“It’s for you, sir. They found Katie.”
Special Agent John Lanton snatched the phone from the deputy’s hands. “Is she there? Is she at the barn?”
A hesitant voice came through the line. “Yes, yes sir. She’s here, but she’s refusing to cooperate. She said she’ll only come out when her Daddy gets here.”
A smile spread across John’s face without him realizing it. They’d found her. After all this time, they’re truly found her. Not only that, but she refused to see anyone but him. She was finally coming home.
“Roger, I’ll be there as soon as I can. Tell her Daddy’s coming.”
That last line felt so good to say after ten long years of obsessively tracking her abductor. As he hung up the phone and returned it to the officer, he glowered at the man sitting at the interrogation table. John had spent so many nights imagining what he’d do if – no, when - he got his hands on Junior Keaton at last. Junior stared at John with a sly grin on his face.
“Be careful now, Johnny Boy.”
Something about his smile, his tone of voice… it cut through John’s happiness, sending an uneasy tingle down his spine. John was already wary about the ease with which officers had caught Junior, this only added to it. Junior practically turned himself in, sitting in the open at a café without so much as a pair of sunglasses to hide his face. Ten years of hard detective work only to have some barista call it in? It didn’t make sense.
“What sort of game are you playing here?”
The corners of Junior’s mouth turned down in feigned offense. “Why, I’ve just reunited you with your daughter. She’s safe and sound; from the sound of that call, the fine officers on the other end of the line have just confirmed that fact. I’m in custody, and you’re about to be reunited with your bubbling little girl… if I were playing a game, I’d have to say that I’m pretty bad at the game. Wouldn’t you agree?”
John narrowed his eyes. He knew he couldn’t trust a word his high school classmate said. Still, he trusted the officers who checked the old barn and found Katie. He also trusted the cuffs around Junior’s wrists.
“If she’s been hurt in any way, I swear to…”
“Oh, I’ve taken good care of my dear, sweet Katie. I’ve been like a father to her. The only father she’s ever known, since hers couldn’t be bothered to be around for the past 10 years!” Junior cackled at his last line, testing John’s already thinly stretched self-control. “But, as I said before, Johnny Boy… be careful. I’d suggest someone other than you being the one to pick her up.”
“She asked for me specifically. I’m not falling for your mind game bullshit this time.”
“Hmm… she asked for you? Specifically, you say? Odd… I figured it would just kill her to see you again after all this time; I didn’t think she could handle the emotional toll. Not everyone is able to handle emotional hardship.” Junior’s eyes narrowed for a moment, and the playful face he’d been putting on vanished.
John opened his mouth to respond, then stopped and shook his head with an exasperated sigh. “You know damn well that situation is nothing like this. You took my daughter away from me for 10 damn years over a harmless high school prank!”
Junior shrugged with an exaggerated ‘I’m not so sure’ look on his face before smiling. “Harmless to some, harmful to others. Pot-ay-to, pot-ah-to.”
“You’re a sick, sick man, Junior. I’m going to take Katie home, and I promise you, she’ll never have to see you again.”
“It seems we finally agree on something.” As John turned, Junior added, “If you’re going to ignore my advice and go to Katie, I’d make a note to explain what’s happened. She deserves that, at least.”
John squinted then shook his head in disbelief. He stormed out of the interrogation room, slamming the door behind him. He was done playing Junior’s games. Junior had strung him along, providing clues that would get detectives tantalizingly close to finding his girl. They’d locate Katie’s clothes, food that was half eaten and lukewarm, cups with ice that had not yet melted. Each time, Junior just escaped with Katie before the authorities could arrive.
All of this was over that prank, as Junior’s letters had made clear years ago. No one even remembered that he’d accidentally outed Tommy in high school. Tommy was always so damn frustrating to deal with. Arrogant, loud, obnoxious… John decided to get him back by challenging his manhood. In the Deep South, the worst thing you could call a man was gay. He'd sent an anonymous letter to Tommy’s father.
John had no way of knowing that his accusation was actually true, no way of knowing that Tommy kept copies of Playgirl magazine under his mattress. Or that him and Junior were a thing. It was supposed to be a harmless prank. John heard that Tommy’s father beat him pretty bad; he'd held onto that guilt for years. Still, Junior kidnapping his daughter and holding her hostage for 10 years… the two acts didn’t come close to comparing to each other.
According to John’s GPS, the barn where Katie was chained was an hour and fifteen-minute drive from the FBI’s Charlotte Field Office. John cut the drive to 45 minutes, his lights and sirens cutting through the I-77 traffic.
His Ford Taurus skidded to a halt on the dirt driveway between a local deputy’s cruiser and another Taurus. Kerry, John’s friend and an agent with the Charlotte Field Office, met him as he jumped out of his car.
“She’s terrified, John. We can’t get near her; she insists that she’ll only see you.”
John's heart raced; at the same time, anxiety sucked the air out of his lungs. He'd looked forward to this moment for so long… now that it was here, was he truly ready? What would he say? How could he ever apologize enough for not finding her sooner? For leaving her with that madman?
John took the first step towards the barn door. Kerry pulled on John’s arm to turn him until he faced her. "John, what you’re going to find in there is not the little girl you remember."
"I'm aware of that. She's been through hell, unimaginable things, all because I didn’t find her sooner. But that's my baby girl in there… and she needs me." He pushed past his fellow agent and into the open doorway of the barn.
Whispered discussions between agents and officers came to an abrupt stop when John entered; all eyes turned to him. He noticed the pitying stares. They were the same stares he'd endured for 10 years. When Katie was first taken, every tip and update that came in, every close encounter... the stares were always there. They’d bothered him, though he never let that be known. Today, though, the stares didn’t affect him at all; his mind, his sights, were set on the only thing that mattered. The only thing he’d thought about for years.
His eyes had not yet adjusted to the dark room when he first heard her voice, the voice of a young lady where his last memories were the babbles of a toddler.
"You’re here”, a teenage voice call out with joy. “I knew you’d…”
Her voice paused; when she spoke again, the joy was gone. “Wait…. no. No, No, NO! Not you!"
Like his vision, his mind had to adjust to what he he was hearing. He couldn't comprehend what she meant; did she not know who he was?
John couldn't make out her face yet, but he saw her body move and heard the chains rattle. She seemed to reach for something and... eat it? Hide it in her mouth? He wasn't sure.
"Katie, baby girl, Daddy's here."
"No, he's not! He can't be here if you’re here! What have you done to him?”
John struggled to make sense of what she meant. What did she mean? How could John not be there if John was there? Maybe she couldn't see him clearly? It’s been so long, of course she couldn’t recognize him. She must think that he's Junior.
“It’s me, Katie. It’s your father, you're safe now. I’ve been looking for you for so – ”
“I know you’ve been looking for me, John! Daddy told me all about you, he warned me about you!”
Katie scrambled over to the splintered wood of the barn’s wall, wrapping her arms around the knees pressed against her chest as she laid on her side, back facing John. John glanced at Kerry; she returned his look with a confused shoulder shrug. The officers were still staring at him but ready to act should this be a trap of any kind. John took his first tentative step forward since Katie’s screams had stopped him at the entrance.
“John,” Kerry hissed in an urgent whisper, “be careful!”
He nodded, though he wasn’t worried. He didn’t need to be careful; after all, this was Katie. A scared 12-year-old girl, chained up by a monster, was about to be rescued by the one person who loved her most in the world. What was there to be careful of?
He edged closer to Katie, careful not to approach too quickly. He’d have plenty of time with her soon enough. Best to take this slow.
He was expecting a reaction of some sort when he got close enough for her to hear the crunch of hay as he walked. The slats of light shining through the sidewall illuminated her body enough for John to see that she began sobbing, her body heaving up and down. His heart was breaking; he wanted jump down by her side, hold her, let her know that she was safe now.
Why wasn’t she making any noise, though?
Shouldn’t he have heard her sobs by now?
When he got close enough to reach out and touch her, he heard her first gurgled convulsions. He lurched forward, arms extended to grab her small body. Turning her over, he saw white foam streaming down the side of her face.
Junior’s words came back to him as he wiped at her mouth in desperation.
You’re about to be reunited with your bubbling little girl.
Her eyes were the same ghastly shade of white as the foam around her mouth. Only a hint of her pupil was visible below her top eyelid.
…it would just kill her to see you again…
“No… no! Katie! Get help now! She’d dying!”
All at once, the barn erupted into a flurry of motion. Officers ran up to John and Katie, cutting the chains with a bolt cutter before lifting the girl from the agent. John jumped to his feet, but Kerry put her hand on his shoulder.
“John, there’s nothing you can do now. Let the paramedics tend to her.”
His chest felt empty, a gaping chasm in which his whole body felt like it was sinking into. She can’t die. That wasn't how these things went. You find the girl, she comes home safe and sound. He’d done these rescues so many times, he just expected this one to result in the same happy ending.
John stood in the barn, his body limp and still. He could hear all of the attempts to console him and the lies that she would be ok. He just didn’t care. John knew what she’d put in her mouth in the moments after he entered. The cyanide killed her long before he’d discovered its telltale foam.
After standing in the center of the barn, lost in his own thoughts and regrets for what seemed like an eternity, John turned to leave with no intention of going back to the office. There’d be paperwork to do, and he couldn’t have cared less about it. As he turned, though, something caught his eye.
The corner of an envelope poked out of the hay near the indent where Katie took her own life.
I’d make a note to explain what’s happened…
John picked it up. He knew it would be another one of Junior’s mind games. John was numb, though; he no longer cared. He slid his finger under the sealed flap and tore through the envelope, revealing a yellow piece of notebook paper with clumsy writing on the front.
Poor Katie, I genuinely liked her, and she did feel like a daughter of sorts to me. But her ability to cause you pain was much more important than any attachment I felt towards her.
You seem to think your prank was harmless twenty years ago, but for Tommy, it was anything but... His father put him in the hospital when he saw the letter you wrote, found Tommy’s porno stash – he woulda killed Tommy too if I hadn’t stepped in.
What you don’t know is that Tommy never recovered. His body may have healed, but his mind and heart never did. He spiraled for 10 years before that cyanide pill ended things for him. For us.
It seemed fitting that your punishment should match the crime.