A little girl is stolen from her yard and police have no leads. Hope dwindles with each passing hour.
The desperate parents hire Michael Sykora to find their daughter, and to kill anyone involved in taking her. Michael and his team discover this case has roots far deeper than a single kidnapping. Children are a commodity for the wealthy and depraved.
Following leads from daycare centers to the Darknet, this search is about to become personal.
The clock is ticking…
Excerpt from Child’s Play
If cleanliness was next to godliness, then this place was the devil’s lair. Grime crawled across the walls, stealing nourishment from the paint and the plaster. Her red Doc Martens stuck to the threadbare carpet, as if it was trying to suck her down into the floorboards below. This room was a giant flytrap, except the spider was a human predator and she the fly to be toyed with, and then eaten.
An invisible vapor cloud of stink had replaced the air here. Something foul, like human waste and rotted meat, mixed with mildew and a hint of drunken bum. She tried breathing through her mouth, but the vile flavor settled on the back of her tongue, and so she continued breathing through her nose, thinking the smell was a minor improvement over the taste.
The predator absently fondled the blade in his hand, stroking it like a lover. “This room’ll be your home for now,” he said.
“You can’t be serious.” Not fear or disbelief, but sarcasm. Annoyance. Anger around the edges.
He cocked his head and stared, as one might watch an animal behaving oddly in its cage. “Yeah, I am serious.”
His name was Daniel Miller. He was thirty years old. Four years younger than her. His face was soft, no hard angles. Soft cheekbones. Soft lips. Boyish, but in the way of the creepy kid at school who everyone suspected was dissecting neighborhood cats in his bedroom. He wasn’t much taller than her, maybe 5’8”. Average build. A soft middle.
Maria Milan sighed and said, “Dan, you are a horrible host.”
A blip of self-doubt crossed his face. He frowned, motioning to the stained mattress in the corner of the room. “Get comfortable.”
“I think not.”
“You’ll get tired of standing soon enough.”
Behind her back, Maria slowly turned her wrists within the bathrobe sash he’d used to tie her. Moved her fingers. Slid her thumbs close to her palms. Worked at loosening the tie’s hold. Ignored the rough cotton digging into her skin. “Where is Alexis?” she said. A demand more than a question.
His eyes were the only hard thing about him. They were pale blue, a winter sky frosted with ice, and now they narrowed and glared. “I don’t know who you’re talking about.”
“Cut the crap, Daniel. I know you took her.”
He stared at her, a predator appraising his prey. “Yeah? You don’t know shit, Maria Milan.”
She wrinkled her nose. “God, the smell! What the hell did you do in here?”
She watched the flicker of confusion cross his face. Keeping him off balance gave her control. He wouldn’t like it, but she was counting on that.
“Maybe I’ll get you a bucket of water and some bleach,” he said. “You can clean up the place.”
He smirked. “You might change your mind after a day or two locked up here.”
“Seriously, this place is filthy. Have you ever cleaned? And what is that smell?”
“Had a problem with… an unexpected expiration date.” He cackled, a strange sound in the dank room. “A learning curve, you know? But, yeah, I guess I’ve let the place go. I’m thinking you’ll make the perfect maid, get this room back in shape.”
She rolled her eyes. “Yeah. I kick ass with a mop.” She waited a beat, then said, “So, Alexis, adorable kid. Those blonde curls make her look like a little doll, don’t you think? I hope she didn’t have to sleep on that mattress. But, honestly, Dan, I know you wouldn’t be that cruel to her. How old is she again? Five?”
“Right.” She didn’t acknowledge that he’d just unintentionally given her information. She saw it in his expression, a mix of anger and confusion, and in the way he shifted his weight away from her, like he’d suddenly spotted the sharp thorns on the beautiful rose. “Six is a great age,” she said. “I loved to color when I was a kid. Do kids still do that? Does Alexis like to color, Dan?
“What makes you think I’d know?”
“Of course you know. You’re a smart guy. You pay attention to detail.” Maria almost gagged on the words. But she kept her voice light. Giving him compliments. A sudden shift that would continue to confuse him.
His chest puffed out. “Details are important.”
“Yes, they are. Were you a happy kid, Dan?”
A flicker of anger. His jaw tightened. “That’s none of your business.”
“Can we get out of here now? This smell… I swear I’m going to vomit.”
“That’ll be more for you to clean up. I have stuff to do.” He motioned toward the mattress. “Get over there.”
“Tell me where you’re keeping Alexis.”
He smiled then. Gleeful. A child with a secret treasure. “I know lots of hiding places.”
His answer was a playground taunt. I know something you don’t know. Please. She wanted to slam the palm of her hand into his nose, drive it up into his pea-sized brain.
She said, “Somewhere on this property? I hope she has better accommodations. What was this, some sort of storage room? Why do you have a room here in a barn, when you have a perfectly nice house right across the yard?”
Maria knew this room had once been Daniel’s bedroom, back when he was an annoying but not yet criminal teenager. She watched the emotion flicker across his face, causing his eyes to narrow and his lips to purse.
“Go sit,” he said, gesturing again to the filthy mattress, “while I decide what to do with you.”
“What’s to decide? I’m too…. developed for you. We both know that, so let’s not pretend otherwise.”
“So, what? You prefer I just kill you right now?”
“Hell, no. Not in this room. There’s no way I want to risk my spirit being trapped here for eternity.”
His lips twisted into that perverse smirk. “Then you might want to cooperate.”
“What I want is to know where you’re keeping Alexis.”
The secret wanted out. She could see it in his face. He wanted to boast to someone. What fun was being a deviant psychopath if you couldn’t tell anyone?
“She’s fine. Safe and well taken care of,” Daniel said, an arrogant smile leaking onto his lips. “This room is only for the kids who are naughty.”
“And I’ve been naughty?”
“You broke into my home.”
“To find Alexis.” She watched the self-doubt creep back onto his face. “And you won’t kill me until you figure out how I know you have her.”
“I could do things to you that’ll make you wish you were dead.”
“Yeah. You’re a tough guy.”
He took a step forward. She matched his step, challenging him. She wasn’t a six-year-old child, and she’d never been afraid of the Big Bad Wolf. Five feet of rank air separated them now. Five strides across a fiberless carpet that felt like it had been coated in molasses.
His eyes narrowed, hardened, drilled into her. “Careful. I’m your worst nightmare.”
“No,” she said. “You’re not. You’re only a mild discomfort, like constipation.”
She thought she might have pushed too far then. But even if she was afraid, she wouldn’t give this freak the satisfaction of seeing fear on her face or hearing it in her voice. She gave him all the strength and defiance that his young victims were unable to muster. Besides, she wasn’t afraid. Not of him, anyway. Her only fear in this moment was that she would be unable to find Alexis.
He cocked his head, appraising her with that predatory glare. “Tell me,” he said on a sigh, “how did you know?”
“I have some very smart friends.”
His eyes widened, briefly, before he reached again for his composure.
She grinned, giving a girlish bat of her eyelashes just for him. “Didn’t expect that, did you? I’m not the only one who knows who you are and what you’ve done.”
“What friends? Tell me who they are.”
“Tell me!” His shout came out on the edge of a whine. “Or are you lying? You probably don’t have any friends. You’re too much of a bitch.”
“How about,” she said sweetly, “we make a deal. You tell me where you’re keeping Alexis, and I’ll tell you my friends’ names. I’ll even tell you where they live. Maybe we can all have a playdate sometime.”
He touched the tip of his blade, his eyes still fixed on her. “You think it would make any difference if I told you where she is?”
He shook his head, a bemused half-grin showing a boyish charm he might once have had. “You’re a strange one.”
“Yes, I know. It’s this whole Catholic guilt thing. I feel like my soul won’t rest in peace if I don’t find Alexis.”
She just stared at him. He took a step to the side. She mirrored his movement.
He tilted his head. “You might be a little crazy.”
“Probably. But my crazy is nothing compared to yours.”
“You don’t know anything about me.”
“You mean besides your freakish attraction to little girls?”
He tightened his grip on the knife handle, pointing the blade at her. Losing his patience. The boyish grin cracking. “I’ll find your friends,” he said, “and you’ll all die here in this room, so your souls can keep each other company for eternity.”
“You have $427 in your checking account,” Maria said. “No savings account. Your mother and stepfather own this barn, the house, and everything else on this property, but they haven’t bothered to come down here to see you in, what, seven years. Or longer? They live in a big old colonial, in Syracuse, New York, where you were born and lived until you moved here at age ten.”
“Your father died of cancer when you were seven. Your mother remarried when you were ten. This house was your stepfather’s place. You and your mother moved here with him for a few years, but your mother hated the heat and so you all moved back to New York. You have a younger half-sister graduating high school this year. You were twelve when she was born. Might be when your mind snapped and you started getting turned on by little girls.”
“You were a problem teen, in and out of trouble. Arrested for dealing pot when you were fifteen. That was right before your parents—oh, sorry, your mother and stepfather—took you back to New York. Maybe they thought a change of scenery would straighten you out. Didn’t work, though, did it? You dropped out of high school. Couldn’t hold a job. Final straw seemed to be your arrest for indecent exposure at a kids’ bus stop. Your mother and stepfather got sick of dealing with you, and they sent you down here to watch over the property. Soon they conveniently forgot about you.”
Daniel stared at Maria, seemingly mesmerized by her recital of facts. “I know you ain’t no cop,” he said. “Are you some kind of crazy stalker?”
Maria raised her eyebrows at that. He thought she was the crazy stalker? She said, “Right now, as we speak, one of my friends is inside your computer, finding all the naughty things you have there. Photos of little kids, right? Do you trade them on the darknet?”
“You’re lying,” he said, suddenly confident again. “My laptop is in the house. No one stole it.”
“I know. I didn’t say my friend stole your laptop. I said he was inside your computer. What do you think I was doing in your house? He gave me a thumb drive to plug into your laptop. Some sort of software. I don’t understand how these things work, but he’s an electronics wizard. The thing I uploaded on your laptop gave him remote access. He can see whatever you have there, and maybe he’ll send some of that to your mom and stepdad before he takes it to the cops.”
His expression went from disbelief, to fear, to rage. “Bitch!”
She shrugged. She didn’t have a thumb drive in her pocket, but no way would he get close enough to find that out for himself. Besides, she’d been counting on his immediate fear outweighing any doubt. She’d had no actual proof in hand when she arrived, only tips from two reliable sources with no reason to lie and every reason to save themselves by offering worthwhile information.
Maria showed him a bored expression, not threatened by his outburst. “Tell me where you’re keeping Alexis, and no one has to know what a freak you turned out to be.”
He took a step closer. “How about I kill you right now? You’re a lying bitch! You got no friends helping you, and you didn’t do nothing to my computer.”
“You don’t think so? The thumb drive is in my pocket, if you’d like to check. Oh, and did I mention that my boyfriend is a contract killer? He gets a little too much pleasure out of it, really, but he only kills people like you these days, so he’s actually performing a public service.”
Daniel sneered at Maria. As he took another step forward, she said, “This is your last chance to play nice. Where is Alexis?”
“I got nothing more to say to you. Go sit the fuck down.”
“Okay, then. I guess I should mention that my friends are here right now. You hardly ever leave this damn place, and we really needed to look around. So I’m the distraction here, or, as I prefer to think of myself, the entertainment.”
He faltered, looking like he was torn between the desire to stab her in the heart and the need to run away. She said, “You want to tell me where Alexis is now, so Sean doesn’t have to torture it out of you?”
He raised the knife and lunged forward in a burst of rage. She let the sash drop to the floor, grabbed his arms, and drove her knee hard into his balls.
Daniel fell to the floor with a howl. Maria kicked the knife out of his reach, then slammed the heel of her boot into his temple just as Sean stepped through the doorway.
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