Adrian and Kost talked easily about Kost’s make-believe children while they waited in line to order lunch. They had an appointment in a few hours to take a look at one of the nearby houses and decided to scout out the restaurant and the nearby park for anyone who may have noticed something suspicious before the agents’ disappearance. The restaurant was the same one the agent from the diary had described and they hoped that by visiting the same locations they could find someone who had seen something the day the entry was written.
Nobody approached them with concerns as they made their way to a seat at a table in the middle of the room, nor did any smiles at the overheard conversation hold a grain of worry. Kost made sure to emphasize how he was worried about finding a safe neighborhood. Still no negative reaction. It seemed no one here had noticed a man following the missing agent.
The two men walked to the park a few blocks away when they had finished their lunch. They stopped a few times on the way to ask other passersby about the neighborhood. The adults they talked to were eager to point out all the good things their neighborhood held. No one’s eyes flickered as they had answered Kost’s questions about safety.
Kost was starting to lose hope that someone could tell them what they needed to know. Had the agent from the diary entry been wrong? Had no one actually followed him?
Their luck changed a few minutes after they walked into the fenced-in park area. Since it was the middle of the day, the area was overrun by children at the height of their energy. Adrian and Kost were a bit overwhelmed by the commotion, not sure who to talk to first. They noticed a woman to the side who was watching them with a small smile and approached her.
“This is Adrian and I’m Kost. We are here looking for a new house for my family and I to move into.”
“My name is Teresa, and welcome to the most popular location in the neighborhood.” She spread her arms wide to encompass the area. “My son is the one who believes he can touch the sky if he swings high enough.”
The two agents followed her finger to where a young boy stretched his arm out as far as it could go at the apex of his swing. Kost chuckled knowingly.
“My daughter Julie currently believes she is a princess. The only time she takes off her plastic crown is when she is in the bathtub and in bed, and even then it has to be within arm’s reach.”
Teresa bit back a smile as she warned, “I’m still my dad’s princess. It never stops.”
The agent gave a slight bow in teasing gratitude.
“Thank you for letting me know. I will prepare myself for crowns and ball gowns in my future.”
He glanced around at the park, stepping out of the way as a rowdy group of boys ran past. “What is your opinion of the neighborhood? I have two children and another on the way so I want to find a good area for them to grow up in.”
“I’ve lived here ever since I had Nathan and have never had a problem. The neighbors are friendly, the stores and restaurants are clean and high quality, and everyone looks out for each other.”
“What about safety? Are the roads kept up? Anyone I would need to look out for?”
Teresa considered, her eyes wandering to her son who had given up on reaching the clouds and was sliding off the seat.
“There was one thing I noticed,” she commented, not looking at the two men beside her as though not seeing them would let her pretend that nothing was actually wrong.
“A few months ago, four people moved into a condo near the edge of the neighborhood. They said they were business partners doing some research, I think. Anyway, one of the men, Robert, came by the park a lot to play with the children. They loved him, called him the ‘Game Maker’ because he would come up with the coolest games. But a month ago, he and his friends were gone with no explanation.”
Kost shared a knowing glance with Adrian, then turned back to the woman. This was what they had been hoping to find.
“You think something happened to them,” the agent said softly. Teresa nodded shakily, tension visible in the way she clenched and unclenched her hands.
“A few days before Robert stopped coming, there was a man watching him in a way that made me uneasy. I didn’t say anything because I thought I was being paranoid. Now I’m not so sure.”
Kost leaned forward, his eyes growing serious as he flashed his badge and ID.
“Ma’am, I am actually an agent investigating the disappearance of those four people. If you had said something then I have no doubt that you and your son would be missing as well.”
Teresa went sheet-white and she instinctively sought out her son. When she saw him running along the top of the playset, she relaxed slightly and turned her attention to the two men she now knew were undercover agents. Her voice was shaky but determined as she asked, “What do you need to know?”
Kost nodded in recognition of Teresa’s courage. He put a hand on her shoulder and led her to a nearby bench. She sat down gratefully.
“First of all, you must not tell anyone what you told us today. The people who kidnapped Robert and the others rely on secrecy, and if they found out that you know something they may try to kill you.”
He studied the young woman for any sign of confusion. There was none so he continued.
“Do you remember what the strange man looked like? Can you describe him?”
Teresa nodded hesitantly, her expression turning inward. “He was tall, I remember that. He was leaning up against that tree,” she pointed it out, “and his head almost reached the first branch.”
Adrian judged the height she was referring to. About six feet five inches, he estimated.
“His hair was black like it had been dyed that way with bangs that he kept brushing out of his eyes. He was really pale and had a scar around his left eye, kind of curved around it.”
She paused, searching her memory for anything else. “Oh! He was also wearing a pair of BE YOU shoes. I recognized them because Nathan had been begging me for a pair for weeks.
“His clothes were regular casual clothes and I don’t think there was a logo on them. That’s all I can remember.” She looked up hopefully at the two agents.
Kost smiled warmly at the young woman.
“That was extremely helpful.”
He pulled out a contact card and flipped it to the back.
“Can you write down your phone number in case we need you to identify him?”
Teresa took the proffered card and pen and scribbled down the numbers. As she handed them back, her face was hard. “Find the people who did this.”
“We will do our best.”
Jack was just getting off the phone when Nikki woke up, groggily blinking her eyes open. She looked around, her eyes landing on the GPS. They were only two miles away from the BE YOU main office building and she grinned. Perfect timing.
Jack put his phone in the open cup holder for safe-keeping, glancing over at her before fixing his gaze back on the road.
She yawned and stretched, grabbing his coffee from the other cup holder and gulping a few mouthfuls before putting it back. She smiled sweetly at the agent’s glare.
“It was wonderful, thanks for asking.” She nodded at his phone. “Was that Risby?”
“Yeah. I thought it would be a good idea to check in now rather than later when we might be in the middle of finding the records. It’s close to the three-hour mark anyway.”
“Smart idea.” She stared out the window, watching the trees pass in a blur. The BE YOU building was in a small town a few hours outside the city, which was unusual for such a successful company.
“Why did you actually want me to come with you today?”
Jack let out his breath in a deep sigh.
“Caught that, did ya? I’m worried about your partner.”
“Adrian? What about him?” Nikki twisted in her seat to hear Jack better.
“He’s too perfect.” At Nikki’s disbelieving stare, he chuckled. “I know, it sounds strange but hear me out. He is a senior agent trusted with one of the world’s most infamous gangs. There’s no way he doesn’t have skeletons in his closet.”
Nikki jumped to defend her partner.
“Sure, he’s arrogant and annoying, but that doesn’t mean he has something to hide.”
Jack gazed at her with world-weary eyes.
“I certainly hope so, but I’m not counting on it. I wasn’t planning on saying anything, just keeping an eye him and looking out for you. I don’t want him to drag you down with him.”
Nikki huffed and looked away, fiddling with the zipper on her jacket.
“You’re wrong,” she said quietly. Jack didn’t answer her.
The manager was quick and eager to assist them in locating the records they needed. The business often received requests to see their shoes in the company’s records so there was a scanner dedicated solely to taking even a partial image and matching it with the one the company had on file.
BE YOU was known for making each pair of shoes unique but, as the manager explained, there were only certain parts of the shoe that could be made different. The pattern of the treads of the shoes and the colors were both things that could be changed and those were the things that the scanner picked up on. However, if there weren’t enough identifiers in the scuff they may not be able to find the record.
The manager placed the photo that Jack had brought with them on the scanner. He waited until the machine beeped, then handed it back to the agents.
“Now we just wait as it runs through our records.”
The light flashed fifteen minutes later - there was a match. The record showed that the shoes had been shipped to a store forty minutes east of the main building and had been paid for in cash. The manager had checked his watch, decided that a few more minutes couldn’t hurt, and called the store up. Again, luck was on their side. The cashier of the small shop who answered was the same who had sold the shoes.
“The guy was a real creep,” the cashier told them. “He kept trying to flirt with me the whole time he was here.”
Jack leaned in toward the phone, speaking loudly so the speaker would pick him up.
“Can you tell us what he looked like?”
“I can do better than that. We had security cameras installed a few months ago, just before creeper man showed up. If you give me a few minutes to pull them up, I can send them to you.”
“Thank you, Taylor,” Jack said. He gave her his email and hung up. He looked over at Nikki who was studying the display of shoes on the wall. Some were colorful with bright, cheery designs all over them while some were more muted in color, made to be subtle and yet still make an impression. She noticed Jack watching her.
“They’re beautiful,” she commented softly. Jack walked up to her side and trailed his finger down the glass case.
“Unique,” he said, “just like the people who wear them.”
At Nikki’s curious glance as to the conviction in his voice, he indulged her with an explanation.
“When I was little, my mom and I would sit on the front porch and we would watch people go home from work. We had a game where we would each pick out a person and then compare them to the other. At first, it was obvious things like whether they were male or female, what color their hair was, what they were wearing. But as I got older, I started to notice how some people walked with long, confident strides while others would keep their steps short and hurried. Some people swung their arms. Some looked around while they walked. Some just looked at their phones. No matter who they were, they had something that made them unique. And their uniqueness made them beautiful.”
Nikki stared at the shoes, the different designs taking on a new meaning.
“That’s really inspirational,” she whispered. Jack smiled down at her.
“It’s why I’m good at what I do. I recognize each person as having their own traits and quirks. Usually, I’m trying to put them in jail, but that’s my job.” He moved back to the desk in the room the manager had lent them. His laptop was open to his email, and he saw that the security tapes had arrived. He ran through them until he found a good shot of the man who had bought the shoes.
“Let’s call Risby.”
Sarah twirled a strand of hair around her finger as she considered her next step to recover more information. She had uncovered a few more diary entries through the one that Nikki found but they hadn’t revealed any new information, just more day-to-day moments that were enjoyable to read but not helpful to the investigation. She sighed and put her laptop to the side- she needed a break.
There was bread in the cabinet next to the fridge that Sarah pulled out. A little more exploring brought her peanut butter and some strawberry jam. She mentally thanked Jack for stocking up with her favorite snack food.
Risby knocked once before entering to let Sarah know he was coming in. She waved at him from her seat at the table with her mouth full of sticky goodness. He rolled his eyes. She hadn’t offered him any!
“Did you find anything else?”
Sarah swallowed and wiped her mouth.
“Uh, no. Just a few more entries but they don’t have anything useful on them. Did any of the others.”
“Yes, actually. Both groups did. I was just about to ask you to set up a conference call.”
Sarah jumped up, rushing to the sink to rinse her hands before pulling her laptop to her.
“Just give me a second.”
Risby slid off his jacket and set it on one of the couches before sitting at the table.Within seconds, Adrian and Kost were on one half of Sarah’s screen and Jack and Nikki were on the other. She waved cheekily at the two groups.
“Hey Jack, Adrian didn’t finish the pastries you bought this morning so I had the rest of them. I hope you don’t mind.”
Jack’s lips quirked upward.
“That’s fine, Sarah. I’m glad you enjoyed them.”
Risby cleared his throat to get their attention.
“Both of you have contacted me that you have information. Kost? Adrian? You go first.”
Adrian took out his notes from his brief case. “We confirmed that there was someone following Agent Robert the day of the diary entry and have a description. I emailed it to you.”
Risby pulled up his email and searched through his most recent messages.
“I got it.”
He read it out loud for Jack, Nikki, and Sarah. As he was speaking, Jack seemed to become subdued while Nikki grew excited. When he was finished, Nikki burst out, “That sounds exactly like the guy who bought the BE YOU shoes that matched the shoe scuff!”
Risby raised an eyebrow, interested in this new development.
“Yes! Hey Jack, did you send them the security tapes yet?”
Jack looked off screen for a minute, then Risby’s email showed that he had a new message. He opened it and watched the short clip. It certainly seemed to be the same person.
“Good work all of you. Sarah? Can you find out who this is?”
Sarah took the image and started typing away, hacking into databases to find what she needed. With her skill, it was easy to discover the man’s identity.
“His name is Billy Dubo, age thirty-four and unemployed.” She looked up. “From everything it says here, he fits the profile of a Fanged Wolves gang member.”
“Adrian? You and Kost are closer to his location. Arrest him discretely and bring him to the address I’m about to send to you.”
The two men nodded, Adrian taking out his phone to wait for the message from Risby. He was about to sign off when Jack muttered, “It’s too easy.”
Immediately Adrian grew angy.
“What do you mean it’s too easy? We worked hard to find all of the information! There was no part of any of this that was ‘easy!’”
Jack eyed the man balefully.
“Just shut up for a minute, will you?” He took a deep breath.
“Yesterday we didn’t have any leads, just a handful of evidence that even best-case scenario shouldn’t have helped us much in the initial investigation. The Fanged Wolves don’t make mistakes. And they most certainly wouldn’t leave clues directly to one of the kidnappers. It doesn’t make sense.”
Sarah glanced worriedly at the picture of Billy Dubo.
“That’s true. If our luck keeps up like this, I’d be willing to bet that one of the fingerprints or the blood will match the suspect, giving us the chance to completely take down the Fanged Wolves.”
She fiddled with the last bit of her sandwich.
“It isn’t normal.”
“Exactly. Someone is being set up. If it is us, then we are already dead. But if it’s the Fanged Wolves who are getting the short end of the deal, that means that there is something out there bigger than the Fanged Wolves that we don’t know about.”
Nikki felt a flutter in the pit of her stomach and quickly brushed it away. This was no time to be getting nervous.
“Either way, it sounds like we don’t have a choice. We either pursue this to the end and hope that we don’t die or we give up. I know which option I’m choosing.”
Kost spoke up for the first time during this conversation.
“I agree with young Nikki. We started this mission to find our missing agents. If there is even a chance of them still being alive, then we are duty-bound to find them. Even at the cost of our own lives.”
Risby looked between the two screens and Sarah. Each of the agents working under him wore a determined expression on their face, Jack less so than the others but still willing to try. It was decided. To battle they would go.