It was a subdued Toni Radcliffe who tapped on the door to Sheriff Sprague’s door and opened it when she heard the voice. Sprague was there, talking to a tall, black-haired man, immaculately dressed in an expensive blue suit. She recognized him immediately: Harrison Pearson Caldwell III, esquire; one of the most successful and wealthy lawyers in the county. Toni knew him quite well, due to their similar taste in politics. He was a member of the ACLU, an unabashed gay activist, and deeply devoted to the progressive agenda in the area. Toni knew that he’d been the first gay man in the area to have married his lover. She chose not to remember that it had ended in a bitter divorce just over a year later.
“Sheriff,” she found herself saying, then nodded at the attorney. “Harrison.”
“Hi, Toni,” Caldwell replied evenly.
“Heard you brought in Sam Heiligenthal this morning,” Sprague said.
“I did,” she replied.
“Have you charged him with anything?” Caldwell asked softly, making Toni’s gaze snap back to him.
“No, not yet; why?” It escaped her before she could stop it.
“As Mr. Heiligenthal’s attorney, I am giving you notice that unless you charge him with something, you are to release him immediately,” Caldwell said firmly.
“You’re his attorney?” Toni exclaimed, wide-eyed. Caldwell merely nodded once.
“Sir?” she asked, turning back to the sheriff for confirmation.
“Did you find anything, deputy?” he asked.
“No, not yet,” she found herself stammering.
“Then cut him loose.” Her mouth dropped open.
“Cut him loose, Deputy Radcliffe!” Sprague eyed her with displeasure. “Or did I not make myself clear enough?”
“No, sir. I mean, yes, sir!” she stammered, took one look at Caldwell who was still giving her his steely-eyed attorney glare. She turned around to step out of the room and found him following her.
“Harrison, you’re his attorney?” she found herself asking. “Did he hire you?”
“I’m his friend, Toni,” Harrison said evenly. Toni came to a halt and stared at him, uncomprehending.
“You’re his friend?” She blinked twice. “His friend? The friend of a Christian—of a guy who hates everything you stand for?”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Toni,” Harrison said softly. “Sam Heiligenthal is a good man and a very good friend. He stood by me when Ralph left me.” He sighed. “If all Christians were like Sam, churches would be packed to the gills. He is the real deal.”
No, no! This was too much. Then a suspicion intruded, still trying to find a dark corner of Sam Heiligenthal’s personality.
“Then he’s gay, too?” she asked hopefully.
“Sam?” Harrison actually laughed at that. “No way, Toni. He straighter than an arrow.” He chuckled, gently taking her arm, and turning her towards the interrogation room. “I actually proposed to him after Ralph left. I could tell he was shocked, but he actually thanked me for the proposal. Then he very gently and firmly said no. He even explained why and for once I couldn’t fault his reasoning. But he’s never been uncomfortable around me. I’ve never been able to understand it. He is unusual, Toni. There is no way he can be responsible for what happened to those kids. Look elsewhere.” She gritted her teeth, but there was nothing she could do about it at this point. She yanked the door to the interrogation room open to find Heiligenthal sitting in the chair again, his glasses off, hands folded, eyes closed. He opened his eyes and saw her then Caldwell right behind her.
“Harry!” he said, voice surprised.
“Come on, Sam, let’s get you out of here,” Caldwell said. Heiligenthal stood with a slight smile, then turned to Toni.
“Deputy, I …” he began.
“Shut up and get out of here, Heiligenthal,” she snarled.
“Okay,” he said softly, slipped past her. She turned to see Caldwell slap Heiligenthal on the shoulder and the two men walked down the hall towards the exit.
Well, she still had the rights to his pictures. Maybe there was something there and if she found it, she could still hang him, she decided. But the urgency was gone. If even someone like Harrison Caldwell thought he was a good man, was she really right?
• • •
It was just past three and Toni had finished going over Heiligenthal’s calendar. All of the instances where the children had disappeared and she had found his car in the vicinity turned out to be appointments he’d had for photography: one was at a church for their directory and the other was a wedding. The third was, of all things, a fundraiser for her preferred political party; one she herself remembered being at. She sighed, tasting defeat. Another dead end and he’d looked so good, she thought bitterly.
Just then a scuffle sounded at the door as Wolfsong frog-marched a sandy-haired young man in. At first, she thought it was Heiligenthal, but then noted the face was different. She knew this one, too.
“Tyler Burris!” she said in surprise. The mayor’s youngest son! She stared at Wolfsong.
“Got me my skunk!” he laughed. “I hope the interrogation room is empty.”
“Well, yes,” she stammered.
“Good, let’s put him in.” Wolfsong was back in a few minutes.
“Is that him?” Toni asked, unbelieving.
“One of them,” her partner replied.
“One of them?” she demanded.
“We know there are at least three others,” he replied, leaning back with a smug smile on his face.
“How?” She was burning now.
“You gave me the break, Toni,” Lionel said. “You said to look for photos and a friend of mine found one of that little girl on the dark web.” He shook his head. “We had to pay a pretty penny for it, but wouldn’t you know, the idiot who took it didn’t realize that his phone had put his location data in the picture; and the seller forgot to scrub the picture before posting it. From there we found where they’d kept her. It was the mayor’s vacation cabin. We found Tyler there, watching his conquest on his phone. He was so into it that he didn’t even hear us come in.” Toni was feeling sick and cursed.
“Yeah, my thoughts exactly,” her partner said. “Damn, but his video showed at least three others. We have faces on two of them and we’re hoping that little prick will sing.” Toni’s heard fluttered.
“Let me in on it, Lionel,” she begged. “I’ll yank him so hard, he’ll give up his own father before we’re done!”
“Trying to make up for fingering Sam?” Lionel teased.
“Don’t make me think about it!” Tony tossed back. She hated admitting she was wrong. “I’ll get you that whiskey tomorrow.”
“Nah,” her partner said, stretching. “Let’s go over to the tavern tonight instead. I think you need a good beer to feel better.” He stood and grinned wolfishly. “Now, let’s go tear Tyler apart.”
• • •
Tyler couldn’t handle even one moment of Toni’s professional glower. He quickly confessed and pointed fingers at four other guys who had been working as a ring. Tyler had come in on the third kid, but claimed he was getting tired of it. Toni had her doubts, especially considering Wolfsong’s descriptions of how they’d found their suspect.
That evening, Wolfsong dropped Toni off at her front door after several beers and a few shots of hard liquor. She was a little tipsy as she let herself in and so nearly tripped over a large manila envelope on the floor. She picked it up, turning it this way and that. There was nothing written on it. She opened it and pulled out a large color print of a picture of herself. It was taken at that party fundraiser. She had never looked so stunning! It showed her as she looked off into the distance, long hair loose and slightly windblown, with a smile on her face, and a bright twinkle in her eyes. While a candid shot, it had all the forethought and artistry of a Heiligenthal photo. She turned it over and saw a few lines scrawled in the upper left-hand corner.
“To Deputy Radcliffe. This is how God sees you. Sam Heiligenthal.”