The story so far:
A death threat from a second-grader. I suppose that the time in witness protection should have hardened me, but it was more than a little disturbing nonetheless. And the terror on his face made it clear that he believed the truth in his statement. My mind flipped rapidly through the possibilities.
“How can you be sure?” My attempt at continued casual conversation was failing miserably. Jake leaned forward, eyes wide, disregarding the cocoa that partially filled his cup. It trickled down the edge of the cup, landing in a splattered pool on the floor. I fought the urge to look down at the mess, and leaned in, giving him my full attention.
“’Cause Uncle Bob said so. He said he knew who you were, and that there wasn’t much time and that you were messing with the sacrifice.” His little face scrunched up in a question mark. “Mrs. B – didn’t he meet you last year?”
I saw his reasoning immediately. “Yes, I met him. He may think I’m somebody else.” I tried to shrug nonchalantly, but realized playing it off might not be the best direction to take. “Jake, what did he mean by the sacrifice?” I had my suspicions. Small, backwoods towns were the breeding ground for the occult, and I had already reported Jake’s uncle as one who fit the profile. I had yet to find concrete evidence of the fact that he was involved in anything ritualistic, but that might be about to change.
Jake’s shoulders slumped, and his gaze went back down to the floor. As if he had just noticed the puddle he had made, he reached out and swiped at it with a finger. “Dad says I’m too little to know about that stuff. It’s kinda yucky, anyway.”
I could hardly control the buzzing in the base of my skull. “Why is it yucky?”
He bit his lip, glancing from side to side, then whispered, “Don’t tell anyone, but I followed my dad a while ago. They had a cow that they cut up. They took this thing out of it that I guess was the heart, but it didn’t look like one. But it had lots of blood, and they put it in a cup, and they drank it!” Another chill ran down my back as I saw the flicker of excitement in his eyes. “And they dressed in funny clothes.” He went on. “I couldn’t really tell who was there, but there were a lot of them.” His face showed the battle of his repulsion and enticement. “Were you there?”
“No Jake,” I sighed, trying to decide which route to take. “Do you know where they were?”
“It was really far in the woods. But there was a cabin that looked like where Dad and Uncle Bob took me hunting this summer.”
The clatter of a pickup rattled its way past the window, effectively silencing my little informant. He jumped, dumping the rest of the cocoa on the floor. “That’s my dad! Don’t tell anyone I told you!” he squeaked. Good, I had wanted to warn him the same thing. Before I could say another word, he had grabbed his bag, and darted out the door.
I debated my options as I scrubbed the sticky stain in front of the fireplace. I desperately wanted to run. Forget all the assignments for the FBI, just create a new identity for myself and start over on my own. The name and dates I had written down earlier that day burned into my mind, and I cursed myself for not pursuing that lead earlier. It had been a hunch I had come up with a couple years ago, when I realized that my federally provided IDs were taken from long dead babies. I could easily get a copy of the birth certificate at the health department and a driver’s license with that… But the logistics of that hunch would remain untested, as the health department would not be open until Monday, too late. Anyway, I cringed at the thought of leaving Jake to fight his inner battle alone. And poor Amy – I guessed that she had been pulled into the mess somehow, and her psyche was not holding up well.
The smart thing to do would be to report as usual, and hope it would be enough to convince the feds to finalize the investigation. But I knew that without hard evidence, it was only wishful thinking. I gave the floor a final swipe and grabbed my cup of cocoa mix. Swiss Miss was not going to cut it tonight. I dumped the powder back into the can, and went to work mixing sugar, cocoa, cayenne pepper, half and half and vanilla. The rich aroma began soothing my frazzled nerves as it rose with the steam. I reached into the freezer for a bottle and put a little liquid confidence in the mix. My shaking slowly decreased as I sipped the sweet ambrosia. I steeled myself, then picked up the phone and dialed a familiar number.
“Jones.” The marshal assigned to me answered in his abrupt way.
“Weekly update,” I stated quickly. “I have news.” The afternoon’s events tumbled out in what I prayed was a logical order. I went on to share my suspicions.
Jones sighed. “Jane, we aren’t ready to move yet. I will definitely look into these allegations, but without some proof…”
“Didn’t you hear me? We don’t have time! Something is going down this weekend.” I was too agitated. I needed to get my self under control. I took a breath, and Agent Jones cut in.
“You’re basing this off the testimony of a child, Jane. You need to trust me.”
“Trust you? Just like my husband trusted you people back in Middleton?” Visions I had tried to suppress for a dozen years came flooding back. Caleb had been an informant as well. I could still see his face that awful night as he told me all that he had learned about the inner workings of the school. His frustration that the feds weren’t acting on the info he’d collected. His agony at their instruction to keep sending our sweet six-year-old to the school so as not to raise suspicion. His panic the next day as the final piece fell into place. His horror at the sight of the fireball igniting the sky. And his defeat as he raised the gun to his head… I closed my eyes in a fruitless attempt to shut out the images.
“Middleton has nothing to do with this,” Jones said softly. “I’m sorry you had to go through what you did, but I need you to focus on what’s happening here and now.” We’d had this discussion before, but it had been a couple years since I had brought up the old memories. His stumbling apology did nothing to help my agitation. “Listen, if your theory on the ritual is correct, they will likely be meeting again soon. I’ll check property owned by the kid’s dad and uncle, and see if we can get a lead on that hunting cabin. In the meantime, talk to the girl – see if you can work your magic with her. Call me back at 01400 tomorrow and we’ll reassess the situation. I’ll be keeping an eye on you.” We ended the call with none of the usual pleasantries.
Sleep eluded me that night. Every time I closed my eyes, my little Lisa peered back at me, her face looking more like Amy’s as the night progressed. Blood rushed in my ears at the thought of loosing another precious child to the cruelty I fought against. As the first rays of morning bathed the mountain skyline in pink and purple hues, my plan was firmly cemented in my mind.
I took my usual morning run, passing in front of Jake’s house, and breathing a sigh of relief when I saw his dad’s beat-up truck was not in the drive. Jake was in the yard, pushing an old rotary lawn mower. He looked at me nervously as I approached.
“Jake! How are you?” I called.
“Uh, hi, Ms. B,” he muttered, looking down the road I’d come from. “What are you doing here?”
“I was just taking a jog, and thought I’d check on you. Listen, I am a little concerned about what you told me yesterday, and I thought that maybe you’d like to talk to someone who could help.”
“I don’t want to,” he said, wrinkling up his nose. “You talk to someone. I’ll get in trouble.”
I begged him silently to change his mind, wishing I could reveal who I really was, but knowing that would put him in a difficult spot. “Are you sure, Jake? I’m worried that you might not be safe. I think that your uncle might be doing something wrong…” I debated how much to tell him.
“He is not! He’s going to teach me how to take care of myself!” He tightened his grip on the mower, and narrowed his eyes. I could see that his tone had changed drastically since the prior afternoon. “I shouldn’t have told you anything. Just go away!” He turned back to the mower.
I stood there a second, dismayed at his choice. Resolutely, I walked back down the drive. Before I turned back to the street, I shot one last look in his direction. “Bye, Jake,” I whispered.
My few belongings were packed in the bag in the trunk of my car. I had long ago realized the futility of holding on to material possessions, allowing me to travel lightly. The car would have to be ditched once we got into the city, but if we could make it that far, I had no doubt I could disappear. A knock at the door interrupted my racing thoughts. I opened the door and ushered Amy inside.
She sat at the table as I worked on grilling some cheese sandwiches to go with the tomato soup bubbling in the pot at my elbow. Her demeanor was still as closed and cautious as it had been the day before. I chatted with her as lightly as possible trying to put her at ease. Finally, I set her sandwich down in front of her and watched her carefully as I asked, “Amy, is someone hurting you?”
She turned her head, as if trying to avoid my gaze. Her pale cheeks colored slightly. I touched her arm, and encouraged her, “It’s important to tell me what’s wrong. I can help you.”
Amy shook her head. “They said that they’d kill my momma if I told anyone.”
“Who?” I kept studying her, trying to emanate a calm, comforting presence.
“I don’t know. They were all wearing funny clothes and hats on their heads.” She bit her lip, and I pressed harder.
“Do you know anyone who was there?” Work my magic. I wasn’t sure what kind of magic it was, but somehow it worked again.
“My auntie’s special friend. He said to call him ‘Uncle Bob’,” she said haltingly. Her eyes betrayed more than she’d intended.
“Tell me about Uncle Bob.” I encouraged gently, knowing this was too much to be co-incidence.
“He’s not nice,” she whispered. “He made me do things…” Her voice trailed off and the tears came. I wrapped her in my arms and let her cry. Through her sobs, the story emerged, and fury began to build in my gut. There was no way this child was going back home.
“Amy, I work for some people who can help you. We are going to take a drive, and get you away from Uncle Bob and his friends.” I kept holding her, remembering the feel of Lisa in my arms.
“But Ms. B, what about my momma?”
“You’re momma should have protected you,” I replied, with an edge of my anger creeping into my voice. I took a breath to calm myself. Amy had no clue, and she needed comfort, not truth. “Amy, I’m not just a teacher. I have some friends with the FBI who can help your momma.” She still looked worried, but allowed me to guide her out the door and into the car.
Amy stared out the window, watching the houses pass by. We drove in silence for close to an hour before the increase of traffic marked the approaching city. I pulled into the train station, took Amy’s hand, and we went inside.
“Why did you buy tickets if we’re not riding the train?” Amy asked, as we got back in the car.
“I’m not going to let Uncle Bob find you,” I explained. “This will confuse him if he comes looking.” But ‘Uncle Bob’ was not the only one I hoped to confuse. We made a quick stop at the bus station, where I left the car.
We walked a few blocks before I motioned to a park bench. As she sat, I pulled out my cell phone. Only a few minutes before the designated time.
“Jane – where are you?” Agent Jones asked as the line connected.
“I have more information,” I declared. “You guys need to act. Now.”
“I have another student who can testify. It seems that Bob Miller is a key person.” I turned away from Amy, and lowered my voice. “She’s been molested by this creep.”
“If that’s the case, we’ll need to interview her. I can pick her and her mom up within the hour.”
“No, I think her mom might be in on it, too. She was acting really odd Friday.”
“Look, Jane, we have to follow procedure. I have not found anything to back up the claims of the little guy you talked to yesterday. I can get CPS to look into the allegations for your other student, but it’ll take some time. Why don’t you give me her name and address, and I’ll start there.”
I looked back at the child, and saw my daughter’s face staring at me. “No. Time’s up. If you won’t protect her, I will.” I disconnected the call, and threw the phone at a passing truck. “Come on Lisa, time to go.”
Amy looked even more frightened. “Ms. B? My name’s Amy.”