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The air inside the nightclub was hazy from smoke machines. Flashes of colored light cut through the swirls in beat with the pulsing music that shook the walls and the floor. The atmosphere was alive with movement―a mass of hot, swaying bodies bent on enjoying the moment. A monster waited in the depths of the darkness to bat her pretty eyes at someone and make them her prey.
The door of the establishment swung open to give way to three eager young men looking to have a good time and celebrate. The trio was instantly surrounded by dancing women. They made their way through the press of bodies to reach the bar.
Daniel forced himself not to scan the crowd for his ex-fiancée, April. But she was the least of his worries, as the real danger was a face he wouldn’t recognize.
Roy got their drinks while Hank and Daniel stood at a balcony that overlooked an even larger dance floor below. The smoke was thicker down there, and there were more lights. The dancers looked like they were paying sensual homage to their deity. The air was tainted with the aroma of perfume and alcohol; it burned the men’s nostrils and fueled their excitement for the revelry to come.
Daniel took a moment to text his twin brother, David, to let him know where they would be celebrating their shared birthday. He received a text back from David saying he was still an hour away.
Roy joined them with three shots and three cold bottles of beer, passing one of each to his friends. They downed the shots in one swallow before turning their attention to their beers.
“Dave will be here in an hour or so,” Daniel announced after downing his shot.
“Awesome—we’re gonna have a great time!” Hank yelled over the music.
As Roy took a drink of his beer, a petite, slim blonde grabbed his waist from behind. He jumped in surprise and turned, recognizing the young woman.
She tucked a finger into the front of his jeans, smiled at him, and tugged him away from his friends toward a table with another girl.
Roy looked back over his shoulder at his friends and shrugged.
“That’s Lynn,” Hank yelled to Daniel. “They’ve been seeing each other for a while. And that’s her cousin Trisha—you don’t want to go there.”
Daniel nodded and looked around. The warming effect of the shot was spreading through his body, relaxing him. He felt less paranoid about running into April.
While he was looking over the crowd, a woman caught his eye. She was a tall, slim brunette, and she was beautiful. She was standing alone at the end of the bar. He watched her for a few moments, and when she looked around, their eyes met.
He smiled and looked away.
Hank noticed Daniel’s mild interest. He knew what his friend had been through recently and why he was gun-shy with women.
“Go for it!” he yelled, nudging Daniel. “Have some fun!”
Daniel looked at his friend, took another swallow of beer, glanced at the woman—noticing she was still alone—and shrugged.
Hank laughed and gave Daniel a shove toward the bar, causing him to slam into two people who happened to be walking past. When he turned to them to apologize, he came face to face with the very woman he was hoping not to run into: April. The man she was with was leaning on her with all his weight while she struggled to hold him up.
Daniel’s heart clenched in his chest and his lungs seized up for a moment. He felt his hand tighten around the neck of his beer bottle. He wanted to slam it over the other man’s head, but he managed to restrain himself. He didn’t want her to know how much the sight of her with another man hurt him, so he put on a brave front.
“Excuse the fuck out of me,” he said with a sadistic smile, raised the bottle in the air like he was toasting them, and then took a big swig of the brew. He was pleased with the shocked expression that spread across April’s face at his harsh greeting.
They didn’t say anything to Daniel, but focused back on each other and moved around him and deeper into the establishment.
Daniel glanced over to Hank, who was grinning from ear to ear.
He smiled at his friend, nodded, and forced himself to put one foot in front of the other until he made it over to the woman at the bar.
While he walked he pretended not to notice that April had glanced back at him several times as she guided her drunken man to a table where he could sit down. He was determined to show April she wasn’t the only woman in the world. He was going to prove to himself and her that he was over the breakup.
“Hi, I’m Daniel!” he yelled when he reached the woman, leaning toward her a little so she could hear him as a new song started to play.
“Grace!” she yelled back.
They smiled at each other.
The couple chatted for a while about nothing important, since it was too loud to carry on a serious conversation, and ordered drink after drink as they stood at the bar. Daniel’s emotional tension eased little by little with every drink. He became more and more relaxed, and friendlier and friendlier with Grace. Before he knew what was happening, they were pressed up against each other while they conversed so they could hear each other better.
“Let’s get out of here,” Grace said. She kissed him and reached down between them to rub his crotch.
Normally Daniel would be shocked and uneasy by such a gesture so soon after meeting a woman, but he’d had enough drinks not to care about how respectable she was or wasn’t being.
He nodded in agreement and looked around for his friends, frowning.
“I have to tell my friends I’m leaving,” he said, taking a step away from Grace.
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Grace said, rubbing his crotch again.
“They’ll figure it out. Besides, you can call them later and they can pick you up from my place.”
That sounded reasonable so he followed her out to the parking lot. The night was clear and felt cool after the heat from the population of patrons inside the nightclub.
They stumbled together through the parking lot and paused to make out, pressed against the side of her car for a couple minutes before they finally separated their bodies to get in.
Daniel had the passenger’s side door open and was about to climb inside when his cell phone beeped, notifying him of a text. He stopped, stood up straight beside the car, and pulled his wallet out of his back pocket by mistake. He reached into his other back pocket and extracted his cell phone. He frowned and squinted to focus on the tiny, bright screen that said David was only a block away.
“What are you doing?” Grace asked.
“I can’t go with you,” he said with a sigh. “Sorry. I—”
He felt a sharp pain in the side of his neck. He reached up to figure out what had hurt him and spun around at the same time, dropping his cell phone and wallet to the asphalt parking lot.
Grace was standing behind him holding an empty syringe.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but you have to come with me.”
He tried to shove her away, but his limbs wouldn’t do what he wanted them to. His legs gave out from beneath him as the world blurred into a black blob of nothing.
Grace shoved Daniel’s tall frame into the passenger seat when he started to fall, smacking his head on the door frame. She quickly picked his feet up from the ground and spun him so she could get him all the way into the car.
She heard laughing as a couple made their way through the parking lot a few rows over, so she didn’t take the time to pick up what Daniel had dropped.
Grace shut the passenger door and ran around to the driver’s side of her car. She scanned the parking lot as she pulled out, not seeing anyone close-by. She’d been careful, watching for people as they’d headed outside, but the distant couple had snuck up on them.
Luckily they hadn’t come close enough to see what she was up to. She tensed slightly when she had to pass another vehicle as she pulled from the lot out onto the street, but the man was looking in the opposite direction and didn’t even glance their way.
Once she was out of the parking lot and a couple blocks away, she pulled out her cell phone and called Roger.
“Hey,” she said into the phone. “I have fresh meat…”
FBI Agent David McCoy poured himself a measure of whiskey, sat heavily in the leather recliner in his small living room, and loosened his tie. It had been a rough day at work and he knew he had an even rougher night ahead of him. He’d already scheduled a vacation day so he wouldn’t have to go in to work the next day.
He stared at the large stack of case files sitting on his coffee table as he took a gulp of his drink. Tonight of all nights he didn’t want to deal with anything, but it was unavoidable. He knew his mother would be calling soon—she always called him the exact minute he’d been born. He knew what she’d ask and he knew what his reply would be—the same reply he’d given her last year. There was no news.
Daniel’s picture lay on top of the stack of files—the angular face with a huge smile, sparkling gray eyes, and dark hair so much like his own stared back at him from the rectangle of glossy paper. While Daniel’s missing persons file wasn’t the oldest one in the stack, it was the one that had the most relevance to him. He suspected his twin brother had met the same fate as all the others in the pile, but he couldn’t bring himself to tell his mother. All of them had disappeared without a trace…and that usually meant death.
He finished his drink in one large gulp, let his head fall back against the headrest of his chair, and tried to stop the guilt that burned in his soul.
The “should haves” spun through his brain: I should have been on time. I should have been there to protect my brother. I should have tracked the bastards responsible down by now and made them pay. I should be able to give my mom closure.
While he knew nothing was his fault and there was nothing he could have done to protect his brother, he still felt responsible. He was the one who had to answer to their mother. He was the one who was in law enforcement. He was the one who hadn’t come clean and told her that his brother was most likely dead. Hell, he couldn’t help but hope she was right and he was wrong, and that he would somehow find his brother alive.
His cell phone rang. He opened his eyes and glared at it where it sat on the end table beside his chair. He knew who it was. The ring tone was the one he’d assigned for his mother—a series of rising and falling bells. He cleared his throat, sat up, picked up the phone, took a deep breath, and answered it in a forced cheerful tone.
“Hi, Mom,” he said, standing and walking over to where his bottle of whiskey sat on the counter in his tiny kitchen.
He closed his eyes tightly and held his breath, waiting for the moment he knew was coming…
“Happy Birthday!” she said.
“Thank you,” he said, and slowly let out the breath he was holding.
He lifted the bottle of whiskey and poured himself a double.
“Any news about Daniel?”
“No, there’s no news,” he responded.
He could hear the disappointment in her voice. He could feel the emotional pressure through the phone. He wanted to comfort her, to give her any kind of news he could, but he had nothing to give. “I’ll go over the case again tonight—you know I always do.” He took a large swallow of his drink and laughed bitterly.
“Yes, I know,” she said in a small voice. “I’ll let you go then. I love you.”
“I love you too,” he sighed. “Thanks for calling.”
He was relieved she wanted to end the call so soon. He figured maybe she could sense how stressed he was and didn’t have the emotional energy to deal with him, just like he didn’t have the emotional energy to deal with her.
He hadn’t talked to his mother much since Daniel’s disappearance. And he spoke to her less and less as every year passed that Daniel wasn’t found. He felt bad about the distance that had crept into their relationship—they were both going through this alone. Daniel’s ghost was haunting them both, making them feel lost and worthless because they couldn’t do anything to fill the void in their lives.
With another sigh, he grabbed the bottle and his glass and headed back into the living room to sit down and go through the stack of files sitting on his coffee table. He knew all of them by heart. He’d read them over and over again multiple times. And he felt helpless as the pile kept growing. The problem was, he kept finding old cases, not new ones. They were on people who’d been missing longer than his brother. What he needed—and he knew it—was a break with newer cases. Then he’d have a lead. Then he’d have a trail. Then he’d be able to find the assholes that took his brother and make them pay.
He sat down, picked up Daniel’s picture, and pulled a gold chain with the Lady Justice pendant he always wore out from under his shirt.
He rubbed the pendant between his thumb and first two fingers—it was something he often did when he thought of his brother. Daniel had wrapped the gift and stuck it in his wallet to give him for their birthday. There seemed to be something symbolic about the blindfolded woman holding a sword and scales…he’d received the ultimate symbol of justice the same night his brother had gone missing. It was as if Daniel were calling out to be found, possibly from beyond the grave.
With a heavy sigh, he laid the picture aside, let go of the pendant, and opened Daniel’s file, praying his brother would speak to him and somehow tell him why he’d been missing for so long.
Everything was the same as the last time he’d read it, but still he took the time to go over every word. As he read the file that night came back to him in vivid clarity.
He remembered arriving and calling his brother, only to hear the phone ring in the parking lot.
He remembered finding Daniel’s phone and wallet beside the parking space he’d pulled into.
He remembered the sickening feeling that settled in his gut as he’d picked them up and looked for the vehicle that had to have been in the space.
The phone calls were possibly the worst part for him. He’d called Hank to have him and Roy search for Daniel in the nightclub, just in case. Then he’d called the police; it had been hard to convince them his brother was indeed missing. They’d wanted to wait 24 hours, claiming he’d probably gone home with some woman and would turn up shortly. David’s law enforcement training and his intimate knowledge of his brother told him something was wrong. He’d insisted they look into the matter, which they reluctantly did with a single cruiser a half hour later. Immediately after getting off the phone with the police, he’d called their mother. Her panic and tears when he’d told her Daniel was missing still hung like weights on his soul.
He’d felt responsible then, and he felt responsible now.
After reading the entire file that revealed nothing new, he went on to the next, and the next, and the next. In each and every case the police had been notified that the person had gone missing in less than 24 hours. In each and every case it was against the missing person’s habits to be out of contact with their friends and family. He knew from experience that most people didn’t even realize their loved one was missing for a day or two, especially if they didn’t live with the person who’d gone missing. Spouses and children were usually reported missing the soonest.
He reached the bottom of the stack of case files the same time he reached the bottom of the whiskey bottle. Neither gave him any peace.