“M’okay,” Sam mumbled through her mouthguard to the two Animal Control officers standing at her front door.
“Are you going to hand the dog over?” Dennis asked.
“Mmm. Mm-mm.” She shook her head. Sam had planned to be out all day tracking down and identifying Ben’s kidnapper, but Dennis had succeeded in catching her off guard. She hadn’t even brushed her teeth yet.
“You are legally obligated to surrender the dog in your possession and we have authority to search the premises.” Dennis pushed past Sam and walked into her home. She waited at the front door as the men went from room to room and returned empty-handed. “Okay, where’s the dog?”
“Heef not here. He ran away.”
Dennis winced and took a step back as Sam’s morning breath hit him in the face. “Do you really expect us to believe that?”
“Iff a funny fory.” Sam smiled and took a half step towards Dennis. “Do you guyf wanna hear it?”
Dennis backed away quickly, escaping to the fresh air outside. “Uh. No thanks. If he comes back or you find him, let us know immediately. That dog needs to be dealt with. But, I’m warning you, we’d better not find the dog in your possession.”
Sam watched the two officers drive away before closing the front door. She had thought that the threat to seize Trax was just a scare tactic, but she had prepared for it, just in case.
The black Audi SUV sat parked in the stall in front of 1878 Lucky Lane, where a light on the second floor had just gone out. Sam shivered as she cradled her half empty mug of coffee, desperately feeling for heat from her now ice cold drink. She had been sitting on a parking stall curb, surveilling the townhouse for two hours and the rising sun would soon destroy her cover of darkness.
Sam took a sip of her cold coffee and watched a white Porsche Cayenne roll into the parking lot. It cruised around a row of parked cars, barely moving at a crawl. As it rounded the corner in front of her, she noticed a bright red ‘L’ sign beside the rear licence plate, indicating that a brand new driver was operating the vehicle. The Porsche stopped suddenly and reversed, coming to another stop in front of her. Slowly, the passenger side window slid down. Sam stretched her neck upwards to peek inside, but all she could see was the glare from a street light. It wasn’t until the window was fully opened that she could see Drew sitting behind the wheel with a grin on his face.
“Your chariot, m’lady.” He fluttered his right hand in royal dispensation, leaving his palm held up to help her as she climbed into the car.
Sam sank into the heated seat and as she closed the door, the smell of new leather and chocolate filled the cabin. Two steaming cups of hot chocolate sat in the cupholders beside her. Drew grabbed the mug from her stiff hands and replaced it with one of the cups of hot chocolate. The heat spread immediately through her gloves and warmed her hands.
How could she have been so completely wrong about Drew, she thought. He was being so sweet and sincere and there was no reason to suspect that he was on Wesley’s side at all. “Thanks, Drew. This is really nice of you, but what are you doing here?”
“Well, you’re very welcome, sunshine!”
Sam’s cheeks suddenly warmed and she wondered why she was so awkward sometimes. “I mean, what about Pips? And aren’t you supposed to drive with a supervisor if you’ve got an ‘L’?”
“I’ll meet P-lo when it’s time, but until then, we need to be able to follow this guy if he gets into his car again. And Ben’s dad has been letting me drive his cars since I was thirteen. He said his dad let him start driving at twelve and he never had to go through this stupid ‘Learners’ and ‘Novice’ system. The rules that they make up are so arbitrary and totally unfair. I probably have more experience than drivers with an ‘N.’”
“They’re just trying to make the roads safe for everyone, aren’t they?”
“As far as I’m concerned, rules apply to the masses, but there are always exceptions. Following rules made by clueless old people gets us nowhere. I mean, we tried to help this investigation the so-called ‘right’ way, but the cops — your dad included — wouldn’t do jack. And look at what happened to Ben on the mountain! They send up three people to search for him, then, when they find out he’s been kidnapped, they call their three people back in and nobody else goes up. He would be dead right now if it wasn’t for you.”
“Oh, so you do believe that I had nothing to do with the kidnapping after all,” Sam said, giving Drew a cheeky grin as she felt a burst of relief and satisfaction. If this was a taste of the vindication she was owed, Sam thought, she could get very used to it. A wave of excitement rippled through her with the thought that today’s missions would lead her to identifying Ben’s kidnapper and, more importantly, complete exoneration.
“Well, not necessarily. If you did it, then you should be in jail. It’s a fail on their part either way.”
Drew’s reply felt like a slap to her face. Sam’s heart dropped and she turned away from him. “You think I should be in jail?” The words came out choked, like they had come from the back of her throat. She then remembered why she had been suspicious of him. He had never hidden the fact that he was on Wesley’s side and now he had just admitted that he wanted to get her locked up behind bars. Just like his little, lying friend.
“It’s all about truth and justice. If you did it, Sam, I’ll make sure everyone knows the truth and I hope they lock you up and throw away the key. But I don’t know what the truth is yet and that’s why I’m here.”
Sam couldn’t respond. A lump had formed in her throat and threatened to expose her. For the past few days, she had been pretending that she hadn’t seen the sideways looks that were not so discreet, the whispers that were not so quiet. She had ignored it all. But there was no way to fake it now. There was no place to hide, nothing to say. She looked at her hot chocolate and watched the last little bit of whipped cream pig drown into the liquid.
“Check it out,” Drew said, holding up his phone. “I set this website up last night. #JusticeForBen. Here, in this section, we have the facts surrounding the kidnapping. Scroll over here and these are the known suspects: there’s you right there, the Creeper, the sketchy guys and Mr. Gloves. And then if you keep scrolling, here’s the timeline and some outstanding questions and gaps in the case. I also included links to social media. What do you think?”
Sam stared at her name, the first under the list of suspects on the website, and swallowed hard. The lump in her throat had doubled in size. “Wha?” Her voice cracked. She cleared it and tried again, struggling to keep her voice even. “What are you doing with this?”
“Documenting everything. Justice will be served whether the so-called authorities are involved or not. And clearly, from what we have seen, they won’t be.”
“I don’t think this is a good idea, Drew. You’re publishing everything online? With me as your prime suspect?” Sam said in a coarse whisper. It felt like a part of the lump lodged in her throat had morphed into a giant, heavy ball and had dropped into her stomach.
“Alright, here.” Drew tapped on his phone. “Changed ‘Suspects’ to ‘Persons of Interest.’ Happy?”
“No, of course I’m not happy. I wouldn’t be freezing my butt off to stalk a total stranger if I was a happy person. Who does that?” Sam fought to control her herself. She could hear the emotion in her voice and feel the tingle of tears on their way.
“So, are you telling me that you don’t want to do this?”
Sam hesitated. Drew had a point. Media did draw attention to issues that would otherwise get swept under the rug. But doing this could be dangerous. And her name was at the top of the list of “Persons of Interest.”
“Alright, alright, alright! Here we go! He’s on the move!”
The front door to the townhouse had cracked open and, within seconds, Mr. Gloves was outside. He brushed his windshield quickly with his arm before he climbed inside the car and pulled out from his parking spot. Drew followed closely behind.
“At least we don’t have to worry about getting made. I mean, how hard is it to clear off snow from your car before driving?” Drew said, shaking his head in disgust. “Every window is totally covered except for that tiny patch in front of the driver’s seat. That is so crazy! Who is this guy?”
“His name is Stanley Price. I Googled the address. He bought that townhouse last summer. I couldn’t find any pictures of him. He doesn’t post on social media very much, but when he does, it’s usually a vacation picture somewhere luxurious with photos of champagne and sunsets. I found an interesting comment under one of his photos, though. It read, ‘Good job on bouncing back from your bankruptcy, Stan! It’s remarkable how much you’ve achieved in such a short time!’ followed by a bunch of emojis. He has a LinkedIn profile, but the last job title he posted was for the period between 2014 and 2015 as ‘Security guard.’”
“Boom!” Drew smiled broadly at Sam as he picked up speed on the highway. “You just blew this guy out of the water! A bankrupt security guard. If you’re in the security business and you need a lot of cash fast, what are you going to do? Steal? Or maybe kidnap and ransom? This has got to be our guy. You are so busted, dude.”
Drew was still smiling at Sam when she noticed a wall of white flying at their windshield.
“Drew, watch out!” she shouted, but it was too late. In a split second, the pile of snow and ice that had accumulated on top of the black Audi had come loose and smashed into Drew’s car, shattering the windshield into thousands of tiny cracks that left them blinded.
Drew swore as he slammed on the brakes and the car began to skid. A dizzying view out of the side windows combined with an incredible pull to the left told Sam that they were spinning out of control. With a sudden jolt, the car stopped and came to a rest. Nothing was moving outside of the window, but Sam’s head was still reeling. She looked out her side window and saw blood. Touching a spot on her forehead where she felt a dull ache, she saw the same red on the fingertips of her gloves.
“Drew, are you okay?” Sam turned to see him staring straight ahead with both hands still gripping the steering wheel.
“That idiot almost killed us! Sam, your head. You’re bleeding.”
“I’m fine, but Drew, are you okay?”
Drew bolted out of the car and circled it to survey the damage. They had come to a stop in a small ditch. Other than the windshield, the Porsche looked undamaged.
Sam found Drew squatting in the ditch, inspecting his front tires. “Drew? Are you hurt at all?”
“No, I’m okay. But, my windshield… I’m so dead. Maybe I can get this towed and fixed before anyone finds out.” Drew pulled his phone out of his pocket. “Sam, you can’t be here. You gotta go.”
“Go, Sam. I’m fine. It’s better if you’re not here if anyone stops to help or calls the cops. Alone, I’m just an overeager kid wanting to practice driving, but with you here, I look like a reckless jerk joyriding to impress a girl while simultaneously endangering her life,” Drew said, motioning the weight of each offense using both hands. “Besides, you need to get moving if you’re going to help P-lo. There’s no way I can get there in time now. She’ll be alone and she really shouldn’t be.”
Sam walked away from the scene quickly, thankful that they hadn’t seen a single car after the accident. Hopefully, that meant that nobody had seen her with Drew.
She took one last glance over her shoulder before leaving the highway. Drew’s car lay at an awkward angle on the shoulder; its rear end at a higher level, exposed and vulnerable, its front end buried in the snowbank, like it was frightened and hiding. Its hazard lights blinked amber with the bright white snow amplifying their warning: danger, danger, danger.
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