Anticipation gnawed away at me. Afternoon turned into evening, and I watched the phone while I waited for answers. Pacing the floor, my relief surfaced when they called off the dive team unable to locate her body. Bill called and I threw as much information his way as possible. The detectives around here had little more to run on, so I gave him full reign and discussed what I already told Detective Oprantz in detail.
“Bill, he thought I did it at first and it took time to rule me out as a suspect. Jesus, he could have been looking at other people earlier instead of looking at me.” I spit into the phone, not really appreciating what they had done already.
“It is standard in a case like this. They always look closest to home first, as most of the kidnap cases are committed by someone they know.”
I shouldn’t be mad, but it wanted them focused on finding Chelsea instead of them going to the worst possible outcome. “Bill, I just need them to find her. Please help me find her.” Even over the phone, I felt his sense of impotence since he was so far away.
“Think, Brandt. Has she said anything out of the ordinary in the last couple of days? This guy could have been watching her.”
Something ruminated in the back of my mind. He said most victims knew their assailants. It made me think back to what happened after our latest ultrasound. “We were at the farmers market in town, Océano de Los Cielos. She looked a little spooked thinking she saw someone and when I mentioned it, she just said ‘old ghosts.’” Old ghosts. She called it baby brain or something like that. I wished I paid better attention.
"‘Old ghosts’ like someone from her past? Brandt, is there someone she talked about who she had a difficult past with?”
Realization dawned on me. “Dan. An old boyfriend. He was an asshole. I think his last name is Winter. His dad is in office somewhere in Wisconsin.”
“Well, it is worth checking it out. Brandt. Put the detective on the line. I need to talk to him, and I will get back to you.” Reluctantly, detective Oprantz took the phone because I insisted. It was just another clue, and they had nothing to go on. My only hope laid with Bill now.
Overhearing the conversation, I found that not one of my earlier leads panned out. LuAnn and the shitty band members of my past all had alibis, and even Ron’s alibi checked out. After hanging up with Bill, detective Oprantz came and talked to me again.
“Mr. Stennet, we need to look at a broader area. We are looking into this Dan guy but is there anything else you can tell me about Chelsea? What did she do? Where did she go? Could it be possible she was seeing someone else?” The last statement made my blood boil. He thought she might have had a lover?
“Ah, for Christ’s sake she never screwed around on me. In fact, we were going to her parents’ house to tell them she was pregnant.” He looked at me with a renewed interest. I didn’t think to mention it before as I was too worried about her.
“Pregnant? Does everyone know?”
I shook my head. “Our families don’t know. We were flying out to tell them. Most people around here know, but they were the only ones we’ve told so far.” He tapped his foot on the ground. The loafer echoed through the quiet room despite the flurry of activity on the opposite side of the house.
“Was anyone upset by this? Someone she worked with maybe?” I told him she hadn’t worked for a little while. She did photoshoots for a retail clothing store and worked as an occasional extra in a movie, but she had horrible morning sickness and it made it difficult for her to work lately. She stopped taking jobs, thinking her growing stomach would make it difficult for her to model anymore.
The only other place she went at this point was to church. His face grew solemn knowing the information was futile. He asked me how well I knew the people at church and I looked at him sheepishly. Not only wasn’t I home most Sundays, but I didn’t attend church with her. I didn’t know anyone who did but mentioned she sang in the choir and maybe some of them knew our secret.
He dismissed himself and went out to make another call. More waiting. I hated how slow they worked at finding my angel. Why hadn’t they found her yet? I refused to believe she was dead, convinced if it were the case, I would have felt it.
Impatiently, I waited for more answers. More leads to be tracked down. Now they were hoping to find her with some studio manager or photographer with a grudge, or some bible thumper who had a thing for her. There were just too many possibilities. It felt like a needle in a haystack.
A small break in the case transpired by the time the sun went down. Not thinking they left by boat, they informed me of foot tracks along the cliff flanking my property. It led to a historical site but the trail was private use only. They described both two sets of footprints and tire tracks at the clearing at the top. They were looking into the different possible vehicles to find a match. Hope sprung up as I grasped at any information to lead me to Chelsea. This wasn’t much, but at least it was something.
There continued to be a flurry of activity at the house. Ryder called, and I told him what I knew. He informed me about contacting the band and not to worry about the tour, although it was the furthest thing from my mind.
Louis dropped off Ed and Barb. Chelsea’s mom had been crying by the look of the bags under her eyes, and it had only been ten hours at the most since talking to them. I filled them in the best I could, but Ed wanted more answers. He talked as calmly as he could to the officer in charge. Detective Oprantz tried to inform them of all the issues as Ed sputtered his discontent. Good. Let the detective deal with him. As it was, he could hardly look at me. He probably thought this was all my fault.
My parents showed up next with Tom in tow. Tom took the lead in helping with clues in the case, but only I knew they had been running cold. There were stations set up in the front living room, and officers were changing hands with other officers as the night brought on a change in shift. I met up with an officer Tony Canon, sure his focus was to keep Ed and me separated. He was my height, bald, and he looked formidable in his uniform, and I could see how he could intimidate people with just that alone. He had dark skin the color of night and deep penetrating eyes that would work well to question any offenders into giving themselves up. Although he didn’t say it, I knew he could feel the tension between Ed and myself. But instead of interfering, he chose to lie low, not stepping in the way unless the situation required.
Tony kept me informed first. He told me they were checking out the church as well as the photo studio but there were so many people to look at that he didn’t think it would be an easy task. When I asked about Dan, he informed me about him being stationed in Germany. Another name crossed off the list but this time it bothered me. Chelsea’s voice kept ruminating in my head. Old ghosts?
Tony didn’t see me as a suspect like the others did, and I appreciated the little information he gave me. I couldn’t sit and ended up pacing the floor. When my mother asked about my blood sugar, I shook her off, not caring but realizing I hadn’t checked it since this morning. Even though food held no interest, my blood sugar was bound to be high due to the stress of the situation. Between her and Tony pressuring me I conceded and checked it.
My spare insulin was kept in the refrigerator, and when I explained it to the crime scene, they let me in. Looking at the mess in the kitchen my heart seized in my chest. The broken door, the half-eaten sandwich still laying on the floor. The dust from their evidence collection. That alone would kill Chelsea to see this mess, and then I stopped and closed my eyes as the pain of my loss seeped in.
I felt my mom’s hand on my back and I turned to hug her tight. She hugged me back, and it comforted me knowing she was here. I needed her. I needed my father and Tom and even to know that Ed and Barb were here. Most of all, I needed to know Chelsea was alive and well but those answers weren’t coming fast enough.
Forcing myself to eat something, I took a small amount of insulin, convincing myself I needed to keep my strength up. My mom seized control of the family members, assigning them bedrooms and getting them food or drink from our kitchen after getting the approval from the officers although no one was hungry. We all sat in silence, waiting for word on Chelsea’s disappearance.
Barb and my mother took some time to talk quietly in the corner. My father had since given up talking to Ed. He was aloof, and although dad thought it was because of his missing daughter, I knew the reason had more to do with him hating me and blaming me for Chelsea’s disappearance.
As time went on, the police officers started leaving. A skeleton crew lingered here as opposed to the beginning of this whole day and when I noticed it, I threw a fit. Why? Why were they leaving? Did they give up? Stop and start over tomorrow after a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast? Tony grabbed me and threatened me to calm down but it did nothing to alleviate my helplessness at the situation. He explained they were all out working on leads and required more manpower out there and not in here. It made sense, but I still had trouble seeing their faces as they left. The pity that radiated off them was foreboding.
Detective Oprantz stayed behind while Detective Parchaz ran down some leads. He came off as approachable, going so far as to tell me I could find him for any little thing I remembered but I didn’t think he was serious. He made Tony be the go-between as he was unable to look in my eyes when I demand to know what was being done.
Unable to handle the enclosure of the walls of the house, I moved to the deck. I went to the railing and leaned on it, staring at the ocean and the waves crashing on the beach. How many times had we stood right here and watched what we considered our ocean? Or sat in the lounge chairs with me holding her? She loved coming out here. Our little piece of heaven. A place in our own backyard where we could go to melt away the stress of the day and forget our troubles. Unfortunately, it did little to comfort me tonight.
It all seemed surreal compared to life just twenty-four hours ago. By this time, we were done with the stage and the sightseeing. I selfishly crashed out in my hotel, sleeping comfortably instead of catching a flight home so I could see her. My guilt destroyed me. My life was out there with her, and I couldn’t find her. I knew this would happen. Things were finally going my way. This was my life, my luck. In essence, I caused this. I shouldn’t have ever tempted fate, falling in love, or believing in a happy ever after.
Like always, my anger flared when frustrated or mad. I just wanted to hit something. Feel the pain through my fists as it was significantly better than the numbness creeping up inside me. I tried to stop it, but my mind wandered. She was out there with some monster, I just knew it. As my mind crept to all the evil that was out there, I couldn’t help seeing my angel hunkered down, scared and wounded.
Tears threatened my eyes, and they would have spilled over if I had been alone much longer, but Ed made his way out to the deck. Choking back my sorrow and hiding my fear, I looked down at the ocean while gripping the deck rail almost to the point of pain.
“Son, I want to talk to you.”
I shook my head. “Not now, Ed. I got more on my mind than getting an earful from you.” I knew I shouldn’t have said it, but with my quick temper and the urge to strike out, it was all I could do to not act on it.
Just then, my phone rang. Looking down at it, I saw Bill’s name appear. Ignoring Ed, I answered. “Yes.”
“Brandt, did Detective Oprantz find out more on Dan?”
“Dan? Yeah, I guess he is in Germany. Stationed over there in the army.” Ed stiffened beside me at the mention of Chelsea’s ex-boyfriend.
Bill sighed over the phone. “I didn’t think the detective would tell you. Damn, I should have called you sooner. Listen, I decided to follow up on his father’s report of him in Germany. He isn’t there. The military let him go over a month ago. Something about punching his commanding officer and being court marshaled.” The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as Chelsea’s words traveled back to me: old ghosts.
“Bill, that’s it. Where is he now?”
“Unfortunately, I don’t know. A source says that Dan is back in the states, but since he got kicked out of the army, I don’t have a good idea. I will keep looking and get back to you.”
Furious that this news was kept from me, I spit into the phone. “Bill, make sure you call me first. I will talk to Detective Oprantz and find out what the hell is going on.” I hung up and headed inside, leaving Ed to look on behind me.
Rage built steadily as I found the detective in the front living room, the makeshift command center. There were only three officers present now besides Tom. Detective Oprantz, Tony, and some lady officer who must have just gotten here. Detective Oprantz looked up from studying a paper in his hand, and I pounced on him.
“Why didn’t you tell me about Dan? Why!” Barely able to control my anger, I got in his face. Tony stepped in between us, registering my loathing.
“Mr. Stennet, we already followed up on him. His father said he was in Germany.” Detective Oprantz looked unfazed by my demeanor.
“His father! Did you actually check up on it or did you just take his word for it? The army let Dan go over a month ago or didn’t you even bother to check!” Detective Oprantz looked down at the floor avoiding my gaze, and I wanted to hit him in the worst way.
When he looked up again, he spoke slowly, “Congressman Winter assured us he was still in Germany. We know about him being let go from the Army, but his father told us he was trying to work out a deal to get him reenlisted.”
“Did his father also tell you he found his way back to the United States?”
“How did you find that out?” By his look of shock, he knew this bit of information but didn’t want me to know it. Was I dealing with idiots or were they just covering for one of their own with his dad being a congressman? Fuck! We didn’t have time for this shit.
Tony looked at me with guarded concern. He watched the confrontation with reserved interest and I couldn’t read his expression. “Brandt, we will follow up on this. What other information do you have?”
Oh no, they weren’t going to find jack shit out from me. My only hope rested on Bill. “You guys wouldn’t be able to find your ass from a hole in the ground.”
At that point, I realized Ed was behind me. “Son.” I turn around to look in his face. He seemed pale. “Dan’s folks have a hunting shack somewhere here in California. I don’t know how close, but she could be there.” Blood drained from my face knowing she could've been that close this whole time.
Turning to Detective Oprantz, “You could find out. Call someone. Search the public records.” He exchanged a look at Tony, and I felt as though they were moving at a snail’s pace. “Now, God damnit!”
Detective Oprantz didn’t enjoy being yelled at, but I couldn’t give a shit. Frustrated, I took Ed by the arm and led him out of earshot of the rest. “Do you know anyone who would know?” Hunting shacks spread all around the mountains to the east, but there were so many. Phillip, Ami’s ex-boyfriend had shown us the landscape on our last visit.
“I will make some calls, but I’m not sure if I can find out.” Chelsea’s father fumbled with his damn cell phone and it almost killed me not to help him, but I knew his pride would be wounded, so I waited patiently while he called back to Wisconsin.
Tony came out to the hallway interrupting our talking. “Heaven’s Gate.”
“Heaven’s Gate? Are you sure?” Heaven’s Gate was translated to La Puerta del Cielo, the same mountains positioned beyond Phillip’s ranch.
Excited, I exclaimed to Ed, “That is only a couple hours from here.”
Tom walked over and stood by Tony, “Whoa, wait a minute Brandt. They are aware of this already but didn’t want to tell you until they had proof.”
Tony nodded, “There are a lot of old hunting cabins in the woods, and none that we know of with the last name of Winters on the deed. A lot of these old cabins were left abandoned, and we are trying to narrow down where it could be.”
Tom squeezed my shoulder, but the touch was nothing but foreboding as he relayed, “Now sit tight, and I will let you know more when I hear.” He left with Tony, and I started pacing again.
“Ah man, Fuck this!” By the time they got their act together, it would be too late. I couldn’t sit back and take it.
I left the hallway and rushed out to the deck, taking the time to stop by the office quickly. Ed followed. “Son, where are you going?” He saw the keys I’d grabbed from inside the desk.
“I will not sit here and do nothing. I have to find her.” The conviction in my voice showed through.
“Not without me.” His broad frame cut off my path like a brick wall and I saw the determination in his face. shit. I didn’t have time to argue. I nodded and had him follow me as we went out the French doors by the back of the house and toward my side garage.
Knowing they would see me leave if I went to the garage attached to the house, I went to my other garage, the one that housed my classic car collection which I rarely had time to use. We got into my ’73 Challenger and pulled out of the garage. Throwing the rumbling engine in drive, I stopped only because of someone in my way.
“Where the hell do you think you are going? I told you I will give you any information when I find out. Combing a large mountainside is just plain stupid.” Tony sounded more frustrated than mad but I wasn’t going to let it stop me.
“You know what is stupid? Staying here and not doing anything. I can’t sit back and wait for things to happen. She is out there, and the longer I wait, the more shit can go wrong.” He looked down contemplating his next move. Kicking at the ground he turned to my direction and swore under his breath.
"Shit. Well, you don’t have to worry about Detective Oprantz stopping you. He saw you leave. He thinks you are on some damn wild goose chase and sent me to watch you and make sure you aren’t getting into trouble.” He sighed, “I guess I’m going too.” Not wanting to waste any more time in conflict, I nodded at the back seat. I wasn’t sure if this was a good idea or not but maybe more eyes would help.
Tony went around the car and got into the passenger back seat. I pealed out of the driveway and started my way to Phillip’s house. Tony was studying me from the rearview mirror. “What Detective Oprantz didn’t tell you is they think she left with someone in a jeep. The tire tread seems to lead to a vehicle for rougher mountain terrain and the tires in question are standard on most jeeps.” Ed and I exchanged looks, knowing that our destination was a likely one to find her if those damn detectives would just listen to what I had to say.
Once on the open road, I called Bill. When I explained the new information, he cut short the conversation and said he would get back to me. Next, I called Phillip, praying he was home. He broke off his relationship with Ami, and he could have very well been back in England. To my relief, he had stayed in California, and thank God. When I told him what was happening, he said he would get out the helicopter and make sure it was ready when we got there. Now with at least a small plan in my head, I felt a little better. I just hoped it wasn’t too late.
Even driving early in the morning and at top speed, it still took me close to ninety minutes to get there. When we pulled up to the house, the sun still hid behind the promise of a new day making it one of the most important days of my life. Phillip explained it wouldn’t be light enough for another hour at the earliest making any observation of the countryside impossible until then, but had the helicopter ready as soon as deemed safe enough to leave.
Bill called and I updated him on my whereabouts as well as the current plan. He couldn’t give me an exact location yet as he hadn’t been having much luck. One of Phillip’s farmhands started calling around to the neighbors to help as more than one neighbor had a cabin in the mountains, or at least knew someone with a cabin living in the area.
Phillip pulled out a map of the terrain and started to log the calls as they came in. Most people knew of the neighboring cabins but didn’t know a Winters family. It wasn’t until Bill rang again with news at just before 5:30 am that we got a lead.
Instead of looking under Dan’s last name, they ask around about a Yorke cabin, which was his mother’s maiden name. There were some questionable properties and a couple that had been abandoned for years that may have been close. Having a little more hope, we headed out to the helicopter. Tony held back to contact Detective Oprantz as I talked to Chelsea’s father.
Ed had been stoic until now, looking as drained and frustrated as I felt. He offered suggestions, but for the most part, he sat back and listened to our strategy. Now that we were close, I offered for him to come along. “I ain’t going up in no helicopter son. It isn’t big enough for all of us.”
Incredible. He insisted on coming with up until now and then didn’t want to go find her? I needed all the people I could to look around for her. Irate at his unwillingness to help, I gave up. “The helicopter has four seats, Ed. Do what you want. I will not stand here and argue.”
Ignoring my chastisement, his voice lowered, “Son, there isn’t going to be enough seats when you bring her back. She is there, you know. I can feel it.” His eyes watered and I realized what he was saying. He was too old to run if necessary. Phillip would be there to fly the helicopter and Tony had the gun and the law behind him, which only left two seats. I saw the want and hope in his eyes. “Bring her back to me, son.”
Nodding my head, I met his confidence with my own. “I will.”
Heading to the helicopter, Tony met up with us but only to curtail the trip. “Brandt, stop. I called detective Oprantz, and he wants us to wait. They are sending a helicopter up to check it out. He doesn’t want civilians out messing up the situation.”
Messing up the situation? I lashed out at him, “Do you really think I would just sit back and wait? She is there! I know it, Tony! Do you know how long before they can get a helicopter out here? For Christ’s sake, we are right here! Stay if you want. I am going.” Without waiting for his reply, I turned to make my way to the chopper, half expecting him to tackle me to the ground, but instead I heard his footfalls next to mine. He didn’t stop me when I entered the cab of the helicopter, deciding to climb into the passenger seat behind me. I didn’t expect him to go along, knowing he could lose his badge over this, but I would fight him to give me my chance.
Once buckled with the doors secured, Phillip started the blades rotating on their axis. Anxious to get moving, I bounced my leg in the passenger seat unable to find another outlet for my nervous energy. Could she have been there all along? Alive and so close?
Since it was still mostly dark, we concentrated on the side of the mountain bathed in the light of the sunrise, observing the cabins for signs of a jeep or any other indication she could be there. We took our time surveying all the other cabins that were possibilities. The sun rose to the east as we made our way across the landscape. We combed the snow-capped mountains; even in June, sporadic piles of snow scattered around the building where it was protected from the sun.
The journey stretched out below us taxing my eyes as I strained to look for any signs of her whereabouts. Once hopeful, I kept on with my job of looking for signs of Chelsea but realizing I didn’t have a clue what to look for. Tony watched out the other side and I couldn’t give up hope we would find her alive. She had to be out there. I needed her.
After what seemed like forever, we doubled back to the main road leading up and down the mountainside, following it while I gave directions to Phillip according to the map. The sun had risen to the point where only a small minority of the cabins were not in full view. Once on the other side of the mountain, we came upon an abandoned cabin that didn’t seem so abandoned. A green jeep parked out in the front, making my heart beat faster. It gave me hope, and I pointed it out to Tony, shouting to Phillip to circle back.
The building appeared not much bigger than a small decrepit hunting shack, as previously described. The rusted tin roof was barren of snow even though small piles surrounded it and weathered siding almost looked as if light could shine through. As early as it was, no signs of life were seen outside of the building to give us a clue of who occupied it, but we would soon find out.
Agreeing on a place to land, Phillip maneuvered the craft to a clearing to the left of the cabin. Tony nudged the back of my shirt and pointed to the front of the shack. My breath caught in my lungs when I saw what caught his eye.
The running woman below me looked frightened. Chelsea stumbled as she hurried to the woods beyond the cabin and my heart caught in my chest. She looked so small, running out into the open, her hair flying behind her before she screamed and looked back to the cabin.
“Put it down! Put it down!” I shouted at Phillip as I started to unbuckle my seatbelt.
Unable to pull my eyes away from her, I watched her closely while she stumbled and righted herself before resuming her sprint. Relief spread over me as she was still alive. Her blonde hair swung out around her body, blown by the blades of the chopper while she secured her shirt to her chest, but always looking back at the cabin.
I wanted to scream out to her, but I knew she would be unable to hear me over the whir of the rotating blades. She fled opposite of the helicopter towards the woods and I watched helplessly as I waited for the chopper to touch the ground. That was when I saw someone running after her. She was in trouble, and my pulse sped up even more. Phillip motioned to the clearing big enough to land the helicopter, and I barely made it to the area before I jumped out of the chopper still hovering above the ground.
Tony tried to grab me, but I shrugged him off. “Brandt! He’s got a gun!" He saw the man with the gun, but I didn’t care at this point and took off after her.
Chelsea couldn’t hear my warning although it didn’t stop me from shouting her name while I took off in a full run. I closed the distance and saw her sprint into the tree line. The guy pulled his gun and fired at her, and my heart stopped as I heard myself scream.