“The energy in this thrilling debut...mounts to a fever pitch.”—Romantic Times
A missing child, a desperate detective, and a bold new voice in psychological suspense combine in a thriller that is “taut and tense.”*
*Minneapolis Star Tribune
On a frozen night in an affluent Minneapolis neighborhood, a baby is abducted from her home after her teenage babysitter is violently assaulted. The parents are frantic, the police are baffled, and, with the perpetrator already in the wind, the trail is getting colder by the second.
As family liaison officer with the Minneapolis P.D., it’s Afton Tangler’s job to deal with the emotional aftermath of terrible crimes—but she’s never faced a case quite as brutal as this. Each development is more heartbreaking than the last and the only lead is a collection of seemingly unrelated clues.
But, most disturbing of all, Afton begins to suspect that this case is not isolated. Whoever did this has taken babies before—and if Afton doesn’t solve this crime soon, more children are sure to go missing . . .
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2016 Gerry Schmitt
Marjorie Sorenson turned hard, flat, snake eyes on the young woman in the fox fur parka who strolled toward her in the Skylark Shopping Mall. And instantly pegged her: rich bitch.
This blond woman who walked so casually, who cast her eyes about the doll show booths with a certain air of entitlement, had long, flaxen hair like you saw in TV ads; a fancy purse with a bunch of initials littered across the fabric; and ripe, round hips that swayed enticingly.
Marjorie, on the other hand, had stringy, dishwater hair; coarse, pockmarked skin; and a stomach that hung down in a limp, bloated pouch. Once, when she was listening to an early morning radio show, she’d heard the DJs howling and making jokes about women who had gunts. Tuba sound effects had accompanied their hoots and nasty comments. Marjorie had stabbed murderously at the radio dial with the paring knife she held in her soapy hand and made it a point never to listen to that station again.
A delighted smile had spread across the blond woman’s face now, as Marjorie continued to track her. The woman had just passed an enormous pink-and-white candy-striped banner that proclaimed, Doll Show Today. And found herself wandering through a maze of tables and booths that displayed the most intriguing array of dolls. Ballerinas, fairy dolls, Cabbage Patch, Barbies, Strawberry Shortcake, small porcelain collectibles in diminutive costumes, even antique dolls.
And one perfect little doll in Marjorie’s booth that literally took the woman’s breath away.
Life-size, with fine blond hair, plump cheeks, and cupid-shaped lips, it had the perfect look, coloring, and complexion of a newborn. And just like a newborn, this doll was nestled in a white wicker basket with a pink floral blanket tucked around her.
Marjorie watched the woman as she continued to gaze at the baby doll with complete and utter fascination. Then she slipped her glasses on and stood up, a genial, practiced smile suddenly softening her coarse features.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” Marjorie cooed, her voice struggling to convey a breathy excitement.
“She looks so real, it’s positively eerie,” the blond woman marveled. “As if she could wake up at any moment and start cooing.”
Marjorie broadened her smile, revealing crooked teeth and pale pink gums. “Her name is Tiffany Lynn and she’s a reborn.”
“So precious,” the woman murmured as Marjorie edged closer. “And you called her . . . what was that?”
“A reborn,” Marjorie said. She reached down and snugged the blanket closer to the doll’s tiny round chin.
The blond woman giggled nervously. “That’s what I thought you said.”
Marjorie smiled kindly, as though she’d already explained the reborn concept several times today. “I’m Molly Miller,” she said, extending a hand.
“Susan Darden,” the woman said, shaking hands with her. “Nice to meet you.”
Gathering up the doll with all the care you’d accord a real live baby, Marjorie gently passed it to Susan.
“Reborns are a customized form of doll making,” Marjorie said. “Reborn artists start with a commercial doll, often from Berenguer Babies or Secrist Dolls, and then do a complete transformation. For example, this doll was stripped of all factory paint, as well as hair and eyes. Then she was repainted with ten coats of paint, human hair was micro-inserted, and a tiny electronic device was implanted in her chest to mimic a heartbeat.”
Susan’s eyes widened. “She really has been remade.”
“Reborn,” Marjorie said. “Airbrushed both inside and out to capture the subtle coloring of a newborn.” Her index finger indicated the doll’s closed eyes. “This little sweetheart’s eyelashes are genuine fox hair that was dyed and hand-inserted.”
“I take it you’re the artist?” Susan asked.
Marjorie nodded, allowing herself a modest smile.
Susan gazed tenderly at the little doll that lay in her arms and her heart lurched. The doll, Tiffany Lynn the woman had called her, had been weighted in such a way that it possessed the heft and feel of a real baby. Her eyes were closed and her tiny lashes brushed delicately against chubby cheeks. Susan could see that the baby’s skin color had been fastidiously done, replicating the slight bluish-pink tint of a newborn.
“A reborn,” Susan said, obviously in awe of the painstaking skill that had gone into creating this doll. “This is amazing craftsmanship. She really does look like she’s only two or three days old.”
“Thank you,” Marjorie said. She gestured at the yellow-striped shopping bag from Ciao Baby that dangled from Susan’s arm. “I’m guessing you might have a new baby yourself?” She’d noted the woman’s slightly swollen breasts and still-rounded tummy, which peeked out from between her coat’s lapels. Pegged her instantly as a new mommy.
Susan nodded as one hand moved absently down to touch her stomach. “I have a baby girl. She’ll be three months old tomorrow.”
“Do you have a picture of her?” Marjorie asked. She knew that almost all new mothers carried pictures of their offspring. On their cell phones or in a brag book. Babies always took center stage in a new mother’s life, so this photo log was probably the only bright spot once they became lost in a fog of 3:00 a.m. feedings and a swirl of postpartum emotions.
Susan handed the doll back to Marjorie and pulled an iPhone from her handbag. She thumbed to her favorite picture. “Here she is. Elizabeth Ann.”
“Ahh . . . precious,” Marjorie said. She gazed at the snapshot, her mind clicking into overdrive. “But clearly not a newborn anymore. She’s probably already growing and changing and wriggling with independence.”
A shadow flicked across Susan’s face. An emotion that Marjorie instantly picked up on. It said: But what if I could recapture that special moment? What if I could have a doll that always looked as precious and wonderful as my own daughter did when she was just a day or two old? What if I could preserve forever that incredible moment in time?
“Molly,” Susan said, “do you ever do special orders?”
“Oh, sure,” Marjorie replied, working to maintain a casual tone. “Lots of times I do that.”
Susan flipped to another photo of Elizabeth Ann, one where she couldn’t have been more than two days old. “Can you work from a photo?”
Marjorie peered at the screen and nodded. “Such a little angel. She’s your first?”
“You and your husband must be filled with joy.”
“We are,” Susan said, obviously more than a little intrigued by Marjorie’s hand-wrought reborns. “Are these babies . . . your reborns as you call them . . . are they expensive?”
“Depends on how lifelike you want to get,” Marjorie said. “With Tiffany Lynn, I used wefts of unprocessed European hair and inserted magnets inside her mouth so she could simulate using a pacifier.”
Susan gazed at the reborn, her face telegraphing the fact that she’d already made up her mind. “I’d love to have one. Of course, I’d have to talk it over with my husband first.”
Marjorie smiled knowingly. Caught up in the flush of new baby excitement, the average husband could be talked into just about any kind of push present. “You think your husband would approve?” she asked.
“Oh, absolutely,” Susan said. “Besides . . .” She smiled, almost to herself. “I have ways of convincing him.”
Marjorie nodded. She hadn’t known a man, really known a man, for almost twenty years. Her ex-husband, may his stultifying soul roast on the coal-encrusted back burners of hell, had pretty much soured her on the notion of men. Bill Sorenson, or Billy as the ex had preferred to be called by his friends down at Riney’s Bar, had been the poster child for dumb-ass behavior. Billy had never seen a 7-Eleven he didn’t want to rob, which was probably why Billy had been in and out of jail so often, he’d been on a first-name basis with the booking officers. Probably, they could have just installed a damn revolving door for Billy.
As far as Marjorie was concerned, the only redeeming thing Billy had ever done was pound away at her one besotted night and given her Ronnie. Now, nineteen years later, Ronnie had grown into a fairly decent young man. He kept things ticking around the old farm and, under her watchful supervision, kept his partying to a tolerable level; a few beers at the local strip clubs, maybe a couple of joints on weekends.
And wonder of wonders, the more Ronnie matured, the better looking the kid got. Friendly smile, curly brown hair, good in the height department, and fairly well built. And if a girl didn’t ask too damn many snoopy questions, and failed to notice there wasn’t substantive gray matter behind those distant blue eyes, then Ronnie was in business. They were in business.
Taking great care, Marjorie laid the Tiffany Lynn doll back down in its basket, then reached into her apron pocket and pulled out a pad and pencil. “Tell you what,” she said, a thoughtful note creeping into her voice. “Why don’t you jot down your name and phone number? Once I get back home and unpacked from this doll show, I’ll give you a jingle. It doesn’t cost anything for an estimate, right?”
“That would be wonderful,” Susan said as she scribbled out her information. She handed it over to Marjorie, but seemed unwilling to pull her eyes away from Tiffany Lynn.
Marjorie’s crooked grin stretched across her face like a leering jack-o’-lantern. She was already thinking ahead. Had to find Ronnie and get the boy moving. After all, there was work to be done.
A few minutes later, Marjorie found Ronnie lounging at the food court. He was sucking down an Orange Julius and trying to make time with the slutty teenage girl behind the counter. She cast a baleful glance at her son and crooked a finger.
Ronnie saw her watching him, gave a resentful look, and sauntered over. “What?”
Marjorie jerked her chin. “That one. Follow her.” She pointed to the back of Susan’s blond head as she drifted toward the exit. “Find out where she lives, then get your ass back here. I’ll get this shit packed up.”
Ronnie stared at her for a long moment, his faded blue eyes taking on a crazy gleam.
“Will you move it!” Marjorie put some real venom into her voice to finally get Ronnie moving. Then she went back to her doll display and got busy. Wrapping her dolls in tissue paper, she hummed as she worked. She decided that things often had a funny way of working out. She didn’t think it was going to happen today. And then, praise the Lord, Susan Darden had come strolling along like an entitled little princess. Almost like she’d been dropped into her lap by the hand of God. And wasn’t that something?
“That’s the house,” Ronnie said. They were hunkered in their rumbling, rust-spotted Chevy Malibu on Kenwood Parkway, one of the fanciest addresses in Minneapolis. Enormous homes of red brick and yellow sandstone, most of which dated back to the days of the timber and lumber barons, sprawled out around them. Bright lights glowed in lead pane windows and afforded them small peeks at wood-paneled libraries, lush living rooms, and dining rooms lit by crystal chandeliers.
“Shit,” Marjorie said, clearly impressed. “This is big time.” By big time, she meant big money. She wasn’t easily roused from her normally angry, turgid state, but this kind of wealth was a whole new ballgame. Gave her a little tingle right there in the pit of her stomach.
Compared to these people, the rich assholes who actually lived in these mansions, Marjorie knew that she and Ronnie looked like refugees. Just like those poor, sad people you saw in old black-and-white newsreels clumping down the gangplank from some tramp steamer. People who were at the back of the line, who would always be kept at the back of the line.
“You want me to go take a closer look?” Ronnie asked. He was slumped in the passenger side, eating cold French fries and dripping catsup on his yellow sweatshirt.
“Don’t be a dummy,” Marjorie snarled. “We gotta wait.” Her eyes squinted greedily at the twinkling lights that filtered through the panes of glass like some kind of picture-perfect postcard. Marjorie could imagine sterling flatware being laid out just so on pristine white linen. A cook, or a housekeeper at the very least, puttering around a warm kitchen, where pots steamed and bubbled. A sophisticated, elegant couple sitting down at their dining room table. Maybe being served soup from a tureen. Whatever the hell a tureen was.
An hour later, the numbing cold was getting to them. Marjorie shifted uncomfortably, pulled her thumb out of her mitten’s thumb spot, and nestled it with the rest of her fingers. Their breath had created a thin skim of ice on the inside of the car windows.
“Maybe they ain’t going out,” Ronnie said. He was starting to get bored and his voice had taken on a whiny tone.
“It’s Saturday night,” Marjorie said. “Rich people go out Saturday night. That’s what they do.”
Periscoping her head up, Marjorie scratched off a small patch of ice with a ragged fingernail and pressed a watchful eye to the cold glass. Upstairs, on the second floor of the Dardens’ grand home, a light winked off.
“Say now,” she said to Ronnie.
Ten minutes later, Susan Darden and her husband came waltzing out the front door. Susan was bundled in a sleek black mink coat that was so long, it grazed the sidewalk as she walked. Her long blond hair was pulled snugly into a low chignon, the better to show off the size and sparkle of her diamond earrings. Her husband, tall, and radiating businessman confidence, had his arm circled protectively around Susan’s waist. Halfway down the walk, he leaned down and whispered something to her, causing her to throw back her head and laugh. Marjorie imagined she could hear Susan’s high, tinkling notes hanging like icicles in the frozen night. Then Mr. and Mrs. Darden climbed into a sleek jet-black Volvo and slowly pulled away from the curb.
Marjorie sat there for a few minutes. She just knew they were off to someplace fancy, an expensive restaurant or a party where people would eat crab puffs and drink French wine. Then she pulled her thoughts away from the Dardens and turned inward, thinking, mulling over their next move. As she mumbled to herself, neon dollars signs seemed to glow with an urgent, bright intensity right before her eyes. Then a wolfish smile crept across her face and she cranked her head toward Ronnie. “Let’s go,” she whispered.
Ashley Copeland stared silently around the empty house. It was blessedly quiet now that the Dardens had finally taken off. Mrs. Darden had yammered on with all sorts of picky instructions, while Mr. Darden just plain gave her the creeps. But he was her mom’s boss, so she was careful not to kick him between the legs every time he leered at her.
This was Ashley’s second babysitting gig this week, and she was desperate for cash. Winter Prom was right around the corner, and her dipshit boyfriend still hadn’t saved enough money to spring for the kind of limousine and hotel room she’d always dreamed of. Then there was the matter of her dress. She intended to absolutely crush it in a hot pink strapless number that would put all the cool girls to shame.
At least this gig seemed like a no-brainer. The Dardens’ baby was asleep upstairs and, according to Mrs. Darden, would probably remain asleep. So it would be a relaxing night of watching cable TV and doing some FaceTime on her iPad with her friends, Trish and Bella. It could be the easiest forty bucks she’d ever earned—as long as the privileged little brat stayed asleep.
Ashley walked through the dining room, trailing one hand on a high-gloss table. The furnace rumbled beneath parquet floors, and a few flakes of snow had started to tick-tick against the windows. She’d never been in a house this big before. What was really obscene was that only two people lived here. Well, actually three, but the baby didn’t really count.
Flopping down on a bouncy leather sofa, Ashley pulled out her iPad and logged in as GoldyLox131. She tried to FaceTime several of her friends but no one answered. Bummer. She pursed her lips, blew out a glut of air, and looked around, already feeling bored.
But she wouldn’t be for long. In the familiar children’s story, Goldilocks has a very harrowing encounter with a group of marauding bears. For GoldyLox131, two wolves already lurked outside the front door.
The kidnapping of Baby Darden was your basic piece of cake. Ronnie walked up to the front door, a battered Pizza Hut box balanced in his left hand, and rang the doorbell. Marjorie hung back in the shadows, watchful and listening. A few seconds later, a chime rang out deep inside the enormous house. Bing, bang, bong. Just like church.
Not thirty seconds later the babysitter opened the front door. Ronnie’s first impression was of a skinny blond teenager with a tentative smile and a thin band of blue braces stretched across her upper teeth. Puzzlement flickered in her eyes when she spotted the pizza box. Then she gave a disdainful snort and said, “Nobody here ordered—”
Ronnie didn’t waste a single precious moment. He straight-armed the girl in the face with his right arm, shattering her nose on impact, and sending her sprawling backward onto the Oriental carpet.
Terrified, screeching like a scalded cat, blood flowing copiously from her busted nose, the babysitter struggled to right herself. “Eee . . . pyuh!” she babbled as her feet paddled helplessly on the rug, unable to gain traction.
Ronnie was on top of her like a rabid pit bull. “Shut up!” he snarled as Marjorie slipped in behind him and kicked the door shut in one fluid motion.
“Stuff them socks in her mouth,” Marjorie ordered. “Then blindfold her and snare your rope around her neck.”
“I know what to do,” Ronnie cried. He was caught up in the moment now, feeling totally enraptured. His blood was pulsing hotter, his synapses were firing more crisply than ever before. Struggling with this little piece of quiff was really turning his crank.
Scared out of her mind, Ashley begged and pleaded with him as she blew gluts of snot and bubbles of blood out of her shattered nose.
Ronnie grinned at her and hooked a thumb into the waistband of her jeans. He felt the button pop, the zipper start to go down. A narrow piece of hot pink silk, the girl’s thong, stretched across her flat belly.
“Jesus Christ,” Marjorie said. She was a little surprised by the violence of his attack. “Don’t kill her. And don’t do . . . that.”
Illuminated under a French chandelier, Ronnie ground his teeth together in frustration and stuffed a dirty tube sock into the girl’s mouth. He slapped on a hunk of silvery duct tape, then wound a hunk of rope around the girl’s neck, stretched it tight, and looped it around her ankles. Hog-tied her nice and neat like a goat, just like he’d seen a 4-H guy do at the Pepin County Fair last summer. Good, he thought to himself. This feels so good and the bitch deserves it. He glanced around to see where Marjorie was. If only there was time to really have fun.
Marjorie took a few moments to scope out the downstairs, just in case there was a live-in housekeeper or a prowling dog. When she decided they were safe, safe enough anyway, she charged up the curving staircase. Expensive silk carpet whispered underfoot as she wondered what it must be like to live in a fancy house like this. A house with real oil paintings and custom leather furniture, and where you had actual carpeting instead of dirty, crappy linoleum. She gnashed her teeth, seething with unrequited envy as she climbed up to the second-floor landing. She hesitated for a moment, her hand stretching out to rest on an elaborately carved newel post, and glanced toward what she figured was the front of the house. Master bedroom located there? Probably, she decided. Which meant the nursery would be right next door.
Marjorie padded down the dim hallway, pushed open a door, and peered inside. And there, lying in a frilly white crib surrounded by a plush zoo of polar bears and penguins, was the baby. Elizabeth Ann. Just like some kind of grand prize in a box of Crackerjacks.
Peering over the railing of the crib, Marjorie whispered, “Hi, baby.”
The baby stirred and gurgled softly.
“Perfect,” Marjorie said, reaching down to gather up the child. “You’re a perfect little angel, aren’t you?”