Vanishing Girls (Detective Josie Quinn #1)

Vanishing Girls (Detective Josie Quinn #1)

Lisa Regan



Prologue



There was a man in the woods, she was sure of it. For as long she could remember, the woods had been her own special kingdom, teeming with plant and wildlife, the perfect setting for all the stories her imagination could conjure. A peaceful oasis away from her mother’s hardened gaze and her father’s disdain.

She often felt him there: a presence, like a force field, pressing up against her little empire. As she moved through the forest, she heard him. A rustle of leaves. The snap of a branch. She’d seen bears and deer and foxes—even a bobcat once—in these woods, but the sounds he made were deliberate. They matched her own. She was sure it was a person, and judging by the heaviness of the steps, a man. Sometimes, she heard his breath, heavy and labored. But whenever she turned to confront him, her heart pounding like a drumbeat in her chest, he was gone. Twice she had seen eyes peering through the thick foliage.

“Mama,” she said one morning at breakfast, when she and her mother were alone.

Her mother gave her a withering look. “What?” she asked.

The words teetered on the tip of her tongue. There’s a man in the woods.

“There—the—” she stammered, unable to squeeze the words out.

Her mother sighed and looked away. “Eat your eggs.”

Her mother would not believe her, anyway. But he was there. She was sure of it.

It became a game. She told herself to stay at least one foot away from the edge of the trees at all times. But it only lured him in further, closer to the clearing behind her house, his body obscured by a tree trunk and branches covering the rest of his face. She couldn’t breathe as she ran back to the house, imagining his hands brushing at her dress ties, reaching to yank her back. Only when her feet crossed the threshold of the back door did the air return to her lungs.

For a week, she didn’t come out of her room except to eat. After that, she only went outside if her mother, father or sister were out there. For a long time, he disappeared. She stopped sensing him, stopped hearing him. She almost believed that he had gone back to wherever it was he came from. Maybe she had conjured him, after all?

Then one day her sister was hanging clothes on the line while she flitted to the other side of the yard, chasing the yellow monarch butterflies that proliferated on top of the mountain. A white sheet fluttered on the clothesline, blocking her from her sister’s view. She got too close to the tree line. A hand shot out and clamped down over her mouth, silencing her screams. An arm wrapped around her waist, lifting her off the ground. Holding her tightly against his chest, he dragged her through the forest that used to be her friend. One thought rose above her panic. He was real.





Chapter One





The Stop and Go gas station had recently installed flat-screen televisions at the gas pumps because people could not possibly take their eyes off a screen long enough to pump gas. Even though it annoyed her, Detective Josie Quinn found herself glued to the screen when the breaking news flashed across it. They’d finally found Isabelle Coleman’s cell phone in the woods near her home.

A few miles away, outside the Colemans’ two-story white colonial, reporter Trinity Payne, dressed in a puffy blue jacket and yellow scarf, the wind blowing her black hair every which way, struggled through her report while escaped strands snaked all over her face.

“Five days ago, Marla Coleman returned home from work to an empty house. Believing that her seventeen-year-old daughter, Isabelle, had gone out with friends, she thought nothing of it until later that night when Isabelle failed to return home. Police sources tell us that, at that time, they had no reason to believe Isabelle’s disappearance was suspicious. Friends and family of Ms. Coleman describe her as a busy young woman with varied interests, likely to have left town on a spontaneous trip. But days later, with calls to her cell phone still going straight to voicemail and her car still parked in the Colemans’ driveway, police are now on high alert as the residents here in Denton rally together to form search teams.”

The camera panned out to show the Colemans’ long, circular driveway with three vehicles parked in it. Trinity continued, “For the last few days, volunteers have combed the area around the Colemans’ home, where Isabelle was last seen.”

The camera moved further out, swinging from side to side and focusing in on the heavily wooded areas surrounding the Coleman home. Josie knew the house. It was one of the larger homes on the outskirts of Denton, sitting alone along a rural road, its nearest neighbor almost two miles away. She’d once hit a deer with her police cruiser not far from there.

The camera returned to Trinity. “Yesterday, during one of the searches, a cell phone was discovered in one of these wooded areas, which is believed to have belonged to the missing girl. The screen was shattered and police tell us that the battery had been removed. Coleman’s parents say that she would never willingly part with her phone. It is now widely believed that Ms. Coleman is the victim of an abduction.”

She went on to answer some canned questions from the WYEP anchors and give out the number of the Denton police department helpline with a request for information. The knots in Josie’s shoulders that had started forming three weeks earlier tightened. She swiveled her neck and shrugged her shoulders, trying to loosen them. Listening to the latest developments and knowing she could do nothing to help made her want to smash the TV’s plasma screen into a million pieces with the gas pump in her hand.

Isabelle had been missing for five days. Why had it taken so long to find evidence that she had been abducted? Why had they waited two days to form search parties around the house? Why had they turned Josie away when she’d offered to join the search? Surely being on paid leave for an alleged use of excessive force didn’t render her searching skills useless. It didn’t matter that she was showing up as a private citizen; her colleagues, most of whom she outranked, had sent her home. Chief’s orders.

She fumed. Every available resource would be devoted to locating the girl. Every resource. Josie knew her colleagues were probably sleeping on cots in the break room at the station, working around the clock just like they’d done during the floods of 2011 when the entire city was under seven feet of water and the only way to get around was by boat. She knew they would have already called in volunteer firefighters, emergency medical services, and every able-bodied person in the city willing to search and run down leads. So why hadn’t the chief called her back to work yet?

Denton was roughly twenty-five square miles, many of those miles spanning the untamed mountains of central Pennsylvania with their one-lane winding roads, dense woods and rural residences spread out like carelessly thrown confetti. The population was edging over thirty thousand, just enough to give them about a half dozen murders a year—most of those domestic disputes—and enough rapes, robberies and drunken bar brawls to keep the police department staff of fifty-three moderately busy. Competent as they were, they simply weren’t equipped to handle an abduction case. Especially not the kind where the kidnapped girl was blond, vivacious, popular and college-bound. Every photo of Isabelle Coleman that Josie had seen—and the girl’s Facebook page boasted thousands of them, all of them set to public—looked like a glamour shot. Even in the photos where she and her friends made funny faces, poking out newly pierced tongues, Isabelle’s small pink barbell read “Princess” where it might as well have read “Perfect”.

The double doors to the Stop and Go whooshed open and two twenty-somethings made their way toward the gas pumps. Across from Josie sat their tiny yellow Subaru. The woman got in as the man pumped gas. Josie felt their eyes on her but refused to give them the satisfaction of looking back. Not that they’d have the balls to ask her any questions. Most people didn’t. They just liked to stare. At least her indiscretion wasn’t on the news anymore. In a small city where the standard newsworthy items were car accidents, local charity activities, and who got the biggest buck during hunting season, nobody cared anymore about the crazy lady cop with a temper.

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