I had a lot of fun working on this collaborative mystery with author M. Liz Boyle. Creative people make my creativity spark in unexpected ways. Click here to see all the prompts for the collaborative mystery. And thanks, Liz, for the ending. We had a family emergency, so I didn’t know if I had the brain power to craft a sensible ending. Or even a non-sensible one. I was very fortunate that you wrapped up the story, and I especially liked your last line! So now sit back and enjoy the collaborative mystery: the complete saga.
I couldn’t have found a better day for a shoot. The October sky was that brilliant blue you only get in the fall when all the humidity has seeped away. The sun shone clear, and the air had an apple-crisp tang to it. The cheery landscape was the perfect contrast to the derelict vehicles scattered around the abandoned junkyard. I bent to my viewfinder and focused on the ancient convertible, so green that it could pass as a weird plant species that you only–what’s that?
I straightened and stared at the far side of the car. No. It couldn’t be. I took a step closer for a better look.
As soon as I stepped closer, I wished I hadn’t. There’s a person in there, no mistaking it. Is she – dead? I scan my surroundings, and not feeling any more endangered with getting a closer look than gawking from back here, I tiptoe to the window. A young lady, breathing, thank the heavens. Wait, isn’t that Geralyn Moss, the would’ve been valedictorian who disappeared last March? And no, I’m not a creeper to recognize her. Her picture has been on every billboard for three counties. For six months. What valedictorian stages her own disappearance? Or who set her up? And what do I do now? Wake her up? Call the cops? My phone rings. Loudly. I scramble to silence it, but the girl, Geralyn, stirs in her sleep and her eyes fly open.
Geralyn leaps from the rust heap of a truck and bolts uphill, dodging wrecks.
“Wait! I won’t hurt you!” I call after her.
She doesn’t even slow her speed.
I start to run after her when I glance in the truck. On the floor is a photo.Torn in half. With a handwritten note. I pick it up.
I grab the photo and note, stuff them in my jacket and look back toward her retreating figure. It must be the photojournalist in me, or maybe the father in me, imagining Geralyn’s parents when they are reunited with their daughter. I run after her, continuously calling her name, letting her know I just want to help. The girl has obviously been living on meager rations of food, and she soon runs out of energy, allowing me to catch up. I find her ducking between a dead tree and another rusty clunker car. “Did somebody hurt you? Your parents, everyone, they’ve been looking for you,” I say between breaths. She shivers.
“You shouldn’t have found me. They could get us all now.” Her eyes are wide.
“Who could get who now?” I want to turn on my voice recorder, take pictures, really interview her, but I’m afraid she’ll bolt again, so I take the casual, concerned adult approach.
“I saw you take the note. It explains as much as I know.” Huh? I retrieve the note from my pocket, taking a discreet glance at the torn picture at the same time. Looks like a break-up. Hormonal teenagers. I hold up the note and read. Oh this is not what I expected.
Written over and over in spidery cursive are three words: “Alive and dead”.
I say, “Who are these people in th photo?”
Jamming her hands in the pocket of her dirty sweat jacket, Geralyn says, “I don’t know. I just know they sent me that note and photo, then kidnapped me from school. I escaped from the car before they could take me anywhere. I’ve been hiding out ever since.”
“Why didn’t you go to the police?’
She pulls a long strand of dark hair from her cheek. “I didn’t want to endanger my family.”
“But why would–”
The woods darken. The fog burned off in the morning has rolled back in.
“Come with me.” I say. “The cops can protect you and you family.”
“No. They can’t. How can–”
Leaves rustle. Geralyn leaps to her feet and takes off.
I spin in the direction of the leaves crunching under footsteps. A figure emerges from the fog.
“Dad!” I recognize my sixteen-year-old son’s voice.
I spin toward him and nearly collapse, my heart beat thumping in my head. “Don’t scare me like that again. Run after her!” I point toward Geralyn’s direction of escape.
“What? Who? Are you still taking pictures out here?” He asks questions like he’s still three.
“That missing valedictorian girl, Geralyn. She’s here!” We start to run together.
“You saw her?! What’s she doing? Is she okay?” Again with his nonstop questions.
A new voice stops us in our tracks faster than when Scamp catches the scent of a squirrel. “The real question is, what are YOU doing?” We slowly turn on our heels and see a hairy guy who could take on a bouncer. I gulp and nudge Tyler behind me. The bouncer guy walks toward us, obviously aware that his presence is all he needs to scare us into his control.
“Two choices,” his voice booms. “You can follow her and I take you all captive, or you can stay here and I take you all captive. Plus your wife,” his gaze penetrates me. “502 East Oak Street, correct?”
What is going on? I glance back at Tyler and I inhale sharply when I see what he’s about to do.
The bouncer guy pulls a gun from the pocket of his coat and motions with it. “Move.”
Tyler freezes, and I step between him and Bouncer Guy. “So we have no choice?” I say.
Grinning, he reveals crooked teeth. “None at all.”
I gulp. “I guess we’ll–” I throw my camera at him, yelling. “Run!”
Bouncer Guy jerks, stepping back, and I hurl myself on him, grabbing for his gun hand.
We hit the ground, dead leaves exploding underneath us, the gun flying out of his hand.
Tyler races in and kicks the man in the head until he goes limp.
“I told you to run.” I shout, sitting up, glancing around for the weapon.
“I couldn’t leave you, Dad.”
Through the mist I spot the gun laying beside a truck with no doors.
I roll to my knees when another figure detaches from the mist. A woman.
I gasp. It’s the woman in the–wait. She resembles the woman in the photo but she’s not the same person.
She tilts her head to one side, her gaze gliding to the gun that lays between us.
I pull my legs under me, my eyes fixed on this woman, who breaks into a not-quite sane smile.
Her voice startles me as much as her showing up out of the mist. “Are you here to rescue us?”
“Who is us?” I make my way to the gun, slowly so I don’t scare her.
Out of the mist, I see Geralyn timidly return. Tyler, who is using his belt to tie up Bouncer Guy’s wrists, pauses long enough mid-buckle to toss his phone to Geralyn. “Call 9-1-1!”
Geralyn catches the phone but looks confused. “Why?”
I’m angry now. Whatever Bouncer Guy has been doing has totally traumatized these ladies. “Because you don’t have to live in fear of this monster of a guy!” Both ladies jump enough to remind me to rein in my anger.
I hold the gun towards Bouncer Guy and tell Tyler to call 9-1-1. Between the gun and his restrained wrists, I can keep him at bay until the cops arrive.
Geralyn quietly asks, “Should I get the others now?”
“What others?” I ask. I hear Tyler explaining our location to the dispatcher. Please hurry.
“The rest of the people and animals he’s training for his traveling show.”
I feel my face blanch. People and animals? Is a lion going to appear next? Bouncer Guy mumbles something in his unconscious stupor. “If you…tell…kill…you….” His eyes roll back again. Sirens are coming now, fast.
I look at Geralyn and the other lady. “You’ll be safe now.” I’ve still got the gun aimed, just in case. The cops have parked and are running through the woods toward us.
Tyler hangs up and gives me a nervous smile. “I guess you got your story, Dad.”
“Better. I watched my son be a hero.”