Six o’clock. Quitting time almost put Dan in a good mood as he glanced past the clock to the reporters typing their stories and talking on the phone outside his cubicle. It was gray and it was drab and it was full of smoke from the cigarette
he had just sneaked in his no smoking office. “Almost quittin’ time for the hack,” he muttered to himself as he absent-mindedly switched on his desk fan to clear the air. Hack was the name he had been sarcastically calling himself since the day he started working for an online newspaper in Washington, D. C. After getting out of the Army, he started graduate school, majoring in history and Middle-Eastern Studies. At the same time, he started working for the paper, covering Washington, D. C. news and writing stories about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dreamily, he leaned back to let the cigarette do its nerve-soothing work. But it was not to be, as the telephone’s musical ring split the haze like a scalpel, breaking the nicotine spell.
“Forester,” he answered dryly, fully expecting another routine call from a wea- risome source with a boring story to tell. But it was anything but that.
1280 miles away in Omaha, Nebraska, no one at KNOC-TV knew yet who Dan Forester was. It was a hectic day, even for the newsroom. Reporters ran to and from the producer’s desk with scripts. Tape editors raced videotapes to the control room and in the midst of it all, the assignment editor barked out orders to the field crews through his two-way radio as the police scanner crackled out its garbled chatter. Everyone rushed around hurriedly as though theirs was the biggest story of the day. Everyone, that is, except News Director Bob Manson and Senior Reporter Susan
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Jensen. They had learned long ago that getting all hyped up over a story wasted valuable energy. They chose to take a more serene approach ... even to big news.
“Reporters are hooked on the adrenaline-rush,” Susan liked to say, “They like the frenzied pace and a lot of ‘em act this way even with more routine, humdrum stories. Urgency makes them feel important, even when their story is of absolutely no importance. After all, if you’re in a big hurry what you’re doing must be impor- tant ... right?” But that wasn’t the case on this day in this newsroom.
“Dan ... Cole never came home from school and I’m going out of my mind! I called all his friends and the last they saw of him, he was walking home!” Jan spit the words out all in one breath. It was her voice alright, as Dan subconsciously visualized her worried-but-beautiful, slightly freckled face framed by flaming red hair. But so terrifying were her words that, to him, the last few sounded like they were being spoken through a megaphone from the other end of a tunnel. He had a sickening feeling that this would be a tunnel of no return.
After five years of doing stories about the search for a missing Omaha boy named Jeremy Fenner, the big day had finally arrived. His remains had been found and KNOC-TV Reporter Susan Jensen was on it like a pit bull. The child had been kidnapped, mutilated and murdered. Authorities suspected a pedophile. Every TV newscast in the state was leading with the story and the Omaha stations were devoting most of their early newscasts to it. But because of Susan’s efforts, KNOC was better prepared than the competition.
Susan had followed the Jeremy Fenner story the closest. Every step of the way she produced stories and special series reports on missing children. Twenty-eight years old, pretty and shapely, she looked like a cross between a beauty queen and a college professor. Her smooth, golden hair ended in soft curls that bounced around a ravishing-yet knowing face with penetrating eyes that seemed to look right through you. This was a beautiful and intelligent woman whose love was her job. Fenner and the missing children issue had become a cause for her and she had spent years researching it. She had also grown close to Jeremy’s parents. Some of her colleagues thought too close.
Normally it was just a good-looking, well-built man with jet-black hair and a fiery-yet-icy stare inside Dan Forester’s office window. But at this moment the glass
Vigilante Justice • 3
housed a tight-skinned mask of horror as every muscle in his body went instantly taut and a blaring alarm shot off in his head; a silent but deafening siren that only he could hear. He felt panicked and paralyzed and it was several seconds before he could speak. “Are you sure he didn’t go home with one of his friends?” he finally managed to ask his wife.
“Yes, I called them all ... and besides, you know he wouldn’t do that without calling me,” came Jan’s inevitable answer.
Dan suddenly went hollow as if the breath was being sucked out of him by a high-powered vacuum. It was his worst nightmare. As a soldier, he had seen too many children permanently damaged by war and as a reporter, he saw too much child abuse.
A familiar odor then slowly began creeping into his nostrils. A subtle, metallic scent that he hadn’t smelled in a long time. It was frightening, yet he couldn’t quite place it. “Could he have stayed late at school for something?” he asked apprehen- sively, wanting to explore every hopeful possibility.
“That’s the first thing I thought, but ... but I called the school and ... he didn’t,” she stammered.
What’s that smell? It was foreign, yet familiar and he was afraid of the answer. * **
Like many people Ross Huggins wanted better cards than life had dealt him. His was a little-known job with the FBI doing background research on all kinds of strange and mysterious subjects. Most of the bureau’s employees were involved in some type of research at one time or another, but Ross was given the really off beat stuff to look into. It could be interesting work, but he often wished he was out on the front lines of investigation instead of buried in the bowels of the Bureau’s dark, dank, vomit-green research basement in Quantico, Virginia. He longed to get away from his cave, as he called it, and get into the real world of FBI fieldwork. Three times he had requested a transfer to a field investigation unit, but had been told each time he was too valuable where he was. This is irony, he thought. He figured if he wasn’t so good at his job he would be investigating instead of back-grounding. But he had the patience of a fisherman and day after day he did his job in an office strewn with books and papers alongside the most advanced computer hardware and software available. He did it extremely well, waiting for the break that someday would make him a field investigator.
Unfortunately for him, he looked much more like a research librarian than he did an FBI field agent. At a slight 5” 8’ with a crew-cut and glasses he didn’t exactly cut an imposing figure. But the key to Ross was his eyes. They were calm, yet
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intense. Most people who knew him would have been surprised to learn that along with an IQ of 148, Ross had a black belt in karate and knew how to use his deadly skills. His job wasn’t glamorous and he often got bored stiff. But things were about to change as his boss Don Westerhoff walked into his office.
It hit Dan like a hard slap right to the jaw as he heard his wife whimper on the other end of the phone. The odor in his nostrils was fear itself and he hadn’t smelled it since just before his last fierce, death-ridden firefight in Iraq. His buddies had thought him crazy when he told them he had actually smelled fear. “More of For- ester’s cosmic crap,” one of them snarled, referring to his natural tendency toward existential philosophy, which often seemed out of place in the harsh, cruel reality of war. Dan was probably the only deep-thinker in his company and most certainly the only one who often put his deep feelings into words, both in conversation and in the journal he kept. But he was also the first one to charge an enemy position or go after a sniper. He had always been contradictory, combining firebrand behavior with well-read, intellectual awareness. But at the time he knew what he had smelled. It was so vile that he had lain awake nights saturating his cot with sweat and worrying that at any moment the fetid sewer of horrors, as he called it, would wind its sickening way back into his nostrils and take its unsweet time to leave.
Even now, as he gazed dumbly at his busy co-workers through his office win- dow, he felt the sweat again. His shirt stuck to him like wet paste and the telephone receiver slid on his ear.
“Are you sure he’s not over at Bill’s?” he asked hoping Cole may have gone to the neighbor’s house.
“No, I checked.”
“Think hard a minute Jan,” Dan pushed, “Is there anything you might’ve missed?”
“No! You’re not listening ... I already told you ... there’s nowhere else he could be,” Jan sputtered between choked sobs.
Scenes of horribly dismembered children in Iraq tumbled over each other in his head, battling for his attention. He had thought Iraq was as hideous as life could get, but he was wrong. Reporting the news in Washington, D.C. had shown him more inhuman, brutal treatment of children than he had ever imagined possible. Now it could be his son and that terrified him.
Vigilante Justice • 5
“I’ve got a weird one for ya’ this time,” Don Westerhoff said as he absent-mind- edly looked around FBI Researcher Ross Huggins’ messy office.
“What now?” Ross whirled around quickly.
“They want you to do a profile study on pedophiles.”
“But we already have one,” he told Don.
“Yeah, I know, but you know the boys upstairs. They’ve decided the old study
is outdated. They’ve ordered a new one starting from scratch. You’ll have to pro- file it all, from the pedophile’s childhood to the cause of his death and everything in-between.”
“Man, Don, this one’s gonna’ take some time.”
“Well, if you’ve got the time we’ve got the queer,” joked Westerhof, mocking an old TV beer commercial, as he walked toward the door hesitating just long enough to see if he would get a laugh out of Ross. He didn’t.