John Sandoval wasn’t the creepiest man Kendall Beck had ever met.
In comparison with the scum she usually dealt with as an FBI special agent, Sandoval fell somewhere between socially awkward and weirdly unpleasant, with an underlying “ick” factor. But that didn’t stop the itch under Kendall’s skin, alerting her to something menacing about the fifty-seven-year-old man.
“Mr. Sandoval, thank you for speaking with us.”
Exactly forty-eight hours earlier, Kendall had been assigned to the possible abduction of five-year-old Emily Williams. No one knew exactly when the child had gone missing. Her mother, Kathy, had put Emily to bed at eight o’clock the previous night. When Kathy went to wake her daughter in the morning, the bed was empty. There was no sign of a break-in. Nothing was disturbed in the house. No sign of a struggle—although, if an adult had taken the little girl, it wouldn’t have been much of a contest.
The sliding glass door, left open about a quarter inch, was the suspected entry and exit point of the kidnapper. Kathy admitted she had not set the alarm because her husband was due home in the wee morning hours following a business trip. This had become her usual practice after the husband had not entered the code quickly enough on a couple of occasions and had awakened the entire house with the loud shrilling.
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Random? Coincidence? Kendall didn’t like coincidences, and it was a stretch to think the one night Kathy left the security system off, a kidnapper would slip in undetected and steal the five-year-old. Which left someone who knew Kathy wouldn’t set the alarm. Someone close to the family. Say—a neighbor who was very familiar with the Williamses and their habits.
Mr. Sandoval lived next door to the Williamses and had been at their home since before the police were called. He was very interested in the investigation and what the FBI was uncovering. Kendall’s “spidey senses” heightened: she didn’t like non- family members who inserted themselves into an investigation, eager to help, with theories and opinions of what happened. A good portion of the time, those people—the interlopers—were actually the perpetrators of the crime.
The furnace kicked on, and hot air whistled from the floorboards in the old house. The plastic covering on the windows rustled.
“So, do you babysit for the Williamses often?” Kendall asked, glancing around Sandoval’s living room. She sat in a mauve wingback chair while Sandoval was on a cream couch splotched in what was supposed to look like mauve and seafoam green paint strokes. The same green was on the carpets. Puffy floral valances hung over the picture window. There was little doubt the house hadn’t been updated since the eighties.
“I’m not sure I would say often, but usually once a week. Maybe twice, depending on what Scott and Kathy had going on.” Sandoval’s hands flexed over his kneecaps, eyes tracking Kendall’s partner, Jake Alexander, as he wandered around the room.
“And you don’t consider once or twice a week often?” Kendall turned to Jake. “Hey, Jake, how often do you and Felicia get a babysitter?”
“About once a month, if we’re lucky.” Jake picked up a picture, turning it over in his hand before passing it off to Kendall.
She studied the photo in the silver frame. Five-year-old Emily and her two-year-old sister, Sadie, were in a bathtub, surrounded by colored bubbles. Both girls—Emily with bubbles on both cheeks, Sadie with bubbles piled high on her head—had wide, happy grins. Kendall looked up and smiled at Sandoval. “And did Emily visit you any other times—outside of you babysitting her?”
“The Wrong Woman”
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“Uh, yes—” Sandoval’s gaze was glued to the picture in Kendall’s hands. Sweat broke out over his upper lip. “She liked to come over and help with the cats.” He looked back up at Kendall. “She loves the cats.”
“How exactly does she help?”
“Mostly just plays with them. Sometimes, if she’s here at feeding time, she sets out the food bowls after I prepare them. Refills their water, things like that.”
Kendall flipped the picture frame so Sandoval could see it. “Tell me about this picture.”
Sandoval made a face. “It was one of the times they were over,” he said, as if it was obvious and Kendall was an idiot for even asking such a stupid question.
Kendall raised an eyebrow. “You gave them baths?”
“Well, bubble baths—only sometimes—when Scott and Kathy were out at night and gonna be late getting back. Past the girls’ bedtimes.”
Kendall returned her gaze to the picture, raising a skeptical eyebrow. “And you took a picture?”
“Well—yes, they were being silly. And were very excited about the colored bubbles I found at the store. It was a fun night. Emily asked me to take a picture to show her mommy.”
“And did you show Mrs. Williams?”
“I can’t remember.”
“But you printed it out and framed it?” Kendall leaned forward, setting the frame on the coffee table between them.
The picture faced Sandoval. He smiled at the photo. “The girls are very special to me. My wife and I weren’t able to have children.”
“And you feel . . . close to the Williams girls,” Kendall said, making her voice more sympathetic, less interrogatory. Sandoval nodded, eyes glassy. “Like a grandparent?”
“Yes.” Sandoval lifted his head, a sense of relief shining in his eyes. “Exactly.”
“But you’re not their grandparent.”
He shrugged, deflating a bit. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“But you can see where this looks odd, right? You have framed pictures of naked little girls unrelated to you displayed throughout your home as if they are family.” Kendall placed her elbows on her knees, leaning in. “And now Emily is missing. And you have been very concerned—almost overly concerned, if I’m honest, Mr. Sandoval. And I can’t help but wonder if you’re distressed Emily’s missing—or worried we might find her. And what she’ll say about who abducted her.”
Sandoval bolted to his feet. Kendall fell back, trying to maintain her unfazed demeanor.
“I would never do anything to harm Emily,” Sandoval spat. “I love that little girl. And I love her family.” He dropped his head to his hands, a muffled sob breaking free.
Kendall stood, slowly. “Then you won’t mind us taking a look around.”
Sandoval glared. Kendall remained steady. “Do whatever you need to do,” he hissed. “But Emily isn’t here. And you’re wasting time when you should be out looking for her.”
Kendall didn’t respond. Instead, she handed the picture frame to Jake. “I want to see if Sandoval showed Kathy this picture.” And find out if it disturbed her as much as it does me. Of course, if Sandoval hadn’t shown it to Kathy—well, that brought up a lot of other questions, most prominently, why not? Was he worried Kathy might react in the same manner she had?
Jake nodded. They had worked many cases together after she had moved back to Denver, and when it seemed appropriate to work as a two-person team, Jake and Kendall always gravitated toward each other. A sort of yin and yang thing—when either was going off the rails, the other was there to pull them back on before the train derailed.
“I surveyed the house on my ‘trip to the bathroom,’” Jake said, using air quotes. “There’s a bedroom that looks as if it’s for a little girl. Double bed with pink sheets, dolls and such in a toy box. Mr. Sandoval takes his role as head babysitter very seriously.”
“Text Brady that picture, see if we can get a search warrant based off it.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “Pretty slim, Beck.”
“I know, but if we take the sheets from the girl’s room and find something, I don’t want the court kicking the evidence because of improper search and seizure.”
They wandered into the kitchen. Fruit-covered wallpaper with a matching border around the chair rail. Seams lifted and curled, exposing the dingy off-white walls underneath. As if it was barely clinging to life. Sandoval’s wife had died of cancer in 1991, and like the rest of the house, the kitchen hadn’t changed at all since she’d passed away.
“This is the same wallpaper my mother had in our kitchen when I was growing up,” Kendall muttered.
“I weep for your childhood,” Jake said.
“Hush, man-child, or I’ll make you do all of the paperwork on this case by yourself.” A sense of comfort and sadness swelled in her chest. She missed her mother so much, and cursed the sudden heart attack which had taken the vibrant woman’s life. Pushing the rush of emotions aside, Kendall stepped past Jake and pointed to a structure at the back of the property.
“Garage,” Jake answered.
“Anything in the basement?”
“You mean the hoarder’s paradise? Not so far, but I could only see part of it from the top of the stairs. I’ll send a couple underling agents down there to check since we have Sandoval’s permission to take a look around the property.”
Kendall pushed open the glass door. A whoosh of cold air hit her in the face. Winter was alive and well in Denver in February. Of course, the forecast called for highs in the sixties over the weekend, followed by four to eight inches of snow the next week.
She walked across the back deck and into the yard. The single-car garage backed up to an alleyway, prevalent in all the older neighborhoods in the area. A side door with a nine-panel glass window was covered in dirt, probably not cleaned since the house was new back in the fifties. She pushed on the door and it opened with a loud creak.
A four-door, burgundy Cadillac took up most of the space. Older model. The nose of the vehicle kissed the front wall. A rope, with a tennis ball tied to the end, hung from the ceiling and rested against the car’s windshield. Kendall’s father had done a similar thing in their garage to guide her mother in when she parked the car. Once the ball hit the windshield, the driver knew they were in far enough for the garage door to clear the back end of the vehicle. In this case, it looked as if it was also in place to let the driver know they were about to hit the wall with the front end.
Kendall walked to the back of the car. She had to sidestep her way around the vehicle to get to the other side. Jake attempted to follow, shaking his head. There was no way he would make it around. He was built like a Mack truck, with thighs the size of boulders.
Kendall lifted her chin toward a button on the wall by the door. “Garage door opener, big guy.”
As the metal slats folded and made their slow ascent, light filled the open space. Something rubbed against Kendall’s leg. She yanked her foot away. A black cat looked up at her as if she was insane, or insensitive to its needs. A squeaky meow mocked her before it sauntered away.
As the cat reached a set of large plastic storage bins stacked on top of each other, it glanced back at Kendall and disappeared. Kendall followed, only slightly worried about the cat crossing her path and the repercussions. Her mother would admonish her for not following protocol, to reverse the curse by walking in a circle and retracing her steps. She glanced up and checked her surroundings. Jake was walking toward her, and two other agents stood at the open garage door, discussing the classic caddy. Probably not a good time to show her crazy. Instead, she peered into the dark space where the cat had wandered.
“Find something?” Jake asked, stepping up next to Kendall.
Kendall crouched. There was something pale colored on the floor, but the light didn’t reach far enough to illuminate the area. “Not sure.” She shined the flashlight from her phone.
Two small white and pink tennis shoes lay on their sides. The cat curled up beside them, rolling on its back as it snuggled into a pair of legs clad in Disney princess pajama pants.
Emily lay on her stomach, face toward Kendall, eyes closed.
Kendall pushed aside the bins, desperately trying to reach the little girl. Jake began tossing the large boxes out of the way. Emily’s fleece pullover was dirty and too thin for the freezing temps. Kendall ran her fingers along the girl’s neck while staring at her mouth, hoping to see white plumes of hot air being expelled.
But her skin was cold. Unnaturally cold. A knot tightened in Kendall’s gut.
“No, no, no, Emily,” she whispered, frantic to find a pulse. “Don’t you dare be gone.”
Leanne Kale Sparks is returning to her first love — writing about murder and mayhem — after a brief career in criminal law. The backdrop for her books is the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the playground of her youth, and the place that will always be home. When not writing, she and her husband spend time reading and enjoying their two dogs.