what would happen if she left the little girl alone for another minute. She decided that she would use her radio to summon the other agents the moment she was absolutely certain that she had indeed found the abducted child.
The building had a small loading dock that faced the alley. She pulled herself onto the narrow cement shelf of the dock and tried the big door. It was locked tight. She hopped back down and moved to the side of the building. The long cinder-block wall was interrupted by a solitary steel door that was secured by a hasp and padlock. Around the front, two old newspapers still in their delivery bags littered the sidewalk at the main entrance. A big “For Lease” sign hung in the window, and three or four flyers were stuffed in the mail slot. Kelda put pressure on the handle of the glass entrance door. It didn’t give.
Whatever this place once was, it wasn’t in business anymore.
She returned to the side door. The bolt on the lock was in place, but the hasp seemed to be beginning to break free of whatever was holding it to the cinder block. She searched the weeds behind her and found a rusty length of angle iron, jammed it behind the hasp, and began to pry the steel hasp away from the wall.
After two minutes of constant pressure, the fasteners securing the hasp gave way and the door creaked inward half an inch.
Kelda had made a hundred armed entries into buildings during her training at Quantico. Maybe two hundred. She knew the drill. She knew where to look, what to say, how to hold her weapon.
She also knew not to do it alone.
In one minute, she promised herself, she’d call for help. Right after she was sure that Rosa Alija was safe and that her kidnapper couldn’t spirit her away to some new location before the cavalry arrived.
Once inside the door, Kelda turned left toward the back of the building and stopped. Her gun was in her hand. It was not pointed at the ceiling; it was pointed in front of her. Why? Because that’s what the FBI had taught her. Why? Because, as one instructor had shouted at a classmate during a drill, “very few fucking UNSUBs are going to be waiting on the ceiling.”
She listened for any indication that the building was occupied. She heard nothing, and the stale air she was breathing confirmed her impression that the building was probably not being used.
She paced silently across the empty loading area until she confronted a closed door. The door, she figured, should lead to the room with the window. With the same gentle squeeze she would use to compress a trigger, she put pressure on the knob. It was locked.
She thought she heard a whimper.
Kelda’s heart was cleaving. She thinks he’s coming back, that’s why she’s crying. Kelda swallowed, checked her breathing.
From the Hardcover edition.