Michael stepped out of his cruiser and brushed the perspiration from his forehead with the back of his hand. He stood quietly watching the swallows circling over the park at the far end of the street.
This was where he grew up, where he made friends, many of whom still lived and worked here in the small town in Southern California. Everyone knew everyone and they all took care of each other. Michael knew of no other place like Mission Park in the whole country.
The only thing that made him sad was that his best friend was no longer among the living. Not that he didn’t live in Mission Park, he did, but on another plain—a ghostly plain. He was still able to hear Jeffrey but he missed seeing him and his quirky smile.
After a deep breath, he closed the car door and made his way toward the entrance of the police station. He loved his little town and all the people who lived here, even in the heat of summer as it approached couldn’t take that love away.
The glass door opened when he started up the steps—one of his officers held the door for Anna, the women who owned the flower shop on the corner. Michael stood back and watched as she grasped the railing before he entered the air-conditioned building.
“Call for you on one, chief!” Sharon, the desk sergeant, leaned forward to look at the notes she was typing. She hadn’t even raised her head when he walked in.
“I’ll take it in my office. Give me a minute and then transfer it.” Michael walked around the bullpen to his office at the back of the room. He closed the door when the phone beeped and lifted the receiver before he even sat down. “Chief Ennis, what can I do for you?”
“Michael—thanks for being there.” Amy was distraught. “My new girl, Terri didn’t come in to work again today. When she missed yesterday so I thought she was sick. I called, but she didn’t answer, and I left a message. Now she’s been out for two days in a row and it has me worried. None of my staff has seen or heard from her. Can you meet me at her apartment? We can get the manager to open the door. It’s not like her to miss work.”
“Sure Amy, let me get Officer Digby and we’ll meet you there. What’s the address?”
“She’s in the Orange Tree Park apartments #218. I’ll meet you out front.”
Michael tapped Officer Digby on the shoulder. “Come with me—possible missing person.”
Digby stood and followed Michael out of the bullpen.
“I’ll be back soon, Sharon.”
Sharon nodded and waved her hand toward him, still working on her notes.
Good as her word, Amy was pacing in front of the building.
Michael and Digby met her and walked directly to the manager’s office. Michael told the manager that Terri had missed work for two days and her boss was worried. The manager grouched and complained, but led them to Terri’s apartment.
Putting the key into the lock, he was still angry. “I don’t barge into my tenant's units. This is highly irregular.”
Michael noted the anger from the manager and leaned forward. “I understand, but it can’t be helped.”
When the door opened, Michael put his arm out to stop Amy from rushing into the unit. He stepped around her and walked in alone.
Amy shouted from the doorway. “Terri, are you okay?”
Michael returned shortly and shook his head. “No one in here, but it looks like she was packing up stuff.”
Amy walked in past him and toward the table in the middle of the room. It was covered with snack bars and other stuff. “She hikes. This must be what she packs when she goes to the mountains. You don’t think something happened to her up there do you?” Amy pawed through the items on the table. She picked up Terri’s phone and showed it to Michael.
Michael pulled his phone from his chest pocket. “Sharon, call the sheriff’s department and get the Community Emergency Response Team and Search and Rescue activated. We have a missing person.”
He heard a gasp and turned around. “Amy, don’t panic! You need to calm down! Help us find a picture of Terri and try to figure out a timeline from when she was last seen.”
With shaking hands, she pulled her phone from her pocket. “I’ll call Byron and see if he has any pictures and find out what he may know.”
Michael and Digby searched the apartment, looking for any evidence of foul play while Amy was on the phone with Byron. They had to admit it looked like the girl went hiking like Amy said. Why didn’t she tell anyone where she was going or contact Amy before she left?
Amy walked up to Michael, her brow furrowed in thought. “Byron said she was going out to hike the day before yesterday. They’d planned to get together tonight so he didn’t worry about her not calling him. He’s worried now though.” She nodded and looked between the two police officers.
Michael put his hand on Amy’s shoulder. “We’ll find her. I have no doubt that she got lost out there and she’ll be home before dark tonight.”
Oh, how wrong he was.
Two days earlier started out like any other day for Terri Thornton. After she got up, she brushed her long dark hair and teeth, then made a pot of coffee, and filled up her backpack before driving to Lytle Creek for a hike. When she threw on her blue jeans and red flannel shirt she also pulled out a warm jacket to stuff in her pack. A hiker never knew when it would turn cold up in the mountains. Winter rains weren’t unheard of either though the months were inching into spring.
Her routine was repeated nearly every morning, but especially on her days off from Eureka. On those special days, she hiked practically the whole day instead of stopping when she needed to return to work at the bakery.
The Lytle Creek area was so peaceful and quiet. So green, the smell of pine and fir trees, the buzz of the hummingbirds flitting over the yellow wallflowers growing from the nooks and crannies, the purple and reds of the beardtongue plants. She valued the time she spent here. She could think about her life, her future.
She was glad to have a job that wasn’t too hard on her brain cells. She’d be studying at the university in the fall, but she planned to continue working at Eureka even after starting classes. When Amy Staller hired her a few months ago it was the height of her spring excitement.
Coming from the small town of Colby in Kansas with so much open space she was a bit overwhelmed when she drove through the city of San Bernardino. But when she arrived in Mission Park, it almost felt like home.
She stopped at a tree and sat to rest and take a sip of water. When she moved farther down the trail through the pale green sagebrush, she caught sight of an empty shack. On closer inspection, she was startled to find it wasn’t the abandoned building she thought it was.
A twig snapped and she whirled around to see where the sound came from.
A man in a dark hoodie walked slowly forward from the woods near the building.
Terri opened her mouth to say something but stopped when she saw the gun in his right hand. Aimed in her direction.
“Turn around, Missy. And walk straight into the shack.”
She couldn’t see his face. The large hood hid his features. She walked to the porch of the shack, then turned around and looked at him.
He was wearing camo pants, a skin-tight black t-shirt.
He must have been following me. How did I miss that?
She could see every taut muscle through that shirt. This was a man she didn’t want to mess with.
He gestured with the gun toward the shack. “Move!”
She backed away from him, her arms in the air. He motioned for her to turn around. She moved toward the doorway, not knowing there was a hole in the floorboards. With her first step inside she tumbled into an old root cellar and landed hard. The fall knocked the breath out of her and she was dazed for a moment.
The man shifted a piece of fencing into position over the hole, and then laughed as he walked out of the shack, his boots scraping on the floorboards above. He was humming a song that seemed familiar. Then he slammed the door and his boots crunched across the gravel. The sound floated down to her in her prison as she blacked out.
When she came to, she shifted the fog in her head enough to see a cellar door. It led to what she hoped was the yard at the back of the shack. She made her way over to it but found it was securely locked from the outside.
She turned away. How long have I been down here already? She looked at her Fitbit, but the face had cracked when she fell.
He left me alone, and no one knows where I am. The light through the fence slats looks the same as earlier. I’m guessing it’s been a little while. Now what?
No way to get out. I’m more lost than I ever thought I’d be. I hurt all over. Sitting with her back against the crumbling dirt wall, she looked over the cellar and up to the ceiling of broken wood slats and fence. The rest of the floor would probably fall in if I tried to get out that way.
Wooden shelves lined the walls on two sides. They held glass mason jars full of what might have been vegetables or something long dead and dried out. Dust and dirt covered every surface. It looked as if no one had ventured down here in a very long time.
There was a small table but no chair. Storage, a root cellar, no one has ever lived down here. That wasn’t the purpose. She wished she’d let someone know where she went for her hikes.
When Michael, Digby, and Amy left, Michael told the manager to call him if he heard anything from Terri.
Back at the bakery, Amy made a list of her staff with phone numbers. She added Byron to that list as well and few other people she knew had been friends of Terri’s. Amy walked to the police station to give the list to Michael, but he’d left.
She quickly walked to the nearby school where CERT and SAR were setting up. Along the sidewalk, she noticed how fast the groups worked. Volunteers were already posting flyers with Terri’s picture on them from the shot that Byron had given them.
The steps to the school brought back memories, but Amy shoved them to the back of her mind as she searched out Michael. “I’ll call Helena and I see you already have Jody working here.” Amy nodded to her friend who was signing up volunteers for the search.
The room was full of people she knew, but many she’d never seen before. They were wearing bright orange jackets and green vests.
Amy was blindsided when Byron engulfed her in a bear hug. “Amy, I’m so frustrated. If I’d known she didn’t go to work yesterday, I would have said something sooner.”
“It will be okay, Byron. The sheriff’s and Michael have everything under control.”
He nodded, but from the look on his face as he walked away, Amy thought he wasn’t so sure.
Amy pulled her phone from her pocket to call back to Eureka. “Close the bakery and get everyone over to the school. Tomorrow we’ll open for coffee and serve the pastry we already finished. I’ll set up a new schedule—we’ll only need half-staff, the rest can be out working the search.”
Looking around at the diminishing crowd, Amy was as frustrated as Byron, but she had to keep working on this. People were beginning to leave to start searching. Amy pulled her phone out of her pocket to call Helena when she felt a hand on her shoulder and turned. Helena was standing behind her.
“We’ll find her, Amy.”
Amy signed. “That’s what Michael said, but I’m not so sure.”