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Pretty little things, p.7
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       Pretty Little Things, p.7

           Jilliane Hoffman

  The computer sat on a cluttered desktop. Back when Bobby was in high school, the telephone and good, old-fashioned note-passing were the communication methods of choice. Now it was all about email, texting, IMing, blogging. All you ever wanted to know about most teens could be found either in their cell phones or somewhere on the hard drive of their computer. And, more specifically, usually on a MySpace or Facebook page – social-networking sites which allow subscribers, notoriously teens and young adults, the opportunity to have their own ‘space’ on the World Wide Web. A place where they could post pictures, ‘blog’ their thoughts, voice their worries, pontificate on politics or global warming or yesterday’s hangover, identify their hobbies, list their friends and name their enemies. It was all there – down to addresses, birthdays, telephone numbers, schools, places of work and where they’d be hanging out on Friday night. A treasure trove of information – you just had to know where to look. Which was the problem with most parents – they didn’t have a clue. Technology had stepped on the gas in the last fifteen years and left most of them way behind, still fiddling with the ‘start’ button on their Windows Explorer.

  He flipped on the computer and sifted through the pile of papers on the desk as it warmed up: Poems, math problems, science worksheets, a Social Studies test with a big D on it, doodle sheets filled with red hearts. Finding a printout with Elaine’s email address would sure make life a lot easier than a search-and-guess game. Colored pencil drawings of pandas and ferrets decorated the inside of the desk’s hutch. Pretty impressive, Bobby thought, for a kid who’d just turned thirteen. If school continued to bottom out, all hope wasn’t lost; the girl had serious potential as an artist.

  No email info in the stack. He opened the browser on her internet engine and pulled down the list of sites visited; popped up first. That meant it was the last site visited. That meant she had an account. On the MySpace homepage he fiddled with name combinations under the search button. He was pretty good at what he did; after only a couple of tries he found what looked like her under her nickname.



  Orientation: Straight

  Here For: Friends!

  Gender: Female

  Age: 16

  Location: Coral Springs, Florida.

  Profile Updated: October 22, 2009

  The wrong age didn’t faze him. To join MySpace you had to promise you were fourteen or older and enter a birthday accordingly. There were no stats, but he’d be willing to guess that a good chunk of the ‘teens’ on MySpace were closer to eleven or twelve. He’d interviewed kids as young as eight or nine who’d had MySpace pages, with profiles that claimed they were thirty-five. He clicked on Lainey’s profile. It wasn’t set to private, which meant anybody surfing MySpace could see it, member or not. Gwen Stefani’s ‘The Sweet Escape’ started to play. Brilliantly colored butterflies served as wallpaper. Pictures of young teenage girls, who he guessed were friends from Ramblewood, decorated the site – laughing, kissing the camera, making goofy faces, giving the finger, trying to look way too sexy for thirteen-year-olds. Cigarettes dangled from the slight fingers of a couple of girls; others toasted the camera with strange-looking drinks. A girl with long, brown, coffee-colored hair was in a few of the group shots. A girl who looked a lot more grown up than the lanky, awkward fifth grader in the photo Bobby held in his hand. Each picture was captioned with insider-jokes:

  Molly B. & the ferret bandits!

  No one home … LAINBRAIN

  Bite me, please!!!

  E and M pre-concert jelly-jollies …

  Was I just at the bathroom and then at the stairs?

  He looked at his notepad: Molly Brosnan, Erica and Melissa Weber, Theresa – Last Name Unknown. He glanced around the room. Vampire movie posters adorned the walls. Sketches of ferrets decorated the inside of her hutch. He definitely had the right site.

  Tiny picture icons of Lainey’s favorite movies, rock bands and books covered half of the first page. Blogs, angst and general teenage drama filled the next two. Akin to a lot of MySpace pages, her site read like a diary, supplemented with postings and comments from her fellow MySpace friends. Three pages told Bobby more about Elaine Emerson than her mother could manage to communicate to police over the past eight hours.

  ‘Whatcha got?’ Zo asked, standing over his shoulder.

  ‘She’s got a MySpace. Last time she logged in was Thursday, the day before she went to the movies with the unknown friend. Hates school. Can’t stand bro, stepdad’s an asshole, mom’s a bitch and sis is pretty cool. Loves animals and her BFFs. Typical shit. Wishes she could, quote, “just get the hell away from here”. Endquote.’

  ‘Sounds like that’s just what she did,’ Zo muttered. ‘So much for, “my daughter wouldn’t do that.” Damn, you’re quick. Are we out of here, then?’

  ‘Not yet. She’s got twenty-four names on her friend space, but only six in her top,’ Bobby said, hitting the print button. MySpace was a membership-only social networking site, which meant that to communicate with somebody on MySpace you had to have an account yourself. Like a magazine, the more subscribers MySpace could boast having, the more it could charge its advertisers. Members were encouraged to continually boost the number of friends in their ‘personal networks’, and the number of friends someone had was automatically posted on the ‘Friend Space’ part of their webpage – like a sophomoric bragging list of sexual conquests. Some members were known to have hundreds, even thousands, of ‘friends’ – most of whom they’d never even chatted with. A lot of friends in Lainey’s network would potentially mean a lot of legwork tracking everyone down if the kid didn’t resurface. ‘Let’s see who Mom can ID from that. And let me look for a more recent picture of our girl.’ Under ‘start’ he ran a Find Files search to look for jpegs – electronic photos – on the computer’s hard drive.

  ‘Whoa,’ said Zo, as dozens of tiny pictures swarmed the screen.

  ‘Whoa is right,’ Bobby said as he clicked on one of the images. A picture of a girl dressed in tight jeans and a midriff-baring, see-through, white T-shirt, a sexy smile on her bright, red lips filled the screen. Her long brown hair, the color of coffee ice cream, was blown sleek and straight. Her big, brown, made-up eyes flirted coyly with the camera. Long red fingernails beckoned Bobby and Zo to come a little closer.

  ‘She sure don’t look thirteen,’ Zo said with a low whistle.

  ‘That’s the idea,’ Bobby answered. ‘There’s about thirty of these on here.’

  ‘A photo shoot?’


  ‘For who?’

  ‘That’s the question that needs an answer.’

  ‘The boyfriend Mom insists she doesn’t have?’ Zo asked.


  ‘Great,’ Zo said with a chuckle. ‘I’ll let you be the one to tell her that she doesn’t know shit about her daughter. She already doesn’t like you.’

  ‘She’s in good company. Let me look at those MySpace friends again.’ Bobby went back to the first page of Elaine’s MySpace. Most of the names under her top six were recognizable as friends from the neighborhood that her mother had told him about: Molly B., Melly, eRica, Teri, Manda-Panda. Each had a picture of a teenage girl accompanying the name. Only one name on the top six was missing a picture. Only one name stood out from the rest and caught his attention.

  ‘I think we might have found our boyfriend,’ he said slowly, spinning the chair around to face Zo. ‘Looks like little Lainey’s been making nice with The Captain.’


  Lainey’s head hurt so bad. It felt like someone was inside her skull, pounding away with a hammer on the bone, just trying to get the hell out. The more aware she became of it, the worse the pain got.

  Tap, tap, tap.

  Louder, louder, louder.

  Bang, bang, bang.

  Somewhere, someplace not too far away, she could hear the sound of humming. Pleasant, do-the-dishes hummi
ng. And a TV. The chatter of a TV. Louder, louder, louder, as if someone were turning up the volume very slowly.

  The Israelites have saved the women! And Moses, well, he says, ‘So you’ve spared all the women? Why? Why, when they’re the very ones who have caused a plague to strike the Lord’s people! Why did you spare them?’

  Then, the shuffle of heavy footsteps across the room. Across creaky wood floors. Coming closer. Coming towards her.

  Lainey lay very, very still. Could the person see her? Where was she? She tried to open her eyes. They were so heavy.

  … She smells good. She sure looks good. She doesn’t seem evil. What man would not be tempted? Like many of us in our everyday lives, Moses must make a difficult decision. A terrible decision …

  She tried again. Something was wrong. Very wrong.

  Her eyes would not open.

  Was she dreaming? Was she blind? She reached to touch them and couldn’t. Her arms would not move. She struggled, but they would only tug. She felt the burning in her wrist and realized her arms were bound.

  She was tied up.

  … He tells them, ‘Slay, therefore, every male child and every woman who has had intercourse with a man. But you may spare and keep for yourselves all girls who had no intercourse with a man …’

  She could sense the flashes of bright light and she heard the familiar click of a shutter lens. Over and over and over. Someone was taking pictures of her.

  ‘Help me,’ she tried, but only a croaked whisper escaped, her words were as heavy as her eyelids and her throat burned. The footsteps slowed, circling her. Closer, closer. Like a cat might approach a wounded bird, studying it, watching it.

  Playing with it.

  The shaking started first in her knees, then like a fast-moving electrical current, the fear traveled up her spine, to her arms, her neck, her head, her teeth, until her whole body was trembling uncontrollably. She thought of the time in fifth grade when she had caught the flu and couldn’t stop shivering even under a dozen blankets. Her mom had let her watch Scooby-Doo cartoons all day in her bed, and gotten her wonton soup from the Chinese restaurant.

  Mommy, Mommy, I’ll be good, I swear. I won’t do anything bad ever again. Ever. I’ll take care of Bradley. I’ll never complain. I’ll get straight A’s again. I’ll listen. Just let this stop. Make it all go away, Mommy, please, please, please …

  … please let me wake up!

  She felt him standing there, maybe inches away, maybe a foot or two at the most, watching. Then he sat down next to her, and the mattress or cushion she was on sunk just a little under his weight. The smell of his cologne was nauseating. Paco Rabanne again. Was it Zach? Her mind raced. Was it the same person from the car? Could there be more than one? Could there be more than one person in the room right now, watching with him? Who had taken the pictures? She could hear him breathing hard but trying not to, the feel of his warm breath as it fell on her face. His breath smelled like … SpaghettiOs? She wanted to turn off her senses, just hear and smell and feel nothing. She wished everything were black again. She wished she could cry.

  The TV began to scream. Remember that! We are watching you! Are you pure in both thought and deed?

  Then his hand reached out and gently stroked the hair off her forehead. His trembling fingers were moist and warm.

  ‘Ssshh now, pretty girl,’ said the devil in a sing-song voice. ‘You’re home now. Right where you belong.’


  It was his gut that told Bobby something was wrong. More wrong than just a troubled teen from a dysfunctional family not wanting to come home any more.

  No one knew the stats better than him. Every forty seconds in the US a child gets reported missing. That’s 800,000 kids a year; 2,185 each and every day. Most of them – as high as 92 per cent – were runaways. Alarming numbers, no doubt, until you realized that those were just the kids lucky enough to be reported missing. The National Runaway Switchboard put the actual number of runaways – often called ‘throw-aways’ because nobody cared if they didn’t come home – closer to somewhere between 1.6 and 2.8 million a year.

  Faced with overwhelming statistics like that, it wasn’t too far a leap to the conclusion that Elaine Emerson had run away from home. She fit the classic profile: a dysfunctional family, a history of running away and truancy by an older sibling, a family history of alcohol and drug use, a recent drop in grades and cutting classes, a recent relocation away from friends, and a tumultuous relationship with her parents, one of whom was a step. Her disappearance had taken Mom almost two days to finally get herself worried enough about to call in, which – translated into cop language – meant this was probably not the first time little Lainey had decided not to come home. Add in the sexy photos and a web space where the kid rants about her ‘asshole’ stepdad, ‘bitch’ mom and how she wants to ‘get the hell away from here’, and the missing juvi classification in NCIC was certainly justifiable. Statistically speaking, little Elaine should be walking back through that front door in the next twelve to twenty-four hours.

  But then there was the other 8 per cent. And that was what was troubling him.

  Bobby rubbed his temples. The skateboard contest down the block had moved and was now in the street right outside Elaine’s bedroom window. Given the neighborhood, he figured one or more of the kids had recognized the Crown Vic, Taurus and Grand Am as undercovers and had edged the game closer to see what was happening. Maybe they knew about the troubles with Liza Emerson. Maybe they knew of some troubles with Lainey. He made a mental note to talk to them as soon as he finished up with the computer.

  Of the 800,000 children reported missing each year, almost 69,000 of them – or 8 per cent – were classified as ‘abductions’. Familial abductions, such as when a parent takes off with a child in violation of a custody agreement, accounted for 82 per cent of those cases. But the remaining 12,000 were identified as victims of non-familial abductions. Non-familial, as in when the child is taken by an acquaintance, a family friend, or, sometimes – in the more remote and more terrifying cases for the public-at-large – a complete stranger. Plucked off of school buses or snatched from busy malls. Those were the cases that instantly made headlines and triggered AMBER Alerts. And for good reason. While the stereotypical kidnapping was statistically rare, it was almost always deadly.

  With the explosive growth of the internet and social-networking websites, non-familial abductions had risen dramatically within the last ten years. Bad guys didn’t need to lurk around corners any more, or peek in windows in the middle of the night. Now they walked straight through a kid’s front door in broad daylight. Right past Overprotective Mom and Drug Czar Dad and into junior’s bedroom via the computer. There they could exchange pictures, chat, play video games and discover all sorts of neat things about the ‘distant’ teen whose parents didn’t understand him. The World Wide Web had spawned a new hunting ground for predators. Trolling kiddie chat rooms and adolescent networking sites at their leisure, they picked off their prey from the millions of profiles offered on MySpace and Facebook, where smiling victims provided as much scrumptious detail about themselves as dinner entrées on a restaurant menu. Sitting behind a keyboard and monitor, this new breed of predator could pretend to be anyone: An eighteen-year-old boy; a twelve-year-old girl; a talent agent; Jay-Z’s best friend. They took advantage of the naiveté of kids and the ignorance of their parents – gaining the former’s trust, and then slowly, carefully exploiting the relationship, subtly grooming their victims for the ultimate, devastating high: a face-to-face meeting. And then, with just the simple click of a button, disappeared forever back into the black abyss of cyberspace once lives were destroyed and the police were finally called in.

  Bobby looked around the pink bedroom with its typical teenage décor. Lainey hadn’t lived here long, and she’d moved under protest, but she had hung up her posters and wall art, which meant she considered this room home. She was definitely a slob, but although her clothes spilled haphazardly out
of drawers and boxes, they hadn’t been packed up into a suitcase. It would be hard to figure out what was missing, but, perhaps more importantly, if anything was missing. And then there was the faceless photo in her friend space. Bobby was willing to bet the bank ElCapitan just might be the intended recipient of all those sexy pictures. And of course, perhaps the most troubling fact that he kept coming back to was also the most innocuous one: The girl hadn’t logged back on to her MySpace since the day before she’d disappeared. He knew that, for teenagers, MySpace was their social lifeline. A kid wouldn’t just abandon it for a few days – unless she physically couldn’t check it.

  Obviously, with 2,185 kids reported missing every day, not every face got slapped on a milk carton and not every kid got his or her physical description launched on traffic message boards across the nation via an AMBER Alert. The system would be critically overloaded within minutes, and people would quickly grow desensitized and indifferent to the plight of yet another kid gone AWOL. AMBERs were reserved for the most urgent of situations. To have one issued, a cop had to meet a strict, three-pronged criteria: 1) a reasonable belief the child was abducted; 2) a reasonable belief he or she was at imminent risk for serious bodily injury or death; and, 3) sufficient descriptive information about the child, the suspect, and the abduction so that a public broadcast would actually help find the kid. Bobby tapped his notepad. He didn’t have enough to meet any one of the prongs with Elaine Emerson. He just had that familiar, heavy feeling in his gut.

  Somewhere in between the panic-mode AMBER and the runaway code-word ‘missing juvi’ entry in NCIC was a Missing Child Alert. In cases where you didn’t have an abduction, but you had enough information to believe the child was in imminent danger, you could request a Missing Child Alert. While it didn’t spark the same urgent, national ‘Oh Shit!’ response as an AMBER, it did trigger notifications to the local media, neighborhood businesses and community law enforcement agencies. But again, other than his agita, Bobby had no concrete reason to believe Elaine was in danger. An alert would definitely be a stretch. And based on the info they had right now, it would be much easier to just OK the missing juvi report that Coral Springs had put into NCIC, grab his golf clubs and call it a day.

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