I like writing contests because they force me to write. There’s something about a deadline. When I saw NYC Midnight‘s Short Story Challenge, I knew I had to enter. I was placed in a heat with 20 other authors and given 8 days to write a 2,500 or less short story THRILLER with the subject SEARCH OF A MISSING PERSON and a character A TOURIST.
With so many people wanting me to put my crime lab knowledge to use, I incorporated forensics into this Thriller. Hope you enjoy it. Happy to hear your thoughts. 🙂
Her bare feet slapped against the white laminate hallway casting echoes behind her like ripples in water. Cold air assaulted her back where the hospital gown flapped open.
Was that a scuffle of movement behind her?
She held her breath and checked the timer zip-tied to her wrist.
There was still time.
She sprinted toward the staircase.
One month earlier
Teresa dropped from a jog to a walk a half block from her apartment. Air burned through her lungs and her legs felt gloriously tight. Running helped purge her anxiety. Today’s two extra miles were worth it. Nothing was worse than waiting for news.
She used the bottom of her shirt to wipe the sweat from her upper lip before tapping the code to open her mailbox. A misshapen pile of letters perched at the edge of the slot. The junk mail went straight into the apartments’ trashcan. She sorted through the rest: two medical bills and a postcard.
A 747 wide-body plane with the space shuttle piggybacked on top was framed by a cloudless day and “Greetings from Houston” in a swirly yellow font. Heat wormed through her stomach and twisted her intestines with its strong fingers. At the base of her skull, the sweat covering her body turned to ice and spider-webbed along each of her ribs.
Her hand shook as she turned the postcard over. On the right, her name and address greeted her in Josh’s barely legible scribble. But on the left, a single smudge-free fingerprint accompanied the words “The Tourist.” Everything–from her address, to the print, to the signature–was written in reddish-brown ink. The color of death.
The tips of her fingers grazed the metal rung before her feet thudded back to the floor. Why did she have to stop growing at four foot nine? Would it have been too much to ask to be five feet tall?
She scuttled back a few steps and tried again.
Step, step, step. Jump.
This time, her right hand gripped the ladder and held. The pendulum of her swing reversed and her left hand found the bottom rung. She pulled herself onto the ladder. Thank goodness for CrossFit.
Three years earlier
The red flag on the folder indicated the case was a “rush.” Josh flipped to the submission form. Offense Type: Missing Persons.
He used a sterile scalpel to cut across the bottom of the manila envelope, making sure to leave the evidence seal intact. Squeezing the sides of the envelope with a gloved hand, a single postcard slid onto the bench paper.
He photographed it and recorded the pertinent details on the Evidence Processing Form: city skyline with “Hello from Seattle” on the front; fingerprint, address, and “The Tourist” on the back in dark red ink.
The swab wrapper opened with a satisfying snap to expose the stick end of a pair of sterile swabs. He applied two drops of deionized water onto the cotton tip of one swab. With deftness from years of practice, Josh rubbed the moistened end across the fingerprint hard enough to transfer a light sheen of rusty pigment onto the white cotton. Holding the swab tip over the biohazard trash, he squeezed one drop of phenolpthalin then two drops of hydrogen peroxide onto the light stain. In less than five seconds, the cotton tip turned bright magenta.
Positive for blood.
He moistened the other swab and collected more of the dried red fluid. DNA testing would confirm the blood was human. Seemed a waste of time considering they’d already identified the fingerprint, but that was forensics. Dot every i, cross every t.
At the top of the ladder, a square panel identified the trapdoor’s outline. Teresa pushed on the access panel, but the rusty square held fast.
She needed more leverage.
Crouching on the top ladder rung, she braced her back against the door and straightened her legs. This had to work.
Her thighs wobbled as if she were on the last rep of her third set of leg presses. C’mon.
The door sprung free with a metallic squeal.
Three years earlier
Josh double-checked the DNA results.
No chance of a sample switch, the samples had been run in duplicate.
No chance of contamination, the profile didn’t match any other case or staff member DNA profile.
There was no doubt. Barbara Akers, Neil Akers’s mother, was not related to the source of the blood on the postcard.
That led to one conclusion: the blood on the fingerprint wasn’t from Neil Akers, owner of the fingerprint.
Whose blood was it? The perpetrator’s? Another victim’s?
Josh punched in the phone number for the lead detective. “Teresa Akers? This is Josh Steury. I got some interesting DNA results on your missing persons case…”
Teresa stepped outside into the sauna that was Houston in July. Even at midnight, the temperature was in the eighties. She took a moment to collect her bearings. Skylights pocked the roof, reflecting light from the almost full moon. Myriad pipes and air handlers cast moon shadows perfect for hiding.
She’d have to check the entire roof. Hopefully, she’d be lucky.
The roof’s rough debris cut into her tender feet as she ran.
Three weeks earlier
Teresa’s cell phone buzzed. She held a nail-bitten forefinger up to the barista while she dug the device out of her right front pocket.
The caller ID displayed three letters: F B I.
She drifted away from the counter.
The barista’s voice mixed in with the jingle of the door’s bell. “Ma’am? What about your latte?”
Teresa pressed her hand over the ear opposite of the phone to mask the noise of downtown Seattle. “H-hello?”
“Mrs. Teresa Steury? This is FBI Agent Clark Kennimore. We have news.”
She hadn’t been lucky. Wedged into the joint of the build’s final corner a bound man waited. Dirty jeans. Blood-stained T-shirt. Black plastic garbage bag covered his face.
Teresa slid to her knees near him and ripped the bag from his head. The sour scent of sweat and fear filled the air between them.
Gray eyes blinked groggily before closing. His head lolled to the side. He’d been drugged, but at least he was still alive.
She grabbed him under the arms and tried to leverage his six foot three frame to his feet. “Wake up. We’ve got to get out of here.”
Cold metal stabbed the base of her neck. “That’s optimistic of you.”
Three years earlier
For a science geek, the guy was cute. Dressed in scrubs and tennis shoes, Teresa appreciated Josh Steury’s intelligent gray eyes and the way his arm muscles corded as he moved.
Josh clasped his hands together on top of the conference table and gave her a no-nonsense look. “No luck running the blood profile against the DNA database. So far, it hasn’t matched any crime scene or convicted offenders’ profiles.”
“Maybe it’s not the killer’s blood. Maybe it’s another victim. What about another database?”
“Aside from the missing person’s database, we don’t keep victim’s profiles. It’s against the rules of CODIS–the Combined DNA Index System.”
Teresa drummed her fingers against the tabletop, nails clicking. “Well, if the blood is from a victim, maybe that person is missing as well.”
“Seems unlikely.” Josh closed the case file and stood. “I’ll search against the missing persons database under one condition.”
She stood up too, but had to crane her head to meet his eyes. Even if she were wearing heels, she wouldn’t come higher than his chest. “What’s the condition?”
The smirk on his face made him look roguish. “Have dinner with me.”
Teresa dropped to the ground and swept her leg out behind her. Her assailant fell back and the gun skittered to the roof’s edge.
She dove for it, but a hand clamped onto her foot. Sharp fragments cut into her flesh as her hands and knees smacked onto the roof’s ragged surface.
She rolled onto her back, smashing her heel into her attacker’s face. With a grunt, he let her go.
She scrambled backward like a crab until her right hand slipped off the edge of the roof.
Three weeks earlier
Agent Kennimore squeezed Teresa’s hand in a firm shake. “Nice to meet you in person, detective.”
“I left the force more than a year ago, Mr. Kennimore.”
He gave her a lopsided grin. “You can take the girl off the force, but you can’t take the force out of the girl.”
Was he flirting with her? “What news do you have that you couldn’t give me over the phone?”
His smile evaporated. “Follow me.”
He led her into a small conference room. Gesturing to a seat at the oval table, he closed the door and sat across from her.
She waited, arms crossed.
Kennimore cleared his throat. “The blood on the postcard hit against a man named Arthur Elliot. His wife reported him missing more than four months ago.”
Teresa took a deep breath. “And the fingerprint?”
“It matches your husband.”
Her fingers found the gun. She leveled it at her assailant. “Don’t move or I will kill you.”
The killer held his hands out and took a step backward. He was older than Teresa had expected, with a Sean Connery air to him–white-haired and wrinkled, but large-framed and commanding.
“That would be a mistake.” He lowered himself to the ground cross-legged, hands on knees. “Kill me and your husband explodes.”
“I played by your rules. I located him before the time ran out.” She thrust out the timer strapped to her wrist. “Now disarm the bomb.”
Three weeks earlier
Kennimore slapped a series of pictures on the table in front of her. “Fifteen victims, all involved in the criminal justice system. The family of each victim received a postcard two months after they disappeared. Each postcard contained a fingerprint made in another victim’s blood.”
Teresa shuffled though the pictures and tapped one. “This man, Neil Akers. I investigated his disappearance. Josh did the DNA testing. That’s how we met.”
“Neil was one of The Tourist’s first victims. The FBI wasn’t involved yet.”
Teresa pushed her worry about Josh away and flipped her brain to police mode. “What else can you tell me?”
“The blood source is killed at the postcard city. The fingerprint victims are abducted while they are on vacation in the postcard city, a day or two before the other victim is murdered. The fingerprint source becomes the blood source on the next postcard.”
“So if our perp follows the same pattern, he’ll murder Josh and kidnap his next victim in Houston.” Teresa fingered Josh’s picture, the one she’d provided to the FBI when he’d first disappeared. “So we have three weeks…”
The Tourist didn’t move.
“Disarm the bomb!” She rose and stepped toward him.
“You’d kill an unarmed man?” He spoke calmly as if they were at a rooftop picnic.
Fear pulsed at her temples. “Not if I don’t have to. Disarm the bomb, and you’ll have your day in court.”
He laughed, a bitter sound. “I think not. I’d rather fly off this building like Daedalus.”
Teresa flicked her gaze to the timer.
Twelve hours earlier
The room swirled as Teresa opened her eyes. Her stomach clenched. Where was she?
She groped her way to a sitting position with her back against a white padded wall. In the corner was a toilet and sink, but no furniture. Not even a bed. The mattress lay directly on the floor.
“Ah, good. You’re awake.” A man’s disembodied voice seeped from the walls around her.
“I know about your wife and daughter,” she blurted.
The Tourist’s gaze narrowed. “What about them?”
“Your son-in-law killed them, but he was never charged because the police chief was his uncle.”
“Impressive. How did you figure it out?”
“He was your first victim. The blood on the very first postcard. The start of your death chain.” She spat the words as fast as she could. “Since then, you’ve been targeting detectives and crime lab personnel.
“We also know you left your job at Memorial Hospital to become a traveling nurse after your family died. You’re a caregiver at heart, not a killer. Please, I’m begging you, disarm the bomb.”
The Tourist tilted his head. “You’re certainly very smart, but the answer is no.”
Twelve hours earlier
“The rules are simple. Find your husband before the timer strapped to his wrist reaches zero. If you do, you’ll both survive. Fail and he’ll explode, a direct result of your incompetence. You’ll end up back here and have to hope the next player will be a better competitor than you.”
Helicopter blades thwack-thwacked in the distance. Agent Kennimore to the rescue. Too bad he wouldn’t reach them with enough time to disable the bomb.
Her finger itched to pull the trigger, to give vent to her frustration.
As the thwacking grew louder, The Tourist rose slowly to his feet. “Very good, detective. It seems you have won after all.”
“Then you’ll diffuse the bomb?”
Agent Kennimore’s helicopter landed on the hospital’s roof.
The Tourist shook his head. “There’s no need.”
Before she could pull the trigger, he ran five paces and jumped off the forty-story hospital.
Teresa sprinted to Josh. She patted him down. Where were the explosives?
The timer on his wrist caught her gaze. The explosives must be inside the timer.
She tugged. Stupid zip ties! Without scissors or a knife, she couldn’t get it off.
Tears dripped off her chin and she cursed.
One month later
Teresa curled up next to Josh on the porch rocker with a coffee cup in hand.
He put his arm around her. “Who was on the phone?”
She savored a sip of coffee. “It turns out the two timers were linked. As long as they were within a three feet of each other, the signal from mine cancelled out the triggering mechanism on yours.”
“As we figured.”
“The surprise was there was another strapped to The Tourist.”
Josh sloshed a bit of coffee. “He had a device too?”
She nestled into him. “If he’d died, it would have activated the explosives in both of our timers.”
“Good thing you followed proper police procedure, then.”