This story is by Steve Rush and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Thirty minutes ago, Randall Cox threatened to take their five-year-old daughter, Nova. Molly Tulane lay across the bed in a pair of old Levi’s and an oversized tee, eyes swollen and wet, following another argument with her ex-husband.
The squeak from the floor gave no distinction between a footfall and those heard in old houses at night. Molly had grown accustomed to the noise-disturbed darkness. This one concerned her.
An exchange of air pressure rattled the window behind the lamp on the nightstand. Unease raced along every nerve.
Molly leapt off the bed and swept her pistol off the nightstand. Her bare feet padded to the hall, and along the wall to the corner where she dared a look into the moonlit kitchen in time to see the back door swing open. The doorknob tapped the wall.
Fear breezed across her heart.
Molly raced down the hall beyond her bedroom to Nova’s. The nightlight-lit room told her more than she wanted to know. The upper third of the comforter hung off the bed. A divot in the pillow marked where Nova’s head had lain. A sock lay on the bedside rug. Nova’s scent lingered in the room.
She dared not panic. Anxiety worked against deductive reasoning. Molly grabbed her tactical light off the nightstand and stuck it in her back pocket. She wormed her way from room to room. Whispered for Nova in each. She received no response.
Moonlight angled through the open doorway in the kitchen. Shards from the splintered jamb and trim jutted inward from Randall’s earlier forced entry. Molly eased open the screen door, crossed the porch, down three steps onto a stone pathway. She clicked on the tactical light.
Shoe prints trailed the dew-soaked lawn toward a dilapidated shed forty yards beyond. Not Randall’s. She had watched him leave. Had he hired someone to take Nova?
Molly rushed toward the shed. Three strides into her sprint, the footprints veered right in an arc. Molly planted her left foot to change direction. The foot skidded on the damp grass. She slammed the ground, rolled to her knees, and chased the footprints around the house to the front steps.
Molly froze, her eyes fixed on a rocker where Nova’s other sock lay on the basket-weave seat on top of a sheet of paper. A corner flapped in the breeze.
“I have your daughter.”
Print. Bold letters. Not handwritten. Red font on a white background. That meant whoever took Nova … The thought ripped through her. Randall would have written, our daughter.
Molly sank to the porch, turned her face skyward. A star streaked right-to-left and disappeared in nothingness. A gust blew across the porch and ripped the paper off the chair. The paper sailed into the darkness. The message and its realism commanded her thoughts. The air chilled her through her wet shirt. Shivers seized her body.
The shoe prints on the porch mocked her. She aimed the light at the patterns left between the steps and the chair. They headed inward. She flicked the light beyond the chair and scanned the porch floor and the yard. Clean. No prints headed away from the rocker or across the lawn.
Light found the sheet of paper caught in a cluster of rhododendrons. Molly leaped off the porch. She reached for it, withdrew her hand, pulled two leaves from the shrub and used them to pinch one corner. Back inside the house, she placed the note on the kitchen table and secured it with a salt shaker.
Her eye glimpsed a cell phone inside a glass filled with clear liquid. The glimpse was enough to put her on full alert. Her senses heightened. She slowed her breathing. Listened to the house. Sniffed for any foreign odors. Molly shined light at the doors, pistol in hand, and kept her back to the refrigerator and counter while she crept around the table.
Chlorine irritated her nose. Bleach. In the glass. The glass sat atop one corner of an index card. Another message. Same red font.
“I have your phone and keys.”
Molly glanced at the glass. The phone was a disposable model. Any other time, she might have sensed relief. A green band identified the phone as one she had purchased a month earlier. Nova’s abductor had hers, found and disabled the other, and lurked somewhere in the house.
What about Nova? No screams. No cries. No muffled sounds.
Wind rattled the windows. Lightning flashed. Thunder rumbled five seconds later. Molly closed the outside door and wedged a chair against it. She clicked off the flashlight and allowed her eyes time to adjust to the darkness.
She lay a chair across the doorway inside the dining room and another inside the den. Two strips of three-inch packing tape stretched between jambs at an estimated distance of lower-chest-and-face levels. The transparent strips gave off no sheen in the ambient light. Molly tested the tape’s tensile strength and ducked underneath. If she had any chance to save Nova, she must keep the abductor in the house.
No matter what it might cost her.
The thought provoked another bout of terror for her child. Nothing terrified her more than the thought of losing Nova. Molly welcomed Death’s sting, if it came to that, but not before she assured Nova’s safety.
One foot, then the other, glided across the hardwood surface, never breaking contact. She clasped the pistol mid-chest in a two-handed grip, aware of her surroundings, and ready for any surprises.
Lightning flashed. The brightness revealed her ex, Randall Cox, seated on the floor in front of the stone hearth. A subsequent flash exposed a blindfold in place. Muffs covered his ears. A third flash came from Molly’s left and showed flex cuffs bound Randall’s wrists and ankles.
“I have your ex.” The whispered voice came from a female.
Molly picked up on a distinguished quality in the soft voice. “Audra?”
Audra May clicked on a flashlight. The lens cast a blue light aimed at the floor. “Lower your weapon.”
“Not until you state your business?” Molly extended her arms. Her finger perched on the trigger. “Where is my daughter? Why is Randall here?”
“Nova is safe. I didn’t come to harm her.”
Thunder boomed. Molly felt a shudder pass through the floor. “I believed you to be my friend. I trusted you. You took her. Tell me where she is. I want to see her.”
Audra stepped forward. She held her hands out from her body. “I am not the threat here.” She gestured to Randall. “Lower the weapon.”
Molly watched Audra’s eyes. The flashlight thudded on the floor. Molly jerked her hands downward as Audra’s hands swiped at the pistol. She whirled and slammed her left elbow to Audra’s jaw, skipped back two strides and trained the pistol on Audra.
Audra straightened and grinned. “We need to talk.” She squatted and picked up the flashlight.
“My daughter, first.”
“Come with me.”
Molly followed Audra to Nova’s bedroom where the nightlight illuminated the most precious sight her eyes had ever seen. Nova lay in bed. Asleep. Her left hand was tucked beneath her chin. Molly kissed her cheek and knelt beside the bed.
“Randall told me he planned to file for custody.”
“He already has. Randall retained a team of lawyers three weeks ago to file for sole custody. The firm they work for represents certain unnamed members of transnational organized crime. We traced financial transactions back to him. The Agency tasked me with the case because of his link to you. They want no outside interferences.
“He became elusive. I knew he couldn’t resist coming here. That’s how I found him. After he left here this evening, he doubled back and took Nova. His intent wasn’t in her best interest, believe me. I discovered a file which detailed his plan to give her up for adoption. I nosed my car across the driveway and raised the hood to get him out of his car. The rest was easy. I distracted you with the notes and phone in the glass, put Nova back in bed, walked him into the den, bound his legs and waited on you.”
Molly grasped Nova’s hand. “I thought I ‘d lost her. How did you get them in here without my knowledge?”
“It wasn’t easy. You almost caught me a couple times.”
Molly said, “The footprints. They never left the porch. You took off your shoes and came in through the front door while I was out back. The notes. How did you come up with the precise messages?”
Audra pulled several index cards from a pocket. “I came prepared.”
Molly thumbed through the cards. “What now?”
“Pack your bags. I’ve got to get you and Nova away from here.”
Molly pushed to her feet. “What about Randall?”
“Forget Randall Cox ever existed. After tonight, he is no longer of any consequence.”