“I don’t see any way around it, Madison,” Hal said, “We’re going to have to bring Elijah into this.”
Hal mulled over the notes Madison had relayed to him when she spoke with the suspect. The instructions were clear. Madison was to bring Elijah to this clearing outside of Fruita. She was to walk with Elijah into the middle of the clearing and wait for the suspect. Hal had looked at the clearing in the map. It was up in the foothills. There were no houses or cabins in for several miles. Madison wondered if they could get Hal up onto the high ground. He was former military. He never talked about what he had done in the military, but she knew he was an expert marksman. He might have even been a sniper. “What if we can get you up onto the high ground above the clearing.”
“No, Hal. I don’t want him involved. There has to be away that we can take this guy out and save Drake.”
Hal nodded. “I was thinking the same thing. I could head up to the site, before the time and get into position before you get there. That will give me time to scout the area and find the best vantage point.”
“What if he’s watching and sees you coming?”
“I don’t think that will be likely. He’s cunning, but I don’t think he has a lot of surveillance equipment. He’s making things up as he goes along. He has a burner phone, but he’s been stealing cars from his victims. We have a helluva lot more resources that he does.”
“We have to take him alive, Hal.”
“We’ll try. If I can get a clear shot, I’ll wound him rather than kill him, but I can’t promise anything. Our priority is keeping you and Elijah safe and getting Drake back. If we’re going to do this, though, I need time to pack what I need and get into position. We’re running out of time.”
Madison knew she needed to make a decision. This wasn’t Hal’s call; it was hers alone. If things went wrong, she would be the one suffering the consequences. If things went the way they wanted them, there would still be consequences. She was acting outside her purview as Sheriff, and she knew it. She couldn’t pretend that she was acting as a responsible Sheriff. She should be on the phone with the State Patrol right now as well as CBI. She should be treating Drake’s kidnapping case like she would any other citizen’s. Law enforcement might negotiate with a hostage-taker, but they certainly wouldn’t exchange people to get their own back. That was what she was contemplating. She didn’t have any intention of actually giving Elijah back to that monster, but she was going to have to pretend that she would, and that meant that she was going to have to take Elijah with her. She was going to have to risk his safety, just as that man had.
The first thing she needed to do was talk to Elijah.
“Let’s do it, Hal. I need to talk to Elijah, though.”
“What if he doesn’t want to help with our plan?”
“Then we’ll have to come up with something else. Go get ready and I’ll see you up at the site.”
“You won’t see me, but trust that I’m there.”
Madison nodded as Hal left to get prepared. She decided that she would send Rosie home. She couldn’t risk any of her deputies being involved in this. If she could, she would do it without Hal, but she didn’t see any way around involving him. When they were finished, she would take responsibility for everything, and resign her position. She would suggest that Hal become the interim Sheriff. It would all work out for the best. She had to believe that.
When she stepped into her office, Rosie was reading a magazine, but Elijah was just sitting on the couch staring at his shoes.
“Hey, Rosie. It’s been a long day. I think you should go home. I’m going to call it a day as well.”
“Are you and Elijah going home? I don’t think that’s wise…given the situation.” Rosie glanced at Elijah. Madison could tell that she didn’t want to talk about the case or Drake’s disappearance around Elijah.
“No. I think Elijah and I will go to the LaQuinta. No one will no we are there.”
“All right, then. I’ll see you in the morning. I’m on duty at 7:00.”
“Okay, Rosie. Thanks for coming in on your day off.”
“No problem. See you later, Elijah.”
Elijah looked up at Rosie and nodded solemnly. After Rosie left, Madison shut the door to her office. She didn’t want anyone overhearing their conversation. Elijah sat up a little straighter as if he knew they were about to have a serious chat. She sat down on the chair across from Elijah, so she could see his face.
“We have to talk, Elijah.”
Elijah nodded, his eyes serious.
“You know that that man has Drake.”
“I think I have a way to get Drake back, but I need your help”
Elijah nodded more vigorously this time.
“That man called me. He wants me to trade you for Drake. If he gets you back, he’ll let Drake go.”
Elijah’s face was grim as if he knew what Madison was going to say. He seemed much older than 12 or 13 years old. Madison wondered how much horror the boy had seen. She knew he was going to see more tonight, but she hoped he could stand it long enough for them to get Drake back. When this was all over, she would make sure that Elijah got the help he needed.
“I’m not going to trade you, Elijah. It wouldn’t be right.”
Elijah looked startled, and then began nodding again. He pointed at the door as if to say he was ready to go.
“Hold on, Elijah. You need to hear me out. If you don’t want to help me, you don’t have to. That man wants to meet us outside of town at midnight. You and I will go to meet him, but Deputy Steward will be there first. He’s going to hide outside the clearing. When the man brings Drake out, he’s going to try and wing him, so we can get Drake back and keep you safe. We’ll arrest the man and you and Drake will both be safe.”
Elijah shook his head. “You don’t want to help?”
Elijah shook his head again. “What, you do want to help?”
“So you’ll help. I promise, Elijah. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
Elijah shook his head again.
“Look, Elijah, I know that you’re scared, but…”
Elijah shook his head again. His face was turning red. He looked frustrated. He began to breathe heavily. Madison couldn’t tell if he were having a panic attack or something, but she realized that she couldn’t possibly have Elijah be a part of this plan. He’d already been through hell. She was no better than that monster. She was going to put Elijah through more trauma. She couldn’t do it. She’d have to go up there without Elijah, and figure out a way to get Drake away from that monster without staging an exchange. She’d just have to negotiate.
She looked at Elijah. He was trying to talk. His voice came out as a harsh whisper as if he didn’t use it very much.
“What did you say?”
“Won’t work. He won’t go for it. Too smart.”
She could tell that it cost him a great effort to speak. She hadn’t had time to get him to that child psychiatrist. Drake had been taken, and that was all she could focus on.
“He might be, but this is the only plan we have.”
“All right, Elijah. Let’s go.”
They had a little over an hour to get to the site. According to Hal, it was a little over 45 minutes outside of Fruita. She wanted to leave early to give her time to get to the site. She didn’t want to risk being late. Elijah followed her out to her SUV. The back halls were empty this time of night.
As Elijah buckled his seat belt, she entered the coordinates for the site into the GPS. She also had the directions Hal had written for a back-up. Before pulling out, she scanned them one more time to make sure she had them fixed in her mind. Slowly, she pulled out of the alley. As she turned onto the street in front of the Sheriff’s office, she noticed that the media vans were gone. The reporters had probably left for the night to regroup in the morning. Following the directions of the GPS, she headed into the back country around Fruita. The GPS took her east into the foothills surrounding Fruita. When she reached the road that led to the clearing, they still had twenty minutes left. She pulled over for a moment before turning onto the road.
“Elijah, I want you to stay right next to me. No matter what happens you don’t leave my side. If I tell you to get down, you get down. If I tell you to run back to the SUV, you run. You hear?”
She couldn’t see his face clearly in the dark, but she saw him nod. He’d gone silent again. Madison hoped that she wouldn’t traumatize him further. Before leaving the vehicle, she removed her gun from the shoulder holster and locked it in the glove compartment. That part had been clear. No weapons. She hoped that the killer didn’t have a weapon either, but she couldn’t count on that. Drake was a tall, strong man. The killer had to use something to keep him under control.
Slowly, she made her way down the rutted track that led to the clearing. She kept her headlights on as the man had instructed. She was glad she wasn’t trying to sneak in. The pine trees closed in so on either side of the track, and their branches sometimes scraped the side of the SUV. When she reached the clearing, the headlights swept across the land. The clearing was dotted with small trees among the long grass that covered it. She didn’t want to walk exposed in the beams of her headlights. She and Elijah would be at the man’s mercy. He would see them coming, but, then again, so would Hal. She knew that Hal was up in the trees surrounding the clearing somewhere. He had gone silent as soon as he left the station, but she trusted him. If he hadn’t been able to get into position, she would have heard from him. She decided to leave the headlights on. There was nothing in the killer’s directions about headlights, so she decided she was safe. She and Elijah unbuckled their seat belts.
She looked at Elijah, “Are you ready?”
Elijah nodded. It was hard to see his face in the dark, but when she patted his shoulder, she could feel him trembling. She felt like she should reassure him, but she didn’t know what to say. She desperately wanted to make sure he was safe.
“Remember what I told you, okay? Stay close to me. If I tell you to get down, get down. If I tell you to get back to the truck, you get back here. Here take the keys. I don’t want you getting locked out.”
She handed him the keys. He took them and shoved them into the pocket of his jeans. Slowly, they made their way to the edge of the clearing. Elijah stayed by her side. They both paused at the edge of the trees. Madison scanned the clearing, but she couldn’t see anything in the darkness that surrounded the beams of light from the SUV. She nodded at Elijah, and they both stepped into the clearing together. She and Elijah walked in the center of the headlights. While she knew the killer could see her clearly, she hoped that staring into the headlights behind them would make it harder for him to see what was around them.
When they reached the center of the clearing they stopped, Madison forced her eyes to remain on the clearing rather than scanning the treeline for Hal. She didn’t want to give Hal away. Elijah was squinting into the darkness as if he were trying to see into the shadows to find the killer. Madison could hear a soft breeze blowing through the trees. Then, she heard the snap of a branch as something or someone began to make their way out of the trees on the other side of the clearing.