Frustration filled Detective Camille Martell when she checked the list of people logged into the “come and get some” chat room, her nickname for the Chicago area dating site Meet ‘n Greet, where she’d found Angel. The scum wasn’t there now.
Obsessed with stopping the sexual predator who’d murdered at least two young women he’d seduced via the Internet, she’d been spending every waking hour away from the job hunting him on her home computer.
“Damn it! C’mon, you bastard, where are you? Show yourself!”
As if her demand zapped him through the ether, his avatar — a dark angel holding a sword — appeared.
“Yes!” Her adrenaline surged, and she quickly logged in as Morrigan, the old college photo identifying her as a twenty-one-year-old redhead. Exactly Angel’s type. He didn’t have a clue she was a cop.
Max nudged her leg and whistled through his nose.
Patting the dog's big, scruffy body, she absently murmured, “Good boy,”
as she tensed watching the parade of messages scroll up her screen.
BigMan: anyone wanna talk with me will show photo
Cougar: let’s see your photo first–not your face, BIG man!
hotgirl: camshows $10/10 minutes skype hotgirl69
Camille’s gaze flicked to the column of sign-ins. Angel was there but not interacting. She’d engaged him twice in the last two days. He’d been flirting carefully with her, like he had been testing her. He knew she was here. What was he waiting for?
She took a big breath. “C’mon, c’mon!”
Unable to wait for it, she took the lead.
Morrigan: Hey, Angel.
Angel: how’s it playing?
Morrigan: Bored ’n lonely
Morrigan: You can fix
Would he take the bait? Say he wanted to meet? Her pulse fluttered through her as she waited for his reply.
Cougar: woo-wee, angel, she’s comin’ on to ya
Angel: r u, M? what you wanna do with me?
She’d like to do all kinds of nasty things to a low life like him, but she’d settle for cuffing him and bringing him in. She thought about saying something sexual, but instinct told her to play it cool.
Morrigan: Just wanna talk... to start...
BigMan: let’s you ‘n me talk, honey - skype name?
Morrigan: With Angel only! IM Morrigan22
Camille held her breath as she waited to see if Angel would use it.
Angel: gotta go ttyl
An instant message popped up on her screen, but it was from the guy who called himself BigMan. Camille ignored it. Her hands curled into fists, she sat staring at the monitor, willing Angel to IM her. If he got the mental message, he was ignoring it. Had she played it too cool? Should she have lured him in with the promise of something more than talk?
Another failed attempt. Her adrenaline crashed, deflating her once more.
She wanted to punch something.
Max was still sitting there, staring at her, and she realized she hadn’t fed him. Thankfully, she’d hired Sandy Kawecki, the teenage girl who lived next door, to walk Max after school, so he didn’t need to go out right away. She hadn’t meant to have a dog with her busy schedule, but the bruiser had been a pitiful sight on the street barking in terror at anything that went by. That had been barely a month ago. She’d tried to find his owner, and when that had proved impossible, then she’d thought she could find him a good home. He’d found hers instead.
For the last few weeks after getting home from work, she’d gone directly to the computer since she'd been unable to conduct her search at the office. Each time wishing Angel would IM, but wishing wasn’t going to make it happen, so she pushed away from her desk and headed for the kitchen, the dog following close on her heels.
His big brown eyes hopeful, Max whined and licked his chops.
Patting his side, she fetched a can and opened it while considering the irony of her being taken off the Chat Room Predator Case – telling her she was “too emotionally focused” on it, and letting other cases slide. But that focus was what had connected her with the presumed killer, though she still hadn’t gotten him to go beyond chatting.
It might take some time, but she would find a way to meet him and arrest him and get him to trial, if it was the last thing she ever did.
The next day was busy with paperwork and phone calls then reporting to a crime scene about another murdered kid in a drive by shooting, but not a minute went by where Camille didn’t wonder how she could engage Angel to spring a trap, get him to surface. Maybe she needed to be more sexually direct with him. But that could be a mistake and drive him away. If only she knew more about how Angel had chosen his victims.
Still thinking about it when she got home, she greeted Max, let him out into the yard for a minute, then filled his bowl with dog food. After letting him in, she headed straight for her desk. Camille had gotten into the habit of leaving the computer in hibernate mode so she could get to the chat room in seconds.
Tapping the space bar, the screen appeared and that’s when Camille froze.
An email program was open. Not hers. Sandy’s.
But what made her hold her breath was the IM block at the bottom of the screen. Angel had tried contacting her — rather Morrigan. Sandy must have been checking her email when the IM came in.
Camille focused on the last exchange. Sandy asking where Angel wanted to meet her... Angel saying the coffee stand at the new Riverfront Shopping Center at 5:30... Sandy saying she would be there.
What the hell!
Camille sat stunned for a moment, not believing her eyes. Her heart drummed so fast, the beat filled her ears.
She should have been the one who’d seen the instant message from Angel, not Sandy. And Sandy was fourteen years old — what was she doing agreeing to meet a man she didn’t know?
Rather Morrigan, her own alter-ego, had accepted.
Angel thought he was meeting her...
And Sandy would have known that!
Horrified, Camille flew from the chair and grabbed her keys. She raced to the door. Max beat her there.
She ruffled his fur and blocked him from going outside as she turned and left. It was nearly 5:30 now.
Camille pulled away from the curb turning on her flashing headlights and siren so other drivers would pull their vehicles to the side. Her gut clenched and her throat closed. She had to get there on time. Had to! Her hands were trembling uncontrollably, so she gripped the steering wheel tighter, slowing only at intersections long enough to make sure they were clear.
Throughout the drive, Camille tried not to panic. She could feel the adrenaline rushing through her — her breathing was erratic. All she could think about was that a girl's life was at stake.
Her fault... all her fault...
Panic would render her useless, and Sandy would suffer for it. Why hadn’t she locked her computer so the girl couldn’t access it? Had Sandy used her computer before and Camille just hadn’t realized it? Lord knows what else she may have seen. Camille often sent herself notes from the office about her cases so she could review them as needed.
She should have talked to the girl, gotten to know her better but getting close to people was something Camille avoided. In her world, she skirted personal relationships and focused on understanding criminals and how they worked so she could track them down, arrest them and get them off the street.
Relationships were for other people. Camille was her job.
Arriving at the shopping center in record time, she parked curbside and raced to the upper level entrance where she’d have the best view. Once in the center of the mall, she ran to the rail and scanned the lower level. Chest tight now and barely breathing, she searched for a familiar blond ponytail around the coffee stand. No Sandy.
Her fault... all her fault...
Swallowing hard, she raced to the down escalator, her gaze skipping from one part of the mall to the next. No Sandy. No man who appeared to be a predator, though how would she know? They came in all shapes and sizes. She could be staring straight at him now and not recognize him.
At the coffee stand, she pulled out her star and flashed it at the wiry teenager behind the counter. “Detective Camille Martell. How long have you been working this afternoon?”
“Um, I didn’t do nothin’ wrong.”
“I’m not accusing you. I’m just looking for someone who might be in trouble...” She glanced at his name tag. “...Keshawn. How long?”
“A-after school. Four.”
The kid could be a witness, then. Angel’s message had instructed her to be here at five-thirty. It was now a little before six.
“Do you remember serving a girl with long blond hair?” She was looking around again, hopeful that she could still spot Sandy. “Always wears it in a ponytail. A fresh-faced fourteen-year-old.”
“Lotsa kids hang out here.”
Indeed, three girls occupied a nearby table.
She stared hard into the kid’s deep brown eyes filled with suspicion, no doubt because she was a cop. “Think hard, Keshawn. This is really important. Pretty. Blue eyes. Blond ponytail. Maybe a half hour ago. She was probably alone to start, but she was meeting someone. Not a boy. A man.”
His dark face pulled into a frown. “A man? Yeah, maybe I saw her. I thought it was kind of weird ’cause the guy was way old for her, but she got all blushy and giggly. She was sittin’ with her coffee over there...” He pointed to an empty table. “...then the man got up from where he’d been over there...” He pointed in the other direction. “...and joined her.”
“What did he look like?”
“Longish blond hair. Kinda curly. Okay lookin’, I guess, for a white guy. He was tall and kinda built, like he works out.”
Her stomach knotted. “How long ago did they leave?”
“Five... ten minutes, maybe.” He indicated the closest exit, making Camille’s stomach free fall. “Looked like they were goin’ to the parking lot, but I got busy with a customer.”
“I’m calling this in.” She pulled out her cell phone and walked backwards toward that parking lot. “You don’t leave, Keshawn. Another officer will be here shortly to talk to you. You may just have saved a girl’s life. Thank you.”
With that, she whipped around and connected to Dispatch and gave them her ID. "We may have another victim in the Internet Predator Case. The suspect may have taken a fourteen-year-old girl out of the Riverfront Shopping Center, I need uniforms and crime scene investigators here as soon as possible to follow up."
Someone official needed to talk to Keshawn and to get prints from that table. Too much to hope for DNA.
Heading out the door, she quickly scanned the parking lot. No Sandy.
What had she expected? Certainly not for a level-headed girl to leave with a man she’d just met.
The thought slammed her with a memory she would rather forget. How she’d instantly fallen for Drago Nance. How she’d left the bar with him after one drink.
Still outside, she shook away the intrusive memory and looked up over the entry doors. Security cameras were mounted on either side. That’s what she’d hoped for. The mall would be recording everything that went on. A break. Finally, a damn break!
Putting a call through to her lieutenant, she told him where she was. “Get the team here as fast as you can. If we’re lucky, we get to see what this Angel looks like for ourselves.”
And then she prayed they could nail him before guilt suffocated her.