Holding still, breathing deeply, she looks around, taking in the hard dirt floor beneath her, dark stains of dampness spreading across the soil like hungry vines searching for prey, looping tendrils creeping from the edges of roughly cemented cinderblock. In the dim light she can just make out the exposed beams that cross overhead, the rickety staircase with no railing that leads up to the house above, the huge oil tank hunched in the corner. She might not be under her grandfather’s farmhouse, but she is in someone’s basement. Struggling to sit up, she finds her wrists and ankles are zip-tied. Duct tape stretches tightly over her mouth, pulling at her skin. Penelope rolls onto her back and rocks her torso up. Her body pulses with pain, an uncomfortably intense pressure threatening her bladder.
It was late afternoon when Penelope knocked on the door. She’d been canvasing the neighborhood all day, one house after another, hoping for any lead that might prove useful in furthering the investigation into the disappearance of Sammy Kohlner, a six-year-old boy who had gone missing from his family’s backyard that morning. The lead investigator thought the boy had probably wandered off and focused his efforts on organizing search teams to explore the nearby woods for any sign of the boy. The boy’s mother, though, had been adamant that he wouldn’t have left the yard by himself, and that he couldn’t possibly had gotten farther than she could see in the time the child was left alone.
They say that a second is all it takes, and it’s true. In the time it took Sammy’s mother to run inside and answer the phone, her son disappeared. “I wasn’t even gone a minute,” Penelope heard as she watched his mother sob. “I would have been back even sooner, but a motorcycle was driving by, and I couldn’t hear who was on the other end of the line until it passed.” By then it was too late. The boy was gone. And though her superior officer thought the child had wandered off, Penelope was struck by the conviction in the mother’s voice.
Perhaps someone had taken Sammy, snatching him from the yard the very second his mother went inside, the sounds of the abduction concealed by the din of a passing noisy motor. That tiny seed of what if had been enough to make Penelope volunteer for the door to door inquiry. She had no idea that doing so would lead to this, her bound and gagged, and from the feel of the tender bruises covering her body, tossed down the stairs to end up on the dirt floor of someone’s basement.
The door opened like the others before it. Penelope smiled at the woman, and though something inside her whispered danger as she took in the weathered face framed by gray hair, the stout, matronly body squeezed into a pair of too tight jeans, she kept her guard down, suspecting nothing. Her instincts cried wolf all the time, after all. When she went out on a rainy night to pick up some take out, or when the good-looking guy with the great smile standing behind her in line at the grocery store made eye contact. But, even as a police officer, Penelope had encountered little real danger in her life.
Perhaps, if she had considered how a less prepared driver may have responded when her wheels hydroplaned on the slick road, of if had she ever gotten the cute guy’s name and ran his record, discovered that he had a long history of domestic abuse, she would have realized that it was her instinct that kept her safe. Maybe she would have trusted her gut when it spoke to her, sweat pooling on her upper lip, beading at her temples as the red door swung open, revealing the husky woman.
Penelope introduced herself to the woman who opened the door. “Good afternoon, ma’am, I’m Officer Holden with the Waverly Police Department. I’m sorry to bother you today, but a little boy went missing down the street, and I’m checking with all of the neighbors, seeing if anyone saw anything, maybe a child walking alone, something that struck you as suspicious, anything out of the ordinary at all.”
Noticing a piece of mail that had fallen across the threshold onto the toe of her boot, dislodged from the mail slot when the door opened, Penelope bent to pick it up. Handing the letter over, her eyes darted from the name printed on the envelope, Dr. Lee Chin, to the picture of the Asian family on the hall table, finally meeting the gaze of the late middle-aged white woman standing before her. The woman tracked the path Penelope’s eyes had taken. Turning to look at the photograph behind her, a smile spread across her face as she turned back towards Penelope.
“I’m the nanny,” she said. “One of the children is actually in the bath right now, so . . .” she gestured with her head over her shoulder.
“Oh, of course, I’m sorry. I can stop back later,” Penelope said, taking a step back, unable to shake the feeling of unease that had settled over her shoulders like a heavy coat.
“Oh, no, I wouldn’t want you to have to do that. No reason to go through all that trouble. Please, come in. I just need to keep an ear open. I can do that and talk at the same time.”
She stepped back, making a sweeping motion with her arm, indicating that Penelope should enter. Penelope snuck another glance at the photo as she passed, anxiety building with each step that carried her further into the house, worrying that she was wasting too much time, that each moment that passed allowed the missing boy to slip further from her grasp, but also something else, a worry whose source she couldn’t quite pinpoint.
Leaving the foyer, walking down the hall, it struck her, not like lightning, but as a subtle thought that slowly rose up, breaching the surface of her consciousness like a bubble. Both of the kids in that picture looked like teenagers. Why would they need a nanny? Or a bath?
The synapses in her brain fired, making connections, sorting through the jumble swirling inside her head, the daily juggle of what needed to be done that day, whether she had turned the coffee pot off, hope that the little boy would be found quickly and safely, wondering when would be the right time to approach her superior officer about entering the detective program and taking the exam, the discomfort of her pants’ button digging deeply into the soft flesh of her belly from the weight she’d recently gained. Reaching the living room, one thought broke through, and she had a single, glorious moment of clarity. Then a wave of pain crashed against her head, bringing with it a dark blanket that dropped, blocking from her vision the motorcycle parked incongruously on the living room rug and the little boy sitting in front of the TV.
Penelope tilts her head to look up at the door. It looks hazy at the top of the stairs, but that could be from the lack of lighting. Is it her imagination, or is that a finger of smoke reaching out from beneath the door, beckoning to her like a waving hand?
A smoke alarm sounds from the house above, the high-pitched beeping echoing off the walls around her. Penelope tugs at her bonds, knowing that struggling against the zip ties is futile. Bending in half, she brings her wrists to her ankles, tugging her right shoelace out of the eyelets of her boot. When it’s half free, she pulls the lace through the zip tie between her wrists and puts the end in her mouth. Gripping the aglet firmly between her teeth, she saws the zip tie against the lace, the hard plastic biting deeply into the flesh of her wrists, her skin raw and burning. She pauses, inspecting the tiny trench eroded into her plastic bonds, then resumes her efforts, drawing her wrists up and down, back and forth, until the tie breaks, her arms flying wide with freedom.
She rips the tape from her mouth and undoes the lace the rest of the way from her boot, threading the cord between the zip tie and her ankles, grabbing the ends in each fist. A crash upstairs makes her flinch. Faintly, above the pounding of her heart, she thinks she can hear the crackling of fire. Her eyes water and burn. Sawing through the last of her bonds, Penelope rolls onto her knees and pushes herself to her feet, eying the door at the top of the stairs. Amber shadows flicker against the wall, like candlelight from a jack-o-lantern.
An engine thunders to life, the noise pitching to a roar then quickly fading. Late afternoon light seeps in around the edges of a bulkhead. The promise of fresh air propels Penelope forward. She moves unsteadily towards the bulkhead, her limbs stiff, back sore. Standing on the bottom step, she pushes against the heavy pressed-wood doors. They give a foot but do not open. Penelope peers through the gap, eyes studying the thick chain that prevents the doors from opening completely. Crouching, she climbs higher on the stairs until she is curled under the doors. Raising only one side up, she contorts herself, pushing her head through the gap. Squirming, she fights to get her shoulders through, her legs bracing hard against the wall, her torso squeezed and scraped, breath forced from her lungs as she slowly inches her way through the narrow space until she flops clumsily onto the ground, completely birthed from the basement.
She lies flat on her back, panting, inhaling greedily. Staring up at the sky, squinting against the still visible sun, Penelope realizes not much time has passed since she had knocked on the front door. She must not have been unconscious long.
Pushing into a sitting position, her vision clouds, each beat of her heart throbbing through her skull. She pauses, letting the pain subside. As the grey haze recedes to the edges of her sight, her eyes focus on the tire tracks etched into the soft soil of the yard beside her. She studies the ruts which lead across the yard, to the house, then back over the yard through the back gate, unable to determine which set was made when the bike arrived, and which when it left. Does it matter? She feels like it does.
Penelope struggles to her feet, stumbles, wary eyes watching the roils of black smoke swarming angrily behind the windows of the house. She needs to call this in. She needs to report the fire. Yet she finds herself drawn to the tire tracks, approaching the design that repeats back and forth across the yard, a pattern not unlike like a set of fingerprints. The deep, pristine impression of a freshly inked finger, the first finger pressed against the FD-258 card when she books a perp at the station, then a lighter imprint, like when she presses the entire hand all at once without re-inking. Only the difference in these markings aren’t due to ink transfer. The tracks were made by a motorcycle’s tires. They were formed by the weight pressing the bike down against the earth.
Penelope’s head snaps towards the house, adrenalin flushing hot beneath her skin. There’d been less weight on the back of the bike when one set of the tracks were made. The kidnapped boy was brought to the house on the bike. If his weight wasn’t on the bike when it left, then that meant . . .
Running to the house, Penelope peers through the window, but the dark smoke, like low-hanging storm clouds, blocks her view. She tries the handle on the back door, the knob twisting under her grasp. Shoving the door open, she’s smacked in the face by a wall of acrid smoke. Penelope drops to her hands and knees, eyes stinging, lungs burning as she coughs. “Sammy?” she chokes out, crawling forward into the inferno-like heat of the house. Her sweat-drenched skin prickles. The low growl of flames rustles in her ears, the noise grower louder as she continues forward, blinking rapidly against the heat and smoke, struggling for each breath. She feels herself weakening.
Panic wells inside her, every instinct in her body shouting for her to retreat. She can barely think above the noise–crackling flames, rasping gasps, gnashing teeth, frenzied thoughts. When she rounds the couch, and sees the shoe, she thinks she’s hallucinating. She is too late, has pressed too far, has sealed the fate for both herself and the boy by making the wrong decision. She should have called for help.
Sprawling on her belly across the carpet, she musters a small burst of energy and reaches for the tiny tennis shoe, an image of scuffed, dirty white leather with a red cartoon car across the side filling her brain as her eyes close. It must have been part of the description she had taken from the mother. Funny how your brain fills in details like that. Her fingers stretch to wrap around the phantom image. Penelope expects a fistful of air. When her hand clenches around something solid, she forces her eyes open, lids peeling back from the dried orbs with the resistance of Velcro. She squeezes. The shoe weakly tries to pull from her grasp.
“Sammy.” She feels the name leave her lips but can’t hear the sound. She strengthens her grip on the tiny foot, pushing herself forward with every ounce of strength she has. The panel on the bottom of the couch brushes across her cheek, rough material that smells like feet and dust. Penelope squeezes her face into the space under the couch, her lungs greedily drinking in the cooler, cleaner air. Her thoughts clear. Giving the small shoe clenched in her hand another squeeze, she’s shocked to feel a hot, damp hand wrap around her fingers. Releasing the foot, she takes the hand in hers. Drawing one last breath from under the couch, she reenters hell, smoke swirling, flames spitting, licking at the fabric of an armchair only feet away.
Her gaze settles on Sammy’s soot-stained face, sweat and tears streaking paths through the grime. She draws him towards her, pulling him under her, guiding him towards safety. Penelope feels like she’s being boiled alive as they slowly inch toward the door, Sammy crawling under her with his hands and feet bound. Something grazes her back and she yelps, fire searing through her uniform, the flame dying against her flesh. The skin on her back scalds and tingles, itching as it flares into blisters. She wants to give in, to collapse, but she can’t. They’re so close; she can smell the drafts of fresh air mingling with the smoke, feeding the fire.
Wrapping one arm under Sammy’s stomach, she crawls forward on three limbs until she feels the soft forgiveness of earth under her knees. She presses on, getting Sammy as far from the burning house as she can before flopping onto her back, letting the heat from her skin leech into the cool soil beneath her.
A weeping sound tunnels through the darkness, into Penelope’s head. The world beneath her jolts and she panics, tries to throw her arms out for balance, but she can’t. They are bound to her sides. Forcing the heavy drapery of her eyelids apart, she struggles to focus her vision.
“Ssh, Officer Holden, it’s all right.”
Following the sound of the voice, she finds herself looking into a pair of concerned blue eyes above her. “You have some second degree burns on your back, and we’re treating you for smoke inhalation. We’re going to take you to the hospital for further treatment.”
Eyes flying wide, Penelope searches the crowd of officials and curious neighbors gathered on the streets around her. “The boy?” Muffled words bounce off the oxygen mask strapped to her face.
“He’s just fine. In fact,” the eyes disappear from view and she feels the brake on the stretcher beneath her click down.
The back of Sammy’s head appears. He and his mother cling to each other. His mother holds an oxygen mask to his face with one hand, cradling him against her with the other. Penelope smiles towards the mother’s grateful face but is unable to take her eyes off Sammy. His arms wrapped tightly around his mother’s neck, his little black Nikes tucked snugly against her hips.
“His shoes,” Penelope croaks.
Sammy’s mom stops gushing gratitude at Penelope and glances down at her son’s feet.
“I thought they were white. With red cars.”
“I must have described the wrong shoes earlier,” she says, her head tilting to the side. “I’m sorry. I forgot he had these on. I forgot he even owned them I was so panicked, but you found him, Officer Holden, and I’m so truly grateful for everything you’ve done. Thank you.” Her voice breaks. The woman buries her face into her son’s neck, muffling a sob.
Stepping forward, the paramedic releases the brake on the stretcher and loads Penelope onto the ambulance. No one hears her say, “But I saw the shoes you described.”
The ambulance door slams shut and a familiar face looms into view. Detective Shaw takes a seat next to the gurney and gives Penelope a smile. “That was some good work today, Officer Holden.”
Penelope opens her mouth to speak, then stops herself. Had she really seen Sammy’s shoe in that burning house, or had she imagined it? Had she even found him? Or had he found her? Could she allow herself to take credit where it wasn’t due?
“Sir, I . . .” her voice trails off, not knowing how to describe what may or may not have happened inside the burning house.
Detective Shaw glances at the paramedic, busy inserting an IV into her arm. Lowering his head closer to Penelope’s, his voice low, Shaw asks, “Did something happen back there, in the fire? Something you can’t explain?”
Penelope blinks. Her eyes feel like they’re tearing up but are still beyond dry. She whispers, “Yes, sir.”
Leaning back, Detective Shaw clears his throat and says, “You’re a good cop, Holden. But what happened back there, whatever it was? That’s what’s going to make you a great cop. There’s no way to explain it. You’ve just got to go with it. That innate instinct, that gut feeling? Never doubt it.”
Thinking back over the events of the day, Penelope knows he is right. She nods, a small smile curving the edges of her chapped lips. Detective Shaw’s words don’t just allay her fears; they infuse her with an inner calm she’s never felt before. A feeling that comes from knowing that she’s on the right path. This is what she is meant to do. Officer Holden is who she is meant to be.