The air in the police car became stuffy and a faint moldy odor permeated the interior. I wondered how old the vehicle was and how many times the inside had to be scrubbed clean due to drunks. “Can you maybe turn on the AC?” I asked. ”Or maybe open a window? It’s a little warm in here.”
“Yeah, not a problem,” Josh replied, rolling his window down. His demeanor had softened since I acknowledged who I really was and who I was picking up at the airport.
Guess my dirty laundry had been talked about a lot around the station.
Five months ago, after the eighth nurse turned up dead in Denver, Colorado, I took the plunge and went rogue. I took an extended leave of absence, claiming I needed to take care of a cancer-riddled aunt then requested a long bereavement when she died. Of course, there wasn’t any aunt.
It was eventually exposed. I’m guessing Jessie made a call to rat me out during our divorce. Anyway, my work history file was permanently stained by it. Yet, in all, I didn’t have any choice and it was worth every bit of what I paid.
I went undercover and took up the chase for the Nurse Catcher on my own. Every day for four straight months with no bureaucracy to bulldoze through or finagle.
Flew out to Denver on my own dime, used every bit of information I had on this brutal serial killer, and hunted the wintry streets without backup. I think I got close at some point. He must’ve sensed me somehow and fled the city.
When all the leads had dried up and while I waited for an expected ninth victim, I found a computer hacker and blackmailed him to gain access to an international investigation records database.
We learned a name, Lawson Daniel Torv, from the illegal research. A man under investigation for the deaths of three nurses is what stood out to me. It fit the profile and his history in Australia where he was born worked within the timeline our own investigation had developed.
They lost this Lawson Torv during their own manhunt, but the case remained open. The detective-in-charge, a Douglas Carber’s notes gave me some important factors which guided me on a hunch to Las Vegas.
Within weeks, bodies of two more nurses showed up there.
My instincts again told me he already moved on, but I pursued his trail to San Diego. When his newest victim, Kelli Thompson, in San Diego was found, it sealed his fate.
I truly hated that I couldn’t discern his actual location before Kelli was mutilated and murdered. The only positive was when her remains were discovered, it sent out a beacon to me, an exact spot to hunt for him. I understood his pattern by then and what rules he had adapted.
Torv, The Nurse Catcher, would drift along from city to city looking for ideal households on the outskirts of cities. He would rob and murder the resident owner or owners, keeping their remains hidden in the basement or garages. From there, he’d stalk the local college campuses.
Once he chose his victim, he waited for the prime opportunity to kidnap her to his new home. There, he’d take his time, rape and torture for four to five days, then he’d butcher them with an axe. Afterward, he’d take their remains to an area picked out for its difficulty to traverse.
Being a big man, ex-military, athletic and incredibly strong, he carried the remains in burlap sacks and dumped them in thorn patches or heavy shrub cover. Sometimes, he buried them in shallow graves under fallen trees. He knew he would have a long head start before anyone found them. Some of the women continued to be missing.
I suspected Tawnie had to have been one of the first in America. He displayed her like a calling card or some freakish grand announcement to the United States and Australian authorities. It was like he was flipping the bird to all authority. The Australian investigators hadn’t picked up on it and the investigators here chucked it up as just another sexual pervert serial killer born and raised in the Heartland.
Without the effort I made, I wonder how long he’d have gone on. How many more deaths and innocent victims would have met their fate at his hands?
I am no hero, but I did step up. They can’t take that from me.
It cost me a bad marriage, a possible executive position in the police force, and nearly my pension. The only reason it hadn’t been harsher was the fact I practically took the San Diego police force by the hand and walked them to Torv’s front doorstep. Along with the fact he was caught with the homeowner’s body and the sisters saved me from facing charges or severe disciplinary actions.
The shock and frustration on the massive man’s face when they arrested him was worth every bit of the fallout from my stint of illegal vigilantism.
As the police car entered a four-lane freeway tunnel, further ahead came a shrill shriek of tires and brakes followed by the echo of metal meeting metal. The impact was loud and peppered with shouts and other aftershocks of minor crashes.
Goddamn it! I’m going to be stuck in a traffic jam on the most important day of my career — seeing the smug bastard step down the steps of the plane in handcuffs and a police escort, walking right into my charge! I have to be there!
It was literally life-fulfilling to me. He was going to know who had taken him down. Sure, I had been there at the arrest along with a dozen others, but I wasn’t allowed time to interrogate him or even ask for the locations of the missing girls’ remains.
When he was with me downtown at Headquarters, I would get my almighty moment. Like the families of all his victims, I wanted — no, needed closure. The days of not having to think of The Nurse Catcher, obsessing over where Lawson would be that night, questioning what else I may do or what I hadn’t thought of to bring him down were almost over and life for everyone involved could move forward.
My eyes met Officer O’Dell’s in the rearview mirror. “Goddamn it, O’Dell! If I have to get out on foot and run along the cars, I’m going to do it!”
He shook his head. “No. We’re not at that point yet. We’ve got time and this.” He bent down and flipped on the sirens and lights. Slowly traffic worked to get out of their way, letting them get by.
I heaved some pent-up breath and rolled my tight shoulders trying to release the stress. The little arm wrapped in mine hadn’t left. I looked down and met the prying gaze of the boy.
“I have a very important appointment at the airport, but don’t let it worry you, angel. It won’t be long before you’re back with your family.”
“Nope,” he whispered. The tiny voice and simple word of denial struck me like a slap. A hopeless taint to the core of his statement. A finality.
“No. It’s going to be okay.” I tried to reassure him again, but his eyes were covered by the thick sunglasses so I couldn’t read their impact upon him.
From the front seat, Officer Brandon turned around. He showed a big “gotcha”-smile. “So…You can speak, tiger. What’s your name?”
The boy didn’t say anything to him and stared out the driver’s side window. He did, at least, keep his arm where it was and held my hand.
I leaned over and whispered, “If you tell us your name, I’m sure we could stop along the way and get you a soda…or maybe a scoop or two of ice cream. It’s really important we get you back with your family.”
He only continued to study the passing cars. Brandon turned back around, letting me work with him.
Shawn managed to squeeze the car past the three-car-and-delivery-van-pile-up we heard before, but there was at least a half-mile of tunnel still left to go.
I sat quietly, waiting for a reply, but the little man had a thick wall he didn’t seem to be ready to let me through.
“You know I’ve always wanted a little boy like you. In fact, my dream as a young girl was to have two children, a boy and a girl, to spoil and take everywhere with me. I set up tea parties with boy and girl dolls all the time. Once I even had a picnic in the park with them but forgot to tell my mom where I was going. The look of relief when she found me was…”
I let the words fade off when he whispered a word, “Chocolate?”
“Yes. We could get chocolate. Right, Officers?”
They agreed loudly.
He raised up, cupping his lips with his free hand as he whispered, “Phelps. My name is Rory Dillon Phelps.”
I let go of his hand and squeezed him with a warm hug. Then I spoke out loud for the officers. “There. That wasn’t so hard. Thank you, Rory Dillon Phelps.”
A loud, music-thumping and smoke-filled Honda Civic stayed in front of the patrol car, ignoring the sirens and flickering lights. In actuality, there wasn’t a place to go as the cars in front and alongside their lane were sitting idle with no room or shoulder to maneuver. O’Dell turned off the useless noise and lights.
“It’s only 9:48 AM. We’re going to have to wait a bit here though.”
“Okay,” I acknowledged. “Hey, in the meantime, have Dispatch look into finding his address. Maybe they can contact his family?”
Brandon swept up the radio receiver again. “X1718 to Dispatch. Over.”
Seconds later. “This is Dispatch, X1718. Were you able to pick the boy up?”
“Yes, ma’am. He appears to be seven-years-old with some minor cuts and abrasions, but otherwise, he’s fine. His name is Rory Phelps. Can you locate an address and maybe contact the family — tell them we should arrive in a couple of hours with him.”
“We have serious traffic right now due to a pileup in the Bennington Tunnel. Depending on where he lives, we could be earlier or later.”
“Noted. We’ll get the information back to you shortly. Over.”
Ten minutes passed. The early heat of the morning was building and the car’s AC had little effect as I checked my cell phone over and over.
“Dispatch to X1718.”
“This is Officer Carter again. I wanted to confirm with you the name of the boy. You reported Rory Phelps, correct?”
“Yes. R-O-R-Y P-H-E-L-P-S. Over.”
“X1718 please switch to Priority Line 2A.” She was guiding them to a classified radio frequency. Nothing good was said on those lines.
“If you have the same Rory Phelps I’m finding in the database, then you’ve got a child reported missing since 2016.”
Shawn snatched the receiver from Josh’s hand. “Sheila, this is Officer Shawn O’Dell. Hey, uh, can you give us what exact information you’re finding?”
“A Rory Dillion Phelps was abducted while on a historic tour of the Foxworth Mines in 2016. The bodies of his murdered parents were found, but his surviving sister, Bethany–”
Rory cried out, “BETHANY!” He hugged me, weeping into my shoulder.
The three of us stared at one another in shock and dismay at his reaction.
“…was not able to describe what happened. Some sort of traumatic amnesia blocked the details. She currently lives with Kenneth Gerard, her guardian in Drexel Hills,” Sheila continued.
“Have you contacted them?”
“Not yet, I didn’t want to give them any false hope if I didn’t have the right information.”
“He had a pretty obvious reaction to the name of his sister. Contact her guardian as soon as possible.” Shawn handed the receiver to Josh.
“Dispatch, we will see what other information we can get from the boy.”
“Understood. Dispatch over.”
As Josh replaced the receiver, Shawn tromped hard on the brake pedal. I hit the back of the seat as Josh smashed his head and shoulder into the dashboard.
“What the hell, man?” he snapped.
The Civic from earlier stopped moving forward and Shawn nearly rear-ended them.
Smoke leaked out around the windows of the Civic and filled the interior with a blinding fog. It remained motionless even though the traffic moved ahead on both sides.
As Shawn prepared to swing around them, the car’s passenger door popped open and a young black youth stepped out. Dressed in red basketball shorts, a red cap, and a white Chicago Bulls tank top, he raised both hands in mock surrender. He held a glistening silver vape pipe in one hand which he pointed at them like a pistol.
“What the hell?” Brandon repeated. He went to roll down his window, but O’Dell grabbed his arm.
“Not this time. Chill,” he ordered.
Shawn shook his head at the cocky youth and twisted the steering wheel to the right, pulling the car over, blocking both lanes.
The driver of the beat-up lime-green Civic did likewise and went diagonal to block both lanes, too.
“You ain’t leaving this party so soon, little piggies?” The black youth shouted as he sauntered over to O’Dell’s window.
“Aw, shit!” I didn’t like the way this was going.
The driver’s door opened and two more boys climbed out, one white and one East Indian. They were dressed alike in red caps, t-shirts, and red shorts, obviously fronting gang affiliation. With no regard for the police officers, they marched up and stood in front of the cruiser.
His eyes on the youths, Shawn swung the car’s computer console toward him. On the screen, he typed in the license plate HMN 2027. Honda Civic.
The screen blinked and refreshed with a picture and name of the Indian teenager: Khota Katri, Age 17, Street Name — KK. No current warrants. Suspected gang affiliation to The 27th Street Crew Gang.
Josh rolled down his window. “Back the fuck up! Now!” His voice crackled with pent-up fury. He then leaped out the door before Shawn could throw the vehicle in park.
“You were asked a question. It’s rude not to answer,” Khota quipped, standing his ground when Josh got in his face. KK was a couple of inches taller.
“Get back in your car now or you’ll go downtown.” Shawn roared at the first youth through the window.
“Stay and protect the boy,” he snapped at me. He started to open his door but stopped when the youth walked back along the cruiser, smiling at Rory and me.
“Well…My, my, my. Now I see–” the words dropped off as his jaw went slack. His eyes took on a confused, dazed stare, losing the mirth she’d just seen in them.
At that exact moment, something changed in the air. It was similar to the charge of static in the air gathering before a lightning storm, then a snap or like something breaking. It was something very palpable. Unseen but present.
The youth continued looking at us, but his mouth had closed, and the smile vanished. He raised his hand, the one without the vape, and pointed a slender finger at Rory. He mouthed, I seek you.
I spotted thin wisps of black smoke rising from the skin of his forehead and the skin along his cheeks.
Holy shit! What is going on? My instincts flared to life inside. My heart raced in a sudden surge. The unnatural smoke coming out of the youth’s pores scared me to the core.
“O’DELL!” I screamed, “GET US OUT OF HERE. DRIVE BETWEEN THEM AND GET JOSH!”
The tricky scenario triggered a reaction in both police officers as well. Josh retreated, one hand gripping the Glock on his belt, the other one raised, ready to stiff-arm any charges. The two boys cackled like human hyenas at each other but didn’t move nor had they taken on the scary effect like the first boy.
What the fuck was that smoke?
Josh leaped into the passenger seat as the black teen yanked hard on the back door’s handle, but all four doors were locked.
His eyes were distant and reacting as if in a trance. Could it be from the pot they might’ve been smoking in the car? Something told me there was more to it. As a detective, the eyes are always the first thing I study.
Shawn swung the vehicle over and used the cruiser’s bumper bars to nudge the Civic aside.
I kept my focus on the first teenager. He clung to the door handle and was dragged a few feet before letting go as the police car left them. The other two were laughing and acting like they were celebrating a Super Bowl touchdown at a block party. This was a highlight moment in their lives.
A whisper from Rory caught my attention.
I looked down at him.
“JESUS!” I yelped and clasped a hand over my mouth in sudden terror.
Rory’s face was peppered by beads of sweat and his cheeks were reddening as if sunburned. He was curled into a ball, floating a few inches in the air above the black leather seats. A narrow line of fiery amber light encircled him. As it slowly revolved around him, I could barely discern odd symbols and letters in the glow of the line. Panic filled the child’s eyes.